From noble to global

Ben Rogers meets a bold, breathtaking philosopher who is inspired by the Stoics 'Australian identity' novelist. He'd prefer to write about two

MINUTES after I had finished my interview with Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freud Professor of Law and Ethics, in her office in the University of Chicago's Law School, I remembered a question I had wanted to ask. Why was she, like so many other women philosophers - Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Anscombe, Christine Korsgaard - a moral philosopher? And why were they all so good? I was going to double back - until I came to my senses. After an hour's conversation, my note-pad was full, in my bag was a sheaf of papers to read: an article on Nussbaum's field work with the rural poor in India, a Socratic dialogue on the emotions, a newspaper opinion piece on the meaning of a liberal education. In the house to which I was heading, I had a suitcase of Nussbaum's books and articles - only a small proportion of the 15 books and 109 articles listed in her CV, but a hefty suitcase none the less. It was Christmas Eve. I had enough, I realised, to be going on with.

I had gone to talk about her newest book Cultivating Humanity, a vivid defence of multi-culturalism in education; the Seeley lectures on feminism and cosmopolitanism that she is giving in Cambridge in March; and a broadcast she gives tomorrow on Radio 3 on the Stoics - the first in a series, Living Ideas, on the history of philosophy that runs all this week. Our conversation confirmed what my readings of the previous weeks had suggested: that if there is any philosopher around today who can show how philosophy might engage with "real life", it's Martha Nussbaum.

First as a classicist at Harvard, then as a professor of philosophy at Brown, now in the law department at Chicago, and with visits to Oxford and Cambridge in between, she has made a career from breaching the disciplinary boundaries to which more conventional thinkers cleave, insisting that philosophy has to learn from, illuminate and change the way we live. "I do think," she said, over a Diet Pepsi and an apple, "that every philosopher should try at some point to live outside the academy ." [Crunch.] "The older generation did military service and that introduced them to people of different backgrounds and class. My generation is much more cloistered." [Crunch, again.]

Nussbaum's own first encounter with the real world came when, in 1966, she dropped out of Wellesley, a smart East Coast girls' college, to work as an actress and dancer in a theatre group specialising in ancient drama. Now around 50, lithe in leggings, a polo-neck and jogging shoes, she could still be a dancer. Yet the stage career was traded in for a Classics degree, a doctorate in Greek philology at Harvard and a long roll-call of academic honours.

As she studied the ancient Greek dramatists, especially the tragedians, it seemed to her, as it did to their original audience, that in the way they explored the sort of choices we have to make in life, they acted as something close to moral philosophers. Yet her Harvard philosophy tutors simply didn't read the classical texts, and her classics tutors read them in literary terms; it was not until she was teaching at Harvard, and attended a lecture series by Bernard Williams - a philosopher who has long criticised the simplifying tendencies of modern moral philosophy - that she found the confidence to write about what really mattered to her. "Bernard came and suddenly I realised that the stuff I was doing needn't be marginal."

There followed, over the next 15 years or so, a series of path-breaking essays and books on both ancient Greek tragedy and Nussbaum's favourite modern novelists, Dickens, Henry James and Proust, in which she attempted to show how the literary imagination captured aspects of the moral life ignored by more orthodox moral philosophy. Where both Kantians and Utilitarians thought of morality essentially as applying general rules to standard situations, great works of narrative art show us moral life as Aristotle conceived it; they are sensitive, in the way moral philosophy has not been, to the uniqueness or particularity of moral decisions, to the diversity of values, to the inescapable presence of luck or fate in human life, to the importance of love and other emotions as sources of insight or knowledge.

Over the last decade or so, Nussbaum's work has gone off in a new although not unrelated direction and one that once again draws on her remarkable feeling for the ancient world. She started reading the Stoics. This might sound an unremarkable thing for a classicist to do - the Stoics were probably the most influential group of philosophers in the Roman world - but in her case it had two important repercussions. In the first place, Nussbaum discovered in Cicero, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius a much richer and more subtle moral and political theory than they are usually given credit for. More importantly, perhaps, they prompted her to start thinking about what the Stoics' ideals of global citizenship - their belief in the fundamental equality of all people - would look like in practice.

The results can be seen in her insistence, in Cultivating Humanity, on the importance of a multi-cultural liberal education which opens its students to alternative values and traditions, and in the work she had done (and will be talking about in Cambridge this spring) with various international development agencies, including the World Institute of Development Economics Research (WIDER) and grass-roots women's groups in India and elsewhere, in an attempt to develop a universally valid framework of human rights - an account of the opportunities and resources, to which every individual, regardless of race, gender, class and creed, is entitled. With the death of Isaiah Berlin last year, we heard all the usual complaints to the effect that philosophy no longer deals with the things that really matter in life. If nothing else, Nussbaum's wise and radical work shows it is not necessarily so.

8 'Cultivating Humanity' is published by Harvard University Press, pounds 17.50. 'Postscript: Living Ideas' is broadcast tomorrow on Radio 3, 9.15-9.40pm.

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?