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Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at The University of Chicago, believes that it is her duty to address the general public as well as her academic peers. In a 2008 interview, Dr. Nussbaum decried “the academic professionalization of philosophy,” noting that moral and political philosophers, traditionally, “addressed a wider public.” In the public sphere, Dr. Nussbaum has collaborated with Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen and others in developing “the capabilities approach,” which, in turn, lead to the development of new indicies designed to calculate wealth, development, and growth in nations (i.e. The Human Development Index).  She has traveled extensively to India and done fieldwork with Indian feminists in improving the conditions of impoverished women in that part of the world. Her early academic work dealt with the intersection of philosophy and literature and the emotions, the subjects of books like The Fragility of Goodness, Love’s Knowledge, and the Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions. Her 19th book, Philosophical Interventions, is “the record of twenty-five years of engagement with political and cultural issues from the vantage point of philosophy through the genre of the book review.” Altogether, PI has 35 (mostly) book reviews; 75% of the book reviews were originally published in The New York Review of Books and The New Republic. Dr. Nussbaum’s collection, her first career retrospective, covers a vast array of subject matter, including feminism, philosophy, classics, education, law, and literature. In addition to the reviews of mostly scholarly and academic books, there are two film reviews and a poetry review, as well as some introductory remarks.

Much of the introduction covers pedestrian editorial procedures; the purpose of doing reviews, their generation, etc. The highlight of this section is Dr. Nussbaum’s Six Point Plan to Penning Responsible Book Reviews, which should be taught in every non-fiction writing classroom.  The other notable part of this introduction is her classification of book reviews into distinct categories. She devotes much of the introduction to what she calls “deflationary reviews” which “assail an allegedly overblown reputation and claim that the work is not good.” Of the four reviews in Philosophical Interventions that she classifies as “deflationary reviews,” Nussbaum’s introduction focuses on the two reviews she is best known for: her 1987 review of Allan Bloom’s bestseller The Closing of the American Mind and her 1999 review of a selection of books authored by University of California-Berkeley feminist philosopher Judith Butler.

Nussbaum’s 1987 review of Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is noted for its' sobriety amid reviews that resorted to ad hominem and an accusation (half-jokingly?)  that novelist Saul Bellow was the author writing under the pseudonym “Allan Bloom.”   Nussbaum conducted a painstaking “Socratic”-like dissection of Bloom’s interpretation of classical texts like Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics and showed that not only was Bloom’s exegesis of the classic texts shoddy; she showed that Bloom’s reading (at least for The Closing of the American Mind) were incomplete due to the contrary ideas contained in other well-known texts of Greek and Roman antiquity authored by Seneca, Plutarch, Cicero, and others. In the introduction, Nussbaum states that she has no regrets for what she wrote but  does say that if she were to write that review today, she would place more emphasis on her shared commitments with Bloom, including similar positions on philosophical relativism, historicism, and the centrality of the humanities (and philosophy specifically) in the curriculum. Unlike Nussbaum’s (sort of) apologia for and sense of (some) shared commitments with Allan Bloom, there is no softening of her position toward Berkeley professor Judith Butler. Nussbaum’s 1999 overview of Butler’s work, including critiques of the books Gender Trouble, Bodies That Matter, The Psychic Life of Power, and Excitable Speech, indicts Butler on matters of both style and substance.  Nussbaum finds Butler’s writing style to be “ponderous and obscure” and “dense with allusions” to the ideas of thinkers across multiple disciplines, resulting in an “obscurity” that creates “an aura of importance” but lacks “a real complexity of thought and argument.” Nussbaum further shows that the idea of gender as a “social artifice” has a substantial cross-disciplinary lineage (going back to Plato) to which Butler adds little save for her best known idea: her idea of a “politics as parodic performance; practically the only type of resistance availableto pwer structures. Coupled with Butler’s opposition to “a normative theory of social justice and human dignity,” Nussbaum categorically dismisses Butler’s ideas, denouncing them as “defeatism” and “quietism,” ultimately concluding that Butler’s ideas, as exemplified in her books, “collaborates with evil.”

