Martha Nussbaum

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Jasper Griffin (review date 4 July 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1784

SOURCE: Griffin, Jasper. “Mastering the Irrational.” Times Literary Supplement (4 July 1986): 730.

[In the following review, Griffin asserts that The Fragility of Goodness is an important, ambitious book that is both formidably intelligent and persuasively emotional.]

The subject of this long and closely written book [The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy] (small type and large pages—561 of them) is an ambitious one: an investigation of the role played by luck in the area of human excellence and the activities associated with it. That means the whole nexus of questions about the role in moral thinking and in the good life of all those elements which cannot be reduced to rationality: external relationships such as love, friendship, political activity, attachment to possessions; and internal drives of a non-rational kind, the appetites, feelings, passions and needs. Martha Nussbaum develops a coherent argument as she goes through a range of Greek writings from the tragedians to Aristotle, which is worked out with great energy and force, and which makes the reader think hard about familiar texts and see them in new and very interesting lights. It is a prominent feature of the book that the author is not concerned only with a dispassionate exposition of ancient documents. On the contrary, she sees them as still morally illuminating, offering insights which are concealed in our conventional post-Kantian thinking. “We have discovered that we do live in the world that Aristotle describes”, is her conclusion, and these Greek authors can help us to see how to understand and live in that world.

It is clearly true of human life that we are to a great extent at the mercy of external events and internal drives, and yet that we aspire, in a way and at least for some of the-time, to live in accordance with reason. The Greeks were intensely conscious of the tension. Plato, with his unflinching fearlessness of argument, made determined and consistent attempts to reduce to zero the power of the irrational, both from without and from within. The Socrates of dialogues like the Phaedo is completely detached from external needs: uninterested in possessions, physically ascetic, shoeless, tough and independent. He also, as we see in the Symposium is impregnably armoured against even the strongest temptations of sensuality. “No man ever saw Socrates drunk”, and a determined assault on his virtue by the glamorous Alcibiades leaves the philosopher unmoved in his ironical superiority.

In the Republic Plato embeds this attitude in an elaborate system of metaphysics, which serves as the framework for a whole planned society: a society immune to chance, passion and change. The Republic insists on the suppression of the desires, except for privileged ones which relate to knowledge and truth: asceticism is to be the rule of society, where all is ordered and there is no room for chance. It is cardinal to the Symposium that all the objects of desire, which seem so different from each other, are in reality examples of the same single system of values. Seen in the true perspective, art and mathematics are really one, and so are physical love and political theory: there can be no incompatibility or conflict between any of them. The highest levels of abstract thought are also the most intense of pleasures. All aspirations and all desires tend, in reality, to the same end. Thus the Symposium goes even further than the Republic in removing the possibility of moral conflict. True values cannot be in conflict with each other; in fact, they are all interchangeable. The agony of...

(This entire section contains 1784 words.)

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the tragic hero, Hamlet or Orestes, is thus ruled out; and, quite consistently, Plato condemns and rejects the works of the tragedians.

There were of course people in the ancient world, as there are in the modern, who took the opposite course. Some said that happiness simply was good luck, nothing else; others that the only thing of value was pleasure. These people are not well represented in what survives of early literature, and it seems that only after Aristotle did a systematic philosophical hedonism come into existence. This view is hardly discussed in the present work.

Many scholars now find Plato's views repulsive or bizarre, and in some influential recent works he has taken a severe pounding. We want to insist on the variety of values, not all reducible to the same coin and interchangeable with each other, and on a greater importance of individual relationships and personal affections than seems to be allowed by this great theorist of love, who talks far more about the subject than modern philosophers do, yet who seems to regard it as a means rather than an end: a way of raising the soul to levels of vision and understanding which it cannot reach without the stimulus of passion, but which essentially are solitary and incommunicable.

Professor Nussbaum shows more sympathy and more understanding of the Platonic position than it often receives. There is something in the human heart to which the Platonic demand for simplicity, clarity and independence makes a strong appeal. It will not do to dismiss it as merely eccentric. But it is possible to see how Plato's one-sided emphasis on this side of our nature can be redressed, without sinking into undistinguished blandness. She offers us a wide and synoptic account, which shows Plato first reacting against the views of the tragic poets, then himself developing in a more human and less ascetic direction. Finally the marvellous sanity of Aristotle restores the true balance between pure reason and passionate feeling, recognizing that neither is sufficient alone, but that rational moral choice involves both. Thus the reality of moral conflict, the clash of good with good, the importance of emotion and suffering over mistaken or constrained actions—all the elements vital to tragedy that Plato rejected are brought back by Aristotle. It is consistent with this that Aristotle was a great admirer of tragedy, keenly interested in the subject, and concerned to establish its intellectual respectability and significance after the Platonic denial.

This is an engrossing account and an important book. Its scope is very wide, in a world in which it has become sadly unusual for a scholar to tackle both tragedy and philosophy in a single work. It contains detailed discussions of two plays, the Antigone and the Hecuba, and it is prepared to tackle every aspect of the works it discusses, from the date and historical context of Plato's Symposium and Phaedrus to the real meaning of Aristotle's theory of catharsis (not purgation in the medical sense but “cognitive clarification”).

It certainly contains things which will not command universal agreement. Probably the part most unlikely to be generally accepted is the discussion of the Phaedrus. This dialogue departs to some extent from the ascetic and self-controlled picture of love which, on the surface at least, characterizes the Symposium; it salutes madness as divine and a necessary part of human well-being. Whereas in earlier works of Plato desires were generally regarded as entirely bad, irrational distractions from the life of reason, in the Phaedrus they are granted an important role in the guidance of the soul. Coolness is now not enough. It is the view of this book that Plato here reinstates as central to successful living an erotic passion for a unique individual, studied in his uniqueness for his own sake and not as a means to an end: through shared experience and shared emotional struggle the soul learns and transcends itself. This reflects the profound impression made on Plato by his love for Dion, an impression confirmed by the great philosopher's verse epigrams. It is a comparatively small point that scholarly opinion has been convinced, ever since 1963, that none of these poems is genuine, though it is a surprise to find no mention of the view of Sir Denys Page in his magisterial edition of 1981: “Not one of these epigrams can be accepted as the work of Plato.”

More important is that the view of love in this dialogue is less different, and less modern, than Nussbaum suggests. Love is still primarily “love of beauty”, which is only embodied in the beloved person, and which enables the lover to rediscover and recapture the beauty which he knew before his birth; and the ways which the lover learns and imitates are not really those of the beloved but those of the patron god or goddess whom they both follow. The coolness of the Symposium, too, can be exaggerated: the atmosphere of the gathering described in the dialogue is electric with erotic tension, Alcibiades says to the company, “You have all shared in the madness and ecstasy of philosophy”, and the stimulus of passion is necessary to the ascent of the Platonic ladder of perception and revelation.

Generally speaking it is right for scholars to write in a dryish tone. Embarrassment rather than inspiration is the effect produced, I suppose, by most scholarly books which seek to convey feelings along with the footnotes. This book is among the exceptions: a learned work which succeeds in communicating the urgency of the writer's feelings and the importance of her subject. Nussbaum's interest in the style of philosophical, discourse, as well as its substance, adds depth to her discussions. At moments the reader feels that the pull of modernity has slightly distorted the shape of the ancient texts, especially on questions concerned with women (though here too there are some very interesting discussions). It is sad that so sensitive a scholar has felt obliged to sprinkle her pages with “he or she”: “to opt for ‘he’ everywhere seemed repugnant to my political sensibilities”. It can only be with a heavy heart that the reader confronts a sentence like this (an uncharacteristic horror, it should in fairness be said): “The lovers' problem will arise for anyone who doubts that the external movements, gestures and speeches of his or her limbs, trunk, face, genitals, always fully and adequately express the person that [s]he feels himself or herself to be.” And there is a quaintness about the compulsion which the author feels to let us know that she dissents from Plato's contemptuous attitude towards passive male homosexuals: “I'd like to leave no doubt that I dissociate myself from the social prejudices shown …”. She herself points out that even Aristotle failed to achieve rationality in this area: “This judicious fair-minded man … shows us the tremendous power of sexual convention … in shaping a view of the world.” That her own book, formidably intelligent and persuasively emotional, shares a blind spot of Aristotle as well as some of his virtues: that is a price which, in this imperfect world, she, and we, must be happy to pay.

Bernard Knox (review date 4 December 1986)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7646

SOURCE: Knox, Bernard. “The Theater of Ethics.” New York Review of Books (4 December 1986): 51-6.

[In the following review, Knox asserts that Nussbaum's The Fragility of Goodness is unique in that it includes expert analysis of both philosophical and tragic literary texts. Knox observes that the book is intellectually demanding as well as richly rewarding.]

“There is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” says Plato's Socrates, as, in Book X of the Republic, he reconfirms his decision to banish Homer and the tragic poets from his ideal city. And indeed it is true that long before Plato such philosophers as Xenophanes and Heraclitus had inveighed against the poets for, among other things, their presentation of gods engaged in unjust or immoral activities. Poets working in what Plato called the imitative poetic media, epic and tragedy, were of course unable to reply in kind (though some passages of tragic lyric reflect a critical reaction to current philosophical speculation), but Pindar complained that the natural philosophers (tous physiologous) were “harvesting the fruit of wisdom unripe.”

Later on Aristophanes put on stage a scurrilous caricature of Socrates, and Plato himself was a favorite target of the comic poets when his Academy became a philosophical center in Athens. We have a fragment from a play of Epicrates, for example, which presents Plato and his students trying, without much success, to “distinguish” (a Platonic technical term) between “the life of animals, the nature of trees, and the species of vegetables.” And in a comedy by Amphis a slave says to his master: “What good you expect to get from this, sir, I have no more idea of than I have of Plato's ‘good.’”

This “quarrel” between poetry and philosophy tends to manifest itself also in modern scholarly and critical approaches to the two adversaries. Literary surveys of classical Greek culture usually pay too little attention to philosophical texts—and vice versa. Scholars who are not philosophically trained or inclined usually confine their reading of Plato (as Martha Nussbaum slyly remarks [in The Fragility of Goodness] to the early and middle dialogues, where dramatic and poetic elements are given full play; as for Aristotle, they rarely venture outside the Poetics, the Rhetoric, and the Nicomachean Ethics. Students of philosophy, on the other hand, often seem unaware that many of the problems discussed by ancient philosophers, especially in the ethical field, are also posed, in a different but no less valid form, by lyric and especially by tragic poets.

An extreme case, of such disciplinary tunnel vision is the second volume of Michel Foucault's Histoire de la sexualité, recently published in English translation under the title The Use of Pleasure. Its subject is the “problematization” of sexual behavior in classical Greek culture but its evidence is drawn exclusively from the writings of Plato, Xenophon, Aristotle, and the Hippocratic physicians. It does not seem to have occurred to Foucault that for an understanding of the ways sexual behavior was conceived of in classical Greece, tragedies such as Sophocles' Women of Trachis and Euripides' Hippolytus and Medea, to cite only three of the relevant examples, might be just as revealing as the strictly homosexual erotic theorizing of Plato's Symposium.

Foucault's Olympian indifference to the evidence of tragedy is perhaps unique, but it is nevertheless “customary,” as Nussbaum puts it, to regard tragic and philosophical texts as “of quite different sorts, bearing in quite different ways on human ethical questions.” But this, as she goes on to point out, “was clearly not the view of the Greeks.” Homer, Hesiod, and the poets of the tragic stage were in fact thought of as ethical teachers and Plato's indictment of them sprang from his conception of them not “as colleagues in another department, pursuing different aims, but as dangerous rivals.” Nussbaum proposes to study the “works of the tragic poets as Plato studied them: as ethical reflections in their own right.”

She is of course primarily a distinguished student of Greek philosophy, editor of a difficult Aristotelian text, On the Motion of Animals, and author not only of the first full-length commentary on that text to be published since the thirteenth century but also of a series of essays on the philosophical problems it raises.1 But she is also the author of a remarkable article entitled “Flawed Crystals: James's The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy” as well as a penetrating essay on Sophoclean tragedy, “Consequences and Character in Sophocles' Philoctetes.2 She comes, then, well equipped for a book which opens with chapters on Aeschylus and the Antigone of Sophocles, proceeds to discussion of Plato's Protagoras, Republic, Symposium, and Phaedrus, follows this with five chapters on Aristotle, and ends with an epilogue devoted to Euripides' Hecuba. This long, intellectually demanding, and richly rewarding book must be almost unique in its expert analysis of both tragic and philosophical texts.

Nussbaum's argument is complex, occasionally technical, but always intelligible even for those who, like the reviewer, read Plato with pleasure as far as the Phaedrus, find the going tough in the Parmenides and Politicus, but get a second wind in The Laws. She recognizes that her chapter, “Rational Animals and the Explanation of Action” may “seem rather technical for the non-specialist reader, who might prefer to turn directly to the chapter's concluding section (v), where the ethical implications of the explanatory project are described.” In a short preface she gives the reader a choice: “This book can be read in two ways.” Since after the introductory chapter, which identifies the problems to be discussed, each chapter is devoted, except in the case of Aristotle, to a single work—tragedy or Platonic dialogue—“readers can … feel free to turn directly to the chapter or chapters that seem most pertinent to their own concerns.” But the reader is also advised that “there is … an overall historical argument, concerning the development of Greek thought on our questions; this is closely linked to an overall philosophical argument about the merits of various proposals for self-sufficient life.”

“Our questions” are those raised by the author's stated purpose: to examine “the aspiration to rational self-sufficiency in Greek ethical thought: the aspiration to make the goodness of a good human life safe from luck through the controlling power of reason.” The word “luck” is a rough equivalent of the Greek word tuche—“rough” because tuche does not necessarily refer to “random or uncaused” events; tuche means simply “what just happens to a man” as opposed to “what he does or makes.” Goodness, on the other hand, is used by Nussbaum in a double sense: the ethical quality of a human life and also the happiness, the enviability of that life. Clearly, goodness of the second kind is vulnerable to luck; the Greeks in general believed, contrary to modern Kantian ideas, that the first—the ethical quality of life—was vulnerable also. For one thing, the constituents of a happy life—love, friendship, attachment to property—may be “capable, in circumstances not of the agent's own making, of generating conflicting requirements that can themselves impair the goodness of the agent's life.” And secondly there can be an inner conflict between a person's aspiration to self-sufficiency and the irrational forces in his own nature—“appetites, feelings, emotions”—sources of disorder, of what the Greeks called mania, “madness.”

The attainment of complete immunity to luck would seem therefore to call for a renunciation not only of those vulnerable components of the good life that set it at risk but also a total suppression of the appetites and passions that might undermine a personal dedication to self-sufficiency. Even if such rigid self-control were possible for mere human creatures, the resultant life would seem, to most of us at least, limited and impoverished. And in fact it is only Plato, at the vertiginous height of his argument in Phaedo, Republic, and Symposium, who proposes “a life of self-sufficient contemplation, in which unstable activities and their objects have no intrinsic value.”

The tragic poets, however, especially Aeschylus and Sophocles, present us with human characters exposed to fortune through their pursuit of those genuine human values that put us at risk—responsibility to others, loyalty to a community, devotion to the family. Nussbaum offers an impressive analysis of the tragic dilemmas of two Aeschylean heroes, Agamemnon at Aulis and Eteocles at the seventh gate of Thebes: in each case a “wrong action [is] committed without any direct physical compulsion and in full knowledge of its nature, by a person whose ethical character or commitments would otherwise dispose him to reject the act.” Agamemnon, if he is to do his duty as commander of the expedition, must sacrifice his daughter; Eteocles, to save his city from destruction, must engage his brother in mortal combat. Agamemnon is placed by Zeus in a situation in which there is open to him no “guilt-free course.” Modern critics have found contradiction and illogicality in the Aeschylean view of tragic necessity, a criticism for which Nussbaum has scant sympathy. “Such situations,” she says, “may be repellent to practical logic; they are also familiar from the experience of life.”

In Sophocles' Antigone the two principal characters attempt to avoid such dilemmas by “a ruthless simplification of the world of value which effectively eliminates conflicting obligations.” Creon rules out all loyalties except that to the city; since Polynices, though a member of Creon's own family, has led a foreign assault on the city, he does not hesitate to order the exposure of his corpse, in spite of the fact that custom and religion assign him, as the only surviving male relative, responsibility for Polynices' proper burial.

Antigone too has her strategy of “avoidance and simplification”; her exclusive loyalty is to family obligations, specifically “duty to the family dead.” Both of them come to grief, and though our sympathies are with Antigone the play clearly rejects the kind of rigid simplification of issues which inspired their actions. As Antigone is led off to her underground tomb, the chorus sings about others who have been similarly imprisoned, a song which Nussbaum, in a sensitive and convincing interpretation, sees as a repudiation of human action, a blind acceptance of passivity under the blows of fortune. The play seems to offer no escape from the choice between “Creon's violence against the external and complete helpless passivity before the external.”

But this “paralyzing vision” is not the last word. In the speeches of Haemon and Tiresias a third possibility emerges, a prudent and intelligent moderation that makes it possible “to be flexibly responsive to the world, rather than rigid … a way of living in the world that allows an acceptable amount of safety and stability while still permitting recognition of the richness of value that is in the world.” Creon concludes in the end that “it is best to keep to the established conventions (nomous).” These are “the traditions of a community, built up and established over time” which “offer a good guide to what, in the world, ought to be recognized and yielded to.” They “preserve a rich plurality of values” though they “offer no solution in bewildering tragic situations—except the solution that consists in being faithful to or harmonious with one's sense of worth by acknowledging the tension and disharmony.”

The second choral ode of the Antigone begins with a famous celebration of the technai, the arts and sciences which have brought man, step by step, from helplessness to mastery of his environment and his crowning achievement, the creation of the state. Techne, the song seems to suggest, is the instrument by which man can make himself immune to tuche. In the event this proves to be a delusion; the messenger who announces the deaths of Antigone and Haemon proclaims the omnipotence of tuche—“Luck raises and luck humbles the lucky and the unlucky from day to day”—and the only successful techne mentioned in the play is that of the prophet Tiresias who reads the signs of divine wrath and comes to warn Creon that he stands “on the razor-edge of luck.”

Discussion of techne and tuche was not a monopoly of the tragic poets, it was a major preoccupation of intellectual circles in Periclean Athens. The Sophists, the West's first professional educators, taught technai, especially the arts of persuasion, claiming they were the key to political advancement in democratic Athens; Protagoras, perhaps the greatest of them, says, in the Platonic dialogue that bears his name, that he can teach political techne and make men good citizens. This dialogue, one of Plato's greatest creations from the literary and dramatic point of view, is full of stumbling blocks for the admirers of Plato the philosopher; not only does Socrates use arguments that border on the fallacious, he also proposes an identification of pleasure and goodness which is specifically repudiated in nearly every other Platonic dialogue. Nussbaum's analysis of the dialogue is a subtle, finely argued attempt to set Plato's thought squarely in the context of her leitmotif: the aspiration to rational self-sufficiency.

Protagoras' science of practical reasoning can claim it is a techne that “increases our control over tuche” but, though it will go far toward “training the passions … it will not completely render them innocuous.” Above all it will not eliminate the conflict of values and the possibility of tragedy since, against the argument of Socrates, it recognizes “a plurality of distinct values.” Socrates' insistence on the unity of the virtues Nussbaum sees as a necessary base for his ethical science (episteme) of measurement which would remove the possibility of “serious value conflict. For instead of choosing, under circumstantial pressure, to neglect a distinct value with its own separate claims, one will merely be giving up a smaller amount of the same thing.” His adoption of pleasure as “the single measuring-stick of value” Nussbaum sees as a temporary expedient, which is “undefended, even unexplored” and in effect discarded at the end of the dialogue. What is important is the formulation of a science of “deliberative measurement.”

This reading of the argument of Protagoras is no more likely to win universal acceptance than any of its predecessors, but it is presented with persuasive skill and buttressed by footnotes addressed to professional colleagues dealing in depth with possible objections and conflicting interpretations. What is interesting about it from the point of view of the non-professional is the link to tragedy. Protagoras' program of practical reasoning is a techne which, as Nussbaum points out, “follows Tiresias' advice”; it is a “practical wisdom that bends responsively to the shape of the natural world, accommodating itself to, giving due recognition to, its complexities.” It might be added that Socrates, in his insistence on a single value, seems to be following the pattern of Antigone and Creon, whose exclusive loyalty to one value armored them against normal human feelings that might conflict with it.

In later dialogues of the middle period Socrates abandons pleasure as the measuring stick but continues the search for a science concerned with “rendering diverse particulars qualitatively homogeneous and interchangeable” which will “undo several problems at once, transforming troublesome conflicts,” and “cutting away our motivations for passional excess.” The search leads in the Republic to the total rejection of passions and appetites in favor of the life of the philosopher, who “stands apart from human needs and limitations,” and whose viewpoint is “detached and extra-human,” and in the Phaedo it leads to the creation of a model life that is “practice for the separation of the soul from the body.” This is, as a doctor might put it, a heroic remedy and Nussbaum might have pointed out that Plato's Socrates owes more than a little to tragedy's conception of the hero: he rejects compromises and goes to his death rather than change his way of life. In the Apology, Plato's version of his speech at his trial, Socrates compares himself to, of all people, Achilles, and even claims he is looking forward to conversing, in the next world, with the most stubborn, bloody, and revengeful of the heroes, Ajax son of Telamon.

Nussbaum's emphasis, however, is on the difference, not the resemblance. The tragic hero's single criterion of value has its roots in the passions; it involves him fatally in a nexus of human needs and interests—family, community, love of another person—which breeds conflict. Plato's hero on the other hand reaches his criterion through the exercise of reason, rejects the passions and appetites completely, and lives a life spent in contemplation of eternal unchanging truths, free from internal value conflicts and immune to luck.

Plato's intellectual heroism denies the premises of tragedy but, as Nussbaum reminds us in a brilliant interlude between chapters—“Plato's Anti-tragic Theater”—the medium he invented for the presentation of his ideas was much indebted to that tragic drama which he was eventually to banish from his ideal state. Not only did he develop along new lines the ethical themes that tragedy had embodied in its heroic protagonists, he also adapted for his own literary and philosophical ends tragedy's dramatic means—character, dialogue, and plot. The dramatic form of his philosophical treatises is a radical departure. Previous philosophers, whether they wrote verse like Parmenides and Empedocles or prose like Anaxagoras and Democritus, addressed their readers in their own persons and in a didactic tone; as Nussbaum observes, Parmenides claims that he is an initiate and Empedocles that he is a god on earth. These are the books that Socrates (so Plato tells us in the Phaedrus) compared to figures in paintings: “For if you ask them a question, they keep a solemn silence.” The Platonic dialogue “puts before us the responsiveness of dialectical interaction, as tragedy has also shown us concerned moral communication and debate.” Unlike the ex cathedra pronouncements of the philosophers or the artful rhetoric of the Sophists, the dialogues “might fairly claim that they awaken and enliven the soul, arousing it to rational activity rather than lulling it into drugged passivity. They owe this to their kinship with theater.”

They are theater, but “theater purged and purified of theater's characteristic appeal to powerful emotions”; they are “a pure crystalline theater of the intellect.” Like tragedy, the dialogues move toward recognition of the truth through elenchos, testing and refutation; they “share with tragic poetry its elenctic structure.” But there is a fundamental difference between the tragic and the Platonic elenchos. Creon rejects the arguments of Antigone, Haemon, and Tiresias; It takes the death of his son, “the sudden rush of grief, the tug of loss to make him see an aspect of the world to which he had not done justice.” Recognition of the truth comes through the emotions; it was his intellectual conviction that led him to disaster. For Plato, on the other hand, learning comes through the intellect alone; it “takes place when the interlocutor is enmeshed in logical contradiction.” His emotions are not to be aroused; “the ascent of the soul towards true understanding, if it uses any texts at all, will … avoid any with an irrational or emotive character.”

The most powerful and dangerous of the emotions is what the Greeks called Eros, an irrational, passionate attachment to another human being. If the philosophical life can be lived only with passions and emotions totally subdued Eros is clearly the most formidable adversary to be faced.

Plato recognizes this; he devotes to the problem of Eros the most richly dramatic of his dialogues, the Symposium. At a banquet in the house of the tragic poet Agathon, six speakers deliver an encomium of Eros; the last to speak is Socrates. Claiming that he is handing down the doctrine of the seer Diotima, he describes the progress of the lover, under the teacher's guidance, from love of an individual body and mind to contemplation of the beautiful itself, “unalloyed, pure, unmixed, not stuffed full of human flesh and colors and lots of other mortal rubbish” (211E, Nussbaum's translation). Anyone who can reach such a stage of unworldliness is obviously immune to luck, impervious to the sorrow that loss of the beloved person can inflict.

But to reach such heights is no easy matter. We shall be given later, when Alcibiades, an uninvited guest, speaks about Socrates, a picture of a man who has started to make the ascent. He is a man who, as Nussbaum puts it, “has so dissociated himself from his body that he genuinely does not feel its pain, or regard its sufferings as things genuinely happening to him.” He is impervious to cold, to fatigue, to hardship of any kind; he can drink without fear of intoxication and he can resist “the most immediate and intense sexual temptation.” This is a man “in the process of making himself self-sufficient,” and it is not an inviting prospect. Socrates, as Alcibiades truly says, “is not like any human being.”

When Alcibiades bursts in on the party just as Socrates concludes his exposition of Diotima's teaching, we are faced suddenly with the incarnation of everything Diotima, or rather Socrates, would have us renounce. Crowned with the ivy of Dionysus and the violets of Aphrodite, Alcibiades is a vibrant image of the splendors of this fleshly world—a man of extraordinary physical beauty, a rich aristocrat, a brilliant wit and forceful speaker, and also, at the dramatic time of the dialogue, 416 BC, indisputably the most admired man in Athens, the political leader who was shortly to persuade the Athenian assembly to send him in command of a fleet and army to conquer Sicily. The speech he makes is not, like those of the dinner guests, an encomium of Eros; it is a tragicomic account of his unsuccessful wooing of Socrates, this strange, fascinating, but incorruptible man.

Nussbaum sees in this speech more than a reluctant encomium of Socrates; it offers, she claims, an alternative to Diotima's progress from love of an individual to contemplation of universal truth. Her cogent analysis of the implications of the speech must be read in full for a real understanding of her thesis. Roughly speaking, she sees in Alcibiades a spokesman for the lover's understanding—an understanding “attained through the subtle interaction of sense, emotion, and intellect” and “yielding particular truths and particular judgements as a form of practical understanding.” This is a position which has an affinity with that of Tiresias, Haemon, and Protagoras, as well as that of Socrates in the Phaedrus. But its spokesman is himself, as every reader of Plato knew, a terrible example of lack of practical wisdom, a man “who will live, to the end, a disorderly, buffeted life, inconstant and wasteful of his excellent nature,” to die at last in exile, murdered by order of the victorious Spartans or, according to another account, by the brothers of a girl he had seduced. On this reading, the Symposium does indeed seem to us “a harsh and alarming book … We see now that philosophy is not fully human; but we are terrified of humanity and what it leads to.”

This comfortless vision of the human dilemma was something Plato himself was later to find too extreme; he tempered and modified it—so Nussbaum's argument proceeds—in the Phaedrus. In this dialogue Socrates first makes an attack on erotic passion as a form of degrading madness” and denies the passions any “role to play in our understanding of the good.” Later on, however, he makes another speech, which begins with a quotation from the palinode of Stesichorus, the poet's recantation of his censure of Helen:

This story is not true.
You did not board the benched ships,
you did not come to the towers of

It is a prelude to his own recantation of his first speech, a defense of the benefits of madness (mania.)Mania is a word that up to this point Plato has used to designate “the state of soul in which the nonintellectual elements—appetites and emotions—are in control and lead or guide the intellectual part,” a state which Socrates has always rejected in favor of sophrosune, “the state of soul in which intellect rules securely over the other elements.”

Socrates now finds some good in mania after all. It is a necessity for the inspired seer as also for the poet; it is also, he goes on to say, necessary for the lover. From the poetic speech that follows, famous because of its image of the soul as a charioteer with two horses, one good and one bad, there emerges a view of the role of the passions quite different from the total rejection of them characteristic of the earlier dialogues. It makes us

see human sexuality as something much more complicated and deep, more aspiring, than the middle dialogues had suggested; and, on the other hand, to see intellect as something more sexual than they had allowed, more bound up with receptivity and motion.

This is not, of course, an endorsement of Alcibiades' position (though he too uses the word mania); the noblest lovers will stop short of sexual intercourse. Yet those who occasionally lose control of the bad horse are not condemned outright, and in any case Plato's acceptance of love for a particular person exposes the lover to luck, to the possibility of loss, to all those human emotions to which the Socratic lover of the Symposium has made himself immune. This dialogue, Nussbaum claims, is a work in which Plato “admits that he has been blind to something, conceived oppositions too starkly,” a work in which “he seeks, through recantation and self-critical argument, to get back his sight,” as Stesichorus did when he wrote his palinode to Helen. “In the Phaedrus philosophy itself is said to be a form of mania, of possessed, not purely intellectual activity, in which intellect is guided to insight by personal love itself and by a complex passion-engendered ferment of the entire personality.”

Obviously such a dramatic volte-face cries out for explanation—“We feel like asking, what happened to Plato?” Nussbaum looks for it in the historical circumstances in which the work was composed. She has in fact been conscious of this element throughout her discussion of Plato. It was put to brilliant use in her evocation of what Alcibiades meant to the Athenian readers of the Symposium and provides the fascinating suggestion that the reason Protagoras can adopt a “conservative,” compromising position is “satisfaction.” He

has lived the prime of his life in the greatest age of Athenian political culture. He still seems to us to be a part of this glorious, relatively happy past … He is not gripped by the sense of urgency about moral problems that will soon characterize the writing of younger thinkers.

In the case of the Phaedrus, the background factor is personal: it is Plato's love for his pupil Dion, the man who was to overthrow the tyranny in his native city of Syracuse, only to be assassinated later on by political rivals.

It has often been noticed that when Socrates in the Phaedrus speaks of the ideal lovers he juxtaposes two words that mean “of Zeus” and “brilliant” and in their original Greek form dios dion suggest a punning reference to Plato's pupil; the great German scholar Wilamowitz regarded the allusion as “beyond reasonable doubt.” Nussbaum adds that Phaedrus's name also means “brilliant,” and since she has suggested that we are to think of Socrates and Phaedrus as representing the ideal lovers of Socrates' speech she can go on to see them as “standing in for Plato and Dion.” This gives the dialogue “the character of a love letter, an expression of passion, wonder, and gratitude.” She is not of course saying anything as simple-minded as that love made Plato change his mind; she recognizes that “his experience of love was certainly also shaped by his developing thought.” But she does claim firmly that the dialogue asks “us to recognize experience as one factor of importance.”

Here, however, she may be carrying her legitimate and even admirable attempt to ground the Platonic arguments in the contemporary scene too far. An allusion to Dion there may well be, but, though Dion was Plato's pupil and the close relationship between the two men extended over a quarter of a century, the evidence for an erotic attachment is weak. Plutarch's very full biography of Dion, for example, gives no hint of it; the argument for it rests principally on the testimony of one Diogenes Laertius, whose gossipy compilation The Lives and Opinions of the Philosophers was put together some time in the third century AD. He cites from Book IV of Aristippus' The Luxury of the Ancients an epitaph for Dion written by Plato which concludes with the line: “O Dion, you who drove my soul mad with love.” But since this same Aristippus announces that Plato was also in love with a boy named Aster (“Star”) and produces a love poem addressed to him as well, following this up with the information that Plato was in love with Phaedrus too, many scholars, including the late Sir Denys Page, the most recent editor of these poems, have concluded that like the other Platonic love poems collected by Diogenes—addressed to Phaedrus, Alexis, Agathon, and two professional ladies called Archeanassa and Xanthippe—the Aristippus love poems, including the epitaph for Dion, are typical Hellenistic forgeries.3

Whatever may be thought of Nussbaum's tentative reconstruction of the emotions that prompted the composition of the Phaedrus, there can be no doubt that she offers a challenging new reading of it. When she moves on to Aristotle, whose “conception of ethical theory … is,” she says, “roughly” her own, she presents us with an Aristotle whose vision of the good life has more affinity with the Phaedrus than with the middle dialogues. Her Aristotle

develops a conception of a human being's proper relationship to tuche that returns to and further articulates many of the insights of tragedy. His philosophical account of the good human life is … an appropriate continuation and an explicit description of those insights.

Plato's earlier conception of philosophy as a techne that can lift the individual above the level of normal humanity and so free him from the tyranny of luck Aristotle rejects in favor of a nonscientific mode of practical reasoning, which recognizes that some components of a good life are vulnerable to catastrophe. Turning his back on the philosophical tradition which held that appearances are deceptive and the opinions of the many false, Aristotle “insists that he will find his truth inside what we say, see, and believe, rather than ‘far from the beaten path of human beings’ (in Plato's words) ‘out there.’”

Nussbaum's limitation of the scope of Aristotle's ethical enquiry to the common beliefs and conceptions of humanity depends on her interpretation of the word phainomena, literally “appearances,” which occurs in Aristotle's discussion of his method at the beginning of Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics: The method consists of

setting down the phainomena, dealing with the initial difficulties, and proceeding in this way to demonstrate the truth of all the common beliefs (endoxa) about these states of mind or, if that is impossible, the truth of the majority and the most important of them. For if the difficulties can be resolved and the beliefs (endoxa) still stand, the demonstration will have been adequate.

Shortly after this passage Aristotle dismisses Socrates' claim that no one acts wrongly knowing that his action is wrong, but only in ignorance as “manifestly in contradiction with the phainomena.” Most interpreters and translators, some of them in one of these passages and some in both, have taken phainomena to mean “the facts,” “the observed facts,” “data of perception,” “observations”—almost anything, as Nussbaum says, “but the literal ‘appearances,’ or the frequently interchangeable ‘what we believe,’ or ‘what we say.’” The tendentious translations derive from a “long tradition in the interpretation of Aristotelian science,” which sees Aristotle in Baconian terms: a scientist who gathers data through empirical observation and then searches for a theory that will explain the data. It is clear that in the texts quoted above such an interpretation of phainomena is not acceptable, since the phainomena are immediately identified with endoxa, “common conceptions or beliefs on the subject.”

The correct interpretation of phainomena was established in what Nussbaum calls a “justly famous article” by G. E. L. Owen; according to her, however, he did not go far enough, since he understood the term in the Baconian sense in Aristotle's biological works and thus “forces us to charge Aristotle with equivocation concerning his method and several of its central terms.” Finding this inadmissible, she devotes an important chapter, “Saving Aristotle's Appearances” to a “univocal general account” of phainomena in Aristotle's method of ethical enquiry.4

What is that method? The philosopher begins by “setting down” the relevant appearances, “the ordinary beliefs and sayings” and a “review of previous scientific or philosophical treatments of the problem, the views of ‘the many and the wise.’” The next step is to sort out the confusions and contradictions such matter contains, to eliminate contradiction. But the process of bringing “the matter of life into perspicuous order” does not allow us to “follow a logical argument anywhere it leads.” We must, in the end, show that the phainomena, or at any rate the greatest number and the most important of them, are true. “Theory must remain committed to the ways human beings live, act, see.”

A more total rejection of Plato's fundamental precepts is hard to imagine, and Nussbaum quotes from, of all places, the Posterior Analytics, a “burst of exuberant malice that shows us aspects of Aristotle's temperament usually masked by a measured sobriety”: “So goodbye to the Platonic Forms. They are teretismata” (the sort of sounds you make when you hum to yourself) “and have nothing to do with our speech.”

Her next four chapters are devoted to an explanation and defense of Aristotle's articulation of “a conception of practical rationality that will make human beings self-sufficient in an appropriately human way.” The chapter which she warns us “may seem rather technical for the non-specialist reader” is a discussion of Aristotle's theories of animal motion and motivation which is relevant to ethical theory because it is part of Aristotle's ethical view that “our shared animal nature is the ground of our ethical development. It is our nature to be animal, the sort of animal that is rational.”

This is followed by Nussbaum's discussion of “non-scientific deliberation”; it deals with Aristotle's claim that, contrary to Platonic doctrine, practical wisdom is not scientific wisdom. It deals also with Aristotle's emphasis on the anthropomorphism of the search for the good life, his attack on the Platonic commensurability of values and the Platonic demand for generality, and his affirmation of the role of nonintellectual elements in deliberation (a point on which he comes close to Plato's position in the Phaedrus). He has eliminated those elements in the Platonic “science” which conferred invulnerability to outside contingency. Rejecting both extreme positions—that luck is the sole decisive factor in the living of a good life and that good living is invulnerable to luck—Aristotle admits the possibility of “disruption of good activity” and even “damage to good states of character.” For the ethical values that constitute good living cannot exist except in a context of human activity; though for animals and gods such concepts as justice, courage, generosity are irrelevant, these central human values “cannot be found in a life without shortage, risk, need, and limitation.” This is true also of the values of friendship and political activity, the subject of Nussbaum's final chapter of Aristotle's ethical theory. This chapter ends with an eloquent assessment of the Aristotelian achievement.

Aristotle has attempted … by setting our various beliefs before us, to show us that they contain a conception of human good living that makes it something relatively stable, but still vulnerable, in its search for richness of value, to many sorts of accidents. We pursue and value both stability and the richness that opens us to risk. In a certain sense we value risk itself, as partially constitutive of some kinds of value. In our deliberations we must balance these competing claims. This balance will never be a tension-free harmony.

Good human deliberation is a “delicate balancing act … delicate, and never concluded, if the agent is determined, as long as he or she lives, to keep all the recognized human values in play.” To those who find this picture of deliberation “mundane, messy, and lacking in elegance,” Aristotle would reply “that we do well not to aim at a conception that is more elegant, or simpler, than human life is.” This is one of several passages in the book which will seem to many readers to justify Nussbaum's belief “that Nietzsche was correct in thinking that a culture grappling with the widespread loss of Judaeo-Christian religious faith could gain insight into its own persisting intuitions about value by turning to the Greeks.”

But this is not the end of her book. She began with tragedy and it is with tragedy that she ends. Plato rejected it as a corrupting influence, but Aristotle's ethical position clearly allows it a place, even an important place, in human life, since it “explores the gap between being good and living well.” Under the heading “Luck and the Tragic Emotions” Nussbaum discusses Aristotle's treatise on tragedy and especially his remarks about pity and fear. “For Aristotle, pity and fear will be sources of illumination or clarification, as the agent, responding and attending to his or her responses, develops a richer self-understanding concerning the attachments and values that support the responses.”

This interpretation of a much-disputed text depends on a new understanding of the key word katharsis in Aristotle's formula “through pity and fear to accomplish the katharsis of experiences of that kind.” Developing an argument of Leon Golden, who pointed out that katharsis and related words, as used by Plato, have a strong connection with learning, occurring in connection with “the unimpeded or ‘clear’ rational state of the soul,” Nussbaum looks at the history of these words and finds that their “primary, ongoing, central meaning is roughly one of ‘cleaning up’ or ‘clarification.’” The meaning “purgation,” usually adduced in explanation of this passage in Aristotle, is a special medical application of this general sense.

In an epilogue Nussbaum presents an analysis of a play which Plato, though he does not mention it, must have regarded with indignation, for it shows us the complete deterioration of moral character under the pressure of calamity. It is the Hecuba of Euripides, a play rarely discussed in the voluminous literature on Greek tragedy, one which from the nineteenth century on into our own has often been censured as “episodic,” “melodramatic,” even, by one influential critic, “poor and uninteresting.”

Nussbaum offers a convincing defense of its dramatic and thematic unity: the two main episodes, the sacrifice of Polyxena and Hecuba's atrocious revenge on the murderer of her son Polydorus, are seen as dramatic embodiments of contrasting views on the stability of good character under adverse conditions. The nobility of Polyxena, who refuses to plead for her life and dies with dignity and courage, prompts Hecuba to reflect that “among human beings … the noble [is never] anything but noble, and is not corrupted in its nature by contingency, but stays good straight through to the end.” But with the discovery of her son's body and the realization that he has been murdered by the guest-friend Polymestor to whom she has entrusted him for safe-keeping, Hecuba's conception of a world governed by nomos, “deep human agreements concerning value,” is shattered. In exchange she embraces a nomos of a different nature: revenge, the old law—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Using the same moral convention of guest-friendship that Polymestor has betrayed, and appealing to the greed which had prompted his murder of her son, she lures him and his infant sons into the tents of the captured Trojan women, where the children are killed and Polymestor blinded. Later Polymestor prophesies that she will fall from the yardarm of the ship on her way to Greece and be transformed into a dog, a creature which, as Nussbaum emphasizes, ranks, for the Greeks, “very low on the scale of animal nobility.” But she is already something less than human. The destruction of the nomos of mutual trust can produce, even in a stable character, “bestiality, the utter loss of human relatedness and human language.”

This is, as Nussbaum puts it, a “worst case,” but Aristotle, though he might insist on the rarity of such a combination of disasters as that which overwhelms Hecuba, “cannot consistently close off the possibility of such events.” He too, like Hecuba, “bases human excellence on the social nature of the human being” (nomos). He “stresses that all of excellence has an other-related aspect” and that “personal love and political association are not only important components of the good human life but also necessary for the continued flourishing of good character generally.” And he “mentions explicitly that trust is required to reap the benefits of these associations.”

Euripides' play does show us, in the person of Polyxena, an example of uncorrupted nobility, but, as Nussbaum puts it, she has the “good luck” to die before life can bring disillusionment—“to live on is to make contact in some way at some time with the possibility of betrayal.” The Platonic alternative, to “put the world in good order by sealing off certain risks, closing ourselves to certain happenings,” and still retain a world “relatively rich in value, since it would still contain the beauty of the Platonic contemplative life” seems, when we look at the world of the Hecuba, an attractive one. And yet, as Aristotle, and for that matter the Phaedrus and the Antigone, have made clear, “there is in fact a loss in value whenever the risks involved in specifically human virtue are closed off. … Each salient Aristotelian virtue seems inseparable from a risk of harm”—courage for example exists only in a context of death or serious damage. “There are certain risks,” Nussbaum concludes, “that we cannot close off without a loss in human value, suspended as we are between beast and god, with a kind of beauty available to neither.”

This outline of Nussbaum's argument gives little idea of its originality, intellectual richness, and logical force, nor can quotations from her text convey more than a faint impression of the fluidity, grace, precision, and economy of her prose. In her opening pages she speaks of the problem facing a philosopher who chooses to deal with “competing conceptions of learning and writing, as embodied in poetic and philosophical texts”: the decision whether to adopt “the hard ‘philosophical’ style” or “a mode of writing that lies closer to poetry and makes its appeal to more than one ‘part’ of the person,” or else to “use different styles in different parts of the inquiry.” Her choice is “to attempt to vary the way of writing so that it will be appropriate to the ethical conception to which it responds in each case; to try to show in my writing the full range of my responses to the texts and to evoke similar responses in the reader.” She will “remain always committed to the critical faculties, to clarity and close argument” but will also “try to deal with tragic (and Platonic) images and dramatic situations in such a way that the reader will feel, as well as think, their force.” Over the four hundred or so pages of text and the nearly one hundred pages of notes she succeeds handily in fulfilling these promises; this is a book which keeps a firm hold on the reader's attention, challenges the reader's intellectual capacity, and appeals, gravely and without fulsome rhetoric, to his or her deepest emotions.

It is also a book which, besides being required reading for anyone interested in Greek philosophy or literature, addresses a wider audience. It analyzes the attempts of poets and philosophers in the great creative age of Greek civilization to deal with problems that, as Nussbaum says in her opening chapter, are still problems for anyone who finds it hard to accept the Kantian view that the domain of moral value supersedes all other values and that it is altogether immune from the assaults of luck. “That much that I did not make goes towards making me whatever I shall be praised or blamed for being,” she writes,

that I must constantly choose among competing and apparently incommensurable goods and that circumstances may force me to a position in which I cannot help being false to something or doing some wrong; that an event that simply happens to me may, without my consent, alter my life; that it is equally problematic to entrust one's good to friends, lovers, or country and to try to have a good life without them—all these I take to be not just the material of tragedy, but everyday facts of lived practical reason.


  1. Aristotle, De Motu Animalium. Text with translation, commentary, and interpretive essays (Princeton, 1978). Paperback edition with corrections, 1985.

  2. New Literary History 15 (1983), pp. 25-50: Philosophy and Literature (1976-1977), pp. 25-53.

  3. Aristippus of Cyrene was a contemporary of Plato so it is not likely that he would have included Plato's love affairs in a book called The Luxury of the Ancients. Even Wilamowitz, who accepts the Dion epitaph as genuine, assigns Diogenes “Aristippus” to the second century BC.

  4. “If we do not insist on introducing an anachronistic scientific conception,” she says later, “the alleged two senses and two methods can be one. When Aristotle sits on the shore of Lesbos taking notes on shellfish … he will be describing the world as it appears to, as it is experienced by, observers who are members of our kind.”

Bernard Knox (review date 25 November 1990)

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SOURCE: Knox, Bernard. “The Heart Has Its Reasons.” Washington Post Book World (25 November 1990): 1, 10.

[In the following review, Knox asserts that the essays in Love's Knowledge are persuasive, lucidly written, and accessible to a general readership.]

What is one to make of a book called Love's Knowledge that offers detailed critical analyses of Platonic and Aristotelian ethical theory, critical discussions of Henry James's Golden Bowl, Ambassadors and Princess Casamàssima as well as of Beckett, Dickens and Proust, and also calls in to support its argument such texts as Homer's Odyssey and Sophocles's “Women of Trachis,” not to mention Nietzsche, Kant and Wittgenstein? The reader's first reaction may well be skeptical. To move with authority over so wide a range of intellectual history, the author must be an unlikely combination: an acute and sensitive critic of ancient and modern literature, a professional philosopher and a trained scholar of ancient Greek. In this case skepticism can be dispensed with; Martha Nussbaum is all of these things.

She has published a critical edition of the Greek text of Aristotle's treatise On the Movement of Animals, and provided it with a commentary and a series of long and philosophically rich essays. She is the author of a brilliant and much admired book, The Fragility of Goodness, which examines the ethical problems addressed not only by Plato and Aristotle but also by Greek tragedy; it argues that we cannot understand the work of the philosophers in isolation from the moral concerns of the tragic poets, who make a distinctive contribution to ethical thought. She has also in the course of the last 10 years, published a number of essays on the relationship between literature, especially the modern novel, and philosophy. Twelve of them are included in the volume under review, together with two new essays and a substantial introduction entitled “Form and Content, Philosophy and Literature.” Many of these essays, all written in her characteristically lucid style and addressed to the general literate public as well as to her professional colleagues, first appeared in periodicals the general public is not likely to come across; it is good to have them in a volume accessible to a wider audience.

This book is not, however, like many such collections, a roundup of whatever articles the author has happened to publish in recent years. She has omitted at least seven interesting pieces, some of them destined for a subsequent volume; those included have been revised and expanded, and also provided with end-notes that “make many specific remarks about the relationships of the articles to one another.” And the long, thoughtful introduction serves to clarify the book's central themes and also to justify its intriguing title.

As a Philosopher she is concerned above all with ethical theory, moral philosophy—one section of her introduction is headed by a sentence from Plato's Republic: “It is no chance matter we are discussing, but how one should live.” Plato rejected totally the validity of epic and tragic poetry as a medium for discussion of moral problems, pursuing what he called “the ancient quarrel between the poets and the philosophers” to its logical end: the banishment of the poets from his ideal city. Discussion of ethics was to be built on an intellectually sound basis of moral definitions, constructed according to logical principles and tested by dialectic—and so, from Socrates until quite recent times, it has been ever since.

Nussbaum finds that this approach has serious limitations. “There may be some views of the world and how one should live in it—views, especially, that emphasize the world's surprising variety, its complexity and mysteriousness, its flawed and imperfect beauty—that cannot be fully and adequately stated in the language of conventional philosophic prose, a style remarkably flat and lacking in wonder …” She calls for a style of philosophical writing that will express its ideas “in a language and forms … more complex, more allusive, more attentive to particulars.” And she is also proposing that ethical philosophy should concentrate its attention on the great works of the imagination as well as on the classics of its own discipline. Her aim is to “establish that certain literary texts … are indispensable to a philosophical inquiry in the ethical sphere; not by any means sufficient, but sources of insight without which the inquiry cannot be complete.”

Whether or not she can establish that claim in the court of her philosophical colleagues, her discussion of “how one should live,” based on a penetrating analysis of some of the great modern fictions, is fascinating reading, for without abandoning philosophical standards of argument she writes in a style that shows how much she has learned from the masters of our prose.

Perhaps the most unruly and disconcerting element of “the world's … flawed and imperfect beauty” is the complex of emotions we call “love.” It is, as she says, a “strange, unmanageable phenomenon or form of life, source at once of illumination and confusion, agony and beauty.” It can play havoc with ethical standards. So, in Nussbaum's perceptive reading of The Golden Bowl, Maggie Verver comes to the realization that “to regain her husband she must damage Charlotte … Her love … must live on cunning and treachery; it requires the breaking of moral rules …” Love, in all its strange manifestations and amoral imperatives, is the major theme of these essays; Nussbaum develops its full diapason from the high refinement of Henry James to the lower depths of Beckett's Molloy trilogy. And in one extraordinary essay, that is presented in narrative form, she uses as her text Dora Carrington's desperate love for Lytton Strachey.

But why, the reader may ask, do we need these fictions, however admirable, in addition to moral philosophy in our search for the good life? Nussbaum poses that question and answers it by citing Aristotle, the philosopher she most admires. We need fiction because “we have never lived enough.” Our experience, without it, is “too confined, and too parochial. Literature extends it, making us reflect and feel about what might otherwise be too distant for feeling.” Her purpose in these essays is “to suggest, with Aristotle, that practical reasoning unaccompanied by emotion is not sufficient for practical wisdom”; that emotions are “frequently more reliable and less deceptively seductive” than intellectual calculation. It is a bold suggestion, but these essays make an eloquent and to this one reader convincing case for it.

Gordon D. Marino (review date 7 December 1991)

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SOURCE: Marino, Gordon D. Review of Love's Knowledge, by Martha Nussbaum. America (7 December 1991): 442-43.

[In the following review of Love's Knowledge, Marino observes that Nussbaum presents a strong case for expanding the concept of moral philosophy to include literature.]

In her earlier work, The Fragility of Goodness, Martha Nussbaum gracefully established the futility of reading Plato and Aristotle in isolation from Greek tragedy. In Love's Knowledge, Nussbaum continues her reflections on the relationship between philosophy and literature. For those concerned with the rank order of disciplines, Nussbaum, professor of philosophy and classics at Brown University, has some humbling news for philosophers. Where human excellence is the end, it is better to major in comparative literature than philosophy.

In a compelling chapter on Aristotle, Nussbaum argues that ethics is not a science and that there is no single standard of value by which all decisions can be cast. Forging a good life is more complicated than figuring out how best to maximize pleasure and meaning. Following Aristotle, Nussbaum argues for a multiplicity of ends (e.g., justice, friendship, courage), each of which is an irreducible component of human excellence. Some philosophers think that if the decisive choices in life are reduced to two, there can be no common denominator and thus no reasons for choosing one course of life over another. Defending what she takes to be an Aristotelian conception of rationality, Nussbaum disagrees. Practical wisdom, which is in large part choosing rightly, depends upon accurately and richly perceiving our situation and choices; hence, Nussbaum's case for the priority of perception over abstraction.

The philosophers preach that what is real is universal, but discernment demands being able to see and retain a vision of the uniqueness of the particular. As though they could provide us with supplementary experience, Nussbaum argues that novels and drama are the best materials for developing discernment.

For Nussbaum, discernment demands a lot more than 20/20 vision. As she explains it, a failure of feeling is a failure of perception. The person who can read about the myriad casualties of a war without some wrenching does not really perceive what is going on. Love's Knowledge charges the philosophical system builders and concept splitters with many crimes of negligence, not the least of which is peddling the myth that the heart is the mortal enemy of the mind. Most contemporary philosophers acknowledge that the emotions are not without cognitive content. After all, to feel something about someone is to believe something about them. Nussbaum, however, goes further. Consistently claiming to derive her insights from her favorite novels, she insists that there is much that can only be known feelingly. As her title indicates, to be without love is to be without a certain knowledge, or, to take a theme that Nussbaum positively harps upon, to be devoid of puzzlement is to fail to grasp the fundamental truth that the world is a very puzzling place.

Nussbaum appears to believe that what the abstracted moralists are missing is something Kant pointed to and Kierkegaard partially provided, namely, an aesthetic of morals, or, if you will, a glimpse of the concrete implications of one's ideals. It is only through first-and second-hand experience that we can achieve clarity about what it means to believe what we only imagine ourselves to believe. Using Henry James's narratives, Nussbaum moralizes that achieving clarity of self may be our most pressing moral obligation. For all their fetishes about clarity of argument, philosophers, according to Nussbaum, are of scant assistance when it comes to helping people get clear about themselves. Literary artists are another story.

Nussbaum believes that we are often so preoccupied by self-interest that we do not see the most obvious truths about ourselves. Because of the combination of safe distance and emotional engagement the novel affords, it offers us a possibility of curing this blindness.

Love's Knowledge is an immense and arabesque book, unflinching in self-criticism and rich, perhaps even excessive, in content. Where the dissemination of knowledge about the good life is concerned, style and content are inextricable. Ironically, for a book so much concerned with style, the writing is prosaic and often rambles. Nussbaum's reflections on the proper curriculum for our sentimental education, nevertheless, are worth the effort it sometimes takes to read them. Nussbaum presents a strong case for expanding our concept of philosophy to include Austen, James and other artists who do their moralizing obliquely.

Mary Sirridge (review date winter 1992)

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SOURCE: Sirridge, Mary. Review of Love's Knowledge, by Martha Nussbaum. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 50, no. 1 (winter 1992): 61-5.

[In the following review, Sirridge asserts that Love's Knowledge lacks a clear central focus, and that Nussbaum's arguments are not persuasive because they are not based on sound philosophical foundations.]

Love's Knowledge is a collection of essays, many of which have been published previously. These essays have a common rationale, however, and represent collectively an effort to develop and conduct ethical investigations in the way in which Nussbaum thinks ethics should proceed: by bringing philosophical awareness to bear upon the works of literary imagination.

Ethical inquiry, for Nussbaum, aims at an answer to the question: How should one live? She favors an answer to this question which she calls “Aristotelian.” This conception of ethics involves, first of all, a recognition that objects of value do not differ just quantitatively, i.e., as different numbers of units of the same generic commodity, the good. Rather, such objects are qualitatively distinct, with the result that an agent who prefers one to the exclusion of another incurs a real loss. Thus, for Nussbaum's Aristotelian, the human ethical situation involves vulnerability to genuine loss; more generally, it is endemic to the good human life to be susceptible to being affected by factors beyond one's control. Consequently, the attempt to formulate ethical strategies which reduce or eliminate such vulnerability is completely misguided. For this “Aristotelian” conception, it is particular, practical contexts that are ethically significant; thus this “Aristotelian” approach to value requires a richly differentiated faculty of perception, “the ability to discern accurately and responsibly the salient features of one's particular situation” (p. 37). The emotions, as patterns of value response to the particular and the concrete, are not automatically suspect; indeed, according to Nussbaum, they have a “cognitive dimension in their very structure” (p. 41).

The opposite complex of views—commensurability of goods, the importance of the general and irrelevance of particularizing factors, the irrelevance or downright undesirability of emotion, the ideal of transcendence of the human—these are views which Nussbaum associates with Plato, though she notes that most of them are present to varying degrees and in diverse forms in a good deal of Western philosophy.

According to Nussbaum, this “Aristotelian” conception of ethical inquiry has specific consequences for a choice of philosophical style, for style is an important determinant of meaning. The typical Anglo-American analytic style, “correct scientific, abstract, hygienically pallid … a kind of all-purpose solvent” (p. 19), does not allow us to achieve fruitful investigations of the realm of individual choice, emotion, “our deepest practical searching” (p. 24). This arena of investigation crucially involves feeling and imagination. Thus the Aristotelian investigation of the human good requires that the narratives of literature, particularly the novel, be brought into the ethical search—“certain literary texts (or texts similar to these in certain relevant ways) are indispensable to a philosophical inquiry in the ethical sphere” (p. 23). “This would mean, in our argument, that the emotions, and their accomplices, the stories, would be not just permitted, but required, in a fully human philosophy” (p. 389). Stories are not sufficient, according to Nussbaum; this study of ethics also requires a philosophical awareness which is rich and discriminating, yet also potentially critical of the insights offered by literary narratives. Nussbaum seems also to subscribe to the further thesis that writing and reading narratives of this sort is, at least sometimes, moral activity. “The novel is itself a moral achievement” (p. 148), she says.

Love's Knowledge is an attempt to follow out the implications of this view of ethics by developing a mode of philosophical expression which includes narrative. Nussbaum sets out to achieve her objective, first, by presenting the essays as parts of a philosophically reflective narrative about her own intellectual development; there is an autobiographical introduction, and the essays are connected with one another by a system of autobiographical-theoretical “epilogues.” Second, most of the essays consist of Nussbaum's philosophical reflections about liberal chunks of narrative fiction, fiction which is for the most part already extremely morally and philosophically self-aware. Finally, and most daringly, in “Love and the Individual,” Nussbaum offers an interthreading of philosophical voice and narrative, a medley of reflections by and on a protagonist who works her way from the desolation of lost love to a more reflective sense of loss by way of a continued meditation (fictional?) on a passage from Dora Carrington's diary in which Carrington bewails the loss of her irreplaceable, irretrievably lost lover.

Nussbaum's presentation of Aristotle and Plato is a partial recapitulation of the longer and more detailed study in her earlier work, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge University Press, 1986). Nussbaum's emphasis on the cognitive significance of the particular and upon concrete ethical praxis is a result of taking Nicomachean Ethics as a point of departure; this pattern is found already among medieval Aristotelians. Moreover, Nussbaum takes Aristotle's Poetics seriously as a source of information about his views on the meaning of life, the nature of happiness and man's fate. Her view of Aristotle is somewhat more difficult to arrive at if one starts instead from Posterior Analytics, Metaphysics, and De Anima, as many current interpreters of Aristotle do; and readers who want to meet a very different Aristotle may wish to read Terence Irwin's Aristotle's First Principles (Oxford University Press, 1988). Nussbaum addresses some critics of her interpretation of Aristotle in the book's final essay, “Transcending Humanity.”

From the point of view of aesthetics and the philosophy of literature, the philosophical foundations of Nussbaum's enterprise are sketchy, and those who are inclined to wring their hands about imprecision will find plenty to bemoan here. It is often difficult to determine what thesis, precisely, is being defended. Nussbaum sometimes seems to be claiming that the analytic style cannot give “a fully adequate statement” (p. 27) of moral realities. This seems wrong. What seems to be true is that a style which has the properties of studied dryness and impersonality is not likely to express or exemplify very many of the felt qualities of experience. Perhaps it follows from this that such a style cannot engender the relevant feelings. It may be true in addition, as Tolstoy seems to think, that a feeling or sentiment must be felt to be known; if so, we would have the conclusion that one cannot acquire knowledge of very many feelings from the likes of analytic philosophy. In fact, Nussbaum might be content with this conclusion, since on other occasions, she says that “there are candidates for moral truth which the plainness of traditional philosophy lacks the power to express” (p. 142). Incidentally, it does not follow from any of this that analytic philosophy cannot discourse profitably and informatively in its dry way about forms of feeling already known.

Similarly, the claim that narrative is indispensable to this sort of ethical endeavor is interesting if it is true, but the thesis is not effectively defended. It does not follow automatically from a conception of ethics which emphasizes practical wisdom and the ability to discern and respond to the particular, or from the fact, if it is one, that narrative (for Nussbaum an unexplicated primitive) is a prominent element in the shaping of the sensibility of a culture. Nussbaum's desired conclusion might follow from a clearly stated theory about the relationship between narrative and emotion and imagination; but we meet with considerable unclarity about what exactly the thesis concerning narrative and emotion is. Narrative forms are, she says, “the sources of emotional structure, the paradigms of what, for us, emotion is” (p. 296). “Narratives contain emotions in their very structure” (p. 310). These are very different claims, and there is no sustained attempt to distinguish among them and interconnect them.

Most of these problems strike me as relatively unimportant. As Nussbaum herself says about Smith's theory of the spectator, “We see the general shape of the argument well enough” (p. 341). Many of these claims about the special powers of literature are familiar ground, after all. For example, Kendall Walton's recent Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts (Harvard University Press, 1990) gives an extremely sophisticated presentation of the workings of representation and its connection with feeling.

In the case of the thesis that writing and reading novels is moral activity, however, one does miss clear statement and rigorous defense, since this is moderately unfamiliar turf in aesthetics and philosophy of literature. The thesis is unclear. Is all writing and reading of novels which is morally significant also morally beneficial? Perhaps so; perhaps there is some special perspective which is learned from these experiences which is good in itself. But probably not. In fact, it seems likely that on this view reading and writing certain sorts of novels is morally indictable, which may be a rather welcome conclusion. One wonders, though, just which ones they are, because two very different sorts of candidates put themselves forward. There are those novels which deaden the ability to differentiate and respond by particularly mind-numbing stereotypes and tear-jerking; the works of Barbara Cartland suggest themselves. And there are those novels which are richly differentiated and express a powerful vision which is deformed. If Nussbaum's criticisms of Beckett are on target, his novels are a case in point.

The diverse strategies by which Love's Knowledge brings the concerns of ethics and moral psychology into collision with literature are not equally successful. The daring “Love and the Individual” is only moderately successful as an “experiment” in philosophy/narrative, despite some gorgeous writing. The problem is partly formal; Nussbaum's “philosophical plot” does not succeed as narrative. We do not really care very much about this protagonist, or believe in her as a character, despite the presence of a considerable amount of undigested feeling. Problems of form notwithstanding, the subject matter of the essay is enormously interesting: To what extent is personal loss complete and final, because it is the individual features of the person, the relationship, the history, which are essential, and to what extent are the characteristics of the object of love replaceable? The essay loses its nerve at the end, I think, and goes off into flippancy, because it comes up against that dimension of loss which has nothing to do with the characteristics of the object, replaceable or not: the experience of having something wrenched away, and the sense of emptiness. “Love and the Individual” makes very interesting progress; most interesting of all, perhaps, is the way it comes to a standstill.

The steadiest and most satisfactory strategy of Love's Knowledge consists of bringing philosophical reflection to bear on literary narratives. Here we find powerful and finely wrought criticism which centers on topics which are worth discussing. “Narrative Emotions: Beckett's Genealogy of Love” is a searching examination of the progress of Beckett's attempted dissolution of emotion, indeed of personal identity, and his attempt to decompose his own writing in Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Nussbaum locates Beckett in the larger community of those who seek to purge and destroy some or all emotions, then mounts a criticism of his annihilating vision. Beckett is intolerant of shared forms of feeling and communication, she says, precisely because they are shared and common and human. He is “in the grip of a longing for the pure soul, hard as a diamond, individual and indivisible” and is one of those who “long for a pure language of the soul by itself” (p. 310). “The depth of Christian feeling in the construction of our narrative forms” (p. 310), she suggests, warns us to be philosophically wary of these conclusions. Nussbaum is, I think, almost completely on target here. In the works of Beckett, we are looking at a special and extravagant kind of misanthropy focused into corrosive hatred of the human in himself. As Nussbaum herself notes parenthetically, it is perhaps not precisely Christianity which is the culprit. “Jansenist” would be better than “Christian” here, I think; Dante, after all, was a Christian writer.

Several essays in this volume take novels by Henry James as their point of departure. They are central to Nussbaum's enterprise, since as a unit they deal with the Jamesian-Aristotelian view that “in good deliberation, the particular is in some sense prior to general rules and principles” (p. 165); and they undertake to examine a “morality of perception” (p. 189), particularly in connection with circumstances like strong emotion, which place the agent beyond the wholeness of vision demanded by such a morality.

“Finely Aware and Richly Responsible: Literature and the Moral Imagination” uses James's The Golden Bowl to develop the theme of the moral importance of fine-tuned perceiving, lucid imagination, and a finely diversified responsiveness to the particular person and situation at hand. Adam Verver's final responsive vision of his daughter as a free and shining sea creature who must be let go, Nussbaum calls “a moral achievement in its own right” (p. 151); in this vision, Adam accepts his responsibility as a moral agent. Maggie, too, has her achievement: “Her perceptions are necessary to her effort to give him up and to preserve his dignity. They are also moral achievements in their own right: expressions of love, protections of the loved, creations of a new and richer bond between them” (p. 153). The Ververs are in the process of becoming the sort of persons “on whom nothing is lost,” so richly aware and responsive are they to every nuance of their situation, and so fully do they take responsibility for the effect of their vision and their responses on each other.

Nussbaum's analysis of the significance of this scene between Maggie and Adam is deep and telling. Still, it seems to me that we can see their interaction as morally ideal only if we share Maggie and Adam's mutual self-absorption, if, that is, we look away from Charlotte and Amerigo. The scene in the boat, of course, invites us to do just this, i.e., to think of Maggie and Adam as if they were the only people in the world, and wholly to accept their vision of their relationship. But, are Maggie and Adam, then, good examples of the ethic of perception and the “Aristotelian” ideal? It seems to me that they are rather closer to the position which Nussbaum ascribes to Maggie in “Flawed Crystals: James' The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy”; strong emotion causes their moral vision to narrow. According to Nussbaum, this at least constitutes a fracture in the ethical point of view. Or perhaps they merit the more extreme treatment suggested by the essay “Steerforth's Arm: Love and the Moral Point of View”; perhaps she should say that they have been placed beyond the moral point of view by their love.

