Taine Duncan

Defense Date


Graduation Date

Fall 2010


Immediate Access

Submission Type


Degree Name





McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts

Committee Chair

James Swindal

Committee Member

Fred Evans

Committee Member

Lanei Rodemeyer


Critical Theory, Habermas, feminist philosophy, utopianism, solidarity, ethics


My dissertation subjects Habermas to a critique inspired by ethical and political feminist philosophy. Whereas Habermas believes particularized political interests are foundational for communicative ethics, neo-Marxist feminists argue that he makes naïve assumptions about the separation of public from private interests. Habermas, on one hand, sees communication as politically oriented dialectics that culminates in rational consensus and normative guidelines. Seyla Benhabib, on the other hand, claim that Habermas' notion of consensus is obtained through false dialectical syntheses. In her view, Habermas cannot preserve the utopian goals cherished by diverse and marginalized members of society. Benhabib thus attempts to reconcile contemporary Critical Theory with the utopian nature of a neo-Kantian inspired ethics. My first three chapters argue that this feminist notion of utopianism is a helpful corrective to Critical Theory.

My next chapter moves to Habermas' most recent explorations of the nature of rational human beings themselves. Despite his interests in the individuating effects of the lifeworld, he gives an increasingly formalistic account of human nature--one that is all but solidified in the prenatal stage of life and thus determines potential political action in the public sphere. From a feminist standpoint, I argue that his strictures limit what normative ethics should actually engender, a notion of autonomy that contributes to emancipation and political participation.

My final two chapters argue more positively that a relational ethics contributes to an expansive understanding of human nature and intersubjective possibility. I explain how conceptions of diversity and relationality can supply a rich formulation of solidarity as the model for political action. I use Amy Allen, Drucilla Cornell and Judith Butler to reimagine an Arendtian inspired notion of solidarity, suggesting that the utopian spirit of normative ethics can be only fairly achieved through a fluid process of working together for shared interests. By synthesizing the feminist hopes for utopian ideals with the concept of solidarity emergent from a relational ethics, I attempt to salvage Habermasian concerns for a feminist project of cosmopolitanism and the foundation of an emancipatory ethical society.