— Linda Zerilli — (2015)

Visiting Senior Scholar

Linda M. G. Zerilli is Charles E. Merriam Distinguished Service Professor of Political Science and current Faculty Director of the Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality at the University of Chicago. Zerilli works in the areas of feminist theory, political theory, and Continental philosophy. She is the author of Signifying Woman: Culture and Chaos in Rousseau, Burke, and Mill (Cornell, 1994); Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom (Chicago, 2005), and A Democratic Theory of Judgment (Chicago, forthcoming 2016).

She will be taught Center's Fall 2015 seminar, "The Idea of a Critical Political Theory," October 19-23, 2015.

The Idea of a Critical Political Theory

Anyone who goes beyond procedural questions of a discourse theory of morality and ethics and, in a normative attitude . . . embarks on a theory of the well-ordered, or even emancipated, society will quickly run up against the limits of his own historical situation.

For some time now, a certain strand of contemporary critical theory has understood its task not in terms of providing a substantive critique of real world power relations, let alone an alternative normative conception of what social relations might be, but of how to justify critique as such: how to “justify those elements which critique owes to its philosophical origins” (Habermas), albeit in a nonfoundationalist manner. This focus on—if not obsession with—the theoretical problem of how to ground one’s own critique arose largely as an intervention into the now longstanding debate over positivism and scientism in figurations of the relation between theory and practice. As important as this intervention has been for exposing the dangers of, and social/political philosophy’s implication in, a purely technocratic order, it has not been without costs to the very idea of critique itself: namely the crucial connection between critique and social/political transformation.

Seyla Benhabib has usefully characterized the two tasks of critical theory as “explanatory-diagnostic” and “anticipatory-utopian.” In this seminar we aim to explore what each of these tasks might be and how they are connected. Central to our discussions will be an examination of how the loss of the second of these tasks, that is, of providing an anticipatory-utopian vision of what might supersede our current social and political predicament, results in a failure to adequately fulfill the first task of critically analyzing that very predicament. To speak with Cornelius Castoriadis, how might we refigure theory as “critical” (of what exists) by means of its capacity to posit “new forms/figures of the thinkable”?

Readings include classic works by Arendt, Castoriadis, Cavell, Foucault, Habermas, Wittgenstein and a selection of writings by contemporary critical, political, and feminist theorists.