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Martha Nussbaum

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum on who she reads for solace, the civic attitudes of undergraduates, taking a red pen to Heidegger, and exactly which texts she’d put on the president’s nightstand.

Martha Nussbaum is among America’s most prominent philosophers and one of its most polemic. Author of more than a dozen books, and occupationally possessed of more titles than most central European royals, Nussbaum teaches at the University of Chicago. Her most recent book is Hiding From Humanity.

Full name, era of birth: Martha Craven Nussbaum, born 1947

Occupation title(s), both real and desired-in-another-lifetime:

Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, The University of Chicago, appointed in Philosophy, Divinity, and Law; Associate in Classics and Political Science, Board member of the Human Rights Program, Affiliate of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and Coordinator of the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism.

In another lifetime I’d love just to be a writer and to have zero meetings to go to.

With these turbulent times, where do you turn for solace or insight? Which philosophers do you find personally significant? Are there specific books you’d love to put on the President’s nightstand?

Often to music. Mahler is a standing favorite, as are Mozart’s operas. Beethoven’s Fidelio is what I’ve been listening to a lot at present. Novels: I love Henry James, and recently have been reading a lot of Theodor Fontane. Poetry: Louise Glück is a special favorite, and Walt Whitman, among poets of the past. I also love the Chicago White Sox, and when they win 17-7, as yesterday, that really consoles me. All these seem to me personal choices; I’m not a big recommender, and I think people should read and listen to whatever moves them. As for philosophers, I find Mill the most soothing because I imagine him as a friend to whom one would like to talk. Most male philosophers of the past are not the friends of women, but Mill is.

I’d love the President to be the sort of person who would read Kant’s Perpetual Peace, Grotius’s On the Law of War and Peace, Mill’s The Subjection of Women, and Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. But he is not and never will be that sort of person. That is our problem.

Since you must get to know a lot of young people in your work, I wonder if you get from them a strong sense of civic-mindedness or an absence thereof, excitement to participate as citizens or more laissez-faire?

I find most undergraduates oddly passive and disconnected from political activity. This makes me unhappy. I think they are all preoccupied with job security and success, and too few are civic-minded. There’s a small minority, however, who are very involved: I think of a law student of ours who all by herself organized a huge event for the Democratic National Committee in order to get young people more involved in the campaign. It was very moving to see how a student could put together something like that, with around 1500 people, and get leading politicians to come and speak.

Favorite books: Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics; Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals; Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments; John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography and The Subjection of Women; John Rawls’s Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism; Henry James’s The Golden Bowl; Joyce’s Ulysses.

John Stuart Mill, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Anecdotal, but: In conversations with lots of American women in their twenties, I find most agree with the feminism’s ideals, and would defend them, but dislike being called ‘feminists.’ Has feminism suffered an irrecoverable blow in the P.R. world? Can progress be rolled back if the word gets uglier in the mainstream’s view?

I have the same experience: I think they associate feminism with man-hating. But if you take apart the elements of feminism and ask them what they think, they usually think that women have suffered serious injustice and that it is important to rectify such injustices; that’s my general definition of feminism. Everything else is a matter of dispute among different varieties of feminism. But there is wide agreement that sexual harassment, sexual violence, and, particularly, the lack of social support for childcare and eldercare are large social problems.

Is it the legal expert, the academic, or the philosopher in you that gets angry about specious arguments (say, Judith Butler or Allen Bloom)? Any current writers lauded by the wags you’d like to see put under a big, red pen?

I don’t separate these parts of myself. My friends used to tease me when I was 11, calling me ‘Artha Marguer’ because of my love of arguing, and that was before I thought of myself as any particular thing. I really don’t like bad arguments, but what I especially dislike are bad arguments put forward cultishly, with an in-group air of authority. I think that philosophy should stick to its Socratic roots, as an egalitarian public activity open to everyone. Thus even some admittedly great philosophers, e.g. Wittgenstein, inspire me with unease because they allowed a cult to grow up around themselves and wrote undemocratically. Heidegger was guilty of the same, but he is a much less distinguished philosopher than Wittgenstein, and he also did bad things in politics. So why not use the red pen on Heidegger?

What makes you laugh: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata; Joyce’s Ulysses; Zero Mostel; Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt in Mad About You; Married With Children; The Onion.

Five words that sound great:
Ravintola; Valitataalo; Aiuxet; Annankatu; Maito. (These are all Finnish words, and I don’t speak Finnish, so I can respond to them as pure music. They mean, respectively: restaurant, the name of a supermarket chain, adult, the name of a street, and milk.)

In Bryan Magee’s television program on great philosophers, you spoke about Aristotle and mentioned ‘he clearly denies again and again that there are souls in everything,’ in contrast to a popular misconception that Aristotle believed there are souls in everything. What does Martha Nussbaum think? As an issue it seems fairly gray, even ignored, by agnostic America, but concrete and irrefutable in our most popular religions. Where do you stand?

I don’t know any religion that says that there are souls in everything. In my view, they don’t go far enough! If a soul means a complex inner world that deserves to be treated as an end, not just as a means, I think that all humans and most animals have souls, in that sense: they should never be treated as mere means to the ends of others. But most religions don’t include animals, or, worse, they tell us that we have the right to dominate animals.

Perhaps related, do you ever find yourself turning away from philosophers or thinkers—though their arguments are appealing, even rationally and logically correct—because you can’t reconcile them with a mystery you’ve witnessed or experienced?

No. I think that the best philosophers are very sensitive to the mysteriousness of human life. That’s why Mill thought that all philosophers should read a lot of poetry.

Charity worth giving to: Oxfam.


Rosecrans Baldwin co-founded TMN with publisher Andrew Womack in 1999. His latest book is Everything Now: Lessons From the City-State of Los Angeles. More information can be found at More by Rosecrans Baldwin