The Princess Casamassima and the fate of Hyacinth, who is truly someone on whom nothing is lost, call the “morality of perception” into question more straightforwardly. Hyacinth ends by shooting himself through the heart, of no use to himself or anyone else; we need, then, to question the ethical value of his most salient characteristic. Finely developed perceptual abilities and responsiveness are surely important in the moral life; but it also seems that emotional maturity is a matter of becoming the sort of person on whom a good deal is lost—because repetition makes some things too routine to merit notice, because a broader perspective makes some things less valuable, because a sense of humor about oneself undercuts some responses. In one scene which Nussbaum considers very important, Hyacinth and Aurora, both “taken up” and dropped by the Princess Casamassima, are silent, communing in full awareness of something in a shared consciousness that was “inconsistent with the grossness of accusation” (p. 210). “Hyacinth and Aurora love the Princess, love her in a perceiving way, seeing her in all her tangled complexity. To complain about her would be, then, too blindly self-proclaiming, too crudely unloving and self-absorbed” (p. 210). But the Princess is a monster, just as Hyacinth's revolutionary friend Paul Muniment says. Surely by this time Hyacinth and Aurora should be able to put the Princess's charm and tangled complexity and the rest of it into perspective, perhaps while acknowledging ruefully her continued fascination and their susceptibility. Of course, within the framework of the novel, Hyacinth cannot do this. Unlike Maggie Verver—in “Flawed Crystals,” Nussbaum very insightfully stresses Maggie's intense activity and her ability to distance herself—Hyacinth is wholly passive and wholly absorbed. There are any number of ways in which a more active, more distanced, Hyacinth could deal with his moral predicament: his promise to the revolution and genuine sympathy for the downtrodden versus his appreciation for art and beauty and the finer mode of existence of the nobility. As it is, his pure responsiveness kills him. It is very difficult to share Nussbaum's view that he is admirable, let alone her claim that he is a political ideal. Moreover, though I have no interpretation handy of the parting vision of Hyacinth which James offers us, “There was something on [the bed], something ambiguous, something outstretched. … Hyacinth lay there as if asleep, but there was a horrible thing, a mess of blood, on the counterpane, in his side, in his heart” (Henry James, The Golden Bowl [Harper and Row 1962] p. 510), I feel fairly certain that James does not intend it to affect us positively.

Thus reflection on James's novels casts some doubt on the sovereignty and self-sufficiency of an ethic of perception, and perhaps even on Nussbaum's Aristotelian conception of ethics. Nussbaum herself is nagged by her intuition that the characteristic perspective of this ethic is dissolved and submerged by love; an examination of The Golden Bowl suggests that this problem is a good deal more pervasive than she thinks. There is, however, a more serious problem that she does not seem to see, one which is introduced by The Princess Casamassima: fine awareness and rich responsiveness do not seem to be self-justifying. Rather, they seem to be, in moderation, an indispensable part of ethical reasoning, which may in the end also involve general norms. Those general norms may well conflict in some cases with unconditional indulgence in the ethic of perception.

It is obviously not possible to reflect on all the questions raised by the essays in Love's Knowledge in one breath. Other essays on related topics are those on Proust, of which “Love's Knowledge” is the more nuanced and critical. Here Nussbaum takes on the central Proustian anti-intellectualist theme that cataleptic emotion, paradigmatically suffering, reveals infallibly the realities of the soul. She finds even a weak interpretation of this thesis extremely questionable. “Steerforth's Arm: Love and the Moral Point of View” uses David Copperfield's love for Steerforth in all its warmth and poignancy to raise the theme of values which, as Nussbaum sees it, may lie beyond the moral point of view. This essay succeeds in giving us a nontraditional Dickens, one who is a subtle and deep moralist.

Love's Knowledge is a provoking book, mainly in the praiseworthy sense that it is bound to start up fresh debate on some old issues and start some discussions which are long overdue. There is a great deal of overlapping material, as one would expect from a collection of essays written to advance the same point of view, but on different occasions and for different audiences. It has an adequate index, but a book of this sort should certainly have been provided with a bibliography.

Donald G. Marshall (review date spring 1994)

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SOURCE: Marshall, Donald G. Review of Love's Knowledge, by Martha Nussbaum. Comparative Literature 46, no. 2 (spring 1994): 195-97.

[In the following review of Love's Knowledge, Marshall questions the theoretical and philosophical foundations of Nussbaum's arguments.]

Moral philosophy has flourished in recent years, and Martha Nussbaum has been one of its most vivid practitioners. Like several other philosophers, she argues [in Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature] that the attentive reading of literary works, specifically novels, is an indispensable aid for moral reflection. Ways of thinking and writing that developed in the analytic tradition are appropriate to some inquiries, such as epistemology and philosophy of science, but they cannot accomplish what is necessary for moral philosophy.

This defect demarcates the positive philosophical content of moral philosophy. Following Aristotle, Nussbaum concedes important roles to general rules. They can aid moral development by serving as a summary of others' wise judgments. When time is too short to analyze a complex situation, they may identify the best available decision. When we fear that interest or bias may distort our own or others' judgments, rules may give stability and consistency. They help underscore key features in a given case. But moral reflection requires more than discovering general rules, and cannot be convincingly characterized as the dispassionate and disinterested application of general rules in particular cases. Genuine moral reflection requires sensitivity to new and unanticipated features of a situation, to the ways features are embedded in a specific context, and to the relations among the specific persons involved. A sound moral decision includes what our emotions—our hopes, fears, loves—discern and offers us an ideal to which we as emotional beings can commit ourselves. In logical terms, the philosophical interest of moral reflection is that here the particular is prior to the general and universal and that this kind of reflection involves our whole human being, encompassing perception, reason, and emotion.

For Nussbaum, novels provide rich emotive and concrete situations thought out with accountability to the actual complexities of experience. By contrast, the examples invented by philosophers are thin and unconvincing. Readers and critics should not attempt to extract general principles from novels or apply them directly. Rather, novels provide our best opportunities to exercise and thus sharpen moral thinking outside our immediate situation. Quite consistently, in discussing novels Nussbaum mainly draws out insights about the process of moral thinking in the particular situations, not general moral rules.

Nussbaum conceives moral philosophy neither as the formulation and systematization of rules; nor as the identification of “virtues” constitutive of a good character. For her, moral philosophy is an inquiry focused on the question, “what is the good life for a human being?” It aims to achieve insights that will be put into practice, but it also already incarnates ethical insights. Thus, Nussbaum's way of reading novels is itself moral. It incarnates an intelligence that implies a certain way of life—one attentive to nuance, implication, metaphor, the interaction of parts and features in contextual wholes—one capable of taking in subtleties of language and of entering imaginatively and respectfully into the lives of others. It exhibits a knowledge that is the fruit of her love of the novels, a fruit harvested with the help of a philosophically trained mind.

Nussbaum's project orbits elliptically around two points: the defense of reflection on the literary particular against Kantians, utilitarians, Platonists, analytic philosophers, and any other one-sided champions of the general and universal; and actual commentaries on scenes from novels she loves and finds particularly significant. Her contribution is to revivify our conviction that literary texts are traversed by engagements with experience that enter into our ongoing practical and emotional life in ways that justifiably inflect that life and persist within it. Yet from the literary side, even someone who respects and sympathizes with her achievement may be uneasy at her project's Aristotelianism and Arnoldianism, her sophisticated representationalism and high moral seriousness. Wesley Trimpi and Kathy Eden have provided the detailed account Nussbaum needs of how the Aristotelian tradition analyzed literature's capacity to articulate the structure of moral experience. Obviously, deconstruction, extreme conventionalisms, and other widespread contemporary anti-representationalist relativisms challenge that tradition. In two chapters whose tone borders on irritation Nussbaum firmly rejects such critical theories, but her arguments are not elaborated nor does she reflect much on the moral offense these theories seem to give her.

She grants the novels she discusses an unexamined aura of classic grandeur. Henry James is the presiding genius with supporting roles by Proust, Dickens, Beckett, and the Odyssey. This is not exactly a stacked deck, but it would be ethically interesting to see her wrestling with works she finds extremely uncongenial. She endorses enlarging the canon but argues that the shared reading of certain particularly intelligent authors nurtures ethical communities, and she thinks that extending the canon to a wider range would not fundamentally alter the style of close reading she practices. And yet, how would some of the claims advanced here about literature and the moral life sound amidst a discussion of Céline, William Burroughs, Swift, Bataille, Duras, Sade, Pauline Réage, or even some hilariously slippery skeptic like Robert Musil or François Rabelais? Is only some literature usable and then only in some kinds of moral reflection?

Moreover, what conception of the good life for a human being is implicit in taking Henry James as exemplary? What are the material and social conditions for the moral agent he posits as ideal? Does contemporary life make that ideal, however desirable in the abstract, unrealizable? Are there moral issues or intensities beyond its scope? Nussbaum mentions Nietzsche in passing but does not really face the risk he and heirs like Derrida raise that the “ethical” as such may be extremely problematic, in fact utterly self-deceiving, particularly wherever terms like “love” are freely used. One gets little feeling here for the possibility that there may exist incommensurable moral perspectives, a radical problem of evil, or a clash between a moral perspective and the deliberate, amoral or anti-moral refusal of any such perspective. Hers is not a suspicious hermeneutics.

Charles Taylor has objected that Nussbaum's understanding of ethics precludes seeing transcending humanity as a coherent ethical ideal. In the book's final essay, Nussbaum concedes her preference for Aristotle's earth-bound practicality and her suspicion of religious motives. But what if we aim to be not good, but holy; not morally upright, but justified, in St. Paul's sense? Suppose one's ideal is not Lambert Strether, but St. Francis? Christianity seems closer to Nussbaum's project than she recognizes. Paul and all his heirs also criticize the generality of law and insist on the particularity of love—God's love for the individual and our love for one another. For a Christian, moral rules are secondary to contemplating a narrative, the life of Jesus. The centrality Nussbaum accords love as well as qualities like humility, self-sacrifice, the examination of conscience, confession and apology for one's wrongdoing, forgiveness even of those who repeatedly and unrepentantly injure one, the formulation of ethical problems in terms of friendship and family relations—all seem more consonant with Christianity than with Aristotle. Given Kierkegaard's themes and literary practice, one is surprised to find no mention of him nor of such contemporaries as Buber and Levinas.

Yet the measure of this book's power is that it stimulates us to raise serious questions like these, not as rhetorical, but as genuinely inviting Nussbaum's response.

Ronald L. Hall (essay date September 1994)

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SOURCE: Hall, Ronald L. “Transcending the Human: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Martha Nussbaum.” International Philosophical Quarterly 34, no. 3 (September 1994): 361-73.

[In the following essay, Hall discusses Kierkegaardian dialectics in relation to the philosophical ideas put forth by Nussbaum. Hall focuses particularly on Nussbaum's essay “Transcending Humanity” and Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling.]


In this essay, I propose to show that and how Kierkegaardian dialectics can be put to hermeneutical good work. My immediate purpose is to show this in relation to the thought of a contemporary American philosopher, Martha Nussbaum. More generally, I hope to suggest the positive heuristic value of Kierkegaardian hermeneutics; more concretely, I hope to imply the positive existential value of a Kierkegaardian dialectical framework for interpreting life.

I will focus here on Kierkegaard's resignation/faith dialectic, my understanding of which is derived mostly from Fear and Trembling.1 Here Kierkegaard, writing under the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio, recounts and analyzes the biblical story of Abraham and Isaac. Kierkegaard considers that Abraham, at least from the Christian point of view, is a knight of faith, a perfect embodiment of faith. Abraham's faith is found in his unflinching, unhesitant, response to God's command to sacrifice his son Isaac: for God's sake he was willing to give up his son, and in absolute trust in God's promises, he believed that he would receive his son back.

From this story it is clear that for Kierkegaard, resignation is an essential element in faith. Resignation, however, is not faith, but faith is not faith apart from resignation. Kierkegaard's way of putting this is to say that resignation is but the first step in the double movement of faith. For me (and any concrete individual) to make this double movement, to answer the call of God to live in faith, I must first resign from the finite world, turn away from, go beyond, all that is relative; I must foreswear all of my idolatrous relations to finitude.

This first movement of faith is not faith, however, until its second movement is made. In this, where faith becomes fully actual, the whole of the finite world, every inch, is “given” back at the very dialectical moment it is given up. In faith a new relation to finitude is thus established—a personal relation. This new personal relation lies on the other side of resignation, but it does not leave it completely behind. Actually going through the movement of resignation brings with it the concrete existential awareness of my power (my freedom) to turn away from the world. Such an awareness prepares the way for faith, insofar as faith is realized in the existential movement (moment) in which I receive back—from the hands of the Eternal—every inch of the finite that I have willingly given up. Faith receives and embraces the world just as Abraham was enabled by faith to receive and embrace Isaac when God stayed his willing hand. I can be said only to be able to receive the world, to be able to embrace it, to be able to choose it, and hence to be able to make it my own in a deeply personal way, if I have the power to turn away, the power of renouncement, the will to resignation. For this reason the element of resignation is a permanent structural element within faith. I have learned from Kierkegaard's Sickness Unto Death to think of resignation's place within faith, its permanent presence within it, in terms of his notion of an annulled possibility.2

The primary issue in Sickness Unto Death is the relation between faith and despair. Here Kierkegaard says something about their relation that seems structurally similar to what he says (in Fear and Trembling) about the relation between faith and resignation, namely, that the movement of resignation simpliciter (the movement of the knight of infinite resignation) could not be further from faith, from the movements that the knight of faith makes. His famous definition of faith seems to presuppose such a relation of absolute mutual exclusion between despair and faith, a relation in which despair has no place at all within faith. His prefatory remark that introduces his definition of faith is as follows: “The formula that describes the state of the self [the self in faith] when despair is completely rooted out is …” (SUD 4, italics added). Faith, then, is a state, we might call it a state of spiritual health, in which it seems there is no trace of despair; for despair is after all, a sickness, the sickness unto death!

On the other hand, in his usual maddening dialectic, Kierkegaard says that despair is an essential element within faith. He says: “Note that here despair over sin is dialectically understood as pointing towards faith. The existence of this dialectic must never be forgotten (even though this book deals only with despair as sickness); in fact, it is implied in despair's also being the first element in faith” (SUD 116). So it seems that even though despair is the very opposite of faith, as resignation is the opposite of faith, or at least, far removed from it, it is also, again like resignation, an element within faith—indeed, an indispensable element. How can Kierkegaard have it both ways?

I suggest that if we are to make sense out of this, if we are to find a way to save what some might dismiss as a blatant contradiction, we must turn to the notion of annulled possibility. Kierkegaard remarks: “Not to be in despair must signify the destroyed possibility of being able to be in despair; if a person is truly not to be in despair, he must at every moment destroy the possibility” (SUD 15). If a person cannot be in despair, if he or she does not have this capacity to be, then the person cannot exist in faith. It is in this way that despair figures essentially in the structure of faith, for it is what faith, at every moment, destroys, negates, annuls, as a possibility. As such, to the extent that despair is not possible, neither is faith. Despair, then, like resignation, is an essential dialectical moment in faith: despair, like resignation, is present within faith, dialectically present as absent; despair, like resignation, is present within faith as an annulled possibility.

I am convinced that this dialectic makes sense, and further, that it helps us to make sense of the unique qualities of our human existence. But rather than trying to make out this case in terms of Kierkegaard's work only, I will show in the following how this tricky notion of annulled possibility can both illumine and be illuminated by the recent work of Martha Nussbaum.


In her article “Transcending Humanity,”3 Martha Nussbaum says that it seems perfectly intelligible that human beings often find themselves dreaming of, longing for, wishing for, a form of existence that is other than their own, an existence that transcends the human one. Such a longing may well be for a god-like transcendence, that is, immortal, omniscient, omnipotent, ageless, griefless, painless, etc. Who would not want to live so transcendently? Would it not in fact be perverse not to want this?

At the same time, she wonders about the intelligibility, the coherence of this wish, its own intrinsic perversion. This question of the coherency of the human wish to transcend the human, the coherency of the lure of resignation, is generated by her recognition that it is also intelligible that human beings would refuse or reject this other-than-human existence were it ever actually offered to us as more than a dream, more than a fantasy. Would we really want to have what we sometimes think that we want to have? Would we really resign from our own finitude, our own humanity? Would we really want to be gods if this were more than an idle fantasy?

Nussbaum puts this question in terms of an offer made to Odysseus by Calypso to stay with her and become a god, immortal and ageless. The offer would require that Odysseus turn away from his quest to return home, that he resign from the concerns of human finitude. He refuses the offer, though he has already stayed with Calypso for some time, and even though he stays one more year. The reasons he offers are as follows:

Goddess and queen, do not make this a cause of anger with me. I know the truth of everything that you say. I know that my wise Penelope, when a man looks at her, is far beneath you in form and stature; she is a mortal, you are immortal and unageing. Yet, notwithstanding, my desire and longing day by day is still to reach my own home and to see the day of my return. And if this or that divinity should shatter my craft on the wine-dark ocean, I will bear it and keep a bold heart within me. Often enough before this time have war and wave oppressed and plagued me; let new tribulations join the old.

(TH 365)4

So Odysseus chooses his own life, his own human existence with all of its vulnerability to change, to ageing, to death; he chooses a real ageing and mortal woman over an ageless, deathless, beautiful nymph. And this seems not only intelligible, but somehow admirable, perhaps more so than Abraham who chooses God over his own son, over his own hopes for the future. Why?

Human existence, its loves, fears, hopes, griefs, dangers, joys, presupposes a context of, is conditioned by, time and hence contingency and uncertainty. Such a context places human beings in risk and in need, and so requires relations of dependency; but the human condition of contingency also calls for courage, for resourcefulness, for love, hope, and trust, the human virtues we admire, the virtues we reckon as human excellences. It is just these features of our existence that give it its intrinsic worth. Yet it is just these features that would be lost in the timeless, changeless, deathless eternity of divine transcendence. What we admire in Odysseus' choice of his own human finitude, a choice he makes at the price of his own mortality, are precisely those qualities of finite contingent existence that make human existence itself of intrinsic value.

But let us come full circle. Does the lure of god-like transcendence have its proper human place? Who is right here? Abraham who is willing to turn his back on the world, his only son, or Odysseus who will not turn his back on his earthly home, his ageing wife, his humanness. Must we resist the lure of transcendence for the sake of our humanity? Or, more subtly and more paradoxically, is it the case that the wish to transcend our humanity is a wish constitutive of, intrinsic to, our humanness? Is it the case that only human beings can (have the capacity to) wish to be something other than they are? If so, would not the complete repression of this longing to, or at least of this temptation to long to, transcend our humanity for the sake of fully embracing it, be in some paradoxical way a repression of our humanness, as much so as the wish for transcending it?

Herein is the problematic of the dialectic of resignation and faith: how do we reckon with the human lure to divinity, with the human temptation to want to transcend itself, without destroying the human, without destroying ourselves? Nussbaum helps us sort through this problematic by introducing two conceptions of transcendence, what she calls—I think unfortunately—external and internal forms of transcendence.5

Nussbaum makes this distinction in response to a question that Charles Taylor asks her in his review of her book The Fragility of Goodness.6 His question is simply this: where does she stand on the issue between Plato and Aristotle on the point of whether the Platonic aspiration to transcend the human must be excluded from an Aristotelian eudaimonia? Taylor presents two positions and asks which Nussbaum thinks is correct: (1) the inclusive view that the good life, Aristotle's eudaimonia (happiness), includes, even though it is in tension with, the Platonic aspiration for transcendence; (2) the exclusive view that the good life (Aristotelian eudaimonia) is only, that is, purely, human, with no place for extrahuman transcendence. Before we can see what her answer to this is, we must turn briefly to summarize the difference that she sees between Plato and Aristotle on this issue of transcendence.7


For Nussbaum, Plato's philosophical enterprise, at least as that is reflected in the early and middle dialogues,8 is motivated by his wish to find a technē, a science or art of control, that would take the sting out of tuchē, that human, all too human, condition of being subject to ungoverned contingency, to luck, to that which simply happens to us as human beings. Such an exposure to tuchē exposes us to pain, to uncertainty, makes us vulnerable to chance, vulnerable to loss, the ultimate such loss being death, and hence to grief. His effort was directed at finding a way to make human existence safer, more predictable, more under control. Nussbaum puts it as follows: “Technē, then, is a deliberate application of human intelligence to some part of the world, yielding some control over tuchē; it is concerned with the management of need and with prediction and control concerning future contingencies” (FG 95).

In summary, Nussbaum says that Plato is searching for a form of goodness (the good human life) without fragility, without vulnerability to mortality, to the deception of appearances, to the consuming demands of the appetites and madness of the passions, to the distractions of bodily existence, etc. This, Nussbaum claims, is the argument of the Phaedo and is consistent with the other dialogues of this period. Again, I quote: “Socrates defends as the best life a life which he calls a practice for death; a life of philosophical contemplation in which the philosopher dissociates himself as much as possible from the desires and pursuits of the human body, according them no positive value at all” (FG 139).

The Platonic aspiration, the aspiration to live well, is to live as a god, aloof from the concerns of the earth, of bodily existence, from appearances, from passions: it is an aspiration to live absolutely without need, and so without any dependency on others, to live as absolutely self-sufficient, absolutely alone. So self-sufficient is the philosopher who is practicing death, that even sexual arousal is resisted:

It is not without reason that Alcibiades compares Socratic virtues to statues of the gods. For, as we have seen, Socrates, in his ascent towards form, has become himself, very like a form, hard, indivisible, unchanging. … It is not only Socrates' dissociation from his body. It is not only that he sleeps all night with the naked Alcibiades without arousal. There is, along with this remoteness, a deeper impenetrability of spirit. Words launched ‘like bolts’ have no effect … Socrates refuses to be affected. He is stone; and he also turns others to stone.

(FG 195)

It is no wonder why Alcibiades committed his famous sacrilege. One night he went for a walk, drunk on the divine madness of eros and frustrated by the impenetrability of Socrates-the-stone, and in a rage of madness mutilated the statues of the gods, smashing their faces and genitals. Here we see a human being rejecting Socrates' cold and inhuman definition of the best human life; here we see a human being raging against the lure of the inhuman. To live as a stone, as a god, frees us from the conflicts of passion, from the vulnerability to loss, from dependence, from neediness, but at what price? For Alcibiades, as for Odysseus, that price is too dear.

A different attitude toward the gods, to god-like existence is reflected in Greek tragedy and in Aristotle. This different attitude probably accounts for why Plato thought so little of tragedy and Aristotle thought so highly of it. In contradistinction to Plato, what we see in popular Greek culture, especially as that is reflected in the tragedies, is a deep ambivalence felt towards the gods, towards a god-like existence. The ambivalence concerns two very different ways of thinking about the gods, about a god-like existence. One way to understand the gods would be to think that they are better than humans, superior. This is Plato. Their existence is better because the gods lack what we call human limitations. On the other hand, the gods may be thought to be simply and strangely different; different as an alien might be, different as some superhuman from some other planet, some other place, another species perhaps, not human; as different from human beings as apes, and as similar. This is Aristotle. To want to live among such beings, as such an alien being, would entail forfeiting our human existence; it would be to live another way. Some (Aristotle and Odysseus) recognize and contend that such an existence would not be worth living. Others wonder: would it be? Does transcendence betoken a freedom from the bitters of human existence (its so-called limitations) but at the expense of the loss of its sweets?

This ancient debate is really the subject of the popular film Cocoon. Here the issue is simply put: we, ageing and dying human beings, have a chance to leave St. Petersburg, the nursing home, to have our health and youthful vigor, including sexual potency and desire, restored, and to live forever; all we have to do is to go somewhere else, all we have to do is to leave the earth. Do we want this? In the film, most who are invited to leave reckon that they would be crazy not to. But there is one hold-out; one character who refuses, who takes this rocket flight to be a metaphysical flight from humanness; one character who chooses to stay, to die (he is, I might point out, a Jew). In the sequel, one couple changes their mind and decides to return to the earth, to their grandchildren, their children, even if this means that they must die. And somehow this seems the noble, the human choice, a kind of confirmation that Odysseus was right.

What, from the Aristotelian point of view, would we miss if we could actually become gods? Nussbaum considers some interesting examples. (1) First, athletics. Would not the value of, the glory of, achieving excellence in athletics vanish if we were unlimited? Is it not the case that it is the structure of the human body and the conditions of space and time, etc. that provide the necessary conditions for making sense of athletic excellence? Athletic excellence is species-specific; we do not think of it in terms of races or contests with other animals; or aliens, or robots. We frown on that which is outside of, that which is unnatural to the human species; we do not admire something that would give an unfair advantage, say drugs or bionics. What makes athletic excellence excellent is determined by the natural possibilities of the human species as such—by the kind of beings that we are. The offer of Calypso, then, appears not an offer of a better human life but a radically different kind of existence, a non-human one.

(2) Consider political associations. One thing, a point Aristotle forcefully makes, that marks human beings off from both the beast and the gods is that we are political beings. What is the glory of this? Nussbaum says: “Politics is about using human intelligence to support human neediness; so to be truly human you have to have both elements. Beasts fail on the one count, gods on the other” (TH 372). Aristotle does not allow the idea of a completely self-sufficient life—a life that would not depend on the presence of others, a solitary life—to count as a fully human life; for him, the relationships of care and dependency that bind citizens together in the state, that bind families and friends together, are intrinsic to the good human life; a complete human existence must include them, even though such an inclusion will generate risks, vulnerabilities, disappointments, pain, as an essential part of the good life, as an intrinsic part of happiness.

And (3), what about the virtues that Aristotle thinks are ingredient to the good life? Courage, for example? Nussbaum remarks: “Homeric gods usually cannot and do not have it, since there is nothing grave for them to risk. On the other hand courageous action seems to be a fine human achievement” (TH 374). And of moderation, she says: “Moderation will go out too, since for a being who cannot get ill or become overweight or alcoholic, there is not only little motivation to moderate intake, but also little intelligibility to the entire concept. On the other hand, moderation is a challenge and a fine thing in human life: there are so many ways to go wrong here, so few ways of finding what is truly appropriate” (TH 374). And what about justice?

Aristotle seems right that the whole notion of the gods making contracts and returning deposits is ludicrous, makes no sense at all. … Human beings are in a sense worse off than the gods because they suffer; but they also know how to deal with suffering, and their morality is a response to the fact of suffering. The gods are better because they can simply overlook, look over, the sufferings of human beings, without involvement or response.

(TH 375)

If justice requires us to recognize the needs of others, to have compassion for them, to want to put a stop to suffering where we can, then human beings are better off than the gods in terms of their capacity to understand, to pursue, and to achieve justice.

Not only do the gods seem worse off in important ways in comparison to human beings; they also seem to know this, that is, to envy human existence. The Greek gods do fall in love, but not with each other, but with mortals. It seems that: “They long … for that which displays effort and longing, need and striving, achievement against odds. … So the transcendent ones long, it seems for a certain sort of transcendence: for transcendence of their own limit, which is to lack limit and therefore to be incapable of virtue” (TH 377).


Now back to the issue that Taylor raised for Nussbaum: which view does she support? “The view that our proper human goal is activity according to complete human excellence plus some form of transcending? Or the view that, in order to pursue appropriately the whole human good, we must leave aside our desire for transcendence?” (TH 378). Refusing to identify herself with either of these views, Nussbaum goes on to say: “It may appear that I am in fact supporting, as Taylor suspected, the second view. But I believe that matters are more complex” (TH 378).

In what way are these matters more complex? At this point she introduces the distinction between two forms of transcendence, internal and external. The internal form of transcendence does not aim at some other-worldly, extrahuman existence, nor does it hover above this world in a kind of abstract philosophical detachment from it. Internal transcendence enlivens the ordinary, the everyday, by introducing into it a sense of spirit—a sense of spontaneity, surprise, novelty, improvisation, freedom, and so forth—that keeps the human life from becoming banal. As she puts it, such a transcendence takes us “above the dullness and obtuseness of the everyday” (TH 379). But it is more than this: internal transcendence has a moral and political dimension. Internal transcendence is more than an aesthetic rising above; it is a rising above in moral and political excellence; it is the transcendence of practical wisdom. This sort of transcendence does not aim at transcending our humanity. Quite to the contrary, it aims to deepen our sense of humanness, it makes us more aware of the riches of our human existence. This is the sense of transcendence that we must cultivate for a life of complete virtue.

The second form of transcendence she calls external. In its every manifestation, the lure of external transcendence is the wish to depart human life altogether. It is this form of transcendence that Nussbaum is particularly concerned to reject as incoherent. She says: “… what my argument urges us to reject as incoherent is the aspiration to leave behind altogether the constitutive conditions of our humanity and to seek for a life that is really the life of another sort of being—as if it were a higher and better life for us” (TH 379).

Nussbaum cautions, however, that it is not always easy to draw the line between these two forms of transcendence: “The puzzle then is, when does the aspiration to internal transcendence become the aspiration to depart from human life altogether?” (TH 380).

At one point, she seems to me to be very Greek in her suggestion that what we need to do is to moderate the lure of external transcendence, to keep it from going too far, to keep it in check, as it were. She invokes here the Greek idea of pride (hubris).

There is a kind of striving that is appropriate to a human life; and there is a kind of striving that consists in trying to depart from that life to another life. This is what hubris is—the failure to comprehend what sort of life one has actually got, the failure to live within its limits (which are also possibilities), the failure, being mortal, to think mortal thoughts. Correctly understood, the injunction to avoid hubris is not a penance or denial—it is an instruction as to where the valuable things for us are to be found.

(TH 381)

But then she takes a different tack; more dialectical, I would say, perhaps more biblical: now the terms she uses are the terms of tension, even contradiction. She asks: “Does this mean that one should actually not want the people one loves to live forever?” Her response: “Yes and no.” She even admits that this tension is close to being a contradiction, but asserts that it “seems to be a part of the best human life” (TH 381). In summary: “… the best human life in my own conception contains more tension and conflict around the issue of transcendence than Aristotle's best life, in which the fear of death plays a very small role. Not enough, perhaps, to make it Taylor's ‘inclusive view.’ But more than his ‘narrow view,’ insofar as he identifies that with Aristotle's” (TH 381).

So, does she or does she not? Does she or does she not reject altogether the place of external transcendence within a fully human life, and specifically the Platonic version of this transcendence, the aspiration to divinity? Does she reject this lure to divinity as figuring in the good human life as Aristotle seemed to? Granting that transcendence of the internal sort is necessary for a good human existence, what, if any, role does the lure of external transcendence, or, at least, the wish for immortality, play in the good life? On the one hand, she seems to want to reject it altogether as incoherent; and on the other, she seems to want to say that it is a constitutive element in the good human life. Is it coherent to want to live forever? “Yes and no,” she says. Can she have it both ways? What would it mean to have it both ways?


But before we address these matters, we must ask what it is, if anything, that Nussbaum wants to save from the Platonic aspiration to divinity? What, if anything, does she think is worth saving here?

At the time she wrote Fragility (chapter 5), it was quite clear that she did want to save something, even though by the time of the writing of “Transcending Humanity” she seems to have abandoned altogether the thought that such a transcendence has any coherent role to play in a fully human life. I think that her original position and her current one betoken what I would call Nussbaum's undialectical imagination. It is precisely at this point that she could learn from Kierkegaard.

In Fragility, it is clear that Nussbaum thinks that if we were unequivocally to reject the Platonic aspiration for immortality, we would flatten our existence. She calls on Nietzsche, an anti-Platonist, to support this positive dimension of the Platonic aspiration to divinity. Nietzsche's description of the “last man” (Zarathustra) envisions the extinction of humanity as the result of “the extinction of the Platonic longing for self-transcendence” (FG 163). That is, we had better be careful when we reject the Platonic aspiration for divinity that we do not throw out with it something that is essentially human, something that, if missing, would result in the extinction of our humanness. For Plato, the longing for immortality is part of the nobleness of our humanness. He saw clearly: “the humanness of denial and dissatisfaction, the depth of our human longing for something better than what we are. Plato would say that to cease to see and feel these things would be to cease, in some way to be human” (FG 163).9

At this point in Nussbaum's evolution therefore, she thinks that the Platonic aspiration for the extrahuman is not all bad. Her way of thinking about the positive function of such a transcendence is, however, completely undialectical. As she thinks about it at this point, it is as though contemplation or transcendence of the Platonic sort were a nice capstone to a fully human life, at least, if not taken too far; as though a fully human life needs a little of the salt of transcendence, though too much will make it unsavory. In Kierkegaardian terms, this would be a little like saying that a sprinkling of despair—but not too much mind you—is good for the life of faith.

But by the time of the writing of “Transcending Humanity,” Nussbaum completely rejects any positive place for Platonic transcendence within the fully human life. This categorical rejection shows clearly that she will have nothing to do with dialectics. Again, however, she is unsettled. You might think that this absolute rejection of Platonic transcendence would lead her unequivocally into the arms of Aristotle. Not quite so. Aristotle, she thinks, does not have a healthy fear of death, and so does not feel the drive to press the limits of human mortality. We need to press in just this direction. But is not this to press for immortality? And are we not right back into the Platonic longing for divinity? Nussbaum thinks that her position comes comes close to being a contradiction, yet she embraces it and refuses to identify her position with Aristotle's simpliciter. So, are we left with the earlier position wherein the good life must strive to establish some sort of equilibrium between giving in completely to the Platonic aspiration to immortality and simply and categorically rejecting such an aspiration? Or, are we left with the later position which finds no place at all for extrahuman transcendence within the fully human life?

My question in all of this simply is: why must we settle for these as the exclusive options? Why must our choice be either (1) the good, fully human, life needs a little, but not too much, Platonic transcendence, or (2) the good life has no place at all for, indeed, cannot coherently wish for, such a Platonic aspiration? That is, why must we settle with Nussbaum for the idea that internal transcendence—now understood as a modification, almost a Platonic modification, of Aristotle's conception of the virtuous life—is sufficient for the fully human life?

What Nussbaum flirts with, but does not seriously consider, I contend, is the plausibility of a third, dialectical approach to the issue: is it not possible coherently to say that the Platonic aspiration to divinity must be rejected completely and absolutely in a fully human existence and at the same time say that it must also figure positively as a constitutive element in the good human life? I turn to Kierkegaard to try to make the case that this third alternative is not only not nonsense, but it illuminates what Nussbaum is struggling to say; in particular, I turn to Kierkegaard's discussion of the dialectic involved in resignation and faith and in despair and faith.


I suggest that the Platonic aspiration to extrahuman transcendence figures positively within human existence in just the same way that resignation (and despair) figures within faith for Kierkegaard, namely, dialectically, as an annulled possibility. To be fully human, it is necessary that we be able to wish for, that we be able to think about, that we be able to want, that we be able to conceive of, something other than our human existence. To be fully human, that is, to live in faith, it is necessary, dialectically, to be able to resign from everything that is human, to be able to refuse human existence. Why is this necessary? This is complicated and tricky.

For Kierkegaard it is possible to be a self only if it is possible not to be; but one can actually be a self, that is, be the self that one already is, if and only if this latter possibility (that is, the possibility of not being a self, or one's self) is annulled by faith. Faith thus requires a certain transcendence, a level of self-consciousness in terms of which the self may become problematic, or distanced, divorced, or otherwise separated from itself. This is why beasts are not subject to despair and, a fortiori, not capable of existing in faith. Kierkegaard in fact defines despair, the opposite of faith, as a condition of not being, or not willing to be, or willing not to be, the self that one is. Despair is that state of human existence in which the self is alienated from itself. This possibility of alienation, this wedge that separates me from myself, provides the space, the conditions as it were, that enable me to come to myself, to embrace my existence as my own—at least insofar as this possibility is concretely realized. This is why Kierkegaard is insistent that despair is an element within faith, but at the same time the opposite of faith; why he defines faith as a condition in which despair is completely rooted out.

Let me close by returning to Abraham and Odysseus. Both Abraham and Odysseus are called to resign from their human existence, to give up what is valuable to them, and to do this for some higher calling. Recall that in the biblical story this resignation/faith dialectic is played out in the demand God places on Abraham, the demand that Abraham sacrifice, or at least be wiling to sacrifice, his own and only son; and along with this, his hope to be the father of a great nation—that hope which first uprooted him from his ancestral home, that had made of him a nomad, a wanderer in history. The lesson here seems to be something like this: faith requires an uprooting from nature, it requires that the faithful finds his or her absolute center of gravity outside of his or her natural home in the finite world; that the faithful finds his or her place in history, before God, and hence, in its primary orientation, outside of the relative, in the Absolute, the absolutely other, in the divine. Faith requires, in summary, transcendence. Transcendence implies a break with finitude; infinite resignation provides this break.

But this is not all: faith also entails receiving the finite back, every inch. What is given back to the faithful self (the finite, Isaac) is the same as what was given up, but the relationship is radically transformed; transformed from what we might call a natural relation to a personal one. This latter relation to finitude is personal insofar as it is qualified by radical contingency and choice, by an existentially felt vulnerability to loss, by a consciousness of the finite as relative. No longer is finitude thought to be ours by default, by natural right, as it were. Rather, finitude can now belong to us, of our own free and responsible choice; now we can embrace it as our own, as a gift from the hands of the Eternal. It is just this difference that allowed Isaac to belong to Abraham in a more deeply personal way than before the knife had been raised to him.

Resignation drives us toward transcendence; drives us from the world; faith drives us, as spirit, back into the world. But we do not come back from Mt. Moriah the same. The movement of resignation, when it is really made, irreversibly transforms our relation to finitude. The paradoxical result of resignation is that finitude becomes exponentially higher in value. It is ever so much more precious because on the other side of resignation it becomes ever so much our own, just as Isaac came to belong to Abraham so much more intensely after he had given him up.

Odysseus, on the other hand, refuses the offer to resign from his humanity, to give up his adventure, his wife, his home. Unlike Abraham, therefore, he does not, is not willing to, make the first movement of faith, the movement of resignation. Indeed, it seems that under no conditions would he make such a sacrifice. He is ethical through and through. It seems that he could not seriously entertain the possibility of doing what Abraham did, lifting the knife to his son, his wife? Odysseus has, we might say, no distance on his humanness.

Yes, Odysseus is a human being. But does he choose his humanness, as Nussbaum thinks he does? Only in a qualified sense, a less than radical, less than personal sense. It is almost as if Odysseus were being given two options, one of which was inconceivable for him actually to take. In this context, the choice of the other option seems to lack the force of a real choice; and despite the meaning of Odysseus' name, his choice seems not to reflect any real struggle, any real suffering. It is almost as though there were no real possibility for him to annul, to refuse. Yes, the temptation to Odysseus is there, to become a god (or, perhaps to retreat into Calypso's cave), but he never goes so far as to let that possibility become more than a dreaming fantasy; more than one more obstacle to his return home. He was not able to allow it to take on the actuality it took on in the story of Abraham. But precisely because Odysseus could not conceive of giving up Penelope, he was in no position to relate to her as one would relate to someone who has been dialectically given up and miraculously restored.

Nussbaum thinks that Odysseus has chosen life, decided that the human is better than the life of a god. But if I am right, he never allowed the possibility of resignation to have its full existential power and force. As such, his reunion with Penelope does not have the passion that it seems to have in the case of Abraham and Isaac.

My speculation is that this is what Nussbaum actually wants to say, but lacks the dialectical resources to pull off: she tries to capture a very deeply un-Greek dialectic within Greek categories. She rightly recognizes that the issue is transcendence; that the issue is choosing what is ours, ultimately choosing our world, our finite mortal home. She thinks that this is exactly what Odysseus did. What she fails to see, however, is the more dialectical Kierkegaardian point that such a radical choice is inextricably tied not just to the abstract possibility of resignation, but to the concrete realization of that possibility. Indeed what faith does is to embrace what we can turn away from, but only after that possibility has been made radically concrete. And it is this concrete realization that faith constantly carries inside itself and constantly annuls.

To reject the urge to transcend our humanity is an easy move, if the urge is not played out as a real possibility in one's life, if the knife is, as it were, never really lifted, if the will to resignation is only a pious self-deception. In this case, what is ours cannot be chosen as ours in any radical sense, and so remains less than ours in any deeply personal sense.


  1. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling/Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983); hereafter FT.

  2. Søren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening, ed. and trans. by Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1980), p. 116n; hereafter SUD.

  3. Martha Nussbaum, “Transcending Humanity,” in Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 365-91; hereafter TH. These essays develop many of the ideas of Nussbaum's earlier work, The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986); hereafter FG.

  4. It is interesting to note here that Calypso's offer to Odysseus to remain with her is an offer not to transcend the natural order, but precisely the opposite. She is tempting Odysseus to refuse to stand out from nature. It is true that the temptation she offers is a temptation to depart from human existence, but this departure is not in the direction of an aloof god. Rather, her temptation draws Odysseus in the opposite direction, the direction of the Earth Mother, we might say (Calypso is portrayed by Homer as a nymph not a goddess). Odysseus resists the temptation to be engulfed by the immanent, to re-enter the womb, her cave, to live wholly within the natural order, even if such an existence would be as deathless as nature.

    I owe this insight to my colleague, R. Taylor Scott. In fairness to Professor Nussbaum, however, I must note that she does think of the lure of transcending the human as a lure in two directions, upwards to the gods or downwards to the beasts. She says: “… the human being is also the being that can most easily cease to be itself—either by moving (Platonically) upwards towards the self-sufficiency of the divine, or by slipping downward towards the self-sufficiency of doggishness … both involve the closing-off of important human things” (FG 417). In fairness though to Professor Scott, she does make it seem that Odysseus is tempted in the Platonic direction, which, on her own terms, may not be the case, or at least, it certainly need not be.

  5. I take this to be unfortunate because the idea of internal transcendence may be construed as a retreat into oneself. This sort of transcendence is as much a wish to depart from our humanness as is the transcendence of the external sort. Indeed, the risk of interpreting internal transcendence in this way is particularly acute in our own time where everything is subject to being psychologized. What Nussbaum wants to say, I think correctly, is that transcendence, in some form, is intrinsic to our humanness: this is human transcendence. What she does not seem to resolve is the place of extrahuman transcendence within the human. Is this also intrinsic to human existence?

  6. See Charles Taylor's review of The Fragility of Goodness in Canadian Journal of Philosophy 18 (1988), 805-14.

  7. Nussbaum says that she will not pursue a point that Taylor raises about her placing the issue of transcendence exclusively in the context of Greek polytheism. Taylor wants to know why she does not consider transcendence in the Judaeo-Christian context. This, I think, is an important point. Søren Kierkegaard argues that it was Christianity that introduced radical transcendence into the world: he called this concept of transcendence “spirit,” a concept that Greek consciousness lacked: the Greek understanding of spirit was as psyche, not pneuma. See “The Immediate Erotic Stages,” in Either/Or I, ed, and trans. Howard V. and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1987), pp. 47ff; also, see my own Word and Spirit: A Kierkegaardian Critique of the Modern Age (Bloomington, IN: Indiana Univ. Press, 1993). Nussbaum may be guilty of reading a Judaeo-Christian concept of transcendence into Greek polytheism and Greek philosophy. If Kierkegaard is correct, the Greeks had a notion of transcendence, but it was finite—a kind of higher form of finitude; this is transcendence as psyche. For Greek consciousness, the idea of a radically other-than-the-finite was not available, or what is the same thing, the Greeks lacked the idea of spirit, of the infinite. One reason that the Greeks lacked the conception of spirit is that they lacked the biblical conception of the universe as a creation; it simply was inconceivable to the Greek imagination that the cosmos had come into being, and a fortiori that it came into being as the result of a free, contingent act. As such, the Greek mind could not imagine the radical transcendence of such a creator vis à vis the creation; such a transcendence imagines the creator as radically other than the creation.

  8. This persistent attempt of Plato to root out of existence every trace of contingency, passion, vulnerability, and so forth, finds its exception in his late dialogue Phaedrus. See the chapter of Fragility subtitled: “Madness, Reason, and Recantation in the Phaedrus,” pp. 200ff.

  9. Strangely enough, the remarks that Nussbaum makes about the positive contribution of Plato's aspiration to divinity, a kind of striving to make things better, a striving to live a noble life devoted to truth, goodness, and beauty, make it seem that what she really admires in Plato is what could well fit into her notion of “internal transcendence,” that human form of transcendence that deepens our humanity, and keeps our ordinary lives from degenerating into banality.

Robert P. George (essay date winter 1995-96)

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9985

SOURCE: George, Robert P. “‘Shameless Acts’ Revisited: Some Questions for Martha Nussbaum.” Academic Questions 9, no. 1 (winter 1995-96): 24-42.

[In the following essay, George puts forth a critique of Nussbaum's expert testimony in a court case, Evans v. Romer, concerning the rights of homosexuals.]

Author's Note: This article is dedicated to the late Barry Gross, whose devotion to the ideal of scholarly integrity was exemplary, and who insisted that the matters discussed in this article not be passed over in silence.

In Evans v. Romer, the Colorado Amendment 2 Case,1 so called, Martha Nussbaum, then University Professor and professor of philosophy, classics, and comparative literature at Brown University,2 offered expert testimony in court and by affidavit purporting to show that moral objections to homosexual conduct did not exist, or were, in any event, not significant, in pre-Christian Greek and Roman civilizations or in the major philosophical traditions associated with them. According to her, such objections originated in the West with Christianity. Moral theories that condemn homosexual conduct as contrary to natural law or the natural human good are, she asserted, “inherently theological.”3

I offered testimony to contradict these claims, as did John Finnis, professor of law and legal philosophy at Oxford University. In a subsequent article,4 Finnis argued that Professor Nussbaum's testimony under oath in the Amendment 2 case amounted to a series of misrepresentations, distortions, and deceptions. He accused her of falsifying the positions not only of Plato and Aristotle but also of such modern commentators on Greek philosophy and public morality as Sir Kenneth Dover, A. W. Price, and Gregory Vlastos. Indeed, he accused her of misrepresenting her own published work. He alleged, moreover, that she had engaged in an act of gross deception of the court by attempting to pass off as “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area,” viz. classics, a definitively superseded nineteenth-century edition of Liddell and Scott's A Greek-English Lexicon. Finally, he accused her of dissembling about the scholarly credentials of Professor David Cohen, whose work Professor Finnis had introduced to show that the public morality of classical Athens in fact condemned homosexual conduct.

Professor Nussbaum has now published a lengthy article of her own on the question of classics scholarship in the Amendment 2 case. It appears in Virginia Law Review,5 where it occupies 137 pages, and contains 486 footnotes.6 The article, which is based on a lecture Professor Nussbaum presented at the University of Virginia Law School, criticizes the testimony of various witnesses for the state of Colorado (including Professor Finnis and me) and purports to answer some of Finnis's allegations against her. It includes an appendix coauthored with Sir Kenneth Dover,7 and cites as “on file with the Virginia Law Review Association” letters from various classics scholars.

Readers of the Virginia Law Review, particularly those who have not read Finnis's article in Academic Questions, will likely not realize that Professor Nussbaum offers no reply at all to the great majority of the very serious allegations of abuse of scholarship that Finnis made against her.8 And, even with respect to the small number of charges she does purport to answer, readers will likely not know that her answers—albeit (apparently)9 supported by such scholars as Dover and Price (whose work Finnis had accused her of misrepresenting)—do not exonerate her of the misconduct alleged by Finnis. Let me give some particulars.10

Consider, first of all, Professor Nussbaum's treatment of the historian of ancient law and classics scholar David Cohen. In his affidavit, Finnis had introduced Cohen's book Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens11 to explain “what is questionable about the picture, in certain respects sound and illuminating, drawn in works such as Dover's Greek Homosexuality (which is foundational for contemporary pro-‘gay’ classical scholarship).”12 According to Cohen, classical Athenian public morality was far from unambiguously accepting of homosexual conduct. Though such conduct was not punishable as a matter of criminal law, there was a wide range of views in Athenian society on homosexual activity, and those who adhered to some imposed their moral judgment against it in a variety of formal and informal ways. If Cohen is right about Athenian public morality, then Professor Nussbaum's claim that Christianity introduced moral objections to homosexual conduct in the West immediately collapses.

So, how did Professor Nussbaum deal with Cohen? She alleged that “Cohen … is not a classicist.” She claimed that he “has never been employed by a department of Classics.” “He is,” she stated, “a Professor in a department of Rhetoric, with a degree in law.” His “well-intentioned” book on Athenian public morality, she declared, “falls sadly short in its coverage of the evidence.” For Cohen had not, she said, discussed the “dream book” of Artemidorus, “presumably because it was not available in English translation at the time he wrote the book.”13

The facts, however, are as follows: Professor Cohen is a classicist (and, in truth, a scholar of considerable distinction in the field). He holds appointments in the departments of rhetoric and classics at the University of California at Berkeley. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from Cambridge University. And, contrary to what Finnis termed Professor Nussbaum's “sly, defamatory suggestion,” he can (and does) read Greek at the high level of proficiency necessary to conduct original scholarship in Greek history. Had he considered Artemidorus—who lived four centuries after the period Cohen was concerned with in his book—in any way relevant to understanding classical Athenian law and public morality, he would not have required a translation of the “dream book.” Cohen had explained that he considered Artemidorus irrelevant in a review essay published prior to the Colorado litigation. Professor Nussbaum must have known this, for she cites this essay later in the very paragraph of her affidavit which suggests that Cohen ignored Artemidorus because it was not available to him in translation. (Incidentally, as Finnis and others have pointed out, a competent English translation of Artemidorus has, in fact, been available for many years.)

Since Professor Nussbaum testified under oath, her misrepresentations, if she knew them to be such, probably constituted perjury. Did she know that Cohen in fact possesses the scholarly qualifications she told the court he lacked? Finnis reports that “[a]ll these facts about Cohen should, he told me, be well known to Professor Nussbaum, since he personally recounted them, in answer to her questions, during a long conversation they had in Chicago in 1992.”14 Professor Nussbaum testified in Colorado in October 1993.

In her Virginia Law Review article, Professor Nussbaum, while retracting none of her disparagements of Cohen's scholarly credentials, treats him more gently and, by way of citation, invites her readers to “see” his letter to her of 27 April 1994, “on file with the Virginia Law Review Association.” She reports that “Cohen holds that the proper way to use his book in the context of these public issues is to argue that the state has no business trying to use the law to enforce morality.”15 The suggestion, one supposes, is that Cohen shares Professor Nussbaum's moral and political views about sodomy statutes and other morals laws (none of which were at issue in Colorado) and, perhaps, her view as to which side had the better Constitutional argument in the Amendment 2 litigation. But none of this is relevant to the question of whether David Cohen teaches in a classics department, holds a doctorate in classics (in addition to a degree in law), or reads Greek. Either he does or he doesn't. And since he does, and had told Professor Nussbaum that he does, she should explain why she, while under oath, stated or plainly implied that he doesn't.

Professor Nussbaum's use of the letter from Cohen turns out to be typical. Finnis argued that she had misrepresented the published views of various scholars, many of whom hold moral and political views like her own and unlike Finnis's and mine. She obtained letters from some of these scholars, which she cites in a way so as to leave the impression that they support her position generally in her dispute with Finnis and me. In some cases, perhaps, scholars have attempted to support her even on questions of the integrity of the use of their work; this seems to be true, for example, of Sir Kenneth Dover, the author of three letters that she cites and the co-author of the aforementioned appendix to her article. These efforts, however, fail to get Professor Nussbaum off the hook. In the end, they simply make clear what knowledgeable readers of Finnis's affidavit and article have known all along, namely, that many of the late twentieth-century scholars he cites to show that Greek civilization and Greek philosophers had moral objections to homosexual conduct do not themselves have such objections.

The appendix co-authored by Professor Nussbaum and Sir Kenneth Dover says that “because Professor Finnis' citation of Dover as if he supports Finnis' position has made public clarification of Dover's position urgent, we jointly state our position below.”16 But for which of his positions did Finnis cite Dover? Finnis manifestly did not cite Dover as someone who personally objected to homosexuality or who holds that Athenian public morality was marked by substantial moral objections to homosexual conduct. Indeed, Finnis noted that Dover's work on the latter point is “foundational for contemporary pro-‘gay’ classical scholarship,” and he introduced Cohen's work precisely to “explain what was questionable” in the picture of Athenian attitudes drawn by Dover. So it comes as no surprise to find Dover opposing Finnis's views in this respect.

What is surprising is Dover's apparent willingness to offer some measure of support for Professor Nussbaum's claims regarding his position on Socrates' (and Plato's) view of homosexual conduct. This was one of the most egregious of her misrepresentations to the court in Colorado. The story is worth telling in some detail.

On the witness stand, Professor Nussbaum was asked point-blank by the attorney for the State of Colorado defending Amendment 2 whether Sir Kenneth Dover, author of Greek Homosexuality, had reached the conclusion that Socrates, among others, “condemned homosexual conduct.” Her answer was unequivocal:

No, he didn't reach that conclusion. He reached the conclusion that they condemned certain forms of conduct, in particular, that Socrates condemned the seduction of students; the conclusion that in Plato's dialogues we find condemnation of sex where bribery or prostitution is involved.17

Testifying as a rebuttal witness the next day, I simply read aloud to the court from Dover's book:

Xenophon's Socrates lacks the sensibility and urbanity of the Platonic Socrates, but there is no doubt that both of them condemn homosexual copulation.18

Readers will note, as the judge no doubt did, that there is no suggestion in this unequivocal statement that, in Dover's view, Socrates condemned homosexual conduct only in the particular relationship of teacher and student. What is “condemned” is homosexual conduct (“copulation”) as such.19

When I returned from Colorado to Princeton, I found waiting for me a fax from Professor Nussbaum demanding a retraction of my claim that she had misrepresented the position of Sir Kenneth Dover, asserting that it was “(a) false, (b) produced with reckless disregard for the truth … [and] (c) damaging to [her] reputation as a scholar.”20 Was she claiming that Dover had abandoned the view he had expressed so unambiguously in Greek Homosexuality?

In a passage from an affidavit that she was then preparing, and which she attached to her letter to me, Professor Nussbaum stated that “George, though making clear on the stand that he was reading from the second edition of Dover's book, did not inform the court that it is the Postscript to the second edition (pp. 168-70) in which Dover explains the changes in his views, among which is Dover's express rejection of many of his earlier restrictive statements on anal and oral sex.”21 This suggested to the court, as it was undoubtedly designed to do, that Dover had in fact rejected, indeed expressly rejected in his postscript, the views he had published in his first edition about Socrates' position on homosexual acts. And this suggestion is utterly false. As I pointed out to the court in a reply to Professor Nussbaum's affidavit, “Here Nussbaum implies—though she is careful not to state—that in his postscript Dover retracts or modifies his view that Plato's Socrates, no less than Xenophon's, condemns homosexual copulation. In fact, the postscript does not even mention Socrates, much less his views on homosexual acts.”22 Actually, Dover's short postscript retracts none of what he said about the moral conclusions drawn by any Greek philosopher regarding homosexual conduct. Professor Nussbaum's sworn suggestion to the contrary was simply outrageous.

In her letter to me and in her affidavit, Professor Nussbaum claimed that “when one reads the rest of what Dover writes, the condemnation is in the nature of the pupil-teacher relationship.”23 However, when one reads “the rest of what Dover writes,” one finds nothing of the kind. Dover's unambiguous conclusion regarding Socrates' condemnation of homosexual copulation is nowhere in his writings retracted or even qualified. So, again, Professor Nussbaum's testimony was false. Did she know it to be false when she gave it? I do not know. However, because I suspected that Nussbaum might attempt to induce Sir Kenneth Dover (whose liberal sympathies regarding the morality and the politics of homosexuality are well known) to provide some cover for the testimony she gave regarding his views, I urged Finnis, with whom I was working on a reply to Professor Nussbaum, to write to Sir Kenneth and ask about his views.

On 19 January 1994, Finnis wrote to him, asking, among other things

—whether your statement on p. 160 of Greek Homosexuality that Socrates, as portrayed by Plato and Xenophon, condemned homosexual copulation really says no more than that Socrates condemned homosexual copulation within pupil-teacher relationships [as Nussbaum had testified], or rather (as I think) conveys your judgment that Socrates, as so portrayed, condemned such conduct (rightly or wrongly) without limiting the condemnation either by type of copulation or type of context or relationship; [and]

—whether Greek Homosexuality (as I think) maintains that Plato (rightly or wrongly) rejected all copulation between males, and not simply acts involving bribery or prostitution [as Nussbaum had also testified was Dover's view].24

On 23 January 1994, Dover replied to Finnis:

Many thanks for your letter. I think I can give pretty definite answers to your questions.

1. It is certainly my opinion that the Socrates of Plato and Xenophon condemned homosexual copulation as such, and did not confine the prohibition to any particular relationships. I certainly meant to say that on pp. 159f. of my book. At the same time he expected any normal male to experience homosexual desire, and he did not think that occasional copulation ‘in an unguarded moment’ completely vitiated a non-physical relationship (p. 163). It is like a temptation to commit adultery or various forms of dishonesty or violence; natural and normal to experience the temptation, but wrong to yield to it.

2. Where one can distinguish Plato from his ‘Socrates,’ i.e., in Laws, Plato condemns all homosexual copulation (pp. 165-68 in my book).25

Dover's answers are indeed “pretty definite.”

What, then, are we to make of Dover's willingness to sign on as co-author of an appendix to Professor Nussbaum's Virginia Law Review article containing the following claim:26

In Greek Homosexuality, Dover stated that the Socrates of both Plato and Xenophon “condemns” homosexual copulation. Moreover, in a letter to Finnis, Dover wrote: “It is certainly my opinion that the Socrates of Plato and Xenophon condemned homosexual copulation as such. …”[27] First of all, however, Dover never claimed that Socrates condemns this copulation as wicked, shameful, and depraving; he said quite clearly that it was condemned as inferior to the pursuit of wisdom, on the grounds that one should not pursue an inferior good when one might pursue a superior good.[28] “Inferior” does not mean “wicked,” nor does “condemns” mean “condemns as wicked and depraving.” Someone who says, “Polonius condemns borrowing,” does not imply that Polonius regards borrowing as wicked or depraved. Thus, Finnis' use of Dover's letter to support Finnis' own position is inappropriate.29

This passage suggests that Dover, in Greek Homosexuality, says (indeed, says “quite clearly”) that Plato condemned homosexual conduct merely as an inferior “good” to the superior good of the pursuing of wisdom. As readers of pages 153-70 (and especially pages 159-60) of Greek Homosexuality will see, this is worse than an oversimplification; it distorts the account of Socrates's views presented in that book. Nowhere in Greek Homosexuality (or, as far as I can tell, in any of his other writings) does Dover present Socrates as describing or treating homosexual conduct as a good of any kind. Rather, he consistently portrays Socrates as treating such conduct as bad, wrong, dishonorable, and, as such, to be avoided. (Contrary to what the Nussbaum-Dover appendix here and elsewhere insinuates, Finnis has never attributed to Dover the view that Socrates condemned homosexual activity or other immoral sexual conduct in stronger terms, such as “wicked” and “depraving.”)

According to the account of Socrates' views Dover gives in Greek Homosexuality, homosexual conduct is bad in a way that merits condemnation. One may accept or decline to accept Dover's speculative explanation of Socrates' reasons for condemning such conduct, viz., that it is an “inferior end” (not a “good”) that vitiates the soul's capacity to pursue the higher (indeed highest) end of wisdom. Either way, homosexual conduct differs radically from other non-wisdom-pursuing activities that may nevertheless legitimately and honorably be pursued, and which Socrates never suggests are (1) not honorable, (2) like pigs scratching against stones, or (3) like a poisonous spider's bite, as the Socrates of Dover's Greek Homosexuality suggests homosexual acts are. This explains why Dover, in his “pretty definite” answers to Finnis's questions about the accuracy of Finnis's interpretation of his book (which, as the reader will recall, Dover had the opportunity to consider in light of Professor Nussbaum's interpretation of it as expounded in her affidavit), likened the temptation to engage in homosexual conduct to the temptation to engage in such manifest evils as adultery, dishonesty, and violence. For Socrates, he says, succumbing to the temptation to engage in homosexual conduct is wrong just as giving in to the temptation to deal dishonestly is wrong. Surely Dover does not now mean to suggest that Socrates thought it “wrong to yield to” any of these temptations merely because they are “inferior goods” to the pursuit of wisdom?30

An incautious reader of the passage I have quoted from the coauthored appendix might take away the impression that Socrates's condemnation of homosexual acts, as presented in Dover's book, was not a moral condemnation. Read carefully, however, the passage avoids denying what even a casual reader of Greek Homosexuality knows, namely, that Socrates, according to Dover, considered homosexual conduct to be (like adultery and dishonesty) morally wrong. Professor Nussbaum's testimony was, however, by her own account, to show that “prior to the Christian tradition, there is no evidence that natural law theories regarded same-sex erotic attachments as immoral, ‘unnatural,’ or improper.”31 (Theories that reach such judgments, she claimed, are “inherently theological.”) So, despite Dover's willingness to join Professor Nussbaum in declaring that Finnis's “use” of his letter is somehow “inappropriate,” nothing he is prepared to join her in saying exonerates her of the precise allegation Finnis has cited that letter to support, namely, that Nussbaum did not tell the truth when she testified that, according to Dover, Socrates did not condemn homosexual conduct.

Indeed, the appendix would not have exonerated Professor Nussbaum of this charge even if Dover had been willing to deny that Socrates' condemnation of homosexual conduct was a moral condemnation. The lawyer for the state of Colorado who cross examined Professor Nussbaum asked her, not whether Dover had concluded that Socrates (and Plato) condemned homosexual conduct “as wicked or depraving,” or even “as immoral,” but rather, simply, whether Dover had concluded that Socrates (and Plato) “condemned homosexual conduct.” Her answer, under oath, was “No.” And that answer was false. Its falsity was clear from Dover's book and is confirmed by his letter to Finnis. Nothing in what Dover joins Nussbaum in saying in the coauthored appendix alters that.

Another point on which Finnis, in his article in Academic Questions, accused Professor Nussbaum of misconduct concerned statements she made, again under oath, in defense of her claim that Plato's Laws, Book 1, 636c, appears to contain a condemnation of homosexual conduct only because translators, under the influence of Christianity, imported prejudices against homosexuality into their translations. Although the dispute in the courtroom involved the question whether the relevant passage in Laws, properly translated, in fact condemns homosexual conduct, the issue Finnis raised in his article concerns Professor Nussbaum's honesty in defending her position.

For example, the passage in Laws 636c describes homosexual acts as para phusin, which all translations that I have been able to discover render as “unnatural” or “contrary to nature.”32 Here is Professor Nussbaum's sworn testimony in the face of these translations:

the terms tendentiously translated “according to nature” and “unnatural” or “contrary to nature” actually refer (in my own expert opinion and the consensus of recent scholars such as Price, whose study of the passage has been widely accepted) to “birth” and not “nature” in any normative sense.33

By “Price” is meant the classicist A.W. Price; his study is contained in his book Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle.34 As the passage I just quoted from Professor Nussbaum's affidavit makes clear, she invokes his work in a way that unmistakably suggested to the court that, in line with “the consensus of recent scholars,” he rejects the standard translations of para phusin in Plato's Laws as “tendentious” and would render the term as something like “contrary to birth” (in the sense of being inconsistent with a policy aimed at combatting underpopulation). As Finnis pointed out, however, when one actually looks at Price's study, one finds him unhesitatingly employing the standard translation of para phusin as “unnatural,” and translating the passage in question as “homosexual intercourse, between males or females, seems to be an unnatural crime of the first rank” (p. 230, emphasis added).

Finnis further observed:

The conclusions of the book's long appendix “Plato's Sexual Morality” are squarely based on Price's reasoned judgment that “unnatural” in these passages both conveyed and entailed Plato's essential moral judgments on sexual conduct, yet Professor Nussbaum swears that it supports her denial that the term had “any normative moral sense” and her assertion that it signified for Plato no more than inconsistency with a temporary pro-natalist colonial politics.35

Price's political and moral views regarding homosexual conduct, like those of Dover, resemble Professor Nussbaum's rather than Finnis's or mine. Yet, what she describes as his widely accepted study turns out to contain a devastating counterwitness to her claims that moral objections to homosexual conduct were a Christian innovation—a counterwitness whose existence she withheld from view even as she implied to the court that Price's translation of para phusin in Laws 636c eliminated the quality of moral condemnation of homosexual conduct conveyed by the “tendentious” rendering of the phrase as “unnatural.” Indeed, as Finnis put it, “Price's book in fact argues, prominently and very explicitly, that Plato's main positions on the morality of sexual conduct, as evidenced by the Republic and the Phaedrus as well as by the Laws, were (rather to Price's regret) substantially the same as the positions maintained in the Catholic tradition.”36

In giving testimony under oath, had Professor Nussbaum merely forgotten that Price, in perfect harmony with other translators, had translated para phusin as “unnatural”? Did she not recall Price's lament that Plato's main positions on sexual morality were essentially those of the Catholic tradition, as reaffirmed by Pope Paul VI? Her Virginia Law Review article does not say, despite the fact that she had a long memorandum from Finnis and me raising these issues—and containing many more allegations of misrepresentation, distortion, and deception—in plenty of time to include some discussion of it in the article. The article does, however, cite two letters from Price (“on file with the Virginia Law Review Association”).37 This gives the appearance that Price somehow supports Nussbaum, and in one sense—albeit an utterly irrelevant one—he does.

In the portion of his first letter quoted by Professor Nussbaum, Price makes two criticisms of Finnis.38 First, he claims that Finnis and others on his side of the Colorado litigation “are well aware that what motivated popular support for Amendment 2 was not respect for the natural law as they interpret it, but attitudes of prejudice and antipathy[39] that contradict the heart of Christian morality.” Second, noting dissent among many Catholics regarding the Church's teaching on contraception (teaching which Finnis and I, notoriously, support), he says that “to call Finnis's argument sectarian would be to exaggerate its acceptability.” Now, neither of these criticisms provides Professor Nussbaum with any defense against Finnis's charge that she deceived the court in suggesting that Price's book rejects, as “tendentious,” the standard translation of “para phusin” as “unnatural” and instead translates the phrase in some fashion that avoids negative moral connotations. Nor do these criticisms excuse her withholding from the court the fact that Price's book concludes that Plato, to the author's regret, held views regarding sexual morality remarkably similar to those of the Catholic tradition (hundreds of years later).

