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Abstract: Seyla Benhabib has displayed a deeply normative concern for the origin, properties, condition and destiny of the modern world in work running from Critique, Norm, and Utopia (1986), to Situating the Self (1992), The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (1996), and Another Cosmopolitanism (2006). I hope to show that Benhabib’s view of modernity is ambiguous, and that inconsistencies in her position reach back, through Habermas and Weber, to Kant. I begin with a sketch of Benhabib’s sense of what modernity is about, turn then to what I think makes her position ambiguous, and conclude with a discussion of what I think is missing in her treatment of modernity. The gap I identify is strikingly pointed up when she uses the term modernism but does not talk about modernism at all. Keywords: Seyla Benhabib, differentiation, modernity, modernism, rationalization Situating Seyla Benhabib Seyla Benhabib has displayed a deeply normative concern for the origin, properties, condition and destiny of the modern world throughout her dazzling career. The great thinkers who ﬁgure so importantly in her work – from Hegel to the members of the Frankfurt School in Critique, Norm, and Utopia (1986), from Kant to Arendt in Another Cosmopolitanism (2006) – drew her attention because their concerns collectively shaped the moral legacy of the Enlightenment. In the process their contributions to moral and political theory have illuminated and clariﬁed her concern with the experience of modernity. Yet Benhabib’s most direct consideration of modernity is to be discovered in the time between her early work reformulating Habermas’s effort to ground ethics in a theory
Journal of International Political Theory, 5(2) 2009, 125–137 DOI: 10.3366/E1755088209000378 © Edinburgh University Press 2009
if I had been astute enough to study her work when I ﬁrst became interested in modernity. quoting 4). The other is perhaps her least cited book. Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics (1992).Nicholas Onuf of communicative action and her recent work on citizenship. distressed by modernity’s excesses and failings from a moral point of view. Instead. She is. 2003). her lack of concern for ‘the kind of ontological universe in which cosmopolitan norms can be said to exist’ and may undermine her efforts to show how cosmopolitan norms of justice ‘shape. Two books from the 1990s capture this moment in Benhabib’s career. Nor have I searched for assessments by scholars more competent to judge the philosophical issues than I am. new edition. I conclude with a discussion of what I think is missing in her treatment of modernity. to be inadequate as social theory. Playing as I do on a book title. The gap I identify is strikingly pointed up when she uses the term modernism but does not talk about modernism at all. I would have understood much sooner and much better the challenge that the experience of modernity poses for social theory. to Kant. and behind them ‘the metaphysical illusions of the Enlightenment’. but she is convinced that modernity has within it the resources for its renovation (Benhabib1992: 1–6. Whether this platform is adequate for the load it carries is a question I address here. I turn then to what I think makes her position ambiguous. One is her most frequently cited book. I have asked myself why Benhabib’s position on modernity seems to me. The inconsistencies in her position run deeper than this sort of ambivalence. I believe that she has erected a position that shelters her from an ambivalence about modernity that many of us feel. and I have come to recognize that what I ﬁnd ambiguous in her standpoint is a source of ambivalence in myself. I should emphasize that I do not address Behabib’s position on modernity with the philosophical rigor and subtlety it surely deserves. I offer an impressionistic account because I lack the philosophical training to produce anything better. and reach back.2 126 . of course. through Habermas and Weber. and her most forthright engagement with modernity as such: Situating the Self: Gender.1 Together these books provide Benhabib with a platform for her multiple. Indeed. I hope to show that Benhabib’s view of modernity is ambiguous. as a scholar in the ﬁeld of International Relations. I begin with a sketch of Benhabib’s sense of what modernity is about. tightly linked interests at the intersection of moral. I would further suggest her lack of ambivalence may account for. guide and constrain our political life’ (Benhabib 2006: 26). but does not excuse. liberal democracy. cosmopolitan norms and the future of the nation-state. I should also emphasize that my own views are very close to Benhabib’s on many points. political and international theory. multiculturalism. a book dedicated to another thinker’s puzzling engagement with modernity: The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (1996.
