From the issue dated October 5, 2001
What Makes Martha Nussbaum Run?
Her new book, like her career, mixes passion and intellect
By SCOTT McLEMEE
Martha Craven Nussbaum is on sabbatical this year, which means she does not have a lot of free time.
Cambridge University Press has just published her new book, Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions; she will be giving talks about it in various cities this fall. Early next year, she'll help run a conference in India on ethics and globalization, then is scheduled to give a series of lectures in Pakistan. And of course she will visit Finland, where, not long ago, she helped organize a conference on "Philosophy and Public Life in the Ancient Greek and Roman World."
For now, though, she wants to finish off one book manuscript before drafting some chapters for a sizable work-in-progress on cosmopolitanism. After that, she will settle down to preparing the Tanner Lectures, to be delivered at the Australian National University late next year. The title is "Beyond the Social Contract." Incidentally, the theme of her Hourani Lectures at the State University of New York at Buffalo, also next year, is no longer "Varieties of Neo-Aristotelian Thought," as previously announced. Instead, they will be based on a book manuscript with the working title "Hiding From Humanity: Shame, Disgust, and the Law," to be completed any week now.
"I don't feel like I have the schedule of a driven person," Ms. Nussbaum, who is 54, insists. "I just don't agonize too much [on a project]. I plunge in and try to get something on paper." She spends time with her boyfriend and her grown daughter, and runs 10 miles a day, whenever possible. Her great productivity is, she says, simply a matter of organized work habits. As if to underscore the point, she eats an energy bar while we talk.
It was fascinating to watch her at rest -- if only for brief periods -- just a few days earlier. The occasion was a conference on feminism and multiculturalism at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, where Ms. Nussbaum was a visiting professor. In about 48 hours, she gave five talks. But there had been a lull before each appearance, while some member of the faculty introduced her with a jaw-dropping catalog of her honors, teaching positions, and publications (including 10 books, not counting an equal number she has edited). Merely to describe her current niche at the University of Chicago took a while: She is a professor of law and ethics, with appointments in divinity, philosophy, classics, and Southern Asian studies.
Throughout those necessarily lengthy preliminaries, Ms. Nussbaum maintained a striking posture: head erect, back straight, eyes downcast, almost closed. Her expression appeared serene, but not open. For someone who has just published an enormous study of the philosophical and political implications of human emotion, Martha Nussbaum in person was extraordinarily difficult to read. Did she feel pride during the recitation of her accomplishments? Embarrassment? Was she reviewing the arguments in her paper? Trying to get some rest?
There was little room for such idle thoughts once Ms. Nussbaum started talking. She is a powerful public speaker. Swift and confident in tracing the logic of an argument, she proved equally so in responding to questions. The vigor of her performance seemed intended to reach people at the back of the auditorium -- or, perhaps, to draw in someone lingering in the corridor outside.
From the front row, however, something else was conspicuous. While talking about the legal implications of ideas about shame -- or the relation of feminism to the liberal tradition in political theory, or her work among community activists in India -- Martha Nussbaum wore the very same expression she had while sitting through the introductory remarks: cool, reserved, eyes nearly shut. Her manner suggested enormous powers of concentration, as though the ideas presented in speech were being summoned from some inner workshop, where their assembly continues on a round-the-clock basis.
The unrelenting vigor and intensity that characterize Ms. Nussbaum's activity as a public intellectual are belied by her almost sculpted poise. The contrast raises an inescapable question: What makes Martha run?
Ms. Nussbaum may project an aura of grace at the lectern, but her effect on the public is anything but calming. Throughout the protracted culture wars in the humanities, she has given all parties an equal opportunity to experience the affect of outrage.
The National Review recently described her as a "general-purpose academic celebrity ... who lied under oath" during a Colorado court battle over gay rights some years ago. (Serving as an expert witness on ancient Greek culture, she stated that translations of Plato suggesting disgust at homosexual acts were inaccurate.) In a review of her book Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard University Press, 1997), the libertarian philosopher David Gordon of the Ludwig von Mises Institute characterized her as "an unscrupulous propagandist, avid to defend her opinions by fair means or foul."