The reader will recall that Price translated the noun “tolmema,” as it appears in Plato's Laws 636c, as “crime of the first rank.” In Greek Homosexuality, Dover had translated “tolmema” as “crime” and “crime of the first order.” In rendering the term pejoratively, the translations of Dover and Price were consistent with most other translations, including the one by Bury, which Finnis used (along with Dover's) in his original affidavit introducing Laws 636c as an example of Plato's moral disapprobation of homosexual conduct. In her testimony in court, Professor Nussbaum had criticized Finnis's reliance on the Bury translation, which she cited as an example of a mistranslation that imported a “personal opinion” against homosexual acts into the text of a classical author. She claimed that Finnis himself “has access to the ancient texts only through translations,”40 and is “repeatedly tripped up by things that are not in the Greek.”41

Professor Nussbaum asserted as her solitary evidence to support those claims that the correct translation of “tolmema,” indeed the only reasonable one, was a morally neutral one, such as “venture” or “deed of daring.” “Enormity,” which had been Bury's translation, or any other pejorative translation (e.g., Dover's “crime” and “crime of the first order”), she claimed, was not a legitimate scholarly possibility. “There are some reasonable disagreements about meanings of words,” she declared in response to a cross examiner's inquiry, “but the issues that I've raised with Finnis are—they're not a disagreement. Those sentences [sic] just are not there in the Greek.”42

Now, the question is not, and has never been, whether a nonpejorative translation of “tolmema” in Laws 636c is reasonable; Finnis has remarked that “venture”

is indeed a quite possible translation, albeit a rather timid and unilluminating one. It leaves entirely intact the condemnation of homosexual acts conveyed by the sentence as a whole.43

The question was whether a pejorative translation, such as Bury's, was unreasonable, outside the scope of scholarly possibility, so that, as Professor Nussbaum alleged, it falsified the sentence by importing into it a condemnation not in the Greek text.

Her claim was doomed from the start because Finnis had cited not only Bury but, in the same line of his affidavit, also Dover, whose Greek Homosexuality gives an even more condemnatory and pejorative translation.44 But, in any event, having chosen her line of attack, Professor Nussbaum sought to establish her claim by introducing, inter alia, a definition of “tolmema” from a lexicon that she identified in the version of her affidavit filed with the defendant State of Colorado on 22 October 1993, as

Liddle [sic], Scott, & Jones Lexicon of the Ancient Greek Language, the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area …

and, in the version filed with the court the same day, as

Liddle [sic], Scott, Lexicon of the Ancient Greek Language, the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area …

That Lexicon, she alleged in both versions, gives no pejorative translations for “tolmema”; it offers only the neutral definitions “an adventure, enterprise, deed of daring.” Her purpose in introducing it, obviously, was to support her claim that “tolmema” in Laws 636c could not reasonably be translated pejoratively, since the “authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area” did not include a pejorative translation.

The shocking fact is that Liddell, Scott & Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon, the truly authoritative dictionary relied on by all classicists (including, notably, Professor Nussbaum herself in her published writings), includes, in addition to the meanings given for “tolmema” cited by her, the manifestly pejorative “shameless act.”45 The whiting out of the ampersand and the word “Jones” in the version of her affidavit served on the court enabled her to claim, ex post facto, that she was actually citing an earlier edition of the Lexicon, one that does not include an explicitly pejorative definition. The difficulty for Professor Nussbaum, however, is that the earlier edition is, in truth, a long-superseded edition, which can in no way be considered “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area.”46 So she has managed to trap herself: The version of her affidavit served on the State is a falsification, because Liddell, Scott & Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon contains precisely what she denies it contains, namely, a pejorative definition of “tolmema.” The version served on the court is equally a falsification, because the pre-Jones edition is not “the authoritative dictionary.” Either way, what Professor Nussbaum told the court just isn't true.

In a letter to me dated 29 October 1993,47 Professor Nussbaum claimed that the whiting out of the ampersand and the name “Jones” in the version of her affidavit filed with the court was attributable to the fact that the lawyers for her side

who filled up the footnotes and references, didn't realize that I use the edition without the supplementation by Jones, since it is more reliable on authors of the classical period. … I don't even have the Jones [edition] around, so it would have been absurd to cite that.

As a lawyer myself, and having seen the form of her affidavit, I find it odd to imagine it falling to the lawyers, rather than to Professor Nussbaum, to “fill up” references to classical texts and lexicographical tools, but let that pass for now. The important thing is that she apparently cited the pre-Jones edition of Liddell and Scott with full knowledge that the Jones edition includes the pejorative definition of “tolmema.” If so, this was no mere negligence, no innocent mistake. To have revealed to the court the definition of “tolmema” given in the truly authoritative Jones edition, far from advancing her case, would badly have damaged it.

As I pointed out in a letter responding to her,48 the Jones edition is the one that she herself regularly cites in her published scholarship, including her work on authors of the classical period from Homer to Aristotle. For example, in her influential book The Fragility of Goodness,49 Professor Nussbaum refers to the Jones edition, not the nineteenth-century edition it superseded, for the meaning of “biazesthai” and of “hubris” in Plato's Symposium, for the meaning of “orego” from Homer to Plato, and for the meaning of “katharsis” in Plato and Aristotle.50

After a lecture51 at Princeton on 2 December 1993 Professor Nussbaum was asked by Barry R. Gross, a philosopher at York College of The City University of New York, who had himself submitted an affidavit for the State in the Amendment 2 case, about her citing the pre-Jones edition of the Lexicon, and her failure to inform the court that the authoritative Jones edition actually contained the pejorative definition whose reasonableness she denied. Here is her reply:

I considered it to be an absolutely useless entry, which supplies no guidance about the meaning of any particular passage. I would never dream of submitting such a sloppy and useless entry to a court.

She went on to say, falsely, that the procedure employed by Jones “as he described it, was not to change Liddell's renderings for the authors that Liddell did study, but rather to add renderings for authors that Liddell didn't study.” As Finnis says “That was entirely untrue. Jones's description of the revision says nothing of the sort.”52 The truth, which I invite the reader to confirm by simply looking at Jones's own account of the matter in the Lexicon's Preface, is that he considered that “the references to Plato and Aristotle [in the old edition] needed careful revision and some amplification” (p. viii). So this excuse for citing the pre-Jones edition as “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area,” and for hiding from the court the pejorative definition contained in the Jones edition, does not get Professor Nussbaum off the hook either.

In the Virginia Law Review, Professor Nussbaum attempts to defend herself against Finnis's charge of “reckless irresponsibility” in her use of the Lexicon:

[L]ater does not always mean better. … A nineteenth-century scholar such as Liddell could perfectly well be a better Platonist than a lexicographer of recent date. … There is not linear progress in scholarship in this field. …

In short, if a lexicon is cited, it has no weight without an independent linguistic argument, though in connection with such an argument it may have some corroborative value.53

A few pages later, she says that “Finnis points to the fact that the most recent edition of the Liddell and Scott lexicon, as revised by Jones, includes ‘shameless act’ as one possible meaning for the noun tolmema.54 Some readers may get the impression from this and other statements that Finnis introduced Liddell and Scott's Lexicon into the litigation. He did not. Professor Nussbaum herself introduced the Lexicon. She did so precisely to show that it did not identify a pejorative translation of “tolmema” and thus supported her claim that such a translation was not a reasonable possibility. Finnis pointed out that Professor Nussbaum was able to create the appearance of such support only by citing as “authoritative” and “relied on by all scholars in this area” a dictionary long superseded—the later editions, misleadingly now called by Professor Nussbaum “the most recent edition,” having in fact been around for more than fifty years—and cited rarely, if at all, by contemporary classicists, including Professor Nussbaum herself.

One can take any position one wishes on the proper or best translation of “tolmema,” on the question of whether Plato's Laws contains a condemnation of homosexual conduct, on the issue of whether moral objections to homosexual acts are a Christian innovation, on the morality of homosexual acts, on the Constitutionality of Colorado's Amendment 2, or on any other substantive question in the case and still feel the force of these questions: Why did Professor Nussbaum state, under oath, that “Liddle, Scott, the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area”—as she described it (giving no date or edition) in the version of her affidavit lodged with the court—contains no pejorative definition of the term “tolmema”? Why did she fail to reveal to the court that Liddell, Scott, & Jones, “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area”—as she (rightly!) described it in the version of her affidavit served on the State—contained a manifestly pejorative definition? The explanations she has given so far are too lame to credit.55

Professor Nussbaum reports in her Virginia Law Review article what Finnis had learned in correspondence with Dover (and what he was careful to mention in n. 35 of “‘Shameless Acts’ in Colorado,”) namely, that Dover and Price have in correspondence with her withdrawn their explicitly pejorative translations of “tolmema” in Laws 636c. Neither, so far as I can determine, has stated a position on the question of whether Professor Nussbaum behaved responsibly in her citation of the pre-Jones edition of the Lexicon as “authoritative” and “relied on by all scholars in this area.” In any event, the fact remains that Dover and Price, however their opinions have evolved in the aftermath of the Amendment 2 trial, were firmly on record as translating the term pejoratively at the point at which Professor Nussbaum testified. And even now Dover declines to endorse her claim that a pejorative definition (such as “shameless act”) is “unreasonable,” though such a translation “would not be my preferred translation; I would go for ‘audacious’ rather than ‘shameless.’”56 Of course, the question before us now is not what one might say for or against Professor Nussbaum's translation or the one Finnis prefers—it is, rather, whether Professor Nussbaum observed the canons of scholarly honesty in defending her translation and her related claim that the alternative translation was not a reasonable scholarly option. It is important not to conflate these questions. Professor Nussbaum could be correct in her assertions, and, at the same time, be guilty of Finnis's charge of “(at best) reckless irresponsibility” in the means she employed to defend those assertions.

Although, as I informed the court, I do not myself read Greek, I am confident from what Dover says and what I have been told by other distinguished classicists that Professor Nussbaum is wrong in claiming that a pejorative translation is not a reasonable option. As for the truth of Finnis's charge of dishonesty, one needs no knowledge of Greek to form a sound judgment; as Barry Gross said, “English will do nicely.”


  1. In Evans, the plaintiffs “are seeking … to invalidate a State constitutional amendment passed by referendum in 1992. It provided that no official body in Colorado may adopt any law or policy ‘whereby homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships shall constitute or otherwise be the basis of … a claim to minority status, quota preferences, protected status or claim of discrimination.’” John Finnis, “‘Shameless Acts’ in Colorado: Abuse of Scholarship in Constitutional Cases,” Academic Questions, (Fall 1994): 19.

  2. Professor Nussbaum has since left Brown for the University of Chicago, where she holds appointments in the divinity and law schools.

  3. Anyone familiar with the Supreme Court's jurisprudence of religion will immediately recognize the import of this claim. According to prevailing doctrine, laws or policies lacking a “secular purpose” must be invalidated, as contrary to the Constitutional prohibition of laws respecting an establishment of religion. Thus, Professor Nussbaum's testimony, if she could make her claim stick, was likely to be extremely valuable to opponents of Amendment 2.

  4. Finnis.

  5. Martha C. Nussbaum, “Platonic Love and Colorado Law: The Relevance of Ancient Greek Norms to Modern Sexual Controversies,” 80 Virginia Law Review (hereinafter “VLR”) 1515-1651 (1994).

  6. The length and level of detail of Professor Nussbaum's article creates a thick fog for readers interested in the truth of Finnis's allegations against her of scholarly abuses. Such readers must examine the article, and its numerous citations, with great care, always bearing in mind Finnis's precise allegations, and noting instances in which Professor Nussbaum, in purporting to respond to them, merely changes the subject.

  7. “Dover and Nussbaum Respond to Finnis,” 80 VLR 1641-1651. Prior to its publication, a draft of Professor Nussbaum's article was sent to me by a third party. Noting that it contained criticism of my own testimony as well as criticism of Finnis and responses to some of Finnis's claims against her, I got in touch with the VLR to request space to reply. When this was denied, I offered to draft a reply and submit it for consideration like any other uncommissioned piece. I expressed the hope that the student editors would publish my response if, in their judgment, it met the established standard for publication in VLR. The student editor to whom I spoke initially indicated that there was no reason why I could not make a submission “on spec,” though he could not assure publication even if my work met the review's standard. A few days later, however, I received a message from him on my voice mail informing me that there was no point in my making a submission because, he had determined, the editorial board would not consider publishing a reply to Professor Nussbaum's article.

  8. When she was writing her VLR article, Professor Nussbaum probably did not have a copy of the Finnis article. However, she did have a 6,500-word memorandum that Finnis and I compiled, and which Finnis, as a courtesy, sent to her on 26 January 1994. It made substantially all the allegations against her that were to appear in his article, as well as others that considerations of space did not permit him to include. (The memorandum is on file with the editor of Academic Questions.) In reply to Finnis's cover letter inviting her to identify “any point on which you think it is mistaken,” she wrote:

    I have looked at it, and I do indeed find numerous errors in it. Since I have received legal advice not to correspond with you and Professor George about these issues beyond the point represented by this letter, I regret that I am unable to point them out to you. My associates and I will inform you of them on an appropriate occasion.

    Martha C. Nussbaum to John Finnis, letter, 3 February 1994 (on file with the editor of Academic Questions).

  9. As this article goes to press, I have had no reply to a written request to the editor-in-chief of the VLR for copies of the letters cited by Professor Nussbaum in her article as “on file with the Virginia Law Review Association.” Obviously, this makes it exceedingly difficult to assess the legitimacy of Professor Nussbaum's claims that these letters support the case she is trying to make in her article. Since her honesty in the use of sources is precisely what is called into question in Professor Finnis's article, her critics naturally wish to examine anything she cites.

  10. I am here concerned with the question of whether Professor Nussbaum was dishonest, or otherwise behaved irresponsibly, in her sworn testimony as an expert in the Amendment 2 case. I do not here respond to criticisms of my philosophical views (or Finnis's) by Professor Nussbaum or others she cites. Nor do I respond to criticisms by her or others of interpretations of classical thinkers or modern commentators except insofar as these touch upon allegations of misconduct by Professor Nussbaum. It is true that I, like Finnis, hold what are today thought of as very conservative moral views and that I, not entirely like Finnis, hold many conservative political views. Many readers will prefer the quite different moral and political views held by Professor Nussbaum, particularly as they pertain to the moral and Constitutional questions at stake in the Amendment 2 case. However, the differences in moral and political viewpoint between Professor Nussbaum, on the one side, and Finnis and me, on the other, are not my concern in the present essay.

  11. David Cohen, Law, Sexuality, and Society: The Enforcement of Morals in Classical Athens (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

  12. Finnis, 20 (note omitted).

  13. Affidavit of Martha C. Nussbaum (in Evans v. Romer) sworn to on 21 October 1993 (hereinafter “Nussbaum Affidavit”), paragraph 30.

  14. Finnis, 34.

  15. Nussbaum, “Platonic Love,” 1548, n. 120.

  16. Ibid., 1641 (note omitted).

  17. Reporter's Transcript, Testimony of Martha Craven Nussbaum, Ph.D., 15 October 1993 (hereinafter “Nussbaum Transcript”), 23.

  18. Kenneth J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality, updated and with a new postscript (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 160.

  19. Commenting on Socrates and Plato, Dover noted that “[c]ondemnation of homosexual acts as contrary to nature was destined to have a profound effect on the history of morality,” Greek Homosexuality, p. 168. Indeed it was. How odd, therefore, to find Professor Nussbaum associating Dover with the view that the general condemnation of homosexual acts was no part of the thinking of such pre-Christian philosophers as Socrates and Plato. Incidentally, since Dover made clear in the preface to Greek Homosexuality that he personally does not share the general condemnation of homosexual acts, his witness to the fact that Socrates (and Plato) did have moral objections to homosexual conduct is all the more impressive.

  20. Martha C. Nussbaum to Robert P. George, letter, 20 October 1993 (on file with the editor of Academic Questions).

  21. Nussbaum Affidavit, paragraph 11.

  22. Rebuttal Affidavit of Robert P. George, sworn to on 22 October 1993, paragraph 5.

  23. Nussbaum to George, letter, 20 October 1993.

  24. John Finnis, FBA, to Sir Kenneth Dover, letter, 19 January 1994 (on file with the Editor of Academic Questions).

  25. Sir Kenneth Dover to John Finnis, letter, 23 January 1994 (on file with the editor of Academic Questions). It is perhaps worth noting here that Finnis concluded his letter to Dover of 19 January 1994, as follows:

    I am writing to you, giving these indications of how I interpret Greek Homosexuality, in the hope that if in any respect I am misinterpreting it, you will send me a line to say so. I would not quote such a communication, or use either it or its absence to advance my case by suggesting that you either tacitly or expressly have indicated your support of my understanding on these points (or any others!). My wish is to correct, if you say it needs correction, my understanding of your positions on these points.

    In a postscript, Finnis said, “I enclose the relevant page of an affidavit of October 1993 by Professor Nussbaum, to which I am preparing a response.” On that page, Professor Nussbaum repeats her testimony that Socrates, according to Dover, disapproved of homosexual acts only in a pupil-teacher relationship.

    In concluding his response of 23 January 1994 to Finnis, unequivocally confirming Finnis's view that, according to Dover, Socrates (and Plato) condemn homosexual conduct as such and not merely (as Professor Nussbaum had alleged) in a pupil-teacher relationship, Dover invited Finnis to “by all means quote any part of this letter that you may wish to quote in any connection.”

  26. I have already remarked on the differences between Dover's moral views regarding homosexual conduct and Finnis's (and my own). In her VLR article, Professor Nussbaum, too, calls attention to these differences: “In his forthcoming autobiography, Dover comments on [the theme of the arousal of the soul by a visual response to bodily beauty] in a manner that makes evident the wide difference between his own moral intuitions and those of Finnis. See Kenneth J. Dover, Marginal Comment (forthcoming Nov. 1994),” Nussbaum, “Platonic Love,” 1572, n. 235. Dover's autobiography has since appeared and it indeed “makes evident” the profound differences between Dover's moral views and those of someone like Finnis in a number of areas. See, especially, chapter 26, “The Aston Affair 1980-1985.”

  27. Readers should note what is left out in the ellipsis: the words “and did not confine the prohibition to any particular relationships.” Remember, Professor Nussbaum's testimony was precisely to assert that Socrates, according to Dover, condemned homosexual conduct only in the particular relationship of pupil and teacher, and to deny that he condemned homosexual conduct tout court.

  28. Here no citation is given. I would direct readers to pages 153-70 of Dover's book and, particularly, to pages 159-60, and ask them to judge whether Dover here “said quite clearly,” or said at all, that Socrates condemned homosexual copulation merely as an inferior “good” to the pursuit of wisdom.

  29. Nussbaum, “Platonic Love,” 1645.

  30. Even if Dover now claims that his account of Socrates in Greek Homosexuality should be read down in this way, he could not, and does not, make the same claim about his account of Plato in that work, which begins its treatment of Plato as distinct from Socrates by portraying him as “no longer in the mood for compromise or tolerance such as he shows for the [homosexual] pair who ‘lapse’ in Phaedrus,” and goes on to quote, precisely as summarizing Plato's views, the condemnation of homosexual pleasuring as “a crime caused by failure to control the desire for pleasure,” Greek Homosexuality, p. 165.

  31. Expert Witness Summary for Professor Martha Nussbaum, p. 1.

  32. Here the reader will recall Professor Nussbaum's statement, in her Expert Witness Summary, that “prior to Christian tradition, there is no evidence that natural law theories regarded same-sex erotic attachments [by which, the context makes clear, she means to include conduct] as immoral, ‘unnatural,’ or improper” (emphasis added).

  33. Nussbaum Affidavit, paragraph 54.

  34. A.W. Price, Love and Friendship in Plato and Aristotle (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

  35. Finnis, “‘Shameless Acts,’” 29.

  36. Ibid.

  37. She cites the first as an “Open Letter from Anthony Price, Lecturer in Philosophy, University of York, to Martha Nussbaum (Dec. 12, 1993) (on file with the Virginia Law Review Association),” “Platonic Love,” 1528, n. 37, though neither Finnis nor I have seen it or have been told where it appeared.

  38. Professor Nussbaum cites, but does not quote from, a second letter from Price, dated 12 May 1994 “(on file with the Virginia Law Review Association),” Ibid. 1578, n. 271, which, as far as I can tell, relates to a problem in the interpretation of Plato's Phaedrus not relevant to Finnis's allegations of misconduct in her use of Price's work.

  39. Although it has no bearing whatever on the question whether Finnis's allegations of misconduct against Professor Nussbaum are valid, I cannot help but remark that the charge Price is here quoted as making against supporters of Colorado Amendment 2 seems itself to reflect “prejudice and antipathy” against the many sincere Christians, Jews, and others whose moral and political views regarding homosexual conduct and issues pertaining thereto deviate from his own. There is, no doubt, an element of “prejudice and antipathy” in the motives of some people on both sides of this moral and political debate. I have been to Colorado and spoken with many supporters of Amendment 2, and it strikes me as a smear to suggest in wholesale fashion that “popular support” for the amendment was motivated by such emotions. Reasonable people can and do disagree about these issues.

  40. Nussbaum Transcript, 10. Professor Nussbaum was here speaking from ignorance. Finnis in fact is a skilled Latinist and possesses a sufficiently good understanding of Greek to confirm the quality of the translations on which he relies, even if his Greek is not as good as, say, David Cohen's. In her VLR article, Professor Nussbaum acknowledges Finnis's claims in this regard, and responds by (1) saying that the Greek texts of Plato used by Finnis (viz. the Loeb editions) “are well known … to contain very poor editions … not supplied with the extensive critical apparatus that a scholar requires for serious work on the text,” and (2) expressing doubt about whether someone can assess a translation made by a translator whose knowledge of the language of the text is generally superior to one's own (1533, n. 54). Her responses overlook the fact that, as Finnis's affidavit indicated, Finnis had compared translations and only cited Loeb texts where they were substantially in line with translations by other scholars, such as Dover. What an expert witness in Finnis's position needs to do is quote translations that have sound scholarly support and, where there is dispute, to be able to follow the argument between the translators and their critics.

    Moreover, as Kevin Flannery has pointed out to me, Professor Nussbaum's talk of the Loeb volume's “very poor” text and lack of “extensive critical apparatus” is a red herring. That volume's text of Laws 636c1-7 (which Nussbaum chose to make central to her attack on Finnis) differs in absolutely no relevant way from the texts to which she herself appeals. Her discussion of textual matters in the VLR article at pages 1625-34 seems tacitly to acknowledge as much. (Readers who have followed this affair will not be surprised to discover further scholarly offenses in her discussion of translation and text-critical issues on the pages just referenced in the VLR, see n. 44, infra.)

  41. Ibid., 11. The procedure adopted by Finnis (who did not hold himself out to the court as a classicist)—of cautiously comparing texts and translations in several languages, and then quoting translations whose substance was fully confirmed by other versions acceptable to the opposing witnesses—proved eminently sound and serviceable compared with Professor Nussbaum's confident reliance on her own translating skills. (In a letter to me of 29 October 1993, cited at n. 47, infra., she asserted that her selection as assessor of the philosophical texts by the Loeb Library indicated that she is “the living scholar in the Anglo-American community whose knowledge of the Greek of the philosophical authors was judged to be the best.” Having “steeped” herself in Plato and Aristotle, she further claimed to “have a sense of the Greek that is some-what like a native speaker's sense after twenty-seven years, and probably as good a sense, where these authors are concerned, as any living person has.”) This reliance spectacularly tripped her up, leaving her to a desperate defensive retreat that could be managed only by the falsifications of modern classical scholarship (e.g., her alleged modern consensus around Price, whom she imagines rejecting as “tendentious” the standard translation of para phusin as “unnatural”), in which she was soon detected by Finnis, and that has ended with her tacitly surrendering key linguistic claims she made to the court.

  42. Ibid., 22.

  43. Finnis, “‘Shameless Acts,’” 23. The rumor circulating in some quarters, that Finnis accused Nussbaum of dishonesty because she disagreed with his translation of a Greek word, is preposterous. Finnis's allegations against her pertaining to “tolmema” have to do, not with the reasonableness of her preferred (neutral) translation, but rather with statements she made under oath (in English and about English-speaking works of scholarship) in support of her claim that the competing (pejorative) translations were unreasonable. It is to these statements that the present essay now turns.

  44. The mass of scholarly opinion in favor of a translation that Professor Nussbaum had declared to be outside the range of scholarly possibilities makes it difficult for her to defend her position without further manipulations of the evidence. Thus, on page 1627 of the VLR, she says that “all other translations known to me” (i.e., other than Dover's) take the two words immediately following “tolmema” in the Greek (“ton proton”) to mean “the first people who did it.” But on page 1625 she has appealed to “the major philological commentary on the Laws,The Laws of Plato, edited by E. B. England (1921). England, having stated that those two words seem at first sight to have the meaning that Professor Nussbaum favors, argued carefully that they have another meaning (which is neither the one she favors nor the one favored by Dover), and concluded in favor of the following translation: “and that the audacity is in an especial degree due to unbridled lust” (231).

    Again, the VLR article extends her attack on Bury from the issue of translation to that of the Greek text (see footnote 40 supra). This is a smokescreen. When she gets to textual issues in relation to the passage that she made the focus of her attack, she is unable to point to anything to fault, great or small, in the Bury text of the passage. To cover this embarrassing fact, she diverts attention by launching a sweeping assault on the Oxford Classical Text (OCT) of Laws (not Bury's Loeb text); and when she comes to identify the point at which the OCT differs from the text she regards as sound in relation to Laws 636b1-d4, she gives a list of editors and translators who favor the text she favors, and from that list carefully omits Bury.

  45. Thus, the definitive “Jones” edition of what classicists refer to as “Liddell and Scott” would have been useless to Professor Nussbaum precisely because it contained the pejorative definition she was alleging to be outside the realm of possibility for reasonable translators. That meaning was introduced as one of a vast number of revisions, supplementations, and amplifications in the twentieth-century revised edition of the original Liddell & Scott Lexicon, undertaken in 1911 and completed in 1940 by a large team of scholars under the direction of Henry Stuart Jones, and since supplemented. Please note that Liddell (not “Liddle”) and Scott has always had the title A Greek-English Lexicon (not A Lexicon of the Ancient Greek Language).

  46. If we allow that her citation “Liddle [sic], Scott & Jones” in the version of her affidavit served on the State was in fact a mistake, then, as Finnis remarks, “Professor Nussbaum put a dictionary before the court precisely as ‘the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area,’ but the quotation that, she said, was from that dictionary is in fact from one that is not authoritative or relied on by all scholars, or indeed any scholars,” “‘Shameless Acts,’” 25-26. Finnis goes on, incidentally, to argue that Professor Nussbaum's claims about “tolmema” are “in substance a falsification even of the 1897 edition's entry for tolmema.” Loc. cit., p. 26.

  47. Martha C. Nussbaum to Robert P. George, letter, 29 October 1993 (on file with the editor of Academic Questions).

  48. Robert P. George to Martha C. Nussbaum, letter, 17 November 1993 (on file with the editor of Academic Questions).

  49. Martha C. Nussbaum, The Fragility of Goodness (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

  50. Of course, it doesn't matter whether Professor Nussbaum owns a copy of the Jones edition or “has it around.” It is freely available in university libraries to which she has access. Judging from her frequent citations to it in her published writings, she has no difficulty getting hold of it when she needs it. So what is truly absurd is her claim that, since she doesn't “have it around,” it would have been “absurd” for her to cite it.

  51. The James A. Moffett Lecture in Ethics.

  52. Finnis, “‘Shameless Acts,’” 26.

  53. Nussbaum, “Platonic Love,” 1621-1622. In her n. 389, on 1620 ff., Professor Nussbaum quotes an open letter from Richard Sorabji, director of the Institute for Classical Studies at the University of London, “on file with the Virginia Law Review Association,” to the effect that the Liddell and Scott Lexicon (by which, I assume, he means the Jones edition, referred to by classicists and in the Jones edition itself as “Liddell and Scott”), though “the best of the available dictionaries for the purposes of learning Ancient Greek, [] has to be used with caution in matters of scholarship, and can serve at best as an initial source of opinions.” (Sorabji's letter is quoted earlier, n. 64, 1535, as critical of Bury's translations for lacking “the kind of accuracy required for understanding precise philosophical meaning.” No indication is given, however, whether Sorabji supports Professor Nussbaum's contention that a pejorative rendering of “tolmema” in Plato's Laws 636c is beyond the scope of reasonable scholarly possibility. Nor is any indication given whether Sorabji states an opinion regarding her honesty in citing the Lexicon in her sworn affidavit.) Professor Nussbaum also cites A. W. Price's first letter (see n. 37) to the effect that lexicographers can make mistakes, so “[i]t would be … erroneous to cite some particular edition of a Greek lexicon as if that was gospel.” Of course, none of this gives any cover to Professor Nussbaum. To repeat: She introduced the Lexicon, telling the court, under oath, that it was “the authoritative dictionary relied on by all scholars in this area,” while hiding the fact that the Jones edition, which she and all other scholars regularly cite as the authoritative dictionary, even exists. Since that edition, as she apparently knew, contradicted her contention regarding the reasonableness of pejorative translations of “tolmema,” she had a strict obligation to inform the court of the difference between the nineteenth- and twentieth-century editions and to state her reasons (if she could identify any) for preferring, in this case, the nineteenth-century edition.

  54. Ibid., 1629 (note omitted).

  55. Finnis's article made several other allegations against Professor Nussbaum of misconduct in her use of sources in testimony given under oath in the Amendment 2 case. These allegations she has, as far as I can determine, thus far ignored in published writings. One hopes that she will take them up in the future. At that time, perhaps, she will also answer some of the questions I have put to her in this essay.

  56. Sir Kenneth Dover to Finnis, letter, 9 July 1994 (on file with the editor of Academic Questions).

Jack Abecassis (essay date September 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9679

SOURCE: Abecassis, Jack. “The Fragility of Philosophy: Passions, Ancient and Modern.” MLN 110, no. 4 (September 1995): 918-42.

[In the following essay, Abecassis compares Nussbaum's The Therapy of Desire with Le Philosophe et les Passions by Michel Meyer, contending each examines the concept of passion in moral philosophy. Abecassis observes that Nussbaum's is a polemical book full of brilliant and insightful analysis.]

Les hommes sont si nécessairement fous, que ce serait être fou, par un autre tour de folie, de n'être pas fou.

Pascal, Pensées, B 414

The sophia in philo-sophia is the antonym of pathos. Thus philosophers are, for the most part, the enemies of the phil-pathé, the tragedians. If, as Epictetus defines it, “tragedy is uniquely the narration in tragic verse of passions experienced by men fascinated by external objects,”1 philosophy seems by its very self-definition to be the overcoming of passion by Reason. Indeed, from its inception, philosophy conceived of passion as its radical other, the difference by which it fashioned its own identity (Meyer, 293). Hence the semantic dissonance we experience when confronted by a concept such as ‘philosophy of passions.’ This ironic dissonance would become all the more evident if we consider a tragedy whose subject is philosophical practice. The Clouds of Aristophanes, let us not forget, is a comedy.

Moral philosophy (ethics) is clearly on the defensive here. Its traditional role having been challenged and supplanted first by the Moralists (Montaigne, Pascal, La Rochefoucauld) and then by social scientists, moral philosophy is in want of a discourse capable of constructively accounting for passion. “Passion” here does not refer necessarily to grandiose excesses (thumos) depicted by Homer or Wagner, but quite simply it refers to our mundane daily psycho-drama: hate and love, fear and confidence, calm and anger, shame and impudence, compassion, emulation, jealousy, good will, indignation and contempt (Meyer, 75). Although very different in nature, the two books considered here set themselves the identical tasks of creating (Meyer) or rediscovering (Nussbaum) a philosophical practice which will make an adequate description and analysis of the passions possible and which, by the inclusion of passion in the categories susceptible of philosophical analysis, would henceforth overcome the perennial dichotomy between logos and pathos.

Le Philosophe et les Passions [by Michel Meyer] and The Therapy of Desire [by Martha Nussbaum] share a common anxiety about the state of contemporary philosophy. Both evidently seek to go beyond nihilism, facile relativism, historicism and psychoanalysis; both challenge the apparent sterility of academic moral philosophy, be it analytically or continentally inspired; and, finally, both share a common allegiance to some form of cognitive rationality in their attempt at a conceptual corralling of passions. But the similarities end here. Nussbaum's book is an idiosyncratic account of Hellenistic philosophy in which she advances a polemical argument regarding the relationship between reason and passion and the role of philosophy as the true healer of excessive emotions or passions. This argument challenges virtually all the anti-foundationalist critique of metaphysics from Nietzsche down to Rorty. Meyer's book is both a history and a critique of the concept of passion in western philosophy from Plato to Kant (part I) and a cohesive theory of passions (part II). Nussbaum argues, to a large extent, for a philosophical return to a Hellenistic form of rationality and pragmatic commitment to a philosophical therapeutics, while Meyer axiomatically rejects all concepts of passion arising out of the Plato-Kant tradition. Meyer offers us “problematology”—a philosophical practice which rejects propositionalism, postulating a form of questioning which does not obliterate foundational questions.2 Finally, these two books are particularly well suited for comparison because each conceives of itself as the critique of the other. Nussbaum's substantial acceptance of the Hellenistic conception of the logos represents a form of propositional rationalism which Meyer explicitly rejects. On the other hand, Meyer's skepticism (antifoundationalism), linguistic pragmatism and phenomenology would place him in a modern perspective to which Nussbaum is acutely averse.

The Therapy of Desire is a polemical book. It is not simply an antiquarian gloss which tries to reconstruct the historical, philological and philosophical cohesiveness of ancient texts. Although such an effort is also a major component of Nussbaum's book, and here as in her previous work brilliant and insightful analyses abound (especially regarding Lucretius), the interdisciplinary and conceptual interest lies rather with the theoretical assumptions and the polemical anti-modern conceptual models which generate the entire subsequent argument.

Nussbaum makes to initial cases for the study of Hellenistic philosophy. The historical case is convincing. In most philosophy departments a gaping hole exists between Aristotle and Descartes. Epicureanism, Skepticism and Stoicism (not to mention Augustine, Aquinas and Maimondes and Renaissance philosophy in toto) are rarely part of the curriculum, yet they are absolutely crucial for the understanding of all subsequent history of thought, in particular the history of Medieval and Renaissance thought. The Therapy of Desire, being in part an engaging and accessible exposition of the ethics and cultural history of Hellenistic philosophy, should contribute to the ongoing rediscovery of this post-classical philosophy.

But the interest of the book lies in what Nussbaum calls the “transcontextual ethical truths” (8) of Hellenistic philosophy. Whatever legitimacy historicism, and its corollary relativism, are allowed, the insights of the Epicureans and Stoics3 cannot be reduced, as Foucault asserts, to a biou techné (art of life or technique de soi).4 This would obviously reduce Hellenistic philosophical theory and practice to the level of “religious and magical/superstitious movements” (p. 5), and thereby undermine its permanent claims to truth. “What is distinctive,” writes Nussbaum, “about the contribution of the philosophers is that they assert that philosophy, and not anything else, is the art we require, an art that deals in valid and sound arguments, an art that is committed to the truth” (ibid.). Given his view that “knowledge and argument are themselves tools of power” (ibid.), Foucault argues that these techniques are another variation of power politics. Nussbaum, on the other hand, contends that such a commitment to transcendental truth is anything but one more trick in a panoply of power tools, and that this particular type of philosophical rationality is ontologically and epistemologically different from non-philosophical modes of knowledge.

Similarly, Nussbaum criticizes John Rawls because of his belief that ethical theorizing is a matter of practical reasoning, an historical, culture-specific activity, without any claim for transcendental reality.5 “[Rawls] concludes that the notion of truth can be appropriate only in an inquiry that is a search for the nature of an altogether independent reality. Ethical theories, lacking such an independent goal, cannot claim to embody truth” (22). While Nussbaum also denies the possible existence of supra-human Platonic ethical truths, she wants to preserve the notion of truth (“transcontextual ethical truths”) understood in terms of her main analytical tool and the metaphor which generates the entire argument: the medical analogy. Since the whole argument of the Therapy of Desire rests on the validity of this analogy, I shall concentrate exclusively here on its two aspects: first, the competence of the physician, and second, the disease, the passion, of the patient.

Simply put, the medical analogy is predicated on the following argument: the relationship between physician and patient is analogous to the relationship between philosopher and ordinary human being. The analogy is certainly historically valid. Unlike their classical predecessors, Epicureans and Stoics have a much more pragmatic attitude toward the applicability of philosophical concepts hic et nunc for the amelioration of individual lives. The goal of their philosophy is eudaimonia, human flourishing through the use of reason. To clarify this concept, Nussbaum contrasts the medical model of ethics to the Platonic approach and to the approach based on ordinary belief. Plato errs in postulating ethical norms “independently of human being, human ways of life, human desires” (17). Besides being empirically wrong, such suprahuman categories would obviously make the Platonic physician “sadistic and callous” (20). In contrast, ordinary belief-based ethics involves the notion that “ethical inquiry and teaching are simply the recording of traditional social belief and have no legitimate goal beyond this. Ethics, in this view, begins from what we might call an assumption of social health, the assumption that, for the most part, people have been brought up to have true ethical beliefs and reliable intuitions, and that ordinary beliefs and intuitions can be treated as criteria of ethical truth and rightness” (24). But such an ethics, based on a common, historically secreted consensus as to the true good, would be anathema to the Epicureans and Stoics. Being a passive follower of custom, the non-philosopher is a victim of the ordinary rather than being a happy participant in it. Ordinary beliefs provide a starting point, a place where the problems are located, but they do not offer a normative model. The nomos is the disease and not the cure. In short, “moral medical philosophy” seeks to reproduce the a-symmetry which predicates the physician-patient situation. Like the physician, the philosopher knows the truth and is capable through the practice of an art of curing the patient. And like physicians Epicureans, and Stoics take into account the real, individual and specific subjectivity of their patients, their beliefs and desires, hopes and fears. This, then, would be a philosophical practice far more human than any abstract philosophy of Being, whence its attraction for Nussbaum.

Let us return to the notion of truth. Within the logic of the medical analogy, truth is claimed through appeal to the following criteria: 1) internal consistency 2) correspondence 3) broad coherence and fit (23). Internal consistency, namely the surveying and sorting out of “beliefs toward the end of consistency” (ibid), is a necessary but not sufficient condition for healing. “By bringing to light the hidden contradictions and tensions in a system of beliefs, a pragmatic medical ethics can claim to be doing something that is at least necessary in the search for truth” (23-24). This survey completed, the philosopher/physician proceeds to evaluate the correspondence of the survey data with his “normative yet empirical” (ibid) positive knowledge of Nature.

The second criterion, correspondence, presupposes not only the aforementioned self-transparency of the subject (e.g. ability to harmonize contradictions through the use of Reason), or the transparency of the patient to the philosopher, but also the transparency of nature. Epicureans and Stoics, although in very different ways, ground their ethics in a normative account of Nature. Epicurus, for example, holds that “an account of the ethical end is inseparable from his general epistemology, according to which the senses are themselves entirely reliable, and all error comes from beliefs” (108). Hence, Epicurus sees consciousness as capable of being a reflective screen of external reality, a true mirror of the Real, were it not for the obfuscation of false beliefs. In the case of the philosopher, the correspondence between phenomena, somatic sensation and intellection is complete. More importantly, a correct reading of Nature, of natural signs, conveys a prescriptive code of ethics. Correspondence, therefore, implies the possible symbolic adequation of two independent sets: (m1, m2, m3, … mn) for the mind, and (n1, n2, n3, … nn) for Nature. The tragic, existential opacity of Man in Nature vanishes to oblivion in this ideal adequation. Everything being transparent and normative and teleological (in a diffused sense with Epicurus and in a grand narratological sense with Zeno), the “therapy of desire” would consist in the imposition upon the patient of the apodictic and prescriptive Truth of Nature. To arrive at this ideal, the Epicurean student will be confronted with “a process of argument […] often called diorthosis, ‘correcting’” (131).

The truth criterion of coherence and general fit proves to be just as problematic. As we saw, Nussbaum rebuts Foucault by asserting that Hellenistic ethics, since it constitutes itself as a systematic philosophical inquiry with strong transcendental truth claims, is not to be reduced to a biou techné, a form of psychological bricolage lacking theoretical coherence and fit and bearing only incidental and localized relationship to truth. In other words, Nussbaum holds fast to the distinction between logos and nomos and does not allow for a relativizing of the former into the latter. It must be remembered that Epicureanism and Stoicism presented themselves as complete systems of thought. From the beginning to the end they insisted that no part of the system could be independent of or superior to any other part.6 Logic, physics and ethics form one coherent system, the premises of which are always dogmatically asserted (e.g. atomism in Lucretius; cosmos, providence, logic, physics in Stoicism). In Stoicism, as Goldschmidt demonstrates, “The conquest […] is a passage from the same to the same [un passage du même au même]. In the structural movement of the system, the starting point coincides with the finishing line.”7 Stoicism is not a deductive system; the initial founding “proposition” regards the whole of Being and the Real. In other words, it is impossible to isolate one argument within the system for a particular truth-claim; it all stands and falls together, logic as much as physics and ethics. Truth, consequently, can then be claimed on two distinct levels: internal logic within the system and/or adequation to the Real, the fit between logos and phenomena. Despite the arguments that both the Hellenistic philosophers and Nussbaum make, the inherent tension between a dogmatic and totalizing philosophical system and the contingency and individuality of the medical situation becomes evident. The philosopher-physician possesses total knowledge; he only wonders about how to move his sick patient along from point a to point b. Whatever is contingent and individual is not the analysis of the problem or the solution, but simply the tactics required in a particular cure. The philosopher here is clinical in that he is willing to deal with individual cases hic et nunc. But, in real clinical medicine, the good clinician never possesses this totalizing and universal medical semiology, never infers natural apodicticity in every aspect of existence, and never worries too much about the coherence and fit of a given remedy with metaphysics, cosmology and logic.

It is now clear why Nussbaum needs to attack all manner of historical (Foucault) or ontological (Rawls) relativism. Even if one only partially subscribes to this medical conception of Hellenistic philosophy (as at times she herself does intimate), its entire validity rests on the acceptability of the a-symmetry between the philosopher and the commoner. And, in turn, this a-symmetry depends wholly on the availability of “transcontextual [ethical] truths” to the philosopher. Yet, nowhere are we told how a Zeno or an Epicurus attains this higher knowledge. We return to the foundational paradox of the Meno8, as Meyer will continuously insist: how is the passage from ignorance to knowledge possible? How can I ignore yet know at the same time? In short, how can the philosopher, living in the sensible, contingent world, like all other humans, arrive at a true and total knowledge and meaning of all sensible phenomena (Epicurus) or understand his role within the Cosmos and its providence (Zeno)? How does one arrive at this meta-positionality vis-à-vis Being and Nature?

Furthermore, a close scrutiny of the three criteria guiding the Hellenistic medical conception of philosophy suggests a number of other problems. The notion of consistency, for one, presupposes the (possible) transparency of the subject to him/her self. Can we speak today of harmonizing all “contradictions and beliefs” within our subjectivity? Is it possible, as Descartes and the rationalists still thought, to achieve simultaneously this empirical adequation between knowledge and Being? Certainly, a Socratic introspective search, an Aristotelian gradual acquisition of good habits or even a psychoanalytical slow process of self-discovery, are conceivable as positive and partially achievable goals, but never the total self-adequation with Nature. Even more disturbing for me is Nussbaum's evasion of the contemporary debates (e.g. Rorty) regarding the viability of a theory of meaning based on general fit, correspondence and cohesion.

To be sure, Nussbaum does seem to be somewhat troubled with the dogmatic epistemology and ethics of the Stoics and Epicureans. But her solution of “using Aristotle's ethical thought as a background and a foil” (8) seems, from a modern polemical point of view, to be equally problematic. This Aristotelian critique certainly points to core problems in Stoic and Epicurean epistemologies but for a contemporary reader it does so insufficiently, since Nussbaum's polemical argument is not limited to a comparative history of ancient ethics but extends to a critique of anti-foundationalism. Aristotle conducts inquiries; he starts with not knowing and sifts his way toward a partial understanding by dialectics, by deduction and by induction. Stoics and Epicureans move from dogmatic knowledge to prescription. The tension between the two practices is obvious. This Aristotelian “foil” may be interesting from a striclty historical point of view, but is insufficient in the polemical context of championing Epicurean and Stoic theory and practice against Rawls and Foucault. Nussbaum passionately argues here for an Aristotelicized version of Hellenistic philosophical practice as a counter practice to the paralyzing impotence and nihilism of modernity. Yet I wonder whether Nussbaum's Aristotelicized revisionism of Hellenistic philosophy really constitutes that magic bullet sufficient to do away with the gnawing skepticism of the Derridas and Rortys? As in the case of truth criteria discussed above, Nussbaum does not directly tackle the core problems which animate modern critique. On the contrary it seems that for Nussbaum Reason corresponds only to its Greek Aristotelian variety; all critiques of this type of reason are then automatically assigned to the domain of the “irrational.” The foundational hypotheses of Epicurus and Zeno are never questioned or justified per se: How do they arrive at their insights into the true nature of things and the universe as a whole? How is the passage made from Nature to apodictic reason? How is human subjectivity and contingency the grand disease to be cured by the logoi of the philosophers? How is Nature to be the transparent guide in all things?

The paradox of virtue-based, naturalist ethics is just a more exacerbated case of the paradox of ethical naturalism in general. Be they strict or liberal naturalism, they all suffer from varying degrees of (false) argument from unproven hypothesis, circular logic and anthropomorphic projection. With the exception of early Hebrew thought and (perhaps) strict Platonism, virtually all Greek, Roman and later European philosophy seeks to ground itself in one form or another of naturalism. Modern liberal philosophy, for example, grounds itself in a philosophy of Natural Right. Circular argumentation here is inevitable: all positive proofs are predicated upon and proven by unfounded presuppositions: i.e. x is bad because it is contrary to Nature; and it is so because I hold y to be the true state of Nature; the State of Nature being always a confounding matrix of cognitive data and anthropomorphic projection. For every (natural) instance of piety offered by Lucretius and Rousseau there is a corresponding instance of (natural) cruelty offered by Euripides and De Sade. Ideology consists in creating necessary adequations of a particular idiosyncratic custom with Nature. Plato circumvents naturalism by inventing the theory of forms, so that the Real of Nature is but the shadow of the Real. Early Hebrew thought circumvents naturalism by grounding the Law in the word of God, in strict opposition to the horror of Nature. The medical analogy can only be sustained by the Epicurean and Stoic metaphysician at the price of turning Nature into a metaphorical sign system containing its own apodictic moral imperatives, all of which are then exclusively known to the philosopher. Only then can the a-symmetry between patient and doctor be theoretically sustained as a viable analogy. Let us now, then, turn to the patient and her disease, the passions. For the sake of economy and clarity, I will henceforth limit my comments to Stoic therapeutics.

Nussbaum creates a fictional character who is the patient. Her name is Nikidion (small victory). She is a Greek hetaira, a courtesan. In a surprising move for an academic book, Nikidion is the imaginary student/patient of the three Hellenistic schools. Through her eyes, her imagined subjectivity, her imagined experiences, the reader is introduced to the multiple therapies of desire offered by each school. Through Nikidion we shall imagine ourselves as Hellenistic Greeks trying to cure our excessive desires by the therapy of the physician-philosophers. With this rhetorical device two complementary aims are achieved: first, the reader is in the text because he or she identifies with Nikidion and, second, the distance between our philosophical horizons and those of the Greeks diminishes by our identification with the “victim,” who experiences the same universal problems experienced in our own daily life. Nikidion symbolizes victory over abstractness (philosophy) and over difference (Greek/Modern).

Nikidion's disease is passion. As in Epictetus' definition of tragedy and the tragic hero, the patients of passion suffer from false judgments and beliefs which induce excessive ascription of importance to externals. The description of passion starts on firm Aristotlelian grounds. Unlike Freud, who believes that emotions are “a mindless surge of affect” (88) or “some kind of a mindless process” (101) (an apparent reference to Freud's drive and instinct theory), Aristotle offers a cognitive view of the emotions which erases the difference between emotion (involuntary) and thinking (voluntary). Aristotle postulates that emotions are states of “intentional awareness, containing a view of their object” (81). Aristotle's analysis rests on the consensus of Greek philosophy concerning the emotions: 1) “Emotions are forms of intentional awareness […] directed at or about subjects”. 2) “Emotions have a very intimate relationship to beliefs, and can be modified by a modification of belief. […]” 3) “… Emotions may appropriately be assessed as rational or irrational, and also (independently) as true or false, depending on the beliefs that are their basis or ground […]” (80-1). As examples of Aristotelian analysis of passion (with implicit reference to identity, non-contradiction and causality), Nussbuam discusses the emotions of fear and pity, demonstrating that in both these basic emotions there must be a “rich intentional awareness of its objects, resting on beliefs and judgments of many sorts, both general and concrete” (86). That is, I fear x of which I am intentionally aware and the reason I fear x as opposed to say loving x is that I hold certain beliefs about its nature. Thus emotions are cognitive responses to my subjective perception of the Real. From the purely subjective point of view they are eminently rational. They may, however, be true or false or objectively rational or irrational depending on my beliefs. If my beliefs correspond to the truth, then my emotions are both rational and true; if my beliefs are false, then emotions are false. “Emotions [in Aristotle] […] are individuated by reference to their characteristic beliefs” (88), and, thus, it is not surprising that Aristotle, unlike Plato and the Stoics, does not categorically condemn passions and emotions.

Thus Nussbaum's “Greek” cognitive scheme seems to be: external stimulus → perception → intentional awareness → [existing belief] → judgment → action-emotion. With the exception of the ability of the therapist to change emotions simply by modifying belief, this scheme corresponds in a rough manner to the concept of emotion advanced by Marcia Cavel in her recent book The Psychoanalytic Mind, From Freud to Philosophy.9 For Cavel “belief is a particular sort of attitude toward a proposition, since other attitudes toward the same proposition are possible.”10 The cognitivist view of emotions, asserts Cavell, “show[s] us in our guise as organisms interacting with the world around us, which makes for confusion about both perception and emotion.”11 Without challenging this fundamental cognitivist scheme, it is possible to wonder about the nature of the concepts of belief and judgment. In other words, does belief result exclusively from a conscious cognitivist activity or is it an opaque combinatory sedimentation comprised of cognition, deep cultural structures and practices (habitus), unconscious behavioral adaptation and primate social biology—as well as billiard-like conscious cognition?

With these questions in mind, I would like to zero in on the crucial theoretical moment in the Therapy of Desire: the transition from Aristotle to Chrysippus. There are “four theses that are defended within this [Stoic] tradition about the relationship between belief or judgment and passion. 1. Necessity. The relevant belief is necessary for the passion. 2. Constituent element. The belief is a (necessary) constituent element in the passion. 3. Sufficiency. The belief is sufficient for the passion. 4. Identity. The belief is identical to the passion” (371). Aristotle holds (1) and (2) to be true; his position concerning (3) is unclear. Now, in order to make the case for Stoic psychology as a model of “transcontextual [ethical] truth,” a model of perennis philosophia, partially endorsed by Nussbaum against modernity, the reader, who intuitively assents to a mild version of (1) and (2), would have somehow to swallow steps (3) and (4). For all Stoic psychology of the passions down to Marcus Aurelius, relies on this Chrysippian scheme whose stated aim is the complete extirpation of the passions.

Now Nussbaum explains very carefully all the subtleties of this position (different sorts of judgments, beliefs, appetites, innate dispositions, etc.). But however we turn the question, and whatever “common sense” and “plausibility” arguments are advanced, from a modern point of view, the identification of passion with judgment cannot be ironed out by generous subtilitas. In Stoicism, all passions, in the final analysis, are identical with mistakes in judgments based on false belief; they are all condemnable over-valuing of “externals.” Nikidion will be told repeatedly that all emotions stem from her inability to extricate herself from the world of the stulti, fools. Even were she sincerely grieving for the loss of a loved one, her emotion would be condemned for ascribing to the lost person too much importance (379). She will become a sage once she assents only to representations philosophically consistent with the Stoic world view. At that moment, controlling her representation to herself of external stimuli, withholding assent from all things not philosophical, she would live in an eternal present of the sage, undisturbed by all things external, entirely autonomous.

The disease of passion is then a cognitive sickness of the weak-minded. Not only drunkard fools and noble tragic heroes suffer the disease of passion but all of humanity save the (Stoic) philosophers. Nikidion, like us, to escape her sickness, must transform reality into an all embracing cognitive matrix. As Goldschmidt insists, Stoicism, unlike Platonism, accepts reality as it is (its vaunted naturalism and sensualism, acceptance of the sensible) but only at the price of transforming reality through and through (Nature is Reason). Consequently, the a-symmetry between the (meta) physician and the (alleged) patient is not relative but massive. As the Stoic sage has access to a transformed reality, he can guide the rest of us who are prisoners of raw reality, assenters to raw representations. The Platonic omniscience is completely reproduced here, except that it is the world hic et nunc that is transformed in Stoicism and not a supra-lunar reality in the realm of forms. The medical analogy, upon which rests the whole of Nussbaum's argument, can only be sustained as a polemical model, as a model of compassionate philosophical practice for us today, at the price of entertaining the plausibility of both the omniscient cogito of the philosopher and the exclusively cognitive nature of the patient's disease.

In reading The Therapy of Desire I am struck by how Nussbaum reproduces in her book exactly what Goldschmidt cautioned against in the fourth and final postface to his Le Système Stoïcien et l'Idée du Temps: first, explaining Stoicism against the background of Aristotle; second, isolating one element within the Stoic system; third, trying to understand Stoicism in “analytic terms,” canceling thereby the utter otherness of Stoic rationality to us moderns.12 Nussbaum's style of argumentation is to start with “plausible and intuitive” premises (i.e. Aristotle “reasonable” cognitivism) and argue that Stoic arguments are simply their radicalization. Arguing from Aristotle, appealing to common sense, concentrating within the Stoic system solely on psychology, inducing a personal identification with Nikidion, all have the same strategic objective of doing away with the radical otherness of Stoicism. This otherness consists precisely in the definition of Reason as the understanding of the order of the universe (cosmos) and the necessity of adjusting all human actions and thoughts to the order of the universe, to the thoughts of god (cosmic sympathy). “This consciousness of the self,” writes Pierre Hadot, “is not only a moral consciousness, it is also a cosmic consciousness: the ‘attentive’ man lives without interruption in the presence of God in the ‘memory of god,’ consenting joyfully to the will of Universal Reason and seeing all things with the same gaze of god himself.”13 There is no break between physics and morality: it is as if carved out of one block of logos.

The Stoics always insisted that each element in their philosophy must cohere with the rest: ad singula respondere […] totam sententiam explicare, insists Cicero.14 Thus when Nussbaum writes that “A motivation for me in writing about them [Epicureans and Stoics] was to discover whether it was possible to accept their arguments about the elimination of anger, while still rejecting their more general attack on passions such as love, fear and grief” (509), one wonders what is the possible connection among this very limited interest and the vaunted “transcontextual ethical truths” and the three truth criteria mentioned at the beginning as an alternative to modern relativism. Nussbaum not only isolates morality within Stoicism, but also within this Stoic moral theory she finally rejects the equation of all passion with error of judgment while seeming to accept the possibility of the extirpation of anger, as if anger as a passion had an ontology and a global functional logic different from that of other passions. Ironically, this à la carte acceptance of Stoic morality, with only casual regard to its coherence within Stoic cosmic rationalism, has the effect of reducing it to a type of a subjectively seen ‘timeless wisdom,’ a spiritual coping mechanism, a tranquilizer (as Paul Veyne would say)15 that is precisely what Foucault meant by a biou techne. After all the theoretical concessions, qualifications, historicizations and outright “cherry picking” are taken into account—within Nussbaum's anti-anti-foundationalism polemical context—what “Hellenistic medical therapeutics” offers us is another pharmacon of the biou techne variety for the unsuccessful treatment of our post-modern blues.

Michel Meyer places the problem of passion at the heart of the western philosophical project. Passion is the Other of reason, its imaginary nemesis, the projection of its own (passionate) impulse, its real yet denied raison d'être. Greek philosophical culture (save Socrates and the Skeptics) provides answers which often obliterate the foundational questions. From the theory of reminiscence in Plato's Meno, to the absoluteness of the principle of non-contradiction in Aristotle, and to the dogmatic shift from the same to the same in Stoicism, through Hobbes' Leviathan, Descartes' cogito and the Kantian a-priori—all are variations of attempts to create a rational philosophy forming its own causa sui. Propositionalism had both to obliterate the question at the origin of the inquiry (in Plato, how can I know if I do not know where to search? In Descartes, am I deceived by the senses?) and invent a guarantor of ultimate rational veracity (the Forms in Plato; rationally proven God in Descartes; the arbitrary a-priori in Kant). In opposition to religious beliefs, myths, social customs, superstitions, tragic theater, and so on (all effective answers to human questioning), Greek rationalism demarcates its claim to absolute Truth, its answer, by the notion of apodicticity—the absolute cosmic and natural necessity of its propositions and answers. Meyer defines the classical Greek project as the idea that “the logos could have access, by its internal resources, to the apodicticity of the order of things, to their nature, of which man is a part and which he should then reflect to be what he really is” (96). Nussbaum's criteria of correspondence and coherence clearly constitute a strong version of this logos.

At its heart, philosophical rationalism constitutes a response to the human existential demand for certitude. Twenty-five centuries of philosophy notwithstanding, this ideal adequation between nature and humanity is yet to be achieved. Progress in fact has been so questionable that virtually all philosophers since Descartes have tried to re-establish philosophy on firm grounding once and for all. Nussbaum, for one, seems to be so distraught over the state of modern philosophy that she prescribes a rethinking of philosophical practice along the lines of an Aristotelized reading of Hellenistic philosophy.

As far as we know, humans are the only organisms in nature whose telos is not a given. Unlike plants and animals, human beings experience almost every facet of existence as a form of conscious or unconscious questioning to which culture is an answer; human beings are the only phenomenon in nature who experience the problem of means and ends as an open question. That is why we are the only entities in nature in need of a self-generated ethics. Between Being and the Real there is an inadequation which, according to Meyer, only passion can mediate. Philosophy desires to short circuit the endless and necessary questioning, as well as obliterate the answers which custom provides, answers to the unbearable weight of human indeterminancy, with its own rational necessity: the necessity of its answers to the exclusion of all others. But, perennially, there lies an enemy who foils this imperial project—passion, the obstacle between the pure concept and the practice of real beings in the world.

“Propositionalism,” writes Meyer, “answers the most fundamental question there is: what does it mean to answer? This question governs all the other [questions], it models them, because the solution brought will be valid for any possible solution, since it is precisely a matter of determining that which constitutes a solution in general. As the questioning is open to a multiplicity of options, the answer, being one of them, does away at once with any alternative, therefore with any problem” (289). If the principle of non-contradiction is my a-priori guarantee of the veracity of any proposition, then all that which contradicts this absolute truth would be rejected as “irrational”. Since philosophy is cognitive by nature, the move to rationalize passion, rendering it in this manner a proper subject of intelligible properties (i.e. judgment) is inevitable within the internal logic of Greek philosophy. In the world of the intelligible, properties must necessarily be what they are; in the world of the sensible, properties are contingent. The whole struggle of philosophy is to somehow reduce the ontological difference between the intelligible and the sensible; to pretend that what holds for intelligible properties (logic, grammar, mathematics) must also encompass the variable, contingent multiplicity of the sensible. Passion, being at the heart of the unpredictable contingency in humanity, becomes the radical Other of propositionalism: “Propositionalism, at heart, has only the fault of its absolutes. Demonstration, necessity, are certainly excellent forms of discourse, but could not pretend to be the only ones, without having to relegate all others to the darkness of the irrational. And there, propositionalism is destroyed by itself, because it only conceives of itself as exclusive of its exclusions. The reason for this is simple: to accept plurality in answerhood means admitting that the problematic and the multiple can inscribe themselves in it, and resurface under the form of questions in the answers themselves. But, propositionalism is born of necessity, which thus affirms itself circularly, but also excludes all that is not apodictic” (291).

Now this critique of traditional philosophy is not original. What is new is Meyer's attempt to go beyond a purely negative critique of philosophy and ground philosophy in what he calls “problematology”—a philosophy of questioning, a rational skepticism which poses questions having no answers in advance; a philosophy built around the problematological difference, meaning that it always keeps alive the difference between questions and answers (300). For Meyer the opposition should not be between (Greek) rationalism and post modern irrationalism, as it is in Nussbaum, but between propositional rationalism and interrogative rationalism. And passion, being that theoretical monkey on philosophy's back, would naturally prove to be the perfect subject for the exploration of the difference between the two approaches.

Throughout Le Philosophe et les Passions, Meyer poses three interrelated questions: 1) What is Man? i.e. what specifically can passion reveal about the human condition? 2) What is passion if we are to define it positively and not simply in opposition to an idiosyncratic (e.g. Greek) form of rationality? 3) What is it precisely about traditional philosophical discourse which necessitates the exclusion of passion from “the philosophical life”? These questions are explored within two contexts, first, that of an examination of a series of problems relating to philosophy and passion from Plato to Kant; and second, that of an exposition of what could be a positive phenomenology of passions. By way of continuation and contrast to Nussbaum, I will first briefly sketch Meyer's analysis of passion in Aristotle and then explore some aspects of Meyer's own functional understanding of the passions.

We saw earlier that Nussbaum noted the indecisiveness in Aristotle's view of passion (cognitivism but without necessity), leaving the explanation for it open. Meyer insists on the fact that this indecision springs from tension within Aristotle's philosophy in general. There are in fact two Aristotles: one, close to Platonism, wants to resolve the duality of the intelligible and the sensible in a generalized apodictic system. This Aristotle rejects passion almost along Platonic lines (cf. Metaphysics, 1022b15). The other Aristotle accepts man as an entity “free as to its choices of ends, plunged in the contingent, assigning itself each time particular objectives which he is driven to redefine” (65-6). This is the Aristotle of the Rhetoric. Aristotle, Meyer insists, holds simultaneously two moralities: a morality of the apodictic logos and a morality of contingency.

The objective of the Rhetoric is to teach the orator how to manipulate the emotions of the jurors. To do so, the orator must first know what emotions are. Meyer reads the rhetoric of the passions in Aristotle within the framework of intersubjective phenomenology. He is aware of the fact that one cannot speak of consciousness and subjectivity in a pre-Cartesian context—Greek philosophy is a philosophy of Being and not of subjectivity—but, nevertheless, decides that for the modern reader, with this caution always in mind, the conceptual transposition is instructive. Passion, therefore, is the instantiation of the dialectic of identity and difference which is constantly negotiated within any social group. “Passion is the consciousness I have of the consciousness of the Other concerning me, and at once, it is an image of our rapport which I interiorize, a difference which fuses or which explodes” (72). I am with a given person and I perceive (I make the judgment would say Nussbaum) that he or she disdains me; a hostile image of our rapport forms in my imagination; this interiorized hostile difference with the Other renders our rapport hostile. Passion is that which I suffer from the Other; it is “the Other in me so long that he has an image of me against which I react.” This intersubjective consciousness, declares Meyer, is “the essence of passion in the Aristotelian Rhetoric” (72).

The political implications here are obvious. A community that resolves to renounce violence must find a way to negotiate difference so that there might exist a minimum of common identity. But common identity is a result of negotiations whose ultimate product is an equilibrium which is in turn always menaced by excess of passion. Excessive difference in the dialectic of identity can become harmful, whence the doctrine of the mean in Aristotle. At the heart of the political pact there lies the micro-intersubjective Sartrian hell: to have an identity I must be different; but if everybody asserts this difference how can we coexist politically? “Each wanting to be one self, each becomes inevitably the same as the other, who wants the same thing while wanting to be different” (173). The drama of this (ego) negotiation is the drama of the passions—the sign of the contingent in a political animal whose telos is never a natural given. To talk of politics is to talk of passion; to talk of community is to talk about the negotiation of passion. That is why the understanding of passion is the single most important element in the (courtroom) judicial process. The other political alternative is a totalitarian dictatorship of the logos as fantasized by Plato and Zeno. There real debate is absent since all problems have been resolved in advance, and passion is circumvented by the apodictic logos. To a large extent the political and social marginalization of philosophy is a function of philosophy's unwillingness to acknowledge the rhetorical reality of human intersubjectivity. The so-called “sophists,” recognizing that logos itself in matters human is part of the mutable, contingent reality, lacking from a human point of view any cosmic necessity, being never in correspondence with the order of things, insisted upon a practice of philosophy which is consistent with this lack of adequation and correspondence. Only then, based on a shrewd assessment of the reality of human affairs, its passionate substratum, could philosophy become pertinent to the agora.

For Meyer the subjective a-priori is passion. The theory of reminiscence, the cogito, the Kantian a-priori are all products of the passionate quest for the answer to a perennial question: where, in the final analysis, can the contingent subject anchor his or her existential need for certitude? Desire to know, impulse to search, these are manifestations of the original passion, the degree zero of the philosophical quest, and, according to Meyer, the only possible solution to the paradox of the Meno: “Passion is at once the obstacle to the truth and that which pushes me toward it” (294).16 The more dogmatic the rationalism, the more transparent its passion: Stoicism.

