Philosophical Interventions: Reviews 1986-2011

April 19, 2012

Unlike the review you are now reading, those collected in this volume are essays of several thousand words each. In her introduction, Martha Nussbaum puts forth a philosophy of reviewing, based on the need for academics to publicly engage with major new work (be it written or audio-visual, by established figures or emerging voices). The selection of her own reviews that follows demonstrates how philosophy - both ancient and modern - can help to clarify and assess views on practical matters such as how individuals should live their lives and what forms of law and government would be best for society.

Nussbaum's reviews embody a sustained engagement with important ideas while simultaneously giving a sense of how her views on many of the issues discussed developed over a quarter of a century in response to a number of influential theories of moral and political action, including those of Amartya Sen, Catharine MacKinnon, Alasdair MacIntyre, John Rawls, Charles Taylor, Judith Butler and Nicola Lacey. Like Sen, Nussbaum adopts a version of secular liberalism known as the capabilities approach, according to which "a society is assessed not by the sheer amount of income and wealth it gives people, but by the extent to which it has made them capable of various important activities".

This is developed in response to theories that give pride of place to the un-needy (eg, Rawls and David Gauthier's contractualism), traditional societies (Taylor and MacIntyre's communitarianism), unrestricted freedom (Robert Nozick's libertarianism) and pleasure maximisation (Peter Singer's and Peter Unger's utilitarianism). From this standpoint she also defends a brand of feminism which focuses on the ongoing battle to allow women equal opportunity to function effectively, and thereby also enters heated debates relating to the gendering of various functions.

While Nussbaum is capable of bestowing very high praise indeed (Tzachi Zamir's Double Vision: Moral Philosophy and Shakespearean Drama is "quite a brilliant book"; MacKinnon's essay Postmodernism and Human Rights "ought to be required reading for all undergraduates and graduate students in the humanities"; and Gregory Vlastos' Socrates: Ironist, and Moral Philosopher is "a marvellous book" that "deserves as much honor as any work of scholarship in Greek philosophy in this century"), she doesn't pull her punches when she sees fit.

Iris Murdoch holds a "hopelessly egoistic vision of life"; Colin McGinn "does not offer anything subtle or new"; Butler's style is "ponderous and obscure" and her "hip quietism...collaborates with evil"; MacIntyre is "in the grip of a world view promulgated by authority rather than by reason", his work "full of maddening inconsistencies"; Harvey Mansfield serves up a "logic-free, ambigu-ity-riddled concoction"; Roger Scruton "needs to listen less to Parsifal and more to Billie Holiday"; and Unger's implied reader is a "philosophical imbecile"). Both sorts of verdict are almost always accompanied by careful argument. Nussbaum here frequently draws from the history of philosophy (especially Aristotle, the Stoics and John Stuart Mill) either to overthrow fundamental assumptions or to present a nuanced criticism from within a framework of shared beliefs. She thus brings the history of philosophy to life by applying it to issues of ongoing public concern.

Regardless of the extent to which any individual reader will agree with Nussbaum's conclusions, this volume serves as a perfect introduction to some of the most important socio-political debates of the past 25 years. Indeed, no retrospective textbook could capture the sense of engagement found in a critical review written at the time of a work's release, and I cannot think of a better guide to this small part of the history of ideas than Nussbaum.

Philosophical Interventions: Reviews 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum. Oxford University Press. 352pp, £18.99. ISBN 9780199777853. Published 1 March 2012

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