Feminism, Modernity and Critical Theory

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The relationship between modernity and normativity is central to the project of critical theory, and yet this relationship has come under increasing pressure in recent years, in particular from postcolonial critics. For feminist critical theory specifically, the demand to rethink the relationship between modernity and normativity can be seen as coming simultaneously from two different directions: both from the direction of a feminist theory that strives to be genuinely inclusive of the perspectives and experiences of all women, including those in the global South, by developing an intersectional analysis of the cross-cutting axes of racial, gender, and imperial domination; and from the direction of a critical theory that can only be truly critical if it can take on board a postcolonial perspective. And yet rethinking the relationship between modernity and normativity poses serious problems for certain prominent understandings of feminist critical theory. In particular, insofar as the normative perspective of critical theory is dependent upon a particular understanding of modernity that is tied to a developmental, progressive reading of history, and insofar as this very perspective is called into question in postcolonial scholarship, the taking on board of a postcolonial, anti-racist and anti-imperialist feminist perspective seems to threaten the very normativity of critical theory. In this paper, I explore these issues by: first, sketching the relationship between modernity, normativity, and feminism in the work of the two major contemporary representatives of the Frankfurt School critical theory tradition, Jürgen Habermas and Axel Honneth; second, exploring how this relationship is recapitulated in the work of feminist critical theorist Seyla Benhabib, despite her attempts to address intersectional and postcolonial feminist concerns; and finally, by way of a conclusion, briefly considering what follows for feminist critical theory once we rethink the relationship between modernity, normativity and feminism.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)268-281
Number of pages14
JournalInternational Critical Thought
Issue number3
StatePublished - 2013

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Political Science and International Relations
  • Cultural Studies
  • Social Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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