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Who Needs Philosophy? A profile of Martha Nussbaum

The New York Times Magazine, November 21, 1999

Martha Nussbaum portrait

Back when she was the star of her high-school drama club, the philosopher Martha Nussbaum wasn’t interested in playing Emily in “Our Town.” Her favorite role was Robespierre – in a five-act, French-language production she wrote herself. Decades later, she still speaks fondly of the meandering walks she would take around the affluent Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr, dreaming of the sacrifices the Frenchman made to advance his ideals. “I was fascinated by his dilemma of wanting liberty for everyone, but having to figure out what to do with individuals who won’t go along with your plan,” she recalled recently. “I still think about it all the time.” Nussbaum also remembered the fun she had playing Joan of Arc, entranced as she was by the question of “how far to sacrifice friendship and personal loyalty to an abstract cause.” Although Nussbaum eventually traded the stage for the academy, she still takes these early inspirations to heart. Synthesizing the passion of the revolutionary with the zeal of the self-sacrificing saint, she has become, at 52, the most prominent female philosopher in America.

In addition to producing a steady stream of books and articles from her perches at Harvard, Brown and now at the University of Chicago, she has cultivated a distinctive, even glamorous, public presence. Nussbaum has discussed Greek tragedy with Bill Moyers on PBS, presented Plato on the Discovery Channel and been photographed by Annie Leibovitz for her new book, “Women.” More important, as a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New Republic, Nussbaum’s essays have become required reading for those with a taste for intellectual combat. Prized for her writing’s acerbic bite, she first attracted notice in 1987 with a devastating attack on Allan Bloom’s conservative diatribe “The Closing of the American Mind.” Writing in The New York Review of Books, she denounced his proposal that universities dedicate themselves solely to educating the elite and savaged what she saw as Bloom’s distorted reading of Greek philosophy. “How good a philosopher, then, is Allan Bloom?” she concluded. “We are given no reason to think him one at all.”

Earlier this year, Nussbaum took aim at Judith Butler, the radical feminist philosopher who has attained cultlike status (through dense monographs like “Gender Trouble”) for arguing, among other things, that society is built on artificial gender norms that can best be undermined with “subversive” symbolic behavior, like cross-dressing. Appearing in The New Republic, Nussbaum’s 8,600-word essay, “The Professor of Parody,” castigated Butler for proffering a “self-involved” feminism that encouraged women to disengage from real-world problems – like inferior wages or sexual harassment – and retreat to theory. “For Butler,” she wrote, “the act of subversion is so riveting, so sexy, that it is a bad dream to think that the world will actually get better.” By abdicating the fight against injustice in favor of “hip defeatism,” Butler, Nussbaum concluded darkly, “collaborates with evil.”

The review received a visceral response within the academy and beyond. Butler’s defenders branded it an ad feminam attack on an innovative thinker whose reputation was surpassing Nussbaum’s own. “It was a crassly opportunistic act,” said Joan Scott, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Others welcomed Nussbaum’s blow against the hermetic politics of postmodernism. “The piece was a skillful and long-overdue shredding,” said Katha Pollitt, the feminist writer.

Although it would be hard to find two more ideologically dissimilar thinkers than Bloom and Butler, according to Nussbaum’s withering judgment they were guilty of a common crime: both were mandarin philosophers who refused to use their theories to help wage the battle for freedom, justice and equality. While Bloom was at least openly skeptical about philosophy’s connection to democracy (he disparaged those who dared to seek practical advice from his beloved Greek texts), Butler drew Nussbaum’s ire because she claimed to be using philosophy to address political issues even as she manipulated poststructuralist theory to sidestep them. “I thought of the Butler and Bloom reviews as acts of public service,” she said. “But a lot of my impatience with their work grew out of my repudiation of my own aristocratic upbringing. I don’t like anything that sets itself up as an in-group or an elite, whether it is the Bloomsbury group or Derrida.”

