Martha Nussbaum

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Martha Nussbaum, 2008

Martha Craven Nussbaum (born May 6, 1947) is an American philosopher and the current Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, where she is jointly appointed in the Law School and the Philosophy department. She has a particular interest in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, political philosophy, feminism, and ethics, including animal rights.


  • When I arrived at Harvard in 1969, my fellow first-year graduate students and I were taken up to the roof of the Widener Library by a well-known professor of classics. He told us how many Episcopal churches could be seen from that vantage point. As a Jew (in fact a convert from Episcopalian Christianity), I knew that my husband and I would have been forbidden to marry in Harvard's church, which had just refused to accept a Jewish wedding. As a woman I could not eat in the main dining room of the faculty club, even as a member's guest. Only a few years before, a woman would not have been able to use the undergraduate library. In 1972 I became the first female to hold the Junior Fellowship that relieved certain graduate students from teaching so that they could get on with their research. At that time I received a letter of congratulation from a prestigious classicist saying that it would be difficult to know what to call a female fellow, since "fellowess" was an awkward term. Perhaps the Greek language could solve the problem: since the masculine for "fellow" in Greek was hetairos, I could be called a hetaira. Hetaira, however, as I knew, is the ancient Greek word not for "fellowess" but for "courtesan."
  • In India the perpetrators of violence are not Muslims (who are usually poor and downtrodden, but not involved in perpetrating violence, except in the special instance of Kashmir), but Hindus who sought their ideology in Fascist Europe and who model their stance on European anti-semitism of the 1930s. ... [Hindu political ideology was derived from] "European romantic nationalism and its darker aspirations to ethnic purity". ..
    The people who spoke Sanskrit almost certainly migrated into the subcontinent from outside, finding indigenous people there, probably the ancestors of the Dravidian peoples of South India. Hindus are no more indigenous than Muslims...
    What has been happening in India is a serious threat to the future of democracy in the world. The fact that it has yet to make it onto the radar screen of so many Americans, is evidence of the way in which terrorism and the war in Iraq have distracted Americans from events and issues of fundamental significance.
    • Nussbaum, as quoted from Malhotra, R., Nīlakantan, A. (2011). Breaking India: Western interventions in Dravidian and Dalit faultlines

