When Nussbaum was three or four years old, she told her mother, “Well, I think I know just about everything.” Her mother, Betty Craven, whose ancestors arrived on the Mayflower, responded sternly, “No, Martha. You are just one person among many.” Nussbaum was so frustrated by this response that she banged her head on the floor.
That’s an early episode in the life of one of the world’s most well-known and honored living philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, who at the University of Chicago is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, appointed in the Philosophy Department, Law School, and Divinity School, as well as an associate in the Classics Department and the Political Science Department, a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, a board member of the Human Rights Program, and founder and coordinator of the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism. From the outside, one can see her life as a quest to become as knowledgeable as her three- or four-year old self thought she was.
The passage is from an in-depth profile of Nussbaum in The New Yorker. It is an inspiring read.
One thing that the profile crystallizes is just how different Nussbaum seems from the stereotypical philosopher, both professionally and personally.
She is one of the central figures in the revival of philosophical attention to the emotions in the 20th century, she makes extensive use of literature in her work, and she focuses her attention on intimate personal matters and real-world issues. Think about that: a philosopher whose work emphasizes emotions, stories, personal life issues, and real-world politics is by many measures one of the most successful and accomplished philosophers alive. Oh, and she’s probably one of the toughest persons in the profession (read the profile for many examples of this). From either inside or outside the profession, that does not fit the stereotype of the philosopher.
Nussbaum’s story should be held up as a brief for iconoclasm in philosophy.
Here’s the whole piece. Read it and weep.