Nussbaum Profiled in The Australian

The Onliness of the Long-Distance Philosopher
Helen Elliott
The Australian
August 6, 2005

Martha Nussbaum, 57, philosopher, and professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, is in training for her next endurance race. It's the Whistlestop Half-Marathon, held annually in October in Ashland, Wisconsin, and she likes the 21km event "because it is held in a forest preserve on a dirt path". By happy coincidence, she trains on a dirt track "through a lot of forest", which she likes because "it's not so hard on ageing joints". She has been running for half a lifetime and has observed that philosophy and running go together well: "Lawyers tend to be tennis and squash players -- maybe it's the competitive element -- but philosophers tend to be runners, perhaps because of the loner, contemplative quality."

Later this month, Nussbaum will make the marathon flight from her home town Chicago to Australia for a stint as guest of Adelaide's Don Dunstan Foundation and the Melbourne Writers Festival. In both places she will speak on a range of issues because Nussbaum is not constrained by the one discipline. Appointed in the philosophy department, she is also professor in the law school and the divinity school. She is an associate in the classics department and the political science department, an affiliate of the committee on southern Asian studies, a board member of the human rights program and founder and co-ordinator of Chicago University's Centre for Comparative Constitutionalism.

In Australian universities, she is required reading across several disciplines, although she is not well known to the general reader. In the US, however, she's as familiar as the other Martha of similar age, hair colour and race, that mercenary of domesticity, Martha Stewart. The similarities stop there, however: domesticated is emphatically not the adjective for Nussbaum.

Her recognition outside US universities grew partly because she has been involved in high-profile cases of racial and sexual discrimination and partly because she is in demand as a public philosopher. When I say public intellectual, a term I suggest is less frightening than philosopher, she corrects me politely. "It's fine to use public intellectual but different fields are different. I don't think philosophers are anything abstruse; if [they] write clearly, people are fascinated by the questions they address because perpetual questions of philosophy are perpetual questions of human life: What is death? What should I hope for in politics and in my personal life? What is a fruitful life? Questions that people think about every day." Well, some people.

Nussbaum is fruitful proof that the reflective life is also a useful life at a deeply human level. One of her main concerns is the plight of poor Indian women and if you want to understand her thinking, she intimates, you must understand what this means to her. Western feminist theorists have always foundered when trying to reconcile their directions and needs with the women of less materially happy cultures. In collaboration with the 1998 Nobel laureate for economics, Amaryta Sen, Nussbaum developed a theory of human capabilities that helped clarify a practical, ethical approach to the plight of not just Indian women but people in any culture.

"Development for a long time was concerned only with wealth, a very unfruitful question," she says. "You don't get very much information because there are so many aspects of human life that it doesn't ask about: educational opportunities and healthcare, for instance. Capabilities tries to look at ... opportunities and what [people] can do with their lives. It's closely related to freedom and choice, but it's a more general notion; the question to ask is: What is a life commensurate with human dignity?"

Nussbaum's feeling for literature makes her work engaging to the more general reader. In a chapter in Upheavals of Thought (2001), discussing the myriad nature of love, her intricate analysis of the erotic love between Cathy and Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights is singularly illuminating.

"The difference between philosophy and the other humanities is that you really have to care about analysis. My work does have a literary element; I'm more interested in imagery and metaphor than many philosophers, but I'm different from most literary scholars in that I'm primarily focused on argument. It's the heart of the matter."

By argument she doesn't mean deduction but being alert to relations between consistencies and coherences in the different things she says, and trying to track the deeper underlying principles. She's also interested in what she calls concrete intuitions.

Upheavals of Thought, subtitled The Intelligence of Emotions, is an inquiry into the emotions that shape the intellectual and social landscape. Because it revalued emotions, it caused extraordinary reaction and much discussion, even though it wasn't original thought but a return to the ideas of some of Nussbaum's much-loved ancient philosophers. "I try to resurrect a very old philosophical tradition ... I represent my own view as a rediscovery of some of the ancient Greeks and Roman Stoics; I call it the neo-Stoics. All the Greeks were interested in this; they saw these aspects were important, that they sometimes lead us astray."

Some of the great modern philosophers -- Baruch Spinoza, Adam Smith, David Hume -- were also interested in the emotions, she says, "but for various reasons this focus got lost in the more recent philosophies of the Anglo-American tradition. Perhaps not so much in the French but certainly in the English tradition, probably because of sheer Victorian prudishness. Love, which was a great philosophical topic from Plato onwards, was completely dismissed."

The British empiricist tradition, she adds rather glumly, thought about love as bodily feelings and perceptions, putting it in the domain of science rather than philosophy. Philosophy, however, is now energetically retrieving it.

So where is the best place to begin reading Nussbaum? For those interested in emotions, Upheavals of Thought includes much about literature and music and is extremely accessible. For those keen on international politics and global justice, Women and Human Development lays out her thoughts and arguments very precisely. For those concerned with feminism, there is Sex and Social Justice. And if people "are just passionate about Greek tragedy or Plato or Aristotle", she says, "they should look at The Fragility of Goodness, which thematically links up with all these other parts". A new book, Frontiers of Justice: Disability, Nationality, Species Membership, is due out in a few months. The title speaks for itself, for if we don't even have a good theory of these problems, how can we resolve them?

In Chicago, Nussbaum shares her life with another stellar law professor, Cass Sunstein, the author of, among other works, One Case at a Time: Judicial Minimalism on the Supreme Court, and someone who has been much in the news lately because of controversy about George W. Bush's US Supreme Court appointment. They both have daughters from previous marriages and -- like another famous philosophical pair, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft -- they prefer separate houses.

For all her international profile, Nussbaum sees herself as very much part of a university department, one among many colleagues. So when she is sometimes casually referred to as a pulsar, she becomes heated: "What the intellectual life has been about is that your personal status counts for nothing, it's the quality of the personal argument. Claiming something based on fame and authority is death to the intellectual life."

Talking with her is like having a high cool wind blow through your brain. Australians are not comfortable with high seriousness but perhaps this marathon runner who reads Dick Francis on planes, loves horses, would have loved to have talked to John Stuart Mill and who follows baseball, will change minds. Literally. We should also look out for a book to which she is contributing. It's called Running and Philosophy.

Martha Nussbaum's Dunstan Oration is on August 23 at 7.30pm, in the University of Adelaide's Elder Hall (08 8303 6247); she will appear at the Melbourne Writers Festival on August 27 and 28 (03 96459244).


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Martha Nussbaum