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Dependency Relations: Corporeal Vulnerability and Norms of Personhood in Hobbes and Kittay




Theories of the liberal tradition have relied on independence as a norm of personhood. Feminist theorists such as Eva Kittay in Love's Labor have been instrumental in critiquing normative independence. I explore the role of corporeal vulnerability in Kittay's account of personhood, developing a comparison to the role it plays in Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan. Kittay's crucial contribution in Love's Labor is that once we acknowledge the facts of corporeal vulnerability, we must not only acknowledge but also affirm dependency in a genuinely inclusive affirmation of personhood. While endorsing Kittay's “dependency critique,” I discover difficulties that beleaguer Kittay's development of new norms of personhood. I trace these to a dependency of Kittay's account on a crucial premise of the liberal model it resists. I argue that in order to affirm dependency in a manner that departs more thoroughly from the criticized aspects of liberal personhood, we must cease to position it in a dichotomy of power and vulnerability. I suggest that attending to the corporeality of vulnerability can aid us in developing the terms of a discourse affirming relational personhood while undermining that dichotomy.