her interactive universalism might be seen as a clever patch job. Weber’s account is so inﬂuential there would seem to be no other place to start. Indeed. In the broadest possible terms. She calls this position ‘interactive universalism’ (1992: 3. according to Benhabib. volume title). including the many feminist thinkers who have come to ‘feel ambivalent’ about modernity’s persistent metaphysical illusions (1992: 210). ‘in which an essentially general phenomenon could appear for the ﬁrst time’ (Habermas 1984: 179. one that sufﬁces to hide her ambivalence from herself but not banish it from the minds of others such as myself. whether some values are defensibly universal or all values are relative to standpoint is. 1992: ch. and differences among humans. modernity took form in two phases. 1–2). the question dividing postmodern and modern thinkers. Nor does Benhabib. we need return to Habermas’s universalist construction of Weber’s position. Benhabib does not share in this ambivalence. Habermas had none. 227–8) and locates it ‘within the hermeneutic horizon of modernity’ (1992: 227). 6. 164–5. the ﬁrst (disenchantment) culminating in the Enlightenment quest for universal principles grounded in reason and the second (rationalization) still transforming the world though the systematic use of instrumental reason. Acknowledging that Weber ‘adopted a highly ambivalent position’ on this large question. his brilliant reconstruction of Weber’s account facilitates her own effort to complete this shift (see generally Benhabib1986: ch. Given her view that Habermas initiated ‘the broad philosophical shift from legislative to interactive reason’ (Benhabib1992: 7). Nevertheless. ‘The universalist position does 127 . the large question for Weber was whether the process of rationalization eventuating in Western modernity was an extraordinary development. emphasis in translation. Habermas nevertheless concluded that ‘a universalist position follows from Weber’s conceptual approach’ (1984: 179). She believes instead that she has worked out a position ‘that acknowledges the plurality of modes of being human. On Habermas’s account. also see Benhabib 1992: 69). 153. Even if Weber had ‘relativistic reservations’ (Habermas 1984: 180). To identify the constituents of Benhabib’s position and to see if they can be assembled to do the work she asks of them. Yet Benhabib has another compelling reason for starting with Weber: this is also Jürgen Habermas’s point of departure in his characterization of Reason and the Rationalization of Society (1984. or merely an exemplary development. to ‘be relativized as a special case of cultural development’. without endorsing all pluralities and differences as morally and politically valid’ (1992: 153).The Ambiguous Modernism of Seyla Benhabib Modernity Benhabib adopts Max Weber’s account ‘of the emergence of modernity in the West as a process of “rationalization” and “disenchantment”‘ (1992: 68). 7–8.
There is no limit to or logic in the proliferation of departments because it is a matter of a particular society’s ‘value contents’ (Habermas 1984: 184. ‘conscious awareness’ reveals a ‘formal stock of universal structures of consciousness expressed in the cultural value spheres that develop. normative rightness. His selfassurance seems to have reassured Benhabib. technique. As shall become clear. In Habermas’s opinion. sincerity in the expressive sphere of value’ (Habermas 1984: 183). quoting 44. Any of them can appear to be irrational from the point of view of the other and all of them are capable of ‘rationalizations of the most varied character’ (Habermas 1984: 181. the source is Weber’s failure to discriminate consistently between the differentiation of value spheres and the rationalization of worldviews. cannot be ‘morally neutral’ but is nonetheless compatible with ‘a framework of universal rights and justice’ (1992: 41–6. according to their own logics. but it regards this multiplicity of forms of life as limited to cultural contents. justice. and autonomous art’ (Habermas 1984: 180). recall ‘cultural contents’. not an entailment of differentiated value spheres. and authenticity’ (Habermas 1984: 180). In addition to ‘mystical contemplation’. authenticity. one operating at the level of strictly limited universal values and the other at the level of inﬁnitely varied social practices and institutions. As modernity emerges. . on the hand. such as she endorses. . Habermas has no such qualms. scientiﬁc research. I have deep reservations about this highly formalized scheme that separates modernization (understood as differentiation and rationalization) into two substantially unrelated processes. 