November 15, 2007
Vol. 27 No. 5

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Past Opine interviews:
Lauren Berlant
Stephen Berry
John Boyer
David Cohen
Jerry Coyne
John Cunningham
Richard Epstein
John Frederick
Henry Frisch
Austan Goolsbee
Bernard Harcourt
Greg Jackson
Martin Marty
Martha Nussbaum
Raymond Pierrehumbert
José Quintáns
Jan-Marino Ramirez
Saskia Sassen
William Sewell
Herman Sinaiko
Geoffrey Stone
Cass Sunstein
Simon Swordy

    Opine: Martha Nussbaum

    Martha Nussbaum

    Martha Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law & Ethics in the Law School, Philosophy and the Divinity School.

    What book should everyone read and why?

    To pick a book that most people will not have read already, and that I love: Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India. Written in a series of British jails, it is a passionate search for the heart of his beloved country and for the best basis for its independent nationhood, as well as a struggle with personal isolation, an eloquent account of his emotions following the death of his beloved wife from tuberculosis, and a meditation about his complex relationship with Gandhi. Even though its account of India's history is (quite consciously and deliberately) biased in its attempt to single out features of pluralism and toleration, it remains, in its passion and literary brilliance, the best introduction to India for those who don't know her, and an indispensable work for those who love her already.

    What American citizen, who is a well-known public figure, is a role model for America's younger generation? What qualities does this individual possess that are worthy of being emulated?

    I love Mayor Daley for all he has done to make Chicago the most beautiful and exciting city in the world, but as a role model for the young, I will have to go with Al Gore. His determination to get the truth about environmental issues, his determination to bring these issues to the attention of the world, his passionate commitment and constancy throughout the years, despite scorn and opprobrium, and, finally, his contagious optimism about the possibilities for change are already a role model, and let's hope that the Nobel Prize leads more and more young people to follow his lead. And let's not forget his resilience, after suffering one of the greatest political injustices in American history.

    What advice would you give to your best student who plans to follow a similar career path you have followed in teaching and doing research?

    I don't think that anyone should try to follow a career path “similar” to mine, because what I have done is to follow my intellectual and political passions wherever they lead, regardless of boundaries of discipline, though with respect for the learning embodied in the disciplines. I think my students should do just that, and that would inevitably take them in directions different from the ones in which I have gone. I am always particularly pleased to see my students doing something that is all their own, and I really like it when they contest my views. I just responded to a wonderful paper by a former grad student who found a real problem with something I had written, and I was so delighted not only that he had identified this gap, so that I can try to fill it, but especially that he was able to articulate those criticisms so rigorously, probingly, and in the context of a distinctive thesis that is all his own and not mine. In Seneca's letter 33, he tells the pupil not to keep harping on what some authority figure has said, but instead: “Aliquid et de tuo profer, now bring forth something of your own.”

    How has information technology changed your life?

    It's made it much easier to keep up with correspondence, and easier to edit manuscripts.

    Think of a renowned scholar from the past who added great value to your area of study. What would this person think of the advances that recently have been made in this field?

    When John Stuart Mill published The Subjection of Women in 1869, it attracted almost no attention. Throughout his life, Mill worked for women's equality in both work and life, going to prison for distributing contraceptive information as a young man, and introducing the first bill for women's suffrage in the British Parliament. I think that Mill would be delighted at the recent progress that women have made all over the world in claiming their rights, and he would have been happy to see that feminist philosophers are a large part of the international women's movement. He predicted that when women got a chance to have the same philosophical education men had, grappling rigorously with the great works of the tradition, they would make significant contributions to philosophy, and I hope he would be happy to see some of what we have been doing, but I think he'd be especially happy to see how much is being written about sex equality, and from so many different perspectives. Victorian that he was, he would be shocked at all the explicit sexual discussion that often goes on, but he would be happy too, for he knew that sexual relations were a place where domination enacts itself. He would also be happy to see the pluralism and diversity of feminist philosophical writing, because it describes so many “experiments in living” that may be tried out, enriching human life.

    What lesson or lessons has America not yet learned from its history?

    My new book on liberty of conscience studies a number of periods during which fear and uncertainty made Americans target new groups in ways that were unfair and unworthy, and I fear that we have not learned the lesson this teaches us: that fear is a very dangerous political master. The fact that our current leadership bases much of its political rhetoric on fear is appalling and extremely sad.

    In your opinion, where do science and art meet?

    Really profound science is closely akin to art in its love of the leap of the imagination, the new ordering of the evidence of the senses. The teaching of science as a set of marketable skills for national enrichment conceals this kinship, and so it has become easy to think that we should be drilling high school students on such skills and ignoring the arts. Therefore, the arts are being cut all over the world. But that anti-humanistic attitude is not the attitude of real scientists, nor even of really creative entrepreneurs in business; it is the attitude of bureaucrats, and it is dangerous for all democracies, since all democracies need the creative imagination.

    What are the three most important things to apply when making an argument for something you believe in—(e.g., academic freedom)?

    Logical rigor and clarity, respect for opposing positions, willingness to learn from others.

    If you could choose any three University professors and give them a one-year sabbatical together to solve a problem, develop a theory or make a discovery, who would they be and what task would you assign them?

    I would like to see composer Kaija Saariaho compose a setting of poet Louise Glück's amazing recent cycle Averno for performance by Dawn Upshaw. Glück has a university appointment at Yale and Upshaw at Bard; I can't find evidence of a university appointment for Saariaho, so if you won't accept her, I will substitute Osvaldo Golijov, who is appointed at Holy Cross. But I actually think Saariaho's style suits the poems better.