Martha Nussbaum Critical Essays

Introduction

Martha Nussbaum 1947-

(Born Martha Craven; has also written as Martha Craven Nussbaum and Martha C. Nussbaum) American essayist, editor, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry provides criticism on Nussbaum's career through 2002.

Nussbaum is a preeminent classicist and philosopher whose many works examine ancient Greek society and culture in relation to moral and ethical issues facing the modern world. In books such as The Fragility of Goodness (1986), Love's Knowledge (1990), and Poetic Justice (1995), Nussbaum has argued that reading great literature is central to the development of a “moral/political vision” of social justice. She has examined current liberal trends in American higher education in Cultivating Humanity (1997), in which she advocates college curricula that develop the notion of world citizenship as a foundation for social justice. In Upheavals of Thought (2001) and Hiding from Humanity (2004), Nussbaum argues that emotions are an important foundation for making ethical decisions about social justice. She expresses her political philosophy of “universalist liberal feminism” in Sex and Social Justice (1999).

Biographical Information

Nussbaum was born on May 6, 1947, in New York City. She attended Wellesley College for two years before transferring to New York University, from which she graduated with a B.A. in 1969. That year, she married Alan J. Nussbaum, with whom she had a daughter, and whom she later divorced. Nussbaum received an M.A. and Ph.D. in classical philology from Harvard University, completing her graduate studies in 1975. She has since taught as a professor of philosophy and classics at several prestigious colleges and universities, including Harvard from 1975 to 1983, Wellesley from 1983 to 1984, and Brown University from 1985 to 1995. After serving as a visiting professor at Oxford University in 1996, Nussbaum took a post as professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago. As her areas of research are interdisciplinary, she is associated with the school of law, divinity school, department of philosophy, classics department, and Center for Gender Studies at the University of Chicago. Nussbaum has served in various capacities to promote her ideas of social justice on a national and international scale. Beginning in 1986, she served as an advisor at the United Nations University's World Institute for Development of Economics Research. In this capacity, she helped to develop a set of criteria for evaluating basic standards of human well-being that can be applied universally in international and cross-cultural contexts. As an advocate for lesbian and gay rights, she served as an expert witness in the court case of Evans v. Romer, which challenged a 1992 amendment to the Colorado constitution forbidding protection of the rights of homosexuals. Nussbaum provided testimony asserting that ancient Greek and Roman civilizations did not condemn homosexual conduct.

Major Works

In The Fragility of Goodness Nussbaum examines the works of ancient Greek philosophers and poets in an effort to reconcile philosophical and literary ideas about moral thinking on the age-old question, “How should one live?” Nussbaum focuses particularly on the primacy of logic and reason in philosophy in contrast to the primacy of emotion and imagination in literature, illustrating her argument through close readings of classic philosophical texts as well as the tragic plays of ancient Greek theater. Love's Knowledge comprises a collection of essays in which she asserts that certain great literary texts are essential to moral and ethical thinking. She explains that literature extends the possibilities of human experience by evoking a capacity for sympathy in the reader, “making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling.” She explores these ideas through close readings of novels by Charles Dickens, Henry James, and Marcel Proust, among others. Nussbaum continues this line of argument in Poetic Justice, in which she asserts that studying works of great literature is important to the development of an “ethical stance” which takes into account the experiences of marginalized segments of society. Through examination of such literary classics as Charles Dickens's Hard Times and Richard Wright's Native Son, Nussbaum puts forth the notion of a “literary imagination,” by which readers learn to empathize with individuals whose conditions of life are different from their own. She asserts that this experience of sympathy which novels induce lays the foundation for a “moral/political vision” of social justice. She further suggests that this effect of literature on the reader's notions of social justice makes it crucial reading for those working in the legal profession, particularly judges. In Cultivating Humanity Nussbaum examines current trends of liberal reform in American higher education. She argues in favor of developments such as African American studies, women's studies, and gay/lesbian studies in college and university curricula, asserting that such courses represent a “new education.” She states that the three core values of this new liberal education include critical self-examination, the idea of the world citizen, and the development of narrative imagination. Nussbaum goes on to discuss her findings in observing college courses throughout the United States in order to evaluate the extent to which specific curricula meet her own philosophical standards for “cultivating humanity” in students. Sex and Social Justice comprises fifteen essays in which Nussbaum advocates a “universalist liberal feminism.” In these essays, she explores feminist issues such as pornography, prostitution, the rights of homosexuals, and the conditions of women in the Third World, as well as broader global issues of poverty, legal justice, religious freedom, and the rights of the individual. Nussbaum explains that the five “salient features” of her feminist philosophy are that “it is internationalist, humanist, liberal, concerned with the social shaping of preference and desire, and … concerned with sympathetic understanding.” In the opening essay of Sex and Social Justice, Nussbaum describes her “capabilities” approach to international feminism, which developed out of her work for the United Nations. She identifies central human capacities which must be guaranteed in order to achieve justice for women on an international scale: longevity and bodily integrity; emotional, affective, social, and mental development; the ability to engage in practical reason and to form a conception of the good; the ability to live with concern for animals and the natural world; and control over one's political and material environment. In Upheavals of Thought, a work of over 700 pages, Nussbaum addresses questions about the role of emotion in the development of moral and ethical thinking. She further examines her previously stated assertions that: a) emotions are an expression of important evaluative judgments; b) compassion is central to the formation of an “ethical stance”; and c) literature is crucial to the development of a sense of compassion necessary for making moral and ethical evaluations that encompass the conditions of human life on a global scale. Nussbaum argues that emotions do not run counter to intelligence, but are in fact an important aspect of intelligent decision-making. In Hiding from Humanity she continues her ongoing exploration of the role of emotion in developing a sense of social justice. She argues that the emotions of fear, compassion, and indignation may be used as guidelines for creating a just legal system. However, the emotion of disgust, she contends, should not be used as a basis for legal decisions, because disgust is derived from fantasies of superhuman purity and omnipotence. On this ethical basis, Nussbaum discusses specific ongoing controversial legal issues, such as same-sex marriage and indecent exposure.

Critical Reception

Nussbaum's body of work is widely regarded as an important and original contribution to ethical philosophy and writings on social justice. Many reviewers have expressed admiration for her books, calling them ambitious, insightful, thought-provoking, and persuasive. Critics further praised her erudition in discussing works of ancient literature and philosophy. As Bernard Knox, in a review of The Fragility of Goodness, noted, “This long, intellectually demanding, and richly rewarding book must be almost unique in its expert analysis of both tragic and philosophical texts.” Nussbaum has been widely praised for her eloquent, lucid, and accessible writing style. Thomas Frentz, for example, in a review of The Therapy of Desire, observed that Nussbaum's writing style “fuses argumentative rigor and unabashed feeling into a delicate balance that not only magically draws readers into her world, but also matches perfectly the spirit and temperament of whatever classical text she might be examining.” Others critics, however, questioned the philosophical foundations on which Nussbaum's ideas are based, finding her arguments to be flawed and unconvincing.