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.

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