No longer seen as the opposite of reason, no longer excluded as the menace to the immutable stability of thought, passion constitutes the space of the interface between the subject and reality. It is the filter, the valve, which mediates between the continual shock of the real and the subject's desire for permanent stability. From the subjective point of view, reality presents itself as an endless series of questions for which passion functions as an answer. “Passion assures the continuity of the real. How is this continuity assured? Each new problem is seen on the basis of questions already resolved, and apprehended in function of answers which were brought to them in the past. The new questions become then rhetorical questions, in the sense that they present themselves as interrogative forms of already accepted truths. […] if the question was able to be suppressed as such […] this has to do […] with the human desire to live in self-assurance and security. This nourishes an “I am right” ceaselessly re-enacted, and upon which are transplanted all ideologies and unconscious constructions” (302). Hence notions such as common sense and plausibility are seen for what they are: not the shared, timeless, universal mental substratum of humanity, but historical and culture-specific responses to the questions of the Real. Common sense is the common filter a culture imposes upon its interpretation of reality so that the illusion of a stable, timeless continuity between subjectivity and the Real is accomplished. Common sense, like all passionate phenomena, is an homeostatic mechanism assuring the cohesion of the subject (and the culture) in that menacing sea of change that is the Real. For Meyer common sense represents the “essentialized passion” of a culture, the self-imposed filter between its consciousness and reality, its responses to the questions of reality crystalized into unquestioned timeless truisms.

Taking his cue from psychoanalysis, Meyer asserts that “As long as we will have not understood that the self is a story (histoire), we will not have resolved any of the grand problems that the concept of subjectivity poses since Descartes and Kant” (305). Storytelling involves a narrative reduction where raw data (the Real) is reduced into a sequence having its own internal dynamics and its own logic. But the psychoanalytic inspiration stops here. Echoing Nussbaum, Meyer entitles his theoretical chapter “For a critique of pure passion”, meaning a critique of passion seen as a dark, innate and unconscious mechanism which, by definition, escapes all rational discourse. For Meyer rhetoric, pragmatics, and phenomenology (all done within the problematological framework) are capable of a rational discourse concerning the passions.

What then is the rhetoric driving this subjective storytelling? Its social framework, as we said, is common sense and ideology. On the micro-level Meyer identifies three rhetorical devices capital for the construction of the barrier against the real: deliteralization, denomination, hierarchization. These mechanisms are not symptoms of a cognitive disease, susceptible to ‘correction’ once they are understood. Rather they indicate the basic paradox of the passions in that there is a “certain refusal of the real in the act of getting a grip of the real, so that we can live it and live in it. But reality is a function, and not a content” (303).

Deliteralization is chief among these mechanisms: signs, stimuli from the outside do not possess their corresponding necessary interpretation. If such were the case, most human passion would then indeed be errors in judgment. But, in fact, most passion around us today such as the videos of Rodney King and Reginald Denney, to cite just the most obvious examples, demonstrate that a video graphic representation, the closest thing we have in the domain of representation to the Real, can still give rise to a wide variety of genuine de-literatization on the part of the viewing subject. These extreme examples illustrate the rhetorical process in which we engage countless times every day. A stable ego ideal is incompatible with the cognitive requirements of the Real. We cannot function if our basic assumptions about the Real are constantly challenged by contrary data. That is why integral skepticism is a psychological impossibility. By deliteralizing the real, we can reduce difference to sameness, assuring thus the stability of the subject. The questions of the Real, its problematicity, are nullified in favor of an illusion, but a very potent and functional illusion, of changeless, timeless stability. The criterion of the success of passion is not truth but efficacy. It is precisely this feature of nomos which so terrified Greek philosophers: instead of deliterazing the real through myth and custom, they wanted to create new cosmically apodictic criteria of judgment that would escape the arbitrariness of custom and opinion. Instead of the perception of reality as a function of nomos, philosophy wished to eradicate this functionality by the discovery of a necessary and absolute identity of judgment with what is. Within this logic, passion is necessarily the enemy, the eternal foil for those searching for a supra-human order.

Denomination and hierarchization represent the same subjective act of ordering. To name an act is to imply a judgment. For some Brutus was a murderer, for others a liberator. Violent acts may be named riots or uprisings. The name, at any case, reveals a judgment, that is a reduction of the Real to its subjective and passionate expression. This is why language and metaphors communicate instantly a mentality and an ethics. Naming is closely connected to the more general concept of hierarchization. The act of deliteralization and denomination express the subjective passionate interpretation of the real, a process accomplished by a (necessary) pre-established hierarchy of meaning and value assigned to events. “This circularity [between passion and perception] functions in that the chosen denomination anticipates implications which must follow, these implications being known by other means” (320). This is the subjective a-priori of consciousness; the buffer zone between the desire for stability and the ruthless demands of the real. In order to tell a story, the story of the Self, passionate reduction is inevitable. Some narratives, certainly, are better than others. But, given our existential inadequation with the Real, the act of passionate reduction per se is inevitable. In short “Passion reflects this discrepancy between the metaphorical and the literal” (341).

This rhetoric of the passions exhibits an underlying logic. It is the logic of the “Amalgam between properties and subjects of properties, a logic of contagiousness and contiguity: x is a but “to be a” applies also to y, which is b, and then even to z and so on.” (326). Muslims are our (e.g. Serbs) traditional enemies (x is a), this also applies to one named Mohammed who was my neighbor and dated my sister (to be a applies to y); being Muslim he should then be viewed as my mortal enemy, etc. Being a logic of substitution, the amalgam can seem absurd to somebody looking at a rhetorical-historical situation from the outside. Indeed the discrepancy between the literal and the figurative, which is the space of passion, can result in fantastic amalgams and substitutions. But it is only ‘fantastic’ to someone looking in from the outside; for the subject, however, this amalgam is eminently rational. Thus, amalgam and substitution result in syllogistic reasoning which in turn reveals the thorough subjectivity of perception and judgment.

But beyond its rhetorical and logical aspects, passion should be understood in relation to existential problems. First is the notion of consciousness itself. Traditionally, two theories of consciousness have emerged: consciousness of the object (Descartes) and consciousness of the self (Romanticism). Between Classicism and Romanticism, the criterion of truth has been displaced from the Real to the self. The transparent consciousness implied in Descartes has the following problem: how is it possible at the same time for consciousness to be submerged irreflexively in the world and to have a critical consciousness of itself? There is a sequential time difference here that remains a perennial problem. Meyer locates this problematic time difference as the space where passion integrates a cohesiveness to consciousness: “The temporal difference is the identity of consciousness. The unreflected consciousness is distinct from the consciousness of the self, while being the same, therefore consciousness, because it is not at the same instant that the return to the self and the forgetfulness of the self take place. Passion worms its way into this [temporal] discrepancy and reveals itself by this act as the time of consciousness. To live one's passion, is to live one's temporality” (347). Passion is then the index of this hesitation between the absolute of the Real and the contingency of the subject. And here we see clearly why passion is so inextricably tied to the notion of time. The acceptance of one is a function of the acceptance of the other. For the Stoics “to conquer passion means abolishing time: [creating] a coincidence among the consciousness of the self and the consciousness of things external, and that time of their discrepancy [being] abolished. The unity of Reason gives man then a present without age, as if he wanted to extirpate himself from the flux of time” (347). Goldschmidt shows that Stoicism's entire project could be understood as a concentrated effort to cancel out the paradoxical and passionate whirlwind of time (i.e. we are either absorbed in regrets of the past or fear of the future, but never in touch with the present)17 and somehow to live in the eternal present of the sage. According to Meyer, Stoicism here (as in so many other aspects) expresses in a forcefully dogmatic fashion the fundamental human desire to see the problem of time and change neutralized in favor of an immutable logos (for the philosopher) or common sense (for the commoner).

Much the same can be said about history: Plus ça change plus ça reste la même chose says the popular proverb. The self strives to possess a stable identity, an autonomy vis-à-vis time and history. Passionately we erect an identity against time (348). To accomplish this feat there must be a denial of change, a denial of that which threatens my ego ideal. As we said, common sense and plausibility serve the function of erecting a fiction of timeless and history-less ‘analytic’ continuity. The stronger the culture, the more stable its consensus as to its consciousness of the real and its negotiation of the problem of means and ends in ethics. Strong cultures create a tight correspondence between questions and answers. Given that we are all today sons and daughters of Romanticism, Meyer is correct in insisting that this bon pensant sens commun is equally a passionate discourse to which subjects cling with as much passion as to any discourse of revolutionary rapture.

But in the West the time when a Descartes could still imagine denying historical and temporal change is long gone (348).18 The acceleration of history has made it increasingly more difficult to deny what Meyer calls the shock of the real. From Cartesian passion for a mathesis universalis we pass to a Hegelian passion for History. The logos as it were changed optics from geometry to history. Increasingly the rupture between historical change and personal ethos becomes apparent. Cervantes writes the great novel of this rupture. It is the first great novel about the discrepancy between personal ethos and history, between questions of the self and answers of the Real.19 The novel, a specifically modern western phenomenon, becomes the genre representing this passionate difference between individual consciousness and objective history. Passion then no longer functions mostly as a cultural homeostatic buffering mechanism but increasingly as the mark of the individual revolt against historical common sense: the passion of Madame Bovary against the passion of Monsieur Homais.

The logic of passion governs three large domains: the rapport to the self (the story of the self), to the other (inter subjective consciousness) and to things (history, events, etc.) (380). A filter between the subject and the real; a valve regulating their interaction; a rampart against the passage of time, change, history; a catalyst of change, knowledge, quest; a source of automatic answers and the origin of revolutionary questions; an inter subjective “hell”—these are its paradoxical realities and functions. Paradoxical, because no one single proposition could conceptualize passion's essence. We can not say that passion is A and not -A thereby creating its identity. Starting with the paradox of the Meno, Meyer shows that each time propositionalism deals with passion, the result is inevitably paradoxical. Passion has a rhetorical and not a propositional reality: it “works with the conflict between propositions”.20 To seize the reality of passion, its multiple facets must be brought to the surface. But because it is so often for us a concept of projection—“I am reasonable, you are passionate”—we are blind to the pervasiveness of passion. Meyer's contention is that we must first critique propositional thought, showing that while it is adequate for most scientific reasoning, it falls short in the understanding of human contingency. Second, within a rhetorical framework that is eminently rational, but not propositional, using pragmatics, language theory, rhetoric, psychology, phenomenology, it is possible to conceptualize passion without falling into the traditional philosophical trap of seeing it as the other of Reason, as the obstacle which humanity, if it is to “grow up” must surmount. Passion for Meyer is the specificity of humanity: “Passion is, because we are, and must be” (380).

In sum, Nussbaum's neo-Aristotelian critique of anti-foundationalism has two unhappy results: first, an endorsement of a specifically Greek form of rationalism, to the exclusion of all others; second, the (perhaps unintended) re-activation of the age-old metaphysical opposition between logos and pathos. Meyer, on the other hand, seeks to form a new rationality which, by its problematological foundation and openness to rhetoric and linguistics, circumvents the problems of propositionalism. Meyer's analysis of passion is the fruit of a close empirical study of contingency. Within this optic, passion assumes a positive role—it is the mark of humanity, Reason being but one of its manifestations. To be sure, neither Nussbaum nor Meyer (nor perhaps anybody else) can account within their schemes of passion for the Augustinian-Freudian problematics of absolute evil—so pertinent to this twentieth century. Nevertheless, Meyer's “problematology” of passion represents a serious attempt to bridge the gulfs between philosophy, literature and science.21 If passion is no longer seen as the enemy, philosophy, literature and criticism may at last recognize each other as manifestations of a shared problematic—Passion.


  1. Epictetus, Diss. I, IV, 26, cited in Victor Goldschmidt, Le Système Stoïcien et l'Idée du Temps (Paris: Vrin [1952], 1976), 178. See also Augustine, Confessions, III, 2 for an extensive discussion of passion, representation/imitation, theater and philosophy.

  2. Meyer's substantial discussion of “problématologie” is in his book, De la Problématologie (Bruxelles: Mardaga, 1986). For a more synoptic discussion in English see: Michel Meyer, Rhetoric, Language and Reason (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).

  3. I shall henceforth refer particularly to Epicureans and Stoics and not to the Hellenistic schools in toto because the Skeptics, as Nussbaum admits (“skeptics always excepted” [22]), are essentially different from the dogmatic schools and indeed occupy little space in The Therapy of Desire.

  4. Michel Foucault. Histoire de la Sexualité Vol. 3, Le Souci de Soi, (Paris: Gallimard, 1984).

  5. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971) and “Kantian Constructivism in Moral Theory: The Dewey Lectures,” Journal of Philosophy, 77, 1980.

  6. Goldschmidt, p. 63.

  7. Ibid., p. 63. All translations from the French are my own.

  8. Plato, Meno, 80, d-e.

  9. Marcia Cavell, The Psychoanalytic Mind: From Freud to Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993).

  10. Ibid., p. 10.

  11. Ibid., p. 144.

  12. Goldschmidt, pp. 264-65

  13. Pierre Hadot, Exercises Sprituels et Philosophie Antique (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1981), 63.

  14. De finibus, III, iv, 14.

  15. The History of Private Life (Vol. I), ed. Paul Veyne (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1987), pp. 207-33.

  16. The relationship between memory, passion and the quest for the truth are masterfully analyzed by Augustine in Confessions, X. In purely Platonic terms, Augustine insists that it is passion (love, grace, inspiration, etc.) which propels us to ask the right questions of the inner self, our memory, where all knowledge is permanently stored.

  17. See Pascal, Pensées, B 172.

  18. On Cartesian philosophy being specifically a philosophy constructed against Time and History see: Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (New York: The Free Press, 1990).

  19. See Meyer, Meaning and Reading (Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Co, 1983), 132-37.

  20. See Meyer, Rhetoric, Language, and Reason, p. 68.

  21. For a recent scientific debunking of the opposition of Emotion to Reason, see Antonio R. Damasio, Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain (New York, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1994).

Maureen McLane (review date spring 1996)

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SOURCE: McLane, Maureen. Review of Poetic Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Chicago Review 42, no. 2 (spring 1996): 95-100.

[In the following review of Poetic Justice, McLane expresses admiration for Nussbaum's ideas, but points out various shortcomings in the author's arguments.]

The University of Chicago is perhaps better known as the home of Milton Friedman, patron saint and theorist of Reagan's revolution, than the habitus of Martha Nussbaum, philosopher and recently-appointed Professor of Law, Literature and Ethics at the Law and Divinity Schools of the University of Chicago. If we are lucky this reputation will change. Nussbaum's Poetic Justice may be read as a salvo against the hegemony of free-market ideology and utilitarian calculation in public discourse. More precisely, Nussbaum challenges the unphilosophical, pseudo-scientific claims of rational-choice theorists who, as she notes, increasingly dominate economic discourse, public policy disputes, and legal reasoning. In its most extreme forms, rational-choice theory posits persons as mere aggregates of preferences, mere sites for the calculation of utilities. According to such a model, you are what you prefer, and what you prefer is your choice. Each of your preferences (for this car, that sex act, this political candidate, that CD) is equally measurable, quantifiable—a bit of data to be entered in the charts or computer programs of economists and other social scientists. Nussbaum denounces this abject thralldom to objectivity, facticity, mathematical description and prediction. Even within economics, she observes, other models more conducive to “quality of life” assessment have emerged. She invokes the economists and philosophers (Amartya Sen is one) who, in the development sphere, have defended “an approach to quality of life measurement based on a notion of human functioning or human capability, rather than on either opulence or utility” (51). Yet it is the rational-choice theorists who have had the most profound impact on public life, as illustrated by, for example, the ascendancy of the law-and-economics school of thought.

How else should we be imagining persons, and on what other grounds might public life and reasoning be conducted? Nussbaum proposes the literary imagination, especially as manifested in the nineteenth-century Anglo-American realist novel, as the basis for another kind of richly qualitative reasoning. Novel-reading, Nussbaum argues, invites identification and sympathy; the novel's capacity to establish and populate a vivid and varied world offers a better, or at least a fuller, vision of life than that produced by economic treatises and other nonfiction documents. Although she begins her book with an epigraph from Whitman's Song of Myself, it is Dickens's Hard Times that serves as the most notable case in her argument. With its satirical yet ultimately sympathetic portrait of the arch-utilitarian pedant, Gradgrind, Hard Times directly confronts the stakes of theorizing persons as mere sites of utility.

What Gradgrind (and his twentieth-century heirs such as Richard Posner and Gary Becker) undervalue, according to Nussbaum, is the power of “fancy,” of the compassionate “metaphorical imagination” (36). Novels explicitly address and cultivate this capacity. Nussbaum believes that policy makers and judges would do well to cultivate fancy, since it is the faculty which allows us to recognize and value the quality, complexity, and specificity of human experience. Nussbaum's choice of the word “fancy” is perhaps unfortunate, bringing as it does connotations of whimsy and Tinkerbellish insubstantiality. Yet she takes care to distinguish fancy from simple sentiment; nor does she advocate any jettisoning of rule-governed morality. What she is really arguing for is a kind of hard fancy, a committed imagination. In this, as in her apparently pre-Marxian vision of a public sphere, Nussbaum reveals her affinities with certain luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment, particularly Adam Smith. Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments proposes the figure of the sympathetic yet “impartial spectator”; it is this engaged spectatorship which Nussbaum wishes to re-imagine in public life, and which the novel more than other cultural forms best fosters.

The necessary defense of novels and novel-reading entailed by Nussbaum's argument may be the strangest aspect of the book—strange not because novels don't need defending, but because Nussbaum's commitment to and implicit theory of literature seem to come from an earlier time. One would think modernism never happened, or that the so-called postmodern condition was an invention of mischievous academics. Is the realist novel an anachronism? If so, is its commitment to liberal individualism also anachronistic? I certainly don't think so, but I also don't think it is possible to avoid these questions, which Nussbaum largely does. Nussbaum remarks that “films may also make contributions to public life” (6); in this way her argument should not stand or fall on whether one privileges the novel as a “living form.” And she also notes that novels may de-humanize as well as humanize: the depiction of the working poor in Hard Times, as she notes, leaves something to be desired. Yet Nussbaum insists that the novel is a genre the structure of which “invites concern and respect for any story to which it directs the reader's attention” (129, note 34). In its traditional immersion in the concrete, the novel offers, in Nussbaum's view, a model of public reasoning which is context-specific without being relativistic. It seems to me, however, that Nussbaum's argument works better as a defense of fancy than as a defence of the novel. Novels may go the way of the heroic epistle, a more or less obsolete cultural form; but moral and aesthetic imagination will find new forms and offer new possibilities for contributing to public life.

Nussbaum invokes Wayne Booth's theory of “co-duction,” by which critical reflection and conversation should accompany and inform the pleasures of reading; only through such comparative and informed reflection will the full ethical possibilities of novel-reading be realized. Obviously this second requirement—that one not only read but also discuss, compare, and critically reflect on one's reading—presents a further demand on readers and on reading communities. There is something of the romance of the eighteenth-century coffeehouse or perhaps of the salon of philosophes in Nussbaum's musings. Yet it may be that engaged and cooperative reading (or moviegoing, or poetry-slamming) is already happening or is at least possible in late twentieth-century America. The proliferation of book groups suggests that there is a hunger for some kind of intellectual community outside of academia. And the endless parade of articles on the death or rebirth or dislocation of the “public intellectual” indexes the interest (however pernicious) the mainstream media has in discovering another site of thoughtful contribution to public life and reasoning.

Having introduced the “literary imagination” and its possible contribution to reasoning, Nussbaum turns to the supposed enemy of reason: emotion. Should emotions be components of reasoning? Nussbaum argues both that they are and should be such a component. Her third chapter, “Rational Emotions,” elaborates her primary philosophical argument, a defense of the emotions. As Nussbaum notes, emotions, like literature, “badly need defending” (54). Rational-choice theorists insist that, for choices to be rational, emotions must be excluded. Nussbaum invokes Richard Posner, who in his 1981 book The Economics of Justice announced that he would assume “‘that people are rational maximizers of satisfactions’” (54). Nussbaum unpacks Posner's position to mean that “we can respect people's choices as rational in the normative sense only if we can show that they conform to the utilitarian rational-maximizing conception and do not reflect the influence of emotional factors” (55). Such a view, as Nussbaum remarks, tends to confuse descriptive and normative uses of “reason” and “rational” and relies on an unexamined opposition of “emotion” to “reason”—an opposition which has historically devolved into the asymmetrical binary, “feminine/masculine.”

Nussbaum quickly dispenses with theories that equate emotion with irrationality; she reserves both her intellectual firepower and respect for the Greek and Roman Stoics. These “antiemotion philosophers” (57) acknowledged emotions to be judgments yet considered them false judgments. These thinkers imagined that “the good person is completely self-sufficient”; they expressed a profound hostility to anything which revealed humans to be “needy and incomplete” (57). Virtue lay in curing oneself of those attachments (e.g. to beloved people) which would subject one to the contingent, or to forces beyond one's control. Such a position is crystallized, Nussbaum writes, in Socrates's pronouncement, “The good person cannot be harmed.” It is quite clear that Nussbaum believes passionately that the good person may be harmed, that he or she is in fact harmed every day, whether we see the evidence for this in novels, newspapers, or Amnesty International reports. Nussbaum argues, contra the Stoics, that emotions may well be accurate perceptions of value; moreover, she concludes that “if we reject the Stoic tradition in the matter of self-sufficiency, we must, to be consistent, reject its normative arguments for the dismissal of emotion” (67). The fantasy of self-sufficiency, which seems to me heavily freighted by its repression of childhood and mothering (and perhaps fathering), precludes the judicious recognition of our common human claims and vulnerabilities. No man is an island, to invoke the cliché, and it is a moral defeat to imagine that he should be.

Yet neither are people simply units in a grand collective, such as class. When Nussbaum addresses the Marxist critique of the novel as an excessively individualistic cultural form, we see another aspect of her moral reasoning. Just as she criticizes utilitarians for aggregating “pleasures” and “pains” (which can only be experienced by individuals, not en masse), so too she resists a premature collectivization, as it were, of the individual into larger or broader units such as class (and, we must assume, race, gender, nationality, region). She is deeply committed to the particularity of the individual, however marked, constructed, situated, or historicizable that individual (or the concept of the “individual”) may be. While she is a strong critic of the reification and quantification of individuals in rational-choice theory and of the fantasy of “self-sufficiency” in antiemotion philosophy, Nussbaum refuses to renounce the individual as the basis for moral thinking, address, and compassionate imagination. And since it is, in first-world democracies if not in Stalinist states, individuals and not classes of individuals who commit crimes and submit to trial, a philosophical defense of compassionate and rigorous imagination thus has especial relevance for the judge and jury confronted with the accused.

Nussbaum's final chapter, “Poets as Judges,” takes up Whitman's concept of the poet as “the equable man.” She puts her model of the judicious spectator to the test. Such a spectator, reader, or jurist must sympathetically imagine and critically reason: “both empathetic participation and external assessment are crucial in determining the degree of compassion it is rational to have for the person” (73). When Nussbaum turns to legal reasoning, she imagines a “literary judge” (82) as preferable to “three rivals” (82): the skeptically detached judge, the scientistic judge, and the distantiated abstract judge. Again, Nussbaum takes care not to propose the literary not as a substitute for legal reasoning but rather as a supplement to or component thereof. As she writes,

In order to be fully rational, judges must also be capable of fancy and sympathy. They must educate not only their technical capacities but also their capacity for humanity. In the absence of that capacity, their impartiality will be obtuse and their justice blind.


Such conclusions, unsurprising at the end of a book which sutures “fancy” and “sympathy” to reasoning and judgment, nevertheless ring a bit hollow. Who would call for less humane judges? (I will overlook, for the moment, the possibility that some fellow citizens would enumerate hanging judges and chain gangs as among the last true defenses of “humanity” in America.) How to assess and promote “humanity” is, of course, the crux of the dispute.

More substantial than this homage to humanity are Nussbaum's readings of three court opinions, two of which demonstrate, in her opinion, the salutary influence of literary imagination in judging, and the third of which (a sodomy case) exemplifies the woeful failure of such imagination. Anyone interested in the vexed and vexing legal reasoning concerning sodomy should read Nussbaum's account of the 1986 case Bowers v. Hardwick. Here, as in her reading of Richard Wright's Native Son, Nussbaum shows that failures of imagination—whether homophobic or racist—contribute to a blighting of personal freedom, potential community, and democratic life. At the other end of the spectrum is the triumphant legal imagining of Mary J. Carr v. Allison Gas Turbine Division, General Motors Corporation, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, July 26, 1994. This opinion comes from the pen of none other than Richard Posner, who elsewhere appears as the law-and-economics bogeyman of this book. Posner's sardonic and lucid obliteration of General Motors is a delight to read; more important, in Nussbaum's view, is the role sympathy and fancy play in the very substance of his reasoning. Vividly recreating in his opinion the predicament of Mary Carr, a female tinsmith who was sexually harassed for years, Posner moves to the heart of the case, exposes General Motors' protestations of helplessness (boys will be boys, and what could we do?) as the sham they were, and effectively diagnoses the asymmetry of gender and power relations in this particular worksite. Not every judge writes as brilliantly as Posner, but literary skill is not the point, Nussbaum argues: the point lies rather in the habits of mind cultivated by exposure to and participation in the literary imagination.

If the chapters of this book seem a bit associatively connected, it may be that Poetic Justice has not transcended its origins as the Alexander Rosenthal Lectures for 1991 at the Northwestern University Law School. Each of Nussbaum's chapters could launch its own book, and in fact the chapter on “Rational Emotions” draws on another book she is currently writing. After re-reading Poetic Justice, I am still not persuaded that it is necessary to locate, as Nussbaum does, the literary imagination in the Anglo-American realist novel, although I think it is one fine example; another might be found in the writings, for example, of Percy Shelley, who strongly advocated an informed, passionate, and critical imagination in his poetry and in numerous essays, among them A Philosophical View of Reform and A Defence of Poetry. Nussbaum's book implicitly imagines several figures in a common conversation: rational-choice theorists, judges, Dickens, Aristotle, Adam Smith, Richard Wright—these and others mingle in her brilliant common room. Yet I suspect that humanists, wherever they are, already agree with Martha Nussbaum, and that rational-choice theorists won't be too bothered by her critique. Maybe the best hope for Nussbaum's vision appears in the anecdote she includes in her acknowledgements: Nussbaum met Richard Posner, the arch-villain of her first lecture, on the night before it was to be given. They apparently both survived the awkwardness and developed a vital friendship: indeed the book is dedicated to him. Whether such amicable if oppositional friendship may serve as a model for a reconstructed public sphere remains to be seen.

John Plotz (review date fall 1996)

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SOURCE: Plotz, John. “A Sympathetic Social Science.” Novel 30, no. 1 (fall 1996): 132-34.

[In the following review, Plotz asserts that Poetic Justice is persuasive and tremendously thought-provoking. Plotz, however, points out various flaws in Nussbaum's arguments, and contends that she fails to adequately develop the implications of her central ideas.]

Charles Dickens begins Bleak House with a lament that establishes the central importance of sympathy to the nineteenth-century novel: “nobody knew about Miss Flite, because nobody cared.” When he goes on to recount Miss Flite's fate—and Jo's death, and all the rest—in sometimes excruciating physical and emotional detail, the novel delivers what it calls for: nine hundred pages of caring. The reader proceeds, via an initial sympathy, to the knowledge that in turn ensures a deeper sympathy.

In Poetic Justice, Martha Nussbaum goes to bat for Dickens, arguing that knowledge sometimes is not really knowledge unless it proceeds through sympathy. This claim is part of Nussbaum's long-term project on the role that emotions have to play in approaching various philosophical and political questions: aside from work on the topic in Love's Knowledge and The Therapy of Desire, she has edited two books on related topics, The Quality of Life and Women, Culture and Development. Her Upheavals of Thought: A Theory of the Emotions is also forthcoming. Her ethical ambition is to convince philosophical opponents—particularly the “law and economics” movement, which preaches a sort of radically free-market utilitarianism as a panacea for the liberal state's ills—that “an ethics of impartial respect for human dignity will fail to engage real human beings unless they are made capable of entering imaginatively into the lives of others and to have emotions related to that participation.” To sympathize with all is to dignify all.

Nussbaum calls convincingly for treating sympathy as an inextricable component of understanding, rather than a threat to reason. She chooses her guides well: because her theory of emotions rests on a “common sense” notion of sympathy, she brings into play Adam Smith's remarkable Theory of Moral Sentiments, which argues that a necessary emotionality is the only reliable road to true fellow feeling—and, Nussbaum adds, true action for social equality or the betterment of all. In Smith's terms, it is only by training as “judicious spectators” that we learn to imagine others from their own viewpoint, rather than from our own. And the best way our own culture has devised to cultivate judicious spectatorship, Nussbaum argues, is novel-reading.

Nussbaum has a legitimate and serious quarrel with the current practice of the social sciences, which she argues are divorced from any interest (imaginative or otherwise) in how other human beings, as individuals, feel and think. But is she right to turn to novels as the genre best designed to induce compensatory fellow-feeling? Novel-reading, she argues, is how our culture cultivates sympathy—presumably it replaces tragedy for the Greeks, or Bible-reading for Reformation Protestants. The production of sympathy is the best work of novels, and for that reason they are the best of literary works (Whitman's poems function very like novels for the purpose of her argument). Her test cases, including Whitman, Dickens, and E. M. Forster's Maurice, are “literary works that promote identification and emotional reaction … requiring us to see and to respond to many things that may be difficult to confront—and they make this process palatable by giving us pleasure in the very act of confrontation” (6). There is an inherent appeal to this claim. Almost immediately, however, problems arise. Take, for example, the apparently straightforward problem of translating the feelings that novel-reading produces to encounters in the real world. The pleasure that Nussbaum mentions here is presumably related to the very fictionality of the sympathy she describes.

But there is a good case to be made that fictional sympathy is easier to train, and easier to maintain, than sympathy with real people. Catherine Gallagher argued recently, in her magisterial and compelling Nobody's Story, that “it is easier to identify with nobody than it is with somebody.” Gallagher's work suggests that novels (at least before the advent of Modernism, and arguably even after) are filled with sites where one can jump in, and start identifying—with a character narrating or narrated, seen or heard, similar or dissimilar to oneself. These sites might be called, to borrow a phrase from the Apple computer control panels, “points of insertion.” It is not too hard to see how such sympathy might become a dangerous thing. Augustine warned Romans not to weep for the imaginary death of an imaginary Dido, and Rousseau declared that citizens of an ethical city-state should reserve their sympathy for suffering fellow-citizens, not waste it on painted players.

Nussbaum could certainly argue that the novel's purely fictional beings (not quite human, but not quite inhuman) are essential in instructing us to care about, and to care for, others. Unfortunately, the most interesting implications of that argument never quite get played out in this book. Nussbaum's writings on ancient literature, like her articles on Henry James, bespeak a terrific sensitivity to the powers of literature. But Poetic Justice goes oddly astray in its extended reading of Dickens's polemic on utilitarianism, Hard Times. The choice is a poor one: Hard Times is as tendentious in its own way as the law and economics textbooks that Nussbaum thunders against. Hard Times only says it is reminding us of the mistake of applying any single set of cut-and-dried laws to human behavior and the “maximization” of utility or of happiness. By contrast, Bleak House's enormous diversity of sympathy-inducing stories would seem to offer a perfect test case for the novel's ability to represent the permanent human condition of sharing a linguistic realm, but having our own bodies—sick and well, old and young—always to ourselves.

Nussbaum is certainly asking the right questions about the classic nineteenth-century novel's interest in making readers feel individuated sympathy for suffering characters. For example, Nussbaum points out that Hard Times's credo of emotional individualism at the expense of any sort of mass movement leads Dickens to denounce trade unions bitterly. Here she touches on one of the most interesting implications of the novel's hostility toward other forms of sympathetic identification, such as the fellow-feeling produced by a trade union.

But can't this hostility also be construed as a form of jealousy? Couldn't it be argued that the sort of highly individuated sympathy novels engender may cause readers to give up on common feeling with larger groups? Nussbaum is on fascinating ground here: what are the implications of the vicarious empathy that the classic realist novel aimed to produce? It might well be argued that the sort of distant interest that the novel promotes works in our society to inhibit other forms of sympathy. With the romantic turmoil of a novel to retreat to, what need is there to contemplate the (sociological) problems of one's own city? Better leave that to the social scientists. The more convincing the sympathetic emotions induced by the novel are, the less that one will need to look for sympathy in the public realm. Curling up with a Harlequin or with Proust is a sort of political statement.

Nussbaum does not reckon with the novel's long and complex history, much of which has nothing at all to do with the production of sympathy: a thriller thrills, historical epics immerse the reader in a lost world, pornography titillates, and so on. Even within her chosen scope, she seems unwilling to consider the nineteenth-century novel's attempts both to deny and to replace the forms of mass organization that Dickens denounces in Hard Times. The realist novel's disabling mixture of readerly pleasure and sympathy is not far from the“pity and terror” that Aristotle praised in tragedy, or the “false tears for Dido” that Augustine and Rousseau denounced—but it is also intimately connected to a new (largely bourgeois) ethos of spatial isolation and distant sympathy.

What Nussbaum has written already is tremendously thought-provoking, but is only half the story: the responses she inspires are the other. Nussbaum's interdisciplinary foray will only count as fully successful if it encourages a close examination of the boundary between the anti-emotional assumptions of social science and the narrow, subjectivist ambitions of a certain sort of literature. If Nussbaum's manifesto succeeds, novelistic sympathy will have to be imported into other disciplines (though many would argue that the sympathy she has in mind has little to do with the contemporary novel). Ironically, Nussbaum appears to agree, on this one point, with one of the novel's harshest critics, Hannah Arendt. Forty years ago Arendt argued that the reign of novelistic sympathy was tied to our society's loss of a public space in which political solidarity could emerge. Arendt's response was to reject the novel's sorts of emotionality, while Nussbaum wants to see it spread everywhere. Both seem certain, though, that sympathizing only with nobody is getting us nowhere.

Daniel McInerny (essay date March 1997)

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SOURCE: McInerny, Daniel. “‘Divinity Must Live within Herself’: Nussbaum and Aquinas on Transcending the Human.” International Philosophical Quarterly 37, no. 1 (March 1997): 65-82.

[In the following essay, McInerny examines Nussbaum's thinking on transcendence and “virtue-ethics,” as expressed in her essay “Transcending Humanity.”]

Why should she give her bounty to the dead?
What is divinity if it can come
Only in silent shadows and in dreams?
Shall she not find in comforts of the sun,
In pungent fruit and bright, green wings, or else
In any balm or beauty of the earth,
Things to be cherished like the thought of heaven?
Divinity must live within herself:
Passions of rain, or moods in falling snow;
Grievings in loneliness, or unsubdued
Elations on wet roads on autumn nights;
All pleasures and all pains, remembering
The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measures destined for her soul.

Wallace Stevens, “Sunday Morning”

Throughout her writings on ethics Martha Nussbaum has expounded a notion of transcendence meant to be the corrective to those notions expounded by religious traditions of ethical inquiry. In her essay “Transcending Humanity,”1 for example, Nussbaum accuses of incoherence any conception of transcendence that takes as the standard for human excellence anything other than human life itself.2 Her defense of this claim is in some ways Aristotelian both in its concentration on the human good and in its view of practical reason. The crux of the defense, put simply, is that “Human limits structure the human excellences, and give excellent action its significance” (TH 378). To prescind from risk, and from limit and fragility in general, is to prescind from the conditions of human virtue itself, so that it is incoherent for a human being to conceive of his or her good as measured by a being that transcends limit and fragility. As Nussbaum observes, Aristotle denies to divinity the ethical virtues, and political life in general, precisely because for a god such attributes are unintelligible (TH 374).3 Courage, for instance, is not a virtue of divinity because for a being never in danger of death there is nothing grave to risk. For human beings, on the other hand, courage is not only an important good but an inherently valuable one.

While Nussbaum does argue for “a certain sort of aspiration to transcend our ordinary humanity” (TH 378), she is clear that this will be transcendence “of an internal and human sort” (TH 379). Like religious conceptions of transcendence, Nussbaum's own notion abounds in spatial metaphor: transcendence is internal to human thoughts, motivations, and feelings; it will involve a descent, “delving more deeply into oneself and one's humanity, and becoming deeper and more spacious as a result” (TH 379, italics added). What the fragility of human goodness calls for is not, then, a metamorphosis into some other kind of being but rather greater attention paid to what it means to live a fully human life.

More precisely, what Nussbaum has in mind by this internal and human sort of transcendence is an Aristotelian-like notion of virtue as a mean of action and passion. Such excellence in deliberation and choice is a very difficult business, and although she does not believe human beings are originally evil or sinful, “it is all too plain that most people are much of the time lazy, inattentive, unreflective, shallow in feeling” (TH 378). Hitting the mean, however, requires “much experience and practice, much flexibility and refinement of thought and feeling” (TH 378) and thus manifests transcendence of the lax and atrophied sensibility which characterizes too many human beings. We might summarize this notion of internal transcendence, to borrow a phrase that Nussbaum borrows from Henry James, as the act of being “finely aware and richly responsible.”4 The link with James is important, for Nussbaum strongly believes great literary works, and James's in particular, evince just the sort of transcendence she is proposing. In a passage she quotes with much approval from James's preface to The Golden Bowl, he compares excellent literary works to angels, angels that in Nussbaum's words “soar above the dullness and obtuseness of the everyday, offering their readers a glimpse of a more compassionate, subtler, more responsive, more richly human world” (TH 379). Such Jamesian angels “of fine-tuned perception and bewildered human grace” herald for Nussbaum the revelation of a “transcendent descent” into human being itself and its aspirations and fulfillments.

But we might wonder whether this notion of internal transcendence does not too easily devolve into a multiplex of disparate perspectives on what comprises peculiarly human fulfillment. What basis does Nussbaum leave, in short, for agreement on what it means to live a more compassionate, more subtle, more responsive, and more richly human life? And especially since her ethical view hopes to recapture, against the remoteness of Kantian and utilitarian ethical theory, a more Aristotelian conception of the virtues, the question is even more firmly pressed whether her virtue-ethics, as contemporary virtue-ethics is wont to do, takes a turn toward relativism. In no way am I suggesting that Nussbaum is unattuned to these questions. Indeed, she has set the very problems to herself and responded to them in thoughtful and provocative fashion, arguing in the end for a non-relative account of the virtues.5 It is this response and how it relates to the issue of transcendence which I plan to address in what follows.

An important preliminary distinction should first be made concerning the term transcendence. Transcendence does not necessarily imply the supernatural, although more often than not this is what is meant by it and it is this sense of transcendence which Nussbaum critiques most forcefully in “Transcending Humanity.” But another important and often related sense of transcendence refers to the grounding of practical reason in goods which are not simply the “artifacts” of one's own desire for fulfillment. Immanence, we can say in contrast to this, refers to that which persists within oneself, be it a power, a wish, or an experience.6 Now, it is already clear that Nussbaum rejects as incoherent the first sense of transcendence, at least as it applies to the human good. So the question becomes: does Nussbaum subscribe to transcendence in the second sense, that is, as a ground of practical reason irreducible to human wishes, possibilities, and fulfillments? If not, then we must ask ourselves whether Nussbaum is really propounding an ethical view driven by a coherent notion of transcendence or whether she is propounding, rather, a notion of immanence under the guise of transcendent principle.7 Her arguments on behalf of a non-relative account of the virtues seem to be the perfect place to look for an answer to this question, for, as we have seen, it is an Aristotelian-style exercise of practical wisdom and virtue which she believes manifests the sort of internal transcendence she is advocating. If Nussbaum's arguments for non-relative virtues are sound, then it must follow that she has an argument for a real transcendent ground of practical reason.

My examination and analysis of Nussbaum's arguments will consist of three steps: first, a summary of her Aristotelian-style defense of virtue-ethics against the claims of relativism; second, a discussion of some objections to this defense; and lastly, a different kind of test of her account of non-relative virtues by way of a comparison of her treatment of the virtue of magnanimity with that of St. Thomas Aquinas. Magnanimity, I will claim, is the virtue to spotlight in regard to these issues, for, as Nussbaum herself points out, magnanimity is the relativist's favorite target in exposing Aristotle's list of virtues to be as culture-bound as any other.8 Thus it will be crucial for Nussbaum's non-relative account of the virtues, as well as for any rival to it, to show how a thinker like Aquinas can justify a claim in his moral theology for what seems like such a peculiarly Greek and even anti-Christian virtue.


In taking up Nussbaum's defense of non-relative virtues, I should make it clear right away that in arguing thus she in no way makes an appeal to an Archimedean point outside of what she deems, following Aristotle, the “appearances” of the ethical life.9 In settling disputes about the virtues, accordingly, she believes that there is “no pure access to unsullied ‘nature’—even, here, human nature—as it is in itself. There is just human life as it is lived” (NRV 49). How, then, can she provide against the charge of relativism? Nussbaum's answer to this question relies upon her analysis of the relevant passages of Nicomachean Ethics Book II where Aristotle first outlines the structures of the various virtues. She sees Aristotle introducing his list of virtues in two steps: first, by isolating “a sphere of human experience that figures in more or less any human life, and in which more or less any human being will have to make some choices rather than others, and act in some way rather than some other” (NRV 35); and second, by dialectically establishing a concrete specification, by the consideration of various alternatives, of what it would mean to choose well within this particular sphere. In this way Nussbaum sees Aristotle moving from a “thin” conception of a given virtue (meaning whatever it is to be stably disposed to act well within a certain sphere of choice) toward a “thick” definition of that virtue, a depiction of how best to act within that sphere.

An example will help. Begin by considering the pervasiveness of mankind's fear of important changes, especially death. Experiences and choices regarding the fear of death are obviously universal and transcultural, and it is from such a universally experienced sphere of action and choice that the Aristotelian, on Nussbaum's account, begins his search for the virtue appropriate to this fear. Already, it is argued, the Aristotelian can lay claim to a certain degree of objectivity, for everyone has some attitude and behavior toward the fear of death. Of course, differing ways of handling what Nussbaum calls the “grounding experience” of the fear of death will crop up within differing cultures—how is the Aristotelian to confront these rival attitudes and behaviors?

First of all, Nussbaum would not have us so quickly overlook the fact that rival conceptions of the appropriate way to regard the fear of death (i.e., rival conceptions of the virtue of courage) will be competing descriptions of the same phenomenon. There is, in other words, a fixed reference for the various “thick” descriptions of courage which serves as the substratum for these differing descriptions and for arguments concerning which description is best. But still we want to know what it is that will allow us to assess, for example, the archaic Greek notion of courage against what Nussbaum describes as “a more civic and communally attuned understanding of proper behavior toward the fear of death” (NRV 38).

Nussbaum's reply to this question brings to light her non-teleological functionalism. This view understands the virtues (1) as essentially plural, irreducible, and incommensurable and (2) as qualities of well-functioning that are “appropriate to the common life” of a particular community.10 From the functionalist point of view it comes down to a shared conception of what is “appropriate” to the common life which determines whatever “thick” conceptions of the virtues are to reign supreme. The “common life,” however, is for Nussbaum an analogous if not equivocal term. Differing cultures will be able to assess differing conceptions of courage on the basis of an ever-developing conception of what is well-functioning in the human sphere. But criticism of local and traditional moralities will remain possible, taking place “in the name of a more inclusive account of the circumstances of human life, and of the needs for human functioning that these circumstances call forth” (NRV 39). So, for example, certain ways of managing the fear of death will be found to be “more in keeping with the totality of our evidence and with the totality of our wishes for flourishing life than others” (NRV 46). Against the relativists, therefore, Nussbaum denies “that all world interpretations are equally valid and altogether non-comparable, that there are no good standards of assessment and ‘anything goes’” (NRV 46). What she affirms is that “[the] standards used in such criticisms must come from inside human life” (NRV 46), from a heightened, more inclusive awareness of what motivates us within our shared grounding experiences.

We are beginning to see how Nussbaum's arguments attest to a theory of ethical progress. Early in the essay “Non-Relative Virtues” she considers why those believing in ethical progress might shy away from virtue-ethics due to its apparently relativistic approach. “If the position of women,” she writes, “as established by local traditions in many parts of the world, is to be improved, if traditions of slave holding and racial inequality, if religious intolerance, if aggressive and warlike conceptions of manliness, if unequal norms of material distribution are to be criticized in the name of practical reason, this criticizing (one might easily suppose) will have to be done from a Kantian or utilitarian viewpoint, not through the Aristotelian approach” (NRV 33). Highlighted in this comment are several ethical conclusions—for example, racial equality, less aggressive and warlike conceptions of manliness—which Nussbaum apparently regards as progressive and sufficiently so. And against those who might understand virtue-ethics as unable to bear such objectively grounded progressions, Nussbaum articulates a virtue-ethic which aspires to defend such conceptions against their rivals by means of a real standard, that is, the notion of the human good.11 Determining the peculiarly human good once again will consist in first recognizing the various spheres of choice, or grounding experiences, from which a “thick” account is ultimately desirable based upon an inclusive understanding of the goods pursued in these grounding experiences.

This inclusivism, I take it, is the linchpin of Nussbaum's argument for a non-relative conception of the virtues. Progress in our understanding of the virtues, she writes, “is aided by a perspicuous mapping of the sphere of the grounding experiences” (NRV 37). Such perspicuity seems to be the effort of including in one's view of the human good as wide an array of goods as possible. As cited earlier, Nussbaum speaks of certain ways of managing the fear of death as “more in keeping with the totality of our evidence and with the totality of our wishes for flourishing life than others” (NRV 46). To keep the totality of our wishes and their possible fulfillments in mind is thus crucial to Nussbaum's view of the good. Also crucial to this view is the incommensurability-thesis, which submits, in short, that any one inherently valuable good is neither equal to nor better than another. So what Nussbaum understands as Platonic asceticism would commit a trespass against the thesis; for in assimilating the good of bodily appetite and its pleasures to the good of philosophical contemplation, the Platonic Socrates fails to respect the intrinsic goodness found in one of our most basic grounding experiences. Not to respect the intrinsic and incommensurable goodness of the totality of our grounding experiences is, for Nussbaum, not to respect the basic needs of human functioning. In the end, therefore, and with at least verbal irony, Nussbaum professes the lack of commensurability among the human goods—that is, the lack of any essential standard by which to order and arrange them—to be itself the standard to be used in assessing competing conceptions of a single virtue and of virtues in general.


The goal of ethics according to Nussbaum is to answer the broad, inclusive, and Socratic question of how one should live. In searching for the answer, she advises, different conceptions of the human good should be held up against each other “and also against the participants' beliefs and feelings, their active sense of life.”12 Consensus among disparate “senses of life” depends not upon some Archimedean point founded in God, nature, or human nature, not upon “correspondence to some extra-human reality,” but upon “the best overall fit between a view and what is deepest in human lives.”13 Nussbaum's functionalism, however, demands an inherent connection between what is “deepest” for human beings and a view of the human good as inclusive of a variety of inherently valuable and incommensurable goods.

But if the goal of such an approach to ethics is to attain a non-relative answer to the Socratic question, and one which furthermore highlights human virtue, then there are at least three problems which must be addressed.

First, I have said that Nussbaum's functionalism regards the virtues as essentially plural, irreducible, and incommensurable. Yet, more than one writer on this topic has argued that no virtue can be adequately characterized, much less assessed, without reference to some overall pattern or teleology within which a given virtue comes to life.14 A functionalist table of “thick” conceptions of the virtues, in other words, is like a laundry-list of discrete items with no necessary co-ordination between them. In fact, however, virtues arise only within the ordering schemes of various moral outlooks. Alasdair MacIntyre has shown how in the Laws, for example, Plato speaks of at least three forms of the virtue of sōphrosunē, or temperance.15 As sōphrosunē appears in Spartan culture, its duties are subsumed under the Spartan conception of courage as the comprehensive virtue.16 For a Spartan tempering one's bodily appetites implies a particular regard for military excellence as the ultimate good for man. The citizens of the perfectly just polis display a second type of sōphrosunē. This is the habit of calculating in terms of pleasure and pain, a habit fostered by the positive laws of that city.17 Thus for these citizens pleasure serves as the measuring rod for virtuous choice. This sort of conditioning is inappropriate, however, for the rulers themselves of the ideal city, who exercise a third sort of sōphrosunē which is the result of the possession of another virtue altogether, epistēmē.18 What MacIntyre shows in referring to these texts is simply the fact that virtues and goods manifest themselves only insofar as they are ordered to other goods and virtues. Aristotelian virtue likewise depends on such ordering. What moral virtue, for instance, is possible for Aristotle without the intellectual virtue of prudence? In Aristotle's eyes a virtue such as temperance is nourished by prudence and prudence by this and the other moral virtues.

My point is that a pattern of goods is necessary for the manifestation of goodness, whether that goodness be instrumental or intrinsic. But in saying this I should not be taken to mean that the order of one intrinsically valuable good to another in effect renders the former merely instrumental. To be well-disposed toward situations of grave risk is always an intrinsically valuable good, no matter how that disposition is ordered to other goods. The point I am pressing is that how one understands good disposition in regard to situations of grave risk will depend on one's overall ordering of goods. Achilles, who understands honor as that for the sake of which everything else is pursued, will thereby find different situations worthy of risk, or similar risky situations as calling for different sorts of response, than will Socrates, who understands philosophical contemplation as man's ultimate end. Indeed, unless Achilles comes to understand Socrates's complex arguments in the Crito and Phaedo, it may well be that he will find Socrates's taking of the hemlock cowardly, whereas for Plato it is an act of supreme heroism far surpassing anything in Homer. This argument is only to remind ourselves of Aristotle's claim in the Nicomachean Ethics that a good can be desired both for its own sake and for the sake of something else.19 And it is precisely in terms of its being desirable for the sake of something else that the ratio of the intrinsic goodness of a virtue comes to light.20

Virtues and other intrinsically valuable goods, then, do not co-exist “side by side” with each other with no inherent connection between them; they exist “linked” together in complex networks of subordination and superorientation. But in Nussbaum's view the virtues and other intrinsically valuable goods are not only naturally untethered from each other but even possess an inherent disconnection, coming into conflict in ways that are tantamount to contradiction in our pursuit of the good.21

Nussbaum might object at this point that nothing about inclusivism precludes a given agent, set of agents, or culture at large from constructing a pattern out of the menu of intrinsically valuable goods. She might argue that her Aristotelian approach to virtue agrees with my view that different “thick” conceptions of the virtues and other intrinsically valuable goods become “thick” only within the context of a pattern of life. She might even go on to say that some of these goods and virtues will be seen as subordinate to others, will be assigned a certain weight different from others in an overall pattern of life. Indeed, she might add that, insofar as a given pattern of life maintains a respect for each intrinsically valuable good, it deserves consideration as a non-relative conception of human functioning. We have already seen how Nussbaum provides us with a glimpse of what she understands as the right pattern of life for a polis; it will include, for example, racial equality, religious tolerance, equal norms of material distribution, less aggressive and warlike conceptions of manliness, and so forth.

This objection prompts me to address a second problem concerning Nussbaum's inclusivist ethic. If it is the case that the virtues and other intrinsically valuable goods are truly incommensurable, then considered in and of themselves there is no means by which to order these goods which is not wholly arbitrary. Take again, for example, the two intrinsically valuable goods of honor and courage. A given conception of human life might assign the good of honor priority over the virtue of courage. The Achilles of Homer's Iliad might be understood in this way. A slight against his honor is enough for him, at the beginning of that narrative, to forsake exhibitions of courage on the battlefield. But if Achilles understands honor and courage to be incomparable in se, then his decision to value honor more than courage can only be a statement of preference. This being the case, for anyone to argue with Achilles is impossible; for in fact there is no basis upon which to build an argument if Achilles's only claim is that honor is his most “deeply held” commitment. Real comparisons between goods, and not mere statements of preference, cannot be made without there being some standard by which to evaluate them. On a non-inclusivist reading of Aristotle, the good of honor can be compared with courage according to the measuring rod of eudaimonia: activity in accord with virtue. On this reading honor is subordinated to courage as an external good of fortune concomitant to virtuous action. This point is important for the further reason that it shows how intrinsically valuable goods can be compared without resorting to a single standard of ethical value. Honor can be subordinated to courage not because its own intrinsic goodness is subsumed into the intrinsic goodness of courage, thereby rendering honor merely instrumental; rather, honor is maintained as an intrinsic good, yet one which can be further ordered to a higher good, as courage itself can be further ordered to intellectual virtue.

It is because the incommensurability-thesis cannot ensure any one view of the good that even Nussbaum's non-relative argument is forced to conclude to the possibility of several specifications of a given virtue: “the Aristotelian position that I wish to defend need not insist, in every case, on a single answer to the request for a specification of a virtue. The answer might well turn out to be a disjunction” (NRV 43). Thus there is no one specification of what honor or courage or justice shall be like; it simply comes down to the ordering principles of agents and cultures. But granted the incommensurability-thesis, these ordering principles cannot be other than preference, yielding not only various but possibly also disjunctive conceptions of the goods. This latter occasion leaves open the possibility that two members of a disjunction will be mutually exclusive. A conception of courage based on warlike aggressiveness might come into conflict with one based upon pacifism. How, then, could one not merely prefer but justify the notion of one against the other if the overall patterns of goods in which these conceptions of courage arise are in essence artificially constructed aggregates of preference?

But if we remember that Nussbaum's inclusivism has set a certain standard of assessment, are we not then being unfair in saying that any pattern of life made from within the inclusivist point of view is mere artifice? The inclusivist hope would seem to be that, if we are equally respectful of all intrinsically valuable goods, then we will have, by dint of that respect, a pretty good and fairly objective idea of how we are to entertain grave risks or to temper our bodily appetites. In this event we would neither entertain grave risks to the exclusion of practicing justice nor pursue certain toothsome delights to the exclusion of our responsibilities at work because in either case we would know that we would thereby commit injustice and thus disrespect the intrinsic goodness of just activity. Maintenance of respect for all intrinsically valuable goods helps us shape our approaches to the various grounding experiences which Nussbaum outlines.

At least one objection to this argument is that it assumes that what Nussbaum calls a grounding experience is like a permanent node confronting any view of human life. So a third problem arising from Nussbaum's non-relative account of the virtues, and one which she herself takes to be the most profound objection to it, is its vulnerability to the charge that in some forms of human life even certain grounding experiences, upon which for Nussbaum all hope of debate and possible consensus hinge, seem to melt away. Both Aristotle and Marx, Nussbaum writes, observe that societies which eliminate private ownership do away with opportunities for generous action and thereby with the virtues of liberality and magnificence. Or to borrow another example from MacIntyre, in consumer-societies like our own the virtue of temperance is becoming increasingly less prevalent since the grounding experience of moderating one's tactile desires is ever increasingly spurned.22

Nussbaum's response to this objection is twofold. The central question as she formulates it is, if the virtues are defined relatively to certain problems, limitations, and endowments peculiar to individual ethical cultures, how are we to tell which ones “are sufficiently central that their removal would make us into different beings, and open up a wholly new and different debate about the good?” (NRV 50). For Nussbaum there is no way to answer this question “but [to] ask ourselves which elements of our experience seem to us so important that they count, for us, as part of who we are” (NRV 50). Included in her list of these elements are morality itself (and the limitations on human agency which morality presupposes), needs for food, drink, and assistance from others, cognitive functioning, and practical reasoning. These are elements “of any life that we would regard as human” (NRV 50). We should take note here of the prevalence of the first person plural in Nussbaum's sentences; for it is not at all clear who this “we” is supposed to represent. If it is taken to represent those who maintain Nussbaum's inclusivist view of the good, then it cannot include, for example, the Epicurean. For the philosophy expressed in the Letter to Menoeceus is meant to relieve the seeker of the happy life from the fear of death: “Accustom yourself to the belief that death is of no concern to us, since all good and evil lie in sensation and sensation ends with death. … Death, the most dreaded of evils, is therefore of no concern for us.”23 Nussbaum's view of the good, however, sees the fear of death as an ineliminable grounding experience, most intimately associated with “our” sense of the fragility of the human good, which the virtue of courage is meant to organize according to the demands of practical reason. But Epicurus does not view the fear of death as an ineliminable grounding experience at all. In fact, he takes it as quite eliminable and its elimination as the necessary condition of human happiness. The point for us, however, is not so much which one of these contending views is the true one but how Nussbaum proposes to adjudicate between them.24

Nussbaum recognizes the force of the problem, though in the light of the Marxist quest to eliminate private property rather than in regard to the fear of death. One can certainly imagine “forms of human life that do not contain the holding of private property—and, therefore, not those virtues that have to do with its proper management. And this means that it remains an open question whether these virtues ought to be regarded as virtues, and kept upon our list” (NRV 50). But in the end, Nussbaum can only advise a skeptical attitude toward those transformations of human life which seek to steamroll commonly-held grounding experiences. Aristotle's outlook on such transformations, she argues, is that they usually have a tragic dimension: “If we remove one sort of problem—say, by removing private property—we frequently do so by introducing another—say, the absence of a certain sort of freedom of choice, the freedom that makes it possible to do fine and generous actions for others” (NRV 50).

But this advice (and advice is all it can really amount to) assumes that there will be a sort of remainder, or residue, of regret or even tragedy when one seeks to eliminate one or another grounding experience which helps make up the inclusivist view of the good. Such a residue could be felt of course only from “inside” the inclusivist viewpoint. It is presumption to say that the Marxist will somehow feel regret at what is lost by the removal of private property. This would be the case only if he valued what is lost as much as he did the elimination of property, and there is nothing to guarantee this for the Marxist. The same goes for the Epicurean, whose view of man insists that the fear of important changes, especially death, is exactly what keeps the common run from living the best kind of life. Specific notions of God, man, and nature yield specific tables of goods and virtues, as well as what is to count as a grounding experience of human activity; and the only way to counteract such tables of goods is to disclose the poverty of the conceptions which drive them. It is not clear to me that Nussbaum, in the end and especially insofar as she merely posits an array of grounding experiences ineliminable from any pursuit of the truly human good, is doing anything more than asserting her own most deeply held commitments against those of her rivals.

Still, Nussbaum expresses a great deal of confidence in the ability of “us” ultimately to come to consensus about that which is most important for us in living human lives. She seems to expect that certain “deeply” held wishes for our fulfillment will eventually work their way to the fore, and in this hope is the Archimedean point she uses to support her claim for non-relative virtues. My objections have argued that this support is just that, a hope, and therefore cannot claim any more persuasive power than any other hope deeply held by “us” or “them” or anyone else seeking to achieve the human good.

In raising these objections I have not myself argued for any specific table of goods and virtues nor for the specific notions of God, man, and nature which organize it. What I have tried to indicate is that any approach that does not depend upon some extrinsic principle of human acts, that is, which does not understand the importance for practical reason of an order “we” do not make, can successfully assess in the way Nussbaum desires competing notions of the human good. And as we have seen, not only assessment but also the notion of virtue itself, as well as the grounding experiences which make up the field of human achievement, depend—at least if relativism is to be avoided—upon an ordering principle which transcends human wishes for fulfillment. This thesis will remain unconvincing, however, if I cannot show how such principles are in play in manifesting the non-relativity of particular virtues. The proposal for my final section, therefore, is to take up the relativist's favorite target, the Aristotelian virtue of megalopsychia, understood by many to be Aristotle's rather idiosyncratic and supercilious portrait of a Greek “gentleman,” and to show how this virtue can be assimilated to an ethical culture quite alien to Aristotle's, and in a way that does not annihilate the integrity of the Aristotelian virtue. Thus let us turn to Aquinas's discussion of the virtue he calls magnanimitas.


The prospects for a 13th-century Dominican theologian's having much affinity for Aristotle's megalopsychos might seem especially bleak. Yet, it is strange that nowhere in Thomas's commentary on Aristotle's chapter on megalopsychia is there any hint that Thomas finds this seemingly most pagan of virtues to be precluded by Christianity or in tension with the Christian virtue of humility, with which magnanimity seems especially to be in conflict. If it is surmised that the reason for this is that Thomas is only commenting here and not giving his own opinion, then one only has to turn to question 129 of the Secunda secundae of the Summa theologiae to find Thomas articulating the place of this virtue within his own exposition of theology. How does Aquinas account for the assimilation of this virtue to Christianity, and are its affinities with its Aristotelian cousin any more than merely nominal?

First a look at the text of Aristotle. At Nicomachean Ethics IV.3.1123a33 Aristotle indicates that the magnanimous man is concerned primarily with “great” objects (peri megala), which, as the discussion proceeds, are revealed to be great honors. We have been arguing that even grounding experiences evince a certain level of ordering, and the external good of honor (external, that is, to virtuous activity) especially indicates that he who values it is also valuing a certain ordering of things to a best. This is true of both praise and honor. Everything that is praised, Aristotle explains at I.12 of the Ethics, “seems to be praised because it is of a certain kind and is related somehow to something else” (1101b13-14). Praise has both a ratio and an ordinatio to other goods. Honor also has a certain ratio and an ordinatio to other goods, but honor is reserved for that which occupies the seat at the top of the hierarchy of goods. So for Aristotle honor among human beings is reserved for virtuous activity and, optimally, for contemplation; but in the kosmos as a whole it is reserved for god.25

For Aristotle the concern of the magnanimous man is thus for a special type of praise beyond praise which is due to those who exercise the virtues. Aristotle speaks of magnanimity as a certain adornment to the virtues (kosmos tis) because it deals with the honor that is due great acts of all the other virtues.26 On this general picture of magnanimity Aquinas and Aristotle are in substantial agreement. That agreement is made possible by generally shared conceptions of man, God, and nature, which recognize that both the grounding experience of magnanimity as well as the specification of the virtue involve a hierarchical ordering of goods. Let us turn now to see this agreement from Aquinas's perspective.

For Aquinas, magnanimity is understood most fundamentally as one of the “potential parts” of the virtue of courage. He explains this by noting that the action of courage involves both attack and endurance; and in terms of attack two things are required, one of which is what Cicero calls “confidence” and Aristotle magnanimity, that is, the attribute by which the mind puts great trust and hope in itself to perform great and honorable deeds. Now, a potential part of courage regards in lesser matters what courage maintains in regard to the most difficult ones, such as the fear of death. So, while magnanimity will not concern itself primarily with the fear of death, it will concern itself with lesser matters which demand great trust and hope in order to perform great deeds.27

In ST II-II.129 Aquinas addresses the virtue of magnanimity more specifically. In article 1 he asks whether magnanimity is concerned with honors. The core of his response is that the specific act of magnanimity is the spirit for some great act (“principaliter dicitur aliquis magnanimus quod animum habet ad aliquem magnum actum”28). But an act can be called great in two ways, either proportionately or absolutely: proportionately, if it makes great use of something small or modest; absolutely, if it makes the best use of something very great. Now, the things which man makes use of are external objects, among which the greatest absolutely speaking, is honor. Aquinas gives three reasons for honor's pre-eminence among the external goods: (1) honor is closest to virtue because it bears positive witness to a man's virtue (cf. EN I.5.1095b26-29); (2) honor is that which is extended to God and to the noblest members of society (an echo of EN I.12); and (3) the pursuit of honor and avoidance of censure are those standards by which men regulate everything else. Therefore, on the presumption that the magnanimous man has the spirit for some great act and that the greatness of this act will be considered absolutely, it is clear the magnanimous man will concern himself with those acts which make the best use of the very greatest of external goods, namely, honor.

In the first objection of article 1 it is further clarified that magnanimity is a perfection of the irascible appetite, for the spirit (animus) in magnanimitas expressly connotes the irascible appetite in man. This is important because the magnanimous man's regard for honor is for a desirable good, which is normally in the bailiwick of the concupiscible appetite. But, as Aquinas explains in his reply, insofar as the idea of the difficult enters the idea of a good, that good engages the irascible, not the concupiscible, appetite. And the irascible appetite finds the good of honor difficult to obtain because great virtue itself is difficult. This last point is underscored in Aquinas's reply to the third objection of this article. The magnanimous man is concerned with honor only in that he desires to perform acts worthy of it. His concern with honor, accordingly, will not drive him to do base acts in order to obtain it, nor will he despise honor to the extent of not performing great acts worthy of it.

In article 2 Aquinas asks whether magnanimity is concerned with great honors (magnos honores). We have just seen that magnanimity has to do with a mean by which men regulate the irascible appetite for honor. I pointed out that the difficulty confronting the irascible appetite in regard to magnanimity is the difficulty of virtue itself. More precisely, as Aquinas explains in the body of article 2, the magnanimous man is faced with the difficulty of shaping a passion for an external good which is especially enticing. Certain feelings, Thomas notes, strongly resist reason because of their external objects; and because these external objects produce feelings so strongly resistant to reason, it is necessary to acquire virtues that govern not only great instances of these objects but also moderate or slight instances of them. For this reason Aquinas, following Aristotle, posits two virtues concerned with honor, and that concerned with great honors is magnanimity.

In regard to my argument against Nussbaum's non-relative conception of the virtues, the most salient point of Aquinas's agreement with Aristotle is his understanding of what constitutes the grounding experience of magnanimity. Clearly, both Aristotle and Aquinas see this grounding experience as involving a hierarchical structure of goods. For what the irascible appetite desires, in either the magnanimous or non-magnanimous soul, is honor; and a conception of honor entails the recognition that certain actions or goods are the best. So, despite the obvious and at points vast differences in their conceptions of God, man, and nature, it is because Aristotle and Aquinas share basic principles of order regarding honor and virtue that magnanimity is included in both of their schemata of the virtues.

