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Utopia 12/13: Utopia and Cosmopolitanism

13/13 Seminar Series

dateApril 12, 2023 timeWednesday, 6:15pm–8:45pm EDT locationVirtual Event location Jerome Greene Hall (Law School), Columbia University locationVirtual Event
  • The Society of Fellows and Heyman Center for the Humanities
  • Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought
email address [email protected]
  • Free and open to the public
  • Registration required. See details.
Headshots of Seyla Benhabib, Robert Gooding-Williams, Karuna Mantena, Kendall Thomas

Seyla Benhabib, Robert Gooding-Williams, Karuna Mantena, Kendall Thomas, and Bernard E. Harcourt read and discuss Critique, Norm, and Utopia, “Utopia and Dystopia in Our Times,” and “Cosmopolitanism Reconsidered” by Seyla Benhabib

With Herbert Marcuse pronouncing the “End of Utopia” in 1967 and the passing of the first generation of the Frankfurt School, the concept of utopia was eclipsed, at least momentarily, within the critical theory tradition. Jürgen Habermas did not engage the concept in his theory of communicative ethics, and there is practically no mention of utopia in his two-volume treatise, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981). As Seyla Benhabib observed, “Habermas’ theory marked a shift from utopian to communicative reason in critical theory.” Axel Honneth as well did not mention the concept of utopia, or even use the word itself, in his first book, The Critique of Power (1985). The concept of utopia went dormant.

It was not until the publication in 1986 of Seyla Benhabib’s landmark contribution to critical theory, Critique, Norm, Utopia: A Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory, that the concept of utopia resurfaced and regained footing in critical theory. The very title of her work restituted utopia to its place as a key concept of critical theory. A central argument of the book was, in her own words, “the need to recover part of the utopian legacy of early critical theory.” In her book, Seyla Benhabib forged a new path for critical theory that incorporated a cautious embrace of utopia from the earlier Frankfurt School, chastened by the practices of new social movements.

Over the course of a rich and ongoing intellectual journey since then, Seyla Benhabib has crafted her original vision of a “communicative utopia” into a far more concrete utopia, what she has called a “utopia of cosmopolitanism,” that has continued to evolve into, more recently, the concept of “cosmopolitanism from below”: an ideal of equal human dignity and respect for all humans, conjoined with equal respect and generosity toward their cultural, religious, gender, and ethnic differences, that finds its generative source from local and transnational grassroots movements seeking to reinvent political community.

In this seminar, we explore and discuss Benhabib’s utopian vision of “cosmopolitanism from below” with three brilliant critical thinkers, Robert Gooding-Williams, Karuna Mantena, and Kendall Thomas.

About the 13/13 Seminars: Each year, the 13/13 public seminars focus on a different set of problematics at the very heart of contemporary critical thought. This year, we will focus on the concept of utopia at Utopia 13/13.