Seyla Benhabib Argues for a Return to Cosmopolitanism

In the wake of increasingly strained global politics, Seyla Benhabib argues for a return to the old political theory of cosmopolitanism.

“The last decades have been characterized by a dissolution of cosmopolitanism, and, above all, by rhetorical attacks of populist thinkers,” said Benhabib, the Eugene Meyer Professor of Political Science and Philosophy at Yale University. 

Benhabib came to the Heights on Wednesday to discuss cosmopolitanism and its role in maintaining democracy in the first Lowell Humanities Series lecture of 2023.

To begin, Benhabib—whose work in cosmopolitanism spans three decades—said the theory sees dignity and worthiness as inherent to the human condition, regardless of borders, nations, and communities.

“Cosmopolitanism has an equal dimension, in that each human being ought to be treated as a person entitled to certain universal rights,” Benhabib said.

But according to Benhabib, the values of cosmopolitanism are increasingly absent from international politics. As a result of global crises such as Sept. 11 and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, Benhabib said democracies that once strove for equality are now weak and fractured.

With everyone forced to self-isolate during the pandemic, cosmopolitanism—which emphasizes the importance of communicating with and learning from one another—only further declined, according to Benhabib. 

“[During the pandemic,] we were all quarantined in separate spaces, and media giants, such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, Instagram, and Twitter dominated information and communication, while the real public squares were emptied out,” she said. 

In moving away from cosmopolitanism, Benhabib said countries are becoming more isolated from one another. Benhabib said she aims to respond to cosmopolitanism’s detractors by explaining what it truly means.

“I want to defend and preserve cosmopolitanism against certain critiques,” Benhabib said.

She referred to Jamaican critic and philosopher Sylvia Wynter, for example, whose work argues that overrepresentation of men in culture and academia has resulted in an ideal of perfection that only men can embody. 

“What this means, of course, is that the idea of cosmopolitanism is itself what is interwoven within the misuse of the ideas of rational humanity,” Benhabib said.

Looking ahead toward the future of cosmopolitanism, Benhabib called for a greater willingness to learn from other cultures to create more unified and equitable global politics.

“We need principles and ideas to sustain the critical cosmopolitanism,” she said.

January 27, 2023