Bernard E. Harcourt | “To Burst Open the Possibilities of the Present”: Seyla Benhabib and Utopia

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Over the course of a remarkable intellectual journey, Seyla Benhabib has renewed the utopian potential of critical theory. Beginning with the publication in 1986 of her landmark contribution to critical philosophy, Critique, Norm, and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory, Benhabib launched a decades-long project to return the concept of “utopia” to its privileged place alongside “crisis,” “critique,” “norm,” and “praxis,” as a key concept in the critical theory tradition of the Frankfurt School. A central argument throughout Benhabib’s journey has been, in her words, “the need to recover part of the utopian legacy of early critical theory.”[1]

The concept of utopia had become overly associated, in earlier critical theory, with the potentiality of one particular group in society, one collective singularity, one universal class—the proletariat for Marx, or art and philosophy for Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. Jürgen Habermas’s turn to communicative ethics, by contrast, gave rise to what Benhabib identified as the possibility of a new politics of empowerment and valuation of difference. New social movements formed communities of need and solidarity that fundamentally changed “the meaning of utopia in our societies.”[2] In ringing words, Benhabib declared:

Such utopia is no longer utopian, for it is not a mere beyond. It is the negation of the existent in the name of a future that bursts open the possibilities of the present.[3]

Seyla Benhabib’s utopian vision has taken different shapes over the course of her intellectual arc, from an earlier theory of communicative ethics, respect, and dignity which she referred to as “communicative utopia” in the late 1980s and 1990s, to a more concrete and reflective utopia grounded in international law and human rights which she called a “utopia of cosmopolitanism” in the 2000s and 2010s, to a reconsidered “cosmopolitanism from below” embracing as well today local and global grassroots movements.[4] Consistently and throughout, Benhabib has militated for equal treatment and dignity for all humans, and respect for everyone’s differences. Benhabib has put forth at every juncture, front and center, an admirable vision that incorporates a cautious embrace of utopia from the earlier Frankfurt School, chastened by the practices of new social movements.

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