This was a nice little coincidence, or confluence, or something, this morning. I started reading Martha Nussbaum’s new book Hiding from Humanity and then when I got on the computer I found this interview with her. It’s an interesting and amusing interview, too.
As for philosophers, I find Mill the most soothing because I imagine him as a friend to whom one would like to talk. Most male philosophers of the past are not the friends of women, but Mill is.
I like Mill a lot. And come to think of it, one of the things I like in him is one of the things I like in Nussbaum, too: they’re both extremely lucid.
The interviewer asks ‘Is it the legal expert, the academic, or the philosopher in you that gets angry about specious arguments (say, Judith Butler or Allen Bloom)?
I really don’t like bad arguments, but what I especially dislike are bad arguments put forward cultishly, with an in-group air of authority. I think that philosophy should stick to its Socratic roots, as an egalitarian public activity open to everyone. Thus even some admittedly great philosophers, e.g. Wittgenstein, inspire me with unease because they allowed a cult to grow up around themselves and wrote undemocratically. Heidegger was guilty of the same, but he is a much less distinguished philosopher than Wittgenstein, and he also did bad things in politics.
Exactly – ‘bad arguments put forward cultishly, with an in-group air of authority.’ That’s exactly it, that’s why it gets up my nose so when people worship Butler. It’s that cultish, in-group thing – it drives me insane. And that’s probably why I love Mill and Nussbaum, because they are as I said so lucid. They do the exact opposite of what Butler does. She makes a few small ideas obscure; Mill and Nussbaum make an ocean of large ideas utterly clear. They make philosophy ‘an egalitarian public activity open to everyone’ rather than a smelly little orthodoxy just for the trendy few. Down with cultishness, up with lucidity.
The new book is enthralling so far. And in another bit of serendipity, it’s also very relevant to this discussion about the relationship between Theory of Mind and empathy, and my suggestion that empathy and related qualities are cognitive before they’re emotional. Nussbaum talks about exactly that subject:
…it is quite unconvincing to suggest that all emotions are ‘irrational.’ Indeed, they are very much bound up with thought, including thoughts about what matters most to us in the world. If we imagine a living creature that is truly without thought, let us say a shellfish, we cannot plausibly ascribe to that creature grief, and fear, and anger. Our own emotions incorporate thoughts, sometimes very complicated, about people and things we care about.
So there you are, you see – I went to all that trouble to say something Nussbaum had already said. She goes into the matter further in an earlier book, Upheavals of Thought, which I’ve looked into but not read yet.