Martha Craven Nussbaum
Article abstract: Nussbaum’s writings and projects examine works of philosophy and literature to make a practical and compassionate inquiry into the deepest human concerns. Her philosophical approach, essentially Aristotelian in its breadth and scope, is directed toward solving problems that require international cooperation and recognizing universal moral obligations.
Martha Craven Nussbaum (born Martha Craven) was born in New York City on May 6, 1947. She attended Wellesley College from 1964 to 1966 and earned a B.A. from New York University in 1969. She received her M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1971 and 1978, respectively. In graduate school, she encountered resistance to her intention to study ancient Greek literary works for their philosophical insight. At this time, academic tradition maintained that literary works studied philological and aesthetic issues, whereas philosophical works emphasized mainly positivist and metaethical concerns. Philosophical curricula also discouraged the study of substantive ethical theories.
Determined to examine certain philosophical concerns using literary and philosophical sources, Nussbaum created her own field of study, using ancient writers and their literature not simply as background or popular thought but as “thinkers-poets whose meanings and whose formal choices were closely linked.” Her investigation into literature led her into a study of important questions about human beings and human life. Views of human life, she found, cannot be separated from the verbal expression of these views. She maintains that ideas arise out of the style and language of a written work and cannot be separated from these elements. Nussbaum holds, therefore, that the same truths cannot be stated in abstract theoretical language and through narrative.
Nussbaum’s journey into both literature and philosophy found a theme common to both: How should one live? The question led to an examination of philosophy not simply as a theoretical discourse but as one that is relevant to human lives. This inquiry, both empirical and practical, uses examples from life to find “a conception by which human beings can live, and live together.” Her life’s project, similar to that of the Greek philosopher Plato, is to employ literature and philosophy for practical purposes, particularly in education. Her project’s methodology, however, is more like the Greek philosopher Aristotle’s in its broad, open-ended approach of holding every domain of life approachable for enlightenment.
Her career reflects this open-ended approach. She taught philosophy and classics at Harvard (1980-1983), Wellesley College (1983-1984), and Brown University (1984-1995). In 1993, she moved into the domain of law as visiting lecturer at the University of Chicago, later becoming a professor of law and ethics there. This move into law channeled her writings into the public and political realms. She was pulled into international concerns in her position as a research adviser at the World Institute for Development of Economics Research in Helsinki, a research institute connected with the United Nations and charged with generating new interdisciplinary approaches to the economic problems of developing nations. As she acted in this capacity, she linked her philosophical classical training to recent work in economics as a means of producing new approaches to international issues. In this work, she moved closer to pursuing her goal of world citizenship and immersion in urgent ethical issues that, until resolved, prevent large numbers of people from flourishing.
Her diverse interests and methodologies find outlets in diverse venues: conferences on compassion, an Internet lecture, a book on education and the classics, televised interviews, and teaching ethics through literature to law students. As a writer seriously concerned with promoting philosophical discussion of political issues, Nussbaum would not shelter herself in the cloisters of academic work. She wrote reviews for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, and similar publications. She participated in the British Broadcasting Corporation series The Great Philosophers and in a segment of the television program Bill Moyers’ World of Ideas. These activities reflected her wish to reach international audiences, particularly audiences in developing countries, through conferences and television.
In reaching out to an international audience, Nussbaum had to address questions of identity politics. In her work Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, she criticized relativistic beliefs that hold, for example, that only those who have experienced a problem can discuss that problem. (From this viewpoint, only female writers can understand the experience of women, only African American writers can understand the black experience, and so on.) Nussbaum counters this view with her understanding of world citizenship, wherein groups of people understand other groups of people through study and imagination.
She defends Aristotelian essentialism (a belief in common human concerns) and the possibility of basic universal values correlating with basic functioning for human life. She broadens the definition of “culture,” suggesting that diverse regions, classes, and ethnic and religious groups exist within each cultural group. Any discussion of culture, she maintains, should present not only dominant norms but also voices of resistance to those norms. She has argued against relativism and in favor of objectivity and validity in argumentation, and for clarity of definitions, in contrast to thinkers such as Stanley Fish, who find little distinction between rational persuasion and cultural manipulation. She has also stressed Aristotle’s...
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