The debate over whether philosophy should play a mandarin or public role has been a contentious one throughout American intellectual history. In the hands of thinkers like Sidney Hook and John Dewey, philosophy turned its attention “from the problems of philosophers toward the problems of men,” as Dewey wrote in “Reconstruction in Philosophy” (1920). After the Second World War, the mainstream of American philosophy became reclusively “analytic,” orienting itself around the study of logic, mathematics and the philosophy of science, while maintaining only a tenuous connection to the world at large. With John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice” (1971), academic philosophy initiated a wary rapprochement with its more socially engaged past, using the analytic idiom to address age-old questions of justice. Nussbaum’s work has played an important part in this revival, as she has extended Rawls’s liberal insights to examine questions of gender, race and international development. She insists that philosophy be rigorous and, above all, useful. Whereas Ludwig Wittgenstein once compared philosophers to garbage men sweeping the mind clean of wrongheaded concepts, Nussbaum believes they should be “lawyers for humanity” – a phrase she borrows from Seneca, her favorite Stoic thinker. Part wonk, part sage, Nussbaum is determined to make philosophy relevant to the modern world.

Given her rhetorical ferocity, I was surprised to find that Nussbaum was so soft-spoken when we met in her airy apartment in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago. Dressed simply in a white T-shirt and black spandex leggings, she was tall and striking, with a square jaw and wavy, shoulder-length blond hair. Although she casually curled up on her living-room sofa, once we begin to talk it became apparent that there was little soft about her. She answered every question exhaustively, with a steely precision that let you practically see the footnotes hovering in the air. Her hair was still damp from a grueling Sunday routine: a 12-mile run along Lake Michigan followed by weight-lifting, intended as preparation for a fall marathon. (Because she “detests earphones,” she later told me, she runs to a mental soundtrack: fully memorized extracts from “The Marriage of Figaro.”)

Nussbaum taught at Harvard and Brown for 20 years before coming to the University of Chicago in 1995, where she has appointments in the law and divinity schools, as well as in the departments of philosophy, classics and Southern Asian studies. Her multiple affiliations attest to a breadth of intellectual interest that is rare in a world of academic specialists. While most scholars spend entire careers studying a particular era or thinker, Nussbaum – in books like “The Fragility of Goodness,” “For Love of Country” and this year’s “Sex and Social Justice” – moves easily from Aristotle to international development, from Dickens to contemporary feminism.

When I asked why she reacted so strongly to Butler’s work, she furrowed her brow, looked down and spoke with the hushed, somber tone one might employ in addressing a grave threat to national security. “Butler is like the Pied Piper leading all the children away!” she told me. “If all these wonderful people drop out of politics, then there are that many fewer people left to fight against evil.”

Such unabashed moralism is rarely heard from philosophers these days. “Martha is unashamedly interested in goodness, which she writes about with such shocking earnestness,” explained her friend Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic. “For her, philosophy is nothing less than an intellectual tool for the improvement of mankind.”

But Nussbaum’s high-stakes rhetoric can irritate her peers. “It’s zany,” said the literary critic Stanley Fish of Nussbaum’s desire to make philosophy helpful. “In the end, all philosophy equips you to do is more philosophy – it doesn’t make you better at any other area of public life.” The philosopher Richard Rorty was also dubious about her “impatient and dismissive” attacks on fellow thinkers. “Her tone sometimes suggests that to differ from her is to imperil the social bond,” he said. Others attributed the hostility toward Nussbaum to jealousy. “There are a lot of shriveled souls in the academic world,” said G.W. Bowersock, a historian at the Institute for Advanced Study, “and they feel intimidated by Martha because she is able to do so much so well.”

With Nussbaum’s concern for philosophy’s nuts-and-bolts utility, it is not surprising that her strongest connection at Chicago is to the university’s law school – a contentious institution that has produced some of the most brilliant legal theorists and judges in the country. At Chicago, theory is never far from practice. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia taught here; Federal Judge Richard Posner (with whom Nussbaum taught a course on the French philosopher Michel Foucault) founded the influential “law and economics” movement here. Another prominent presence is the legal theorist Catharine MacKinnon, who drafted some of the nation’s strongest antipornography laws.