46). this is an ‘empirical question’ and not the source of Weber’s ambivalence (1984: 183). normative rightness in general in the moral-practical sphere of value. jurisprudence and administration’ as departments of life. emphasis in translation). on the other (Habermas 1984: 182). under the abstract standards of truth. beauty. and the differentiation and rationalization of ‘departments of life’. One 128 . Just three in number. ’ (Habermas 1984: 180. who expressly adopts the tripartite scheme of value differentiation in arguing that a communicative ethic. and it asserts that every culture must share certain formal properties of the modern understanding of the world if it is at all to attain a certain degree of “conscious awareness” . but not ‘those abstract ideas that are decisive for the inner logics of value spheres as such’ – ‘ideas such as truth and success in the cognitive sphere of value. Weber recognized that value spheres appear to be ‘irrational’ in the sense that they may develop unevenly and in ways that bring abstract values into conﬂict (Habermas 1984: 183). Instead. No doubt ‘material values’ and their ‘historical conﬁguration’ are relative.Nicholas Onuf not have to deny the pluralism and the incompatibility of historical versions of “civilized humanity”. war. education. Weber speciﬁcally mentioned ‘economic life. quoting Weber 1930: 26). posttraditional legal and moral representations. these universal structures or value spheres give form to ‘scientiﬁc thought. above).
Indeed. and in opportunities for artistic expression. bureaucracies and productive activities. practical reason (the moral-practical sphere). We need only recall the respective foci of Kant’s three critiques: pure reason (the cognitive sphere). As Habermas intimated. As Albert Hirschman has suggested (1977).The Ambiguous Modernism of Seyla Benhabib way to substantiate my reservations about this scheme is to ask where it comes from. with the transition to modernity. and the result has been a profusion of ‘departments’ – in universities. 129 . social interaction and political participation. Here we do not need a close examination of ‘the neo-Kantian philosophy of value’. The triumph of science and technology as ﬁrst and ﬁnal measure of modernity’s success validated both challenges together. I cannot see the ‘traditional residues’ nearly as clearly as can I see early modern challenges to the single. it seems to me that he approached them serially. In this light. differentiated out from the traditional residues of religious-metaphysical worldviews transmitted by the Greek and above all the Judeo-Christian traditions’ (1984: 186. 165). For my part. Kant never claimed that these three ‘spheres’ logically exhaust the materials calling for critical attention or that they form a uniﬁed system. selfactualization. ‘it can only be understood against the background of the neo-Kantian philosophy of value. In short. initiated by Hume and later made into a cardinal premise of positivist modernity offered one challenge to the uniﬁed value sphere handed down from Aristotle. At least to my knowledge. According to Habermas. The strict separation of values from facts. but as a canonical interpretation of the process at an early stage. On Habermas’s account. it was Kant who made this interpretation possible and whose name accounts for its canonical status. teleologically uniﬁed value sphere that Scholastic thinkers had taken from Aristotle. moving from one critique to the next as he realized that the completion of each one left something else for his consideration. forever after shaping the values contents of modern life. Yet Weber’s discovery of three value spheres is not just a matter of reviewing the historical record. the triumph of reason over emotion was inextricably related to the emergence of capitalism as a constellation of practices and institutions. and aesthetic judgment (the expressive sphere). they are ‘the elements of culture that were. No less was the triumph of objectively corroborated facts over subjective beliefs inextricably related to the practice of justifying choices by reference to consequences and to the emergence of positive law and the apparatus of the state. including facts about values. even though Weber himself made no attempt to order systematically and analyze from formal points of view’ what he had gleaned from the record (1984: 186). Weber’s three autonomous value spheres ‘were gleaned inductively and treated in a descriptive matter’. I see the emergence of Weber’s three value spheres not as intrinsic to the process of differentiation and rationalization. The separation of emotion and reason offered a second challenge.
