Philosophy in the public interest: An interview with Martha C. Nussbaum

Philosophy in the public interest: An interview with Martha C. Nussbaum – Interview

Margaret A. Miller

Editor’s note: Martha C. Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, is certainly one of the most visible and prominent philosop hers in America, with publications, honors, and teaching positions too numerous to list (a summary of her accomplishments can be found at Her reputation is not only due to her extraordinary scholarly productivity–it is also the consequence of her intellectual range, eloquence, elegance of mind, and willingness to speak to audiences beyond a small group of professional philosophers on topics of public importance. Although these traits make her a model few could hope to emulate, her career does demonstrate how scholarship can make a significant contribution to the social good. In an e-mail interview conducted by Change executive editor Margaret A. Miller, Nussbaum discusses her career as a political philosopher.

Miller: Your 1994 book on the Hellenistic philosophers, Therapy of Desire, describes their philosophy as “practical and compassionate.” And in “‘No Chance Matter’: Philosophy and Public Life” you say, “The job of a teacher and a philosopher is to make human life better.” How have philosophers had this effect on the world?

Nussbaum: I don’t think that philosophy in general has to aim at making human lives better. Many branches of philosophy generate understanding for its own sake, and that is wonderful and sufficient. I do think that all human beings should aim in some way at making human lives better, but if your work doesn’t have that aim, you can always do it through public service, raising children, giving money, etc. So I don’t want to be understood as criticizing philosophers who don’t pursue the amelioration of life.

In “No Chance Matter” I was talking about political philosophy, and I do think it’s true that the distinguished works in that tradition, within Western thought, engage with real human predicaments and aim to make human lives better. Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Hellenistic philosophers–but also modern thinkers such as Locke, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Marx, Sidgwick, Rawls, Habermas–all think of their work as contributing to making lives better.

That contribution may take several different forms. (My recent article in the Monist, “Four Models of Philosophical Politics,” says more about this.) Sometimes political philosophers simply aim to show democratic citizens how to think more clearly about central moral and political concepts. (Socrates is the most obvious case of this, but that’s at least one part of what almost every good political philosopher does.) Sometimes, in addition, they argue for a certain conception of how political institutions are best designed. (Most of the thinkers on my list are in this category.) Sometimes they insist that a sweeping change in our entire relation to desire and value is essential if human life is to be improved. (This is true both of the Hellenistic thinkers and of Marx.)

Miller: How did they communicate those arguments, and to whom?

Nussbaum: Socrates wrote nothing, and aimed to improve lives by questioning people one by one. Aristotle taught and wrote for a rather narrow and specialized group; while not consisting only of professional philosophers, his readership would still have had to have studied philosophy very seriously to get any benefit from his writings. This model is followed by Rawls and in part by Kant, though Kant also produced some more popular writings. But many political philosophers, caring about what happens, try to address not just specialists, but the general public as well. Usually such thinkers write works of several different sorts, some for specialists and some for a more general audience. Both Kant and Mill are examples of this way of dividing one’s energies.

Finally, there’s the whole question of whether a philosopher will be a teacher in an academic institution. Many of the people on my list took that path, but some very important thinkers didn’t: for example, Rousseau, Bentham, Mill, and Marx. Often this wasn’t by choice; all these characters were too unconventional in one way or another to have held an academic appointment. (Mill’s atheism, for example, and his relationship with Harriet Taylor, would certainly have precluded such employment.) But their lives, chosen or not, do raise the question whether one ought to go for the academic life, with its security and stability, but also its multitude of duties that take one away from writing.

Miller: And what has your choice been?

Nussbaum: I’ve “chosen” the academic life, but I have to say that I devoted little thought to that decision. It was just what all young philosophers did. I’m not sorry, because it’s a life of unparalleled freedom and security for a thinker, and because I also love my students and learn from teaching. But there’s no doubt that academic employment limits the ways in which one can help the world. In my case, it very much limits the amount of time that I can spend in the developing countries on which much of my recent work focuses.

