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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Alfred MacDonald
Alfred MacDonald
4 years ago

> I worry that young philosophers today simply do not learn to write very well.

nussbaum savage af, deadass bReport

Golguber
Golguber
4 years ago

Proper philosophical training absolutely leads to nice writing. To see why, let niceness be a function of readability, interest, verve, and clarity, which we could formalise as N(R+I+V+C). Since too great a difference between the component virtues will be distracting, we could imagine a different formulation involving the square the values of R, I, V and C instead. First it will be useful to note, in a ninety-page digression, some game-theoretic implications of the virtue of verve. Consider a desert island etc etc etcReport

Hasana
Hasana
Reply to  Golguber
4 years ago

Ha ha ha haReport

Hey Nonny Mouse
Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

Learning to write well for a non-academic audience takes practice. Grad students, job-hunting philosophers, and philosophers on tenure-track who practice such writing skills are taking time away from the “academic” work on which they will be judged, in a market place that is ridiculously competitive and growing more so all the time. Even those philosophers who accept the need for public philosophy are often very narrow in the work they recognize. The APA committee on Public Philosophy, for instance, recognizes newspaper editorials, but ignores radio shows and the popular philosophy books that are so obvious to anyone who looks at the shelves in the Philosophy section of a bookstore.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Hey Nonny Mouse
4 years ago

But Nussbaum doesn’t say that young philosophers should learn to write for non-academic audiences; she just says that they should learn to write *well*. And that is absolutely useful on the marketplace. Any search involves, at some point, faculty members reading dozens or hundreds of writing samples, often at some speed, often in areas that are not their own core competence. Being able to communicate the gist of one’s ideas, and the reason they’re of significance or interest, quickly, clearly, and as accessibly as possible to non-specialists, is a huge advantage at this stage, and to some extent at later stages too.Report

Joe
Joe
4 years ago

I have to say, I am not OK with her habit of preaching to us about literature. She has absolutely no evidence that consuming literature makes you a better writer or a better person(the arrow of causality, if there is one, probably points in the other direction), but because she likes to chat about Sophocles or Zola with people at dinner parties, we younger, infinitely less privileged philosophers get treated to this intolerable finger-wagging every 2 or 3 years. In a field where things are THIS bad for us, there is something deeply distasteful about “advice” or”guidance” that is merely a projection of personal taste. Report

Emile
Emile
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

It’s not finger-wagging, it’s a commitment of philosophical method. Read Love’s Knowledge for the full argument. Frankly, Joe, your comment is dismissive and rude, and the gendered dynamic (“chat[ting] … at dinner parties”) is easy to spot despite the vast differential in status in the profession. I won’t report it for violating the blog’s comment policy, but I would ask Justin to justify printing in this form.Report

Joe
Joe
Reply to  Emile
4 years ago

I accept that I erred in allowing stereotypes to provoke gendered language. Thank you for pointing that out, and I would certainly not use that word again. However, I absolutely stand by the substance of my critique. When so many young philosophers are having their lives destroyed by an increasingly hopeless job market+adjuncting system, senior philosophers should not launch such critiques without careful reflection on their basis for doing so. That is a failure of moral imagination of precisely the kind that Nussbaum so eloquently warns us about. I am quite sure that single mother-of-two grad student on a $14,000 stipend with evaporating career prospects would love to have time for the Classics, but we cannot tell her to spend her time on that unless we have real evidence (I know Love’s Knowledge fairly well, and if you think that there is evidence for Nussbaum’s claim in there, I am at a loss as to where you think it might be). Report

Emile
Emile
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

Thanks for responding in more measured fashion, Joe. I still disagree with you. Lamenting a state of affairs is hardly the same as launching a critique of anyone in particular. Surely we can deplore the fact that younger philosophers are not encouraged or enabled to write well. Perhaps part of the explanation is the constraints of the profession, so we shouldn’t assign any blame to those in unjust circumstances. But some of the worst offenders in the bad philosophical writing category are the haves – graduates of top departments with comfortable jobs, whose impenetrable style and faux-technical language express a rejection of the humanistic character of philosophy. Is it not more charitable to hear Nussbaum’s lament directed at those people? Certainly there is a lot of poorly written ‘analytic’ ethics and political philosophy, the areas where I assume Nussbaum is reading the work of younger scholars.

As you know Love’s Knowledge, you’ll recall that its introduction and central essays have a good deal to say about what is missed in moral philosophy by using a philosophical style inadequate to describing and engaging with the complexities of moral life, and about how certain types of literature might offer a model for such engagement. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Emile
4 years ago

“Impenetrable style” and “faux-technical language” are bad in non-“humanistic” areas of philosophy too! – indeed, they’re bad in scientific writing.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

A word in support of Nussbaum, from someone who’s never talked about Sophocles or Zola at a dinner party; it’s more likely to be the Habs and the Blue Jays.

I think it’s true that if you read a lot of good literature you take in, by a kind of osmosis, what makes for pleasing writing — what makes for rhythm and balance in a sentence or a paragraph, for example — and become better able to produce it. I don’t have hard evidence for this, but how could frequent exposure to skillful writing not teach you, at least slowly and a little, what makes for it and how to make it yourself? Don’t people who want to compose good music spend time listening to good music?

I take it that Nussbaum’s idea isn’t that philosophy grad students should be reading a classic novel every week on top of their other work; it’s that having read a fair amount of literature before you get to grad school will have improve the writing you do there and afterwards, and continuing to read will continue to have that effect. It’s about literature, not as part of a specific program of study, but as part of life.

And David Wallace is completely right about the effect of good writing on getting your philosophical ideas noticed and read.Report

asst prof
asst prof
Reply to  Joe
4 years ago

That Sophocles and Zola are more worthwhile than netflix or sporting events is not “a matter of personal taste”, nor does expressing that truth have anything to do with privilege. I’m frustrated that my philosophy friends don’t read. When we chat over dinner, it’s about professional sports or that critically acclaimed new TV series. All grew up (somewhat) more “privileged” than me, but for once, I’d like to chat about Sophocles. It’s a more interesting, thought provoking, life-enriching form of entertainment. And it IS a shame that young philosophers are distracting their minds with garbage while these great works go unread. It’s shameful. Like people should be ashamed but aren’t. Report

Alexa
Alexa
4 years ago

I agree with Joe’s comment from above. Here’s one way to improve philosophical writing: stop demanding that younger career folks need to publish so much.Report

Tristan Haze`
Reply to  Alexa
4 years ago

Yeah, maybe, but it’s a co-ordination problem. It’s not as easy as getting a critical mass of people to agree with you on that, given the incentive structures in place on both sides of hiring. (Read Scott Alexander’s blog post, Meditations on Moloch. It’s really good – and incidentally, written with real flair.)

https://slatestarcodex.com/2014/07/30/meditations-on-moloch/Report

Efrain
Efrain
4 years ago

Nussbaum: It’s not therapeutic; it’s pedagogic dammit!
-Anyway- It’s not that young philosophers do not write very well, they are very capable of it and unwittingly doing it all the time. We know this because many of these young philosophers are good at having conversations. They don’t edit or revise, that’s the problem. Just Ask Them. No one trained these fools to work through draft processes and it has lot to do with the enormous consolidation of publishing industry. Make Copy Editing Great Again!Report