Thursday, May 24, 2007

Who Needs Philosophy?: A profile of Martha Nussbaum

The New York Times Magazine, November 21, 1999

Back when she was the star of her high-school drama club, the philosopher
Martha Nussbaum wasn't interested in playing Emily in "Our Town." Her favorite
role was Robespierre – in a five-act, French-language production she wrote
herself. Decades later, she still speaks fondly of the meandering walks she
would take around the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr, dreaming of the
sacrifices the Frenchman made to advance his ideals. "I was fascinated by his
dilemma of wanting liberty for everyone, but having to figure out what to do
with individuals who won't go along with your plan," she recalled recently. "I
still think about it all the time." Nussbaum also remembered the fun she had
playing Joan of Arc, entranced as she was by the question of "how far to
sacrifice friendship and personal loyalty to an abstract cause." Although
Nussbaum eventually traded the stage for the academy, she still takes these
early inspirations to heart. Synthesizing the passion of the revolutionary with
the zeal of the self-sacrificing saint, she has become, at 52, the most
prominent female philosopher in America.

In addition to producing a steady stream of books and articles from her
perches at Harvard, Brown and now at the University of Chicago, she has
cultivated a distinctive, even glamorous, public presence. Nussbaum has
discussed Greek tragedy with Bill Moyers on PBS, presented Plato on the
Discovery Channel and been photographed by Annie Leibovitz for her new book,
"Women." More important, as a regular contributor to The New York Review of
Books and The New Republic, Nussbaum's essays have become required reading for
those with a taste for intellectual combat. Prized for her writing's acerbic
bite, she first attracted notice in 1987 with a devastating attack on Allan
Bloom's conservative diatribe "The Closing of the American Mind." Writing in The
New York Review of Books, she denounced his proposal that universities dedicate
themselves solely to educating the elite and savaged what she saw as Bloom's
distorted reading of Greek philosophy. "How good a philosopher, then, is Allan
Bloom?" she concluded. "We are given no reason to think him one at all."

Earlier this year, Nussbaum took aim at Judith Butler, the radical feminist
philosopher who has attained cultlike status (through dense monographs like
"Gender Trouble") for arguing, among other things, that society is built on
artificial gender norms that can best be undermined with "subversive" symbolic
behavior, like cross-dressing. Appearing in The New Republic, Nussbaum's
8,600-word essay, "The Professor of Parody," castigated Butler for proffering a
"self-involved" feminism that encouraged women to disengage from real-world
problems – like inferior wages or sexual harassment – and retreat to
theory. "For Butler," she wrote, "the act of subversion is so riveting, so sexy,
that it is a bad dream to think that the world will actually get better." By
abdicating the fight against injustice in favor of "hip defeatism," Butler,
Nussbaum concluded darkly, "collaborates with evil."

The review received a visceral response within the academy and beyond.
Butler's defenders branded it an ad feminam attack on an innovative thinker
whose reputation was surpassing Nussbaum's own. "It was a crassly opportunistic
act," said Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in
Princeton. Others welcomed Nussbaum's blow against the hermetic politics of
postmodernism. "The piece was a skillful and long-overdue shredding," said Katha
Pollitt, the feminist writer.

Although it would be hard to find two more ideologically dissimilar thinkers
than Bloom and Butler, according to Nussbaum's withering judgment they were
guilty of a common crime: both were mandarin philosophers who refused to use
their theories to help wage the battle for freedom, justice and equality. While
Bloom was at least openly skeptical about philosophy's connection to democracy
(he disparaged those who dared to seek practical advice from his beloved Greek
texts), Butler drew Nussbaum's ire because she claimed to be using philosophy to
address political issues even as she manipulated poststructuralist theory to
sidestep them. "I thought of the Butler and Bloom reviews as acts of public
service," she said. "But a lot of my impatience with their work grew out of my
repudiation of my own aristocratic upbringing. I don't like anything that sets
itself up as an in-group or an elite, whether it is the Bloomsbury group or

The debate over whether philosophy should play a mandarin or public role has
been a contentious one throughout American intellectual history. In the hands
of thinkers like Sidney Hook and John Dewey, philosophy turned its attention
"from the problems of philosophers toward the problems of men," as Dewey wrote
in "Reconstruction in Philosophy" (1920). After the Second World War, the
mainstream of American philosophy became reclusively "analytic," orienting
itself around the study of logic, mathematics and the philosophy of science,
while maintaining only a tenuous connection to the world at large. With John
Rawls's "A Theory of Justice" (1971), academic philosophy initiated a wary
rapprochement with its more socially engaged past, using the analytic idiom to
address age-old questions of justice. Nussbaum's work has played an important
part in this revival, as she has extended Rawls's liberal insights to examine
questions of gender, race and international development. She insists that
philosophy be rigorous and, above all, useful.

Whereas Ludwig Wittgenstein once
compared philosophers to garbage men sweeping the mind clean of wrongheaded
concepts, Nussbaum believes they should be "lawyers for humanity" – a phrase
she borrows from Seneca, her favorite Stoic thinker. Part wonk, part sage,
Nussbaum is determined to make philosophy relevant to the modern world.


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