Insofar as imperialism. These ‘new forms’ register ‘transformations occurring in these spheres of modern societies’ (Benhabib 1996: 29). Yet Benhabib does not actually say this in setting forth Arendt’s understanding of modernity. 28. colonialism and racism gave modernity the boost needed for its spectacular rise. there are signs of an ‘alternative genealogy of modernity’ in Arendt’s early work. 5: ‘The Generalized and the 130 . and warrants calling Arendt a ‘reluctant modernist’ and not the ‘nostalgic and antimodernist thinker’ that most of us ﬁnd in The Human Condition (1958) (Benhabib 1996: 22–30.Nicholas Onuf his late writings on a variety of topics suggest the possibility of additional critiques prompted by the rapidly shifting value contents of post-Enlightenment modernity. On Benhabib’s interpretation. It does seem to refer to the explosion in the value contents of Western modernity and thus to the profusion of Weberian departments of life. For Benhabib. the term sphere obviously does not refer to Kantian value spheres. It might be pointed out (as indeed Patrick Hayden has pointed out me) that we must go back to The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) to appreciate fully the sources of Arendt’s reluctance to embrace modernity. does she say this elsewhere in her work. one that acknowledges changing ‘patterns of human interaction’. Rather. she situates each self in relation to others – ‘concrete others’ – who must situate their selves (see especially Benhabib 1992. Limited to The Human Condition. the value contents of modernity expanded even more dramatically than they had during his lifetime. 29. Self and Other After Kant. and mores’. patterns of association. however unfairly. Benhabib’s ‘rereading’ is clear enough. ‘[M]odernity cannot simply be identiﬁed with the spread of commodity exchange relations and the growth of a capitalist economy. Understood as ‘the rise of the social’. As used here. Benhabib fully appreciates the scale and importance of this development and is sensitive to its misinterpretation. ch. habits. quoting 22. Arendt’s ‘understanding of modernity and the place of politics under conditions of modernity’ is unclear and quite possibly incoherent. as far as I can tell. 22). Yet the two books together make any effort to ﬁnd in Arendt a clear ‘understanding of modernity’ all the more difﬁcult. nor can modernity be reduced of to the spread of mass society alone. Arendt made a compelling case for her own reluctance. it distressed Hannah Arendt as the cause and consequence of the demise of the political. Nor. This Benhabib does not do by situating the self in relation to the differentiation and proliferation of departments of life. Modernity brings with it new forms of social interaction. Instead Benhabib elaborates the value contents of modernity insofar as they assist or inhibit the modern subject in the demanding task of situating herself in a rationalized world.
perhaps induced by their feelings (hurt. her emphasis) Beyond a general requirement to treat each other as human. there grounds for anxiety. Human interaction transcends all spheres and departments. where justice demands universally valid criteria for normative judgment. misunderstanding. as G. We seek to comprehend the needs of the other. Such a move brings human interaction into the moral-practical value sphere. I suspect she has in mind a sense or feeling of fairness that people have about social relations in general. Our relation to the other is governed by the norms of equity and complementary reciprocity: each is entitled to expect and assume from the other forms of behavior through which the other feels recognized and conﬁrmed as a concrete. hostility and selﬁshness. (Behabib 1992: 159. Where there are concrete others. and focus on individuality. H. by contrast. what she searches for. In assuming the standpoint. does not help (or at least help enough) because that other remains generalized. moral psychology here refers to Lawrence Kohlberg’s work). Benhabib must mean something more than an informal metric for evaluating the scope and content of legal rules in a liberal society. talents and capacities. In assuming this standpoint. rage) when they think concrete others have treated them unfairly.The Ambiguous Modernism of Seyla Benhabib Concrete Other’). we abstract from the individuality and concrete identity of the other’ (Benhabib 1992: 158–9). and what s/he desires. his or her motivations. individual being with speciﬁc needs. despite his shift to interactive reason. Introducing the self to the other. and there are opportunities to reduce anxiety. the preoccupation with the subject is especially marked in German philosophy from Kant and Hegel to the Frankfurt School and even Habermas. Mead had. intolerance. By centering her position on the self and its relations to the value contents of modernity. disagreement. misunderstanding and so on. Even if the values contents of modernity are increasingly homogenized and commodiﬁed. there are concrete differences. they must differ in some degree for every one of us. and not on the social processes by which the value contents of modernity become rationalized and differentiated. Benhabib is well aware that she risks undermining a career-long effort to get ‘beyond the philosophy of the subject’ (1986: 343). The standpoint of the concrete other. identity and affectiveemotional constitution. Generalizing the other is a characteristic move in ‘contemporary moral universalist moral psychology and moral theory’ (Benhabib 1992: 159. By equity. Where there are differences. no universal moral principle or procedure emerges from this description to guide our conduct. ‘The standpoint of the generalized other requires us to view each and every individual as a rational being entitled to the same rights and duties we would want to ascribe to ourselves. What is not at all clear is how 131 . requires us to view each and every rational being as an individual with a concrete history. we abstract from what constitutes our commonality. A general feature of modern Western philosophy.