Nussbaum's inclusivism, by contrast, fails to perceive the real agreement between Aristotle and Aquinas on the virtue of magnanimity. This is so because what she deems the grounding experience of magnanimity—“Attitudes and actions with respect to one's own worth”—is worlds apart from the experience known to Aristotle and Aquinas. This will be recognized by those attuned to the transformations which have occurred in conceptions of identity and self-worth from the ancient and medieval world to the modern and post-modern one. Insofar as the modern world conceives of the self as defined essentially apart from archetypal and hierarchically-arranged social roles, practices, and institutions, it tends to regard its own self-worth more in terms of notions of human dignity rather than as linked to public recognition and honor.29 What Nussbaum misses, then, in calling the basic grounding experience related to magnanimity “Attitudes and actions with respect to one's own worth” is the correlation that such attitudes and actions have, at least for Aristotle and medieval Christianity, with the concept of honor. And to make a place for honor within the experience of one's sense of self-worth is necessarily to make a place for a hierarchical system of goods and activities which Nussbaum has no interest in maintaining. So here we have another instance of the problem of order running all the way down to the grounding experiences.

Moreover, insofar as Nussbaum dismisses honor from the initial demarcation of the sphere of choice, she allows for magnanimity to disappear altogether from a Christian conception of the virtues. Magnanimity, in fact, on Nussbaum's reading of Christianity, is utterly displaced by what she calls “humility.”

To understand how Nussbaum arrives at this conclusion, recall that in her Aristotelian-style analysis the grounding experiences fix the reference of the virtue-term which neutrally characterizes what appropriate choice within that grounding experience is. Nussbaum complains that Aristotle does not always do this carefully, and this comes to light in the language he uses to characterize certain virtue-terms. There is no problem with such terms as “temperance” and “justice” and “courage,” which according to Nussbaum seem “vaguely normative but relatively empty, so far, of concrete moral content” (NRV 38). Rather, problems arise when Aristotle uses phrases like “mildness of temper” and “greatness of soul,” phrases that do not imply a relative “emptiness” in regard to concrete moral content. Quite the contrary, “mildness of temper” connotes a very particular attitude toward the grounding experience which Nussbaum calls “Attitude to slights and damages.” Aristotle seems to be stacking the deck of the discussion in favor of his own preference for a “mild” reaction when it comes to slights and damages. A similar situation arises with the term “greatness of soul,” a term, Nussbaum writes, “which implies in its very name an attitude to one's own worth that is more Greek than universal.” A Christian, she continues, “will feel that the proper attitude to one's own worth requires understanding one's lowness, frailty, and sinfulness. The virtue of humility requires considering oneself small, not great” (ibid.). What Nussbaum's non-relative account of the virtues demands, therefore, is a term for the proper behavior toward one's worth that is more truly neutral toward competing specifications, such as those represented by Aristotle and by Christianity. Then, she concludes, “we could regard the competing conceptions as rival accounts of one and the same thing, so that, for example, Christian humility would be a rival specification of the same virtue whose Greek specification is given in Aristotle's account of megalopsychia, namely, the proper way to behave toward the question of one's own worth” (NRV 38-39).

But if the Christian specification of “Attitudes and actions with respect to one's own worth” is the virtue of humility rather than of magnanimity, it is at least strange that the most revered of Christian moral thinkers finds a prominent place for magnanimity within his moral theology, and one which does not put it in conflict with the virtue of humility. This fact is not so strange, however, when one realizes that Nussbaum's account of Christianity fails to recognize certain transcendent principles of order shared by the pagan and Christian worlds. Because of this Nussbaum is forced to concede a great deal of relativity to Aristotelian megalopsychia and to Christian humilitas, while she eliminates Christian magnanimitas altogether.

One objection to my argument might recognize that, while Aquinas does indeed assimilate some virtue called magnanimity to Christian moral theology, it is certainly not anything like the virtue Aristotle knew as megalopsychia. The claim is that in regard to this virtue Aquinas is accommodating Aristotle overmuch. The claim is put forward by an appeal to the various features of Aristotelian magnanimity which are apparently at odds with Christian character, especially Christian humility. What is to be made of this objection?

The first thing that ought to be said is that Thomas himself is well aware of it. Article 3 of ST II-II 129, which asks whether magnanimity is a virtue, contains two objections which expressly raise the issue. The first, objection 4, claims that no virtue is opposed to a second virtue but that magnanimity is the opposite of humility. The objection then refers to EN IV.3.1124b29 where Aristotle says that the magnanimous man disdains other men. Thomas's reply is distinctly Christian, though not in a way that undermines the core of his agreement with Aristotle. He says that in man there is found a certain greatness possessed as a gift from God, while at the same time a certain defect which comes from the infirmity of his nature. Magnanimity is the estimation that man has of himself according to the greatness of God's gift in him, while humility is the estimation that man has of himself according to his weakness. For this reason magnanimity condemns others insofar as they fall short of God's gifts since the magnanimous man will not esteem others so much as to do or favor some unworthy act. In this context Aquinas quotes the fourth verse of Psalm 14 where it is said of the just man, “In his eyes the reprobate is despised.” The sense of disdain which Aquinas traces here, despite its Christian inheritance, is not without its Aristotelian foundation. For in being a man of perfect virtue (1124a8) the megalopsychos will not look down on others merely for the sake of sport. It is his virtue which compels him to look with disdain on others, yet only insofar as they are lacking in virtue. If he looks down on them for any other reason, his concern will not be with virtue, and so he can hardly be called a magnanimous man. This is not to deny the difference in Aquinas's conception of the magnanimity introduced by the workings of divine providence. But whether the ultimate source of excellence is providence or man's own doing, it is clear that the magnanimous man's estimation of himself is not beyond that which is his due and thus not opposed to humility. Aristotle in fact criticizes those who would ape magnanimity by thinking themselves superior to others without possessing virtue itself (1124a26-b6).

In objection 5 of article 3 Aquinas mentions five further qualities of Aristotelian magnanimity which all seem, from the Christian point of view, worthy of censure rather than of praise: (1) the magnanimous man does not remember kindnesses (1124b13); (2) he is idle and slow (1124b24); (3) he addresses the common man with irony (in the sense of affectation of ignorance) (1124b30); (4) he cannot associate with others (1124b31); (5) he prefers to have possessions which are useless rather than productive (1125a12-1414). In his reply to this objection Aquinas begins by stating, surprisingly, that these qualities of the magnanimous man call not for blame but for abundant praise (“non sunt vituperabiles, sed superexced-enter laudabiles”). His aim is to show that these qualities, as understood by the objector, are misunderstood as affronts to Christian humility if they are taken out of their proper context of the magnanimous man's exclusive concern with virtue. Since (1), (3), and (4) seem to be for the Christian objector the most damning features of magnanimity, let us see, in turn, Thomas's explanations of how these qualities are rightly to be understood.

In regard to the first, that the magnanimous man does not remember kindnesses, Aquinas reminds us that the magnanimous man gets no pleasure from receiving benefits unless he is able to make a still greater benefit in return. And this is typical of perfect gratitude, in which the magnanimous man also desires to excel. So it is not the case that the magnanimous man will snub those who benefit him. Rather, Aristotle's point seems to be that the magnanimous man is so concerned with benefitting others that he is not assiduous in remembering those who have benefited him. If this indeed is a fault, it is at least a fault of charity.

Concerning the third quality, that the magnanimous man addresses the common man with irony, Aquinas makes clear that this in no way implies that the magnanimous man will oppose the truth by belittling himself or by denying some of his great qualities. He will only refrain from manifesting the whole of his greatness, especially to the mass of those who do not possess great virtue. As to the fourth quality, that he cannot associate with others, Aquinas quickly adds, quoting Aristotle, that the magnanimous man cannot associate with others, except with his friends. Thus both Aristotle and Thomas indicate that, while magnanimity is concerned with cooperation in virtuous acts, the magnanimous man will not seek associations for the sake of being flattered by those who are lacking in virtue.

So Aquinas, in the end, makes several plausible arguments that the virtue of magnanimity which he expounds in ST II-II, 129 is substantially identical with its Aristotelian forebearer. This agreement remains intact, I would argue, even if some skepticism remains that Aquinas has not shown that every feature of Aristotelian magnanimity is compatible with Christianity.30 Once again, what is needed for that substantial agreement is, first, a view of the grounding experience of magnanimity as involving the good of honor, and so a hierarchical arrangement of goods; second, a specification of that grounding experience which views magnanimity as the spirit for some great act of virtue worthy of the greatest honor. Of course, agreement on these two issues would be impossible if Aristotle and Thomas did not also share the same general transcendent principles of order.


In the Third Essay of On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche exhorts his dear philosophers to be on their guard not only against the dangerous old conceptual fictions that posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject” but also against such contradictory notions as “pure reason,” “absolute spirituality,” and “knowledge in itself.” Although one might like to argue with the terms by which Nietzsche formulates this dichotomy, his often uncanny insight is nonetheless correct to discern a fundamental “either/or” between the so-called “dangerous” efforts of the old philosophers to theorize about the human good by positing an underlying nature for human being and the aspiration of Nietzsche's new race of philosophers to abolish that fiction once and for all. My effort in this essay has been to analyze Martha Nussbaum's attempt to navigate a media via between this dichotomy, an attempt I have judged to be ultimately unsuccessful. The major liability of the attempt, I have argued, is its inability to justify the principles of order essential to the virtue-ethic it tries to promote. Nussbaum's attempt to find a real transcendent ground for practical reason without an appeal to conceptions of God, nature, and human nature fails to see what Nietzsche sees to clearly: that minus an extrinsic principle of human action there is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective knowing. Tertium non datur. Nussbaum's exhortation to “internal” transcendence seeks to rouse those who, like the woman in Stevens's poem “Sunday Morning,” feel a complacency toward life produced, at least in part, by a desire to become another sort of being. In the end, however, the chilling effect of internal transcendence is to make divinities of ourselves, to ratify the “measures” of our souls by the mere assertion that without them we cannot live a properly human life. Yet a race of such divinities, armed with these assertions, can expect, like the divinities of ancient myth, to live only in constant and interminable strife.


  1. Chapter 15 of her volume Love's Knowledge (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990); hereafter TH.

  2. “On the other side, what my argument urges to reject as incoherent is the aspiration to leave behind altogether the constitutive conditions of our humanity, and to seek for a life that is really the life of another sort of being—as if it were a higher and better life for us” (TH 379).

  3. The Aristotelian text in question is EN VII.1.1145a25ff. Nussbaum also refers the reader to Pol. I.2.1253a8ff.

  4. Further elucidation of Nussbaum's notion of internal transcendence can be found, among other essays, in her Introduction to Love's Knowledge and in chapters 2 and 5 of that volume, entitled respectively “The Discernment of Perception: An Aristotelian Conception of Private and Public Rationality” and “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination.”

  5. Nussbaum's arguments for this claim are put forward in her essay “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1988) 32-53; hereafter NRV.

  6. I borrow this distinction from Russell Hittinger as he expounds it in A Critique of the New Natural Law Theory (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1984) pp. 65 and 85. Hittinger's book is an analysis and critique of the Finnis-Grisez theory of natural law, and the distinction I am borrowing is made in regard to the question of whether that theory maintains a notion of transcendence. The student of the Finnis-Grisez theory will find many affinities between it and Nussbaum's understanding of practical reason, not only in respect to the issue of transcendence but also in their shared inclusivist account of human happiness, based upon a view of human goods as plural and incommensurable.

  7. In setting up the problem in this way it should not be understood that there is necessarily a hard and fast distinction between these two senses of transcendence. In Thomistic natural-law theory, to take one example, the natural inclination to be like God is simply one manifestation of the natural law, i.e., the transcendent ground of practical reason. But for Nussbaum the two senses of transcendence do not so neatly coalesce. She certainly does not fail to account for such commonplace human experiences as the fear of death and its consequent wish that we might live forever; that is, she does not deny that humans have at certain times desires to live an other than human life. What she does deny, however, is that the object of such desires (an immortal life) can be desired coherently by humans. On the one hand, Nussbaum recognizes desires to go beyond the limits of human life; on the other hand, she takes desires for peculiarly human goodness to make up the constituent terms of a paradox: “The larger problem has, it seems, something like the same shape as the paradox of the athlete. She shouldn't wish to be without the human body and its limits altogether, since then there is no athletic achievement and no goal; but it seems perfectly reasonable, in any particular case, to want, always, to be better, stronger, faster, to push against those limits more successfully. It is the paradox of a struggle for victory in which complete ‘victory’ would be disaster and emptiness—or, at any rate, a life so different from our own that we could no longer find ourselves and our valued activities in it” (TH 381).

  8. Nussbaum cites, in example, Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985) pp. 34-36, and Stuart Hampshire, Morality and Conflict (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983) pp. 150ff.

  9. An indispensable source for Nussbaum's views on Aristotle's method of “saving the appearances” and how they relate to our issues is chapter 8 of her book The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986).

  10. Nussbaum discusses her view of non-teleological functionalism in the 1st and 4th of her interpretive essays on her text and translation of Aristotle's De Motu Animalium (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1978), and in ch. 10 of The Fragility of Goodness.

  11. An important text for Nussbaum in this regard is Pol. II.8, 1268b38ff. In the midst of a discussion of change in human positive law, Aristotle writes: “And, if politics be an art, change must be necessary in this as in any other art. That improvement has occurred is shown by the fact that old customs are exceedingly simple and barbarous. For the ancient Hellenes went about armed and bought their brides from each other. The remains of ancient laws which have come down to us are quite absurd; for example, at Cumae there is a law about murder, to the effect that if the accuser produce a certain number of witnesses from among his kinsmen, the accused shall be held guilty. Again, men in general desire the good, and not merely what their fathers had” (emphasis added). This translation is from the revised Oxford text found in The Complete Works of Aristotle, vol. 2, ed. Barnes (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984); all translations from Aristotle's texts will be taken from this source.

  12. Introduction to Love's Knowledge: “Form and Content, Philosophy and Literature,” p. 26.

  13. Ibid.

  14. See the following two works to which my argument is generally indebted: Russell Hittinger, “After MacIntyre: Natural Law Theory, Virtue Ethics, and Eudaimonia,” International Philosophical Quarterly 29 (1989) 449-61; and Alasdair MacIntyre “Sōphrosunē: How a Virtue Can Become Socially Disruptive,” Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1988) 1-11.

  15. MacIntyre, pp. 3-4.

  16. Laws 633d.

  17. Laws 644c-d.

  18. Laws 900d.

  19. EN I.7.1097a30ff. To my knowledge Nussbaum has never commented on this crucial passage in the argument of the Nicomachean Ethics.

  20. Richard Kraut articulates the same idea when he claims, in commenting upon the argument of EN I.1, that the for-the-sake-of relation which Aristotle speaks of has not only a causal element but a normative one as well: “But it should also be kept in mind that the for-the-sake-of relation has a normative component: when A is pursued for the sake of B, then B provides a norm that guides A. The bridlemaker decides how to treat his raw material by looking to a paradigm of the finished product, and the proper design of his product is determined by the expert rider. The horseman tells the bridlemaker what sort of bridle he needs; so the activity of riding provides a standard for determining how bridles should be made. And in turn the military leader tells his cavalry which sorts of maneuvers they need to master. The bridlemaker puts himself at the service of the rider, who puts himself at the service of the general; each lower discipline plays a causal role in the pursuit of each higher discipline, and the higher disciplines in turn provide the norms for the proper pursuit of lower disciplines. The for-the-sake-of relation is accordingly a mixture of causal and normative elements.” Aristotle on the Human Good (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989) pp. 200-01. This schema should be regarded as applying to the way in which the moral virtues for Aristotle are ordered to, are “for-the-sake-of,” prudence and, in turn, to philosophical wisdom and its contemplative activity.

  21. For Nussbaum the possibility of inherent contradiction between “values” manifests itself on the practical level in what she understands as the situation of tragedy. In chs. 10-12 of The Fragility of Goodness she draws support for this position from the Aristotelian ethics.

  22. MacIntyre, p. 6.

  23. Epicurus, “Letter to Menoeceus,” trans. Russell M. Geer, in Epicurus: Letters, Principal Doctrines, and Vatican Sayings (New York: MacMillan, 1988) 124b1-3, 125a7-8.

  24. To be more precise, near the beginning of “Non-Relative Virtues” Nussbaum claims that the grounding experience associated with death is described by Aristotle more or less as “Fear of important changes, esp. death” (NRV 35), whereas near the end of the essay, when she re-formulates the basic grounding experiences in a way “closely related to Aristotle's original list,” she says about mortality that “No matter how death is understood, all human beings face it and (after a certain age) know that they face it. This fact shapes every aspect of more or less every human life” (NRV 48). The latter formulation could of course accommodate Epicurus, but at the same time its universality loses Aristotle. For courage in Aristotle's view is not simply a perfection of our notion that we are going to die, but of our fear that we are going to die and, what is more, in noble circumstances. Nussbaum concedes that understanding of the grounding experiences will always be interpretive (cf. NRV 48) but fails to tell us, despite appeals to the commonality of human experience, on what basis certain interpretations should prevail over others.

  25. “But if praise is for things such as we have described, clearly what applies to the best things is not praise, but something greater and better, as is indeed obvious; for what we do to the gods and most godlike men is to call them blessed and happy. And so too with good things; no one praises happiness as he does justice, but rather calls it blessed, as being something more divine and better” (1101b21-26).

  26. For an excellent discussion of magnanimity throughout the Aristotelian text, one which patiently outlines Aristotle's focus on the integrity of virtuous action, see Stephen White, Sovereign Virtue (Stanford: Stanford Univ. Press, 1992) esp. pp. 247-71.

  27. These distinctions are taken from ST II-II.128 where Thomas distinguishes between the integral and potential parts of courage. The integral parts of courage are those which comprise the constituents of the act of courage. In this regard magnanimity may be an integral part of courage insofar as it is enjoined to effect a reasonable response to the fear of death.

  28. ST II-II.129.1, corp. All translations from the Summa theologiae are from the Blackfriars edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966).

  29. A provocative account of this transformation is provided by Peter Berger in his essay “On the Obsolescence of the Concept of Honor” in Revisions, ed. Hauerwas and MacIntyre (Notre Dame: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1983) pp. 172-81.

  30. For more on the interrelationship and harmony that Aquinas sees between magnanimity and humility, see ST II-II.161.

Finbarr McCarthy (review date winter 1998)

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SOURCE: McCarthy, Finbarr. Review of Poetic Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. College Literature 25, no. 1 (winter 1998): 290-96.

[In the following review of Poetic Justice, McCarthy evaluates Nussbaum's arguments regarding the role of compassion in legal decisions made by judges.]

To learn how to regard others as fully human, to identify sympathetically with others the better to promote a vision of social justice as complex and democratic, legal thinkers, particularly judges, must, argues Martha Nussbaum in Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, immerse themselves in literature. Particularly by reading such realist novels as Hard Times and Native Son, and perhaps by watching movies, and by then comparing their responses, the judiciary can develop, insists Nussbaum, the truly sophisticated ethical stance that judging other people demands. More than other narrative genres, novels, Nussbaum believes, enable such a stance. Their form and style compel readers to evaluate, against certain very general notions of human flourishing, characters whose emotions and actions they set in detailed personal, social, and economic circumstances. Such evaluating, Nussbaum assumes, will then incline readers to identify sympathetically with others, many of whose hopes, desires, and fears but not whose social and material circumstances they share. Sympathy is ultimately for Nussbaum the social emotion that best promotes a “moral / political vision” that is “democratic, compassionate, committed to complexity, choice and qualitative differences.” It is this activity leading to sympathetic identification with others that Nussbaum wants judges self-consciously to observe if they are to appreciate the nature of truly moral and rational public decision making. Because literature produces engaged, responsive readers, judges will, Nussbaum hopes, forge in the smithy of their souls the uncreated conscience of their race.

Though pleading a moral role for literature in public life has a long, controversial history, Nussbaum is particularly well trained to tackle it afresh. A professor of philosophy, she brings to the task the broad interdisciplinary training that many scholars in the humanities now embrace. She is engaged on a long term project analyzing the role of belief and thought in the emotions. Nussbaum has worked with economists from the World Institute for Development Economics Research devising a measure to assess the quality of life in developing countries. In recent years, her work has especially appealed to legal scholars because, she surmises, the common law has traditionally promoted a humanistic conception of public rationality. She has taught a course in law and literature at the University of Chicago Law school. Indeed, Poetic Justice originated in a series of lectures that Nussbaum delivered at various law schools here and abroad. In discussing the appropriate content of public rationality, it draws upon her knowledge of philosophy, economics, literature, and law.

A slim volume whose intermittent redundancy reveals its origin in lectures, Poetic Justice consists of three parts. The first contrasts the narrow moral vision of utilitarian economics with the much more capacious and generous one that Nussbaum believes literary texts offer. The second tackles the pervasive attitude, part of the legacy the Puritans bequeathed this country, that the emotions have no place in fully rational public decision-making. The third illustrates at work in three judicial opinions the sympathetic identification that Nussbaum believes literature nurtures.

Good judging demands a sophisticated ethical stance. But that stance presently eludes judges because, Nussbaum believes, the useful but limited perspective of utilitarian economics dominates not only public policy generally, but legal decision making particularly. Because it offers, in Nussbaum's opinion, too parched a sense of human flourishing and too pinched a sense of the role of emotions, economics cannot sufficiently ground moral judgment. Because of these shortcomings, Nussbaum contends that the many judges whom economics unduly influences too often promote the welfare of the group over that of the individual.

Because utilitarian economics takes little interest in real individuals, it can never, Nussbaum believes, adequately inform public decision making. Nussbaum repeats many of the familiar criticisms of economics. In its models, individuals are not truly individuals. They display little of the complex social life and none of the inner emotional and moral life that makes a person unique. They seem denied the freedom to do anything but pursue preferences and utility, avidly and single-mindedly. Moreover, these preferences seem never tied to particular social conditions. Everybody lives in a colorless, raceless, sexless, aspiritual world. There they measure their satisfaction with life quantitatively, not qualitatively, so more is always better.

The shortcomings of economic theory particularly trouble Nussbaum because that theory no longer confines its desiccated characters to the traditional marketplace. Many economists now seek to have them colonize noncommercial areas of social life—the relationships between the sexes, for instance, to which Richard Posner, a federal judge, has applied economic models. Apparently, utilitarians accept the grandiloquent claim of the Chicago economist George Stigler that “all of man's deliberative, forward-looking behavior follows the principles of economics.” But though correct in her descriptions of the shortcomings of economic theory, Nussbaum considerably overestimates, I suspect, the influence of economics on legal practice. Certainly, it has influenced legal scholarship and, to a far lesser degree, legal teaching. Several specialized, peer-reviewed journals have indeed emerged. A couple of the more influential among the discipline's acolytes are the Journal of Law and Economics associated with the University of Chicago and the Journal of Law, Economics, and Organization. Much of what the latter journal in particular publishes is inaccessible to readers untrained in economics. Frequently, less recondite articles appear in general student-edited reviews.

As for the teaching of law from an economic perspective, many casebooks include an obligatory excerpt from the theory. Many teachers mention the concepts of efficiency and waste, which some lawyers undoubtedly recall as useful sources of argument. But aside from those who write about law and economics, few teachers, I suspect, rigorously incorporate the subject into their courses. Many ignore it, some because they know little about it and so fear teaching it, and some because they believe it largely inappropriate for the humanistic tasks of lawyering.

The degree to which scholars have influenced legal practice seems difficult to measure. Indeed, how little legal scholarship influences practice and public policy generally might surprise scholars from other disciplines. Certainly, legal scholarship has influenced antitrust law. But other, less market-oriented areas seem unaffected. Perhaps the main influence of the law and economics movement has been to contribute to the current political cycle a theory to which politicians and public policy makers can turn to legitimize their emphasizing the bottom line. But whether the movement shapes the climate or the climate nurtures the movement remains hard to say. I suspect that the influence moves both ways.

Even were we to accept that complex behavior indeed corresponded to the simple principles of utilitarian economics, we would still have to question whether they alone should guide public decision-making. People with very complex emotions actually live their lives in concrete social and political circumstances which they would want considered in any judgment either of their actions or of their best interests.

To understand how inadequately the rational economic individual provides information on which to base moral decisions in a complex world, Nussbaum suggests comparing the typical utilitarian text to a realist novel such as Dickens's Hard Times. In the rich, dense and textured world of such novels, the individuals who inhabit utilitarian communities would serve only as flat, one-dimensional minor characters. They would be of passing interest, readers understanding that the author has limited their ability to understand and judge the motives and actions of these characters. Besides, more complex, more distinct, characters located in a densely described physical, economic, and social world await the readers. The detail aims to compel readers to analyze and evaluate in some depth both the choices that these more rounded characters make and the ways in which social and personal circumstances limit those choices. Any resulting judgments, generalizations, and prescriptions will, therefore, emerge from a detailed knowledge of both the individual and his or her social world.

But since sketchy, detached characters inhabiting a rather shallow world are all that economic models allow readers to analyze, the resulting evaluations are highly abstract. They may, Nussbaum hesitantly concedes, serve useful predictive purposes. But, she cautions, such abstract evaluations should not be taken, as too often they are, either to predict the whole of reality or to be merely descriptive. They are, she insists, normative. To call the decisions of these economic actors rational is, she argues, to imply that the decisions of other more human actors may not be. But in claiming that decisions that shun emotional content epitomize rational thought, economists are, as Nussbaum points out, making normative claims about self sufficiency and detachment that are very contestable.

Showing that public deliberations should embrace the emotions because they contain important cognitive information about the value, the moral worth, of the object of the emotion occupies the second part of Nussbaum's text. This important section constitutes the theoretical foundation of the book's thesis that literature serves a public function. Those who would deny the emotions a public role have usually relied on four reasons: the emotions are impulsive forces that neither embody reflection nor respond to reason; emotions generate false judgments because they overvalue persons and things which an individual cannot control, thereby rendering that individual dependent and vulnerable, neither self-sufficient nor virtuous (for which reason Plato banned literature from the ideal republic); emotions focus on people tied closely to the self, and not on distant lives; and, finally, emotions are much too concerned with individuals and not with classes.

The essence of Nussbaum's response to these arguments is that cognition, not impulse, produces emotions. Emotions, Nussbaum states, are ways of perceiving objects. An emotion focuses on an object that figures in that emotion as the person experiencing it sees that object. Moreover, so intimately connected are emotions with beliefs about the value of the object that without those beliefs, the emotion would not exist. Consequently, says Nussbaum, the real issue is not whether emotions have a role in public life, but whether a particular emotional response is appropriate to the object and situation. Deliberations in the public arena particularly require that participants monitor and then exclude those responses that self-concern generates from those that an other-regarding stance generates.

Criminal law, as Nussbaum notes, but civil law too, has long taken such a stance: did the defendant, the law often asks, act as a reasonable person would have acted in the situation? This question assumes that in the community a behavioral norm exists of which people are aware. It implies that their awareness should, if necessary, induce them to modify their behavior, which may depend upon adjusting their emotional response. Judges and juries strive to determine whether individual behavior coincided with the community norm. If it did not coincide, then they seek to measure the extent of the discrepancy between the individual response and the community's sense of an appropriate response. These efforts acknowledge the cognitive content of the emotions and their role in judging people. But they also recognize the need to circumscribe the emotions.

Many judges, Nussbaum believes, need practice not only in admitting the emotions to their deliberations but in evaluating the appropriateness of particular emotions in context. Too many judges, she thinks, either strive for a scientific objectivity in their reasoning or remain skeptically detached or loftily remote from the particulars of the case. To get that practice, Nussbaum argues in the final third of Poetic Justice that judges should not only read literature, but closely observe themselves doing so. They will discover, she believes, that the very structure of the literary experience compels readers to consider how inequalities in society impoverish the lives of individuals through no fault of their own. The wealth of detail in which reading realist novels immerses readers leads them to identify sympathetically with characters. In turn, that identification with individuals can undermine the facile generalizations about groups which often produce the discrimination and prejudice which individuals must bear. As Nussbaum illustrates, in generating considerable sympathy in the reader for Bigger Thomas, a young black man, Richard Wright's Native Son underscores how perniciously racism affects individual lives. In a similar manner, E. M. Forster's Maurice underscores how homophobia diminishes the lives of gay men.

But, insists Nussbaum, such sympathetic identifying with characters does not mean, as those who closely observe themselves reading will discover, that readers necessarily hold fictional characters morally worthy or blameless. Sympathy does not mandate any particular result. Ultimately, practiced readers of fiction tend, Nussbaum believes, to judge characters as would Walt Whitman's poet, the god-like “equable man,” who is “arbiter of the diverse … equalizer of his age and land.” He “judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing … He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and women as dreams and dots.” In other words, readers, just like the distant sun to a rock, subject the lives of characters to the full, clear glare of their scrutiny. Like the sun, readers of fiction tend, Nussbaum implies, to be neutral. Their not being personally involved in the events of the narrative enables them to measure the lives of the characters in a more detached manner. But readers do not exercise the absolute judgment of Whitman's poet because part of their assessment involves comparing their views of characters to that of other readers. Reading, therefore, ultimately produces some evaluation of characters against some fairly general norms of human flourishing.

This readerly plunging into the details of individual lives followed by the more detached, neutral assessing of those lives mimics the activity that Nussbaum would have good judges adopt. Judges too, she accepts, cannot join Whitman's poet on his lofty, numinous bench. Just as the insights of others informs a reader's judgment of fictional characters, so too does the legal world within which judicial decisions occur act as a check on a judge. Precedent and legal rules set the confines within which judges must strive to understand the actions of individuals. They must then judge those actions, assigning responsibility when due, but letting neither personal bias nor group interest direct the outcome. The final pages of Poetic Justice provide three judicial opinions to illustrate both the literary judging that Nussbaum advocates and the unimaginative judging that she denounces. Somewhat ironically, an opinion of Richard Posner, a leading advocate of the law and economics movement, exemplifies the former.

Here for legal readers Poetic Justice stops before the truly difficult question. Fostering in judges a sympathetic understanding for others does not, as Nussbaum intuitively grasps, necessarily conflict with the principle of charging people with responsibility for their actions. Far more crucially for her legal readers, Nussbaum fails to address how judges should resolve the conflict between a decision mandated by legal precedent and one mandated by the literary imagination formed by the reading of realist fiction. Clearly she recognizes the presence of the principle of legal precedent. But she never tackles the thorny issues it raises—particularly what a judge should do who believes that precedent should not control in a particular instance. Former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan has implied that the emotions should trump precedent. He is on record as saying that in crafting opinions he preferred to draw upon a wide range of emotions rather than upon what he called cold reasoning. In his opinion in Carr, Posner circumvented precedent by holding the district court's finding of facts to be clearly erroneous. But that is a strategy that judges may only infrequently use if they are not to undermine either their credibility or respect for the legal system. The issue is a highly charged one, generating charges of judicial activism when judges overrule precedent. But the emotions, as Nussbaum shows, properly play a role in legal decisions. The more difficult issue is where we should circumscribe them. Discussion on that issue is, however, rarely broached.

In Poetic Justice Nussbaum's plea is essentially that reading fiction is good training for a lawyer, judges included. She is updating the argument that a lawyer should bring to the profession a broad humanistic education. In this sense, Poetic Justice is unlikely to provoke much controversy. Reading can expose readers to worlds with which they have had little contact. Towards the people portrayed, fiction may create a favorable predisposition that may positively influence future relations. Of course, fiction might also generate in readers other emotions such as disgust and even hatred. So readers must search for appropriate sympathy-inducing novels.

Reading fiction is an important means of creating sympathy because our society tends not to tolerate people demanding it directly. We extend it to those we believe have been harmed through no fault of their own, but we limit how often and how long they may directly make such demands. Witness the treatment of race over the last thirty years. At first, demands to rectify the injustices of the past generated such legislation as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But more recently a backlash has occurred. A vocal segment of the white majority believes enough sympathy has been extended to the victims of racism and that various minorities ought to take responsibility for improving their situation. In such a climate fiction can indirectly state the plea for understanding and sympathy.

Reading fiction for a knowledge of others may also particularly inform those judges too busy and too isolated from the general population to acquire this knowledge in any other way. In a society where work occupies an increasing amount of time, where people live in areas divided by class, race, and even religion and school, the opportunities to have contact with others who differ from a reader seem increasingly narrowed. But the audience to whom Nussbaum implicitly addresses her plea seem especially isolated from the disadvantaged. Federal appellate judges, and especially Supreme Court judges, are an elite group—still mostly upper middle-class, aging white males. Many were appointed during the Reagan and Bush eras when personal responsibility, not sympathetic understanding, was a key phrase. Federal appellate judges typically maintain a low public profile. They have little contact with others outside their own small world. Most of the time they work independently with a few clerks and a few secretaries. Moreover, outside the confines of the courtroom and chambers, many insist on being addressed as “judge,” as if further to distance themselves from most of the population they serve. If people do, in fact, tend to empathize more with those most like themselves and less with those to whom society accords low esteem, then federal appellate judges should be especially vigilant in broadening their knowledge of the lives of others.

But most trial judges, I suspect, and especially elected state judges, who far outnumber federal appellate judges, probably fairly accurately dispense or withhold sympathy in accordance with society's rules for doing so. Sympathy is, after all, a social construct, as sociologists and anthropologists have proven—in some societies it does not exist. Historically, our society has promoted individual responsibility, so we typically grant sympathy only to those of whom we can say they have not caused their own harm. Our society has, by the time most people reach adulthood, well schooled its members in the rules for when to extend sympathy and when to withhold it. People are always assessing against a societal norm whether they have correctly sympathized or not. Consider all the occasions that require such calibration—deaths not only of close relatives, but of coworkers and of their relatives, various degrees of sickness and even the small daily slights that besiege most of us. Consider then the different rules that apply for each of these situations. If people sympathize too readily or too often or for the wrong reasons or if, on the other hand, they have not done so generously enough, others will sharply criticize and label them. They will lose credibility. Others will suspect their judgment. Consequently, elected judges are probably fairly good barometers of society's attitudes, at any given moment, towards sympathy. Their own interests demand that they be.

For these reasons, were all judges to read fiction, few decisions would, I suspect, change. But to predict this result is not to minimize the importance of sympathetic identification. Reading may change the way in which judges undertake their onerous duties. A capacity to empathize and then to sympathize may induce judges to allow parties to tell their stories in court. Even if they then have to rule against a party, as they must in civil cases, the display of sympathy has a value. It suggests to its recipients that they have moral worth.

But Nussbaum, I suspect, might consider such an end rather pallid. She has, I believe, a larger goal. She seems genuinely to want to extend the sympathy boundaries, particularly to encompass those whom racism, sexism and homophobia exclude or treat as less worthy of the law's notice. Though Nussbaum acknowledges that sympathetically identifying with someone does not mandate a particular result, she clearly implies that if reading engenders sympathy more decisions will favor those whom she champions. But to achieve that goal more rapidly she has addressed the wrong audience. Legislators, to whom she only perfunctory attends, are, theoretically at least, much closer to the source from which sympathy rules spring. Their interests mandate that they, like elected judges, be attuned to the climate for sympathy. But, unlike judges, they may much more actively and openly shape an environment with wider sympathy margins. Over the last few centuries, legislators have often embraced such a role. They have outlawed the practice of treating children as cheap labor, a stance for which Dickens is partly responsible. Similarly, various civil rights laws have sent a message that our society no longer tolerates discrimination against certain groups. Social behavior has, consequently, changed dramatically. Legislation has even sanctioned the granting of sympathy to animals in a way unimaginable two centuries ago.

The public forges the social rules of which the laws are often a reflection. They also serve on juries where they might exercise the moral judgment that Nussbaum desires. So Nussbaum might much more profitably have argued that legislators and public policy makers and, indeed, the general public turn to literature. When the general public read fiction, independence of thought, toleration and, ultimately, democracy thrive, as totalitarian regimes have long understood.

Dennis O'Brien (review date 10 April 1998)

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SOURCE: O'Brien, Dennis. “Socrates Didn't Have Tenure.” Commonweal 125, no. 7 (10 April 1998): 26-7.

[In the following review of Cultivating Humanity, O'Brien discusses the philosophy of Socrates in relation to Nussbaum's arguments about education.]

[In Cultivating Humanity] Martha Nussbaum, one of our most distinguished philosophers and classical scholars, has fashioned a “report card” on contemporary liberal education: not failure, certainly not a “gentleman's” C (politically incorrect), perhaps not A+, but very much alive and lively in an astonishing array of academic settings. Her reassurance about the vitality of liberal arts is particularly striking coming as a classical defense of liberal education because it would seem that it is precisely the classical that has been eroded by contemporary interest in non Western culture, African-American studies, women's studies, and gay studies. To external critics, none of these educational turns, fashions, or fads look at all like the traditional classical curriculum, for example, “the Great Books” (from Sophocles to Shakespeare to—well, maybe T. S. Eliot). Nussbaum assures us that despite apparent change the spirit of liberal education remains strong.

Unlike most philosophers setting out to prove a case, Nussbaum actually cites empirical evidence. She has personally tracked the practices of liberal arts teachers in such varied settings (among others) as Bentley College (essentially a business school), Notre Dame (a Catholic university), Brigham Young (Mormon), Randolph-Macon (small residential), University of Pittsburgh (large, state-related institution with significant commuter population). At each of these institutions, she salutes individuals and/or programs which challenge students to think openly and creatively, to resist the “idols of the marketplace,” to make up their own minds. The new—supposedly anticlassical—curricula do exactly what one hopes the liberal arts will accomplish: liberation of the human mind.

That at least is one version of the liberal arts. In his meticulous and indispensable study of the history of the liberal arts tradition (Orators & Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education), Bruce Kimball delineates two strikingly different ideologies of “the liberal arts.” The oratorical liberal arts emphasize the tradition, recovery of a civic value. The philosophical liberal arts opt for the critical, continual re-examination of inculcated cultural assumptions. Kimball distinguishes an artes liberales tradition (orators) and the “liberal free” tradition (philosophers). It is the “liberal free” tradition that Nussbaum finds healthy and well on campus.

Nussbaum's nominal hero, representing the “liberal free” liberal arts, is Socrates. Chapter 1 is titled “Socratic Self-Examination” and the teachers and programs singled out for praise in one way or another replicate the persistent questioning of the great Athenian “gadfly.” “The central task of education … is to confront the passivity of the student, challenging the mind to take charge of its own thought.” To that end, “tradition is one foe of Socratic reason.” So much for right-wing critics who think that “liberal arts” is just all those dead, white, European males so long (too long) revered by the “classical curriculum.” The other “foes” of Socrates are those left-wing progressives who view “reason” as the claptrap invention of male hierarchy. Nussbaum is firm in upholding universal reason as the great device for the critical appraisal essential to the liberal arts (in their liberalfree guise).

I am deeply sympathetic to Nussbaum's views, and I offer hearty congratulations to all those present-day gadflies out on the front-line classrooms, yet there are limitations to her Socratic overlay on higher education. Socrates is never without his ironies! I point to two significant ironies: Socrates' distrust of “professors”; Socrates' civic piety.

It is not incidental that Socrates practiced his critical art in the market place, in the gymnasium, and at drunken feasts. It was Plato who invented the (our) academy, a sheltered spot for philosophers to practice their trade. Socrates believed that in the search for wisdom the best he could do was confess his own ignorance while querying merchants, generals, poets, religious prophets and whatall for any scraps of wisdom they might have come upon. What Socrates seems to have distrusted most were the Sophists, those who professed to have a knowledge or skill which they could pass on for a fee to willing pupils. Socrates would be amazed—probably amused—that there are Socratic-like professors, that is, certified and tenured gadflies.

It is also not incidental that when push came to hemlock, Socrates refused to go into exile. In the Crito he imagines the Athenian laws speaking to him as the mother and father who shaped him and whom he could not now flaunt by abandoning the city. Nussbaum's text shapes Socrates in terms of the later Stoics who advocated an ideal of the universal citizenship of reason and humanity beyond the confines of Athens or Rome.

One problem with Socrates plus higher education is that for us higher education is through and through institutionalized. Higher education is the Academy—a place set apart with professional standards, tenure, credentialing, certification, and so on, none of which makes much sense in the Socratic life-search for wisdom. Are professors specially qualified, more than poets, politicians, or people of practice to offer a “guide to life”? A second and contrary paradox is that Socrates does not seem (at least in the Crito nor in his life practice) to have been a proto-Stoic universalist. To be sure, he was critical of Athenian torpor, but he seemed to believe that the problem was not discovering the truth of reason above, but in waking up the embedded pieties of the existing polis. In sum, Nussbaum's Socratic ideal—noble as it is—either does not sit easily with the institutional reality of higher education, or Socrates' allegiance of a sort to an embedded civic wisdom does not sit well with Nussbaum's fundamental critical transcendence of tradition in the realm of reason. We should bless our Socrateses in and out of our colleges and universities, but the issues of higher-education-as-institution go beyond (or below) the great gadfly.

Henry S. Richardson (essay date October 1998)

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SOURCE: Richardson, Henry S. “Nussbaum: Love and Respect.” Metaphilosophy 29, no. 4 (October 1998): 254-62.

[In the following essay, Richardson discusses the tension between concepts of love and respect in Nussbaum's theories of institutional justice.]

Immanuel Kant insisted that we must not regard human beings as subject only to the laws of empirical nature. Nonetheless, he admired the precise symmetries of Newton's celestial mechanics. In the striking passage in his Doctrine of Virtue which sets my theme, he applies a Newtonian analogy to relations among persons:

According to the principle of mutual love [persons] are directed constantly to approach one another; by the principle of respect which they owe one another they are directed to keep themselves at a distance. Should one of these great moral forces sink, “so then would nothingness (immorality) with gaping throat drink up the whole realm of (moral) beings like a drop of water.”

(Kant 1983, Ak. 449; emphasis in original)

The picture is a vivid one: without the centrifugal force of respect, human beings, in perhaps their vain quests to reunite themselves with their lost halves, or in any case captured by love's overwhelming attraction, would collide with one another. The result would be immoral and destructive. Yet without love's centripetal attraction to hold them together, people would fly out of their orbits and lose all stable connection with one another. The result would be anarchic and immoral. A well-regulated human life, according to Kant, must carefully balance these opposing forces with each other. We must find an equipoise of love and respect.

Kant's theory of virtue, which makes a place for love and respect as coordinate moral principles, purports to locate such a balance. It maintains respect-based constraints on intimacy even for the closest of friends. His account also features an inverse correlation between the intimacy of a relationship and the stringency of the duty of practical love therein. Love of humankind, which Kant champions, pulls upon us like the gravitational fields of the stars in the heavens: measurably but weakly and diffusely. In our relationships with strangers, it is instead the strict duties of justice, embodying respect alone, that principally control us.

We know in advance that such a tidy and cautious resolution would not be Martha Nussbaum's. Informed by the ancients' unflinching explorations of eros, she has little patience for the sorts of fastidiousness among intimates that Kant recommends. She has recently drawn on Kant to develop a cosmopolitan universalism; but her attention to the plight of those in the globe's poorest countries carries and demands an intensity of response that upsets Kant's circumspect model of attraction at a distance. At the intimate end of the spectrum, love resists the constraints of respect, while at the universal end, love remains ardent.

Since Nussbaum has now embraced universal respect in addition to particularistic love, I want to raise the question of how, in her moral philosophy, these two elemental forces are to be reconciled. Before we consider the possibilities for their conciliation, however, we need to examine how Nussbaum has made the problem harder than it was for Kant. It is more difficult because, on Nussbaum's view, both love and respect are more demanding than they are for Kant. Let me explain.

For Kant, what is involved in respecting persons may be set out in terms of universal principles. In the section of the Metaphysical Principles of Virtue titled “Concerning the Moral Duties to Other Men Issuing from the Respect Due Them,” Kant (1983) gives some examples. One must not treat the opinions of others with contempt, but must be willing to assume that there is a grain of truth in what each person says. One must not inflict punishments, such as cutting off noses and ears, that assault their dignity as persons. And quite generally, one must act in a way that recognizes their dignity as rational persons; that is, one must obey the moral law in one's behavior toward them. The Kantian account of what respect requires, then, is quite general and schematic. It suggests two tiers of requirement, each equally universal: first, one must not treat others in any way that wholly flouts their nature as rational beings, and, second, one must otherwise act toward them in universalizable ways. The requirements of respect, then, are captured by the moral law.

To be sure, contemporary Kantians such as Barbara Herman (1993) have correctly pointed out that working out, in any instance, what respect so interpreted requires will demand situational judgment. One delicate issue discussed by Kant himself is how to render aid to someone without humiliating him or her. The benefactor, writes Kant (1983, Ak. 453),

must carefully avoid any appearance of intending to obligate the other person, lest he not render a true benefit, inasmuch as by his act he expresses that he wants to lay an obligation upon the receiver (which always humbles the one obligated in his own eyes). Rather, the benefactor must express himself as being obligated or honored by the other's acceptance, treating the duty merely as a debt he owes, if he cannot … carry out his beneficence completely in secret.

The delicate balance between the opposing forces of love and respect, then, demands concrete discernment. Love bids one approach and help, but one must maintain a respectful distance so as not to humiliate one's beneficiary. The moral law, though, still stands behind the situational judgment, providing a general principle of respect for persons—the principle whose implications need to be worked out case by case. What ought to be done is that persons should be respected in universalizable ways; the case of giving charity indicates that judgment is needed in working out how to abide by the moral law.

Nussbaum's work on moral discernment carries this theme of situational discernment much farther. As she has described moral perception in such essays as “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’” (in 1990b), it is no longer simply a handmaiden to a resolution that can be independently described in principle. The literary imagination, and the genre of the novel, Nussbaum has argued, are essential contributors to sound moral judgment precisely because there exists no sound, fully general, and in-principle statement of what ought to be done. In the essay I just mentioned, Nussbaum writes,

A good action is not flat and toneless and lifeless like my paraphrase—whose use of the “standing terms” of moral discourse, words like “mutual sacrifice,” makes it too blunt for the highest value. It is an “alert wingèd creature,” soaring above these terms in flexibility and lucidity of vision. The only way to paraphrase this passage without loss of value would be to write another work of art.

(1990b, 154-55)

To bring home her point that discernment of the moral particulars cannot be paraphrased in terms of a principle that it serves to implement, Nussbaum several times invokes the simile of jazz musicians, whose sensitive responses to their fellows are not dictated by any score, but rather reflect true improvisation (1990b, 94, 155). Improvising well in response to the improvisations of others requires, she notes, that one be “far more keenly attentive to what is given by the other actors and by the situation” than where there is a script (1990b, 94; emphasis in original).

If “respect” must be given a Kantian interpretation, then Nussbaum's stress on moral particularism moves against it. Central to perceptive attunement to particular others, she rightly emphasizes, is an awareness of them as embodied persons—of their bodies and of their emotions, which have bodily aspects. Thus, in her essay on James's Golden Bowl, Nussbaum describes Maggie Verver's love as

requir[ing] the breaking of moral rules and a departure from the comfortable garden. … The departure from Eden brings with it the possibility of certain moral emotions that were unknown in that garden. … From having seen only clear, splendid objects, Maggie learns, inhabiting a human world, to be a “mistress of shades” …, a reader of nuance and complexity.

(1990b, 134)

In Henry James's world, the contrasting point of view of equal respect is exhibited by Mrs. Newsome in The Ambassadors, who, in Nussbaum's words, “would never wear her dress cut down, encouraging Strether to perceive her as a surprisingly particular physical being and so to surrender his own dignity before her” (1990b, 178). Love motivates a risky attunement to embodied particulars, whereas a Kantian respect maintains a safe distance.

But of course what I want to say is that at this point in our story love and respect cooperate; for we must not admit that Kant's Newtonian metaphor has the last word on respect.1 While there has been a deep tendency for “the moral point of view” to point us upward, toward the transcendent, and hence to contrast and compete with the sensuous and earthly gestures of human love for which Steerforth's arm is Nussbaum's emblem, her overriding effort in these essays, it seems to me, is to shift our conception of what the moral point of view actually requires of us. Respect that requires the shield of Mrs. Newsome's black ruched dress, I hear Nussbaum telling us, is no proper respect for human beings. Truly to respect human beings as the vulnerable, embodied, and emotional beings that we are requires a willingness to descend from the philosopher's imaginary Eden and engage in a riskier and more responsive improvisation. That is what morality requires of us.

Although this particularistic respect flows from a better understanding of what morality demands of us, it nonetheless sits in an uneasy relationship with the more general and defining elements of the moral point of view. Nussbaum recognizes this in various ways and places. In the essay on Steerforth's arm, she calls on David Copperfield's novelizing voice, or Dickens's novel-writing art, to finesse the tension between Agnes's arm uplifted toward heaven and Steerforth's languid limb (1990b, 348). Even more explicit is her discussion in the essay “Perceptive Equilibrium” of whether the perceptions of a fine-tuned particular awareness may simply be folded into a broader effort at achieving a reflective equilibrium on moral matters. If we take seriously the improvisatory and shifting nature of the perceptive responses we are called upon to have, Nussbaum suggests, we will see that instead of equilibrium we must expect “an unsteady oscillation between blindness and openness, exclusivity and general concern, fine reading of life and the immersion of love.” The unavoidable and proper state of moral thinking, she writes, “might not be equilibrium at all, but a dynamic tension between two irreconcilable visions” (1990b, 190).

At this level, then, which concerns the proper interpretation of respect within the moral point of view, Nussbaum herself articulates the problem. More than that: she suggests a solution. As her introduction to Love's Knowledge carefully explains, the particularism of the essays on James and Dickens is to be seen as part of a broader view about ethics and practical reasoning. This broader view, this “framing method” as she puts it (1990b, 104n.), pursues, in a way inspired by Aristotle, the question, How should a human being live? The Aristotelian general answer to this question that Nussbaum has herself articulated and defended in a range of essays orients the moral perceiver and indicates how the situational, emotional responsiveness of an agent to particulars can nonetheless be the actualization of a virtuous character the outlines of which are established by a general account of the human good. Within this Aristotelian picture, the tension between general norm and particular perceptiveness can become a fruitful and productive tension, as the discernment of the phronimos, the person of practical wisdom, contributes to a more exact specification of the norm of virtuous action. Love is tamed by being put in harness for morality—not, indeed, by being converted into the chaste agapê of the Christians, but by being made a powerful engine of particularistic concern for others. Respect is softened by this moral particularism, and no longer seems to demand that we hold our distance, as Kant had thought. The two poles will produce some helpful oscillation, but the Aristotelian framing conception will hold them together.

Had Nussbaum rested here, she would have given us an attractively revised and filled-in version of Kant's delicate balance between love and respect. She has not rested, however. As she has turned her attention from personal ethics to global justice and from literary imagination to social welfare assessment, she has increasingly emphasized the importance of universal claims. She has recently written in favor of “the life of the cosmopolitan, who puts right before country and universal reason before the symbols of national belonging” (1996, 17). Is this not to follow Agnes's upward-pointing finger, forgetting Steerforth's bed-nestled arm? For Nussbaum, the theme of cosmopolitan reason is above all a Kantian one. In a recent essay (1997a), she has traced in detail the parallels between the Stoics' view of universal reason and Kant's, which was strongly influenced by them. Her aim, in these writings, is the noble and practical one of inciting more of us to believe that we have important and demanding duties to aid distant people who are less fortunate than ourselves. In taking this position, she has retained the element of latitude which, Kant (1983, Ak. 390, 393) had insisted, applied to the duties of beneficence he described. That is, it is not at the outset, simply from the abstract characterization of her moral position, clear what, exactly, we must do to help others. In this regard her view differs, as she has made clear, from the simplistic sort of utilitarian view proposed by Peter Unger in his Living High and Letting Die, from which one can immediately deduce that one ought to sign over all one's assets to OXFAM and be willing to give one's life to save that of any other pair of people (cf. Nussbaum 1997b). Rather, it will require the sustained attention of a loving attitude—a Jamesian fine-tuned responsiveness to particular problems in order to figure out how best to fulfill and interpret our obligations to those distant people. Yet—and here is my present concern—if this loving attention is in the service of universal respect, is it really love anymore?

In a recent essay on love in the Stoics, Nussbaum (1995) has characteristically anticipated this question, and has answered it in the negative. To be sure, she criticizes Plutarch for the superficiality of his negative answer: it is not simply the universalism of the Stoics, demanding that we transcend our typical narrowness of attachment and bind ourselves to all rational beings, which rules out love. Rather, it is the claim that this universal love will be measured, impartial, and serene, for while this stance might count as empathetic or sympathetic, it is incompatible with the madness, the ferocious attachment to the particular, which Plato rightly discerned in love—in eros. To claim, with the Christians, that the attitude of loving can reconcile the urgent claims of particular loved ones with the duties of impartial respect is, Nussbaum is in effect suggesting, a cheat. If the eros that binds us to our mates were the same as the agapê with which we might be linked to humanity at large, then invoking love as the reconciling rubric might be helpful; but these two attitudes, these two psychological forces, are sharply distinct. Furthermore, Nussbaum's earlier work strongly suggests, erotic love with its devotion to particulars is a morally valuable attitude, both in itself and for the insight that it brings. We ought, then, to maintain a loving attitude toward (certain) particulars, and we cannot reconcile this with a demand for universal respect by pretending that it may be identified with philanthropy, a general love of humankind.

So Nussbaum has heightened the potential tension between love and respect by strengthening what each requires. Can we imagine an equipoise between love and respect within Nussbaum's view? I think that we can, but that the balance will have to take a quite different form than it did for Kant.

On the Kantian picture, recall that the tension is at least nominally resolved by a theory of optimal distance. Love bids us approach others, respect bids us hold our distance, and a proper equilibrium between the two (as settled by the moral law) will determine the optimal distance. Nussbaum's view, thankfully, is more complicated than this simple Newtonian model of balanced forces. On her account, love underwrites a discernment of particulars that amounts to an intimate form of respect. Respect, by contrast, demands of us a response to distant people that is less tepid than a general and distance-diluted philanthropy. Our response to the plight of women in Bangladesh, for instance, ought not to be divided by the square of the miles between us.

In my brief account, I have treated this tension merely thematically. Clearly, however, the issues of justice with respect to those in developing countries is one place at which this tension, if unresolved, will generate conflicting views about what we ought to do. Conflicts will arise concerning both what our duties are and when we are justified in intervening in other countries' affairs. With regard to duties, Nussbaum has sensibly rejected the immoderate universalism of a position such as Peter Unger's—the view that none of us should be here now because we should have devoted the resources we used to get here to help starving people abroad; but she has not specified what it is that we do owe. Concerning the grounds for intervention, she has indicated how the Aristotelian conception of the human good will provide a basis for avoiding the paralysis that occurs when a loving respect for the particulars of other cultures yields a nonjudgmental deference. We must not forget, she says, that we can have a normative basis for discounting an individual's claim that he or she is doing fine. With intervention as with justice, though, we need more guidance than this about when we ought to act on the basis of such a critical stance.

I see no direct, general, and specifiable way to reconcile these refined attitudes of love and respect within the individual psyche. Nussbaum's rich elaborations of each have made this too difficult. However, I do think I see a promising, non-Kantian route to reconciliation. This would be to rest more heavily on the normative theory of social institutions. Issues about global justice cannot be adequately settled by the theory of individual virtue or by the theory of individual duty. Instead, we need an account of just social institutions. Schematically: this is to cope with a conflict between Aristotelian particularism and Kantian universalism by turning to Hegel's conception of the subject matter of ethics, in which the structure of sittlich institutions frames individual virtues and rights. Taking social institutions as the subject matter of ethical reflection was not new with Hegel. Nussbaum (1990a) has herself explored an Aristotelian account of social justice which centers on the claim that the duty of the politician is to see to it that each citizen has available the basic materials for living a good life. As with most traditional theories of justice, however, this took for granted that distributive justice stops at home. What I am urging is that as Nussbaum presses the cause of distributive justice in the international realm, institutions must come into focus (cf. Pogge 1994).

My schematic suggestion, then, has a negative aspect and a positive one. To begin with the negative: the conflict between love and respect as moral attitudes incumbent on individuals will not be resolved so long as one sticks to posing questions solely about individual duty and virtue. The positive aspect is that a shift to the institutional level should help. This is for three reasons. First, a set of just institutions will provide a series of varied contexts in which different mixes of universal respect and particular devotion would be appropriate. I would like to illustrate this by reference to actual institutions which may or may not be just: how one ought to reconcile one's particularistic understanding of local customs in Bangladesh with a universally grounded commitment to helping women there may appropriately vary according to whether one is acting as a private individual, an official of the World Bank, or a consultant to the World Institute for Development Economics Research. Second, reforming institutions can be a powerful way of mediating our actions toward others, especially distant others. Perhaps the most important thing we can do to express love for distant others is not to write one check that will then be diluted into a multitude of parts, but instead to fight for a more just scheme for taxing international financial transactions or natural resource extraction (cf. Pogge 1994). Finally, institutions also extend our particular awareness, contributing to a moral division of responsibility and attention that becomes crucial as soon as it is recognized that no one individual, in isolation, can meet the cognitive demands for a respectful love for all others. Those of us who have not traveled to Bangladesh must rely upon the lovingly respectful and critical moral discernment of those who have. Reading OXFAM's newsletters may be as morally important as sending them money.

I do not know if Nussbaum will find focusing on institutions an attractive way to synthesize particularistic, loving respect with respectful, universal love. I am sure that she has heightened the tension between them sufficiently that they will not resolve themselves into equipoise the way Kant's opposed forces do. And I am confident that since each side of the tension is fully alive within her, Nussbaum will continue to seek ways not to deny the true moral demands either of respect or of love.


  1. Intriguingly, in a forthcoming article, Marcia Baron argues that the passage with which I began should not be taken to be the Kantian's last word on love and respect, either.


Baron, Marcia. (Forthcoming). “Love and Respect in the Doctrine of Virtue.Southern Journal of Philosophy.

Herman, Barbara. (1993). The Practice of Moral Judgment. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. (1983). Metaphysical Principles of Virtue [Tugendlehre]. Trans. by James W. Ellington. Indianapolis: Hackett. Cited by the standard Akademie edition pagination.

Nussbaum, Martha C. (1990a). “Aristotelian Social Democracy.” In Liberalism and the Good, edited by R. B. Douglass, G. Mara, and H. S. Richardson, 203-52. New York: Routledge.

———. (1990b). Love's Knowledge. New York: Oxford University Press.

———. (1995). “Eros and the Wise.” In Oxford Studies in Philosophy, Vol. XIII, edited by C. C. W. Taylor, 231-67. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. (1996). “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.” In For Love of Country, edited by J. Cohen, 3-17. Boston: Beacon Press.

———. (1997a). “Kant and Stoic Cosmopolitanism.” Journal of Political Philosophy, 5, 1-25.

———. (1997b). Review of Living High and Letting Die by Peter Unger. London Review of Books, Sept. 4, 1997, 18-19.

Pogge, Thomas. (1994). “An Egalitarian Law of Peoples.” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 23, 195-224.

Bryan Appleyard (review date 9 October 1998)

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SOURCE: Appleyard, Bryan. “Well, Hello Dolly—and Goodbye.” New Statesman (9 October 1998): 45-6.

[In the following review of Clones and Clones, a collection of essays edited by Nussbaum and Cass R. Sunstein, Appleyard concludes that the book as a whole is not convincing.]

This book [Clones and Clones] contains a great comic sentence. It is at the start of Richard Dawkins' essay, “What's Wrong with Cloning?” Here it is (the punchline is the parenthesis): “Science and logic cannot tell us what is right and what is wrong (Dawkins, 1998).” So there you have it: the great crisis of the Enlightenment, the shocking thought that an “ought” cannot be derived from an “is”. But you don't have to read Kant or trouble yourself with Hume, you don't even have to read early Dawkins. No, “Dawkins '98” should see you right. As with all the best gags, you don't know whether to laugh or cry.

The ensuing essay does not sustain these comic heights and concludes, unamazingly, that freedom should allow people to clone themselves unless somebody can come up with a good reason why they shouldn't. The problem with this argument is that it permits Dawkins to define “good reason”. In the course of this book, many arguments are advanced against human cloning. If we are honest, we don't know which of them are good and which bad. But that is the point—we have to decide. Dawkins' essay goes nowhere and should have been omitted.

But how do you go somewhere in this debate? Human cloning is not, as far as we know, likely in the immediate future. What exactly happened with Dolly the sheep is still in dispute. As Stephen Jay Gould points out in his essay, “Dolly's Fashion and Louis' Passion”, the cell from which she was cloned may have been an embryo-like, undifferentiated cell from her donor's/mother's swollen mammary glands. This would mean adult cloning had not, in fact, been achieved—we have long been able to clone from undifferentiated cells. And, in any case, nobody quite knows how it worked, nor if the resulting clone will suffer from premature senescence as a result of the elderly and certainly mutated DNA from which she sprang. Yet Dolly did, undoubtedly, raise the possibility of human cloning and this book is an anthology of responses to that state of affairs.

It is somewhat quirky—there are four short stories and no fewer than eight of the 23 contributors are connected with the editors' own University of Chicago. In addition, as so often happens, writers have tended to adapt the terms of the brief to their own interests. So, typically excellent as Gould's essay is, it does not really address the issue. He prefers to use the opportunity once more to advance the case of nurture against nature. And Andrea Dworkin's sentimental and diseased—there is no other word—essay says, predictably enough: “Cloning is the absolute power over reproduction that men have wanted and have destroyed generations upon generations of women to approximate.” Oh, sure.

More to the point is a very odd but profound piece by William Ian Miller, a professor of law. Miller writes in a rather airy, almost whimsical style, but he has a tough point to make: “cloning appals us, unnerves us, disgusts, horrifies and revolts us precisely because it engages our deepest concerns about personhood, identity, life and sex.” Miller is, essentially, saying “yuk” in a rather highbrow way. And his version of yuk is based on, for me, the central truth that “there are certain large constraints on being human and we have certain emotions that tell us when we are pressing against those constraints in a dangerous way”.

One can argue against this kind of studied irrationalism, as many here do, by saying that it overinterprets the science of cloning. As far as we know, nuclear DNA is only half—or somewhat less or somewhat more—of the story. We also have mitochondrial DNA which is not cloned by the Dolly technique. And, more importantly, the environment—from the womb to the family, the school, the whole life—is certainly a crucial factor in determining the nature of the self. To express disgust about cloning because it is an invasion of the self can, therefore, be seen as naive.

But I don't think so. After all, Dawkins wants to be cloned. Why, if it does not, in some sense, represent a replication of the self? And, as Eric A Posner and Richard A Posner point out in their shrewd essay, “The Demand for Human Cloning”, narcissists, psychotics, felons, especially rich ones, would, because of their difficulty in forming stable relationships, be likely to want to clone themselves. So, too, would the congenitally infertile, and they would pass their infertility on to their clones. Since the fertile would continue to produce mutations causing infertility, there would be significant selection pressure in favour of infertility. Over time cloning would destroy sex. And, over a much longer time, it would dangerously reduce the variety of the human gene pool. Is that a good enough reason for Dawkins?

The conflict is between individual freedom and the greater social good. In “Queer Clones”, William N Estridge and Edward Stein put the strong freedom case in terms that suggest it would benefit the greater good in a very specific sense—it would allow homosexuals to reproduce more freely, it would “expand gay people's options for family formation, ‘normalise’ queer people as more of them become parents as well as partners, and perhaps even contribute in some modest way to the erosion of gender, sex, and sexual orientation as stigmatising traits”. This is the full-blooded Utopian view of cloning as libertarian social engineering.

Between that and the Miller view, these essayists oscillate. None quite draws the whole issue together in a convincing way. The point about cloning is that it is the most graphic vision we have yet been offered of science's gathering assault on the human self. As such, it becomes an issue that expands to take in everything that we are and believe ourselves to be. For me, extending Miller's point, to want to be cloned is a symptom of a high degree of solipsistic disgust. Personally, I like other people more than I like me. More importantly, I value the specific social, sexual and imaginative history that has made us what we are. If we throw it away we will become a lesser species. So hello, Dolly—and, I hope, goodbye.

George Scialabba (review date fall 1998)

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SOURCE: Scialabba, George. “Pollyanna and Cassandra.” Dissent (fall 1998): 128-31.

[In the following review, Scialabba discusses two books on the dwindling status of classical Greek in higher education: Cultivating Humanity by Nussbaum, and Who Killed Homer?, by Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. Scialabba comments that Nussbaum's assertions about education are merely bland, over-generalized, platitudinous restatements of widely accepted values.]

In “Literature and Science” (1883), a lecture delivered in America during the high noon of the Victorian culture wars, Matthew Arnold defended the study of Greek against utilitarian educational reformers and a newly assertive commercial class. “Literature may perhaps be needed in education,” he imagines these Philistines conceding grudgingly, “but why on earth should it be Greek literature?” Because, he replies, we crave it.

The instinct for beauty is set in human nature, as surely as the instinct for knowledge is set there, or the instinct for [right] conduct. If the instinct for beauty is served by Greek literature and art as it is served by no other literature and art, we may trust to the instinct of self-preservation in humanity for keeping Greek as part of our culture. We may trust to it for even making the study of Greek more prevalent than it is now. … So long as human nature is what it is, [its] attractions will remain irresistible.

Apparently human nature is no longer what it was. Around six hundred undergraduates currently major in classics each year at American colleges and universities, fewer than one in sixteen hundred new B.A.s—a figure that probably warrants designating them an endangered species. On the other hand, though unknown in Matthew Arnold's time, business majors now account for roughly a quarter of the graduating class. Greek, it would seem, is history.

So what? Is there still any reason to read the Greeks? Martha Nussbaum thinks so, and so do Victor Davis Hanson and John Heath. That, however, is nearly all they agree on. Nussbaum is upbeat, engaged, optimistic about the current academic scene; Hanson and Heath are angry, marginal, apocalyptic: Cassandras to her Pollyanna. Their new books make a curious pair.