Nussbaum believes that one of the most effective ways she can change public life is through her teaching at the law school. “Many of my students will go off to be clerks and eventually judges and even legislators,” she said. “Right now I have three colleagues who are federal judges – and when I sit down and talk with them, I hope I can change their views on some things, too.”

Nussbaum’s work as a “lawyer for humanity” comes primarily out of the liberal political tradition, one that extends from John Stuart Mill to John Rawls. This tradition emphasizes the equal worth of individuals and the inviolable freedom to choose your path in life – regardless of gender, class, sexual orientation, race or nationality. While this perspective may seem common-sensical to outsiders, the insistence with which she applies her “universal” philosophy rubs against an academic establishment wary of making cross-cultural judgments.

In 1986 Nussbaum was invited by the economist Amartya Sen (the 1998 Nobel laureate with whom she was then romantically involved) to work with the United Nations World Institute for Development Economics Research. Their aim was to find alternatives to the dominant theories of international development: one, the economist’s view that a country’s G.N.P. is the only reliable measure of social, economic and political progress; two, the relativist position that Westerners must refrain from judging foreign cultures.

To counter such positions, Nussbaum and Sen promoted the “capabilities approach” to development, enumerating a universal set of values – the right to life, bodily health and integrity; the right to participate in political affairs; the right to hold property – that could be used to judge the quality of life in any society. Unlike G.N.P. per capita’s focus on opulence, wrote Nussbaum in “Sex and Social Justice,” the capabilities approach “asks about the distribution of resources and opportunities. . . . It strongly invites a scrutiny of cultural tradition as one of the primary sources of such unequal abilities.” For example, a wealthy Indian woman might have less “capability” than a poor Swedish woman – because of the sexist society she lives in.

As part of her research, Nussbaum made frequent trips to India to study the problems of poor women there. She advised programs aimed at increasing female literacy in India and the prosecution of domestic violence there. Nussbaum has little patience with those who accuse her of foisting “foreign” values on other cultures. “It is better to risk being consigned by critics to the ‘hell’ reserved for alleged Westernizers and imperialists,” she wrote in “Sex and Social Justice,” “than to stand around in the vestibule waiting for a time when everyone will like what we are going to say.”

Nussbaum’s rights-based universalism also undergirded her arguments for equality for homosexuals. In 1993, she was asked to be a prosecution witness in Romer v. Evans; the case challenged a Colorado amendment that sought to overturn local laws protecting homosexuals from discrimination. In testifying, she discovered that the career of the politically engaged philosopher can be fraught with peril. Having never set foot inside a courtroom, the “lawyer for humanity” was unprepared for how little a hostile cross-examination resembled the free-ranging inquiry of the seminar. On the stand, Nussbaum cited classical texts to argue that there were no ancient precedents for denying homosexuals equality. “Plato’s dialogues contain several extremely moving celebrations of male-male love,” she explained, “and judge this form of love to be, on the whole, superior to male-female love because of its potential for spirituality and friendship.” Her testimony was attacked by several conservative scholars who accused her of warping Plato’s words. Nussbaum and her critics traded angry accusations of libel and perjury – revolving around the interpretation of one notoriously difficult Platonic dialogue – before the law was finally ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. When I asked whether she thinks her scholarly reputation was tarnished by all the mudslinging, Nussbaum handed me the 136-page law-review article she published on the case. It bristled with dozens of pink Post-its. “If you read this you will see that my arguments were all good and quite correct,” she said curtly.

Nussbaum’s “aristocratic” lineage derives from her mother’s family, which traces its roots back to the Mayflower. Her father, George Craven, was a conservative Southerner who became a prosperous lawyer in the trusts and estates division of a large Philadelphia firm. Young Martha rebelled from the start. Much to her father’s chagrin, she became involved in civil rights activism then swirling around Bryn Mawr. One day, she invited a black girl over to play. “Don’t you ever bring a black person into our home again!” he scolded her.