Ms. Nussbaum can give cultural radicals apoplexy, too. She has called Jacques Derrida's work "pernicious" and "simply not worth studying." Two years ago, in The New Republic, she published a very pointed critique of the poststructuralist philosopher Judith Butler, arguing that her influential work in queer theory fostered "hip nihilism" and self-indulgent posturing. Letters to the editor by prominent feminist academics, including Gayatri Spivak, Nancy Fraser, and Seyla Benhabib, called the article "vicious" and "abusive," denouncing Ms. Nussbaum for "moralizing" and a "rhetoric of overkill."
Her contentious centrism has deep roots. Ms. Nussbaum was born into the East Coast WASP elite -- a world she calls "very sterile, very preoccupied with money and status." Her resistance to that culture began with a childhood immersion in literature and philosophy; it deepened with an adolescent interest in drama, followed by a conversion to Judaism when she married. (She is now divorced, but still identifies herself as a Reform Jew.) "I was attracted to theater," she says by e-mail, "for the same reason that I'm attracted both to Jewish culture and to Indian culture: more emotional expressiveness."
Ms. Nussbaum's thinking has taken shape around a recurrent set of problems and concepts -- not just through a series of public controversies. Nancy Sherman, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, recalls encountering many distinctive qualities of Ms. Nussbaum's work in the classroom at Harvard, more than 20 years ago. "We read Plato and Aristotle very closely, line by line. Martha practiced the sort of conceptual analysis you could call 'tidying techniques,' so there was philosophical rigor to it. Martha was also interested in trying to capture philosophical material through literary samples, at a time when crossing the disciplines wasn't done so much."
In the late 1970s, Ms. Nussbaum was already working on the Stoic philosophers, who have emerged as a rather surprising point of departure for her critique of contemporary culture. It was at the start of her career, too, as Ms. Nussbaum recalls, that the political philosopher John Rawls encouraged her to write for the public as well as do scholarly work.
Ms. Nussbaum's discussions of multicultural reforms in education, for example, have argued that they are the contemporary embodiment of the Socratic tradition. In confronting how other societies have ordered themselves, students begin to question the givens of their own upbringing; besides learning some respect for other ways of life, they are compelled to give rational arguments for the values they take for granted. But recognizing cultural difference is not, for Ms. Nussbaum, an end in itself. The goal is for the student to become what the Stoic philosophers were the first to call a "cosmopolitan" -- a citizen of the world, someone whose loyalty is not to a particular locality or cultural order but to humanity.
Ms. Nussbaum does not end, however, with a relativistic sense of diversity that is indistinguishable from sophisticated apathy. Given that people have had many different ways of living, her cosmopolitan would ask, in a Socratic vein, what is a good society? Are there criteria for determining the most just way human beings might live?
In seeking an answer, Ms. Nussbaum draws on another body of philosophical work: Aristotle's notion of eudaimonia, a term often translated as "happiness," though she prefers "flourishing." Eudaimonia is less a matter of being in a good mood than living a complete, well-rounded life. Social arrangements are just (the Nussbaumian cosmopolitan would argue) when they allow individuals the greatest liberty and opportunity to develop the full range of their abilities. That, in turn, means that it should be possible to work out a conception of what all people must have to flourish. In Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge, 2000), Ms. Nussbaum presents a list of 10 "Central Human Functional Capabilities," influenced by her years of collaboration with Amartya Sen, the Nobel laureate in economics. Literacy, liberty of conscience, and the right of political participation belong on the list, as does physical integrity ("having one's bodily boundaries treated as sovereign").
If her endorsement of multiculturalism as the legacy of Western tradition has offended conservatives, Ms. Nussbaum's effort to find universal criteria for judging human well-being strikes leftist critics as frankly imperialist. Gayatri Spivak has referred to the "civilizing mission" of her work -- implying that the philosopher has taken up the white woman's burden, so to speak, by instructing the world's poorer citizens what they should want.