communities sharply restrict the set of concrete others whose behavior can trigger feelings of unfair treatment. Effectively acknowledging as much. it seems to me that status arrangements in many. More speciﬁcally. Recent developments conﬁrm what we know: cosmopolitan norms of justice apply to ‘individuals as moral and legal persons in a worldwide civil society’ (Benhahb 2006: 16). afﬁrming the standpoint of the other does not. individuals can only reciprocate in kind if they are members of the same status set. but what it gains for us is not. identifying relevant norms shifts attention from the relations of selves to the departments of life. is anything more than a particular social construction reﬂecting the value contents of an earlier time? 132 . judgments and principles’ (Benhabib1992: 187). Adducing contextually relevant norms always ﬁnds a limit in contextual irrelevance. Benhabib goes on to ask the very question I would ask: ‘What does this mean concretely?’ (1992: 186). We know them to be universal. Benhabib returns to the universal standpoint with an ‘enlarged mentality’ – one that ‘provides us with a procedure for judging the validity of our judgments’ (1992: 186). assure the epistemic adequacy of that standpoint. I am not so sure. Moreover. and not just because the procedure for judging judgments surely varies from department to department. We should ‘act in such a way as is consistent with respecting the dignity and worth of all individuals involved and a willingness to settle controversial matters through the open and unconstrained discussion of all’ (Benhabib1992: 186). Even if ‘ignoring the standpoint of the concrete other leads to epistemic incoherence in universalistic moral theories’ (Benhabib 1992: 161). by itself. Generalizing reciprocity is another name for generalizing the other. What this return to the universal standpoint requires is clear enough. the sphere of ‘justice’ itself. Especially in her recent work. reciprocity would seem to invite mutual admiration (or viliﬁcation) at potential expense to concrete others. how can we be sure that we know that we have speciﬁed the contents of universal norms conclusively? Why should we think these norms are anything more than the latest value contents of an ever more differentiated world? How do we even know that they are universal when we cannot be sure that the moral-practical value sphere. perhaps most. noblesse oblige would lose all meaning and value if peasants could reciprocate. ‘Procedures do not dictate speciﬁc outcomes. In most communities. We cannot know. Faced with procedural indeterminacy. Furthermore. they constrain the kinds of justiﬁcation we can use for our actions. Much the same can be said of reciprocity. Universal rights and duties are necessarily speciﬁc in this sense.Nicholas Onuf this sense of fairness plays out in a world where local standards operate within human communities and departments of life. what complementarity can mean in this context I have no idea. Benhabib writes as if we already know the contents of these rights and duties.
