Seyla Benhabib

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colonialism, gender, migration, multi-culturalism, philosophy, politics
Written and spoken word (debate)
Middle East, America, North
Turkey, United States of America
created on:
April 26, 2006
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Seyla Benhabib
Copyright Seyla Benhabib


"My nerve ends are constantly sensitive to these issues"

In retrospect Seyla Benhabib’s career is hardly surprising. She grew up in Istanbul in the 1950s – in a city European in flavour, cosmopolitan and multicultural in outlook and with half a dozen languages in use. Her family history spans across Europe. In the beginning of the 70s her political interest was kindled. In her latest works Benhabib, today Professor of Political Philosophy at Yale University, New Haven/ Connecticut, focused on questions of the right to asylum, citizenship, nationality, cultural conflict and diversity. German philosophers like Kant, Hegel and Arendt serve her as a source of her political thoughts.
In retrospect Seyla Benhabib’s career is hardly surprising. She grew up in Istanbul in the 1950s – in a city European in flavour, cosmopolitan and multicultural in outlook and with half a dozen languages in use. As she said in an interview: “Istanbul was a city in which you… could encounter many neighbourhoods, varieties of food and taste.”

Even her family history spans across Europe. Her Jewish ancestors fled from Spain in the second half of the 15th century when called on by its rulers to convert to Christianity. As refugees in Ottoman Turkey they still used Ladino, a form of Spanish current at the time, and as a child, Seyla Benhabib learned Ladino as well as Turkish. She also learned French, English and Italian from her mother, who had attended a French primary school and an Italian secondary one. Her mother’s habit of moving from language to language made her daughter feel equally at ease in the tallying cultures.

Seyla Benhabib ascribes her political leanings to having grown up with a foot in both, the orient and the occident. Though born and bred in Turkey, she had no feeling of being ethnically Turkish or a Turkish national, and at the start of the 70s she accepted a grant to study in the USA. There she was faced by images of the war in Vietnam, while in Turkey an independent party was evolving on the political left. This situation kindled her interest in politics, but her leanings towards philosophy and abstraction drew her more towards scholarship than towards street protest.

Since then political philosophy has been her “passion and vocation”. She believes that in her vocation a passion for politics is essential: “You must care about the world around you”. It is this mixture of interest in and care about the world which seems to drive Benhabib on. Hence she does not turn her back on the world but applies to it the principles of philosophy.

The world and its political institutions strike her as being fragile and capricious whereas philosophy offers a reliable set of rules. In her dissertation Benhabib took issue with Hegel and his notion of law. To her it raised a key question which it still a basic concern of her philosophy. “For me, the issue starting already in that work was how to reconcile universalistic principles of human rights, autonomy, and freedom with our concrete particular identity as members of certain human communities divided by language, by ethnicity, by religion.”

She had found not only her theme but also the springs of her inspiration for the coming years. Her dissertation had drawn her from the world and the philosophy of the orient towards those of central Europe. Her new familiarity with German culture enabled her to consider further notions from German thinkers, to whom she is now indebted.

Hegel, Kant, Arendt and others have offered her ways to view the wavering course of history. To her it is a process of assimilating tradition and passing it on. But this process of iteration involves not only repetition but also basic novelty, a process she calls one of “creative re-articulation”. Even reading involves reinterpretation. This evolution of meaning is a precondition for the continuation of legal doctrines as well as of culture or tradition.

Her enthusiasm for Kant began with his essay “Towards a perpetual peace” (1795), which defines a universal human right to hospitality. Benhabib takes this right as the starting point for her thoughts about migration, exile and refugee problems. She would like to extend it from being a right to hospitality to being a right to reside.

She would also like to extend Arendt’s “right to have rights” and her thoughts about lack of nationality. Though rights like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions are now widely accepted, border-crossing is still deemed more or less criminal. Only a world without borders would be morally acceptable to her. This may not be feasible in practice, she admits, but border-crossing should no longer be criminalized. Rights to asylum and refuge should be defined internationally to a greater extent than they are now, but reconciling the principle of democracy with that of a world without borders would be squaring the circle. She wonders: “Can you reconcile cosmopolitanism and democratic self-governance?”

Seyla Benhabib does not shy away from even big or unanswerable questions. Not surprisingly countless publications and articles are listed under her name in the Internet. They reveal her to be a theorist in search of no eternal formulae but of routes from principles to practice. In her essay “Unholy Politics” about the terrorist attack of the 11th of September, she describes political Islam as nihilism, as a reduction of politics to apocalyptic symbols. At the same time she is critical of the policy of the US government and NATO towards the Islamic world. There should be no further support for military dictators in order to safeguard oil reserves. Rather support is needed for movements towards democracy in the region. “…a radical revision of US and NATO policy vis a vis the Arab world and south central Asia is needed. The US and its Allies have to stop propping up military dictatorships and religious conservatives in these areas in order simply to secure oil supplies. Democratic movements within the burgeoning civil societies… must be supported.”

Benhabib’s concerns cut to the core of the cartoon conflict. Equality of all members of a nation, in her view, should not be misunderstood as sameness of opinion but as sameness of the freedom to disagree. In her essay “Turkey’s growing pains” (2005) she applies this notion to Turkey and calls on it to recognize its multicultural and multi-religious past.

Indeed, as she said in Berkley in 2005, she is writing more and more about questions involved in the right to asylum, citizenship, nationality, cultural conflicts and diversity. She feels that she has a lot to contribute personally and adds: “My nerve ends are constantly sensitive to these issues.”

The quotes come from an interview on 18th March 2004 at Berkeley University.

Author: Heike Gatzmaga


Seyla Benhabib, born in 1950 in Istanbul, is the Eugene Meyer Professor for Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut and the Director of the Yale program Ethics, Politics, and Economy. She came to the USA in 1970 with a Vienna International Scholarship and initially studied Philosophy at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. Later she attended Yale, where she completed her doctorate in 1977. From 1993 to 2000, she taught at Harvard. Then she had a Baruch de Spinoza Distinguished Professorship at the University of Amsterdam. From 2000 to 2001, she had a Russel Sage Fellowship. Benhabib is interested in questions of multiculturalism and national identity. She derives her abhorrence for collectivist ideologies from the experience of the Vietnam War and her own biography. She is descended from Sephardic Jews who fled the Spanish Reconquista to Turkey in the 15th century. Among her more recent publications on the topic are Transformation of Citizenship. Dilemmas of the Nation-State in the Era of Globalization (Van Gorcum, 2000), The Claims of Culture. Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (Princeton University Press, 2002), and The Rights of Others – Aliens, Residents, and Citizens (Cambridge University Press, 2004). The most recent of her works to appear in German was Kulturelle Vielfalt und demokratische Gleichheit – Politische Partizipation im Zeitalter der Globalisierung (cultural diversity and democratic equality – political participation in the age of globalization, Fischer, 1999).


Another Cosmopolitanism

Published Written,
Oxford University Press: New York

The Rights of Others: Aliens, Residents, and Citizens

Published Written,
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge

The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era

Published Written,
Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford

Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political

Published Written,
(Ed.), Princeton University Press: Princeton

The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt

Published Written,
Sage: London

Feminist Contentions: A Philosophical Exchange

Published Written,
(Together with J. Butler, N. Fraser, D. Cornell). Routledge: New York

Situating the Self. Gender, Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics

Published Written,
Routlegde: New York

Critique, Norms and Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory

Published Written,
Columbia University Press: New York


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the partner institutions.

War of Images - Modernity and its Discontinuities

International conference

(01 May 06 - 01 May 08)


Link to Yale University/ Seyla Benhabib