Ms. Nussbaum responds by pointing out that, when she goes to India for a few weeks each year, her intent is precisely to listen to working women and community activists, not to lecture them on her own ideas. "The biggest obstacle for a Western feminist philosopher in thinking about these lives," as she puts it, "may be the specific details and dynamics of their poverty more than their foreignness. Western feminist philosophy has not typically focused on getting loans, learning to read, and buying sewing machines."
We need to recognize that there are barriers between cultures, Ms. Nussbaum seems to say, without making a virtue of that fact.
Among readers, including her students, Ms. Nussbaum notes a barrier of a different sort. They tend to fall, she says, into two camps. Some are attracted to her work on political thought, particularly as it relates to law and international economics. Others are interested primarily in her work on moral philosophy -- including the scholarly work on ancient ethical theory -- and her writings on literature, which emphasize the power of narrative to heighten the awareness of how life is experienced by others. "I think I have a unity of problems that I follow into various areas," she says. "It's the exception [among readers] who will cross over. ... But I do feel that it's one set of issues."
Upheavals of Thought, her new book, might be the volume to bridge that gap. Ms. Nussbaum's analysis of emotion moves from the most private intensities of personal experience to questions of law and politics. Scholarly work on the emotions has grown over the past decade or so, with at least three new journals devoted to research in the field, and Ms. Nussbaum's book is as interdisciplinary as the field itself. She draws on contemporary studies of animal behavior, psychoanalytic models of early-childhood relationships, and work in anthropology, as well as 2,500 years of philosophy; there are also chapters on Gustav Mahler and Walt Whitman. From that enormous range of material, she works out a distinctive argument.
A traditional view, going back to Plato at least, sees a dichotomy between thought and feeling. Emotion is treated, by definition, as the enemy of rational judgment. A related understanding has it that emotion is a mental sensation caused by biological events. (As William James put it, we are sad because we cry rather than vice versa.)
To that, Ms. Nussbaum counterposes the theory developed by the Stoics, who argued that emotion includes an element of judgment -- a concept with parallels in contemporary cognitive science. The experience of any given emotion includes an understanding of the world. If I am furious at X for doing Y, my anger reveals an implicit judgment that, for example, X could have acted differently -- and that action Y has negative consequences for my well-being (or otherwise violates my values).
Furthermore, society has an enormous role in emotion -- and not just because of how it has shaped my judgments of X and Y in particular. In ancient Rome, Ms. Nussbaum notes, anger was regarded in distinctly positive terms; it was an expression of manly self-assertion. But in one Eskimo tribe (which, given its environment, places a great premium on social cohesion), it is assumed that only small children get angry; fury in an adult is a sign of immaturity. Clearly those cultural differences will affect how I act on my emotions -- whether I decapitate X or apologize to him for being upset.
"The Stoics," Ms. Nussbaum says, "were the first to give systematic attention to emotion, and they get a lot of things right. If we want to understand why a society is riven, they say, look at inappropriate emotions, at the overvaluation of certain goods, such as money, honor, status. But I would want to distinguish their theory of emotion from their normative thesis, which goes overboard." She refers to the goal of ataraxia, "freedom from disturbance": a state of calm detachment resulting from the careful shedding of attachments to external goods over which one has no control. (That yields Stoicism in the common sense: the art of maintaining a stiff upper lip.)
Ms. Nussbaum draws a different set of conclusions from Stoic theory. Some manifestations of emotion can be destructive to human flourishing. Disgust at the characteristics perceived in a minority group can yield anything from verbal cruelty to physical violence; the shame experienced by someone with a physical disability can damage capacities not directly affected by the handicap itself. She notes that negative emotions, such as fear, can have their uses. But what Ms. Nussbaum calls her "neo-Stoic" understanding of emotion suggests that legal and educational institutions have a key role to play in how people learn to understand and act on their feelings.
