Calcutta's Telegraph Interviews Martha Nussbaum

What Philosophy Can Do for the World
Somak Ghoshal
The Telegraph (Calcutta, India)
December 16, 2010

Philosophers are supposed to be reclusive souls who prefer to keep themselves busy high up in their ivory towers — not at the ironing board. However, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at Chicago University, begs to differ. When I called in for her at a city hotel last week, a few minutes early for my appointment, she was ironing her clothes, getting ready for a long day, in the course of which she delivered a keynote address on Rabindranath Tagore at a panel discussion. But she had still found time for a brisk workout at the gym. “I love to exercise,” she confessed, looking strikingly fit for her 63 years. Nussbaum had once said that the American actress, Candice Bergen, should play her in a film on her life. After my first few minutes with her, I was willing to agree.

It would not have been odd for Nussbaum to become a famous actress anyway. At 11, she played Joan of Arc in a school play, wrote another one on Robespierre, in French, where she played the title role. She even started out as a student of theatre at New York University, before choosing to train as a classicist. “I thought as an actress I would be able to have broader emotional experiences,” she says, “but then, I quickly figured out that I wanted to think about tragic dramas, not act in them.” Even in her Robespierre play, she was more interested in the “conflict between high ideals and personal friendship”, in exploring the idea that “universal ideals must be balanced against a love of particulars”.

Nussbaum detects this spirit of idealism in Tagore as well. “He operates in a tradition of political idealism that talked about forming extensive sympathies.” Although Tagore was profoundly influenced by Auguste Comte, “his implicit critique is that Comte does not build in enough room for particular love and individual self-expression,” Nussbaum explains. “This was also J.S. Mill’s critique of Comte, though I don’t think Tagore knew Mill.”

Faculty: