Reading for Life. Martha Nussbaum

The second book of 2022 to be selected for discussion by the Philosophy of Education Reading Network is Martha Nussbaum’s collection of Essays on Philosophy and Literature , ‘Love’s Knowledge’.

The group is organising itself differently this month. The book was selected in the same way as I have described before, although this time we only voted for this month’s book, not for the next 3 months.

Given that Martha Nussbaum’s book was thought to be too long to read and discuss in one meeting, and that it is composed of a series of independent essays, we were then asked (via Twitter) to let the organisers, Elizabeth O’Brien and Vicky Jamieson, know which chapters we would like to read and discuss.

Then came the surprise for those of us who had suggested chapters.

Just for something different, since the chapters stand alone together, how about each of us comes up with a question/provocation for one chapter we’ve suggested?

And that is how I ended up with Chapter 9 – Reading for Life – to come up with a question/provocation for, the chapter on which this post is based.

Like some of the other authors we have discussed in the PhilofEd group, Martha Nussbaum has been on my radar for a number of years, but I haven’t read anything by her until now. First impression: extremely dry and difficult to read. Not particularly enjoyable for me, but at this stage I really know very little about her work as a whole, so I may, in the long term, change my mind.  The irony is that Chapter 9, Reading for Life, is about the relationship between book and reader, and how a book should be the reader’s closest friend, with whom the reader has an intimate and loving relationship. So far, I have not developed an intimate and loving relationship with this book!

Nussbaum asks the questions: What is happening to readers as they read? Are people changed by what they read? If people are changed by what they read, then there are ethical and moral implications for both writer and reader, and of course, for educator.

In this chapter, Nussbaum considers the disdain with which ethical criticism of literature has been held over the years. It is often thought to be dogmatic, simplistic, emotive and ‘irretrievably subjective’. This quote below, which I find helpful in explaining why ethical criticism is thought by some to be important, does not come from Nussbaum, but from an article by Marshall Gregory (1998), ‘Ethical Criticism: What it is and Why it Matters’.

Most of us cannot evade the deep intuition that identifying with characters in stories can exert a powerful influence on the quality and content of our own lives. To analyze how fictions exert this influence and to assess its effects is ethical criticism’s job. What literary criticism needs in particular is a theoretical basis for inquiries into and judgments about the potential ethical effects of literature and narrative art in general. We need theoretical grounding because practical ethical criticism goes on all the time, often conducted in a most helter-skelter, contradictory, and intellectually incoherent way. Some contemporary critics may want to insist that ethical criticism is irrelevant, but ethical criticism’s century-long rejection in the academy is matched in scope only by the ceaseless talk about ethical issues that goes on inside and outside of the academy. The persistence of these issues as foci of constant and passionate controversy gives the lie to ethical criticism’s irrelevance. We may not always know how to live with it but we certainly cannot live without it. Ethical criticism cannot be evaded by epistemological relativism, by emotivism, or by the view of art as “mere entertainment,” for none of these views engages the overwhelming evidence both in literature and in life that imitations of fictional models comprise an important source of conduct for most of us much of the time. The aims of ethical criticism are to lead readers to a better and clearer understanding of certain issues: that literary effects are always potential, never determined; that moral and ethical criteria are unavoidable in both understanding and evaluating narratives; and that almost all critical approaches rest to some extent on ethical presuppositions that may be silent but that are always present………….

Nussbaum discusses ethical criticism through the work of Wayne Booth, in particular his book, ‘The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988), in which he makes a ‘compelling case for the coherence and importance of ethical criticism’. For Booth and Nussbaum, critical ethical discourse is essential to a just and rational society. For Booth, ethical criticism should be more than questioning what this work tells me about my moral duty. We should be able to ask certain questions of the text, such as, What relationship does my engagement with it have to my general aim to live well?  Ethical criticism should look at the work as a whole and not take characters or particular sentences out of context. It does not have a single dogmatic theory of what literature should be or do, but it can take a stand against certain things such as sadism, racism, and sexism. It does not need to be preachy or formally insensitive, and it is not about the consequences of reading, but about what becomes of readers as they read.

How are our desires and thoughts shaped as we read? Booth suggests that some texts (he uses the example, Peter Benchley’s Jaws) narrow the range of our conceptions and sentiments, but others, such as Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, Tolstoy, enable readers ‘to live during these moments a richer and fuller life than they could manage on their own’ (p.223). They also enable readers to change their minds and break down long-term entrenched, but possibly misinformed, views on life.

But what about Philosophy and Literature? Is the friendship we have with a novel different to the friendship promised by a philosophical treatise? Nussbaum suggests that ‘Novels … as a form of writing, have a distinctive, and a controversial ethical content.’ (p.237). We succumb trustingly to novels, but ‘philosophical texts, on the whole, do not invite the reader to fall in love’. (p.237). Nussbaum seems to suggest that philosophical criticism could learn from ethical literary criticism and become ‘less abstract and schematic, more respectful of the claims of the motions and imagination, [and] more tentative and improvisatory.’ (p.239). It could, like literature, appeal more for the emotional engagement of the reader.

