Nussbaum on philosophy, art, emotion, etc

It’s Martha Nussbaum’s birthday, or anyway it was yesterday, and to celebrate, here’s part of an interview she did with The Philosophers’ Magazine a year or two ago.  She talks about the role of philosophy, the importance of the liberal arts, poetry, emotion, Mill, and, just a little bit, what it means to live a flourishing life.  Nussbaum has more thoughts per minute than most people.  Interesting stuff.

Nussbaum has something to say about the role of argument and philosophy in liberal arts education – an entire chapter of her book Not for Profit is devoted to it. She discusses the importance of Socratic pedagogy, questions, self-scrutiny, understanding rather than memorisation, critique, and debate. I wonder if this actually devalues philosophy in a backhanded way, reduces it to a mere means to good citizenship?

“Philosophy is constitutive of good citizenship. It’s not just a means to it. It becomes part of what you are when you are a good citizen – a thoughtful person. Philosophy has many roles. It can be just fun, a game that you play. It can be a way you try to approach your own death or illness or that of a family member. It has a wide range of functions in human life. Some of them are connected to ethics, and some of them are not. Logic itself is beautiful. I’m just focusing on the place where I think I can win over people, and say ‘Look here, you do care about democracy don’t you? Then you’d better see that philosophy has a place.’”

Philosophy has a place not just in keeping democracy alive. Nussbaum argues that a liberal arts education – and philosophy in particular – is important for a meaningful life. We need philosophy, she says, to criticise and analyse, but also to help us make sense of our inner lives – our feelings and attitudes towards one another. That’s part of what it is to live a flourishing life.

“It’s a fast-moving world. There are all kinds of reasons not to look within. Peer cultures, teen age cultures particularly, are so competitive that they discourage looking in, thinking, ‘What am I feeling now? What are the names for this cascade of emotions that I’m going through?’ When you go out into life all sorts of disturbing things happen. You love people and that doesn’t always go smoothly. You have children and that brings with it a complicated set of emotions and relationships. You have to confront illness and mortality, both your own and that of people you love. In all those situations you need to be able to look within and understand what you’re feeling.

“Mill understood from his own experience of depression that being able to read poetry – to think about emotions in connection with a work of literature – was a tremendous part of the cultivation of the inner world. It makes you capable of love and happiness and stability.

“Philosophy tells you that you had better look within. Philosophy the way I do it is closely linked to literature and the imagination. For example, when you’re dealing with philosophical accounts of emotion, how could you think philosophically about them without having powerful examples of what they’re like?

“I’m with Mill in thinking that education with respect to the emotions has to have an aesthetic component. He’s funny about this. He says in England we don’t understand this because we think life is all about making money. There is also the legacy of Puritanism. We think there’s something evil about experiencing emotion in connection with works of art. The result is that we become narrow-minded and ungenerous. We have a strict moral conscience but little sympathy with others.

“That’s right about a lot of people in a lot of places and times. The rigidity of conscience without the capacity for sympathy and love can do great damage when you’re a parent or a friend or a lover. So it’s important for a meaningful life to read about and think about works of art.”

  1. While I’m sure Nussbaum and I would disagree on many things, it would not be because we disagree on what Philosophy is doing in a human mind. She hits close to home in a number of spots. I recall, for instance, having early in my career to write one of those blurbs common at art shows in answer to the question “Why do you paint?”

    My answer, roughly, was that I paint so that some moment, vision, or person important to me would not die. Grief is interwoven into my art. My interest in Philosophy flows directly from that same thing. Existence is brief. It is irreversible. The universes contained in the beings around me are perishable. I have to have a means of dealing with the constant flood of extinction in which I struggle to swim rather than to sink. Finally, I seek some kernel I can leave to the future that will make their time in the flood more meaningful.

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