Martha Nussbaum: A Profile
Life in all its messiness has always been a source of scholarly inspiration for philosopher Martha Nussbaum.
She once was so taken with the vibrancy of drama and literature that she temporarily left college to pursue acting full-time. But she soon concluded that the world of professional theater was “too full of narcissism,” and that her real passion came from the ideas that find expression in great literature.
“I realized what I actually wanted to do was to think and write about the plays and the emotions they invoke,” says Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics in the Law School, Philosophy, and the Divinity School. “The acting part was less important to me.”
Nussbaum returned to academia with fervor, and began using literary sources to develop her ideas about topics that traditional writing about ethics often ignored, such as luck, love, and shame. She earned her PhD in philology at Harvard University, and embarked on a creative path combining her interests in philosophy, law, social justice, and the mysteries of human character. Now an internationally renowned scholar, the emotions that so intrigued her as an actor are never far from her mind.
“Her work has been very important in showing that literary texts can contribute substantively to philosophy,” said Daniel Brudney, Professor in Philosophy and the College.
A prolific author of 17 books, Nussbaum is fascinated by how feelings like grief, compassion, love, disgust, and shame are influenced by one’s personal beliefs. Her books also delve into the foundations of social justice and the importance of measuring a person’s quality of life by their real rights and capabilities, not just their monetary standing.
A common theme running through all of her research is how human beings are essentially flawed and subject to chance, though they often fail to realize it.
“There are all these idealistic proposals for the reform of the human being and removing all these things that seem to cause us anxiety and surprise,” Nussbaum says. “I must have a more comic sensibility or something—I like the surprising and the uneven, and I don’t want to remove it. I think a lot of damage is done by the desire to distance ourselves from what is messy.”
Her two most recent books showcase her interest in human imperfections and distinctiveness. In From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law, published in February, Nussbaum argues that deep aversion to homosexuality is an underlying but unconstitutional motive for many legal restrictions on gays.
She followed this book months later with a manifesto on the detrimental effects of our increasingly market-oriented, humanities-starved higher education system, in Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.
“People think these subjects are useless frills we can cut away to make sure our nation remains globally competitive,” says Nussbaum. “But they also want a democratic nation where people are able to think critically and speak up when they need to speak up, and they haven’t thought about how you produce that. I’m trying to convince those people that their own goals are ill-served by neglect of the humanities and the arts.”
Nussbaum’s lifelong passion for the humanities was honored this spring when she received Harvard University’s Centennial Medal (along with UChicago colleague David Bevington and Nobel Prize-winning economist Eric Maskin)—the top alumni award from Harvard’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. Nussbaum’s citation described her “deeply insightful analyses of how moral philosophy can inform public policy, for [her] advocacy of the essential role of the humanities in public life, and for [her] steadfast dedication to justice and equality.”
With appointments in the Philosophy Department, Divinity School, and the Law School, Nussbaum has philosophical interests that cut across many disciplines and she pursues them tirelessly.
“Of all the people at the Law School who are working in disparate fields, I think she is one of the people who most reaches across fields to interact with people,” says David Weisbach, the Walter J. Blum Professor of Law and Kearney Director of the Program in Law and Economics, a tax law scholar who will co-teach a class with Nussbaum next spring.
And although she exited the professional stage long ago, Nussbaum’s interest in the theater remains strong. Privately, she spends an hour each day practicing her singing and does play readings at home. And for the past two years, she has brought her intellectual and artistic interests together through a Law School conference on literature and the law, showcasing her acting chops by performing scenes with other scholars, students, and even Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, a fellow literature enthusiast.
Nussbaum’s research has been influenced not just by the theater, but also by favorite authors like Aristotle and John Stuart Mill, and by daily personal and professional interactions.
“The way I work, everything that happens to me goes into my thought; sometimes it is straightforward, but rarely,” says Nussbaum. “I take something that happened to me that starts me thinking, seeing things in a text, noticing one thing rather than another, and it just somehow breaks open some work.