I am not a successful academic.
I’m a pretty good teacher, but I’ve neither attended a conference nor submitted any papers for publication in over a decade. And yes, while I’m working on this ideologies project (which means I may end up submitting paper proposals to a conference or two), I’d have to say that I have not done the work of a good scholar.
I don’t like admitting it, but there it is.
Which is my way of wandering into this New Yorker profile of Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum is, of course, a successful—a very successful—academic. She has, per that profile,
published twenty-four books and five hundred and nine papers and received fifty-seven honorary degrees. In 2014, she became the second woman to give the John Locke Lectures, at Oxford, the most eminent lecture series in philosophy. Last year, she received the Inamori Ethics Prize, an award for ethical leaders who improve the condition of mankind. A few weeks ago, she won five hundred thousand dollars as the recipient of the Kyoto Prize, the most prestigious award offered in fields not eligible for a Nobel, joining a small group of philosophers that includes Karl Popper and Jürgen Habermas.
Very, very successful.
Now, it’s true that I don’t like all of her books, but I have a number of them on my bookshelf and have used her work in my classroom. I’d guess that not only does she work harder than me, but that she’s also smarter than me and that if I ever got into an argument with her I’d almost certainly lose.
So, I’m not competing with her because I can’t compete with her: she’s way out of my league.
That said (you knew there’d be a “that said”, or maybe a “but still”), reading that profile made me uneasy: Is she for real?
“To be a good human being,” she has said, “is to have a kind of openness to the world, the ability to trust uncertain things beyond your own control that can lead you to be shattered.”
This makes a great deal of sense, and Nussbaum certainly does seem open to the world.
Her work includes lovely descriptions of the physical realities of being a person, of having a body “soft and porous, receptive of fluid and sticky, womanlike in its oozy sliminess.” She believes that dread of these phenomena creates a threat to civic life. “What I am calling for,” she writes, is “a society of citizens who admit that they are needy and vulnerable.”
But, as Rachel Aviv observes,
In Nussbaum’s case, I wondered if she approaches her theme of vulnerability with such success because she peers at it from afar, as if it were unfamiliar and exotic. [. . .]
. . . when I first proposed the idea of a Profile . . [s]he responded skeptically, writing in an e-mail that she’d had a long, varied career, adding, “I’d really like to feel that you had considered various aspects of it and that we had a plan that had a focus.” She typically responded within an hour of my sending an e-mail. “Do you feel that you have such a plan?” she asked me. “I’d like to hear the pros and cons in your view of different emphases.” She wasn’t sure how I could encompass her œuvre, since it covered so many subjects: . . . “The challenge for you would be to give readers a road map through the work that would be illuminating rather than confusing,” she wrote, adding, “It will all fall to bits without a plan.”
I understand that one may seek to control as much as possible about one’s own life in recognition that there’s so much that can’t be controlled, but there’s appears to be little that Nussbaum accepts as out of one’s control.
That philosophers write one prescription and follow another is so common as to be axiomatic. But I find it jarring that a scholar of humanity who, remarking on operatic role she’s rehearsing, says “I feel that this character is basically saying, ‘Life is treating me badly, so I’m going to give up,’ ” she told me. “And I find that totally unintelligible.”
Oh my Hera, Martha, so many of us give up so often, how can you talk of a “society of citizens who admit” being shattered, needy, and vulnerable when you can’t see that humans who are shattered sometimes give up?
As Aviv notes, Nussbaum does give emotions pride of place in her philosophy, as a kind of ur-cognition. And there’s something to that, to the breakdown of the affect-vs-intellect duality. But in assigning emotions a cognitive role, she overlooks that emotions have their own role, as emotions.
This is tough for me, not least because I once aspired to the kind of Stoicism that Nussbaum seems to have achieved (and which may be yet another reason I respond so strongly to her). Yet I’ve spent too many years twisting and then untwisting myself not to see that feelings are more than just thoughts untamed, always to be subordinated to reason. I have difficulty with this still, but I can at least acknowledge that sometimes, sometimes, it is not the worst thing to feel, first.
Nussbaum allows the feeling, but only properly tamed. She feels through her thoughts, which is an accomplishment. And a loss.
There’s a great deal more in the profile—the discussion of her colonoscopy, her willingness to strip in front of others, her use of Botox and plastic surgery, and more—which, as someone who’d rather not appear in my skivvies in front of colleagues, older or younger (and would prefer they keep their clothes on, as well), only heightened my unease.
But then, on submitting that feeling to reason, I admit that it doesn’t make sense to feel embarrassed on behalf of someone who is matter-of-fact in dealing with her facts of life. And it allowed me to see Nussbaum, in all her determined discipline, as, well, a bit odd.
And thus, all the more real for her oddness.