Yet the demise of the episteme has not rendered us incapable of telling better stories about our common condition. of language as a reliable vehicle for representing the world (1992: 206–8). this is an alternative that 133 . A sustained. What then has critical thinking accomplished? Benhabib tells us it is ‘the demise of rationalistic and transcendental philosophies from Descartes to Kant and Husserl’ (1992: 210). one functional. Benhabib aligns herself with critical thinking: the critique of the subject as spectator. If critique’s success in its own terms makes critique superﬂuous. she uses JeanFrançois Lyotard’s familiar exposition. The alternative is to view modernity as ‘a functional whole’ (Lyotard 1984: 11) without necessarily accepting his claim that the whole of modernity ended with the disintegration of its grand narrative. another way to identify what makes modernity distinctive. the other critical. of the world as an objective reality. Against Lyotard. In my opinion. the rejection of the functional-critical binary marks the onset of the postmodern condition (Lyotard 1984: 11–14. Benhabib writes as if the episteme of representation has indeed come to an end. in which the contents of modernity are brought together in a ‘grand narrative’ (Benhabib 1992: 204. which Benhabib somewhat confusingly calls ‘modernist’ (1992: 204. Postmodernists have developed this point of view with particular relish. by following the dictates of truth.The Ambiguous Modernism of Seyla Benhabib Modernism Weber’s account of modernity’s development centers on our changing relation to the world or. following Lyotard. quoting Lyotard 1984: xxiii. one that shifts emphasis from ontology to epistemology. ‘classical’ (206–7) and modern’ (207). to rationalize its contents. what should we do? Lyotard’s answer is to abandon the functional-critical binary. right and beauty. the conceit that we can truly represent the contents of the world in our minds is at the heart of modernity’s metaphysical illusions. practical follies. In their view. Benhabib takes this alternative view of modernity into account because it appeals to feminists who have come to believe that the philosophy of the subject can never be rid of its masculinist subjectivities. There is. however. from rationalization to representation. who also called it ‘the Enlightenment narrative’).3 Lyotard suggested that modernity produces ‘functional knowledge’ – knowledge that is ‘an indispensable element in the functioning of society’ – but also induces a turn to ‘critical knowledge’ that never goes far enough (Lyotard 1984: 13. then. three-pronged critique might seem to have pulled the rug out from under it. it must also have put itself out of business. The emergence of ‘two basic representational models for society’. also see Benhabib 1992: 204–5). quoting 11). reﬂects an inherent tension in the Enlightenment narrative. 207). stories that salvage modernity’s better tendencies. more precisely on our conscious awareness of our capacity to change the world. For convenience. Giving this grand narrative its coherence and direction is an ‘episteme of representation’. If critique has discredited the philosophy of the subject. and moral arrogance.
As such. modernism would seem to have been a development of modernity within the expressive sphere of values. it took yet another turn in the 1950s with Parsons’s conception of society as a self-regulating system’ (Lyotard 1984: 11). just as did Picasso. ‘The idea that society forms an organic whole. to rearrange its parts and jolt the observer’s senses. 134 . By implication (an implication of little interest to Lyotard). where the search for beauty and authenticity follows a logic of its own. Lyotard took for granted that modernism has distinct properties dating from the late nineteenth century. relentless rationalization in the cognitive sphere prompted an ‘irrational’ effort (see above) to save the expressive sphere from the mass production of cultural goods and correlative degradation of aesthetic standards. that ‘high modernism’ is the tip of an iceberg. if form follows function. Added detail was supplied by functionalism. she rather dramatically announced that Adorno and Horkheimer had ‘a tortured vision of the project of the moderns’. in the absence of which it ceases to be a society (and sociology ceases to have an object of study).Nicholas Onuf Benhabib has slighted. Klee and Kandinsky (Benhabib 1989–1990: 1439). to penetrate the hard surface of appearances. in painting to Paul Cézanne and then Marcel Duchamps. for whom the last chapter in the Enlightenment narrative is speciﬁcally modernist. I also suspect that she fails to see this alternative for what it is. to open up the dynamics of differentiation and (dis)integration. Linking ‘high modernism’ in the arts to critical tendencies ﬂourishing at the same time. theater. the arts did indeed experience a revolution in the theory and practice of representation. painting. the objectiﬁed subject). I have no quarrel with this claim. Lyotard is a self-professed postmodernist thinker. dominated the minds of the founders of the French school. however. sculpture. perhaps because she has been so deeply immersed in the critique of the philosophy of the subject. Beginning as early perhaps as the 1860s and with increasing energy to the end of the inter-war period. literature. Let me enlarge the modernist mentality. to ﬁnd out how the object functions as a whole. growth and decay. architecture – in which representation turns in on itself to become its own and perhaps its only subject. Consider Benhabib’s marked tendency to use the terms modern and modernist interchangeably. of course. New modes of expression created opportunities and incentives to get inside the object at hand (including. revalue) what we never knew was there. During the nineteenth century. then the architect should turn things inside out. Indeed Benhabib has commented on this phenomenon (1989–1990). I believe. aesthetics is a matter of exposure. Benhabib might object that modernism refers to a movement in the arts – music. The demise of modernism spells the end of modernity as a functional whole – there is no next phase. Max Beckmann. poetry. to assign value to (devalue. To appropriate a slogan from modernist architecture. Realism in the novel gave way to Virginia Woolf and then James Joyce. As with many postmodernists. the terms classical and modern describe earlier phases corresponding to Weberian phases in modernity’s emergence.
4 It should sufﬁce to say that modernism is a response to differentiation along functional lines. just as Lyotard intimated. University of St Andrews. It is substantially absent in critical thought. In my opinion. reﬂecting the inescapable. whom I would call the ‘high modernist’ of social theory. surely ﬂawed. As much as I appreciate her motives in doing so. Conference on ‘Thinking (With)Out Borders: International Political Theory in the 21st Century’. for Benhabib to reafﬁrm at least some measure of ambivalence would be a welcome event.5 Finally. to Seyla Benhabib for her comments on that occasion. so in many other newly differentiated departments in modern life. Afﬁrming pluralism does not even begin to acknowledge what modernist modernity has wrought functionally and institutionally. Among the ‘founders of the French School’ is the towering ﬁgure of Durkheim. which is in turn a conspicuous feature of modernity’s last century – whether interpreted as growth or decay. but curiously empty.6 A familiar meliorist project shows signs of replacing a ﬂawed and ambiguous conception of modernity – an ambiguous conception. As in sociology. she makes the world a liberal place. When Benhabib talks about global civil society.The Ambiguous Modernism of Seyla Benhabib In short. multivalent complexity of modernity as we have come to experience it. functional differentiation is largely missing from Benhabib’s work. strictly modern preoccupation with things and their properties dominates the social sciences. and not just because she has immersed herself so deeply in critical thought. for all its ﬂaws. I believe that she has not escaped the liberal tendency to underestimate the extent to which functions have fractionated and departments of life have proliferated in our late modern world. Acknowledgments I drafted this paper for a plenary panel on the work of Seyla Benhabib. This is not the place to document the impact of modernism outside the arts. then Durkheim saw functional differentiation as the modernist third stage in modernity’s trajectory. she has engaged liberalism in her project to rehabilitate modernity. I suspect because critical thinkers conﬁne modernism to the expressive sphere and because their preoccupation with the subject blinds them to the ever more differentiated value contents of the world. If Weber saw modernity as formalization (ﬁrst phase) and rationalization (second phase). More and more. It is an injunction to represent function ﬁrst (including the function of representation). It also suggests the danger of moral complacency. 12–13 June 2008. no doubt because the positivist. My thanks to Patrick Hayden and Tony Lang for asking me to join the panel. It is a less conspicuous feature of social theory. functional differentiation is the most conspicuous feature of modernity as it has globalized in recent decades. modernism is not just about representation. and to Patrick Hayden for his excellent written comments on the paper as drafted. In these circumstances. 135 .
