The Quality and Reach of Philosophical Writing

In an epic interview at Emotion Researcher, Martha Nussbaum answers questions about her life and her work and philosophy. At one point, the interviewer says:

Another distinctive aspect of your philosophical work is its ambition to have practical import. In your The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics, you cite approvingly Epicurus’ claim that “empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated”. On this view, the point of philosophizing is to contribute to solving the most painful problems of human life. Do you think that contemporary philosophers should embrace this Hellenistic ideal more? Do you see yourself as a sort of therapist when you teach philosophy? Should philosophers take a more public role in society to meet Epicurus’ test, and why do they rarely do so, at least in the USA?

In her answer, Nussbaum says that it would be good if political philosophers did some work for the public, but also expresses concern that philosophers today no longer learn to write well. Here’s her reply:

I don’t have a view about what other people ought to do.  They should do what they love and what brings them joy.  Most parts of philosophy are not directly practical and I do not think that someone whose passion is for the philosophy of physics should do political philosophy just to make a practical contribution. I do think that every human being should make some contribution to the future of humanity somehow, but there are so many ways of doing that: political engagement, giving money, teaching, raising children.  You don’t have to do it through your writing.

I do think that political philosophy in both the Western tradition and any non-Western traditions I know anything about has always aimed to give normative guidance for political practice, and all of our great political philosophers did that: Aristotle, Rousseau, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Sidgwick, Rawls.  So I do think that it makes sense for contemporary political philosophers to find ways of emulating them.  That means writing at least some work for the general public—as Sidgwick, for example, wrote two types of works, popular and academic, and even Kant wrote with great simplicity and lucidity in essays for the public at large.

Hegel was the one who missed the boat, in the sense that his undoubtedly important works are impenetrable except by academics. Goethe took him to task for that, but to no avail.  John Rawls was not a public speaker, because of his speech impediment, and he felt that he was not good at journalistic writing.  One day at lunch he urged me to devote part of my energy to writing and speaking for a broader public: if you can do it, he said, you have a moral duty to do it.  I recall that lunch (in Bartly’s Burger Cottage, a Harvard square hangout) very vividly, and I try to follow that advice. For example, after giving the lectures that later became Upheavals of Thought, a detailed philosophical project I adored, I deliberately turned to a book, Cultivating Humanity, that addressed a crisis in higher education and tried to intervene in a useful way.

I worry that young philosophers today simply do not learn to write very well.  This problem has grown larger lately, when young philosophers are less inclined to read literature.  People should work on this, if they do really want to change the world.  Think of Leif Wenar’s recent Blood Oil. That, to me, is a superb example of how a philosopher should write for a general public: vivid, punchy, urgent, and at the same time rigorous and factually precise.   I try to do the same sort of thing in Women and Human Development and Creating Capabilities, but I have to give him the good writing prize.   I guess my best writing is typically in my more poetic moments, as in Upheavals of Thought.

There are many ways to change the world as a philosopher, apart from writing like Leif Wenar. You can have a blog, or a Twitter account. I do not read blogs or write for them (except rarely on invitation), and I do not use any social media, so I don’t know how much political philosophers are doing there.  We all teach, and that is surely a way to change the world. I love it when a former undergraduate of mine does something great in politics: for example the marvelous Ro Khanna, just elected to Congress in a district that includes Silicon Valley but also some extremely poor districts.  Since he was an undergraduate I’ve known he has the political skill to do something big, and now let the ascent begin!  And of course one can create a movement or organization.  Wenar does this with his Clean Trade website.  Sen and I have done it with the Human Development and Capability Association, an international association with a journal, annual meetings, and much more.  It currently has around 800 members in 80 countries. Its main aim is to stimulate good work that crosses national boundaries, youth-age boundaries, and the big theory-practice boundary.  Networking is its most productive function.

I would also like to mention that countries vary greatly in the openings they give to philosophers who would like to address the public culture. In terms of writing for newspapers or doing press interviews, the best in my experience are India, Italy, Germany, and Belgium. The most difficult is the U. S.  And the prize goes to The Netherlands, where there is a general-interest philosophy magazine that sells 10,000 copies per month, philosophical cafes that working adults eagerly seek out, and great support for translation. Every single book of mine except the De Motu book has been translated into Dutch, even though people know English: but they want to study the book more closely. I was just there to do a book tour for my Dutch publisher, apropos of the translation of the anger book, and I gave four lectures in four cities.  The average attendance was 700, even though they sold tickets, and in some cases required people to buy the book!  And I was on the Dutch equivalent of 20/20 with Ian Buruma; I’ve never been on a show like that in the US.

But once in a while the US does come through: a long blogpost I wrote about the emotions of our political crisis turned into a book proposal, and I got a large advance from Simon and Schuster, so now I have to write that book. Its provisional title is Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame: A Philosopher Looks At Our Political Crisis.  That will also be the title of my National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture, to be delivered at the Kennedy Center in Washington this May.   This work will be fun, because I have new ideas about emotions, putting fear in a much more central position than I did previously, and developing an account of when and why anger and disgust turn toxic.   I was in Japan for the Kyoto prize when the election happened, so I felt pretty isolated, unable to commiserate with my friends.  So I sat and wrote, and I hope I am beginning to turn my grief into something constructive.  Moreover, I am giving the Jefferson Lecture for the NEH this May, on the same topic, so that is at least one chance to have a large public Washington audience.

The full interview is here.

Martha C. Nussbaum

(via Andrea Scarantino)

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