Martha Nussbaum: The Philosopher Queen

Bold and unapologetic, the marathon-running, opera-loving public intellectual has weighed in on everything from aging to the nature of evil. Her goal? To make philosophy useful in our day-to-day lives.
By | Jul 10, 2018
2018 July-August, Arts & Culture

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s complex prose doesn’t fit into Twitter’s 280-character format. Still, at a time when sound bites dominate political discourse, her work is improbably attracting the public’s attention. In addition to writing more than 25 books and editing another 21, Nussbaum has sparred about the nature of good and evil with Bill Moyers on PBS and filmed a documentary about Plato for the Discovery Channel. She was featured in photographer Annie Leibovitz’s 1999 collection, Women, and counts Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra as fans. She has written for, and been covered by, virtually every major U.S. publication, with The New York Times describing her as “the most prominent female philosopher in America.”

Nussbaum is determined to make philosophy relevant to the 21st century. She transcends the field’s traditional boundaries to explore race, gender and sexuality and advocates that international development be based on a set of universal rights and values. Above all, she insists that philosophy must be useful—not esoteric. She taught at Harvard (where she was controversially denied tenure) for 20 years, then at Brown until 1995, when she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where she holds joint tenured appointments in several departments, as well as in both the divinity and law schools. The last is especially important given Nussbaum’s desire for philosophy to have real-world applications. Nussbaum believes that philosophers should be “lawyers for humanity” and that teaching at the law school allows her to directly shape and change public life.

Along the way, Nussbaum has not shied away from public clashes with some of her most famous peers. She rose to prominence in 1987 with a blistering attack on fellow philosopher Allan Bloom’s landmark conservative book, The Closing of the American Mind. In a lengthy piece in The New York Review of Books, she denounced Bloom’s work as elitist, anti-democratic and even un-American. She derided his intellectual capacities, writing, “How good a philosopher, then, is Allan Bloom? The answer is, we cannot say, and we are given no reason to think him one at all.” She cemented her reputation for pitiless prose in 1999 when she took on radical feminist Judith Butler in an 8,000-word essay in The New Republic titled “The Professor of Parody.” In it, she accused Butler of a “self-involved feminism” that encourages women to focus on abstract ideals rather than real-world problems such as wage disparity and sexual harassment. By engaging in this “hip defeatism,” Nussbaum asserted, Butler “collaborates with evil.” The article ignited a maelstrom that extended into popular culture. Historian Joan Scott condemned the piece as “a crassly opportunistic act,” while journalist Katha Pollitt applauded it as a “skillful and long-overdue shredding.”

Nussbaum believes that philosophers should be ‘lawyers for humanity’ who directly shape and change public life

At age 71, Nussbaum runs daily, including 12 miles every Sunday, and regularly lifts weights. Disdaining earphones and popular music, she silently sings the full libretto of The Marriage of Figaro as she works out. And her personal life has long been as dramatic as her professional one. She dropped out of Wellesley College after two years to join a Michigan theater company. A few years later, enamored with Greek tragedies, she studied drama at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts but switched to classics when she realized she would rather study Greek than perform it. While there, she met her future husband, classicist Alan Nussbaum. To her father’s dismay, she converted to Judaism before their wedding in 1969. Although the two divorced in 1987, Nussbaum has remained actively—and enthusiastically—Jewish.

In recent years, Nussbaum has turned her attention to analyzing the nature of human emotions and the role they play in society. She has written books on shame, desire and the relationship between anger and forgiveness. Galvanized by the election of President Donald Trump, her most recent book, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis, examines the ways in which the political is always emotional in America and what she describes as “the politics of blame.” Moment talks with Nussbaum about feminism today, her experiences as a convert to Judaism and the role of philosophers in Trump’s America.

Why did you write a book about fear?

Democracy requires us all to trust one another and to have concern for one another; and that means not being governed by fear. Fear is a painful awareness of danger or threat. It can be highly conscious, but it can also lurk under the surface. It is a large part of the life of a human infant, who is all too conscious of its own desperate need for food, warmth and comfort, as well as its total inability to independently get what it needs. Fear is intensely narcissistic: When you feel your life threatened, your attention shrinks to your own body. You are once again a baby crying for what you can’t get. Babies are not good democratic citizens: In their fear, they operate by making other people their slaves. They are also utterly dependent on others, incapable of agency or reciprocity.

How does fear manifest itself in our current political climate?