Thousand Oaks. While Vol. Smith. susceptible to empirical analysis’ (1987: 118. Norm. I have cited Benhabib only once in my work (Onuf 2003: 49n). S. Grifﬁn. To the extent that late nineteenth century imperialism and twentieth century totalitarianism contributed to Arendt’s understanding of modernity. New York: Pantheon Books. Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler. emphasis in translation). S. Aesthetics. S. Cardozo Law Review 11: 1435–49. 2007. 1958. References Arendt.Nicholas Onuf Notes 1 2 3 4 5 6 Google Scholar lists 1356 citations for Situating the Self and 178 citations for The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (as of 9 June 2009). The Order of Things: An Archeology of the Human Sciences. Habermas’s work offers a large exception. As used here. Benhabib. Critique. That few of my colleagues in International Relations have done any better is a sad commentary on the barriers between ﬁelds of study. Vol. I suspect she took the term from Foucault. 1992. Too little time has passed for citation counts for her most recent books to reveal very much. 136 . 1989–1990. that is. not Lyotard’s. Classical would correspond to the time before Kant and to Weber’s ﬁrst phase in modernity’s emergence. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. H. M. The Human Condition. S. see Onuf (2005). Benhabib. 1986. Oxford: Oxford University Press. R. For the record. New York: Columbia University Press. In this scheme. S. This concept proves itself in (2) a theory of social evolution that separates the rationalization of the lifeworld from the growing complexity of social systems so as to make the connection that Durkheim envisaged between forms of social integration and stages of system differentiation tangible. 2 (1987) turns to differentiation by engaging modernist sociology (even if the term modernism and its cognates have no place in his conceptual vocabulary). the term episteme is Benhabib’s. 1996. Benhabib. By way of comparison. Another Cosmopolitanism. trans. Benhabib. Benhabib. 1971. Situating the Self: Gender. she may indeed have been the reluctant modernist Benhabib had no reason to call her. CA: Sage. and Utopia has garnered 284 citations and The Claims of Culture: Equality and Diversity in the Global Era (2002) has 527 citations. Community and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics. New York: Routledge. Norm. A. ‘Critical Theory and Postmodernism: On the Interplay of Ethics. There he suggested ‘that (1) we conceive of societies simultaneously as systems and lifeworlds. Lyotard’s grand narrative ﬁts the modern episteme. Foucault. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. and modern to the time after Kant and Weber’s second phase (Foucault 1971). and Utopia: A Study of the Normative Foundations of Critical Theory. S. But see Grifﬁn (2007) for an important study of fascism as ‘political modernism’. The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt. For an alternative view. and Utopia in Critical Theory’. And have beneﬁtted in many other respects. Critique. 1 of The Theory of Communicative Action (1984) explicates the modern experience by reference to rationalization. Also consider Edward Said’s brief but suggestive linking of imperialism and modernism in his essay ‘Notes on Modernism’ (1993: 186–90). who identiﬁed a succession of epistemes – Renaissance. 2006. modern – each giving modernity a new set of conditions for the possibility of knowledge. Classical.
New York: Scribner’s.-F. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Other. The Idea of Global Civil Society: Politics and Ethics in a Globalizing Era. Said. McCarthy. Vol. London: Routledge. Language. trans.The Ambiguous Modernism of Seyla Benhabib Habermas. Onuf. 2. T. Armonk. trans. 2005. Onuf. 1984. Culture and Imperialism. 1930. Bennington and B. M. Boston: Beacon Press. in R. 26–49. Agency and Politics in a Constructed World.). ‘Late Modern Civil Society’. J. Parsons. Sharpe. Weber. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. ‘Parsing Personal Identity: Self. Lyotard. Massumi. J. E. Reason and the Rationalization of Society. NY: M. 47–63. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 137 . Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1987. 1993. in F. Debrix (ed. McCarthy. New York: Knopf. Kenny (eds). Germain and M. Boston: Beacon Press. J. Habermas. The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before its Triumph. Agent’. Vol. T. The Theory of Communicative Action. E. Lifeworld and System: A Critique of Functionalist Reason. G. 1984. trans. N. T. N. trans. Hirschman. A. 1. The Theory of Communicative Action. 2003.
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