Monday, August 07, 2006

Iris Marion Young

When I saw philosophy professor Iris Marion Young's death noted on various blogs the other day, I refrained from weighing in. I knew almost nothing about her (beyond her springy, cheerful, youthful name) and had never read her. But I'm still thinking about it. I'm moved to record the loss of this apparently remarkable woman to cancer at age 57. Nobody said life was fair.

Early on, Young built a reputation for her teaching and writing on global justice; democracy and difference; continental political theory; ethics and international affairs; and gender, race and public policy. But it was her 1990 book Justice and the Politics of Difference that propelled her to the international stage. It was in that text, a staple in classrooms the world over, that Young critically analyzed the basic concepts underlying most theories of justice, argued for a new conception of justice and urged for the affirmation rather than the suppression of social group difference. More recently she had been working on the issue of political responsibility, and especially on the question of how to conceive of responsibility for large-scale structural injustices that can’t easily be traced back to the doings of any single person or group.

“There is no question in my mind that she is one of the most important political philosophers of the past quarter-century,” said Cass Sunstein, the Karl N. Llewellyn Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago’s Law School and in Political Science. “She was unexcelled in the world in feminist and leftist political thought, and her work will have an enduring impact.”

Known for her fierce commitment to social justice and her grassroots political activity on causes such as women’s human rights, debt relief for Africa and workers’ rights, Young was praised for being as comfortable working at the street level as she was writing about political theorists Michel Foucault and J├╝rgen Habermas.

As noted, "political theory has lost a major voice before her time."

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