Discusses Philosophies Of Responsibility
by Cori Anne Winrock
Last Tuesday, philosopher Martha S. Nussbaum spoke
at Oberlin as a part of the Colleges 2001-2002 Convocation Series.
Over the past 15 years Nussbaum has received five invitations to speak
at the College, each coming from a different academic department.
In this visit she delivered two separate talks. Her earlier talk Tuesday
afternoon was addressed to a small group of students in Wilder, while
her convocation speech later that evening in Finney Chapel attracted
a large crowd of faculty and students.
The first session addressed her most recent book, Upheavals of Thought:
The Intelligence of Emotions. Nussbaum, with her legs curled up on
a chair, addressed her book chapter by chapter. The books premise
is to discuss the relation between emotions and reasons, linking academic
studies with real life. She opened her discussion by speaking of her
intense fascination with the Greeks and Romans, in particular the
Stoics, and their beliefs on emotions. Noting that when writing a
book such as this people need to be able to more easily relate, Nussbaum
said, It is important to get an example from life on the table,
and mine it. In her book on emotions, Nussbaum chose the death
of her own mother in reference to a personal account of grief in her
Nussbaum explained the intelligent perception contained in emotions
such as grief, by exemplifying that we grieve over something specific.
Nussbaum showed how grief includes things, such as the thought of
a person. Nussbaum said, [Grief] may contain lots of bad pain
and feelings, but it also contains thought. Grief would be easier
if it was just a stomach ache. The goal of her book was to break
down the sharp dichotomy between thoughts and emotions. Each chapter
highlighting a different historical sense of emotions in Greek and
Roman history, while contrasting it with arguments that are at once
empowering and enlightening to the human perspective on emotion. Nussbaum
focuses in on the emotion as a belief, an inscription of value or
importance to each specific person.
Nussbaum challenges the Stoic view of emotions being surges of energy
by stating that emotions are much more work than that. She argues
that there has to be a distinguishing factor between emotions of current
issues, and those of the background or lurking emotions. A basic premise
is that we have emotions and beliefs that we do not always notice,
such as the fact that the chairs we sit on are solid, and we believe
them to be so.
Nussbaum continued to speak of later chapters in her book, detailing
her beliefs on animals having emotions, as well as cross-cultural
differences in emotions. She also included a section on psychoanalytic
viewpoints through child-development. She closed her afternoon session
with audience question and answer sessions, based around compassion
and the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings. She spoke about
the need for cross-cultural understanding.
Nussbaum has dedicated her career to putting plans such as these into
action. From 1987 to 1993 she held a position as advisor to research
at the World Institute for Developmental Economics Research in Helsinki.
At the same time, Nussbaum has worked to articulate ideas concerning
injustice, in particular towards women, in the writing of two books
and a lecture series.
In her evening convocation speech Nussbaum gave an address entitled
Global Duties: Western Philosophys Problematic Legacy.
Her address opened with the illuminating statistics of life expectancy
of an American child, 76.4 years, in comparison to Third World nations,
where there is a drop to around 37.4 years. Her point was to drive
in that survival is based on basic human goods, and that matters of
chance dictate where one is born, and thus ones life expectancy
and living environment.
Nussbaum highlighted her many insights toward justice, while accrediting
Cicero as the first historically to write significantly about justice.
To demonstrate the centrality of Ciceros discourse on justice,
she uses his passages as the grounding against which most of her arguments
are made. Nussbaum addresses the contradiction of immediate action
against crimes of humanity, while deliberately ignoring the need for
basic human goods such as food, as a perfect example of flaw in Ciceros
view on justice. She argues that duties of justice should also be
duties of aide. Nussbaum continues on through a series of arguments
against Ciceros concept of the insignificance of external blows
in comparison to the will. Quoting lengthy passages of Ciceros
text, Nussbaum delicately dissects details that she uses in argument
against what she believes is a fiercely wrong view of world matters.
Martha Nussbaum attended Wellesley College and New York University,
as well as Harvard, where she received her M.A. and her Ph.D. Nussbaum
has written ten books, and given many lectures world-wide. She also
runs up to ten miles a day. Next year she will be helping to run a
conference in India on ethics and globalization.