[In Cultivating Humanity] Nussbaum champions cosmopolitanism: wider knowledge of the great variety of human cultures and institutions, enlivened by imaginative sympathy and brought to bear in rational and vigorous but mutually respectful deliberation about the common good, of which the Greeks were exemplary practitioners. Education for world citizenship is her theme. “A new and broader focus for knowledge is necessary to adequate citizenship in a world now characterized by complicated interdependencies. We cannot afford to be ignorant of the traditions of one half of the world, if we are to grapple well with the economic, political, and human problems that beset us.” This means cultivating humanity. “Three capacities, above all,” she writes, “are essential to the cultivation of humanity in today's world. First is the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one's traditions—for living what, following Socrates, we may call ‘the examined life.’” The second is “an ability to see ourselves not simply as citizens of some local region or group but also, and above all, as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern.” The third is “an ability to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself, to be an intelligent reader of that person's story, and to understand the emotions and wishes and desires that someone so placed might have.”

As these examples suggest, Nussbaum is prone to platitude—she writes like a dean or a foundation officer or the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities. No one could disagree with her bland and contentless cosmopolitanism; and indeed no one does disagree with it, just as no one professes principled opposition to peace, justice, freedom, love, rationality, or compassion. The disagreements come when one gets down to cases. Of course there's no harm in restating (in good prose, that is; bad prose always does harm) even the most respectable and uncontroversial ideal. But it doesn't help much, either.

Nussbaum does get down to cases. She has gone around the country for several years looking at curricular developments, and by and large she likes what she's seen. Ideologues may rail at political correctness on campus, and pessimists may lament pervasive dumbing down, but these complaints “bear little resemblance to the daily reality of higher education in America.” On the contrary, “higher education in America is in a healthy state. Never before have there been so many talented and committed young faculty so broadly dispersed in institutions of so many different kinds, thinking about different ways of connecting education with citizenship.” They are doing this good work in courses on non-European societies and cultures, the history of women, the history of sexuality, and other nontraditional subjects. Much of the book describes these courses and programs, for the most part sympathetically. And they do sound … nice. But they also sound a touch banal. Here is the statement of purpose for a course Nussbaum cites as a “very successful example” of an “ambitious, … arduous, but potentially more satisfying approach” to multicultural education:

[The] goal of the course is to develop within students a sense of informed, active citizenship as they enter an American society of increasing diversity by focusing on contemporary and historical issues of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, and religious sectarianism in American life … to provide students with an intellectual awareness of the causes and effects of structured inequalities and prejudicial exclusion in American society … to provide students with increased self-awareness of what it means in our culture to be a person of their own gender, race, class, ethnicity, and religion as well as an understanding of how these categories affect those who are different from themselves … to expand students' ability to think critically, and with an open mind, about controversial contemporary issues that stem from the gender, race, class, ethnic, and religious differences that pervade American society.

Thanks, but I think I'd rather study Plato with Allan Bloom, or even join the Great Books discussion group at my local public library. Yes, it is vitally important to recognize and acknowledge that one's own values and traditions are not the only ones worthy of respect—that other human beings are indeed human beings, however different. But although the acknowledgment may sometimes be morally demanding, the recognition is not, intellectually speaking, very difficult or interesting. Once you've got it, you've got it. We're not talking poetry criticism or higher mathematics.

Besides, isn't there perhaps a filament of connection between the drive for diversity and the culture of consumption? Students are increasingly seen primarily as customers by universities today; isn't the emphasis on “difference” at least partly a marketing tool? To what extent are students attracted to nontraditional subjects by an appetite for novelty, or simply by mental laziness? In the hyperstimulated world of the American campus (by the way, Cultivating Humanity takes very little notice of the equally vast but less stimulating world of community and junior colleges), isn't depth rather than breadth the more pressing need?

Nussbaum, however, has chosen a different text for her sermon:

To unmask prejudice and secure justice, we need argument, an essential tool of civic freedom.

Education must promote the ability to doubt the unqualified goodness of one's own ways, as we search for what is good in human life the world over.

A central role of art is to challenge conventional wisdom and values.

If literature is a representation of human possibilities, the works of literature we choose will inevitably respond to, and further develop, our sense of who we are and might be.

However we order our varied loyalties, we should still be sure that we recognize the worth of human life wherever it occurs and see ourselves as bound by common human abilities and problems to people who lie at a great distance from us.

Amen. Yet as one endures these pious exhortations, one is reminded of Norman Mailer's exasperated comment on Paul Goodman in The Armies of the Night. “Mailer, of course, was not without respect for Goodman. He thought Goodman had had an enormous influence in the colleges and much of it had been, from his own point of view, very much to the good. … But, oh, the style! It set Mailer's teeth on edge to read it; he was inclined to think that the body of students who followed Goodman must have something de-animalized to put up with the style, or at least such was Mailer's bigoted view.”

If Nussbaum is a slightly sententious Socrates, Hanson and Heath are savagely indignant Jeremiahs. “On the whole, higher education in America is in a healthy state,” Nussbaum opines. [In Who Killed Homer?] Hanson and Heath take a different view. Their immediate grievance is the imminent demise of classics as a discipline. “The Greeks, unfamiliar to the general public, are now also dead in the university. Today Classics embraces a body of knowledge and a way of looking at the world that are virtually unrecognized, an almost extinct species even in its own protected habitat, the academic department. We Classicists are the dodo birds of academia.”

True, the rate of publication in classics is at an all-time high: upwards of sixteen thousand articles, monographs, and books in one recent year, nearly thirty for each graduating senior in the field. This, however, is part of the problem. Most of this stuff, according to Hanson and Heath, is “silly, boring, mostly irrelevant,” and above all, self-serving. “All of us who teach the Greeks anywhere, according to our station, confront daily a set of realities that say the opposite of what we learn from the Greeks: obscure and narrow publication, travel, title, pelf, and university affiliation are everything, undergraduate teaching, matching word with deed, living like Greeks relatively nothing.”

“Living like Greeks”—what can that mean today? To the postmodernist left, it means the unthinkable: slavery, patriarchy, imperialism. To Nussbaum, it appears to mean an open-ended, society-wide philosophy seminar (led, presumably, by philosophy professors). To Hanson and Heath, it means something far less genteel and now scarcely comprehensible. For them, the Greeks' main legacy is not Socratic dialectic or cosmopolitan humanism—valuable though these things are—but rather a “hard and peculiar way of looking at the world”: austere, rooted, stoical, individualistic, plainspoken, egalitarian, mistrustful of novelty, contemptuous of luxury and vanity, jealous of economic and political independence, regardful of physical courage and mother wit. The heroic ideal and the tragic sense are what they mean by “Homer” and what they consider just about dead.

Who's to blame? Hanson and Heath's indictment names names (including Nussbaum's) and cites documents (dozens of passages of wretched prose by academic feminists, postcolonialists, and deconstructionists). By the end there is as much blood on the floor as there was in Ithaca, in the Great Hall, after Odysseus killed the suitors. But of course the problems transcend classics. In every field, the star system means that senior faculty avoid teaching, junior faculty resent teaching, and both frantically publish more and more worth less and less. Financial troubles have turned university administrators into shills. French fads bemuse students; the therapeutic ethos coddles them; mass culture distracts them; and the global economy scares the bejesus out of them (hence all those business majors).

As Hanson and Heath acknowledge, all this has been said before (though rarely so well, in my opinion). What is perhaps most valuable in Who Killed Homer? is its continuation of the themes of Hanson's remarkable The Other Greeks (1995) and Fields without Dreams (1996). The former is a radical reappraisal of Greek culture, which seeks to displace our interpretive focus from the polis to the countryside. “Greece alone,” Hanson argues, “first created ‘agrarianism,’ an ideology in which the production of food and, above all, the actual people who own the land and do the farmwork, are held to be of supreme social importance. The recovery of this ancient ideology … explains both the beginning and the end of the Greeks' greatest achievement, the classical city-state.”

Fields without Dreams is even more original and radical: a Works and Days of California raisin farming (Hanson is, I have neglected to mention, a sixth-generation small farmer, and not primarily an academic), a bitter lament for American agriculture, and a fierce, despairing brief for agrarian populism. Hanson's portrait of the vanishing small farmer—“this bothersome, queer oddball”—is clear-eyed and unromantic; and his skepticism about the hollow abundance that has followed is free of condescension and nostalgia. As a diagnosis of contemporary cultural weightlessness, Fields without Dreams ranks with the best of Christopher Lasch and Wendell Berry.

Hanson and Heath's Greeks are not Allan Bloom's aristocratic youths and esoteric sages nor Martha Nussbaum's proto-“world citizens”—nor, for that matter, Matthew Arnold's immortal poets and sculptors. They are hoi mesoi, a “society of small independent yeomen,” a “republic of hoplite soldiers,” each one claiming “an equal slot in the phalanx, a voice in the assembly, and a plot in the countryside.” These “middling ones” created “the first freeholding citizenry in civilization” and then “crafted war and invented politics to preserve their discovery of agrarian egalitarianism.” That all this sounds strikingly like late eighteenth-century and early nineteenth-century America—the high-water mark of democratic republicanism in modern history—is probably not a coincidence.

Is it necessary to choose between cosmopolitanism and agrarian populism? Let us hope not. The liberal virtues and the republican virtues are both indispensable. But that does not mean they are, at this moment, equally urgent or equally vulnerable. The apparently irresistible thrust of global capitalism threatens the latter virtues far more than the former, rootedness and psychological integrity far more than mobility and personal growth, perhaps even—to stretch a point—independence and self-reliance more than impartial benevolence. The “heroic ideal” and the “tragic sense”: these phrases already sound archaic. But our civilization has not outgrown what they signify; it has merely forgotten. Cultural amnesia is not the same thing as progress. Or is it, as the critics of “progress” allege?

Thomas Nagel (review date 8 March 1999)

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SOURCE: Nagel, Thomas. “Equality's Pleasures.” New Republic 220, no. 10 (8 March 1999): 33-6.

[In the following review of Sex and Social Justice, Nagel evaluates Nussbaum's arguments concerning feminism and sexual equality.]

Any society concerned with fairness must try to decide what general structures or modes of treatment, applied to persons who differ greatly one from another, will qualify morally as a form of equal treatment, or at least as not egregiously unequal treatment. In some cases, such as the vote, identical treatment will do. In other cases, such as taxation or maternity leave, it clearly will not. Sex is one of the most important dimensions in which people differ; they come in two sexes and a variety of sexual roles and orientations. Apart from being one of the most important things in life, sex is at the heart of the structure of families and responsibility for children, and therefore at the heart of everyone's socioeconomic status. So it is hard to tell what laws, practices, and institutions would come closest to meeting the conditions of normative equality or equal consideration of persons against the background of such deep differences and inequalities.

In the face of such a problem, there almost inevitably develops an opposition between liberal and radical approaches. Liberals attempt to discover a way of taking the differences into account in the design of fair institutions without hoping to transcend the differences themselves, because they are considered part of the human complexity and diversity that cannot be abolished without tyranny. Radicals are more optimistic about eliminating the source of the problem, root and branch, persuaded that differences that many find natural or inevitable are really the social product of temporary conditions, to be transformed by a revolution in conventions, mores, or human self-understanding. The conflict within feminism between liberals and radicals is an example of this classic problem.

[In Sex and Social Justice] Martha C. Nussbaum presents a broadly liberal outlook in this rich though uneven collection of essays about feminism, homosexuality, the subjection of women in the Third World, and the social, historical, and religious variations in sexual consciousness. The political theory upon which she relies is derived from John Rawls, Susan Okin, and Amartya Sen, and contains no surprises. It is an egalitarian but individualistic liberalism that aims to secure for everyone the basic capacities, opportunities, and freedoms that will allow them to pursue a good life. What is of interest is the application of this idea to the complexities of sex and their wide variation across cultures. Nussbaum considers important issues about the degree to which sexual desire and sexual norms are socially shaped, and about the relation between liberal tolerance of religious and cultural differences and liberal concern for equality of status and treatment. She engages with radical feminists, cultural relativists, and anti-gay conservatives. Nussbaum is a compulsive writer and often goes on too long, but one gets a useful picture of the contemporary battlefield.

Her most sobering chapters are those that deal with the situation faced by women in parts of Asia and Africa, where cultural and religious traditions of crushing subordination and restriction are pervasive and powerful. In this era of international recognition of human rights, the oppression of women deserves equal status with racial or religious persecution and police-state methods as a target of protest. This oppression may be imposed by the state, as in Afghanistan, but it is often privately enforced. Nussbaum describes a widow in India subject to beatings by her in-laws if she breaks the ban applicable to women of her caste on leaving the house, even to work the plot of land that provides the only food for herself and her children. In Pakistan, she reports, conviction for rape requires four male witnesses, and an unsuccessful accusation of rape constitutes a confession to fornication, an offense punishable by whipping. There is a grim chapter on female genital mutilation, widespread in Africa, and designed to make sexual pleasure a male monopoly, so that women can be trusted to leave the house and work in the fields without being led astray by uncontrollable lust. Think about the diabolical genius who invented those procedures of cutting off the clitoris and labia. And think about the sexuality of men who prefer to take their pleasure with a numb partner.

In another chapter, Nussbaum documents the important point that often, though not always, the disabilities of women are imposed with the authority of religion, particularly Islam; but there are very serious Hindu examples as well, and a few milder Jewish and Christian ones. Nussbaum discusses the dilemma that this poses for liberalism, which is committed to both religious toleration and individual rights. India and Bangladesh, though they have liberal democratic constitutions, allow religious law to govern certain aspects of private life. (To a degree, the same is true of Israel.) This can result in severe disadvantages to women in regard to marriage, divorce, property, child custody, and so forth. Toleration of religious pluralism can overshadow concern for equal treatment of individuals. She also observes that, when it comes to the international response to the maltreatment of women, “these violations do not always receive the intense public concern and condemnation that other systematic atrocities against groups often receive—and there is reason to think that liberal respect for religious difference is involved in this neglect.”

As she astutely notes, the Supreme Court's 1972 decision in Wisconsin v. Yoder, which permitted the Amish on religious grounds to withdraw their children from school after the eighth grade, provides an American example of the link between respect for religion and sexual inequality. It did more damage to the freedom of girls than of boys, since the boys learn marketable skills such as carpentry that make it easy for them to leave the community later if they choose—a further reason why it was a bad decision.

In the worst cases, such as Afghanistan, Iran, and Sudan, religious law is imposed by a tyrannical state, so there is no question of defending it out of respect for religious pluralism. But elsewhere the attitude toward religion poses a real problem for liberalism—a problem of the limits of toleration. It is a difficult question of priorities. Right now, in the United States, most religions teach that homosexuality is sinful, promoting torments of guilt, concealment, and self-denial among their members who discover after puberty that their primary sexual attraction is to members of their own sex. Given its effect on individuals, how much toleration should liberals want to accord to groups that form the lives and the minds of children as well as adults?

The anticlerical impulse is a real test for the liberal inhibition against imposing one's own values across the board. The French ban against girls wearing the Islamic head-scarf to school would be unimaginable here, but its motivation is understandable. Nussbaum's horror stories show that there is a hard question about where to draw the line between respect for religious communities and protection of individual autonomy. And she takes a fairly tough line, which seems right.

Her position starts from the principle that “the fundamental bearer of rights is the individual human being.” This means that the state should not enforce religious rules about marriage, divorce, and education, and that it should not discriminate between the sexes, even if it does so in a system that treats all religions symmetrically. But active state interference is a trickier matter. Nussbaum would not allow anti-discrimination law to require the Catholic Church to admit women to the priesthood; but she thinks that conduct by a religion that does not lie within what she calls “the core of worship” should be subject to review for violation of equal rights. One might add that it is essential that anyone should be free to leave a religion, and that policies that affect non-members should be much more vulnerable to public scrutiny than policies that do not.

The inferior status of women in America and other Western democratic societies pales by comparison with much of the world, but in spite of recent progress, it displays a stubborn persistence. This raises the question how deep beneath the surface of legal and institutional structures it is necessary or possible to extend a movement of social reconstruction. Institutional change is essential, of course, to overcome political, legal, and above all economic inequality between men and women. And much remains to be done: even if conditions of employment, child care, child support, and divorce can be improved by governmental action, the most basic institution, the family, will alter its division of labor and power only by the transformation of habits and conventions over generations. Progress in all these respects is under way, and widely regarded as a good thing. What is more controversial is the question of transformations in sex itself—in sexual life, feelings, conduct, and the understanding that people have of their sexuality.

The controversy is connected with the issue of how much sexual desire is socially shaped, or “constructed.” Nussbaum is far more sympathetic to the radicalism represented by Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin than most liberals are. She credits them with having exposed deep-seated attitudes that support the inequality of power between men and women while concealing those inequalities from view, particularly in the treatment of rape, domestic violence, and sexual harassment, but not only there. Fortunately, we are getting rid of the idea that it is the role of men to try to impose themselves sexually on women, and the role of virtuous women to resist until marriage, and then to submit; that it is a mark of general lasciviousness in a woman, and a forfeiture of protection against being forced, if she ever willingly has sex outside of marriage. This conception was responsible for the requirement of active resistance, even at the risk of physical injury, to sustain a charge of rape, for the admission of evidence about the sexual history of the victim in rape trials, for the nonrecognition of marital rape, for the indifference to sexual harassment as a serious offense in the workplace or other institutional settings. The blend of excitement, fascination, and contempt aroused in unreconstructed males by female desire is one of the ugliest elements of this syndrome.

Even if radical feminists have contributed to the decline of these attitudes, it is part of a wider sexual revolution in which others have been just as important. But Nussbaum expresses particular sympathy with the claim that social injustice invades and shapes sexual feelings themselves. Just how far she is prepared to go with MacKinnon and Dworkin is not clear. She says at one point that “certainly we may agree with MacKinnon and Dworkin that sexual intercourse is, in crucial respects, a meeting of socially constructed fantasies and role enactments more than it is of uninterpreted bodies,” but this is too vague to count as a significant agreement.

In another essay, however, she says that Dworkin should have been “more circumspect” in her rhetoric, to avoid giving the impression that she thinks all heterosexual intercourse is rape:

Examining her rhetoric with care, one may discern a far more plausible and interesting thesis: that the sexualization of dominance and submission, and the perpetuation of these structures through unequal laws (such as the failure to criminalize marital rape or to prosecute domestic violence effectively), have so pervasively infected the development of desire in our society that “you cannot separate the so-called abuses of women from the so-called normal uses of women.” This sentence certainly does not say that all acts of intercourse are abuses. It does say that the dominant paradigms of the normal are themselves culpable, so we can't simply write off the acts of rapists and batterers by saying that they are “abnormal.” Gendered violence is too deep in our entire culture.

It is not perfectly clear what Nussbaum is saying, but she seems to be endorsing the claim that rape and battery are just fuller and franker expressions of the feelings present at the core of most heterosexual relations in our society.

MacKinnon and Dworkin have gotten a lot of mileage out of this charge, and they have been helped along by the discreditable thrill that too many men feel at being portrayed as dangerous rapists: they all want to hear about how terrible they are. I think that the idea is nonsense, though without looking into the souls of my fellow Americans, I can't prove it. Anyone who does not flee from self-awareness knows that the inner life is a jungle, most of it never expressed. Apparently some women and some men are aroused by fantasies of rape and degradation, and there is pornography addressed to such fantasies; but it is simple-minded to regard this as a matter for societal concern.

The socially important features of sexual consciousness are more mainstream and closer to the surface, and these have responded to criticism. It is now impossible not to cringe at even the best movies from the 1950s, with their thoughtless assumption that women would be passive, unprincipled, and subjected to hilarious humiliation at the hands of men. (The same is true of the portrayal of blacks as childish and ridiculous.) The fact that these conventions which were once second nature now seem benighted shows that things can improve. Still, to overcome the maltreatment of women and the refusal to take them seriously it should not be necessary to attack all asymmetries in the sexual relation, as infections of “dominance.”

Nussbaum has a lengthy discussion of the charge of “objectification,” in which she comes down in favor of D. H. Lawrence's way of seeing women as sex objects and against Playboy's. “One cannot even imagine Mellors boasting in the locker room of the ‘hot number’ he had the previous night, or regarding the tits and ass or the sexual behavior of Connie as items of display in the male world.” This is rather high-minded, and it is uncharitable to the readers of Playboy, whose drooling over the centerfold need not be incompatible with treating women with respect, and even more important, with regarding the sexual desire and sexual behavior of women without contempt. Women's bodies are great erotic vessels, and there is nothing wrong with erotic art that displays them as such, and arouses the physical imagination.

We all speak inevitably out of our own experience in discussing these matters. Being a man and not a woman, and inhabiting a relatively feminized corner of this society, I may underrate both the sexual solipsism of most American males and the sense of violation on the part of most American women on receiving their gross attentions. Certainly the appeal to many women of Dworkin's and MacKinnon's violent images reveals something—if only that there is a great deal of sexual unhappiness out there. As Nussbaum observes, however, one kind of sexual objectification, the surrender of autonomy and control during sex, can be personally and sexually fulfilling for women. Sexual dismantlement drives all of us, men and women alike, deeper into our bodies, and thereby reunifies the multiple layers from the most civilized to the least civilized.

The mere fact that sexual desire and sexual relations are socially shaped does not mean that they have to be infected with injustice. Other natural appetites, for food and drink, are subject to elaborate socially created forms of expression and fulfillment without carrying much of a message, except when they become vehicles for conspicuous consumption. Of course, sex is a relation between people, and more likely to be entangled with their other relations. Yet sexual feelings are powerful enough to determine a good deal in their own right, whatever the social setting. It is not a mere convention that men and women are anatomically and sexually different, and that in sexual intercourse these differences are imaginatively and physically expressed and acted out. Social structures can reach deep into the core of the self, but they usually do not replace it—certainly not in the case of anything as fundamental and powerful as sexuality.

It is almost impossible to get reliable information about this subject, because the motives and the opportunities for concealment of what really goes on in the minds and the bodies of people in bed are nearly unlimited. What is revealed will be strongly influenced by whatever social norm holds public sway. Yet there is a datum that convinces me that social construction is relatively powerless over sexual desire, and it is the unquenchable survival of homosexuality in the face of the most severe repression and public obloquy. Nussbaum is sensibly skeptical about the social explanation of basic sexual orientation, invoking “the feeling of determination and constraint that is such a common feature of self-reports concerning homosexuality in our society.” We must distinguish, she rightly says, between the social explanation of norms and the social explanation of desires. One of her essays offers a heart-felt defense of gay and lesbian rights. It seems to me that the much-maligned desires of horny heterosexual males deserve comparable understanding.

Norms and practices can change rapidly, as we have seen in recent years with regard to everything from extra-marital cohabitation to oral sex. (The latter is considered among the young, we are told, as less “intimate” than intercourse.) But there always seem to be taboos of some sort. In ancient Athens, for example, where sexual relations between men were common, actual penetration, anal or oral, was socially condemned, and the younger partner, while submitting to intercourse between the thighs, was not supposed to experience sexual pleasure himself.

Nussbaum is a specialist in ancient philosophy, and some parts of her book deploy this expertise at numbing length. The information about Greek homosexuality, for example, appears in a chapter based on her testimony before a Colorado court on the merits of Colorado's notorious Amendment 2 (subsequently found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court) which denied anti-discrimination protection to homosexuals. She says that she was called in only to rebut historical and philosophical testimony offered in defense of the amendment, and that she thinks all this material is irrelevant to the case. That is a relief to hear; but then she goes on for many pages about the views of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle on homosexuality. She seems to be straining to show that Plato never condemned sex between men.

A comic example of her classical piety is the invocation of Seneca's argument, in On Anger, for mercy and against retribution, which is offered as a response to Dworkin's bloodcurdling fantasies (in the novel Mercy) of kicking men to death to avenge the crimes committed against women. Nussbaum's writings tend to be bloated with references; in this book the endnotes go on for eight-eight pages. There is too much heavy cultural artillery being trained on the problems of the day. Yet on most of the topics treated here Nussbaum is a voice of good sense and goodwill, and a reminder, for those who need it, that sex is the scene of some of the worst injustices in the world.

Veit Bader (essay date June 1999)

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SOURCE: Bader, Veit. “For Love of Country.” Political Theory 27, no. 3 (June 1999): 379-97.

[In the following essay, Bader compares For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism, by Nussbaum, with For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism, by Maurizio Viroli.]

Nationalism and patriotism seem to gain momentum in our times of globalization and decreasing importance of the (nation-)state. Likewise, multiculturalism is becoming predominant while real differences of ethnic cultures are decreasing globally as well as inside traditionally multiethnic states such as the United States. Among the growing stream of publications concerning nationalism or cosmopolitanism, two recent American books deserve special attention. For Love of Country (edited by Joshua Cohen) contains Martha Nussbaum's essay “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” which first appeared in the Boston Review (October/November 1994) together with eleven of the twenty-nine replies she originally provoked and five new contributions, all “debating the limits of patriotism.” This volume is of special interest because leading American political theorists succeeded in getting broad public attention for problems excluded from the political agenda for so long. For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism, by Maurizio Viroli, adds historical depth and a comparative European perspective to these discussions, which focus mainly on the United States. Therefore, it makes sense that it be presented and discussed first. As is true of most of the contributors to Cohen's volume, Viroli tries to find a third way between “nasty” ethnocentristic nationalism and “abstract” cosmopolitanism by adapting “noble” patriotism to recent conditions of multiethnic and multicultural states and global problems and obligations.

Maurizio Viroli tries to achieve two goals not easily to be combined. As a historian of political language or discourse, he aims “at understanding what scholars, agitators, poets and prophets have meant when they spoke of love of country” (pp. 4f). As a political philosopher and vivid defender of “true” patriotism, he tries to convince us that his patriotism of liberty is the best attitude to respond to the challenges of multiethnic diversity and of globalization. These two goals are intertwined by his conviction that an underlying, fairly consistent intellectual tradition of true patriotism exists in modern and early modern political thought, which only has to be brought to the surface. His true patriotism of liberty, consequently, has to be distinguished as sharply as possible from nationalism, conceptually as well as historically. Patriotism as the “love of political institutions,” the “common liberty of a people,” or “the republic” is exclusively civic or political and completely opposed to nationalism, which was forged in late eighteenth-century Europe, assuming the existence of or striving for linguistic, cultural, religious, ethnic or even racial unity, homogeneity, and purity (pp. 1ff, 6, 13, 185).

Chapter 1 traces the “Legacy of Republican Patriotism” in ancient, mainly Roman, sources where love of country was pietas and republican political patriotism was intertwined with religion. The basis for a distinctive republican language of patriotism was developed in the fourteenth century in the Italian city-republics by theorists of communal self-government and by civic humanists. Florentine fifteenth-century patriotism, however, was also a celebration of the city's military and civic superiority, meaning that the rhetoric of republicanism served to legitimate exclusions and aggression abroad (p. 29). Machiavelli elaborated a different version, without the same parochialism or exaggerated sense of civic pride.

The “Decline and Revival” of the language of republican patriotism in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries is sketched in chapter 2. It survived in the few republics in Venice, Holland, and Naples, but this could not arrest its decline in the unfavorable context of absolute monarchies and principalities and the burgeoning language of raison d'etat. The republican content was lost; patria and liberty parted company. Republican patriotism regained a central place again during the English revolution. Monarchical patriotism replaced love of liberty with loyalty to the king but could not weaken the continuing actuality of republican patriotism.

In continental Europe, the language of patriotism also flourished in the eighteenth century due to the renaissance of republican thought and, more important, due to concrete experiences of political and military resistance against absolutism (chap. 3, “Patriotism and the Politics of the Ancients”). In opposition to the politics of the moderns (of states, princes, the king), patriotism again meant res publica and good government. As a response to Vico's criticism that the ancient patriotism of heroic societies offends our sense of justice and humanity, Montesquieu “rescued” that patriotism by presenting it as a virtue suitable only for ancient citizens of ancient republics. He introduced a distinction between political virtue and private interest (La douce commerce), which one does not find in earlier republican writings. For the “cosmopolitan” Encyclopedists and Voltaire, patrie is also synonymous with republic and liberty (as opposed to the newly invented “oriental despotism”). It has, however, no essential reference to a particular culture or ethnicity but is reduced to its essential political and legal structure (rule of law, liberty, and self-government): “the place does not matter, and history matters even less” (p. 78). To resolve Montesquieu's contrast between political virtues and private interests, love of country is interpreted as enlightened or rational selflove. Rousseau uses patrie as equivalent of republic but parts company from Montesquieu (also for the “modems”) and Voltaire (not only “rational selfinterest” but also passion). For him, love of country means not only purely political love of an impersonal, abstract entity but attachment to particular people as well.

“The Birth of the Language of Nationalism” (chap. 4) is situated at the end of the eighteenth century. In England, the language of patriotism was established as a major intellectual tradition, integrating ancient republicanism and modern natural law tradition (the “boundaries that justice imposes on compassion”; p. 95). Issues of social justice and of integrating the “lower classes” increasingly came to the fore. In Italy and Germany, “the language of patriotism … proved inadequate as a means of helping peoples to find their way to liberty. The purely abstract ideal of patrie sounded too abstract” (pp. 106f). This criticism of “culturally remote” patriots appealed to a different idea of country (cultural unity) and a different love (pride or esteem). Love of country should be political and cultural, and liberty demands cultural unity. In Germany, as a reaction to French Enlightenment cosmopolitism and German cosmopolitans, a more radical critique of the language of patriotism was developed, which rejected the priority of civic and political liberty in favor of cultural and spiritual unity and ethnic identity. “Nation means oneness” (p. 118). This language of cultural nationalism was used, at least in Herder's and in Fichte's case, as a premise or preparation for a call to struggle for political liberty (p. 129). The emphasis on unity and purity more than on liberty and equality also infected Michelet and other French patriots.

This “Nationalization of Patriotism” (chap. 5) during the nineteenth century infected even England, where working-class radical patriotism lost from the Gladstonian and Disraelian project (p. 156). In an age of imperialism, it seemed impossible to promote cosmopolitanism or proletarian internationalism. In Italy, Mazzini could not effectively prevent the language of patriotism from assuming nationalistic and monarchical tones, and the same happened in France and Germany. Ernest Renan, however, showed that “even in the age of imperialism,” the nation “must be understood as a political community founded on the free consent of the citizens” (p. 159).

Finally, after this historical reconstruction, Viroli intervenes in his epilogue in contemporary debates on “Patriotism without Nationalism” (Habermas, Gian Enrico Rusconi, MacIntyre, Walzer, Schaar, Taylor).

Viroli's vividly written essay presents a valuable reconstruction of the language of patriotism. It reminds us that recent discussions have their historical forerunners and that solutions to the many dilemmas involved do not have to be invented from scratch. It also serves as a counterweight against historically uninformed normative theory still so prominent in America. The specific way, however, in which he combines writing history with normative theorizing is the reason why his historical study is not completely convincing and why he often simply reproduces old and unconvincing normative claims. Let me start with the first point.

As a historian, Viroli is confronted with the well-known “Protean” nature of the concepts of patriotism and nationalism (pp. 4f). Patriotism (and nationalism) show many faces: monarchical, republican, proletarian, liberal, communitarian, Christian, ethnocentristic, nationalist, imperialist. The same holds for cosmopolitanism: it can be stoic, humanist, catholic, professional, socialist, and so on. How to construct one story of one patriotism out of the many localized and contextualized stories? Viroli claims the historical existence of one and the same intellectual tradition of patriotism, which only has to be brought to the surface by rereading the texts, following the line of references, and cleansing this “true,” “right sort of patriotism,” “properly understood” (p. 8) from all “degenerated” forms (pp. 69, 96), from the historical “misuse” (p. 2) of this language, and from its “misunderstandings” (p. 7) by historians and social scientists. This cleansing operation allows him a dubious normative criticism of historical actors as well as of fellow researchers such as Deutsch, Benedict Anderson, Kohn, and Greenfeld, who use other concepts of nationalism instead of his “historically accurate distinction” (pp. 5, 7f). He does not explicate the pros and cons of his own normative or ideal model of patriotism for historical research.

The construction of this noble patriotism as a love of “liberty,” “patria,” and “the republic” is not very helpful in spelling out the distinctive historical forms of patriotism itself and the shifts in the meaning of liberty, patria, and the republic. We learn something about the enemies of patriotism in general (tyranny, dictatorship, oppression, conquest, corruption), but we learn very little about historical contexts and power positions. This may be a general weakness of the history of discourses in which contexts and practices enter only marginally to explain shifts in linguistic meaning, much less in social or political meaning. In his critique of Rousseau's “nationalist” patriotism, Viroli mentions that the appeal to cultural unity of a people depends on the fact of whether a people is already politically free and united or, to put it in traditional language, has already achieved sovereignty by way of state-nation building (pp. 91ff): “Divided and politically unfree people must above all else love and be proud of its own national culture to be able one day to be free,” traditionally by way of building a “nation-state.” And the appeal to cultural unity also depends on resistance to external cultural threats of enforced cultural assimilation and “against the tendency to absorb them in a uniformly European or cosmopolitan way of life” (see p. 93 for Rousseau's fears). Still, every appeal to cultural unity, be it in the case of the Polish people by Rousseau or in the case of the Germans by Herder and Fichte, is, according to Viroli, a vice1. On the other side, Ernest Renan's political patriotism is naively presented without even mentioning the rhetorical battle about Alsace, enforced French cultural assimilationism, and “chauvinist universalism.” Thus, Viroli mentions contexts without appropriately pointing out that roughly the same rhetoric of patriotism and of nationalism, which often are used synonymously, can have divergent or even contrary social and political meaning depending on positions in asymmetric power relations. The same holds for his abstract treatment of questions such as “how much and which type of unity” is required. According to Viroli, “cultural unity,” projects of cultural unification, and “democratic nationalism” from below are “vices” (p. 13), regardless of power positions. These abstract statements benefit powerful states and dominant majorities, which have reached political unity earlier and present their culturally unified nations as neutral and universal. But this does not seem to worry Viroli. Cultural diversity is good, unity is bad; patriots are the good guys and nationalists the bad ones.

Let me now turn to my second normative line of criticism. Viroli's plea for a true patriotism of liberty or diversity contains at least three endemic problems that, in my view, are not treated in a wholly satisfying way: (1) how to combine reason and history, the universal and the particular, the political and the ethnic-cultural; (2) how to combine reason and passion; and (3) how the presumed transformation of parochial into global obligations and allegiances works.

(1) Viroli rightly draws a sharp analytical line separating universal, civic, and political principles of liberty and democracy, of the rule of law, selfgovernment, and good government from particular places or soils, from ethnic and “racial” descent (blood), as well as from language, ethnic culture and tradition, and history. Patriotism as opposed to cosmopolitanism and to ethnocentric nationalism implies a specific, contested combination of the universal and the particular: one “must enter into the dangerous world of particularity” (p. 12). It turns out to be very difficult to “adequately connect” (p. 175) the civic-political and the ethnic-cultural, not only for historical patriots but for Viroli as a normative theorist as well. On one hand, he criticizes all positions that neglect or try to disemphasize the spatial (Toland, Shaftesbury), ethnocultural, and historical (Voltaire) aspect as much as possible.2 On the other hand, and contrary to his own critical remarks, he seems to applaud the Habermasian strict separation or disentanglement of political, “constitutional patriotism” from all “pre-political community of language and culture” (p. 170). Rusconi's criticism of Habermas's strategy reclaiming a “synthesis” of universalistic principles and ethnocultural values, of cultural and political community (pp. 172f -is firmly rejected by Viroli: “a love of common liberty should be all that we need. We need, to put it simply, patriotism and we must at the same time help to reduce, rather than invoke, identification with ethnocultural values” (p. 174). If history enters this project at all, it has to be history cleansed from all ethnic aspects: the purely political history of a people (pp. 16f) or its republic (p. 13), its political institutions and practices, and its struggle for liberty.

Viroli's own normative concept of patriotism eventually seems to be “sustained by politics alone,” accepting no “pre-political” bases of love of country. It very much resembles the old myth of American exceptionalism: “to love one's country means to love the republic as a political community based on the principle of common liberty, with its own culture and way of life” (p. 183 with Walzer, Schaar, de Tocqueville, Taylor). But one may wonder what remains of “its own culture and way of life” if all “ethnocultural values” are left out. Viroli's patriotism, in the end, is nearly indistinguishable from the “purely” political patriotism he himself started to question. This patriotism has a hard time as soon as one recognizes that (1) the borders of all political units—be it empires, city-states, modern “nation”-states or immigration-states—cannot be derived from political principles of liberty or democracy and that the borders of “nation”-states as well as those of immigration-states more or less explicitly refer to prepolitical, ethnic concepts of the nation(s) and (2) that universalist “political” principles get particularized as soon as one looks at their interpretation, at their institutional translation, and at civic and political cultures, virtues, and traditions of good practices.3

Viroli's “adequate connection” of the ethnic and political aspects boils down to a matter of right “emphasis” (pp. 2, 139), which means the “priority” or “primacy” of the political. He can only repeat well-known magic formulas like “love of liberty” in which love is “particularist” and liberty is “inclusive” or universal (p. 12). Such a strand is too malleable. It allows him to criticize both cosmopolitanism and more nationalist patriotism without specifying exactly what would be required. If one chooses the “thin” political version of his patriotism, one may ask Viroli himself whether this can still be called “love of country.” There may be a patriotism without nationalism, but there is no patriotism without patria, which most of the time includes a lot of ethnonational values. There is, therefore, no patriotism without “natio” in modern times, and such a “patriotism” would be indistinguishable from cosmopolitanism. If one chooses the “thicker” version, one can allude to “colors,” “flavor,” “warmth” and to places, customs, traditions, and ways of life. To each what she or he wants to hear.

Which cultural politics and which institutions would Viroli recommend? I seriously doubt whether his patriotism of liberty, sharing so much with traditional republicanism, can really live up to the conditions of multiethnic, multinational, and multicultural states. In its “thin” version, it may make enough room to “organize diversity” as so many neorepublicans try.4 However, I cannot find any sign that such a cultural pluralism would be accommodated by institutional pluralism, a concept and project fiercely rejected by traditional republicans as well as by neorepublicans.5

(2) The magic formula “love of liberty” also has to answer the old question of how to combine reason and passion. Liberty and justice stand for reason, which is loosely associated with truth, universalist principles, rights, and obligations, appealing to anonymous, disinterested, dispassionate, rational moral agents; impersonal observers; or ideal speakers. It remains cold, distant, and general and cannot mobilize a motivating force, which are crucial weaknesses of “rationalist,” “enlightened” liberalism or cosmopolitanism. It is opposed to love as a passion loosely associated with “the real world” of particularist people in time and places. Love's language is rhetorical, warm, nearby. It appeals to the virtues that are presented as particularist feelings (p. 176), sentiments, emotions, and compassion. It can mobilize people to sacrifice their lives. Republican patriotism claims that “between the ideal worlds of rational moral agents … and the real world of exclusive and narrow passions there is space for a possible politics for the republic” (p. 17). Following Barber and others, republican patriotism is presented by Viroli as an alternative to both liberalism aiming at a moral foundation of politics and communitarianism aiming at a culturalist foundation. Against “bloodless” liberalism and cosmopolitanism, however, patriotism and nationalism “compete on the same terrain of passions and particularity” (p. 8; see p. 14). Both are eminently rhetorical, playing on the passions of particular people, their cultural and historical identity. Both “possess a unifying and mobilizing force that others lack.” Patriotism is thus a “formidable opponent of nationalism” and should be embraced by “the democratic left” in search of a language “capable of countering nationalistic and communitarian languages” (p. 15, praising Rorty). Though patriotism and nationalism appeal to the passions, they try to mold “different types of love”: the love of patriots is “inclusive” (pp. 58, 98), “expansive,” “charitable,” “generous,” “intelligent,” “defensive,” and full of “compassion” and of “tolerance” and “respect” for diversity. The love of nationalists is “exclusive,” “invidious,” “deaf and blind,” “offensive,” and full of “contempt,” “intolerance,” “hatred,” “fear,” and “resentment.” It longs for “uniqueness,” “pride,” “glory,” “grandeur,” “domination,” “oppression,” and “exclusion.” Against nationalism “one must find ways of encouraging and sustaining the right sort of passions and love” (p. 12) by working “on bonds of solidarity and fellowship that like feels toward like to transmute them into forces that sustain liberty instead of fomenting exclusion or aggression” (p. 8).

Viroli's version of this old saga of reasonable patriotic love rests on three highly questionable assumptions: Virtues are not a privileged terrain of republicans, communitarians, or nationalists (see Macedo, O'Neill). The crucial question is, Which virtues? In this regard, it is doubly misleading that Viroli identifies “civic virtue” with “a love of the republic” (p. 183) because, first of all, virtues are specific competences to act in a normatively praised way, not feelings or passions.6 Second, pace MacIntyre, not all virtues are “particularistic” (p. 176): civic and political virtues are universalistic or “generic” (see O'Neill).

If not virtue, is then not love essentially “particularistic”: whom can we love? Only particular individuals or also a people or even humanity? Only people or also institutions, states, and so on? Only persons or also ideas, principles? If Viroli, following Rousseau, really believes that “one cannot love strangers, or unknown or anonymous individuals” (p. 81), then his love of country has a hard time in modem states where most compatriots are anonymous strangers.

If one can also be fiercely attached or committed to universalistic principles, it becomes less obvious that “justice” and “liberty” are unable to mobilize any motivational force at all. Their motivational force may be “weak,’ and it certainly is weaker than the hot republican language of “sacrifice.” Even if Viroli does not ask for “heroic self-abnegation” (p.185), a bit more distance to “white-hot” republican motivations may be healthy.

(3) How does the transformation of parochial into national and global obligations and allegiances work? All true patriots hope and expect that some such transformation takes place, and historical references can be found throughout Viroli's essay. “We have to appeal to the feelings of compassion and solidarity that are—when they are—rooted in bonds of language, culture, and history. The work to be done is to translate these bonds into love of common liberty. To make this alchemy of passions possible, we surely need moral arguments that appeal to reason and interests, but we must also be able to resort, as good rhetoricians do, to stories, images, and visions” (p. 10).

Patriotism “works on the already existing ethnic and cultural bonds that somehow connect members of the same people to transform them into a generous commitment against oppression, political corruption, and discrimination” (p. 14). “Patriotism tries to translate a particular attachment between people who are culturally similar into a commitment to a good—the republic—which is still particular as it is the republic of a particular people, although it encompasses cultural diversity” (pp. 16f, see “direct,” “shape” [p. 171; “transform sordid and ignoble passions into higher and more generous ones” [pp. 17, 162]; “translate” [pp. 77, 175]; “enlarge” [p. 55]; “love's expansive drive” [p. 100]). Viroli, like all patriotic authors, follows the same logic or paradigmatic argument of concentric circles: love, attachment, commitment, allegiances, and obligations develop first and are most intense or “fundamental” with regard to family and intimates. Love of country is “a passion that pushed him to embrace and enlarge his affection for other peoples beyond the sphere of family and to extend respect and understanding to peoples beyond the boundaries of his own country” (p. 55, for Milton). This logic is never questioned (see below), but even if one accepts it for the moment, the argument remains inconclusive. In fact, one can detect two different types of argument. The first “appeals to the [political] culture that grows out of the practice of citizenship” (p. 13). This traditional republican argument can explain, to a certain degree, how and why familial, local, and regional allegiances are transformed into “national ones.” The love of country may “stimulate sharing” and may “breed solidarity” (p. 37) inside the country, but it cannot explain how and why this sharing and solidarity should stretch beyond the borders7 at least as long as these practices of citizenship are not also transformed in a transnational direction. In Viroli's essay, one looks in vain for any political or institutional proposals in this direction. On the contrary, one gets the impression that he agrees with Mazzini's famous statement, “only citizens can successfully demand social justice. … Without country you have neither name, token, voice, nor rights” (p.149)8

The second argument appeals to global moral principles and obligations. This “liberal” argument stresses the same universal principles of liberty and justice, whatever the “embodiment”: “In labouring according to true principles for our country we are labouring for humanity” (Mazzini, p.151). Here, “our most fundamental moral obligations are to humanity” (p. 150). No appeal to the specific color, flavor, and warmth of the “embodiments” of “equal liberty” (p. 13) and social justice can help here. When it comes to global obligations, not only all references to “ethnocultural” values but also all references to purely “political” history and love of “patria” are counterproductive. This argument is much more plausible, but here patriotism dissolves into cosmopolitanism that, by the way, knows its own rhetoric and tells its own stories, images, and visions. The conflicting tendencies of the “republican” and the “liberal” argument cannot really be reconciled by arranging them under the catholic roof of “common liberty.” An appeal to common liberty cannot do the job, and “love of the common liberty of one's people” in no way “naturally” (pp. 59, 77) or “easily extends beyond national boundaries and translates into solidarity” (p. 12).

Why, how, and under which conditions such a transformation is possible and has worked historically is never questioned or explained. Transformation resembles juggling, and it is no coincidence that the metaphor of “alchemy” is frequently used (pp. 5, 10, 98; see Barber, p. 35, for the “American trick”). To explain chemical processes, scientists don't use alchemist models and engineers don't rely on alchemy in the production of synthetics. Why should social scientists believe in alchemy when it comes to explaining how, when, in which degree, and under which conditions parochial allegiances have been or can be translated into global ones? Why should political theorists do it when it comes to designing institutions and policies to stimulate and develop this transformation?


Martha Nussbaum clearly does not believe in this alchemy of transformation. “A bottom nationalism and ethnocentric particularism are not alien to one another but akin” (p. 5). Rejecting fine-grained distinctions between nationalism and patriotism, she holds that appeal to particularist national sentiments “subverts … the substantive universal values of justice and right” (p. 5), that patriotic pride is “subversive of some of the worthy goals patriotism sets out to serve” (p. 4). Her plea for cosmopolitanism, for the “possibility of a more international basis for political emotions and concern” (p. 4) where the “primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world” (p. 4), is motivated by two concerns: By “international quality of life issues” (hunger, extreme poverty, extreme inequalities, and ecological problems). She reminds us of “moral obligations to the rest of the world” and criticizes “moral hypocrites who talk the language of universability but whose universe has a self-servingly narrow scope” (p. 13).

By a “renewal of appeals to the nation” among American liberals like Rorty and Hackney, who, in their opposition against multiculturalist “politics of difference,” argue for a new “politics of nationalism” and try to regain the language of patriotism for “the American Left” (just as Viroli recommends). Such appeals to patriotic pride “undercut the very case for multicultural respect” (p. 14). Nussbaum clearly does not rely on any automatic or naturally “universalizing tendencies” of patriotic values, and she does not see why universalistic values of liberal democracy, like liberty and justice, “lose steam when they get to the borders of the nation” (p. 14).

Patriotic allegiances seem counterproductive to her in both regards, and consequently, she asks for a reversal of our primary allegiances and obligations from citizens of a (nation-)state to “citizens of the world,” for a radical, decisive shift in emphasis or “priority” from national toward global commitments. Although it may sometimes look as if she argues—in an either/or way—for a complete replacement of particularist (local, national) obligations by global or universalist ones, no such replacement strategy is really defended (see p. 9, “no need to give up” and the “concentric circles” imagery; see p. 13, “special degree of concern … is justifiable in universalist terms”). For four reasons, we should make “world citizenship, rather than democratic or national citizenship, the focus for civic education” (p. 11): to “learn more about ourselves” (pp. 11 If), to be able to solve problems that require international co-operation” (p. 12), to “recognize moral obligations to the rest of the world that are real and that otherwise would go unrecognized” (pp. 12ff), and to be able to make “a consistent and coherent argument based on distinction we are prepared to defend” (pp. 14f).

Nussbaum's essay provoked many critical reactions from American patriots and only few positive ones embracing the project of a decisive shift toward transnational and global obligations and allegiances. Criticism focused on (1) conceptual, (2) moral, and (3) legal/political issues.

(1) Conceptual criticism highlighted the importance of distinguishing patriotism from nationalism, chauvinism, and jingoism in the same way as Viroli did (see Bernan and Blum in Boston Review [BR]; Glazer, p. 61, for many). Patriotism as well as cosmopolitanism has many forms with different social and political meanings in different contexts (Lloyd Rudolph and Charles Beitz in BR; Wallerstein, pp. 122ff; Glazer, p. 64). It is one-sided and unfair to focus only on the “pathologies” of patriotism (Barber) and not also on the “perversions” of cosmopolitanism (Walzer, pp. 126f). And finally, Nussbaum, intentionally or not, seduces us into making the wrong choices of “either” cosmopolitanism “or” patriotism (McConnell, p. 79; Taylor, p. 119) and of replacing democratic or national citizenship by world citizenship.

Falk and Wallerstein point to the many forms of patriotism and cosmopolitanism and criticize context-independent “choices.” Falk also declares both options unsatisfactory in recent global capitalism: the “ethical viability of patriotism depends on sufficient political space at the level of the state” (p. 55) and the “cosmopolitan orientation is not much more satisfactory on these matters” (p. 56). It should be supplemented by “a critique of the ethically deficient” neoliberal globalization. Wallerstein generally opposes an “abstract” or “universal” evaluation of both patriotism and cosmopolitanism in our “deeply unequal world”: “our options vary according to social location” in power structures (see also Rudolph, Lerner, and Connolly in BR). The strong and rich have xenophobic options as well as “magnanimous comprehension of ‘difference’” but remain privileged, and the weak and poor need “group equality” and may stimulate “nationalism” or “ethnic assertiveness” (pp. 122ff). Consequently, the “stance of citizenship of the world” is a deeply ambiguous response. Instead, we have to “break down existing inequalities and help to create a more democratic, egalitarian world” (p. 124).

(2) Such sociological and historical criticism is resumed by postmodern critics of the universalism of morality itself. Butler places “universality in culture”: a “ready made universalist perspective” is misleading because “the meaning of ‘the universal’ proves to be culturally variable” (p. 45); it has no “transcultural status.” Hilary Putnam finds the “notion of universal reasonas something independent of all traditions” (p. 95) indefensible. It is a “strange” “overreacting to Rorty” (p. 93) not in line with the many wonderful books Nussbaum has written previously. He refutes her cosmopolitanism as well as Rortian tribalism and defends a notion of situated, critical intelligence in our endless renegotiations of our understanding of reason itself. Yet he misses Nussbaum's crucial point that a decisive shift toward global obligations is urgent. Himmelfarb bluntly states that the presumed universalism of cosmopolitan values is an illusion. Justice, rights and reason, and the even more “culture-” and “polity-bound” values of democracy and liberty “are … predominantly, perhaps even uniquely, Western values” (pp. 75f), a claim that is clearly refuted by Sen (pp.117f).

Against Nussbaum's universalist moral point of view, defenders of patriotism have fired the traditional battery of critical arguments: (i) Her cosmopolitanism with its appeal to reason and universal principles is seen as dispassionate, abstract, disembodied, and lacking the motivational force of patriotic passions (Barber, see Leo Marx, A. Schlesinger Jr. in BR). Nussbaum halfheartedly nourishes this impression by accrediting patriotism “special power among the motivations” but still holds that cosmopolitanism “need not be boring, flat, or lacking in love” (p. 17; see “Reply,” p. 139 vs. “bloodless,” “characterless”). Charles Beitz (in BR) offers a more aggressive argument by treating patriotism as a question of self-conception or identity and rescuing the idea that moral principles can be “powerful, even revolutionary.” Instead of powerless reason of cosmopolitanism versus irrational passions of patriotism, the discussion should focus on matters of degree, kinds of passion, and shifting emphasis.

(ii) Her cosmopolitanism abstractly confronts universal reason with the particularities of history and nation and thus fails to combine them productively.9 Gutmann opposes Nussbaum from a more interesting angle in this regard. A defense of democratic citizenship and democratic education includes a commitment to liberty and justice for all, to basic human rights. It should not be misunderstood as opting for “national values.” It is not “a weak concession to anything,” certainly not to a “nationalistic view” (p. 67). It is as universalist as anything and can be associated with “nationalism” only in one sense in which Nussbaum's cosmopolitanism is also “nationalist”: that it is taught within states.

(iii) Nussbaum's statement that borders are “morally arbitrary” (p. 14) and state membership is “a morally irrelevant characteristic” (p. 5) elicited many critical reactions. Bok uses William Godwin's example of two drowning persons, one of whom is a relative, to argue against the moral irrelevance of special relations. Nussbaum did not succeed in mediating between the two conflicting perspectives, leading to a “glaringly different conclusion about domestic and international politics” (p. 39), already recognized by Sidgwick “to threaten any coherent view of ethics” (p. 40): the “universalist view” stressing the moral irrelevance of all particular, special relations and identities, particularly the “accident of where one is born” (p. 7); the “bounded view” emphasizing particular allegiances that “cannot be over-ridden” by global obligations.

In her first contribution, Nussbaum already stated that special attention, care, and concern and special obligations are “justifiable in universalist terms” (p. 13). In her reply, she tries to explicate the moral point of view, clearly misunderstood by Gintis (BR) and others: “To count people as moral equals is to treat nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, race, and gender as ‘morally irrelevant’—as irrelevant to that equal standing” (p. 133). The “equal worth of all human beings” has to work “as a regulative constraint” on particular allegiances. Instead of “either” global “or” particular moral obligations, the question, then, becomes one of shifting emphasis in specific contexts. In Nussbaum's treatment, however, the realm of normative or “practical reason” is unduly limited to moral arguments, and most contributors use such a “flat” frame, which does not even allow posing the right questions of how to balance moral, ethical, prudential, and realist normative arguments.10

(iv) The imagery of “a series of concentric circles” (p. 9) points to such a direction under the condition that three traditional dogmas—normally linked with it—are criticized. First, it suggests a ready-made answer to questions of priority of moral obligations: there is just one throw of one pebble, and the obligations are strongest the closest by, getting weaker and weaker the farther away from this center.11 Second, this presumably natural priority of moral obligations toward intimates and compatriots is mixed up with the dogma of an equally natural logic of the development of moral sentiments and obligations: first parents, then other relatives, then local, regional, national, and “finally, if at all, we get to humanity on the outside” (pp. 141 f). In her reply, Nussbaum refutes such a simplistic “account of moral development that makes a mystery out of familiar experiences of commonality” (p. 141), offering an alternative account in which experiences and recognition of universal needs and of particular people develop “at the same time.” “All circles develop simultaneously, in a complex and interlacing movement. But surely the outer circle is not the last to form” (p. 143). Third, a criticism of these double dogmas of “diminishing” moral obligations and sequential moral development has consequences for moral education. Bok rightly states that educational programs “that declare either a global or a more bounded perspective to be the only correct one are troubling insofar as they short-circuit reflection concerning” the question “how, and on what grounds, to weigh these claims when they conflict” (p. 42). In educational practice, we are confronted with “agonizing choices … because syllabi, like canons, are not infinitely expandable” (Rachel Hadas in BR). We need to be selective and to begin somewhere: “Is it better for parents and teachers to begin at the outer edges and move inward, to move back and forth between the two, or to begin with the inner circles and move outward?” (Bok, p. 42). To argue for simultaneous teaching does not mean to deprive children “of a culturally rooted education” (Bok, p. 43). If one does not trust the patriotic alchemy of passions, if one is convinced that moral development and moral education “from part to whole” is not “a by-product” (McConnell, p. 80), not natural or easy, let alone automatic, one should be more critical with regard to the sequential logic than all patriotic critics of Nussbaum. Finally, it is astonishing that none of the contributors distinguishes between development and teaching of sentiments, feelings, identifications and identities, affiliation, loyalty, and commitment, on one hand, and moral principles and obligations, on the other hand. As if all were the same, all followed one evolutionary logic in all contexts. And only few contributors explicitly”12 criticize traditional assumptions about “one,” “static” fairly “homogeneous” identity and culture so common to many patriots and so at odds with multilayered ties, relations, identities, and commitments on so many levels in recent multicultural, global society.

To be sure, Nussbaum's argument in favor of a decisive moral shift toward universal, global obligations could have been much stronger if she had avoided many terminological ambiguities and suggestions of a replacement of particular by universal allegiances that have been interpreted as “either/or” and then, rightly, have been criticized as wrong choices. It nevertheless remains astonishing that the basic thrust of her essay in favor of such a decisive shift has found so little enthusiastic response, particularly with regard to the moral scandal of hunger, poverty, and global inequality. Sissela Bok at least explicitly states the challenge: “This widening gap between haves and have-nots, and the sheer magnitude and intensity of present suffering, challenge, I suggest, all existing conceptions of human rights and duties and obligations. What does it require in practice, under today's conditions, to give priority either to world citizenship or to national or community allegiances? … And whose obligation is it to offer assistance on the scale now needed, or to protect rights … when violated by others abroad?” (pp. 41 f).

(3) The fact that this shift has not been applauded more broadly may not only have to do with the specific parochialism of American patriots. It may also be the consequence of two serious legal and political weaknesses of Nussbaum's position, clearly criticized by many contributors: her sloppy, metaphorical use of the language of citizenship and her neglect of principles and practices of democratic polities.

It has been widely, and rightly, noted that the language of “worldcitizenship” is highly misleading: Walzer is “not a citizen of the world. … I am not even aware that there is a world such that one could be a citizen of it. No one has ever offered me citizenship, or described the naturalization process, or enlisted me in the world's institutional structures, or given me an account of its decision procedures (I hope they are democratic), or provided me with a list of the benefits and obligations of citizenship, or shown me the world's calendar and the common celebrations and commemorations of its citizens” (p. 125; see, similarly, Glazer, pp. 62f; Gutmann, pp. 68ff; Himmelfarb, pp. 74ff for many). Sen's defense (pp. 112, 116) and Nussbaum's reply (pp. 132ff) try to clarify that the language of “citizenship of the world” should be understood in the moral sense only (as a “postlegal” as well as a “prelegal” concept) and not as “a legal form of language that excludes” the possibility to be a citizen of the world without there being a world state. But even such a clarification has two obvious disadvantages. First, in a substantive sense, “citizen of the world” would be identical with “human being,” and citizenship rights would be identical with human rights. This, however, is not a harmless, though superficial, duplication of terminology because, second, the actual relationship between human rights and citizenship rights in our era is obscured. Increasingly, civic rights, social rights, and even some political rights are not only claimed but also guaranteed regardless of citizenship status or nationality in the legal sense. Specific political rights such as the right to vote and get elected, however, are reserved to “nationals” and cannot even be thought of independently of political units of decision making.13 Not only in our present world but also in all institutional designs of better worlds, a great variety of separate political units have to exist beside and above each other. Instead of opting for a second decisive, institutional shift toward new transnational and global political institutions, on one hand, and toward a devolution of power to more regional and local institutions, on the other hand,14 Nussbaum neglects institutional concerns completely, and this weakens the practical political force of her moral appeal considerably. Still, it remains astonishing that so few commentators try to fill this gap to rescue the institutional dimension of the shift toward more global institutions.

The weakness of politics and democracy in her cosmopolitanism criticized by Gutman (p. 69) and Himmelfarb (pp. 75f; see Beitz in BR) follows from Nussbaum's specific (neo)stoic version of cosmopolitanism. Specific democratic principles—autonomy, political freedom and equality, participation—are absent from her list of universal values, and the question of the adequate political units for democratic self-government is never raised. “Liberal” principles of “liberty and justice” may not easily be combined with democratic principles. They may point to different directions in policies of first admission and international redistribution (see Baubock 1994; Bader 1995, 1997). This should be no reason, however, to neglect or de-emphasize them completely, particularly if one recognizes that not only internal policies “to forestall excessive inequality … require a high degree of mutual commitment” (Taylor, p. 120; see Fletcher in BR) but transnational and global policies as well. The absence of democratic politics and democratic commitment also contributes to the moralistic weakness of Nussbaum's cosmopolitan intervention.15

Many of her American critics appeal to the outworn story of American exceptionalism that, so it is said, is able to combine strong democratic commitment with global moral obligations (see Barber, pp. 30-33; McConnell, pp. 83f; Pinsky, pp. 86, 90; Leo Marx and Anthony Kronman in BR). To a foreign commentator, this rhetorical move is understandable but still somewhat strange. It has to be pointed out that American republican patriotism has not adequately addressed, let alone resolved, the two burning questions that have motivated Nussbaum's essay. First, how to respond adequately to longstanding national, “racial,” and ethnic diversity inside the United States? American patriotism, implicitly or explicitly (see Lind), requires too much “national” cultural unity and has difficulties accepting institutional diversity and separation.16 Viroli's hope that it would be easy to develop a patriotism of “liberty or diversity” remains a far cry. Second, how to live up to minimal global moral obligations? Even in a comparative perspective, American foreign policy, particularly with regard to foreign aid, ecology, and international trade, does near to nothing to address the moral scandals of our times. A lot has to be done by noble American patriots to criticize American “chauvinist universalism,”17 which still promotes a “self servingly narrow scope” as Nussbaum rightly reminded her readers and, it seems to me, most of her critics.


  1. Herder's cultural nationalism, his opposition against cosmopolitanism and cultural assimilation, and his condemnation of conquest and imperialism (pp. 119, 123) are not adequately understood in the context of German Kleinstaaterei, predominant French culture of German aristocracy, and oppositional bildungsbirgerlicher Kultur versus French “civilisation.” Fichte's republican nationalism is not understood as a specific reaction to the French revolution and the Napoleontic conquest. Viroli's standard-type criticism—Herder “did not teach them to look at it [the nation] from the right angle and he did not teach them to love it in the best way” (p. 124) is not corroborated by a historical counterfactual or by historical examples (why not Forster?). In the case of the Left, supposedly “fleeing the field” of patriotism in the “age of imperialism,” he presents such a completely unelaborated counterfactual conditional questioning “whether the left did all it could” (p. 157). Again, he fails to discuss historical examples of socialist patriotism and the reasons why they too “would probably not have worked.” Marx and Engels on nationalism, patriotism, and cosmopolitanism are absent throughout and, implicitly, accused of abstract proletarian internationalism. But why is the explicitly “patriotic socialism” of Lassalle and others not even mentioned? The whole history of “socialist patriotism” in all its varieties is lacking: from English patriotic socialists, the patriotic socialism of A. de Leeuw or the AustroMarxists (most prominently Otto Bauer) until the VIIth World Congress of the Communist International, and the rhetoric of socialist patriotism of the so-called really existing socialist (RES) countries. This is particularly astonishing if one takes into account that Viroli has dedicated his book to Norberto Bobbio and explicitly wants to reconsider Left thought and attitude regarding patriotism. The example of the rhetoric of RES—“socialist patriotism”—could also work as a reminder that one should more often look at the huge discrepancies between rhetoric and practices. It also reminds us that it is important to recognize whether one speaks in exile (as Mazzini), in the resistance (as Carlo Rosselli, pp. 161ff, or Simone Weil, pp. 163ff), in opposition, or in power—a fact generally neglected by Viroli.

  2. See pp. 14-16 versus “liberalism.” Toland's and Shaftesbury's purely political, “true” patriotism is criticized for making “the gap between the patriotism of the soil and political patriotism too wide.” It gives “no indication as to how to incorporate natural attachment to a place into a moral and general political patriotism” (pp. 59f). In his “attempt to separate love of country from cultural rootedness,” Toland “did not recognize that liberty found in another country cannot have the same flavour. … A pure love of country … is a different love. One may wonder whether a purely political love can still be called ‘love of country’” (p. 56). Viroli's argument that “one can be attached to but one soil” (p. 56) and that “one can be hardly attached to the soil of the world or any other country as to one's native soil” (p. 56) shows the traditional weaknesses: (1) why so much fuss about “soil” instead of “people” or “community” (see Rousseau: “amour des Citoyens plut'ot que celui de la terre,” p. 83)? (2) People can be attached to more than one soil (as they can be attached to more than one person) and increasingly are in an age of migration. (3) If anything, one's “native” soil is local rather than “national.” (4) Why has the enlargement of this supposed attachment to the soil to stop at the boundaries of national territory?

  3. See Veit Bader, “The Cultural Conditions of Transnational Citizenship,” Political Theory 25, no. 6 (1997): 783-89. Viroli, strangely enough, eventually seems to adhere to what Joe Carens has aptly called the “hands-off’ approach to cultural fairness.

  4. See Michael Lind, The Next American Nation (New York: Free Press, 1995); David Hollinger, Post-Ethnic America (New York: Basic Books, 1995); Herman van Gunsteren, Organizing Plurality: Citizenship in Post 1989 Democracies (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998).

  5. See Veit Bader, “Egalitarian Multiculturalism: Institutional Separation and Cultural Pluralism.” In Blurred Boundaries, eds. R. Baubock and R. Rundell (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 1998), 185-220. Indicative is Viroli's criticism of Walzer's pluralism, which is treated as just another version of the liberty of the moderns (pp. 1 Of).

  6. See Bader, “The Cultural Conditions,” 786.

  7. Quite to the contrary, it proved to be very difficult to prevent that the “tie which holds together … those who live under the same government” and the internal solidarity of “one people” (if and to the degree in which it really exists) excludes the “common interests of outsiders” (see, for completely reverse “priorities:’ p. 29 for Bruni, p. 32 for Machiavelli, and p. 90 for Rousseau). Viroli's rejection of Todorov's claim that acts of solidarity are at the same time acts of exclusion (p. 12) is apodictical and waves away the problem to be addressed: “citizenship as exclusion” does not really enter Viroli's reasoning.

  8. See Veit Bader, “Conclusion.” In Citizenship and Exclusion, ed. Veit Bader (Houndsmills, UK: Macmillan, 1997), 182-84.

  9. See Pinsky (pp. 85, 89f), Putnam (pp. 95f), and Kronman in BR.

  10. See Veit Bader, “Conclusion,” 176f, with Habermas and Raz. See Beitz in BR for the distinction between moral and ethical arguments.

  11. See the examples of this dogmatic logic of “first-second,” “part-whole:’ which automatically gives priority, primacy to the “most fundamental” obligations toward intimates. This automatically seems to stretch to “strangers” within state boundaries treated as “compatriots” and automatically excludes or de-emphasizes strangers beyond borders: Barber, pp. 34f; Bok, p. 43 (only God's love not from part to whole); Glazer, pp. 63f; McConnel, pp. 79ff; and Walzer, p.126 (“start with the center,” “begin by,” “to open the inner one's out:’ “then we extend,” “ultimately to all,” and “commitments and obligations are diminished as they are extended”). Excellent criticism of the metaphor itself and, particularly, of the inconsistent treatment of strangers inside and outside the modern state is articulated by Henry Shue, “Mediating Duties:’ Ethics 98 (1998): 687-704.