Ours is a difficult time. Automation, the global economy, various threats to our security and the obvious problems of economic and social inequality—all give rise to fear and anxiety. When FDR said “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” I believe he meant that fear has a tendency to become its own way of being and to prevent forms of cooperation, hope and, yes, the mutual love that we need to solve our problems. Often these days, fear is destructive, impeding a real dialogue about our future. Fear is not always bad. For example, I think we ought to fear the effects of climate change and the destruction of animal species. But we cannot just wallow in fear: We must get together with other people and do something.

What role does collective anger play in our political process?

Anger of the protest sort, preferably without the payback part, can play a good role in moving us toward equality or solving some other serious problem. But the desire for payback, so easy and attractive, often throws people off course, making them think the problem will be solved if only they make some other group of people suffer. Anger becomes most problematic when it creates the delusion that pain can be balanced out by more pain: Our earliest fairy tales tell us that some very difficult real problems (say hunger, in Hansel and Gretel) will be solved if only we incinerate the witch, and I’m afraid we too easily believe this. The desire for payback makes our real problems much more difficult to solve.

In your view, has President Donald Trump intentionally provoked fear and anger in the American public? If so, how?

I think that the president has deliberately set out to feed fear of immigrants, racial minorities and of Islam and Muslims. These are ignoble fears, because they target large groups of people for sweeping condemnation without asking precisely who we are talking about and what the real issue is. They feed our ugliest tendencies—to scapegoat, to demonize, rather than to solve the real problem or even to ask what it is. Fear has a tendency to spread like wildfire, and a good politician needs to rein it in and prevent this sort of targeting. After 9/11, President George W. Bush very successfully addressed the rising fear of Muslims and Islam, saying that we should not demonize the entirety of a people or a religion but should search for criminals. In fact, this was so important to him that he kept an entire archive of his statements on Islam. I draw on it in the book, contrasting his rhetoric with that of President Trump.

You’ve written that “the political is always emotional” and that this is a critical aspect of the current situation. What did you mean by that?

People often associate a politics of emotion with fascism. But all politicians need to stir up emotions to get people to care about what they propose and to fight for it. The question is not whether politicians should appeal to emotions, but which emotions, and when, and in connection with which arguments. During the New Deal, FDR needed to convince Americans to accept a group of radical new proposals. He thought long and hard about how he could move voters to endorse the programs of the New Deal. We have Social Security because of the crafty ways in which FDR appealed to emotions. Similarly, we made much of our progress in civil rights through the ability of Dr. King to summon up positive emotions of hope and love in grim times. So it seems to me wrong-headed for liberals to say that we should not appeal to emotions. Imagine if Dr. King had spoken in the style of John Stuart Mill or John Rawls. He would have failed in the job he undertook.

How can philosophers influence the world today?

I dont like telling other people what to do. But I think its good if at least some philosophers try to engage the general public. The problem is that there are fewer and fewer places where a philosopher can write for the general public. Newspapers dont often publish opinion pieces by philosophers. So those of us who are lucky enough to get published in this adverse climate had better do so!

Why do you believe we need “a society of citizens who admit they are needy and vulnerable”?

Think again about that baby. As that baby develops, it becomes able to do more for itself and does not get its way by making slaves of others. At that point, it can recognize that the other people in its world also have needs and feelings, and begin to form relationships based on interdependence and mutual aid rather than just commanding and obeying. Thats what democracy needs: people who admit that they are all equally human, needy and vulnerable, and who then form a coalition of reciprocity and mutual aid.

You’ve written a lot about religious intolerance. What was your personal experience with religious intolerance when you converted to Judaism? How have these experiences informed your work?

Sadly, anti-Semitism as I know it is more a racial attitude than a religious one. And all the anti-Semites at Harvard, noting that my name changed from Craven when I applied to graduate school to Nussbaum when I arrived, continued to think of me as a WASP, while treating my husband with disdain. In Europe, I am often asked whether I am “really” Jewish, since my name is usually—though not always—a Jewish name, but my appearance is understood by many to denote a non-Jewish identity, since stereotypes of how Jews look still abound. So I don’t exactly suffer from anti-Semitism. But of course I observe these irrationalities and the ugly ideas they embody, and one of the main topics of my work is how irrational ideas of stigma and disgust crop up in all societies, in different forms in different places. People are insecure about having animal bodies, and they then project those traits—hyperanimality, hypersexuality—onto a variety of minority groups whom they then target for subordination, leading to anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia.

You’ve described your father both as a role model who “symbolized beauty and wonder” and as a racist and anti-Semite. How do you reconcile the two?

