Martha Nussbaum is one of the few philosophers who engages with a broad audience. It's a shame that her new book is such a messby Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson / October 1, 2013 / Leave a comment
Martha Nussbaum is notable among professors of philosophy in having a public reputation. Newspaper profiles can’t help but mention her “distinctive, even glamorous, public presence” or that she “emanates detached academic cool.” Q & A’s begin by pinning adjectives to her such as “foremost”, “eminent” or “provocative.” She writes prolifically about popular subjects like education, gender, sexuality, religious tolerance, and human rights, and she is keen to put her ideas into practice. Nussbaum has taught law students, acted as an expert in supreme court cases, and worked with Amartya Sen and the UN to create new metrics for measuring a country’s development.
Nussbaum is also the last of a dying breed: a philosopher well-versed in Classics who participates in the dialogue of contemporary philosophy. The Fragility of Goodness (1986), which established her as major figure, typified what is now recognised as Nussbaum’s characteristic style: historically sensitive but contemporary; literary but analytic; philosophically serious but relatable. Her subject was moral luck. Brought into popularity by Bernard Williams and Thomas Nagel, the idea revolves around the unintuitive, but seemingly inevitable, fact that whether or not someone is “good” or “bad” depends partially on factors entirely outside their control. Nussbaum traced this concept back to Greek tragedy: she saw moral luck in the choice Artemis forces on Agamemnon in the first part of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and in other plays such as Antigone and Hecuba. Nussbaum also explored moral culpability and luck in Plato and Aristotle. The result was one of the most well received books of its kind. Not only was it considered part of the growing interest in “virtue ethics” and the concept of “practical wisdom,” but its ability to treat art and literature as philosophically rich subject matter made her a darling of humanities departments. Nussbaum is still one of a tiny coterie of contemporary analytic philosophers who are familiar to literature students.
Since The Fragility of Goodness Nussbaum has applied the same formula to other topics, with varying degrees of success. The Therapy of Desire (1994) attempted to tease out practical ethics from Stoic philosophy. Upheavals of Thought (2001) was an examination of the content of emotional states that draws on everything from Plato to Proust. With time Nussbaum’s interests have accumulated. Yet with each new…