Reading Nussbaum

The library produced Nussbaum’s Liberty of Conscience for me yesterday so I’ve read some of it and I must say, I was surprised – it’s way worse than I expected. I think it’s terrible – and it’s also extremely irritating. Tooth-grindingly irritating.

We talked about an interview in which she discussed the book with Bill Moyers last April and then we discussed it some more a couple of days later. I was critical of what she’d said then but I also gave her the benefit of the doubt on a lot of things. My mistake. She does mean what I said I thought she didn’t mean. (I see that H E Baber commented on the second post, which is interesting because I was just reading The Enlightenment Project (Baber’s blog) to see if she had commented on Nussbaum’s book, having forgotten that she’d commented here. Baber is not a fan of Nussbaum’s work. I’m feeling pretty inclined to give up on Nussbaum myself now.

The wheels come off on the very first page, where she tells us about the Pilgrims in Massachusetts who faced all those dangers ‘in order to be able to worship God freely in their own way,’ and then says we rarely reflect on the ‘real meaning’ of that story: ‘that religious liberty is very important to people.’

Very pretty, but who says that is the real meaning of that story? I don’t think it is. I think what is very important to people is their own religious liberty, not religious liberty in general. But that’s not what Nussbaum wants us to think, so it’s not what she says, even though she does say on the very next page that the lesson of the pilgrims is easily forgotten and that ‘the early settlers themselves soon forgot it, establishing their own repressive orthodoxy which others fled in turn.’ Nonsense; they didn’t forget it; it was never what they meant; or at least there’s damn little reason to think it is what they meant and a lot of reason to think they meant what I said – their own religious liberty, but not everyone’s. How does Nussbaum know that’s not what they wanted all along? She doesn’t say. Maybe she learned the ‘religious liberty’ thing in the fourth grade and has never noticed how unlikely it is and how badly it fits the known facts.

And the whole damn book is like that, so far as I’ve read (and I’ve sampled as well as reading from the beginning). Pious, sentimental, evasive, and woefully incomplete – and that’s putting it politely. Nussbaum uses the word ‘deeply’ about once on every page, along with words like ‘precious’ and ‘profound’ and ‘meaning’ and ‘noble’ and other slushy emotive words, and she makes claims that are ‘deeply’ unconvincing. Her overall claim is that religious liberty is important because people value religion because it is how they ‘search for meaning.’ But is that why? It seems to be why for some people, but is it for all of them? Not as far as I know. I think lots of people value religion for other reasons. I also think the ‘search’ idea is terribly sentimental and incomplete and manipulative. Not all religious people are engaged in any ‘search,’ to put it mildly: a lot of them are quite convinced that there’s no need to search because they’ve already found, and they’re quite certain about what it is they’ve found, too. This ‘search for meaning’ gives a pretty picture of a lot of inquiring curious open-minded people rummaging around looking for meaning, but that simply ignores the importance of dogma and authority and orthodoxy and literalism and Absolute Truth.

Nussbaum keeps insisting on how respectful she is and how important it is to be respectful (that’s another word that crops up on just about every page), but she oozes condescension.

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