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Awards & Honors: 2017 Jefferson Lecturer

Martha C. Nussbaum

Prolific and celebrated, Martha C. Nussbaum is one of the few contemporary philosophers who not only enjoys great esteem in academic quarters but is able to address large general audiences through her books and writings.

Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, with appointments in the law school and the philosophy department. The author of more than twenty books and numerous essays and articles, she is the editor of another twenty-one books and the recipient of many prestigious awards. A fellow of the British Academy, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Philosophical Society, she has received honorary degrees from fifty-six colleges and universities in the U.S. and abroad. 

Breadth is a signature feature of her work. Her scholarship ranges from the study of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and literature all the way to modern political theory and policy. Along the way, she has found time to examine such weighty matters as gender equality, gay rights, the nation of India, international development, and the case for an education in the humanities. Yet the variety of subject matter can sometimes disguise the underlying unity of purpose. 

“My whole career,” she recently told NEH Chairman William D. Adams for an interview in Humanities magazine, “is about the search for the conditions of human flourishing, and asking, What are the catastrophes that can get in the way? What are the ways in which we’re vulnerable? Of course, as human beings, we ought to be vulnerable. We shouldn’t try to say that we can be self-sufficient or do everything that’s necessary for a good life on our own, because we need other people.”

Born on May 6, 1947, in New York City to George and Betty Warren Craven, Martha has an older half-brother, Robert, from her father’s first marriage, and a younger sister, Gail. When Martha was six months old, the family moved when George, a tax and estates attorney, became a partner in a prominent Philadelphia law firm.

Martha’s father was a major influence on her. In a recent interview with philosopher Andrea Scarantino, published in the Emotion Researcher, Nussbaum recalled that from her father she learned that discipline, hard work, and pleasure all ran together.

“He loved effort and will, and would recite William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’ often —also Nelson Mandela’s favorite poem. But my father recited it with a twinkle in his eye, so it was not about grim fortitude, but about the joy of a life fully lived.” 

George Craven also taught his daughter the pleasure of being well dressed but never stuffy, while her mother, also influential on Martha’s life and outlook, taught her the value of emotions and to respect all people, regardless of class. 

Martha Nussbaum has, on various occasions, spoken candidly about her parents, including her father’s bigotry (born and raised in Macon, Georgia, before the Civil rights era, he would not attend her wedding to Alan Nussbaum, a Jew) and her mother’s drinking (she later entered AA and helped others embrace sobriety). These factors shaped her life and her thinking, just as her father’s encouragement and her mother’s unconditional love did. 

As a girl, Martha attended the Baldwin School, a private school where she learned French, Latin, and Greek, and studied drama, and was one of the tallest and most outspoken of girls. There she also wrote, staged, and played the lead in a production based on the life of Robespierre, whom she saw as a conflicted figure, divided between ideals of political perfection and personal ties to people with a different view of where the revolution should go. 

After graduation, Martha headed to Wellesley College, which she found “emotionally and socially stifling.” In the middle of her second year she left to join a repertory theater that specialized in Greek drama, then transferred to New York University to study theater but discovered something unexpected along the way. 

“The experience of acting in Greek tragedies and thinking about these plays made me change my mind,” she told NEH Chairman Adams. “Oh, I thought, I actually want to write about this.”

At NYU, Martha dropped theater after three semesters and transferred to Washington Square College, where she resumed her studies in Greek and Roman classics. She also met Alan Nussbaum, a fellow student in classics and now a professor in Indo-European linguistics at Cornell University. They married, and Martha converted to Judaism, in which she found an expressiveness and a passion for this world that were wanting in her experience of Christianity.

The young couple went on to Harvard for their graduate studies. Harvard in the early 1970s was not, however, especially welcoming to them. It was, Nussbaum told the Emotion Researcher, “a shocking and repugnant place: anti-Semitic, sexist, anti-gay. My change of name from Craven to Nussbaum was much commented on, and my husband was given the cold shoulder.” 

In a story she related in Singing in the Fire, edited by Linda Martin Alcoff, Nussbaum was elected to the prestigious Society of Fellows, which came with a three-year salary to explore interdisciplinary work. She then received a note of congratulations from an eminent classicist who wondered how she might be referred to, since “fellowess” was such an awkward term. Perhaps, the man added, the Greek term for fellow (hetairos) would be of assistance. They might refer to her by its female form (hetaira), which, however, also meant courtesan or prostitute.
Despite the malice she encountered, an exceptional career began to take shape in Cambridge as Nussbaum pursued a PhD in classics while exploring texts not simply as a literary scholar and a linguist but philosophically, as a reader in search of answers about life’s most pressing questions. For her special author in Latin, she read Roman historian Tacitus, in order to study with Glen Bowersock, whom she admires to this day. In Greek she read Aristotle, and went on to write a dissertation on Aristotle’s De Motu Animalium, exploring the interpretive powers and physical vulnerability of human and non-human animals that move. A dedicated runner, even when she was pregnant with her daughter, Nussbaum has, by all accounts, a truly philosophical curiosity about the most physical aspects of living. At Harvard, she also encountered John Rawls, the quintessential philosopher of contemporary liberalism, who encouraged Nussbaum to consider it a moral duty to write for a broad nonacademic public. 