  12. See Nussbaum, p.135, asking for “tough thinking”; Appiah, Butler, and Taylor, p.121; Sen, pp.113f. See my treatment of the problem: Veit Bader, “Fairly Open Borders.” In Citizenship and Exclusion, ed. Veit Bader (Houndsmill, UK: Macmillan, 1997), 28-60.

  13. See my “Citizenship of the European Union: Human Rights, Rights of Citizens of the Union and of Member-States,” Ratio Juris, forthcoming, 1999.

  14. See Bader, “Conclusion,” 184. See Charles Beitz in BR. See Falk's second proposal “to disengage the practice of democracy from its traditional state/society nexus” (p. 59).

  15. In her most recent book, Cultivating Humanity, she discusses the role universities can play in educating cosmopolitan citizens in liberal democratic societies, stressing deliberation and learning to argue. Still, no attention is paid to specific democratic institutions and politics.

  16. Sociological, liberal, and republican dogmas of “unity” are criticized by Richard Sennett (in BR) as “errors” and “exercises in nostalgia” diverting from the contemporary questions “how to live in difference, not how to transcend difference.” See my more extensive treatment in Bader, “Unity and Stability in Modern Societies and Recent Political Philosophy.” In Individualism, Civil Society, and Civil Religion, eds. A. V. Harskamp and A. W. Musschenga (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 1999).

  17. See Wallerstein for the uneasy mix of “narrow nationalism,” “nationalism of the wealthy,” and “the hypocrisy of American Kantianism”: “America is the defender of the universal values of individual liberty and freedom of opportunity” (pp. 123f).

Gardner Fair (review date summer 1999)

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SOURCE: Fair, Gardner. Review of Sex and Social Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Social Theory and Practice 25, no. 2 (summer 1999): 344-52.

[In the following review of Sex and Social Justice, Fair asserts that, while Nussbaum carefully balances different sides of the questions she addresses, she fails to reconcile her abstract theories with historically specific realities.]

In recent years, at least two distinct tendencies within contemporary Western feminist debates have emerged. The first involves the internationalization of feminist theory and politics, and the second involves a critique of “victimization.” Both of these tendencies have influenced the feminist arguments found in Martha Nussbaum's recent book, Sex and Social Justice.

Feminist theory is only one of several areas that Nussbaum has written on, and in our age of academic specialization, her interdisciplinary breadth is intriguing. She began her career in the classics of Greek and Roman antiquity, writing The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986) and later The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (1994). She extended her research to contemporary literature (Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature, 1990) as well as to legal issues (Poetic Justice: The Literary Imagination and Public Life, 1996). Meanwhile, she was a research adviser from 1986 to 1993 at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki which led to her work The Quality of Life (Studies in Development Economics), co-authored with Amartya Sen. Responding to the Gulf War in a Boston Review essay, she wrote a critique of patriotism that provoked several responses by other thinkers, leading to For Love of Country: Debating the Limits of Patriotism (edited by Nussbaum and Joshua Cohen in 1996). In the recent Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Radical Reform in Higher Education (1997), she defended liberal reform within education against the likes of Allan Bloom, William Bennet, and Dinesh D'Souza. Most recently, she is primarily concerned with feminism. Sex and Social Justice (1999) will be followed by Feminist Internationalism as well as Upheavals of Thought: A Theory of the Emotions.

What is one to think of this astonishing breadth of concerns that include the classics, literature, ethics, politics, law, economic development, educational reform, psychology of the emotions, and finally, feminism? Sex and Social Justice alone is a good representation of Nussbaum's style of thought. In a densely packed text, she covers a wide variety of topics. All but two or three of the fifteen chapters were published as articles, and as much as she reworked them for the present volume, the topics hang only loosely together. While avoiding eclecticism, Nussbaum's attempt at breadth and attention to a plurality of issues succeeds only partially, especially in regard to the unique demands of contemporary feminist theory.

Anyone familiar with Nussbaum's earlier work will be prepared for her adroit balancing of various sides of a question. The mark of Nussbaum's feminism is her balancing of international issues of economic and legal development with the ethical importance of the emotions. To begin with, in Sex and Social Justice utilitarianism and relativism are rejected, while a more subtle balance between equality and freedom is defended. Contrasting her own “capabilities model” to Rawls's similar position on primary goods, Nussbaum carefully considers the challenge, on the one hand, of a utilitarian's avoidance of discussing any qualitative, thick theory of the good, and on the other hand, of a relativist's refusal to judge other cultures at all. Her difference with Rawls is that being a neo-Aristotelian, she risks a more substantive theory of justice than he does. But as a liberal, she agrees with Rawls that a line has to be carefully drawn, somehow, between state intervention and individual rights, or in short, between equality and freedom. Thus, while she supports strong public legislation prohibiting female genital mutilation, she disagrees with Catharine MacKinnon—who is the main feminist against whose views she compares and contrasts her own—that violent, misogynist pornography should be criminalized. Although MacKinnon tries to prevent her anti-porn civic ordinance strategy from being opportunistically used by conservatives (as in shutting down gay and lesbian bookstores), the protection is not sufficient for Nussbaum (and many other feminists) to insure that our private freedoms of sexual expression and literary taste will not be infringed upon.

Within feminist debates, the way that the conflict between equality and freedom is often played out is through the contrast between victimization and agency. Reacting to MacKinnon's and Andrea Dworkin's characterization of women as victims, several recent works have over-emphasized women's agency. Camille Paglia, Katie Rophie, Rene Denfeld, and Christina Hoff Sommers all offer a simplistic gloss of the problems of feminism, with MacKinnon's and Dworkin's “hysterical male bashing” directly in mind, while defending their own media-savvy, quick-fix turn to female empowerment and individual agency. But Nussbaum is careful not to let these popular readings of MacKinnon get away with a simple dismissal of her as an authoritarian puritan. Curiously, Nussbaum defends MacKinnon's stance as Kantian: “MacKinnon, far from turning women into victims, is making the Kantian demand that women be treated as ends in themselves, centers of agency and freedom rather than merely as adjuncts to the plans of men” (20).

Many critics have interpreted the work of poststructuralist feminist Judith Butler as a defense of agency (as gender performativity) against any condescending appeal to victimization. Against any structuralist, Marxist, or psychoanalytic notion of economic or libidinal determinism, this reading of Butler argues that one must deconstruct all forms of essentialism to open up room for individual agency and the play of micro-politics. This, of course, is a false reading of Butler: she is not so crude as to merely invert the binary, as she might put it, between individual agency and social victimization. Rather, the individual for Butler is a very problematic social construct that claims to be able to transcend social power through an imaginary grounding in some “state of nature” or “original position.” Slippages and disruptions occur, for Butler, not through an individual's autonomous agency, but despite one's own interests. In the very repetition of the status quo's power relations, subversion occurs as accidental, unintended by-products. Subversion for Butler is an incalculable effect—and the more uncontrolled and incalculable it is by both the individual and society at large, the greater its subversive force.

For reasons very different from those of Butler, Nussbaum is also not so crude as to think that feminists must prioritize either agency or victimization in analyses of patriarchy. Nussbaum begins Sex and Social Justice with the case study of Saleha Begum's struggles in Bangladesh. When her husband became so physically disabled that he could not work, they lost their farmland because local communal norms prohibited women from working outside their homes. Threatened by increasing poverty, Saleha Begum eventually braved ostracism and started to work the fields herself at night by moonlight. While local criticism eventually abated, allowing her and other women to work the fields during the day, local officials legally blocked their employment at government sponsored food-for-work sites. Two years later, Saleha Begum organized a group of women, and with the help of the United Nations World Food Program, the national Ministry of Relief and Rehabilitation, and another non-governmental organization, they won both the right to work and access to educational programs and loans. In response to examples like this, Nussbaum concludes: “Women do overcome the greatest obstacles, showing an amazing courage and resourcefulness. So much was true of Saleha Begum. But this is no reason not to change the conditions that placed these obstacles in their way, especially when the conditions are unequally experienced by women just because they are women” (18-19). As we witness in her discussion of Saleha Begum, Nussbaum is a clear supporter of individual rationality and agency. But against what she views to be Butler's position, this does not lead her to a libertarian rejection of law as authoritarian and invasive. Rejecting this Nietzschean view that she considers adolescent, she states: “Legal guarantees do not erode agency: They create a framework within which people can develop and exercise agency” (19).

Nussbaum's internationalism and interest in law leads her to focus on non-Western examples of patriarchy such as female genital mutilation and prohibition on education and work outside the home. With this focus, she intends to humble U.S. feminists' preoccupation with what she views as less urgent issues such as eating disorders (122-25) as well as Butler's over-exaggerated and self-involved radical constructionism.1 But as a liberal, she also distances herself from the conservative arguments in Christina Hoff Sommers's Who Stole Feminism: How Women Have Betrayed Women. Drawing from statistics provided by Human Development Reports and blatantly ignoring racial and economic differences between U.S. women, Nussbaum argues that basic health, nutrition, and life expectancy are not serious concerns for U.S. women (134). This may sound similar to Sommers's position that U.S. women have little reason to complain, but Nussbaum argues that economic and political representation is still an important issue for women. But most important for Nussbaum, there is the fact that the U.S. may even lead the world in sexual violence incidents. Again taking MacKinnon's side, Nussbaum defends the advances that MacKinnon has achieved with her legislation against rape and sexual harassment in the workplace (136-53). Here she tries to strike yet another balance, this time in an international focus that does not neglect a local focus on one's own country. But in this attempt to be inclusive and to avoid a self-involved one-sidedness, she amazingly neglects U.S. black feminist theory that is centrally concerned with linking women of color's health issues, for example, to the racialized poverty of an indifferent global capitalist order.

I mention these attempted balances between relativism and utilitarianism, the private and public, freedom and equality, agency and victimization, and the local and global for two reasons. First, the way Nussbaum negotiates these balances in part reveals the position she will take toward MacKinnon, Butler, and Sommers. More generally, they also give an opening summary of Nussbaum's overall political approach. While ignoring race and post-colonial theory, Nussbaum turns to issues faced, for example, by poor women in Bangladesh. From this top-down perspective, what becomes apparent is the need to defend a high degree of state intervention and involvement by non-governmental organizations, national governments, and the United Nations to guarantee a fundamental safety net below which no one, anywhere in the world, should fall. Given her attention to feminist legalism, Nussbaum ends up sounding much like MacKinnon despite their differences of focus and disagreements over specifics concerning the role of pornography in society. Nussbaum clearly has great sympathy for MacKinnon's project. Nussbaum merely shifts her focus away from local U.S. issues and turns her attention to human rights and international law (which MacKinnon also recently did when she addressed the use of rape in the war in Bosnia). Here, law is applied to issues that she argues are more ethically unambiguous and thus safer: rather than pornography and the issue of censorship, Nussbaum focuses on the banning, for example, of female genital mutilation and of obstacles discouraging women's public participation.

But Nussbaum, better than MacKinnon, can draw out the Kantian principles at play, specifically by beginning to compare her view with Rawls. In her attention to legal solutions, Nussbaum also is able to consider long-standing debates within legal theory. In her chapter “Equity and Mercy,” Nussbaum criticizes Andrea Dworkin's “angry refusal of mercy, her determination to exact retribution without concern for the identity of the particulars” (155). The balance that Nussbaum now strikes is between a liberal defense of law in terms of deterrence and a radical use of law in terms of retribution. Drawing freely from Aristotle and Seneca, she contrasts her position with both Andrea Dworkin's angry call for retribution and Richard Posner's careful defense of a behaviorist-measured, deterrence theory of justice. Readers of Poetic Justice will find this view of jurisprudence overly familiar. As important as legal niceties are, and as clear-cut and determinate as they in fact are in many cases, Nussbaum tirelessly argues that the judge must be adroit at also drawing in a “literary” (which for her means merely a narrative) imagination and sympathy. For her, an attention to the actual person would displace any behaviorist, deterrence-based dismissal of the accused's inner states as advocated by Posner. It would equally override any vindictive, retributive-based fixation on the harm done that also dehumanizes the accused. In the case of Dworkin's fixation on criminal patriarchal behavior, Nussbaum would prevent the judge from sinking into the angry view of all men as criminals, where a victim of male power could not “tell him from him from him” (155).

Thus, law is an important focus for Nussbaum, but a focus that is qualified with her characteristic attention to our inner life of emotions and desires. To support her international focus and her critique of both utilitarianism and relativism, it is important for Nussbaum to defend the idea that women's preferences are not to be taken at face value. Both a utilitarian measurement of a community's prosperity and interests and a relativist hands-off approach take preferences at face value. By contrast, Nussbaum argues in several separate chapters that preferences, and desires and emotions in general, are socially constructed to a significant degree. In the moment, within the threatening oversight of others, a girl might desire genital mutilation, or disdain getting an education or working outside of the family. But given freedom from immediate ostracism and room to think through for herself what she really wants, Nussbaum claims that the girl would quickly change her mind.

Yet as can be expected, Nussbaum does not flip to the other extreme of what she considers Butler's irresponsible, radical constructivism. Again, she is careful to balance different sides of a question. While defending the degree to which our preferences are socially constructed, she equally defends the courage of individuals to define their own desires against the grain of society, however much a victim of socialization they may be. As much as Nussbaum defends the importance of passion and analyzes how it is socially constructed, she vehemently defends the individual. In a chapter entitled “The Feminist Critique of Liberalism,” she even claims that from a feminist perspective, “liberal political thought has not been nearly individualistic enough” (63).

Nussbaum is thus a solid, liberal neo-Aristotelian, attempting always to strike the right balance and find the right mean between the extremes. And in addition to this dialectical sensitivity that leads her to try to do justice to a variety of interdisciplinary issues, she is equally skilled at being analytically precise. Nussbaum's analytic training is indeed striking. The clarity of her prose style and the precision of her thinking is unmistakable. But at points, this becomes a detriment to her thought, for example, in her critique of MacKinnon.

In the central chapter, “Objectification,” Nussbaum faults MacKinnon for her lack of analytic preciseness when it comes to defining just what the objectification of women means. Delineating seven distinct forms of treating a person as a thing, Nussbaum examines several possible examples of objectification, ranging from passages drawn from Lawrence, Joyce, James, Playboy, a hardcore novel, and Alan Hollinghurst's homoerotic novel. Nussbaum concludes that there is no univocal definition of objectification:

The concept of objectification is complex and requires much further investigation, as does its relationship to other concepts, such as autonomy, exploitation, and commodification. This preliminary mapping, however, shows, at least, how much work there is to be done; in that way it indicates that analytic philosophy (of, admittedly, an expanded and rather atypical kind) is not without its benefits for feminist politics.


Her critique of MacKinnon's overly simplistic use of the concept of objectification is to the point. But this is a small point that most feminist theories take for granted today. Nussbaum's neglect of other trends of feminism is surprising for a thinker who is so broad in her scope. In this case, she neglects psychoanalytic feminism that has developed ideas far beyond both MacKinnon's legalism and Nussbaum's own oddly anachronistic critique. That she ignores psychoanalysis is especially strange given her focus on the importance of our emotions. While she refers in passing to Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings, nowhere is there a reference to Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Jessica Benjamin, or Teresa Brennan, for example.

Being a good Aristotelian, Nussbaum tries to combine analytic preciseness, dialectical balancing of various disciplines and sides of a question, and rhetorical attention to the emotions. But her chapter on objectification, for example, betrays the limits, on the one hand, of her exaggerated analytic clarity and, on the other hand, of her neglect of dark emotional and rhetorically explosive issues that psychoanalysts, literary critics, and thinkers like Butler explore. Nussbaum is much better than MacKinnon not only in introducing issues from legal and political philosophy but also in exploring just the opposite: non-legal, private issues of emotion, desire, and preference. One could never imagine MacKinnon writing the last chapter of Nussbaum's work, which gives a reading of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse that is especially sensitive to the philosophical question of solipsism. But Nussbaum does not extend herself nearly far enough beyond her analytic clarity into the complex and personal issues of the self and our emotional life.

Failing to achieve a true balance of analysis and rhetoric in particular, Nussbaum's thought lacks a full dialectical sense of balance in general. MacKinnon, who attempted to come up with a “feminist theory of the state,” at least recognized the need to compare her theory to Marx's comprehensive theory that includes reflection on its own preconditioned place within the practical everyday. For all of her neo-Aristotelian dialectical balances, Nussbaum fails to integrate this most important balance: that of reflexively balancing theory with practice. At times she gestures in passing to the human rights movement and the importance of international agencies. But these are only gestures, and nowhere else in her thought is she attentive to the contingent historical location of this practice—other than in her abstract, jet-setting response to cultural relativism's equally abstract, jet-setting critique of ethnocentric universalism.

Perhaps one should not be surprised by Nussbaum's blind spots. Neglecting history and our own historical moment in favor of trying to analytically specify the universal and trans-historical issue at hand is a common failure in Nussbaum's other works. For example, Morris Dickstein highlights her neglecting of the historical hour of novels in a review of Poetic Justice. For him, the “major misstep” of her book is that “Nussbaum's argument depends too much on novels up-to-date in their politics but strictly 19th-century in their storytelling conventions.”2 Like her literary theory, her claim on feminism is up-to-date in some respects, but in other respects oddly anachronistic when compared to other contemporary feminist theorists. While explicitly focused on how even the most private of our emotions are shaped by society, Nussbaum ignores how political ideologies such as her own are also shaped by the historical moment. Paralleling her ahistorical treatment of realistic novels, her defense of a liberalism rejuvenated by international feminism is highly insensitive to its possible historical hour.

Nussbaum, to be sure, is not alone in failing to think one's own specific place within the bad totality of our times. But because it is a pervasive error, we must be especially critical. Against cultural relativists, she with others remarks how no culture is monolithic and how each culture has many different trends and counter-trends, and traditions and counter-traditions, from which to draw. But Nussbaum, like many others today, fails to question just what these trends and traditions might be outside this abstract claim to pluralism. She fails to examine how they might conflict, and in this conflict, what space (other than that of the abstract individual) might be opened for the growth of certain types of liberatory movements. Instead of settling down into these difficult historical, sociological, and political questions that draw upon philosophy, race and post-colonial theory, psychoanalysis, and literary theory, Nussbaum speaks abstractly about the importance of human rights and international law as well as of the epistemological relevance of the emotions and novels in our ethical lives. Like so many others, Nussbaum attempts to be interdisciplinary, but when examined closely, one quickly finds whole areas of thought—areas that are intensely relevant to the issues at hand—strangely ignored. As a result, Nussbaum claims that her feminism constructively reveals problems within liberalism, but the truth is her liberalism blinds her to what insights the full array of feminism has to offer.


  1. Nussbaum's actual critique of Butler is not included within Sex and Social Justice. It was published first in a New Republic article, and one can only hope that she will include this and other relevant material in her forthcoming Feminist Internationalism.

  2. Morris Dickstein, “Moral Fictions,” New York Times Book Review, April 1, 1996, pp. 14-15.

Miranda Fricker (review date August 2000)

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SOURCE: Fricker, Miranda. Review of Sex and Social Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Journal of Philosophy 97, no. 8 (August 2000): 471-75.

[In the following review, Fricker offers praise for Sex and Social Justice, calling it an impressive, wonderfully diverse, and enormously rewarding collection of essays.]

The final essay in this impressive volume Sex and Social Justice, Martha Nussbaum is a discussion of the quotidian yet complex interpretive enterprise of understanding other people. It presents, in domestic microcosm, many of the themes treated at a more general level in the preceding essays. The focus is on the couple at the center of Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse, who communicate without giving voice, and concede or hold their ground over their differences without making anything explicit. They sustain a subtle, if fallible, working understanding of each other's thoughts and experiences by drawing silently on their intimate history together. Although most of the rather noisier contexts in which human beings may try to understand each other do not involve any such history of intimacy, Nussbaum's concluding essay appropriately directs one's attention backward through the volume so that one momentarily rereads it whole as an elaboration on our human capacity for sympathetic, sometimes critical, understanding—not only of other individuals but also of other cultures. One must avoid romanticism, of course. Interpersonal understanding between individuals who share a way of life is one thing, and crosscultural understanding another. The question of crosscultural understanding tends to present itself in Western thought as either a hope or an anxiety as to whether we may succeed in understanding others well enough to avoid doing them any harm. (Thinking from a position of power means that the question whether others may be able to understand us well enough so that we might avoid being harmed tends not to be raised.) Whether in the form of anxiety or hope, the philosophical question demands attention; but it must not be allowed to paralyze first-order ethical thought. Thus it is right that Nussbaum should address the issue principally at the first-order level. Not, then, by engaging in extended a priori argument about the very idea of crosscultural understanding, but rather through paying close attention to specific cases (the most relevant essay in this connection perhaps being “Judging Other Cultures: The Case of Genital Mutilation”). The task is to look and see whether or not the response that a certain practice is unjust constitutes a sensitively informed judgment, or merely an ethical-imperialist reaction. If some particular practice deprives girls and women of realizing a fundamental human capability (the capability for bodily integrity, for example), then one will have found that something humanly universal is offended and the practice is unjust. The idea of a common humanity is at the heart of Nussbaum's position, and is specified as a set of basic human functional capabilities. The capabilities approach (which, as she says, has also been developed by Amartya Sen) is really the starting point of the book, and the explicit subject matter of the first essays, in which she presents and defends her universalist feminist position.

On Nussbaum's view, there are a number of basic functional capabilities possessed universally by human beings, which justice requires must not be thwarted. If the universalism is to be sound, these capabilities must be described so that they are constant through historical and cultural diversity. But then the list of “Central Human Functional Capabilities” as it is presented here includes two or three things that do not belong. It includes capabilities described in a way that makes them dependent on culturally and historically contingent institutions. The third entry on the list includes “marital rape,” which presupposes an institution of marriage; the tenth includes “being able to hold property” and “the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others,” which presuppose institutions of private property and competitive employment which belong specifically to capitalist economic systems. These are glitches in an otherwise very plausible and ethically powerful list. But I think they are worth noting, not because they must cast doubt on the overall project—they could surely be reexpressed in more neutral terms, or, if not, the list would in any case remain substantial enough without them—but rather because confidence in the universalist project must be earned precisely by showing that historical and cultural specificity can be kept from creeping into the description of the purportedly universal capabilities.

Nussbaum's feminism “has five salient features: It is internationalist, humanist, liberal, concerned with the social shaping of preference and desire, and, finally, concerned with sympathetic understanding” (6). It is interesting to reflect on how these features fit together. Many of the essays here contain empirical data and individual case studies (Nussbaum worked for some years for a development agency connected with the United Nations). The empirically informed and politically engaged character of her internationalism affords the theoretical features of her approach their full weight in a deeply convincing ethical position. The engaged stance is a particular strength in staving off the automated skeptical responses of those in the grip of an a priori skepticism about universalist or (as Nussbaum uses the term) humanist projects. One of the conclusions to be drawn from this book, I think, is that any responsible skepticism to the effect that such projects are inevitably culturally imperialist will not be a skepticism a priori. Philosophical skepticism about the very idea of universal human capabilities, or of universal rights to safeguard them, is intellectually facile and ethically obnoxious when clung to in the face of social realities in which women are asymmetrically deprived of the basic education they need for minimal material independence (30), or in which they are prohibited from working outside the home even when staying there means virtual starvation (29). Rather, if there is a responsible skepticism to be reckoned with here, it will be more a historical than a philosophical one, consisting principally of a worldly pessimism at anyone's (and perhaps especially the West's) chances of managing to shape a universalism that avoids doing violence to cultural difference. But a skepticism of pessimism, combined with a practical commitment to justice, is not something to make one give up on a universalism of basic human capabilities and their defense. On the contrary, it is something to make one pursue it with careful and self-conscious attention to particulars—hence the importance of the concern with sympathetic understanding.

The connection between Nussbaum's liberalism and the concern with the social shaping of preference and desire is particularly interesting, not least because the connection is surely not quite as presented. An awareness of the power of ideology (if I may put it that way) in shaping preferences serves as an important corrective to liberalism's asocializing individualist drift. As Nussbaum nicely puts it:

Any living culture contains plurality and argument; it contains relatively powerful voices, relatively silent voices, and voices that cannot speak at all in the public space. Often some of these voices would speak differently, too, if they had more information or were less frightened—so part of a culture, too, is what its members would say if they were freer or more fully informed.


Quite. As I see it, then, Nussbaum's liberalism takes from feminism what feminism took from socialism: most particularly, the insight that what oppressed people want is not always what is in their interests, that is, not always what they would want if they had access to the bigger picture. One of the essays is entirely devoted to the feminist critique of liberalism, and Nussbaum's espousal of liberalism is explicitly informed by that critique—specifically, by the idea that desires and preferences, and indeed emotions quite generally, are socially formed. But it is odd that the only precedents traced for this idea are precursors in the liberal tradition. It is well worth having it drawn to one's attention that Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, and J. S. Mill (78) all expressed views about the social shaping of emotions, and that so did the Greek and Roman Stoics (Introduction, 12). But the liberalism that Nussbaum espouses surely owes a direct debt to socialist thought—most notably the insights expressed there in terms of ideology and false consciousness—and this debt is obscured by the emphasis on liberal and ancient precursors. Nussbaum's feminism, then, surely has a more mixed intellectual inheritance than she represents. But the result is no less exciting: a liberal feminist position which (like some other liberal feminist work—for instance, that of Susan Okin) is properly inflected by an awareness that inequalities of power can create an uneven pitch for the actual exercise of individual freedoms.

This is a wonderfully diverse volume of essays, so much so that one is forced to discuss it in the broad; and yet one cannot hope to do justice to its breadth, or its depth, by attending to the general ethical trajectory alone. There is some slight repetition, chiefly in discussions of Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. This is perhaps inevitable in essays written over a span of seven years, and would not be worth mentioning except that it is also in part the result of what I am personally inclined to consider an unduly exclusive attention to MacKinnon's and Dworkin's work (the exclusivity can create the false impression that the feminist insight into power's conditioning of sexual desire is owed uniquely to them; see 78). Be that as it may, this volume is a feast, with essays treating matters arising directly from development work, from the reading of fiction, from first-order political commitments, from competing philosophical conceptions of justice, and also from more personal autobiographical concerns. Thus, there are discussions of women's literacy, genital mutilation, the moral authority of religion, the place of mercy within justice, lesbian and gay rights, prostitution, and sexual objectification; and there is also a personal discussion of Kenneth Dover's life, to whom the volume is dedicated. All make enormously rewarding reading, and the philosophy is lit up by Nussbaum's sensitive and perceptive drawing on real-life stories. The two parts of the book—“Justice” and “Sex”—give a broad division of themes, but the essays are bound together as a whole by a family of thematic relations: sex, gender, sexuality, and justice. What emerges from these luminous writings is a sense of an utterly authentic ethical outlook whose commitment to the dignity of human life, in all its diverse cultural forms, may well be enough to put paid to the skepticism of pessimism with which some readers, not altogether without reason, might approach it.

Hilary Charlesworth (essay date October 2000)

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SOURCE: Charlesworth, Hilary. “Martha Nussbaum's Feminist Internationalism.” Ethics 111, no. 1 (October 2000): 64-78.

[In the following essay, Charlesworth examines two major challenges facing feminist internationalism: state hostility to feminist internationalism and differences among women within the global community. Charlesworth evaluates the extent to which Nussbaum's “capabilities” approach to feminist internationalism adequately addresses these issues.]

The term ‘feminist internationalism’ generally means the elaboration of transnational principles and standards to advance the position of women. The move to define international benchmarks to improve women's globally disadvantaged situation has a long history. For example, international women's groups were established in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to deal with issues such as equal access to education and training and women's suffrage.1 Women's groups lobbied the League of Nations and the International Labour Organisation to develop standards and practices relating to matters such as the nationality of married women, trafficking in women and girls, women's suffrage, and the working conditions of women.2 Since the founding of the United Nations in 1945, the international arena has become increasingly attractive for women's groups, which have worked to persuade states to adopt treaties and resolutions dealing with many aspects of women's lives. The most significant of these international standards is the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Feminist internationalism has encountered considerable controversy and resistance from various quarters. A major source of antipathy is from states (whether “liberal” or “religious”) which regard recourse to international standards with respect to women as illegitimate because they may challenge national culture, traditions, policies, and laws. A different form of resistance to feminist internationalism comes from some feminist activists and scholars who regard it as dependent on essentialist accounts of women, obliterating differences of race, class, wealth, sexuality, and so on.

Prompted by her work as a research adviser at the United Nations University's World Institute for Development Economics Research, beginning in 1986, Martha Nussbaum has developed a theory of human capabilities to inform feminist internationalism. From evidence of the second-class status of women across the developing and developed country divide and their consistently lower quality of life when measured by access to health, education, political liberty and participation, employment, self-respect, and life itself, Nussbaum argues [in Sex and Social Justice] that “the situation of women in the contemporary world calls urgently for moral standtaking.”3 Nussbaum considers utilitarianism to be an unsatisfactory basis for such moral standtaking because it is unable to adequately account for the pressures of tradition in the measurement of individual preferences or desires.4 Rawlsian liberalism is also deficient as a basis for determining justice in this context, according to Nussbaum, because of its focus on the distribution of resources such as wealth and its failure to pay attention to the links between having particular resources and the capacity to function as a human being.5

Nussbaum's response to the injustice of women's position is a version of the “capabilities” approach to the measurement of the quality of life and the development of public policy. This approach has been cultivated in development economics by Amartya Sen and has guided the United Nations Development Programme's annual Human Development Reports in the 1990s. The capabilities approach concentrates on the actual functioning of individuals and groups in areas deemed central to the quality of life. It is less interested than utilitarianism in the stated preferences of people, because it regards such preferences as affected by traditions of oppression; and it is less concerned than liberalism with the distribution of resources, because it regards resources as of value only insofar as they contribute to human functioning.6

Nussbaum's capabilities approach to feminist internationalism then focuses on women's abilities to do and be certain things deemed valuable.7 The approach is concerned with capability to function, rather than functioning itself, because it emphasizes the role of practical reason and choice in exploiting the capability.8 The central human capacities identified by Nussbaum (which are all inter related) are longevity and bodily integrity (clauses 1-3), emotional, affective, social, and mental development (clauses 4, 5, 7, and 9), the ability to engage in practical reason and to form a conception of the good (clause 6), the ability to live with concern for animals and the natural world (clause 8), and control over one's political and material environment (clause 10). The list of central human capabilities has evolved considerably since Nussbaum first began writing about them.9 The idea is that a person who lacks any of the capabilities cannot be said to have a good human life. Thus development and preservation of the capabilities must be the central goal of all public policy making. In the context of the inequalities women experience across the world, the capacities become claims that can be made by women, which generate concomitant political duties.10

I want to consider two different types of challenges to feminist internationalism in the context of international law and to examine how far Nussbaum's capabilities approach can respond to these issues. The first category of challenge arises from the antipathy of particular states to claims of women's equality. The second group is the product of differences among women and the significance that feminists attach to these differences.


The traditional understanding of international law is that it is universally applicable and binds all states, whatever their specific national circumstances. There have been a range of challenges to this account of international law: for example, developing nations have argued at various times that particular norms of international environmental law, trade law, and human rights law were Western constructs whose effect was to impose unfair restraints on governmental action. Despite these challenges, certain norms of international law have been widely accepted as fundamental to the international community and global in their application. These include the norm of nondiscrimination on the basis of race, the prohibition on slavery, and the prohibition on torture. These laws are regularly flouted in practice, but no state or international institution would now question their legal nature and significance.

Although it has an apparently similar legal pedigree to the prohibition of racial discrimination, expressed in treaty provisions, the norm of nondiscrimination on the basis of sex has in practice a much reduced status in international law. When international law and lawyers address the issues of women's global inequality, they are prepared to accept arguments and positions that would not be tolerated in other areas. Claims of culture and religion readily trump women's rights. One example of this is the position taken by the international community with respect to reservations to the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women of 1979 (the Women's Convention), the most detailed international expression of the principle of sex equality. Although the convention is widely ratified (with 162 states parties in January 2000), it is subject to an extraordinary number of formal reservations made by states when ratifying the treaty. The legal effect of a reservation is to modify a state's obligation to implement the treaty. Many of the reservations are in the name of preserving a state's religious or cultural traditions.11 Typical of these reservations is that of Egypt. With respect to article 16 of the Women's Convention, which requires that states observe equality between men and women in all matters concerning marriage and family relations, Egypt's reservation states that this matter must be subject to Islamic Shari'a law.

Some states have made even more sweeping reservations. For example, the Maldives' reservation commits it to comply with the convention's provisions “except those which the Government may consider contradictory to the principles of the Islamic Shari'a upon which the laws and the traditions of the Maldives is founded.” Moreover, the reservation goes on to say, “the Republic of Maldives does not see itself bound by any provisions of the Convention which obliges it to change its Constitutions and laws in any manner.” While there is little question that this type of reservation is technically invalid at international law because it undermines the object and purpose of the treaty,12 there are no satisfactory mechanisms in international law to challenge reservations adequately. A number of states have objected to the reservations, but the objections have been rejected by the Islamic states as a form of religious intolerance, and there the matter rests.13 Thus Islamic states are still considered parties to the Women's Convention although they have rejected the equality provisions that are at its heart. Israel, India, and the United Kingdom also have entered reservations making the laws of religious communities immune to the convention's guarantee of sex equality. Other states, such as Australia, have not formally made reservations precluding the application of the principle of sex equality to religious communities, but they have exempted religions from the principle in legislation designed to implement the Women's Convention.14 The pattern of reservations to and implementation of the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of 1965 (CERD) provides a striking contrast. Although similar numbers of states have accepted both the Women's Convention and CERD, few reservations have been made to the substance of the obligation of nondiscrimination on the basis of race.

How can feminist internationalism effectively challenge the power of claims of culture and religion in international law? One method is to analyze the political uses of claims of culture. In other words, we need to ask whose culture is being invoked, what the status of the interpreter is, in whose name the argument is advanced, and who the primary beneficiaries of the invocation of culture are.15 In the case of Islamic states, for example, “culture” is regularly used as an interchangeable rationale with “the rule of law,” “public order and morality,” and “state policy” to suppress any activism by women.16 An example of this was the reported statement by the governor of Kandahar, a province of Afghanistan, rejecting attempts by the Grameen bank of Bangladesh to lend money to rural women to start their own businesses. He was quoted as saying that “the motive of the bank was to lead Moslems away from Islam and to promote shamelessness among women.”17

The capabilities approach elaborated by Martha Nussbaum offers a detailed method to challenge invocations of culture in international law to justify the denial of women's equality. Although Nussbaum does not address the relationship of the central human fundamental capabilities to the existing body of international human rights law, many of the capabilities she identifies have a counterpart in the rights recognized in international law. For example the capability of “being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length” (clause 1) is closely linked to the right to life set out in article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Some of Nussbaum's capabilities extend and develop existing human rights guarantees. Thus the capability of senses, imagination, and thought (clause 4) appears to build on the right to education recognized in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the right to freedoms of expression and religious exercise contained in the ICCPR but also covers abilities that have no international legal protection such as that to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid nonbeneficial pain. Other of the capabilities are not articulated in the human rights treaties, such as the ability to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature (clause 8). Nussbaum's list of capabilities, then, is a more detailed, and modern, prescription than offered by international human rights treaties.

The current system of monitoring a state's performance of its human rights obligations under United Nations treaties is primarily through periodic reporting by states to expert committees. The treaty-monitoring committees review the reports and question the representatives of states about problems they identify. The final step in this monitoring process is the adoption of a formal statement of conclusions by the relevant committee, which is forwarded to the United Nations General Assembly. The rationale for the reporting system is both to encourage states to scrutinize critically national practices in the preparation of reports (perhaps leading to reform) and to expose (and perhaps eradicate) human rights violations through international monitoring.18 These aims have not been met in practice. The reporting process has been criticized for its weakness, allowing states to paper over bad human rights records with references to fine legislative guarantees.19 The “constructive dialogue” engaged in between committees and state representatives is often a dialogue of the deaf, with states either ignoring evidence of inadequate protection of human rights or sloughing it off with bland reassurances. Most of the states' reports present the existence of legal protection, constitutional or otherwise, as proof of implementation of the international standards. The significance of the capabilities approach is that it moves the focus of rights protection from the provision of legal guarantees, which may be of limited utility, to the way that national legal and policy systems actually ensure the quality of life of individuals and groups—in Nussbaum's words, “What are the people of the group or country in question actually able to do and to be?”20 While the various human rights treaty-monitoring committees vary in their practices and efficacy, the idea of central human capabilities could be readily absorbed into their work.

For example, economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the right to food and shelter, have often been regarded as particularly difficult to protect because they require positive action rather than restraints on government action (the traditional account of the protection of civil and political rights). In periodic reports under the ICESCR, states tend simply to list laws and practices touching on these rights as proof of their protection. Australia's 1998 report under ICESCR is a paradigm of this approach.21 Viewed from the perspective of human capabilities, the lengthy Australian report provides no information at all. It does not address how any of the relevant capabilities identified by Nussbaum are fulfilled—what people within Australia are actually able to do and to be. How many people are adequately nourished? How many have adequate shelter?

The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors the ICESCR, has been in fact the most exigent of all the human rights treaty bodies. It has developed the idea of “minimum core entitlements” under the ICESCR in these terms: “A State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of essential foodstuffs, of essential primary health care, of basic shelter and housing, or of the most basic forms of education is, prima facie, failing to discharge its obligations under the Covenant.”22 While this notion has some affinity with the capabilities approach, the latter is considerably broader. The term ‘minimum core entitlements’ suggests mere survival, a “bare humanness.”23 Nussbaum's account of central human capabilities is, by contrast, built on a commitment to full human functioning and flourishing. The capabilities approach would therefore extend the boundaries of current understandings of economic, social, and cultural rights.

In the specific context of women's rights, the capabilities approach could similarly broaden and make more concrete the obligations contained in the Women's Convention. States' reports under the Convention typically set out nondiscrimination provisions in constitutions and legislation with little or no assessment of their impact in practice. If the question asked by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women is to what extent are women in a particular society capable of performing the central human functions identified by Nussbaum, the investigation must shift from formal guarantees to structural barriers to equality. Thus economic data indicating that, in all societies, women live in greater poverty than men will be of greater significance in measuring implementation of the Women's Convention than legal commitments to equality.24 The capabilities approach would require the treaty bodies to seek and consider broader forms of evidence and to devise empirical strategies to define and measure rights.25

The capabilities approach could also inform the assessment of reservations to the Women's Convention made in the name of culture and religion. If the effect of reservations is to reduce women's opportunities to live a fully human life, for example, by preventing effective participation in political choices governing one's life (clause 10), the reservation cannot be considered compatible with the treaty obligations. Nussbaum's insistence that “a woman's affiliation with a certain group or culture should not be taken as normative for her unless, on due consideration, with all the capabilities at her disposal, she makes that norm her own” offers a method to counter resort to claims of culture to trump women's rights in international law.26 It is not clear, however, what type of evidence would be necessary to establish that a woman has not made a particular communal norm “her own.” Does it require active rejection and protest, or is Nussbaum proposing an assumption that any practice that does not treat women in the same way as men could not be taken as normative for women without proof of active embrace of the practice?

The United Nations treaty-monitoring committees all use “general comments” or “general recommendations” to elaborate their jurisprudence on particular rights as a guide to states, and these comments are regularly reviewed and updated. These statements could provide a vehicle for introducing the notion of capabilities and analyzing their relationship with the open-textured treaty statements of rights. In the case of the capabilities proposed by Nussbaum that have no direct treaty counterpart, such as that to have the opportunity for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction (clause 3), the capabilities approach would provoke more controversy. The idea that women have these capabilities has been strongly resisted, for example, by a coalition of Islamic and Catholic states at the 1995 Beijing conference.

The capabilities approach also has significance outside the context of treaty obligations. It offers a method to consider all cases where women's rights are trumped by claims of culture and tradition. For example, in a 1999 decision of the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe, Venia Magaya v. Nakayi Shonhiwa Magayavenia, Shona traditional customs were relied on to prevent a woman from inheriting her father's estate.27 The Zimbabwe Constitution prohibits discrimination, although not specifically discrimination based on sex. It also excludes African customary law from the nondiscrimination principle. The court resisted arguments to interpret the constitution in the light of international law on the basis that “allowing female children to inherit in a broadly patrilineal society … would disrupt the African customary laws of that society.” It also stated “there is a need to advance gender equality in all spheres of society … [but] great care must be taken when African customary law is under consideration … The application of customary law is in a way voluntary. It could therefore be argued that there should be no or little interference with a person's choice.” Nussbaum's account of the capabilities approach offers a response to these arguments. A woman must be shown to have accepted the norms of a particular culture through the exercise of practical reason, with all the central human capabilities available to her, before those norms can be held to bind her. The Zimbabwe case however also highlights the problematic notion of choice in Nussbaum's theory. Can a woman authentically choose to accept discriminatory practices that reduce her human capabilities? Nussbaum's version of feminist internationalism is built on the significance of choice in liberal philosophy, and yet there is the implication that the choice of inequality would be irrational in some way.28


A second type of challenge facing feminist internationalism in international law arises from the differences in the position of women worldwide. Can we use the term ‘women’ as a global category when women's positions and interests vary so widely? Factors such as class, race, wealth, sexuality, nationality, social and economic position, and physical and mental disabilities affect women's lives in important ways and may be more significant than sex in determining a particular woman's quality of life. In an international context, feminists have dealt with the issue of differences among women by focusing on problems women appear to face whatever their situation.29 In practice, women from very different backgrounds have worked successfully together at an international level to raise awareness of oppressive and discriminatory practices. For example, the four United Nations conferences on women (Mexico [1975], Copenhagen [1980], Nairobi [1985], and Beijing [1995]), and particularly their respective associated nongovernment forums, indicate that women are able to use international arenas to negotiate a great range of differences to support both common projects and common concerns of particular groups. The campaign for recognition of violence against women, prevalent in all countries and cultures, as a violation of women's human rights has been particularly effective as a unifying force in international feminism.

The tactic of identifying and addressing common global issues for women is, however, complex and sometimes hazardous. For example, there are disagreements about whether specific practices constitute violence against women, and there are deep divisions over the appropriate methods to deal with a problem. The debate over the appropriate feminist responses to female genital mutilation illustrates this. No other issue has attracted such controversy and passion. Some international lawyers have argued that female genital mutilation is morally comparable to cosmetic surgery undertaken by women in the developed world, and they have replaced the pejorative terminology ‘mutilation’ with ‘surgery’.30 Others have rejected such parallels and argued for international legal prohibition.

More generally, the search for “universal” women's predicaments can obscure differences among women and homogenize women's experiences. Feminists from the developing world often charge Western feminists with being overly concerned with the acquisition of civil and political rights while ignoring the significance of economic and social rights, such as the right to food and to housing, or collective rights such as the right to self-determination and development. Emphasis on universal issues can also sideline the situation of women who suffer from multiple forms of discrimination, for example, because of their race, class, age, and sexual orientation. Certainly, the international legal system has been slow to accommodate ideas of diversity of women. The Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 paid some attention to the intersection of a variety of obstacles to women's empowerment, for example, race, age, language, ethnicity, culture, religion, disability, indigeneity, family, and socioeconomic status, or status as refugees or displaced persons or as victims of environmental damage, disease, or violence, although it ultimately failed to acknowledge sexual orientation as an aspect of women's identity.31 But, apart from this listing, no further attention was given to diversity between women in the official Beijing documents. In any event, the acknowledgment of some forms of women's diversity was undermined by the limited vision of women's roles in the Beijing Platform for Action. Debate in Beijing about what might constitute “balanced and nonstereotyped” images of women resulted in a paragraph referring to women's experiences as including “balancing work and family responsibilities, as mothers, as professionals, as managers, as entrepreneurs.”32 In other words, the traditional role of mother remains crucial for women, and all that is added is the need to participate in the free market economy.33

How does Nussbaum's capabilities approach respond to the question of differences among women and the charge that the international human rights system cannot deliver a contextualized form of justice for women everywhere? Nussbaum has usefully drawn attention to the dangers of confusing differences among women with the way that women are treated in particular societies. For example, she has observed that, in the name of antiessentialism, some scholars, otherwise committed to the advancement of women, have espoused reactionary, oppressive, and sexist positions.34 The capabilities approach with its regularly revised list of central human capabilities also responds to the often-voiced criticism of the international human rights system by feminists from the developing world that it gives priority to civil and political rights. It transcends the traditional division of civil and political rights on the one hand and economic and social rights on the other. Nussbaum's list of central human functional capabilities includes a range of civil and political rights (freedom of expression [clause 4], liberty of conscience [clause 6], as well as rights to health, food, and shelter [clause 3]). At the same time, the silences of some versions of the list may be taken to reflect a limited notion of differences among women: for example, nondiscrimination on the basis of race, sex, and sexual orientation is considered central but non-discrimination on the basis of disability is not.35

A related concern for feminist internationalism in the context of international law is the issue of how far it needs to rely on the language of universalism. Claims based on universal values increasingly generate tensions and objections in international law-making forums because the vocabulary of universalism is associated with Western traditions. The development of international law relied on European ideals as universals and these standards were imposed by colonialism and conequest.36 The term ‘universal’ thus carries with it considerable baggage in international law: it implies a worldview of the economically dominant and does not give emphasis to the significance of interpretation (or ‘phronesis’, in Aristotle's terms) in the local application of international legal norms. There have been long-standing, and rather sterile, debates between international lawyers about whether legal principles are based on relative or universal values. The extremes of both positions do not, however, acknowledge the complex interdependence of the local and the universal in international law.

Nussbaum firmly links the ideas of universalism and feminist internationalism, but is this critical to her project? She is clearly using the notion of universality in a broader way than most international lawyers because of the emphasis she places on the revisability of her list of central human capabilities. A more useful guide for feminist internationalism than the language of universals may be the idea of commitments developed through dialogue. One such technique is that of “world traveling,” which depends upon what Maria Lugones has called a “loving perception” of other women.37 This involves three steps in a multicultural conversation: first, the need to be explicit about our own historical and cultural context; second, an attempt to understand how other women might see us; and third, a recognition of the complexities of the contexts of other women, in other words, to try to see them through their own eyes.38 A similar method is that of “rooting” and “shifting” described by some European feminists. Each woman remains “rooted” in her own history and identity while “shifting” to understand the roots of other women in the dialogue. This process of what has been termed “transversalism” has two conditions: it should not mean losing one's own roots and values nor should it homogenize “other” women.39 Transversalism differs from universalism by allowing multiple points of departure rather than assuming that there is a universal bedrock of values in all societies.

The value of the idea of world traveling in the context of international law is its emphasis on the multiplicity of women's stories and the range of their cultural, national, religious, economic, and social concerns and interests. Analysis of this discipline means confronting the inevitable tension between general theories and local experience, being receptive to a diversity of voices and perspectives. In other words, world travelers must use different modes of transport according to the terrain. As Elizabeth Grosz has observed, “feminists are not faced with pure and impure options. All options are in their various ways bound by the constraints of patriarchal power. The crucial political question is which commitments remain, in spite of their patriarchal alignments, of use to feminists in their political struggles? What kind of feminist strategy do they make possible or hinder?”40

Chandra Mohanty has proposed the idea of an “imagined community” (borrowed from Benedict Anderson) that has implications for feminist analysis of international law.41 Mohanty has developed the notion in the context of problems of writing about Third World feminisms in a general but worthwhile way, but it can be usefully extended to all women in an international context. The epithet “imagined” is used in contrast to existing boundaries—of nation, color, sexuality, and so on—to indicate the potential for collaborative endeavour across them; the term ‘community’ refers to the possibility of a “horizontal comradeship” across existing hierarchies. An “imagined community” of feminist interests does not imply a single set of feminist concerns but, rather, a strategic, political alliance.

In the context of international law, then, I think that feminists need to attend to the complex structures of domination that affect women differently rather than invoke a single, universal notion of oppression. Donna Haraway has wryly observed the difficulty of this task: “It has seemed very rare for feminist theory to hold race, sex/gender and class analytically together—all the best intentions, hues of authors, and remarks in prefaces notwithstanding.”42

Despite her attachment to the vocabulary of universality, Nussbaum's capabilities approach is a concrete version of “world traveling”—an internationally applicable baseline to measure women's progress toward equality, which is derived from considerable consultation with women in many different situations. Nussbaum has spoken of her search for a “subtle balance between perception of the particular and recognition of the common.”43 The term ‘feminism’ has little meaning if it does not extend beyond purely local concerns, but the use of feminist theories on a global level requires attention to the way that these theories can privilege some women's experiences over others.

Do the “central human functional capabilities” identified by Nussbaum meet this standard? As I have noted above, they transcend the standard Western obsession with civil and political liberties at the expense of economic and social equity. The vocabulary of the list, however, may indicate that greater weight is accorded to civil and political rights. For example, the language of “guarantees of freedoms” is used only with respect to freedom of expression and freedom of religious exercise (clause 4), and the term ‘right’ is used only with respect to political participation, protection of free speech and association (clause 10), and not in other contexts. Freedoms of speech and association are described as “fundamental.” The status of group rights is also not clear in the capabilities approach, which appears interested primarily in the lives of individuals. For example, how can the claims of groups of indigenous peoples to self-determination be understood?44 Another human rights concern prompted by Nussbaum's list of capabilities is that it appears applicable only to citizens of a country.45 This leaves open the question, of increasing significance all around the world, of the rights of noncitizens to the conditions of a reasonable life.

A crucial issue for the capabilities approach is how conflicts between different central capabilities will be resolved. For example, freedom of religious exercise will regularly clash with the norm of nondiscrimination on the basis of sex and sexuality. At the international political and legal level such conflicts are almost invariably resolved in favor of religious freedom. Nussbaum takes a different tack, arguing that religious laws cannot be allowed to trump the “basic human rights of citizens,” which include nondiscrimination on the basis of sex.46 She implies a hierarchy in the central capabilities, with nondiscrimination taking precedence over all others, although her parallel insistence on the fundamental nature of freedom of speech and association to human functioning generates a tension at the top of the hierarchy.

From the perspective of international law, some of the capabilities identified by Nussbaum are described in language whose force has been whittled away. For example, the capability of affiliation includes the ability “to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others” (clause 7). Nussbaum observes that this capability requires guarantees of nondiscrimination. However, the interpretation of the norm of nondiscrimination in international law indicates that in practice this is a weak conceptual tool to counter systemic, large-scale oppression.47 By contrast, notions of equality of outcome, which allow for positive measures to benefit marginalized groups, may be of greater value for women. More generally, the rights of political participation, free speech, and freedom of association (clause 10), referred to in Nussbaum's list, have been interpreted in narrow ways in the international human rights system and would need considerable development to have transformative outcomes.


The international legal system has not responded adequately to the global situation of women. It has acknowledged inequality only in very limited contexts and in any event has allowed states to justify their treatment of women on the basis of tradition and culture. Nussbaum's version of feminist internationalism with its statement of commitments to particular central human capabilities offers a focus for activism and development of the law. It allows us to understand the barriers to women's equality as not simply the product of inadequate resources but as the product of curtailment of women's capabilities imposed by tradition and culture. On a broader level, Nussbaum's approach encourages a shift in direction in international law by placing human needs rather than state priorities at its center. In my view, feminist internationalism requires us to rethink the accepted dichotomy between national sovereignty and international concern. We need to investigate the way that the structure of the state and its sovereignty are gendered and the barriers they create for real justice for women.


  1. Deborah Stienstra, Women's Movements and International Organisations (London: Macmillan, 1994), pp. 48-51.

  2. Ibid., pp. 65-75; Carol Lubin and Anne Winslow, Social Justice for Women: The International Labor Organization and Women (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990), pp. 21-30.

  3. Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 31.

  4. Ibid., p. 33.

  5. Ibid., p. 34.

  6. Ibid.

  7. A recent statement of this approach is in ibid., pp. 39-42. References to clauses are to the list at pp. 41-42.

  8. Ibid., pp. 42-44.

  9. Nussbaum has emphasized the dynamic nature of the list. See her “Capabilities and Human Rights,” Fordham Law Review 66 (1997): 273-300 For example, earlier versions included more specific attention to standard of living, measured by income relative to the poverty level.

  10. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 43.

  11. For a discussion of the issue of reservations in the context of the Women's Convention, see R. Cook, “Reservations to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women,” Virginia Journal of International Law 30 (1990): 643-716, pp. 673-78.

  12. United Nations, Conference on the Law of Treaties, Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, 1969, 1155 UNTS, U.N. Document A/Conf. 39/27, p. 331, arts. 19-21.

  13. States that have objected to the reservations include Austria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Portugal, and Sweden. On the objections as a form of religious intolerance, see Ann Elizabeth Mayer, “Cultural Particularism as a Bar to Women's Rights: Reflections on the Middle East Experience,” in Women's Rights, Human Rights, ed. Julie Peters and Andrea Wolper (New York: Routledge, 1995), pp. 176-88, p. 178.

  14. Commonwealth of Australia, Sex Discrimination Act, 1984, sec. 37.

  15. Arati Rao, “The Politics of Gender and Culture in International Human Rights Discourse,” in Peters and Wolper, eds., pp. 167-75, p. 174.

  16. Mayer, p. 182.

  17. The Bulletin (Sydney) (September 23, 1997).

  18. Anne Bayefsky, “Making the Human Rights Treaty Bodies Work,” in Human Rights: An Agenda for the Next Century, ed. Louis Henkin and John Lawrence Hargrove (Washington, D.C.: American Society of International Law, 1994), pp. 229-95, p. 232.

  19. Ibid., p. 231.

  20. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 34.

  21. See.

  22. United Nations, Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, The Nature of States Parties Obligations, General Comment no. 3, 1990, E/C.12/1990/8.

  23. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 40.

  24. For economic data on women's poverty as compared with men, see Clair Apodaca, “Measuring Women's Economic and Social Rights Achievement,” Human Rights Quarterly 20 (1998): 139-72, pp. 154-56.

  25. Ibid.

  26. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 46.

  27. Venia Magaya v. Nakayi Shonhiwa Magayavenia, Civil Appeal No. 635/92, Harare, February 16, 1999.

  28. Anne Phillips, “Feminism and Liberalism Revisited: Has Martha Nussbaum Got It Right?” (paper presented at the Workshop on Feminist and Social Political Theory, Australian National University, Canberra, March 28, 2000).

  29. For example, Dorothy Thomas and R. Levi, “Common Abuses against Women,” in Women and International Human Rights Law, ed. Kelly Askin and Dorean Koenig (New York: Transnational, 1999), pp. 139-76, p. 139.

  30. For example, Isabelle Gunning, “Arrogant Perception, World-Travelling and Multicultural Feminism: The Case of Female Genital Surgeries,” Columbia Human Rights Law Review 23 (1991-92): 189-248.

  31. Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing Platform for Action (New York: United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women, 1995), par. 46.

  32. Ibid., par. 245 (b).

  33. Dianne Otto, “Holding up Half the Sky, but for Whose Benefit? A Critical Analysis of the Fourth World Conference on Women,” Australian Feminist Law Journal 6 (1996): 7-28, p. 27.

  34. Martha Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism,” Political Theory 20 (1992): 202-46, p. 212.

  35. The version of the list used by M. Nussbaum in a lecture at the Australian National University, Canberra, June 15, 1999.

  36. Antony Anghie, “Universality and the Concept of Governance in International Law,” in Legitimate Governance in Africa, ed. E. K. Quashigah and O. C. Okafor (The Hague: Kluwer Law International, 1999), pp. 21-40, pp. 31-33.

  37. Maria Lugones, “Playfulness, ‘World-Travelling,’ and Loving Perception,” Hypatia 2 (1987): 3-19, p. 18.

  38. Gunning, p. 191.

  39. See, generally, Hilary Charlesworth and Christine Chinkin, The Boundaries of International Law (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 51-52.

  40. Elizabeth Grosz, “A Note on Essentialism and Difference,” in Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct, ed. Sneja Gunew (London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 332-44, pp. 342-43.

  41. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991); Chandra Mohanty, “Cartographies of Struggle,” in Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, ed. Chandra Mohanty, Ann Russo, and Lourdes Torres (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), pp. 1-47, p. 4.

  42. Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991), p. 129.

  43. Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice, p. 380, n. 42.

  44. Ibid., p. 42.

  45. Ibid., p. 43.

  46. Ibid., p. 103.

  47. Charlesworth and Chinkin, pp. 214-16.

Iris Marion Young (review date July 2001)

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SOURCE: Young, Iris Marion. Review of Sex and Social Justice, by Martha Nussbaum. Ethics 111, no. 4 (July 2001): 819-23.

[In the following review, Young calls Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice a significant achievement that addresses pressing contemporary and moral problems.]

This collection of fifteen essays [Sex and Social Justice], all previously published in some form, ranges over issues of contemporary politics, policy, and law concerning gender and sexuality, as well as reflects on themes of knowledge and emotion in ancient and modern philosophy and literature. Certain of the essays recalled for me the pleasure and admiration I felt for Nussbaum's earlier work interpreting ancient thought. “Equity and Mercy,” for example, develops ideas of Aristotle and Seneca to argue against strongly retributive impulses in both criminal law and the politics of oppressed people. In “Constructing Love, Desire, and Care,” Nussbaum endorses claims that the meanings of love and sexuality are socially constructed and culturally variable, usefully elaborating the claim by discussing ancient Greek understandings of sexual norms and feelings of familial caring.

“Platonic Love and Colorado Law: The Relevance of Ancient Greek Norms to Modern Sexual Controversies” expands this attention to the social specificity of sexual norms, focusing specifically on the ideas of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle about homosexuality. This essay grows out of Nussbaum's testimony in a series of court proceedings that eventually resulted in the 1996 U.S. Supreme Court decision against the constitutionality of Colorado Amendment 2. The Colorado law had made it illegal for any state or local government agent to institute regulations or ordinances forbidding discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nussbaum was asked to testify before the Colorado State Supreme Court as an expert witness concerning whether Great Thinkers of the Western World—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle—really did condone homosexuality. Thoroughly and sometimes dramatically, Nussbaum answers emphatically yes. While the great thinkers made many distinctions between praiseworthy and blameworthy sexual conduct, none of them (with the possible exception of Plato in the Laws) condemned homosexual conduct as such, and in some ways praised it. Nussbaum further argues that the Athenians did not even distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual orientations, much less normalize heterosexuality. This essay is fun to read because Nussbaum documents her claims almost to the point of ironic overkill.

Several of the essays in this volume apply the particular vision of liberalism which Nussbaum advocates in her introduction to moral analysis of important contemporary sexuality issues—lesbian and gay rights, pornography and sexual objectification, and prostitution. In “Objectification,” and “Rage and Reason,” Nussbaum successfully tempers several polemical feminist overgeneralizations, notably that all objectification is morally problematic or that anger is always and only the appropriate response to sexism. “Whether from Reason or Prejudice: Taking Money for Bodily Services” passionately and cogently defends the liberty of women to work as prostitutes without fear of legal prosecution or harassment. Nussbaum thereby skillfully reconstructs the moral issues of prostitution as about work: the morality of wage labor, circumstances that foster desperate labor contracts, evaluation of working conditions, and so on. This essay is one of the finest moral analytical works on prostitution that I have read.

There is much worth praising and endorsing in this collection. For the remainder of this review, however, I would like to concentrate on the several essays where I find some aspects of the arguments and rhetoric more problematic. The book's first four essays stake out Nussbaum's cosmopolitan liberal feminism, defend this framework against what she constructs as antiliberal and relativist feminism, and apply this framework to judgments of injustice toward women in other cultures, particularly Africa and Asia.

Some of Nussbaum's most important philosophical and practical work of the last decade has been with the United Nations sponsored World Institute for Development Economic Research (WIDER) in a series of meetings to develop a universal cross-cultural concept of basic standards of human well-being that can be used by international organizations and governments to assess how well people are doing in particular locales. The lead essay in this volume, “Women and Cultural Universals,” documents some of Nussbaum's contribution to this effort. Here Nussbaum offers a list of ten functional capabilities which she argues are essential for human life in whatever cultural and social context is lived. The main task of the essay is to defend such a bold essentialism against recent critiques of universalism and essentialism.

Although Nussbaum's immediate targets are particular conference participants who resist universalist claims, I read this essay as a general response to post-modernism as an approach. In my view, Nussbaum here wrongly construes what is primarily a critical theory as a positive moral theory of cultural relativism. Perhaps some critics of essentialist anthropological and moral discourse do aim positively to assert moral relativism, but I would contend that most do not. By moving so fast to answer the antiessentialists with her own positive moral arguments, Nussbaum does not give enough weight to the hazards of conceptual blindness or structural social bias that attend such a generalizing project.

Recent critiques of moral universalism are usually epistemological. They call attention to the fact that assertions of universal norms or standards are liable to mask an origin in the particular experience and perspective of persons located in structurally privileged positions—positions privileged by masculinity, of ownership power, or whiteness, or legacies of imperialism. The critique suspects that there is no neutral point of view from which universal norms or human attributes might be named. Cultural relativism does not follow from such critique. What should follow, in my opinion, is a method of social criticism in which people in a particular social context discuss the details of their practices as they do or do not promote well-being, both with one another and with those from different contexts. Nussbaum intends her list of universal human functional capabilities as a guide for such discussions. Given her description of them as corresponding to an essential human “core” underlying what she calls accidents of historical and cultural location, such discussion of well-being-in-context seems to be conceptualized as applying the same forms to different contexts. This gives too little recognition to how specific histories, practices, and patterns of interaction unavoidably and properly give differing meanings, priorities, and pragmatic implications to abstract norms.

In “Feminist Critiques of Liberalism,” I find that Nussbaum similarly reconstructs critical ontological arguments as arguments for positive moral and political positions. Here Nussbaum affirms many of the most important criticisms feminist theorists have directed at many mainstream liberal theorists: their implicit or explicit assumptions of a public-private distinction that leaves issues of justice in the family unexamined; reliance on a rational choice model of the individual agent who chooses in the self-interest of himself or his household; and the model of moral reason for which emotion is a distraction or a danger. Since Nussbaum agrees with many other feminists that the public-private distinction helps sanction sexism, that emotion often serves as a source of moral knowledge, and that rational economic man is too narrow and biased a concept of the citizen, one wonders if there remains anything of the substance of liberal thought.

Nussbaum insists, however, that the core values of liberalism remain untouched by these correct critiques of the ideas of some liberals. These core values include “a twofold intuition about human beings: namely that all, just by being human, are of equal dignity and worth, no matter where they are situated in society, and that the primary source of this worth is a power of moral choice within them, a power that consists in the ability to plan a life in accordance with one's own evaluation of ends” (p. 57). These values are threatened, Nussbaum believes, by feminist criticisms that claim to reject liberalism as such rather than perform immanent critique. Nussbaum constructs feminist critiques of liberal individualism that she is worried about as arguments for collectivism as an alternative and then shows why any view that takes a group as prior to the individual is wrong. She also constructs some of the theories she criticizes as arguments either for Marxist socialism or a care-based political theory and then defends the virtues of a model of liberal rights as against these other models. I think that she has at least partly misconstrued the aim of the critiques and thus defends a point of view that few feminists reject.

Most of the feminist criticisms of liberalism to which Nussbaum responds are not taken by their authors as arguments for alternative moral and political theories. Feminist criticisms of liberalism, for example, do not aim to argue for a collectivist alternative that would take groups as more important morally than individuals, as Nussbaum suggests they do. Instead, they aim to question the idea that the individual person is a “self-originating source of value.” In contrast to a tendency toward ontological atomism and voluntarism they find in much modern and contemporary moral and political theory, these feminists theorize the individual person's identity as conditioned by her concrete interactive context. They argue that much liberalism takes relationships of exchange or contract as paradigmatic of the context of moral obligation, thereby missing the degree to which the obligations of all persons derive to a significant degree from nonvoluntary relationships such as family and community. While she is right to criticize Nel Noddings's interpretation of this self-in-relation view as valuing too self-sacrificing a norm of women's caring practice, Nussbaum does not respond to more nuanced feminist reinterpretations of autonomy-in-relation such as those by Diana Meyers and Jennifer Nedelsky.

Feminist criticisms of the abstraction and oppressiveness of many applications of liberal law, moreover, are not for the most part arguments for wholly different economic or political systems that would be opposed to the values Nussbaum endorses. Insofar as they argue for radically altered economic and political arrangements, it is partly on grounds that these values of equal worth and autonomy can only be realized with such changes. More often the arguments remain critical rather than positive, however, calling into question a propensity in liberal law and policy to construe equal consideration as treating everyone in the same way.

“Religion and Women's Human Rights” and “Judging Other Cultures” both apply Nussbaum's universalist liberal feminism to issues of the attitude moral judgment and law should take toward practices that appeal to religious or other traditional beliefs to justify restrictive or harmful treatment of women. I agree with Nussbaum that respect for the basic rights of women ought to constrain religious practice and expression in any social context. Religious justifications for violence against or abuse of women should not excuse such harms. Both these essays nevertheless can appear to adopt the stance of enlighteners coming from outside that Nussbaum herself warns against, because they focus on particular non-Western religions and practices, and because their rhetoric suggests an “us-them” opposition.

Although “Religion and Women's Human Rights” briefly mentions ways that Roman Catholic or Orthodox Jewish beliefs sometimes conflict with women's freedom, Nussbaum's main analysis in this essay is directed at the influence of Islam and Hinduism on law and custom that affect women. Most of her examples of harms to women foreground events and practices in Africa and South Asia that have become exoticized and oversensationalized in the West, such as so-called “dowry murder,” physical abuse of unveiled women, and female genital mutilation. Some of Nussbaum's rhetoric, moreover, suggests that religions per se are responsible for harms to women. We should not forget, she says, “that religions (like many nonreligious political actors) can propose atrocities” (p. 85). I think there needs to be more balance here, both in the acknowledgment that nearly all religions have some patriarchal interpreters, that sometimes these interpreters have significant power, and that it is the people rather than the religions as such that “propose atrocities.”