"She has explicitly said that philosophy is a kind of therapy," says Ronald Hall, a professor of philosophy at Stetson University and the author of The Human Embrace: The Love of Philosophy and the Philosophy of Love (1999), which includes an analysis of Ms. Nussbaum's earlier work. "Not that she sees it as psychotherapy, to be sure, but as a way of addressing the exigencies of our ordinary lives. It's a compassionate wrestling with existential problems." Mr. Hall has not yet read her latest book, but his choice of words is interesting. The middle section of Upheavals consists of an extensive analysis of compassion -- the emotional capacity to share another's suffering.
"What I'm wrestling with now," Ms. Nussbaum says, "is the problem of being a Stoic cosmopolitan with a non-Stoic set of attachments. The ideal of feeling equal concern for all humanity seems to me good and right. But the Stoic approach, which involves pruning away one's attachment to the local, is too surgical. Marcus Aurelius writes about trying to overcome one's feelings at the death of a child. It's an effort to become invulnerable, and it doesn't offer a sense of life that is rich enough to be worth living." The Roman Stoic's melancholy struggle with the passing of a loved one has its echo in Ms. Nussbaum's new book: Her prime example of emotional intensity is the grief she felt at the death of her mother, nearly 10 years ago.
There is something of a paradox, then, in Ms. Nussbaum's vision of compassionate cosmopolitanism. Human relationships form a series of concentric circles, and our emotions are inescapably conditioned by that fact. The capacity for empathy is strongest with people who are already close. It can still be very intense for people we already share something with, even if we don't know them personally. And it tends to become more abstract the further one gets from the sphere of "me and mine." How, then, to accept both the rootedness of emotion in local situations and a feeling of global responsibility?
It is by no means a rhetorical question. "I think the challenge is to build concentricity in a way that really does extend outward," says Ms. Nussbaum, "rather than drawing the line somewhere, so that you demonize those who are outside that boundary." She notes that she has developed especially strong feelings about India. (Her work there, she admonishes by e-mail, "is at the core of my heart and my sense of the meaning of life, so if you downplay that, you don't get me.")
At the same time, her interest in the effects of economic development in India is, Ms. Nussbaum says, very much driven by the friendships she has made there and the many hours she has spent listening to poor women there about their daily struggles. From one perspective, her activism is the embodiment of cosmopolitan values. At the same time, it reflects the fact that her circle of intimate connection has been expanded by international travel.
That brings us back, then, to the enigma of Martha Nussbaum. Her work presents a theory of the emotions that stresses their cognitive element. What fuels the unmistakable passion of her own thought?
A hint at an answer may appear in Ms. Nussbaum's occasional works of narrative prose. She has written, for example, a dialogue called "Emotions as Judgments of Value" that was staged as a play in Stockholm three years ago. It is set at a conference where a philosopher named Anna Griffin delivers a paper on her theory of the emotions. As the long roll call of her academic distinctions is read by a colleague, the scholar's mind wanders back to encounters with her parents. The mother feels excluded by Anna's bookishness -- and somewhat offended by her daughter's enthusiasm for philosophizing about every human problem. Her father, by contrast, encourages her intellectual pursuits; they talk about literature, and share allusions to William Ernst Henley's poem "Invictus." They manage to avoid arguing, even though Anna's father does call Martin Luther King Jr. "that communist."
Arguments over attachment and compassion seem to be at the core of the philosopher's relationship with her parents -- at the center, that is, of the concentric circle. The moments of love and frustration begin to overlap with passages from the conference paper by Anna Griffin. Her ideas sound conspicuously like those developed in Upheavals of Thought.
The play will appear in a book that Martha Nussbaum is writing about the genre of the philosophical dialogue. It is under contract with Harvard University Press. A lot of work remains on that particular project; she does as much as she can.
Another story that Ms. Nussbaum published some years ago speculated about the intense concentration of its central character.
"You now see how this lady is: She goes on thinking at all times," the narrator says. "She won't simply cry, she will ask what crying consists in. One tear, one argument: That's how her life goes on."
Available at: chronicle.merit.edu/free/v48/i06/06a01401.htm