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Reviewed by:
  • Just Cause: Freedom, Identity, and Rights
  • Linda Martín Alcoff (bio)
Just Cause: Freedom, Identity, and Rights. By Drucilla Cornell. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

In the past decade, Drucilla Cornell has emerged as one of the most interesting feminist theorists writing today, bringing her considerable erudition in Hegelian and post-Hegelian European philosophy to bear on the most difficult and concrete problems in feminist activism and jurisprudence. In Richard Posner's essay, included in this volume, he writes that Cornell's project has been to "domesticate" Georg Hegel, among others, for the purposes of legal thought, but in actuality she effectively works to radicalize the theorists she draws from at the same time as she radicalizes legal theory. Besides Hegel, Cornell's distinctive theoretical position relies most heavily on Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida to conceptualize the nature of oppression and of freedom, respectively, but she has developed her own original voice especially in her elaboration of the "imaginary domain" that is the "sanctuary needed for any of us to pull ourselves together into that being we think of as a self or as a person" (19). In a series of books written in the 1990s, Cornell has analyzed the means by which capitalist culture has restricted the imaginary domain of women, as well as the means by which the law might be used to protect and expand it.

This most recent book is a loose collection of essays grouped around Cornell's project of defining new ideals, although this might be said of any of her books. The chapters do not form a sustained argument, and several consist largely of commentaries on others' work that read very much like conference response papers. And I have no clue as to why she lent space to conservative theorist Richard Posner, whose response to Cornell's work is included here. Nonetheless, Cornell's work is so smart and original that it is always worth reading. More than her other books, this one ranges beyond those topics mainly discussed by feminists to offer positions on multiculturalism, gay and lesbian rights, Spanish language rights, and the law and economics movement's defense of "employment at will." The latter chapter is especially good: Cornell defends a concept [End Page 225] of "rational cause" to replace the "just cause" employers use to fire their workers, in order to provide some objective measure of what can count as a legitimate cause and put a break on the employer's arbitrary authority.

Cornell describes her project of defining new ideals as pitted against Marxist critics who would eschew normative reconstructive work in favor of structural analysis, though she does not give examples of such critics. But it is also clearly pitted against the wing of postmodernism that denies the possibility of developing and defending values, normative guides to political action, or moral norms—the sort of position defended, for example, by Wendy Brown (1995). In this as well as in her other works, Cornell takes a position markedly different from Brown's axiological skepticism; Cornell boldly articulates and defends moral arguments, even while she mysteriously pays obeisance to the main metaphysical positions of deconstruction. Although the concrete positions she works out on women's, labor, and ethnic rights are usually quite good, I find her overall metaphilosophical views much less persuasive; and her attempt to disassociate from the Catharine MacKinnon wing of feminism while also maintaining a moral dimension leads to some contradictions.

As an example of the latter, in this text one finds Cornell sharply criticizing what she calls "feminist moralism," defined as telling women how to behave, and she uses the example of what was called the "Wollstonecraft repudiation" when nineteenth-century feminists and liberals tried to disassociate themselves from Wollstonecraft because of her "immoral" lifestyle (66). In all of her work, Cornell has vigorously defended the right of women to be "bad girls," construed within an overall moral right to form and express one's own personality. Clearly, Cornell is arguing for one kind of morality against another, rather than against morality per se, which is why it is odd to find her supporting the "politics instead of morality" position of...


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pp. 225-228
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