The distancing effect of relatively exotic examples and categorical statements about religion is reinforced by a rhetoric that tends to distinguish “we” who make judgments from “they” whose actions we criticize and aim to stop. The very title of the essay, “Judging Other Cultures,” implies such an us-them opposition. That impression is reinforced by passages like this: “Why should we give a particular group of men licence to put women down, just because they have managed to use power in some group that would like to put women down, if we have concluded that women should have guarantees of equal protection in our nation generally?” (p. 109). “We” find no shortage of feminist criticism of beauty ideals in American society, Nussbaum says, but there is a reluctance to criticize the sexism of other cultures. “We indulge in moral narcissism when we flagellate ourselves for our own errors while neglecting to attend to the needs of those who ask our help from a distance” (p. 122), namely, women seeking protection from female genital mutilation. Such rhetoric evokes a discourse of accusation and defense that can make “us” less open than we should be to listening to the others we are judging explain their understanding of the situation. Nussbaum neither tells us in what forum or through what channels some of the others make a call on us, nor what we concretely can and should do to enforce human rights for and over them.

These problems with some of the discourse in this collection do not negate the significant achievement of this book. Sex and Social Justice contains a good deal of wisdom and sensitivity. Few writers can match the extent of Nussbaum's philosophical, legal, and factual knowledge, and her skill in bringing this knowledge to analysis of pressing contemporary moral problems.

Anne Norton (review date October 2001)

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SOURCE: Norton, Anne. “Review Essay on Euben, Okin, and Nussbaum.” Political Theory 29, no. 5 (October 2001): 736-49.

[In the following review, Norton discusses Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice in comparison to The Enemy in the Mirror, by Roxanne Euben, and Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, by Susan Okin. Norton criticizes both Nussbaum and Okin for failing to account for the works of post-colonial feminist scholars in formulating their arguments.]

The Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism [by Roxanne Euben] is a book written with learning, brilliance, and judgment. We are fortunate to have it.

In a more sensible academy, in a more just world, Roxanne Euben would be able to say that she has written a work of political theory—not “comparative political theory.” In fiction, in critical studies in comparative literature, and in political theory, there are now those, educated beyond the conventional limits of the academy, who draw syncretically on Western and non-Western theorists, who write of, on, and through theorists from diverse traditions, who cross not only the boundary between East and West but the often greater divide between theory and politics.1 Euben's work goes some way-as far as it can, I think-to opening a way for such works to enter and be recognized, breaching the walls that confine the work of the other within the pale of area studies and comparative politics.

The Enemy in the Mirror provides a unique and invaluable perspective on the relation of Western liberalism, rationalism, and modernity to Muslim political thought, but it is not without a history or without ancestors. In it, Euben furthers earlier enterprises that were left incomplete. Her work continues a project begun in Albert Hourani's magisterial Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Hourani provided an elegant narrative account of the reception of and resistance to liberalism in the Arab Middle East, charting the intellectual genealogy that ran from Jamal al-din al Afghani to Hassan al-Banna. Hourani's book had a surface of cool disinterestedness, maintained by unimpeachable scholarship. Beneath the cool prose and the elegant style was an unrelenting insistence on the intellectual merits of these figures and their debates and an unyielding commitment to the world historical importance of the Arab critiques of liberalism and modernity. Hourani succeeded. His book was read—is-read—by those studying the Arab world and those studying Islamic political philosophy, by theorists and comparativists, and by students of comparative literature and contemporary politics. Hourani's enterprise was furthered by Leonard Binder, whose study of the Egyptian constitutionalist Ali Abd al-Raziq was central to Islamic Liberalism, and by Vali Nasr's writing on Maududi. Studies by Hamid Algar, Patrick Gaffney, Gilles Kepel, Lila Abu Lughod, and others on elements of contemporary political Islam have also made the agonistic renaissance of Islamic political thought more accessible to those without Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi.2 The former have not, however, received adequate attention from political theorists, and the latter studies tend to concern themselves more with social context, rhetoric, performance, and political effects. Muslim political thought has remained alien territory, until Euben. Her work comes in the wake not only of Hourani but of colonial and postcolonial studies, of Said's Orientalism, and the work of a generation of transcultural scholars. Her continuance of Hourani's enterprise will fall, consequently, on ground more fertile and more fully prepared. Euben's book is as useful as Hourani's. I hope that it will be as widely read. Euben provides, as Hourani did, an intellectual context for the philosophic efflorescence that now, as then, is shaping Arab thought and politics.3 The relation of Arab political philosophy to liberalism and an all-too-Western modernity remains central to her time, as it was to Hourani's.4

Euben centers her study on a single theorist, and one whose intellectual merits are not above question. Sayyid Qutb is, by Euben's account, a problematic figure to occupy the position of political and philosophic primacy that contemporary politics and culture accord him. He is a writer whose political and theoretic centrality is absolutely uncontested but whose originality and intellectual eminence are not quite as firmly established. Euben may concede more ground than she should here. Qutb is (correctly) placed by Euben in one of the most important of the intellectual lineages Hourani described: from Jamal al din al Afghani to Hassan al Banna. Hassan al Banna was, as Euben writes, “more activist than theorist, he committed little systematic doctrine to paper” (p. 55).5 Qutb forged “al Banna's legacy into a systematic ideology that would outlast the passing of his charismatic leadership.” Qutb has has more than popular political influence. As the principal theorist of the Muslim Brothers, Qutb has an intellectual heir in Hassan Turabi, whose work is worthy of study in its own right.

Euben observes that Qutb's commanding theoretical and political position is due, in part, “to the ways in which the events of Qutb's life and death have become an extension and symbol of his life's work” (p. 56). She explicitly disavows the project of establishing a “causal relationship between personal, political, and historical events and specific moments in Qutb's political thought, as if there were a meaningful dichotomy between thought and context” (p. 57). Euben leaves us in no doubt that there is meaning in the relation of thought and context, but she leads us, through Qutb, to a still more valuable double question: whether that meaning is properly located “between” and whether the relation is dichotomous. This fundamental question, directed by an alien and enlightening example, could lead us to think differently about theory and practice, one of the constitutive dichotomies of Western political theory and one that has too often been crippling and confining. In thinking of Qutb in this way, Euben is acting under a license, if not an imperative, given to her in Muslim thought. In assessing a claim, one is instructed to consider the merits of the claimant as some warrant for its acceptance. The knowledge that Qutb was exiled to the United States-in the hope that exposure to its robust, enthusiastic, and, perhaps, seductive modernity would win him over and returned to write the indicting Signposts along the Way informs that text. Qutb's private and public conduct, including steadfastness under repeated episodes of imprisonment and torture, are read as informing his work broadly. So too is his execution. The term for martyr in Arabic shares a root with the term for witness.6 In quite practical terms, Qutb bore witness to—answered for—his work in his death.

Thinking differently of the relation of theory and practice would enable us to see theory as practice and practice as theoretical. Occasionally, political theorists in the West have evaded the dichotomy of theory and practice to treat a largely practical figure as a theorist. Lincoln, Jefferson, and the authors of the Federalist Papers are perhaps the most common examples in the United States. More often, consideration of the life informs the text, albeit implicitly and obliquely, as in the cases of Gramsci and Benjamin, Schmitt, Heidegger, DeMan, and Negri. We would profit, I think, from doing this less obliquely and more mindfully. Perhaps more important (and how much of the Western academy rests in that “perhaps”) would be the rupture that altered habits of thinking would make in the wall that divides theory and practical politics.

Euben discusses the (Western) perception that Muslim thought is curiously devoid of discussions of institutions. At one level, this is simply nonsense. Islam has an elaborate scholarship on jurisprudence. Ibn Khaldun's theory of institutional strength and decline has influenced European as well as Muslim scholars for centuries. There are superb treatments of constitutionalism in Abd al-Raziq, Maududi, and Iqbal. Euben, though she knows this well, is both generous and inquisitive enough to translate it into a more interesting question, one that recognizes the differences in Muslim approaches to questions of political order and authority and makes the form and language of these approaches accessible. Central to this aspect of the enterprise is her discussion of the umma and ijtihad.

The umma is the Islamic community and has a decisive legitimating role. Following the prophet's declaration “my community will not be agreed upon an error,” it is seen as sovereign in legitimation and interpretation. This conception of the community can, of course, be used conservatively or radically to forward or preclude democracy. The umma may also be understood to refer to a historical or a transcendent community, in space and time, or beyond it. “As used by Qutb,” Euben writes, “the umma is thus a transcendent, ahistorical ideal, waiting to be actualized at any moment in history.” In Qutb's words, it is “a demand of the present and hope for the future” (p. 61). The jahiliyya, similarly, was understood to refer not (as has conventionally been the case) to a specific “period of ignorance” before Islam but to a condition that might prevail at any time (and does prevail in our own). In Qutb's thought, not only Islam but the human is outside history, outside time. Here and throughout the book, Euben's readings serve not only to make Qutb's thought accessible but to open new perspectives.

Euben recognizes that Sayyid Qutb has a genealogy in Muslim thought, linking him to certain lines of thought, and a political position (varying from his time to our own, and no doubt to alter more). Neither is simply representative of Islam or Muslim thought. This is most visible in Qutb's position on ijtihad. This position is central to Euben's analysis, for it is here that Qutb's recognition of “the limits of modern rationalism” is most pronounced. This position places him at odds with much of the classical tradition of Muslim thought (e.g., al Farabi, Ibn Sina, though one might find an ancestor for him in Ibn Tufayl) and with important currents in modern Muslim thought as well. Euben provides a discussion of Jamal al din al Afghani and Mohammed Abduh that is invaluable in several respects. She enables us to see Qutb in a complex theoretical terrain and to locate him more precisely within that, giving us an appreciation of the depth of the intellectual tradition in which he is embedded. She enables us to see the rupture effected by Qutb's rejection of rationalism. We are then in a position to recognize the presence and force of this against alternatives. As Euben's account makes clear, Afghani and Abduh's intellectual positions granted reason “an extraordinarily wide scope,” a position that was continued by Abduh's student Rashid Rida. My own teacher, Fazlur Rahman, represented another profound and learned alternative to Qutb's position.7 As Qutb's position continues, so do these, albeit in altered and disseminate forms.

Euben recalls Hourani in her firm insistence that the Western academy take seriously the critiques of rationalist modernity forwarded by thinkers like Qutb, as well as in her provision of a guide to the central debates and theorists in Arabic thought in the liberal age. She departs from Hourani in providing a more explicit consideration of the challenge posed by these theorists to the Western academy in which she writes. One of her strategies for doing so is to render the alien familiar, by providing an account of the resonances between critics of that modernity in Islam and the West. Thus, she examines Arendt and Arendtians such as Schaar and Villa on the crisis of authority and the loss of the commons; MacIntyre, Taylor, and John Neuhaus on the decay of morality; and Daniel Bell and Robert Bellah on the decline of community.

As Euben notes,

Historicizing such notions about “essential cores” suggests that the relationship between religious and political thought in both traditions is not easily captured, and, concomitantly, that the putative distance between “Islam” and “the West” is not so easily defined and measured.

(P. 50)

The comparative enterprise that finds and details resonances between arguments in contemporary Islamic and Western political thought similarly undermines assumptions about the distance between those “civilizations,” discourses, or systems of thought in the present.

She leaves us with our problem: the problem of “we.” Euben does well to refuse the category “non-Western … a misleading convention,” but she has not yet surrendered the West. “I want to specify,” she writes at the outset, “that all future uses of ‘we,’ ‘us’ and ‘our’ in this text should be taken to refer to Western students of politics, and students of politics trained in Western methods of scholarship.” This category is no more useful than the category she rejects. I belong easily in this category, but I inhabit it with Talal Asad, Homi Bhabha, Uday Mehta, Magda al Nowaihi, and Geeta Patel. I was taught al Farabi and al Ghazali by Ralph Lerner and Islamic law and Koranic interpretation by Fazlur Rahman, all in the course of my altogether Western education. The Ramayana furnished many of the stories of my childhood, and I hear Arabic often now. There may have been a West once to which these worlds were alien. If there were such a place, its inhabitants are fewer now, and they should not be encouraged to believe that our universities belong to them. Euben acknowledges, with Francis Robinson, the interpenetration, intellectual indebtedness, and cultural imbrication of Western and Eastern political theory in these fictive monoliths. There is no reason for her to defer to the fictions of cultural purity preferred by our more parochial colleagues (see pp. 12, 50).

This is a work that, in its clear-sightedness, its thorough commitment to the work of thinking as an enterprise not confined to one's own, its discipline, its care, and its brilliance, gives one faith in the future of academic work. Roxanne Euben has done a greater service to the academy with this book than many have done with entire careers. There is a certain sadness, consequently, about reviewing this book with the others I have been asked to consider.

Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? the title of a volume with a lead essay by Susan Moller Okin, followed by several responses, is a profoundly misguided question, one asked so long and so often and so often answered that to hear it again is to be filled with a vague despair. The question is only a half step beyond the presumption that “all the blacks are men, all the women are white.” If the women are not always white here, they are nevertheless marked as alien and other to the concerns of multiculturalism, which cannot, the formula presumes, be their own. The question collapses cultural differences into a simple dichotomy of an unstated universal and a muddled, inchoate category of otherness. Finally, and perhaps most insidiously, the question presumes an alternative to multiculturalism that serves as the standard by which gender (if not sexual) justice is to be assessed. The hard-won lessons of an older feminism, Moraga to McKinnon, seem to have been forgotten here.

It is in the assumption of liberalism as an unjustified standard that the asymmetries on which the force of the question depends reveal themselves. Okin (and Joshua Cohen, Matthew Howard, and Martha C. Nussbaum) counterpose liberalism to multiculturalism and group rights but in a highly asymmetric fashion. Liberalism is presented as a set of ideas and principles, despite the fact that the practices of Western liberal cultures may not accord with these. Other cultures, not of the West (or not, at least, included in Okin's West), are assessed not according to their principles but according to their practices. When men in the United States beat their wives, it is an aberration, counter to the liberal principles that govern here. When Muslim men beat their wives, it is an act representative of the principles of Islam—whatever Koran or hadith may say.

Similar asymmetries appear throughout the argument. “Advocates of group rights for minorities within liberal states” are faulted for their tendency “to treat cultural groups as monoliths,” ignoring differences within them. Okin falls repeatedly to the same intellectual temptation. The use of multiculturalism as a blanket term for all self-consciously culturally situated critiques of liberal universalism is the most conspicuous. The one I find most interesting, however, is Okin's tendency to assume a critical unity among women with regard to cultures and cultural practices she finds distasteful or contemptible. Sometimes the degree of imputed cultural consensus is still greater, uniting men and women.

Clitoridectomy, for example, is presented as a practice understood, by those who accept and reject it alike, as intended to diminish or eliminate a woman's sexual pleasure and increase her marriageability. There are certainly other justifications offered for this practice. Bhikhu Parekh observes that “adult, sane and educated women” may engage in the practice “as a way of regulating their sexuality, or reminding themselves that they are from now onward primarily mothers rather than wives, or as a religious sacrifice of what they greatly value … or as a symbolic break with one phase of life” (p. 71). Among the justifications I have heard are hygiene, tradition, and providing women access to a wider array of religious practices. The first two arguments should be familiar for they are those most frequently employed in defense of male circumcision. I encountered the last when, I heard to my astonishment, that female circumcision in Egypt (which does not generally entail clitoridectomy) was referred to as sunnah, the term used for religious law.8 Knowing that the practice is not Koranic, I asked about this and was told that by making circumcision available to women as well as men, it brought women within the law on terms equal to men. While the argument appears to me as somewhat, shall we say, jesuitical, it did remind me that I was all too prepared to judge a practice whose social origins and effects I did not know. History and politics (or, failing these, Foucault) ought to have taught us that the social origins and effects of a practice are not easily inferred from the practice itself.

Okin also tells us that “French African immigrant women deny that they like polygamy and say that not only are they given ‘no choice’ in the matter, but their female forebears in Africa did not like it either.” The source she gives for this is the “news section” of the International Herald Tribune. As I read this, I recalled more than one article on the Church of Latter Day Saints that could enable one to refer to the “news section” of the New York Times and declare that “women in the United States like polygamy.” One could, using the same source, recapitulate their arguments in favor of the practice and their opposition to the prevailing laws and practices of this country. I can recall, moreover, a conversation in which a North African scholar (male and Muslim) argued against polygamy only to meet the dissent of a (female, secular, and liberal) scholar from the United States. The American, moreover, argued (in the liberal tradition) for choice and the possibility (visible in certain Mormon households) that a polygamous marriage might free one—or more—wives from the necessity of child rasing and enable her to pursue a career outside the home. The North African quoted Koran. Opinions on polygamy vary: among men and women in cultures that permit or ratify it and among men and women in cultures that outlaw and condemn it. A closer look at those opinions and the arguments for them would have been both more interesting and more valuable. For Okin, however, the matter is already settled. Polygamy, like clitoridectomy, is a practice supported by (other) men because “it accords with their self-interest and is a means of controlling women” (p. 15).

This argument has an interesting, informative, and ultimately disturbing precursor in the literature on sati in India. Sati is the practice in which a bereaved wife immolates herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. It is related to the practice of johar, in which the wives of a defeated army immolate themselves collectively. The practice has connotations of heroism and fortitude as well as submission and fidelity, and satis, like martial heroes, are remembered in stone monuments. The practice has been contested throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries into the present. Critics argued in terms virtually identical to those employed by Okin: sati accorded with the self-interest of men and served as a means of controlling women. Women who practiced it went either unwilling (drugged or coerced or both) or deluded to their deaths. The practice marked women as inferior and served as proof of their oppressed (and their culture's degraded and inferior) status. For generations, sati served as a liberal feminist shibboleth: marking the limit of the male appetite for domination and the point at which cultural relativism must bow before moral imperatives. Historical research suggested, however, that the issue was not quite that simple. It appeared that with sati, as with other cultural practices, the frequency, significance, and political effects of the practice changed in response to changes in the surrounding political and cultural context. Instances of sati increased rather than declined under the colonial rule that outlawed, opposed, and stigmatized it. The debate over sati was an extended and important moment in feminist studies, postcolonial studies, and social history. It produced an extensive literature, engaged important scholars, and was conducted in highly visible venues. It effected dramatic changes in how many of us thought about normative political theory and the uses of history. This was exciting and controversial scholarship; it speaks directly to Okin's concerns, yet Okin's essay proceeds as if this debate never occurred.

Throughout Okin's essay, the arguments made on behalf of liberal principles are drawn from the work of liberal scholars. Characterizations, praise, and condemnations of the practices Okin deprecates as foreign, illiberal, and unjust are taken from the newspaper. Why this double asymmetry? Why are the condemned practices assigned to others and unacknowledged where they occur in the United States? Why is liberalism given a scholarly voice, while its opponents are spoken of and spoken for in the popular press? There was (and, in some circles, there remains) a vigorous debate about the consonance of polygamy with liberal institutions-in the United States. There has been—and remains—a rich literature on polygamy in the work of Muslim philosophers and jurists. If liberal theorists wish to treat these matters, they should do their homework.

Those who read history as well as political theory might be struck by another, more ironic, asymmetry, the silence of the following question: “Is liberalism good for women?” This question animated a generation of scholars examining the French and American revolutions. The answer they returned was a reluctant but resounding no. More recently, the question has been fielded by feminist scholars examining Europe after 1989 and the effects of “liberalization” on women in the Middle East and North Africa (p. 9).9 Again, the answer has been no.

The asymmetries that trouble Okin's analysis are dealt with very effectively by her respondents. I am occasionally tempted to agree with Okin that “most cultures have as one of their principal aims the control of women by men,” though I can think of no persuasive reason why this should be the case, and I shudder at the ammunition it gives to the likes of Edmund Wilson and Lionel Tiger (p. 13). I therefore found it particularly bracing to be reminded by Bonnie Honig's essay that “such efforts are usually matched by efforts to control male sexuality as well” (p. 37). In critiques of veiling, for example, corresponding constraints on male dress and bodily display go undisputed and unremarked. Honig also knows that “many Muslim feminists … see veiling as an empowering practice” (p. 19).10 Honig recognizes that “the cultures Okin mentions are less univocally patriarchal than she suggests” (pp. 36-37).

Honig's sensible essay points the reader toward the importance of learning: learning the role of a practice within a given political and social context, learning its genealogy, inquiring into occurrences of the practice elsewhere, and questioning the assumptions that impel condemnations of the practice here. She also provides a salutary caution: “an analysis of the tense relations between feminism and multiculturalism must be careful not to conflate ‘different’ with ‘culture’ and ‘culture’ with foreignness” (p. 39). Difference occurs within, as well as between, cultures. Honig observes that Okin mentions, to great effect, the “case of an immigrant from rural Iraq [who] married his two daughters, aged 13 and 14, to two of his friends, aged 28 and 34” and justified the practice as commonplace in his native village. “Perhaps,” Honig writes, “the mere mention of Jerry Lee Lewis's famous (but not unusual) marriage to his 13 year old cousin will suffice to remind us that such practices are not exactly unheard-of in the United States” (p. 39). A turn to history in Sander Gilman's essay indicates the politics that may be at work in the rhetorical association of practices with “others.” As he notes, male circumcision goes unquestioned at present in the debate over “female genital mutilation,” but Okin's “language and images” echo those deployed against male circumcision—and its Jewish, and therefore alien, practitioners—150 years ago.

Azizah al-Hibri and Abdullahi An-Nai' im point out, generously and tolerantly, that the nominal universalism championed by liberals is a covert particularism; that it has not and, indeed, cannot deliver on its claims; and that its nominal ends of justice and inclusion can often be well (if not better) pursued outside its confines. Homi Bhabha furnishes a similar reminder, though he sounded to me as if he were (understandably) at the end of his tether.

One can assume, as Okin does, that all cultures (with the possible exception of liberalism) treat women badly, structuring the social order in a way that advantages men. One might, however, conclude with equal justice that all cultures are capable of advancing sexual justice and that all have done so, at different times and in different venues. This suggests that a better strategy might be to ask, “How does this (particular) culture serve women?” or “When is liberalism good for women?” A still better approach would be to ask which women, in which venues and under which circumstances, prosper and advance. Such a strategy would avoid the reduction of all other cultures to the vacuous single category “multiculturalism.” It would open the critique to Western liberal cultures, on equal terms. It would require us to consider differences of class and race. Most important, this strategy would oblige us to go to other cultures as students rather than instructors, and it would also enable us to come away with something that might be of use not only to them but to ourselves.

The work done by many of Okin's respondents is learned, clear-sighted, and even influential. None of this, it appears, has been enough to set this question aside. That the question, “Is multiculturalism good for women?” is well intentioned I have no doubt, but it leads very surely down the road to hell.

Having gone down the road of good intentions, I find myself in the company of Martha Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice. Nussbaum's passion for social justice, her commitment to improving the lives of women, and her fortitude in working toward this are admirable. Her arrogant conviction that she knows, better than we or they, what women want is much less so. She resembles nothing so much as a nineteenth-century colonial missionary bringing sustenance to the starving and the gospel to the heathen. I expect that her work will prove as useful as theirs.

There is quite a lot to use. Nussbaum gives us some 460 pages, in which she provides accounts of many legal cases, interesting synopses of the reports of the United Nations Commission on Women and the work of other institutions and nongovernmental organizations, many anecdotes (of which, more later), and some quite interesting and elegant remarks on ancient philosophers and philosophic movements.

One might ask, then, why I write of Nussbaum in such condemnatory terms. She is well intentioned, she is learned in certain fields, and she has a passionate commitment to justice. If she is misguided, that is a fault most of us share. I would answer by pointing to an early passage. When I first read this passage, I thought it was generous. I was mistaken. Nussbaum acknowledges that

universalist views, applied to women, are frequently suspected of being the projections of a male view onto women, or of the views of well-educated white women onto women of diverse backgrounds and cultures. I try to answer this concern through my method, which lets the voices of many women speak.

(P. 9)

Much might be written of this passage, which so calmly and unthinkingly aligns whiteness with education, diversity with racial others. The first and simplest thing to say, however, is that it is not true. There are very few women's voices here. Few feminist theorists are cited; the most powerful critics (by Nussbaum's own accounts elsewhere) go wholly unmentioned. The many women not of the West who write on sex and social justice are neither read nor recognized: one looks in vain for Gayatri Spivak, Assia Djebbar, Nawal al Sadawi, Fatima Mernissi, Nilufer Gole, Chandra Mohanty, Aiwa Ong, Suha Sabbagh, Mervat Hatem, and Rey Chow, much less Zeinab al Ghazali. Veena Das is given one citation, to a brief passage in which Nussbaum observes that Das has made “a similar argument” to that of a Western woman whom Nussbaum treats at length. There is no justice in failing to acknowledge the prominence these women have in feminist debates.

When Nussbaum writes that she lets many women speak, I suspect she has in mind those moments when she quotes “Rohima of West Shanbandha” or “Metha Bai, a young widow in Rajasthan.” These moments are infrequent (most chapters have none at all), and when they appear they have a curious and unsettling effect. One reads the stories with admiration for the women and shame for Nussbaum. Their status is invariably inferior to hers. They are made to speak at her behest and in support of her contentions.

Nussbaum's persistent failure to acknowledge the work of women scholars in South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East is an act of scholarly irresponsibility and social injustice. If she does not know that work, then she has failed in the ordinary obligations of a scholar. If she knows it and does not cite it, then she is engaged in an act of deliberate silencing that is a shameful betrayal of the values she pretends to espouse.

Nussbaum has not troubled herself to read much of those on whom she writes, or if she has, she has not seen fit to trouble us with it. She does furnish substitutions, and these, like the lacunae, are extraordinarily revealing. Turning away from the work of postcolonial feminists and other postcolonial scholars, Nussbaum supplies her own views on the position of women in Africa and Asia, occasionally ratified by the approval of unnamed natives. In the midst of a rich literature of feminist theory and queer theory, Nussbaum turns consistently to heterosexual men, many only peripherally interested in (or relevant to) the work she has under discussion. Gay men are praised for praising heterosexuality as Chinese feminists (not cited by name) are praised for praising Mill. Apart from the ethical propriety of consulting gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and people of still more complex or transgressive sexual orientations, much of the literature in queer theory speaks directly to the issues Nussbaum raises. Nussbaum opens her chapter on “A Defense of Gay and Lesbian Rights” with a consideration of the contradictions that bedevil attempts to define homosexuality, gay, lesbian, and the other terms that designate the aberrant in the discourses of law and social policy. She proceeds from this to a discussion of the difficulties of classifying sexuality or sexual orientation. She concludes, however, with an ambiguous affirmation of the categories employed that, though she appears to retain her doubts about their value, has the effect of reifying them. A little more attention to the work of other scholars might have enabled her to avoid this expedient, which she rightly finds unsatisfying. One does not need to read far or thoroughly to find works that enable one to escape this cycle of reification. Foucault, in a brief and elegant essay on friendship, makes an argument that speaks directly to the difficulties Nussbaum experiences in this chapter. That essay, which has classical resonances Nussbaum would appreciate, argues that sex is not the issue in persecution, homophobia, or more diffuse anxieties about gay and lesbian relations. I wish Nussbaum had turned to it, for classical references appear to elicit a degree of scholarly care, reflection, and generosity that is too often absent from her readings of more modern works. She is ill served here by her animus against Judith Butler, for Butler's reasoned and compassionate inquiries into our troubled conceptions of gender and sexuality might also have served to guide her through the field she has found so difficult.

The selective silencing Nussbaum practices serves her in another respect. She is given to recounting exchanges at conferences in which she identifies people as holders of positions critical to her own, characterizes their positions, and disputes, ridicules, or dismisses them (pp. 35-36).11 This approach has several strategic advantages. She need not mention the names of those she ridicules, shielding herself from responses by them or by others present at the time. She is free to characterize the argument as she will, uncorrected, and without the informing context that mention of her opponents' names might bring. She is free to employ rhetorical strategies that would, if names were given to the figures, be seen as the lowest sort of ad hominem attacks. She fashions a world in which—literally—she has no peer. Others occupy political positions or play roles, while she remains the only named individual, exercising independent reason.

Reading Nussbaum and Okin has been deeply disturbing. In her work on the ancients, Nussbaum has written with sensitivity and understanding of a people distant from her in culture as well as time. Okin opened the gates to a form of scholarship once closed to us all. Both Nussbaum and Okin evince a passion for justice that is admirable. Yet when they write of cultures not their own, both abandon the scholarly care and passion for justice that elevate their work. This would be altogether disheartening if it were not for work like Euben's. Here we see a young scholar, moving with ease between worlds, reading Arabs in Arabic, and reading them with the attention that Nussbaum or Okin—or Euben herself—would give to J. S. Mill or Isaiah Berlin. If this is the new shape of the academy, it will be more learned and more just than what we leave behind.


  1. I have in mind works by Homi Bhabha, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee, Alev Cinar, Faisal Devji, Assia Djebbar, Nilufer Gole, Mahmoud Mamdani, Pratap Mehta, Uday Mehta, Fatima Memissi, Magda al Nowaihi, Abdullahi an-Naim, Vali Nasr, and Fadwa Tuqan. There are more works of this kind than I mention here and, no doubt, many more than are known to me.

  2. Leonard Binder, Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988); Gilles Kepel, Prophet and Pharaoh: Muslim Extremism in Egypt, trans. Jon Rothschild (London: Al Saqi Books/Zed, 1985); Patrick Gaffney, The Prophet's Pulpit: Islamic Preaching in Contemporary Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994); Hamid Algar, trans., Islam and Revolution: Writings and Declarations of Imam Khomeini 1941-1980 (Berkeley, CA: Mizan Press, 1981). See also R. Scott Appleby, ed., Spokesmen for the Despised: Fundamentalist Leaders of the Middle East (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), and Lila Abu Lughod, ed., Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), esp. her essay “The Marriage of Feminism and Islamism in Egypt: Selective Repudiation as a Dynamic of Postcolonial Cultural Politics,” 243-69.

  3. This vast and tumultuous philosophic renaissance is often almost invisible in the Anglo-American academy, and those (like myself) who lack competence in Arabic, Turkish, and Farsi are obliged to rely on French and English translations, some clearly defective. Nevertheless, there are many works by major figures (e.g., Khomeini, Iqbal, Maududi, Qutb, Rahman, Taha) and active participants (e.g., Ahmed, An-Naim, Gole, Mernissi, Turabi) readily available in English in the United States.

  4. One might ask “her time or the time she studies?” Euben and Hourani both have a dual presence in this regard. Hourani wrote both in and of a time when these questions had political and intellectual primacy. Euben does so as well. Her time and the time of her principal subject, Sayyid Qutb, are likewise marked by the primacy of the engagement with Western liberal modernism.

  5. For accounts of Hassan al Banna and Jamal al din al Afghani, see Hourani, Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age 1789-1939 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

  6. The Hebrew term is similarly resonant. I believe that this resonance, in Arabic as well as Hebrew, informs the readings of witnessing and testimony in Derrida and Levinas.

  7. Fazlur Rahman, Islam and Modernity: Transformation of an Intellectual Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

  8. I am indebted to Diane Singerman for first telling me of this. Singerman is the author of Avenues of Participation: Family, Politics and Networks in Urban Quarters of Cairo (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), which provides a rich and discerning account of the complexities of family and gender roles in Cairene political and economic life.

  9. Joan Scott, Only Paradoxes to Offer: French Feminists and the Rights of Man (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); Joan Scott, Cora Kaplan, and Debra Keates, Transitions, Environments, Translations: Feminisms in International Politics (New York: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1997); Louise Tilly and Jytte Klausen, European Integration in Social and Historical Perspective (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1997); Laurie Brand, Women, the State, and Political Liberalization: The Middle East and North African Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Christine Faure, Democratie sans les femmes: essai sur le liberalisme en France (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1985).

  10. Muslim feminists do indeed exist, with the same intensity of conflict and wide variations that trouble and enrich feminism among Christians and Jews or, as Gayatri Spivak once said, “my class, international bourgeois feminists.” They have not been adequately studied. A good primer on veiling and a valuable and highly accessible introduction to debates on feminist issues in the Muslim world can be found in Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change (Dallas: University of Texas Press, 1985), and in her documentary “Veiled Revolution.” Nilufer Gole has a superb treatment of feminist issues in the Turkish Islamist discourse on veiling in The Forbidden Modern: Civilization and Veiling (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

  11. In a note on this passage, Nussbaum locates these views in the published work of Frederique Apffel and S. A. Marglin without identifying them as the figures under discussion. This may be because she acknowledges having taken some liberties with her report of these confrontations (p. 379, n28).

Monique Deveaux (essay date July 2002)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6882

SOURCE: Deveaux, Monique. “Political Morality and Culture: What Difference Do Differences Make?” Social Theory and Practice 28, no. 3 (July 2002): 503-18.

[In the following essay, Deveaux discusses Nussbaum's Women and Human Development in comparison to Multicultural Jurisdictions by Ayelet Shachar, contending that each addresses questions regarding the significance of cultural pluralism to concepts of social justice.]


Can a conception of political morality—specifically, a conception of justice—be said to be valid across cultures? Few contemporary philosophers explicitly claim that their account of political morality enjoys legitimacy in all societies. The universalizability of a particular conception of justice is, however, typically assumed, without adequate justification or argumentation. By contrast, social and cultural anthropologists have more readily explored the challenges that cultural diversity poses for any understanding of moral behavior and systems of ethics. Anthropologists' charge that morality is culturally bounded or coded1 is a claim few philosophers have been eager to face head-on, despite the obvious normative significance of cultural differences for ethics. Notwithstanding the lack of systematic attention to issues of culture, the relationship of morality to social and cultural diversity has been a subject of intermittent interest and controversy for moral and political philosophers since the eighteenth century, when philosophical musings and travel writings by Europeans about the mores and customs of foreigners first emerged.

Analytic philosophers reluctant to engage questions of culture generally reject the suggestion that a descriptive account of actual moral differences among social groups ought to have any bearing at all on a normative account of morality, including a conception of justice. But this may be changing. John Rawls's shift from a strictly moral (and hypothetical) justification of justice as fairness in A Theory of Justice2 to a justificatory framework that appeals to the fit or resonance of principles of political liberalism with the actual beliefs and intuitions of citizens in liberal democratic societies, for instance, marked a significant departure from this view. With his Political Liberalism,3 Rawls cleared a space for political philosophers in the Anglo-American analytic tradition to count practical social and political conditions, including circumstances of cultural diversity, as important to both the conceptualization and application of a conception of justice. To the extent that deep differences among social and cultural norms are understood to raise questions about the universal applicability and moral legitimacy of ethical principles, however, we should perhaps not be surprised that more systematic moral thinkers remain reluctant to engage with these challenges. Kant and neo-Kantians in particular are vulnerable to the charge that an ethical-political conception founded on the ideal of moral autonomy, the inviolability of human dignity, and the test of moral universalizability is both too strenuous and too culturally bounded to hold much significance for a wide range of societies, especially non-liberal, non-European ones.

For those contemporary political philosophers who, like (recent) Rawls, link the legitimacy of political principles of justice to their wide (actual) acceptability by—and applicability to—a plurality of citizens, the increasing social and cultural diversity of liberal democratic societies presents obvious challenges. If the resonance of moral ideals and rules with diverse persons is held to be of real, justificatory significance, then the question of whether or not particular moral principles hold universal validity cannot be answered strictly in normative terms. That is, it also has an empirical aspect. Whether equal moral worth and equal human dignity are truly universal principles, for example, is not a question that can be answered in isolation from reflection on deeply held values and beliefs in diverse, often non-liberal, cultures, many of which exist within the borders of liberal states. Such a suggestion of course opens up the possibility that certain moral systems will be revealed to simply formalize culturally bounded or specific rules and concepts, but it need not lead to this conclusion.


As political claims for recognition and accommodation by cultural minorities in numerous liberal democracies have steadily increased, moral and political philosophers have come to focus greater attention on the significance of cultural differences for a conception of political morality. In recent years, a range of diverse thinkers have explored aspects of the broad question of political morality's scope and limits in light of cultural pluralism.4 Two metaethical questions emerge as paramount in the discussions of the relationship of morality to culture by these and other writers: Should the normative coherence and success of a conception of political morality—particularly a conception of justice—depend upon its acceptability to moral agents from diverse cultural communities, and to its “fit” with circumstances of deep cultural pluralism? And does a social context of cultural diversity make the very articulation of a universal moral system less plausible, conceptually or practically?

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum, in two recent books that address the theme of gender justice, seeks to offer answers to these and other questions. The position she develops, known as the human capabilities approach, claims to combine a sensitivity to social and cultural pluralism with a moral conception of human needs and human flourishing boasting universal applicability. In both Sex and Social Justice5 and Women and Human Development, Nussbaum steadfastly rejects suggestions that circumstances of cultural diversity make the search for a common view of the requirements of human well-being and social justice in any way less viable. As Nussbaum writes in Women and Human Development, “legitimate concerns for diversity, pluralism, and personal freedom are not incompatible with the recognition of universal norms; indeed, universal norms are required if we are to protect diversity, pluralism, and freedom, treating each human being as an agent and an end” (6). Nussbaum is certainly not alone in her view. There is no shortage of contemporary political philosophers seeking to rescue liberal universalism and broadly neo-Kantian justice from attack by a range of critics, from post-colonial and post-modern thinkers to skeptical pragmatists. Among the defenders, political liberals (which Nussbaum counts herself among) are persuasive proponents of the need to reject criticisms of individual rights frameworks as well as to resist the introduction of culturally differentiated collective rights for cultural minority groups. We ought instead, political liberals argue, to fashion universal principles of justice that enjoy wide legitimacy in culturally plural liberal societies.

Brian Barry's recent polemic on the perils of policies of multiculturalism from the point of view of political liberalism is perhaps the most forceful example of this view. In Culture and Equality,6 Barry makes a passionate plea for the enduring value of liberal principles and individual rights over what he sees as misguided and dangerous moves towards a framework of multiculturalism in liberal democracies. Rather than capitulating to the demands of multiculturalists and cultural interest groups, Barry suggests that we need to hold fast to a liberal conception of justice and address persistent group inequalities through broader policies of social and economic redistribution.

Similarly, prominent liberal political theorist Susan Moller Okin, in an essay entitled “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?,” defends a liberal egalitarian framework of justice over proposals to pluralize—and so, in her view, dilute and weaken—liberal values.7 The resulting dichotomy that Okin's article trades in—in which demands for cultural recognition, especially by non-liberal groups, are pitted against the re-affirmation of liberal universalist values—raises yet another critical dilemma for political philosophers. This dilemma is best articulated in terms of the following questions: Where the practices and norms of traditional, non-liberal minorities (often religious groups) conflict sharply with principles and arrangements in a given liberal democratic state, what accommodation, if any, are such minorities entitled to? And what state interference, if any, is warranted in order to protect vulnerable group members from discrimination and injustice at the hands of more powerful members of the group?

The first question is of course a version of the classic liberal paradox or dilemma of toleration, namely, are the intolerant to be tolerated? A common response by contemporary liberals is simply to say that such illiberal minorities might be owed minimal tolerance but not any substantive form of recognition or accommodation.8 The second question poses the problem of internal discrimination within minority groups, a scenario that may arise when non-liberal groups are granted limited autonomy over their communities' practices and social arrangements. In response to this concern, liberals tend to argue that so long as the right of exit—so central to liberal political theory—is guaranteed, then there exists a bulwark against the abuse and oppression of vulnerable group members.


Both of these questions and the problems they describe provide the focus for legal theorist Ayelet Shachar's recent book, Multicultural Jurisdictions: Cultural Differences and Women's Rights. Shachar challenges the view that the practices and arrangements of non-liberal minorities within liberal states do not merit respect or protection, as well as the assumption that such accommodation would be politically dangerous. Both the threat of outright prohibition of group practices by the liberal state and the last-ditch solution of exit held out to members of cultural minority groups do little more than present individuals with a tragic and unjust ultimatum: “either your culture or your rights!” (5). Assuming that no such tragic choice between one's culture and one's individual rights is strictly necessary—at least not at a general level—the task then becomes one of reconciling the normative and, most especially, the practical tensions between group cultural practices and arrangements and the norms of the constitutional liberal states in which such groups reside. As Shachar's book demonstrates, this is an enormous task, and one well known among constitutional law specialists in culturally plural liberal states.

Perhaps the greatest point of friction between the norms and customs of distinct cultural communities on the one hand and liberal principles on the other concerns the role and status of women. The principle of sex equality, conceived as a protection of a woman's individual right to equality, may conflict sharply with local cultural practices, many of which require sharp sex role differentiation and questionable treatment of women. This is not a phenomenon unique to cultural minority communities, of course: a central function of all cultures is the shaping of gender roles through cultural expectations and rules governing family and social practices. But the tensions between a social group's arrangements and the norm of sex equality may be particularly acute in the case of traditional cultures. Where cultural communities face unwanted forms of assimilation and so seek to preserve their language, identity, and distinct ways of life, the pressures on members of the group to conform to traditional gender roles can also be enormous. Shachar shows that family law, governing matters of marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance, is most often the site where the customs of religious and cultural minorities clash with the principles of liberal society. In those states where particular ethnic groups are left to administer their own family law (such as India, Israel, and South Africa), the stage is set for conflict with constitutional principles of non-discrimination and sex equality.

The belief that cultures can unjustly prevent women from achieving social, political, and economic equality is a common point of departure point for Nussbaum and Shachar. Both Women and Human Development and Multicultural Jurisdictions offer welcome and long-overdue discussions of the issue of gender and justice in an era of multiculturalism. Although this problem appears to be a rapidly growing area of research interest for feminist political theorists, surprisingly little of this scholarship has reached publication. To date, there have been only two other such books: the aforementioned volumes by Okin and her respondents (Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?) and Nussbaum (Sex and Social Justice), which cover some of the same ground. Rounding this picture out is a small selection of articles on the issue by political theorists.9 In the two volumes under review, the authors pay particular attention to the tensions that the practices and arrangements of more traditional cultures pose for liberal justice and in particular for the prospects of sex equality for women of those cultures.


Shachar's emphasis on the implications for gender equality of policies of multicultural accommodation in liberal democratic states is especially welcome, for it raises a number of important questions that contemporary proponents of cultural pluralism have tended to ignore. Foremost among these are the consequences of collective rights and arrangements for individual group members, particularly for vulnerable individuals within cultural communities, such as women. To illustrate some of the unjust effects of culturally specific political arrangements and group rights, Shachar skillfully introduces examples of discriminatory family law policies and practices in such culturally plural states as Israel and India. These contextual discussions illustrate why, as Shachar argues, political theorists need to address the three participants involved in legal and political arrangements—the group, the state, and the individual—rather than focusing exclusively on state-group interactions. Shachar aims to highlight the plight of “individuals who are put at risk at the hands of their own culture” (5), women most especially.

As someone who is broadly in favor of greater accommodation for cultural minorities yet who also fully supports gender equality and justice for women, Shachar has her work cut out for her. In laying the groundwork for her argument that cultural rights and gender justice can indeed be combined, Shachar dismisses two common responses to what we might call the “internal discrimination” problem. First, she criticizes proposals for a “re-universalized citizenship,” which simply shores up individual rights at the expense of claims for cultural rights and recognition. This view, which Shachar rightly attributes to Susan Okin, Brian Barry, and Amy Gutmann, presents “the relationship between multiculturalism and feminism … [as] a zero-sum game” (65). Critically, such an approach overlooks the extent to which cultures can and do change over time, and also tends to treat women as victims of culture, with no agency to resist, modify, or affirm social and cultural practices and arrangements (66-67). Most obviously, however, this view is problematic in that it simply refuses to engage the legitimate justice claims of cultural minorities.

Shachar also reveals the inadequacy of the reverse position, namely, a non-interventionist stance that is resigned to the “unavoidable costs” of cultural autonomy. Note that proponents of this view may or may not support cultural rights per se—they may simply be opposed to state intervention in citizens' private and social arrangements. Shachar is surely right to point out that such a laissez-faire attitude towards possible mistreatment of individuals at the hands of their cultures—a view that she attributes primarily to political philosopher Chandran Kukathas—relies on two false assumptions (68-70). First, it presumes that all membership in cultural communities is essentially voluntary, and that therefore members should be expected to shoulder the risks of such membership. And second, it relies on the related belief that members can always “opt out” of their community, thereby making state intervention either redundant or heavy-handed as a response to rights abuses. Surely such a conclusion is problematic in that it leaves vulnerable members of groups—many of whom cannot leave their families or communities, for reasons ranging from economic hardship to fear of physical violence—without recourse to broader state resources. From the standpoint of the justice claims of minorities within minorities, the belief that the “right of exit” from one's cultural community suffices as protection from egregious abuses may also undercut dissenters' constitutional claims for reform, for example, to prevent sex and religious discrimination within indigenous groups.

The tendency to place unwarranted faith in the significance and protective effect of the right to exit without fully considering either the difficulty or the cost of exit is evident in a recent article by Jeff Spinner-Halev. Arguing that “avoiding the injustice of imposing reform on oppressed groups is often more important than avoiding the injustice of discrimination against women,” Spinner-Halev contends that the possibility of exit that exists for members of minority group members in democratic states affords them “a minimal but important level of autonomy.”10 Given the personal consequences of departure from one's community and the dangers of exit for the most vulnerable members (consider the phenomenon of “honor killings” of women accused of sexual misconduct in some Muslim communities), this seems arguable. The point here is not that members of more traditional, illiberal minority groups in liberal democratic states have no agency whatsoever, but rather that it is important to attend to the actual circumstances and social contexts in which options are presented or denied, chosen or shunned.11 One of the key strengths of Martha Nussbaum's recent work, as I shall shortly discuss, is that it rejects blanket statements about the presence or absence of autonomy, focusing instead on a more nuanced study of agents' capabilities for freedom and “functioning.”

As suggested by her focus on the problem of internal discrimination, Shachar's discussion of the “perils of multicultural accommodation” centers on traditional or conservative cultural communities. She pays particular attention to the dangers posed when liberal states permit such communities to hold exclusive authority over matters of family and personal law, domains in which sex discrimination is often felt most keenly. Through an incisive discussion of the discriminatory features of marriage and divorce law in Israel, which come under the jurisdiction of religious authorities, Shachar shows that women can be left uniquely vulnerable by community rights. A more adequate set of legal and political arrangements governing diverse communities requires a more complex conception of governance, in Shachar's view. Such a conception, if realized, could extend limited powers of self-governance to culturally distinct communities at the same time as ensuring protection for vulnerable members of those groups. By contrast, the key flaw of both the “re-universalized citizenship” view and the “unavoidable costs” position is that both are based on an “oversimplified ‘either/or’-type understanding of legal authority which is not tailored to respect individuals' manifold identities” (12).

The solution to the problem of internal discrimination that Shachar advances is essentially one of legal power-sharing, or what she calls the “joint governance approach.” It is only by “re-examining the question of jurisdiction,” Shachar claims, that constitutional democracies can adequately and justly accommodate cultural minorities without leaving some members vulnerable and unprotected. Although she discusses several forms of joint governance, the one she singles out as most promising is that of “transformative accommodation,” less of a technical description than it is an aspirational one. This approach comes with conditions attached that are designed to prevent egregious abuses of power, such as the “no monopoly rule” and the requirement of “clearly delineated choice options” for group members.12 More generally, it aims at a transformation of group practices and mores: “Instead of forceful intervention or full immunity, transformative accommodation seeks to create institutional conditions where the group recognizes that its own survival depends on its revoking certain discriminatory practices …” (125).

The idea that a more complex division of legal authority or jurisdictional powers could prevent a host of abuses and systematic forms of discrimination enabled by state-protected cultural arrangements is certainly plausible. In part this is because Shachar's “joint governance” model relies on a quid-pro-quo bargain: cultural groups may receive the support and concessions they seek from the liberal democratic state provided they agree to reduce or eliminate internally discriminatory practices that cannot justly be defended (7-8). In Shachar's words, the joint governance approach “ties the mechanisms for reducing sanctioned in-group rights violations to the very same accommodation structure that enhances the jurisdictional autonomy of the nomoi group in the first place” (8). Her proposal is strikingly similar in this regard to Will Kymlicka's argument in Multicultural Citizenship that liberal states ought to encourage forms of accommodation that increase the equality of minority cultural groups vis-à-vis the rest of society (via “external protections”) but reject those arrangements whose purpose or effect is to maintain or exacerbate discrimination within the group (via “internal restrictions”).13

Shachar ultimately develops and defends a highly legalistic framework—her joint governance approach—whose value rests precariously on the task of securing the right balance of power between the state, cultural groups, and individuals. Ironically, however, questions of power are largely overlooked by her approach. Shachar's suggestion that structures of joint governance would force both state and groups alike to “abandon their perfectionist and maximalist jurisdictional aspirations, which are so often the source of conflict” (143) is savvy, if optimistic. However, she says little about what might transpire when both the state and a cultural group seek jurisdictional authority over the same institutions or practices. Instead, Shachar proposes that “contested social arenas are internally divisible into ‘sub-matters’,” which suggests a neat demarcation of micro-areas of jurisdiction. As she writes, “In cases where both the state and group have a legitimate claim to authority, the specific allocation of power between them depends on the justifications that each provide for its preferred position in governing a specific sub-matter” (128). Surely, however, the precise outcome will depend less on considerations of justice than it will on the relative power of the agents involved? Some wishful thinking and naïve rationalism are evident in Shachar's approach, though both are admittedly hard to avoid (as anyone brave enough to venture solutions to problems of justice and pluralism will surely acknowledge). The problem here is that Shachar seems to expect that the problem of contested domains can be resolved through Kantian-style rational dialogue, without explaining why, or exploring issues of force and capitulation, compliance and non-compliance.

Related to this reluctance to engage issues of power and compliance head-on, Shachar's joint governance approach also sidesteps important normative questions about the justice or injustice of particular practices and arrangements. Granted, such a task is treacherous at the best of times, for it is not clear how, as a pluralist liberal democrat, one can ask about the permissibility of practices in the abstract without re-inscribing pernicious power relations reminiscent of colonial relations. Nevertheless, some of these questions must be asked: Should arranged marriage, including more forceful variants, be permitted in liberal democratic polities? Ought polygamy to be permitted? Should religious schooling that separates girls out and limits their education to preparation for more conventional, restricted roles be allowed? Despite her clear criticisms of family law policies that enable systematic discrimination against women, Shachar all but avoids these hard cases. Instead, she hopes and expects that over time, the arrangements forged by joint governance will transform community practices and expectations. As noted, the quid-pro-quo bargain that underlies the joint governance approach aspires to “transformative accommodation,” in that it is “designed to encourage group authorities themselves to reduce discriminatory internal restrictions” (14). But again, such an explanation partly sidesteps the key normative questions at stake, and gives us little sense of what to do in the hard cases.

Shachar's highly legalistic, prudential approach is in many ways admirable, and displays a healthy skepticism about the propensity of philosophers and political theorists to resolve cultural and political disputes at an ethical or metaethical level. However, some guidance on the normative front is surely necessary, for even in the disputes over jurisdictional authority that Shachar fully expects will arise, citizens need some way of determining just what counts as a good justification for choosing whether a group or a state apparatus should control particular institutions or practices.


In this regard, Martha Nussbaum's work offers a much farther-reaching and unabashedly normative response to the question, “What social conditions, arrangements, and practices foster gender justice, and which do not?” On Nussbaum's view, social justice requires that our basic human capabilities be fostered and supported. This implicates not only the state, but also structures in civil society, including the family. Practically speaking, Nussbaum's approach requires that all citizens have real access to the resources they need to develop and sustain their basic human capabilities. What is important here is the “idea of a threshold level of each capability, beneath which it is held that truly human functioning is not available to citizens” (5). To this end, she provides a list of core capabilities that contribute significantly to one's capacity to lead a life of well-being. Among these capabilities are those of life; bodily health; bodily integrity; capabilities relating to the senses, imagination, thought, and to emotions and emotional attachments; and capabilities for practical reason, social affiliation, and political engagement. These capabilities in turn require a range of concrete social circumstances and opportunities for their development: for instance, the capability for affiliation is dependent on “having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation”; the capability for practical reason implies the need for “protection for the liberty of conscience,” and so on (78-80).

Nussbaum stresses that the list of capabilities is “a partial and not a comprehensive conception of the good” (96). It is also “emphatically, a list of separate components,” such that a “larger amount” of one good cannot be expected to replace another good (81). The list of capabilities becomes politically meaningful when joined with a social and political commitment to the “principle of each person's capability,” by which every individual person's capabilities are to be counted seriously. And indeed, Nussbaum conceives of the capabilities approach as a way to inform and redirect government policy around the world. She writes that “the approach is recommended as a good idea to politicians in India or any other nation who want to make it the basis of national or local policy,” and that “the primary role for the capabilities account remains that of providing political principles that can underlie national constitutions” (104-5).

For Nussbaum's claim to the universal applicability of the capabilities approach to hold any water, it must of course show that it is at least potentially compatible with diverse ways of life—that it does not simply reinscribe culturally specific, Western understandings of flourishing and well-being. It is not surprising, then, that this is one of the first claims Nussbaum makes in support of her theory. The capability approach, she argues, “yields a form of universalism that is sensitive to pluralism and cultural difference” (8). It is useful to unpack this claim here. The basis of Nussbaum's assertion seems to be that the list of capabilities she provides does not in any way constitute a comprehensive conception of the good. Even leaving aside the question of the thick Aristotelianism evident in the list of goods and capabilities, it is noteworthy that she fully expects that the capabilities approach can and should be used to make “comparisons of life equality.” Yet as Nussbaum herself rightly notes, we need a normative conception in order to make such comparisons worthwhile. Circumstances of social diversity surely complicate the task of delineating a culturally neutral conception of the good life. Is such a conception even possible?

One way around this problem is to emphasize, as Nussbaum does, that people can use the basic capabilities to choose very different kinds of lives. Here Nussbaum's distinction between human capabilities and the actual functionings of persons becomes important. Whereas a list of actual functionings would be too prescriptive, a list of capabilities is not, Nussbaum argues; this is because capabilities are simply a measure of someone's capacity to live a life of choice and well-being, however defined. Another answer that Nussbaum gives to the criticisms she anticipates concerning the cultural thickness of the human capabilities model is that a person can choose to ignore a good of the list of central human capabilities, or choose a non-list good, without necessarily risking a substandard life (95). But these qualifications of course only take us so far.

The normative thickness of Nussbaum's conception of the good comes into sharp relief when she discusses roles and arrangements that bind women in many traditional societies, which are largely incompatible with her list of capabilities. She is admirably upfront about the extent to which capabilities theory and the conception of respect for persons as ends in themselves will require that people “take a stand against some very common ways of treating women—as child-like, as incompetent in matters of property and contract, as mere adjuncts of a family line, as reproducers and care givers rather than as having their own lives to live” (58). But what of the cases where women seem to embrace these subordinate roles? Here Nussbaum raises, as she must, the possibility that some women, especially those in traditional societies, might not choose or want certain of the basic capabilities enumerated in the list—namely, those that conflict with their customary roles. An interesting but ultimately unsatisfying discussion of the problem of adaptive preferences ensues (in chapter 2), wherein Nussbaum contends that the apparent preferences of women in restrictive cultures are in any case mostly adaptive, and so can change. This discussion calls to mind classical Marxist arguments about the malleability of the working classes' consciousness and allegiances, which were said to closely reflect and also to change along with prevailing social and economic conditions.14

The adaptive preferences rationale does provide Nussbaum with a conceptual wedge with which to argue that women's choices can and likely will change once they have the full range of capabilities and attendant opportunities. This is presumably what leads her to insist that in facing the prospect of women who reject one or more of the basic capabilities or who agree to a practice or custom that permanently jeopardizes a list good, a stringent test must be applied: “What we would need to show is that women who have experienced the full range of the central capabilities choose, with full information and without intimidation … to deny these capabilities, politically, to all women” (153). This test, seemingly inspired by Kant's maxim of moral universalizability, would no doubt lead to the prohibition of a wide range of traditional roles and practices in which women find themselves. The implications of such a test on traditional ways of life, and the possibility that such a rule might be perceived by communities as unjust interference, however, is not a matter that Nussbaum much dwells on.

How does Nussbaum manage to paint herself into this corner? Integral to her list are those capabilities that one needs in order to make uncoerced choices about one's life. These capabilities in turn require the support of political rights and liberties, which reflect a political demand for a certain basic treatment vis-à-vis important capabilities. Rights (or the demand for them) reinforce “the basic role of the spheres of ability” and emphasize “people's choice and autonomy” (98-101). The emphasis on choice and autonomy, and the reinforcing role of political rights, suggests that nothing short of a fully liberal egalitarian framework for the sexes can supply the requirements of social justice. One of the first examples of a practice that fails the capabilities test is that of restrictive, traditional marriage: insofar as such marriages remove or make impossible the development of important capabilities, Nussbaum argues that they ought not to be tolerated (94).

Nussbaum's particular conception of the good life is a curious combination of Aristotelian idealism, political liberalism, and Kantian ethics (she emphasizes that treating “each person as an end” becomes a “principle of each person's capability”). It is not an unattractive vision. Common to all three ideals, of course, is the pivotal value of autonomy. Nor is there much to quibble with here: Nussbaum is surely right that people generally prefer more choice and control over the circumstances of their lives than not. The conversations with poor Indian women that Nussbaum invokes to illustrate the role of capabilities in well-being, in which they almost uniformly praise the positive effects of greater choice in their lives, certainly resonate as true. However, the difficulty of Nussbaum's conception is that it doesn't merely assert that choice is an important good; rather, it claims that choice—and the capabilities and opportunities that support choice—is an ultimate good. This claim, if it can be defended at all, will require extensive normative justification, particularly if it is to apply to diverse social groups. But no such justification is forthcoming. Instead, more claims are piled on top of this one. If choice and the capabilities that support it are critical components of a good life, then our social and political arrangements must, as a matter of justice, reflect this. For Nussbaum, this rule holds even if someone seems to collude in their own subordination: in the case of a person who seems to choose to “sign away a major capability in a permanent way,” often state intervention is warranted in order “to protect the capability” (93-94).

The determinate nature of Nussbaum's conception of the good life, despite her protests to the contrary, is thus further reinforced by her insistence that one cannot rationally choose to (permanently) give up an important capability. If highly traditional, restrictive marriages—particularly arranged marriages—warrant intervention in the form of social policy, one can imagine a long list of other practices and arrangements that are simply intolerable from the standpoint of core capabilities. An adult African woman who elects to undergo female circumcision after the birth of her children—a real-life example that Bhikhu Parekh has discussed—is thus incomprehensible and insupportable, since to do so is to permanently give up capability central to human flourishing (the capacity for sexual pleasure). Presumably, to elect to become the second or third wife of Muslim man is also to risk compromising one's core capabilities for choice and autonomy, since polygamous marriages frequently render women financially vulnerable and weaken their individual decision-making power.

As it turns out, then, certain choices are simply not choices at all in Nussbaum's capability scheme. Women cannot freely choose to participate in practices or arrangements that will jeopardize their well-being (and if they do, the state ought to step in to prevent them. On Nussbaum's rationalist view, women will seek to secure their own basic physical and material well-being, and that of their children, before they venture out to seek a wider range of goods or to develop other capabilities. But what of choices that do not fall into line, such as a life of religious devotion, which may include deliberate sacrifice of several of the capabilities Nussbaum cites, and even suffering? A faint echo of the Marxist, materialist conception of self-interest can be heard here, together with a hint of the possibility of false consciousness (wherein women fail to recognize their own rational self-interest).

Given Nussbaum's claim that the capabilities approach is widely, indeed universally, applicable across culturally plural societies, the normative thickness of her list is potentially problematic. If Nussbaum were to offer better justification for her substantive conception of the good life as reflected by the list of capabilities, we could at least grapple with that. Not only is such an argument not forthcoming, however, but the conception of flourishing Nussbaum sets out depends upon a normative ordering of choices that she does not acknowledge. Women will (or ought to) first choose to develop and maintain capabilities that enhance their ability to make choices and lead reasonably self-directed lives, according to the theory. They will (or ought to) choose to secure basic capabilities and the circumstances that support these (nutrition, shelter) before they pursue other capabilities and goods (religious fulfillment, say). It is merely assumed that women will make rational choices in the order suggested by the degree of critical importance of the capability in question, as elaborated by Nussbaum. We do not have to look very far to see that this ordering of preferences and choices is simply not to be counted on.


While compelling and well intentioned, both Nussbaum's Aristotelian capabilities approach and Shachar's joint governance proposal may strike readers as overly optimistic, and possibly counterfactual. This isn't to say that democratic approaches to resolving tensions between cultural practices and the goal of justice for women are necessarily naïve or impractical. It is to say, however, that neither approach offered in these books holds out an adequate answer to the practical dilemmas at hand. Shachar may come closer in that she begins to explore the merits of a more dialogue-based approach to resolving normative and legal tensions between traditional cultural communities and liberal principles. Moreover, her approach takes seriously, as it must, the identity claims and self-government aspirations (especially in the case of Aboriginal peoples) of the cultures in question. However, to date, no feminist discussions of the issue of “culture versus sex equality” has argued in a systematic way for a dialogical approach sensitive to the claims of cultural groups. Indeed, in response to conflicts between (minority) cultural norms and practices and sex equality, both Nussbaum and Susan Okin argue for the application of principles of justice that do not take much account of the values and normative commitments of members of traditional cultures: Nussbaum argues for an essentially Aristotelian response to gender injustice, and Okin merely re-asserts the primacy of liberal individual rights.15 Shachar, though more open to discursive or deliberative solutions, retreats to a legalistic remedy for conflicts of culture, leaving unresolved the profound normative questions that are certain to arise.

Despite, or perhaps because of, Shachar's and Nussbaum's engaging discussion of the problem of gender and justice in plural societies, we are left with the same broad questions that surely motivated their studies in the first place: What happens when cultural and ethical norms and frameworks collide in democratic societies? Should liberal norms and principles prevail when traditional cultures clash with liberal ones? If so, what normative justification can be offered for this move? If not, what persuasive justifications can we offer for permitting traditional values and arrangements to prevail, unchallenged, in certain communities? These questions inevitably invite us to weigh the merits of both moral universalism and cultural relativism as possible approaches to dilemmas of difference. Yet respect for cultural group differences need not entail a stance of extreme cultural or moral relativism, the sort that would permit grave mistreatment of persons, all in the name of culture; indeed, such a position is surely indefensible in liberal democratic societies. Nor is it clear, however, that the way to reconciling the sometimes competing claims for cultural group recognition and gender equality lies in shoring up a framework of individual rights that may be increasingly at odds with citizens' deeply held beliefs and norms in culturally plural liberal democratic societies. Perhaps we would do better instead to develop practices of judgment and decision-making that are sensitive to the competing normative claims of different cultural communities, and to adopt truly pluralistic political norms—provided that some can be discovered.


  1. Some leading texts by anthropologists that assert the cultural embeddedness of social and moral norms include Melville Herskovits, Cultural Relativism: Perspectives in Cultural Pluralism (New York: Random House, 1972), and Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989/1993).

  2. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971).

  3. John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993).

  4. Some examples include David Archard (ed.), Philosophy and Pluralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Monique Deveaux, Cultural Pluralism and Dilemmas of Justice (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000); Samuel Fleischacker, The Ethics of Culture (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994); Thomas Hill, Jr., Respect, Pluralism, and Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); Anthony Laden, Reasonably Radical: Deliberative Liberalism and the Politics of Identity (Ithaca, N. Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001); Onora O'Neill, The Bounds of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000); Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000); Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony and Solidarity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Knopf, 1999); Charles Taylor et al., Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Jim Tully (ed.) with Daniel Weinstock, Philosophy in an Age of Pluralism: The Philosophy of Charles Taylor in Question (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994); and James Tully, Strange Multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an/Age of Diversity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

  5. Martha Nussbaum, Sex and Social Justice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  6. Brian Barry, Culture and Equality: An Egalitarian Critique of Multiculturalism (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).

  7. In Susan Moller Okin and respondents, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, ed. J. Cohen, M. Howard, and M.C. Nussbaum (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 7-24. Also see her reply to critics in the same volume.

  8. This is the position Charles Larmore defends, for example, in his Patterns of Moral Complexity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

  9. Some examples include Jeff Spinner-Halev, “Feminism, Multiculturalism, Oppression, and the State,” Ethics 112 (2001): 84-113; Monique Deveaux, “Conflicting Equalities? Cultural Group Rights and Sex Equality,” Political Studies 48 (2000): 522-39; and Avigail Eisenberg, “Diversity and Equality: Three Approaches to Cultural and Sexual Difference,” Journal of Political Philosophy, forthcoming. Material from Shachar's book was previously published as articles in the Journal of Political Philosophy and Political Theory, and elsewhere.

  10. Spinner-Halev, “Feminism, Multiculturalism,” pp. 86 and 106.

  11. For a critique of the liberal conception of the right to exit from a feminist perspective, see Susan Moller Okin, “‘Mistresses of Their Own Destiny’: Group Rights, Gender, and Realistic Rights of Exit,” Ethics 112 (2002): 205-30.

  12. See chapter 6 generally, esp. pp. 117-18 and p. 127.

  13. Will Kymlicka, Multicultural Citizenship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), esp. chapters 3 and 5. Despite the seeming complementarity of Shachar's view, she criticizes Kymlicka's distinction between “external and internal aspects of accommodation” for “failing to provide a workable solution in practice for certain real-life situations involving accommodated groups” (18).

  14. Thanks to Roger Gottlieb for this insight.

  15. Here I refer to the Nussbaum volume under discussion, and to Okin's “Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?”


Principal Works


Further Reading