In terms of mode of writing, I’ve followed a path more like that of Mill than that of any other author on my list–that is, I write systematic books, but I also write journalism aimed at a more general public. I do this because I think it’s very important to convey to the public a sense of what philosophy can contribute. When I was a young assistant professor, John Rawls once said to me that he felt that he could not write in that way, or give public speeches aimed at reaching a more general public. However, he said, if one could do that well, one had an obligation to do it. This advice was what spurred me to take on essays for the New York Review of Books and The New Republic, the primary mode in which I communicate with readers who don’t read philosophy books.

But in my books I also try to reach a more general audience. There’s no book I’ve written since my first, Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium, that’s only for specialized philosophers. I thought The Fragility of Goodness was mainly for specialists, but I found that people of many different kinds were reading it, so after that I set out to reach that broader world deliberately.

Writing is my main activity, but I also reach people by giving lectures. Luckily, I used to be an actress, and I draw on that experience to bring some of my ideas to people who might not read the books.

And then, especially important to me, there’s the consulting work I’ve done with the World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). At WIDER I generated and directed, with Amartya Sen, a project that reexamined some economic notions (quality of life, development, gender equality) that were shaping policy in nations around the world, and brought in other philosophers to interact with development economists in shaping a more humanistic conception of what economic development can be. At UNDP in Delhi, India, I’ve been working on a project on gender and governance. And here at the University of Chicago, I’ve just been given start-up money for a Center for Comparative Constitutionalism and the Implementation of Constitutional Rights, which will deal with issues of inequality and how a constitutional regime can promote equality.

All this activity is still academic, but it widens the range of people who might be influenced by the way I think. Sen’s capabilities approach to development, which I’ve also developed in a rather different way, has already made a real difference in the ways in which nations conceive of their goals as they measure their “development.”

I didn’t plan this course of life–neither development nor law was on my agenda early in my career. I responded to opportunities that came my way and that excited me. Other philosophers take up different opportunities.

Miller: Could you elaborate on how writings such as yours and similar work by other contemporary philosophers improve human life?

Nussbaum: I hope that this sort of writing does some good by giving people a sense of the current issues of importance and how philosophy has been approaching them. Sometimes those important questions lie at some distance from actual political choices, and yet I think there’s little I write that’s not political in some sense. (Thus, even in Upheavals of Thought–in many ways a very intimate book about anger, grief, and love–I discuss the political role of compassion.) Sometimes, as in Women and Human Development, I make specific prescriptions for what political and legal institutions should be like. My current book in progress, on shame and disgust in the law, is very concrete in its proposals.

You can see that I think there are an indefinite number of ways in which a philosopher can make people’s lives better. Some of these ways are very abstract. But if we don’t have our concepts right we’re unlikely to have good theories about things of importance. Of course if we turn from the political life to the personal life, the range of opportunities for the philosopher to illuminate humanity is even more extensive. There are so many topics that lie at the heart of what people care about, from religion, to art, to the emotions. I think good work on any of these topics can make people’s lives better. Medical ethics has a huge role to play in helping us think better about many kinds of issues; so, too, does good writing on animal rights, human disabilities, and a wide range of other issues.

And if we turn from the practical side of philosophy to the more theoretical, we still have any number of ways in which philosophers make human lives better–apart, that is, from understanding, which is itself a good. Good theories about science help us understand and navigate our universe. Good accounts of knowledge help orient our activities as we think about evidence and inquiry. As I’ve said, I don’t think that practical benefits need be there in order to justify the activity, but they are undoubtedly there.

Miller: In your work for the U.N. and at WIDER, you’ve relied on influencing governmental leaders in order to change political structures. Yet many philosophers, from Plato to Hannah Arendt, have thought political and philosophical logic to be quite different and even incompatible. Has that been your experience in addressing political audiences?

Nussbaum: Why do you say that Plato thought philosophy and politics were incompatible? He advised a politician, and he also wrote works that insisted on the importance of good thought for political practice. I do think Plato was much too dictatorial about the role of philosophers in politics: He suggested that philosophical knowledge should run the state, and that the ordinary citizen should not take part in high-level decision-making.