An even more important influence on Nussbaum was Bernard Williams, the British philosopher who sought to recover a broad humanistic conception of philosophy, including work on the emotions and respect for the ideas of the ancient tragic poets and Plato. These interests in ancient Greek and Roman literature and the role of the emotions suggested much about the future of Nussbaum’s philosophical work: technically assured yet humanistic—that is, rich in history, literature, and culture. 

Nussbaum left Harvard in 1983 after being denied tenure in a contentious decision. A lot happened in the next few years. She took a position at Brown University, and, in 1987, by mutual consent, she and Alan Nussbaum divorced. She also began a seven-year, one-month-a-year gig as a research adviser to the World Institute for Development Economics Research in Helsinki. And in 1986 she published the book that announced her as a rising star in philosophy with a strong point of view.

The Fragility of Goodness was the first of her books to take philosophy out of its rationalistic comfort zone to consider the impact of forces beyond the individual’s control. Instead of defining goodness in isolation, Nussbaum asked, What threatens and undermines our pursuit of a flourishing life? For answers she turned to the literature and philosophy of the ancient Greeks, in particular their views on moral luck. Nussbaum’s argument embraces the idea that our own goodness may be subject to slings and arrows that are not of our own making or own fault.

As Nussbaum said to Bill Moyers on his PBS show in 1988, “To be a good human being is to have a kind of openness to the world, an ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control, that can lead you to be shattered in very extreme circumstances for which you were not to blame.”

Another example of Nussbaum looking beyond rationalist categories is her scholarship on emotions “as intelligent responses to the perception of value,” as she phrased the matter in her 2001 book Upheavals of Thought, which takes its title from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Her previous emphasis on the philosophical usefulness of literature and narrative—not just ancient plays and poetry but modern novels as well—opened an important new vein in her work on such emotions as anger, forgiveness, and shame.

As a young scholar, Martha Nussbaum did not focus on political philosophy. As she wrote more for the public, however, she warmed toward applying her philosophical and rhetorical skills to matters of public debate. In Cultivating Humanity, her 1997 “classical defense of reform in liberal education,” she defended African-American studies and women’s studies along with the American academy’s new emphasis on non-Western traditions. In Sex and Social Justice (1999), she tackled the ways in which gender difference and sexual preference are used internationally to justify marked inequalities that are written into law and produce very different outcomes in quality of life. 

With her newfound prominence came an offer from the University of Chicago to become a professor with appointments in the law school and the philosophy department. In her conversation with Chairman Adams, Nussbaum drew a lively picture of her work. In no specific order, she mentioned co-teaching with colleagues of various disciplinary backgrounds, engaging students—including religious conservatives—in wide-ranging debates over issues of sex and morality, and hosting literature-heavy law school conferences that make time for theatrical presentations. Not long ago, at such a conference, Nussbaum played Mrs. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera.

“Philosophy should not be written in detachment from real life,” Nussbaum wrote in Cultivating Humanity. In her work on what is called the capabilities approach, she opened her portfolio to the broadest political, economic, and legal questions concerning human well-being. The goal was to develop an alternative standard to gross domestic product for measuring the human welfare of nations. 

GDP, she argues, though easy to tabulate and use in comparisons, is simply an average and leaves out many things that must be considered essential to well-being: life; health; bodily integrity (freedom of movement and from assault); senses, imagination, and thought (education and creativity); emotions (freedom to love and form attachments); practical reason (freedom of thought); affiliation; other species (to live in relation to animals and nature); play; and control over one’s environment (rights of political participation and property). 

Working with Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Nussbaum helped found the Human Development and Capability Association, a nonprofit whose mission is to advocate on behalf of this multifaceted standard for human flourishing.

The capabilities approach, Nussbaum told Chairman Adams, “is a way to get leaders and others to see that people in the international development arena think you should be working on all ten of these measures.”

Nussbaum, who turns seventy this year, will soon publish a book about aging, co-written with her University of Chicago law school colleague Saul Levmore. It may seem like yet another surprising topic for a philosopher to write about, but Nussbaum has long been able to see deep questions in everyday life. She is also following in the steps of Cicero (whose thinking on aging she praises) and Simone de Beauvoir (whose thinking on aging she criticizes). As she noted in Cultivating Humanity, “Philosophy breaks out wherever people are encouraged to think for themselves.”

                                    —David Skinner