Martha Craven fell in love with the theater while at the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, where she wrote her French pageant. She attended Wellesley for two years before growing frustrated with college and joining a Michigan theater company that performed Greek tragedies. She acted in Aristophanes’ “The Birds” and in the “Oresteia,” which starred Bert Lahr and Ruby Dee. After a stint at the New York University drama school, Martha realized she preferred studying plays to performing them and switched to the classics department, where she earned her B.A.

Martha’s Protestant father was horrified by her decision at N.Y.U. to marry a Jew named Alan Nussbaum, a linguist she met in a class on Greek prose composition. But she was an eager convert. “I had an intense desire to join the underdogs and to fight for justice in solidarity with them,” she has written. For Nussbaum, Judaism offered a sense of community lacking in her own upbringing. “I read Martin Buber and understood that virtually every relationship I had observed at Bryn Mawr had been an I-It relationship, involving no genuine acknowledgment of humanity,” she wrote. Her marriage to Alan Nussbaum ended in 1987.

Although Nussbaum thrived as a classics graduate student at Harvard, she felt embattled. When she became the first woman ever elected to the prestigious Society of Fellows (which guarantees a student three years of financing), the question of what to call her arose. “Someone suggested that since the masculine for ‘fellow’ was ‘hetairos,’ I should be called a ‘hetaira,’ which I knew full well did not mean ‘fellowess,’ but was in fact Greek for ‘prostitute,”‘ she says. “I didn’t like Harvard. I disapproved of the classicists. They were anti-Semites, racists and sexists and had a real thuggishness about them.” The birth of her daughter, Rachel, only made Nussbaum more determined to prove her mettle in a male bastion. A photo of her in the maternity ward shows her proudly holding a copy of Aristotle’s “Politics.”

In the late 60’s, the study of classical literature was largely a philological pursuit, and since Nussbaum was growing more interested in the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, she started to take classes in Harvard’s philosophy department. Aside from being predominantly Jewish, the department was also more open to interdisciplinary inquiry. She wrote her classics dissertation on a treatise by Aristotle, but she also began writing articles on Henry James and Proust that drew on the full range of her literary and philosophical interests.

Unfortunately, the very intellectual breadth that became Nussbaum’s signature caused problems for her professionally. Although Harvard had originally appointed her jointly to teach classics and philosophy in 1975, Nussbaum was denied tenure by the classics department in 1982. The experience devastated her; she even considered bringing a sexual discrimination suit. Instead, she moved to Brown University, where she taught until she came to Chicago four years ago.

On my last day in Chicago, I sat in on a class Nussbaum was teaching on John Rawls and political liberalism in one of the law school’s horseshoe-shaped seminar rooms. The day’s discussion examined the status of the family in liberal political philosophy. “What would it be like for the principles of justice to apply within the family?” she asked. She and her students engaged in a lively debate about the tension between the family and the state: Is the family a voluntary private association or should it be regulated by government? Should a child be able to choose his own education or religion?

In 65 brisk minutes, Nussbaum interrogated the usefulness of the idea of “family” in contemporary America – probing with the intensity of a legislator. “Perhaps we should drop the label of family altogether,” she proposed, “and instead ask about the various goals and capabilities that people have in these kinds of associations.” Would employing a looser notion of family change the state’s stand on issues such as gay adoption or immigration? “What are the practical implications of my approach? I really want to know!” Her voice rose, as some in the class chuckled at her earnestness.

Sitting in her book-strewn office after class, I asked Nussbaum whether she didn’t sometimes take philosophy too seriously. Weren’t there cases in which theory didn’t have to benefit humanity in any concrete way? For me, much of the joy of studying philosophy often derived precisely from the escape it offered from the world. Didn’t this more purely aesthetic conception of philosophy’s vocation deserve equal time?

Nussbaum would have none of it. “For any view you put forward,” she said, “the next question simply has to be, ‘What would the world be like if this idea were actually taken up?”‘ Arrogantly or not, her scholarly objective is not to impress her peers or win tenure – but to influence future generations, “laying a foundation” for a more just world. “It’s what happens in the long haul that really matters,” Nussbaum said. “You just never know where or how your ideals will be realized.”