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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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Comment Preferences

  •  Thanks for this (3+ / 0-)

    I'm no fan of Butler's, but I was unfamiliar with Nussbaum. I have been frustrated with the silence of public moral philosophy in the U.S. since our professionalization. The institutions encourage publication, and publication demands ownership of subjects, and that is best done by invention of topics or concepts, and that is maintained by warfare. Consequently, the idea of speaking publicly is already stressful, because every review must be negative -- there are no advantages to agreement and all advantages to clever disagreement.

    Bloom spoke out on a thing many felt, many feel, and many will feel, and he had a broad thesis that was too broad. Inevitably, he was going to fumble, and this is especially true because his stance was that of the wise man. He begged to be broken. (Harold Bloom's "canon" demanded the same.) (Tom Wolfe's amateur attacks demanded the same.) Even I thought Allan Bloom was wrong, though I thought he was right that the common language was disappearing (at nearly the same time, Northrop Frye's The Great Code was virtually ignored; so was Wayne C. Booth's The Company We Keep, as both made rehabilitory neo-classical arguments about cultural currency).

    Thanks for reviewing the reviews.

    Everyone is innocent of some crime.

    by The Geogre on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 09:47:15 AM PST

    •  For myself, I was (and am) sympathetic (4+ / 0-)

      to Bloom (as Nussbaum was) but I've also read many of those texts and I thought Bloom was just wrong.

      Dr. Nussbaum struck the exact chord that needed to be struck; so much of what was said about Bloom was simply hysterical: even moreso now with the benefit of 25 years of hindsight.

      •  The coalition of texts (4+ / 0-)

        Around the same time, we had Postman's Philippic, then Booth and Frye, and Bloom, and it seemed like all of them were detecting what now is entirely undeniable: the body of common language that had existed for perhaps only two hundred years, and perhaps only due to force and class and small populations, was disappearing, but disappearing to be replaced by. . . nothing.

        While the folks who ridiculed such lamentations pointed at the need to correct past mistakes (my own Marxists were happy to point out how all canon is a lie of money), the present was becoming not fragmented but incoherent. It isn't necessarily true that the "American mind" closed for losing the classical columns, but the mind closed for lack of language at the same time.

        (Then again, we're speaking, and the critics always have to explain themselves when claiming that discourse is impossible.)

        Everyone is innocent of some crime.

        by The Geogre on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 10:18:54 AM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  It's interesting (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          The Geogre, Monsieur Georges

          I was recently browsing through the forward to Paul Goodman's classicGrowing Up Absurd and one claim that the new Forward to the book was making is that now Goodman (who was an anarchist, for lack of a better word) seems, at times, conservative...and it made the very definitive point that even as an anarchist, he shared in that Common language (personally, I don't think that that "common language" has gone anywhere).

          •  One last, then I'll leave you in peace (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            Chitown Kev, Monsieur Georges

            I don't want to take up too much time.

            The bit that keeps bouncing up to the surface in my field is hermeneutics. Despite how we dress it in epistemology or identity or go back to materialism, we're doing so because we either feel that hermeneutics is best avoided that way or because we feel that these things satisfy the hermeneutic principle and can answer the question of "how to mean." (To be more precise, we deal with excess signification.) In the 1970's and 1980's, thinkers bounded from one pole to another.

            No man can deny that a woman is a woman all her life and that this will be a fact she must encounter in all parts of her life, but to then say that this fact is determinant of excess signification is to suggest that only one political and psychological constellation of factors rises to control. The same would be true of any "identity" base of comprehension. No elite may deny that, as Brecht said, "food is the first thing morals follow on" and that class and power may wear the flesh of many, but it moves them more than it is moved by them. Again, though, to say that it is the determinant is to isolate a fact and make it a language (a system of meaning).

            I have evaded the worst of the crisis by relying on a "social language": the fact that words are negotiated inaudibly by social intercourse as well as by ideological state apparatus. This background is "culture" in the archeologist's sense, and it is the method by which excess signification can rely for meaning.

            My concern is that, yes, the language of allusion is not going away, but it is reverting to an elite. We've lost the reference to "Saturday Night Live" on Monday culture, the Top 40 song of the summer culture, as well as the yearly adaptations of "A Christmas Carol" culture and left any recursive storehouse to the small segment who always dwelled there. (Way off, I know.)

            Everyone is innocent of some crime.

            by The Geogre on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 11:52:11 AM PST

            [ Parent ]

      •  I may have asked the question below too soon! ;-) (0+ / 0-)
    •  i'm making note of these books, thank you (3+ / 0-)

      this is one of the diaries that keep me coming to kos

      though the political scene is so discouraging to contemplate

      this is different; to read arguments about culture, especially of the usa,  being something i already have ideas about, is exciting

      it's likely to result in a better society, if the culture changes as much as it looks certain to

  •  Haven't read any Nussbaum in years, although (4+ / 0-)

    I always find her clear and accessible. I've seen her speak a couple times too. As someone who used to have to defend the inclusion of humanistic thinking in the classroom, I used her arguments, particularly a study Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.

    stay together / learn the flowers / go light - Gary Snyder

    by Mother Mags on Sat Feb 23, 2013 at 10:02:20 AM PST

  •  thanks for the reminder (3+ / 0-)
    The ten capabilities Nussbaum argues should be supported by all democracies are:

    Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
    Bodily Health. Being able to have good health, including reproductive health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter.
    Bodily Integrity. Being able to move freely from place to place; to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault and domestic violence; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction.
    Senses, Imagination, and Thought. Being able to use the senses, to imagine, think, and reason—and to do these things in a "truly human" way, a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing works and events of one's own choice, religious, literary, musical, and so forth. Being able to use one's mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. Being able to have pleasurable experiences and to avoid non-beneficial pain.
    Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and people outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing, gratitude, and justified anger. Not having one's emotional development blighted by fear and anxiety. (Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development.)
    Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's life. (This entails protection for the liberty of conscience and religious observance.)
    Being able to live with and toward others, to recognize and show concern for other humans, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another. (Protecting this capability means protecting institutions that constitute and nourish such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedom of assembly and political speech.)
    Having the social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation; being able to be treated as a dignified being whose worth is equal to that of others. This entails provisions of non-discrimination on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, ethnicity, caste, religion, national origin and species.
    Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
    Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
    Control over one's Environment.
    Political. Being able to participate effectively in political choices that govern one's life; having the right of political participation, protections of free speech and association.
    Material. Being able to hold property (both land and movable goods), and having property rights on an equal basis with others; having the right to seek employment on an equal basis with others; having the freedom from unwarranted search and seizure. In work, being able to work as a human, exercising practical reason and entering into meaningful relationships of mutual recognition with other workers.

  •  Great review! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    matching mole, Chitown Kev

    I haven't dug deeply enough into philosophy to know what's what, but I'm tempted to try this book anyhow.

    I've got a copy of The Closing of the American Mind, but I haven't read it yet.  What are your thoughts on that book?

    •  I sympathize with the project (0+ / 0-)

      However, Bloom seemed to blame the 1960's when all of those trends (uprisings, revolts, reevaluations of values etc.) were clearly visible in antiquity and then some...I mean, Bloom was an expert on Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Rousseau's writings were discussed in salons all over Europe and especially in France prior to the revolution. There were lessons that he could have learned there.

      I also find it ironic that Bloom chose to blame Nietzsche when Nietzsche was pretty much complaining about the same thing (the lack of a shared language) as regards his university career.

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