People are mixtures of good and bad. Wonderful, loving, inspiring people can harbor grave flaws and blind spots. My father was born in 1901 in Macon, Georgia, and didn’t move to the north until he was over 40. So his attitudes were totally typical of his time and place; you would not have found much support for integration in Macon until very late, perhaps the 1960s. That is an explanation, not an excuse, but most people are not capable of farsighted moral heroism. And most people don’t change deeply entrenched attitudes when they are older. Don’t forget that many abolitionists and, later, heroes of the civil rights movement opposed equality for women. Elizabeth Cady Stanton recounts how she was not permitted to enter the room when abolitionists met. So how could those heroes have been so narrow-minded? And many anti-racists have also opposed equal civil rights for gays and lesbians. We are all works in progress, morally speaking, and our culture is, too. We don’t even know what blind spots we have now that future generations will deplore.

Both philosophy and classics have been perceived as fields that are inhospitable to women. Have you faced gender-related obstacles in these fields?

I certainly encountered a lot of sexism in both fields, as well as sexual harassment and a total lack of support for child care. (My daughter was born when I was just starting my dissertation.) I came along at the right time, in that even five years before, no jobs in leading universities would have been open to women. I was the first woman in the Society of Fellows at Harvard. But I did encounter many obstacles, and my non-tenure at Harvard was at least in part due to sexism. I also encountered a few men who were genuine feminists and who fought for women’s equality: the economist Wassily Leontief, who brought women into the Society; the philosopher Bernard Williams, one of my key teachers; the philosophers Hilary Putnam and Stanley Cavell, two of my Harvard colleagues. Right now, I would say that classics is better for women than philosophy: The proportion of women in major positions is much higher, and this creates a better atmosphere for all. But we are working hard, and at least we have procedures that ensure due process, which is not at all the case in Europe, where an old-boy system still too often reigns.

In the past, you’ve criticized academic feminists for being too far removed from real women. What kind of feminism is needed today? In real terms, how can that be fostered?

I think feminists today are quite engaged with real-life problems, so I am less worried now than I was in the past. However, there was a time when I thought, and wrote, that academic feminists had become too academic: discussing abstruse topics in an impenetrable jargon and not giving intelligible guidance to people who could then put feminist ideas to work. I contrasted that type of academic feminism both with early U.S. feminists who contributed to legal change in areas of rape law, sexual harassment and domestic violence, and also with the ongoing reality of academic feminism in India. In India, academic feminists never became pedantic: They remained committed to giving intelligible guidance for political practice. I think the tide in the U.S. has now begun to turn: Younger feminists are learning to write clearly and eloquently and to use their voices effectively.

Academic feminism, like the rest of society, badly needs a respectful acceptance of divergent viewpoints. We can’t progress without debating a wide range of good-faith positions. There are limits: Journals should not publish a piece of Holocaust denial or a racist article. But we must be able to make good-faith explorations of difficult issues. There is no single feminist “party line.” We all should teach a wide range of divergent positions.

6 thoughts on “Martha Nussbaum: The Philosopher Queen

  1. Nice! In chess, the winner wins only by checkmating the king. So, Nussbaum and other analysts may attempt to compete for the title of philosopher queen… so long as it is recognized by all involved that the philosopher king is none other than Ayn Rand!

    1. Douglas Bellizzi says:

      Definitely not the only way to win a chess game. The victor also wins if her opponent resigns, her opponent’s time runs out (if chess clock is used), her opponent shows up late for a game (tournament), if forfeited for reasons such as cheating (tournament).

    2. JiminNC says:

      Ayn Rand, beloved by 14-year-olds and adults who want an excuse for being a miserable human being the world over.

      1. Miron says:

        Thanks for that.

  2. Adrian Martinez says:

    …and since almost no philosopher, alive or dead, would regard Ayn Rand as king or queen, much less a philosopher, your cheerleading declaration is quite empty James.

  3. Davida Brown says:

    I had a Religious Studies professor who had switched from Philosophy in college due to the death of both parents in a one year span. Everyone is looking for answers to the great questions of life…philosophy doesn’t have answers so much as it presents more questions. “Religion” cannot answer those burning questions, but God can, in His book of all books. The trouble is that to open and read the Bible means to be confronted by the evil within (we are all aware of the evil without; even Ms. Nussbaum mentions: “collaborates with evil” in her interview.) Where does this concept of “evil” originate? Again, in the one book I mentioned already. I understand the tendency of avoidance. I myself did so for close to half my life. However, to be free indeed requires risking it all for the one nugget of truth that makes all the difference in the world for good, for life, for eternity. Are you up to this endeavor? Does it matter eternally. YES IT DOES!

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