A more attractive model of the philosopher’s contribution is supplied by Aristotle (and, in their own times, by Kant, Mill, and Rawls): The philosopher clarifies basic theoretical ideas and sets out conceptions of justice in a perspicuous form, so that people can see clearly the arguments for and against them, and can compare them to their own considered judgments about justice. That’s the tradition I follow. I don’t have the skills required to be a politician, but I also don’t aim just to influence “governmental leaders.”

Miller: Whom, then, do you hope to influence?

Nussbaum: I hope to influence anyone who can read my books. This won’t be every democratic citizen, because the books are quite academic, but it includes lots of people who are not leaders but who influence life in their nations: feminist activists, teachers, doctors, businessmen, lawyers, and policymakers at all levels, in the various countries in which my books are available. The books that we wrote at WIDER were not addressed to leaders alone, and they’ve been very widely read and translated into quite a few languages. The same is true of my more recent books.

I attach lots of importance to making sure that the books are published at a reasonable price in India and other developing nations where my U.N. work has been particularly focused.

Miller: Can you say more about the process by which your work helps get political structures right?

Nussbaum: I recommend some political ideas and some structures that realize those ideas. I try to make the case for adopting these ideas and to show as vividly as I can why we should prefer those ideas to other alternatives. But then one just has to wait and see whether people take the ideas up and implement them in their own countries. Obviously, that has to be done by them, not by me, and probably I’ll be dead long before it’s clear whether my ideas will have had any influence at all.

If a politician in my own country asked me to play an advisory role, and it was someone I respected, and it didn’t require me to take too much time away from writing, I would consider doing so, as many of my legal colleagues regularly do. But I would of course not agree to play such a role in a country where I’m not a citizen, and I would always see my primary role as that of a writer.

When I teach, I try to reach the same wide range of people, though of course at a younger age, and primarily in the United States. Teaching law students is one very significant way of influencing the conduct of public life, because lawyers have a large influence on public culture–not only in the United States, but increasingly, through the influence of multinational corporations, on the rest of the world as well. Indeed, corporations are becoming in some ways more influential than national governments, in setting standards of quality of life that influence huge numbers of people. If I can just get the students who will work for corporations to take ethical reflection seriously, and not to focus only on profit, I feel that I’ve done something helpful.

Miller: You’ve criticized “feminist thinkers of the new symbolic type” for their “publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness,” and Judith Butler’s prose in particular for its “air of in-group knowingness.” And in Therapy of Desire you say, “A precise, logically rigorous argument that’s not well suited to the needs of its hearers, an argument that is simply and entirely academic and unable to engage its audience in a practical way, is to that extent a defective philosophical argument.” In what sense is bad writing also bad thinking?

Nussbaum: There are many kinds of bad writing. The criticism I’m discussing in that passage from Therapy of Desire is a criticism of academic philosophy that was made by Cicero and other more practically oriented thinkers in the ancient Greco-Roman world. They said that some ways of writing about ethics and politics–with excessive use of formal logic, for example–left readers totally clueless about the whole point of engaging in argument in that area. Thus, cogent though the arguments might be, they would not persuade anyone. My own view is that we can say something further. An ethical or political argument must convey a sense of the nature and importance of the problems it’s trying to solve, or it’s simply not good philosophy, even of the academic sort.

There used to be lots of bad writing of this type in Anglo-American philosophy, and to some degree there still is. People used to think that they would win points for academic rigor by putting things into logical notation, or by inventing complicated acronyms–most of it quite unnecessary, not contributing to the real rigor and depth of the argument. Some of the work that was badly written in this way was still well received, and was good work. It just didn’t communicate very well. But sometimes the focus on logic for its own sake eclipsed the larger purposes of the argument, and one couldn’t tell why the whole issue was significant at all.