Nussbaum’s best review in Philosophical Interventions is her 1991 review of Gregory Vlastos’s Socrates, Ironist, and Moral Philosopher. Not only is the Vlastos review enthusiastically written; but it also represents an intersection, of sorts, with academic and public philosophy for Nussbaum. Near the end of the essay as Nussbaum examines the Socratic conception of eudaimon as outlined by Vlastos) Nussbaum (and Vlastos) conclude that the essential texts point to the idea that, for Socrates, virtue is both necessary and sufficient condition for eudaimonia; all by itself.” Socrates believes that so long as courage, moderation, justice, piety, and wisdom are present that one is fully eudaimon, "no matter what the world around him is doing.” That might sound nice, initially, but Nussbaum (with Vlastos) lays out the implications of this Socratic position. One can be eudaimon even though “one has lost a child or a parent or a spouse.” One can be eudaimon even if one has been betrayed by a friend.  If one is eudaimon, “the rape of a child is no big deal.” If one is eudaimon, there is no need for the (Aristotelian) “tragic emotions of pity or fear;” in other words, there is no tragedy. And, most significantly, one can be eudaimon even if one doesn’t have “health, freedom from pain, and political freedom.” If the phrase “health, freedom from pain, and political freedom” sounds familiar, it's because these are items from Nussbaum’s list of capabilities. Or, in other words, at the core of Nussbaum’s signature achievement in international puublic policy, the capabilities approach, is her theoretical quarrel with Socrates and the Socratic notions of virtue and eudaimonia.

There are many other gems among this fine retrospective collection of essays. Nussbaum’s review of William Bennett’s The Book of Virtues is a great example of Nussbaum’s use of dialectic in book reviewing. She contrasts “the enormously difficult affair” of “Aristotelian moral art” with a “vulgar Tolstoyian” art of “moral simplicity” that reveals Bennett (at least in this book) to be a far more complex thinker and person than the “populist demagogic eternal-verities" sort of conservative that he has come to exemplify. The Winkler/Halperin book review was well-written although I have to confess a prurient interest in reading that review because it earned Nussbaum Camille Paglia’s highest praise (“Nussbaum achieves what I have dreamed of”) and condemnation (When Martha Nussbaum compares Winkler to Nietzsche, what standards are left…”) all within two paragraphs, a rare achievement.   Her review of Mary Kinzie’s book of poetry Drift, Nussbaum shows that she doesn’t have to jam every idea that she may have onto a subject into a short essay; instead, she opts for a beautifully evocative rendition of the "barnacles of the soul" image from Plato's Republic and uses that image as a key, of sorts, in her review of Kinzie.

Philosophical Interventions is a valuable contribution to what Judge Richard Posner (Dr. Nussbaum's friend and occasional foe) might call "public philosophy" in the United States. To be sure, the “Socratic demand for definitions, explanations, and rational arguments,” the stating and restating of thesis, the evaluation of necessary and sufficient conditions, required for academic audiences, is evident in most of these reviews and occasionally makes for tedious reading. Thankfully, Dr. Nussbaum rarely uses technical jargon and when she does, the term will be defined in the text. At times, Nussbaum livens up her subject matter with well-chosen examples from the world of sports (i.e. her mention of the 2006 Michael Barrett/A.J. Pierzynski scuffle as a counter-example of Harvey Mansfield’s notion of “manliness”) and even her own life (her face-to-face meeting with English philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch).

One can quibble over some of the essays not included here; my favorite essay of Nussbaum's, for example, is her tribute to one of her mentors, British philosopher Bernard Williams and her 1985 review of French philosopher Michael Foucault's final two published books seems necessary in light of the shadow Foucault casts over her Winkler/Halperin review specifically, and queer studies more generally (including the Butler piece). Overall, though, Philosophical Interventions demonstartes that when Dr. Nussbaum "lays her cards on the table" (a favorite phrase of hers), she's not bluffing.

Originally posted to Chitown Kev on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 09:30 AM PST.

Also republished by Progressive Friends of the Library Newsletter and Readers and Book Lovers.

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