Martha Nussbaum’s Magnificent Opus, a Critique

Now in her 70s, if Martha Nussbaum is slowing down, it isn’t evident in her endless travels, lectures and the production line of her books.
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March 13, 2020 13:55 EDT

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has a prodigious output and, indeed, it takes a prodigious effort to keep up with it. No sooner had I completed reading the latest trio of her books than a new one was signaled,  many of the recent works being based on her delivery of prestigious guest lectures at universities around the world. Rather, they are delivered at prestigious universities around the world.

Universities in Africa, Asia and the Southern Hemisphere have not featured, despite her careful work in India on behalf of the capabilities of women there. The rewriting of these lectures into essays that develop a theme lends an episodic nature to her books. But it also means an unevenness in each book, and some books are unsuccessful.

This is a big thing to say of someone who is as close to intellectual royalty as the United States has.  It is a big thing to say of someone not linked to fashionable currents of French thought but who has written about Adam Smith and who, steeped in Greek and Latin thought, can be said to represent the foundations of Western philosophy in today’s leading country of the West — and of someone who in so many ways represents the sense of US decency.

A Valediction of Late Life


Nussbaum’s arguments against the extreme motifs of fear, disgust and exclusion that emanate from the Trump administration make her a card-carrying member of the liberal left; her work on behalf of Indian women make her an internationalist; and her conversion to Judaism deflects her from any overt support of any species of the Palestinian cause.

Her triumph as an intellectual giant makes her a feminist symbol — although she has been involved in quite a trenchant debate as to what feminism should involve — and she is physically glamorous enough and lives in a sufficiently glamorous location to have herself featured in magazines like The New Yorker. But I am going, all the same, to make a few critical observations of her recent work, as I did earlier of her work in India. Let us start with that.

Contented Ignorance

Elaborating upon and developing further Amartya Sen’s work on capabilities until her own version had a clear Nussbaumian stamp, she asked good rigorous questions of foreign aid, the morality of the giver and the nature of being a recipient. In this, the preferences and capabilities of the recipient required central focus. The problem lay with the development of capabilities. Nussbaum had no previous significant exposure to India before she went to Finland to work briefly at the United Nations University World Institute for Development Economics Research, and thence to India itself; and no significant exposure before or since to comparative and perhaps comparable problems of women in Africa or elsewhere.

In the case of India, she has emphasized the realization of individual capabilities as the key goal of development. This is worthwhile and worthy. The problem arises in terms of development out of and toward what? Nussbaum was astounded that some women she encountered did not even know they were miserable. They were content with life. Alerting them to something better outside themselves and the need to develop something inside themselves to achieve what is better does not always work when women face structural and systemic obstacles. All the knowledge and capabilities in the world might finally make a previously contented person deeply frustrated, as much a casualty of this aspect of the “development industry” as of any other.

This is not to say people should be left to live in contented ignorance. But it does raise caveats as to imposing our own sense of happiness and contentment, and of visions of universalizing our own capabilities in situations more insurmountable than our own. In less than ideal terms, what is the fallback? What is the situation in terms of capabilities for maddeningly slow incremental progress, or for preventing further degeneration of preferences? In the Nussbaum recipe for progress, the murky, muddy and maddening world of development is certainly rendered problematic, but curiously clean.

It is this cleanliness, this vision of someone with a high view from eleven windows of the lake below, with a lift that opens directly into the apartment with those windows and view that impedes recent work by Nussbaum. It is always work toward compassion, it is always admirable and energizing, but a cleanliness that borders on sterility has crept into the late Nussbaum. Her 2017 “Aging Thoughtfully: Conversations about Retirement, Romance, Wrinkles Regrets book” is a case in point.

The Age of Power

In an age where President Donald Trump is 73, his rivals Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are 77 and 78 respectively, and a host of world leaders, including Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe, Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin, are in their late 60s — or 70s, like Benjamin Netanyahu, Emmerson Mnangagwa, Muhammadu Buhari, Jeremy Corbyn and Antonio Guterres — it would seem the lust for power is far from a universal casualty of passing years. Of that brief selection, at least five would be regarded as “strongmen” who are not splendidly tolerant of opposition and dissenting views. Putin’s naked chest and derring-do is material for calendars and fan-pages.

A book on how to be positive, useful, active, meaningful to self and others and balanced in self-esteem, while wisely accepting physical impairment and slowness seems strangely out of kilter with those who drink the elixir of power. Or those who are no longer drinking it but are not far removed from those who do. John Kerry makes the headlines now only when he falls off his state-of-the-art racing bike (these have no brakes) while competing in an arduous sports event.

The same may be said of female political figures such as Elizabeth Warren, and of course of leading intellectual figures such as Nussbaum herself, who seems to be producing a book a year at this time in her life, while accumulating enough carbon discredits in her flights around the world to bring an earlier demise (by exasperation) to Greta Thunberg than to Nussbaum herself.

A book about aging thoughtfully misses a key point about aging powerfully and, perhaps above all, about aging recklessly. It is a sort of psychological health and safety book that speaks little to those who wish to go out with a bang, only to find they have to keep repeating the bang because they are not yet out.

If there is something settled and longing for balance within comfort about this book, it is not without merit. How to treat regret is something well wrought, although that hardly confronts the determination to cause more regret and not to stop doing so. It also says very little to those who age desperately in destitution. It says nothing to impoverished Indian women who tried to actualize their capabilities but met the crushing weight of the state, of society and of poverty. It says little about elderly drives for revenge.