I think that graduate students in philosophy in the United States still get too little training in good writing. Our undergraduate education doesn’t always produce the ability to write an eloquent and well-shaped essay, so our graduate programs are going to have to take up the slack. Read John Stuart Mill’s obsessive self-criticism of his own style and its development, and you see what our culture has lost. Mill thought it was crucial to write philosophy in English that was good and even eloquent. Our profession today influences public debate less than the quality of the work would suggest it ought to, simply because people don’t know how to communicate.

But in general I believe that contemporary philosophy does have a very high level of thought and argument on ethical and political matters. In the post-Rawls era, where argument on these matters is a major part of our analytic philosophical culture, we are, by and large, guilty of the defect Cicero found in the Stoics, but not of the deeper defect of not engaging with problems that matter. Rawls’ work itself is very difficult to read, and Cicero probably would have found his style too dry and impersonal. Nonetheless, the thought and argument are wonderful.

The criticism I made of Butler is very different. It’s not that she’s hyper-logical or hyper-formal. It is, instead, that she uses jargon in such a way as to obscure the structure of her argument, which, often, is thin and inadequate once uncovered. There is a tradition that derives from some parts of

continental philosophy that the philosopher should be oracular and obscure, winning disciples rather than arguing with people as equals. Butler is not inventing this way of writing: it is, for example, Heidegger’ s way, and my criticism of Butler’s style most certainly applies to Heidegger as well. I think that Heidegger sets out to create a community of authority and deference, not a community of equals.

For my money, what’s good in philosophy is all about exchanging ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect for reason and argument, where personal authority matters not at all–all that matters is the cogency of the argument. So I view the Heideggerian way of writing as a profound assault on philosophy as I know and love it, whereas the excess logicism of the analytic philosophers is not that kind of assault.

And by the way, I don’t make this criticism of all writing about sex and gender in the postmodern tradition. Drucilla Cornell writes very clearly, for example, and I singled out the good writing in Michael Warner’s recent book for special praise in my favorable review.

Miller: Your own prose is characterized by clarity. Even while engaging in complex argument, for instance, you define your terms and write in accessible prose. What are some of the rhetorical challenges you face as philosopher who wants, like Lucretius and Seneca, to communicate with a diverse and distant audience?

Nussbaum: Well, Lucretius and Seneca were not actually writing for a very diverse or distant audience. Nobody writing Latin poetry could expect to be read by a non-elite audience in those days, though later their works became enormously popular. If I had their poetic genius, I would try to write poetry, but then I would be communicating with the very small number of people who read poetry, which is still an elite taste. Seneca’s prose works were also addressed to a learned audience, as are Cicero’s. Even in Cicero’s letters, you can see that he expects his addressees to know quite a lot about Stoicism and so on; there was to that extent a shared culture among the educated elite. (That’s true, interestingly, of his letters to women too: he expects his wife to get jokes that presuppose a knowledge of philosophy that’s quite detailed.)

I think that there’s no such shared culture in the United States, and in many ways this is a good thing; it represents the fact that we now open education to people from many different backgrounds, and we don’t pretend that we all come from Europe. Still, it makes the rhetorical challenge of writing very complex for people who are concerned about the issues. In general, my strategy is to try to describe the problem vividly in my own use of examples and narrative. Almost any work I write begins with a story, either fictional or real, so that I can situate readers in the midst of the problem and help them see how complicated it is.

In Women and Human Development, for example, I begin with the two detailed case histories of Vas anti and Jayamma to help readers envisage the lives of people in conditions very different from those they are likely to know. In Upheavals, I begin with a description of my grief after my mother’s death–because almost every reader of this work is likely to have encountered or at least feared the loss of a parent. This use of a universal experience, vividly narrated, helps me lead the reader into the complexities of the issues. Sometimes, too, I use works of literature to approach a problem; the third section of Upheavals does this.

But the drawback of the last method is that people have to know something about the literary works you’re talking about, and it’s very difficult to find works for which this is generally true in today’s America. Even when a given work is reasonably well known to Americans, it may be totally unknown abroad. The novels of Henry James, which I used to write about quite a lot, are virtually unknown in Europe, and European readers therefore avoid this part of my work. Interestingly, they are somewhat better known in India, and feminist scholarship there takes them very seriously. (This comes about because English has long been the primary medium of higher education in India, and the British system prescribed leading English-language authors as central to the curriculum. But young Indian scholars interpret them in a subversive way.)

