Political theorist Young made her analyses relevant to contemporary world
Iris Marion Young, a leading philosopher noted by a colleague as “one of the most important political philosophers of the past quarter-century,” died in her home Tuesday, Aug. 1, after a long fight with cancer. She was 57.
Young, Professor in Political Science since 2000, was known for her work on theories of justice, democratic theory and feminist theory.
“When Iris came to the University, she had already established herself as one of the most important feminist thinkers in the world,” said Patchen Markell, Assistant Professor in Political Science and the College. “She was absolutely unsurpassed in her ability to combine a very high level of philosophical analysis with relevance to contemporary political issues and to the experiences of women and men who cared about social injustice.”
Young was born Jan. 2, 1949 in New York City. She studied philosophy as an undergraduate at Queens College, where she graduated with honors in 1970. She then earned her masters and doctorate in philosophy in 1974 from Pennsylvania State University.
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 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 cannot 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 in the Law School, Political Science and the College. “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 Jčrgen Habermas.
The ease with which she moved between academia and her political work made her particularly attractive to the international community, her colleagues said. Young was constantly traveling and her writings have been translated into more than 20 languages.
“Her great lucidity and whole-hearted commitment to equality made her a resource for political theorists coming out of all the world’s diverse political contexts,” said Danielle Allen, Dean of the Humanities, who first read Young’s work when she was a student at Harvard University.
“I marveled at the precision with which she identified the concepts of political practice and questions of justice, and even though I didn’t always agree with her, I knew she always identified the questions that needed to be asked and clarified the terms of engagement,” Allen said. “As I came to know her as a colleague, she clarified my thinking and challenged me constantly. I think I can speak for everyone who knew her when I say I learned a tremendous amount from her. She was a master teacher.”
Young was a popular teacher both of graduate and undergraduate students. Her class on global justice was among the most sought-after courses offered in Political Science.
“So many people wanted to take the course that it would be in a lecture hall, but she didn’t want to stand in the front of the room and spout information—she wanted students to be able to have a conversation,” said Markell. “She was so popular that she was always outgrowing the format she most enjoyed teaching in. Everyone wanted to study with her.”
Young’s popularity was just as sure among her colleagues, who loved engaging in debate with her as much as they enjoyed watching her play jazz piano at the University’s Quadrangle Club.
“It never ceased to amaze me how someone of such immense scholarly stature and distinction could be so unfailingly generous with her students and so completely egalitarian with her colleagues,” said Sunstein.
Added John Mearsheimer, the R. Wendell Harrison Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science, “She was one of the main intellectual forces in the department. Both students and faculty held her in the highest regard. Her passing leaves a gaping hole that will be very hard to fill.”
Young’s books include Intersecting Voices: Dilemmas of Gender, Political Philosophy and Policy (1997); Inclusion and Democracy (2000); and On Female Body Experience (2004). Before coming to Chicago she taught political theory for nine years in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She also taught philosophy at a number of institutions, among them the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Miami University.
Young is survived by her husband of 34 years, David Alexander, daughter Morgen Alexander-Young, brother L. James Young and sister Jacqueline Young. A fall memorial service is planned at the University.