A Cosmopolitan Tradition

If Western middle-class in its outlook, it is of a pair with the more intellectual offering to do with the cosmopolitan tradition. This, however, is a curious book. “The Cosmopolitan Tradition: A Noble but Flawed Ideal” is a reprise of Nussbaum’s classical interests, certainly in the first part, with a meditation on Cicero, which Nussbaum herself admits is slightly unfair, as it concentrates on the writing of Cicero when he was on the run and fearing assassination, which duly came.

It then moves on to perhaps the most successful part of the book, which is a treatment of the work of the Dutch humanist Hugo Grotius, who is often regarded as the father of international law, before turning to Adam Smith — but not the more famous work to do with the wealth of nations, but a book on moral sentiments that Smith revised as he grew older. The contrast with the Smith we read in “The Wealth of Nations” is mentioned but not fully investigated.

But these three writers would seem to be hardly a representative selection of proponents of cosmopolitanism, so to label it as a flawed ideal seems mean. The Kantian tradition, most commonly taken as a font for contemporary cosmopolitanism, is not discussed. More to the point, since cosmopolitanism deals with a worldly engagement of commonalities, including of values and ethics, Nussbaum does not seek to remedy what is the most conspicuous fault of a doctrine claimed by the West, and that is precisely its Westerness — the appropriation of ethos and morality on Western terms on behalf of the world.

There is no Chinese, Indian or Middle Eastern representation in this doctrine; no treatment of tianxia guan — a world view or cosmopolitanism that may be said to have a Confucian root but also paralleled aspects of Greek thought; no Henry Vivian Louis Derozio or Ibn Khaldun; and no views on ethical and cosmopolitanism aspects of Zoroastrianism and early Persian thought that allowed freedom of religion and enabled the captive Jews to leave Babylon to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem.

In returning to her classical “roots,” as it were, and to her country’s thought that was contemporary with its early development, the entire rest of the world is elided. The book ends with a little flourish, advocating her “capabilities approach” as bridging the lapses in cosmopolitanism. This is a little under-argued and perhaps self-serving. Basically, this is a book weighted by its faults of omission and disregard.

The Monarchy of Fear

Having said that, there is one book among her recent three that must be regarded unstintingly as magnificent, and that is the 2018 “The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis.” It is in very many ways a return to the first principles form of a philosophical method — an almost Cartesian series of definitions and how one element hinges on another and builds toward yet another. All become related, but each must be considered separately before they can be considered in their final togetherness.

In terms of method, the book is subtle but properly philosophical, and works better than a series of essays that basically anthologize thinkers in the way that her book on the cosmopolitan tradition did. Here, she takes and dissects, separately and in their connectedness fear, anger, disgust, exclusion and envy. She shows how, among other things, this complexly mixed cocktail — a toxic mix — fuels sexism and misogyny. Often taken as a critique of the underpinning values, biases and cheap vote-winning sentiments of the Trump administration, it in fact reveals an essential underpinning of American culture that is a sedimental foundation to anyone or any class of people like Trump.

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Donald Trump didn’t pluck his appeal out of nowhere. It is a question of what it was that he appealed to, and the psychological processes and symbiotic relationships among fear, anger and disgust are exactly that. If the book lays bare an “American condition,” it also uses American examples that would seem gnomic to many non-US readers. She expresses affection for the musical “Hamilton,” about the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, that would not be known to most of her readers outside the United States and the United Kingdom.

Her passage on racial biases could perhaps have dwelt on powerful real-life examples rather than the racially-stereotyped bits of flesh chucked by the witches into their cauldron in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Even so, this is a book with power, not least because it is a book with some rigor in its thought and composition.

This is perhaps the point. Now herself in her 70s, Nussbaum is not running as far and as hard as she once did in her physical training. She was reputed to cover a half marathon every day. She was also a workout queen, and her biceps, as she accepted the Prince of Asturias Award in a sleeveless dress, became legendary. If this is a form of slowing down, it is not evident in her endless travels, lectures in different parts of the world and the production line of her books. Is this aging thoughtfully or aging frenetically? Aging anxiously as time passes and so much still needs to be said? Am I, also in my 70s, perhaps aging enviously as I contemplate her expanding opus?

But it is indeed the opus that is the case in point. I came to Martha Nussbaum’s work because it was magnificent. If she can keep producing books like “The Monarchy of Fear” and maintain her recent stance against anger while retaining the humanity but contemplative rigor that imbued her early work on desire and, above all, one more time, reprise or revisit the nature of contingency in her masterwork, “The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics In Greek Tragedy and Philosophy,” almost certainly her most successful book on classical thought, she will be aging without any signs or needing to worry about age at all.

What I would personally like to see is a work on morality in the face of contingency that emanated from the thought of her beloved classical thinkers, but in the transaction of their works in the debates in the Middle East of the 1000s to 1200s — a moment of splendid and cosmopolitan thought that compared the merits of the thought of Alexander and the thought of Islam, and which in fact helped to curate and preserve classical thought when it was not as vibrant in the European Dark Ages. That would include Ibn Khaldun, Avicenna and also the Jewish thinker, Maimonides.

It could even be done by the exchange of epistles or essays as Nussbaum did with Saul Levmore in “Aging Thoughtfully.” That might be challenging. However, that would be cosmopolitan. That would be internationalism by a philosopher in the age of Trump where so much else is a withdrawal into the monarchy of fear.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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