Quotes about Martha Nussbaum

  • One of the strengths of Cultivating Humanity is that it explicitly explores the conflict between authority and reason, even if the book does not entirely resolve this conflict. Nussbaum’s untrammeled confidence in both the universality of reason and the diversity of human life makes hers a challenging and curious book, one that strongly endorses multicultural study while distancing itself from nearly everything typically associated with it, including postmodernism, identity politics, and the critique of philosophical universalism. Here, in other words, we have an emphatic humanist who rebukes the ethnocentrism and willful ignorance of her fellow self-described humanists and the relativism and irrationalism of her postmodernist colleagues. Who knows? If her book is read as carefully and as sympathetically as it was written, it might just give humanism a good name again. But can it convince readers who don’t understand “reason” as she does? That’s another question entirely.
    • Michael Bérubé, "Citizens of the World, Unite: Martha Nussbaum’s Plan for Cultivating Humanity", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • I said that Nussbaum has only one card to play in this position, but then again, in Nussbaum’s deck of cards, reason always trumps, and all those holdouts who don’t like the rule of reason must ultimately be persuaded to reason differently — that is, similarly to us reasonable folk. Personally, I find this eminently reasonable. But I’m less sanguine about what reason can and can’t do when it’s confronted with political and religious opposition to gay and lesbian studies; fundamentalist Muslim clerics, evangelical Christian preachers, and even popes have so far seemed unmoved by Nussbaumian appeals to our common humanity and our shared capacity for reason. It seems prudent, then, at the very least, to entertain reasonable doubts about the reach of reason.
    • Michael Bérubé, "Citizens of the World, Unite: Martha Nussbaum’s Plan for Cultivating Humanity", published in Rhetorical Occasions (2006)
  • Divorced from Alan Nussbaum in 1987, Nussbaum embarked on a romantic liaison with Amartya Sen, the Indian-born Harvard scholar who won the 1998 Nobel Prize in economics and later moved to Cambridge University in England. Working with United Nations development initiatives in impoverished areas of the globe, she and Sen came up with what they called the "capabilities approach," a way of measuring a nation's achievements apart from its economic output. Their idea was to look at factors such as ownership of property, access to health care and political systems, and sovereignty over one's body in matters such as reproductive rights. Nussbaum's romance with Sen was the second of three major relationships that demonstrate how tightly woven are her personal and professional worlds. Nussbaum's current partner, author and U. of C. law professor Cass Sunstein, to whom she recently became engaged, is, like Alan Nussbaum and Sen, an internationally known scholar. Nussbaum, it could be argued, rarely dates below the genius level.
    • Julia Keller. The martha show: Celebrity scholar Martha Nussbaum gives fellow academics something to talk about. September 29, 2002. p. 1
  • What began to bother me about Nussbaum’s trajectory is that she is really not interested in the general issue of “religious violence” and the manner in which religious violence links up with religious sensibilities of one kind or another, whether perpetrated by the left or the right in India. What she is really interested in is mounting a political assault on what she identifies as the “Hindu Right,” and in this regard Nussbaum takes no prisoners... Alas, I fear, Martha Nussbaum has yet to resolve that “clash within” her own intellectual orientation.
    • Larson, Gerald James, Review of The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future. By Martha C. Nussbaum. Journal of the American Academy of Religion;Dec2009, Vol. 77 Issue 4, p. 990
  • What makes her stylistic choices here so disappointing is not just that they are beneath commonly held standards of professional scholarship, but that they fall short of the standards of conduct that Nussbaum herself (via Gandhi) sets for India and America. In its own way, is not her treatment of these all-too-human subjects a kind of “violence,” a seeking to put them in their place? ...Nussbaum either cannot or does not wish to take seriously the question of Muslim extremism within India, or a broader regional backdrop to sectarian tension and violence...
    • Jason A. Kirk (2008) Hindu Nationalism Five Years after Godhra, India Review, 7:1, 73-90, DOI: 10.1080/14736480801901238
  • Nussbaum advances her balkanization view of India through clever uses of ancient Indian history... Martha Nussbaum, who argues that India’s internal clash today is between the good guys, who are Westernized liberal Indians, versus the bad guys, who are branded as militant ‘Hindu thugs’.... But when it comes to India, she is aligned against Indian civilization and embraces radical Eurocentrism. ... She alleges that India has jumped on the bandwagon of fighting terrorism as a ploy to justify its own violence against religious minorities. Terror is a pretext to cover up India’s ‘values involved in ethnic cleansing’, which she wants to be ‘a definite deterrent to foreign investment’. After providing extensive gruesome details and highly sensationalized and exaggerated atrocity literature of Gujarat violence (including claims that have been exposed as fabrications), she cautions the world about Indians: ‘The current world atmosphere, especially the indiscriminate use of the terrorism card by the United States, has made it easier for them to use this ploy’. .. She accuses the Indian government of using al-Qaeda as ‘a scare tactic’, without providing any basis. She outright denies the existence of any India-based Islamic terror-network with Pakistani connections. India is not justified in enacting any special laws to control terror cells, she insists. She laments that the United States is not monitoring India as a threat to world democracy....Many of Nussbaum’s political stances are full of contradictions. For instance, in 2007 she argued against British unions that were boycotting Israeli academic institutions that were accused of political bias. But she took the opposite stand on Indian academic institutions and individuals, criticizing the world’s failure to not utter ‘a whisper about boycotting’ the Indians.... In this manner, she has been effective in shifting attention away from anti-India terrorism....Lacking her own direct scholarship on the complex issues concerning ancient Indian civilization, Nussbaum has parroted others who fit her politics.
    • Malhotra, R., Nīlakantan̲, A., & Infinity Foundation (Princeton, N.J.). (2016). Breaking India: Western interventions in Dravidian and Dalit faultlines.
  • Nussbaum, if she were truly a well-wisher of India, would educate herself about Indian philosophy, religion and culture and read reports about Indian events by other than her Marxist/Socialist friends and colleagues. She should, as a rhetorician, be especially interested in the fourth-century logician Vatsyayana’s identification of the vices and virtues of speech. The vices originating from speech, according to him are mithya (falsehood), parusha (caustic talk), soochana (calumny) and asambaddha (absurd talk). The virtues of speech are satya (veracity), hitavaachana (talking with good intention), priyavaachana (gentle talk) and svaadhyaaya (recitation of scriptures). Prof. Nussbaum may want to appear on the “right side of history” but that should not be at the expense of truth.
    • Prof. Ramesh N. Rao, Selective Outrage, Suspect Ethics, [1]
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