Miller: A leitmotif throughout your work that finds its fullest expression in Upheavals is the relationship between logic and the emotions. Can you briefly describe how you see the connection between cognition and the emotions?

Nussbaum: I myself would use the word “logic” to speak about inferential relationships among propositions, not about their content. So I don’t think I connect emotions to logic in that sense. I do connect them to the content of human and other animal “thoughts” about what has most significance in life. Like many other philosophers, I hold that emotions are not mindless surges of affect, but are complex forms of thought about what’s significant or valuable. Fear, for example, involves the thought that important things are at risk or threatened, and that one is not fully able to ward off the dangers. Grief involves the thought that a very important object or person has been lost. And so forth. My new book traces these connections in great detail.

Miller: What difference does understanding the intelligence of emotions make to you, as a scholar? For instance, could you say more about how and why you use narrative and personal experiences to improve your argument?

Nussbaum: I think that emotions concern a particular type of object, an external object that is 1) very important to the person whose emotion it is, and 2) not fully under that person’s own control. I think that narratives help us investigate the terrain covered by the emotions, the terrain of significant vulnerability.

In the example of my mother I use personal experience, but how and why do I do so? Here Seneca was my guide. In the Moral Epistles, he uses events from his own life (though for all we know they may be fictional) to get the reader to imagine clearly the problem he’s talking about and to summon up the relevant parts of themselves–getting that part onto the table for dissection, so to speak. Since most people have either experienced the death of a parent or imagined losing one, that experience struck me as one that was likely to have broad resonance with my readers, one that would be capable of evoking in them the very emotions that the book would soon be analyzing.

Miller: How do you instill in your students, who are from a postmodern generation, a sense of urgency, not just about the issues you discuss but about the very processes of reason? And how do you convince them that the commitment and ability to reason in this way contributes to a flourishing life?

Nussbaum: I teach many different types of students–and undergraduates, law students, and graduate students in philosophy are all very different. I don’t find any of my students particularly “postmodern,” and they typically have quite a sense of urgency about things. Chicago undergraduates think learning extremely urgent, and it isn’t necessary to motivate them. Law students usually are in law school because there’s something they want to do in the world, and yet the danger is that the professional training they receive will dim that sense of urgency. I find that my classes are refreshingly different from usual law classes for such students, so they usually react well to them. Graduate students in philosophy are the group with whom I spend by far the most time, since this university has many more graduates than undergraduates, and since I am their job placement officer as well as teacher. This is a different kind of task, because it involves shaping the whole career of a person, often dealing with their whol e life and its direction. Should “X” take a job in Lebanon, when his family is terrified of it? Should “Y” write on something weird that she really loves, or on something that is more mainstream in terms of the job market?

I feel that in dealing with these students, one’s own sense of commitment and urgency is a model. Then what’s necessary is to read their work carefully, take a lot of time criticizing it and helping them develop it, and just being willing to listen and give advice. Even apparently quite trivial things, such as the advice to carry some Clif bars to the convention or not to forget to go to the gym, are often welcome signs that in a cold profession there’s someone who is there for them. Having been a mother comes in handy in this part of the job!

Miller: I know that in 2001 you won the University of Chicago’s Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching. But how else do you measure your effectiveness as a teacher? If you were to meet one of your students five years later, by what signs or behaviors would you know that you’d been successful?

Nussbaum: Of course I do meet these people later. Such wonderful philosophers as Nancy Sherman, Christine Korsgaard, and Henry Richardson have all been my students. How do I know if I’ve been successful? I have been successful if they’re doing work that they love and have found a voice that’s their own–as all these people have.

Miller: Then your professors, Martha, must be very satisfied with their own success as they watch your career unfold.

Margaret A. Miller, president emerita of AAHE and former chief academic officer at the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, is now a professor in the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia and project director for the National Forum on College-Level Learning.

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