Richard Eldridge in his review of Reading for Life explains Nussbaum’s view as follows:

‘Once we see human lives as courageous or cowardly, creative or routine, loving or narcissistic responses to such constraints and forces, then the treatise, the favored form of philosophical expression in modernity, immediately becomes less attractive as a vehicle of human understanding of human possibilities. Instead, it will be “texts that narrate the experiences of beings committed to value” (149), novels and perhaps related historical and biographical works of sustained narration, that will have the most to show us about how we might best live in response to our constraints and to the incommensurability of goods’. (Eldridge, p.190)

And…

‘It is through our emotional reactions – aversion, fearfulness, sympathy, grief, awe, love, reverence, or boredom as may be – to narratives that we learn the best possibilities of human life and the best paths toward them that various contexts make available’. (Eldridge, p.191)

Iris Murdoch doesn’t fully agree with Nussbaum. In “Philosophy and Literature” in Men of Ideas (ed. Bryan Magee), she says that she sees “no general role of philosophy in literature” (p.242). She draws the following distinctions between literature and philosophy: literature does many things, philosophy does one thing (has one aim); literature is natural, philosophy is counter-natural; literature arouses emotion, philosophy tries to eliminate emotional appeal; literature is indirect, philosophy is direct; literature has no problem to solve, philosophy seeks to solve a few technical and abstract problems; literature is concerned with aesthetic form, philosophy does not aim at formal perfection. (Cited in Holland, 1998).

There is, of course, much more in this chapter that could be discussed. Richard Eldridge raises some interesting points in his review of this essay, which Martha Nussbaum thought worthy enough to respond to. In seeking to respond to the request from the Philosophy of Education Reading Network organisers, I have focussed not on how we read, for example on whether we can distinguish Booth’s three voices, the narrator (the character who tells the story); the implied author (the sense of life or the outlook that reveals itself in the structure of the text taken as a whole); and the writer (the real-life person, with all her or his lapses of attention, trivial daily pursuits, and so forth) (Nussbaum, p.233). Instead, I have focussed on the value of ethical literary criticism and the different affordances of literature and philosophy. So, the question I would like to raise for the Philosophy of Education Reading Network, which I hope is sufficiently provocative to promote discussion is:

Do we agree with Martha Nussbaum that ethical literary criticism gives a fuller appreciation of Reading for Life than philosophical criticism, and if so, why?

Further questions raised by members of the PhilofEd Reading Network in relation to other chapters are below.

Chapter 5

Moral communication, moral imagination, and love are tied to the singularity of others. To what extent does an attention to singularity complicate and/or complement pedagogical approaches otherwise committed to social transformation/change?

Chapter 11

Assuming that education should help students better know themselves, what role(s) can literature and/or philosophy play in this process? What conceptions of the emotions and the intellect might hamper/help in this regard?

Chapter 12

Reading Nussbaum’s reading of Beckett (and bearing in mind that Beckett began to publish his literary works in 1930s) what are your thoughts on relation, life, and education?

See https://www.philofed.com/community-blog for further context in relation to these questions.

Update 07-02-2022

Whilst reading and writing about Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Reading for Life’, I have had an enjoyable email exchange with my friend (and past research colleague) Roy Williams, who joined the Philosophy of Education Reading Network last month for the first time. Roy has written his own response to this chapter, and to Nussbaum’s book more generally, on his wiki. It makes for fascinating reading. See http://resonancesofknowledge.pbworks.com/w/page/147886971/Reading%20-%20in%20and%20out%20of%20time

References/Bibliography

Martha Nussbaum (1990) Love’s Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wayne Booth (1989) The Company We Keep. An Ethics of Fiction. University of California Press

Gregory, Marshall W. (1998) “Ethical Criticism: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Style 32, no. 2, 194–220. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42946423

Richard Eldridge. (1992). Review. Reading for Life. Martha Nussbaum on Philosophy and Literature. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2 (1), 187–197. Retrieved from https://works.swarthmore.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1306&context=fac-philosophy

Nussbaum, M. C. (1992). Reply to Richard Eldridge. Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, 2(1), 198–207. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/20163514

Iris Murdoch, “Philosophy and Literature,” in Men of Ideas ed. Bryan Magee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) p. 230.

Holland, M.G. (1998) Can Fiction be Philosophy? https://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Lite/LiteHoll.htm

Rachel Aviv (2016) The Philosopher of Feelings. The New Yorker

Ana Sandoiu (2016) Martha Nussbaum on Emotions, Ethics, and Literature. The Partially Examined Life. A Philosophy Podcast and Philosophy Blog.

2 thoughts on “Reading for Life. Martha Nussbaum

  1. Roy Williams February 7, 2022 / 12:55 am

    Thanks Jenny.

    For the (turgid) ride, and for all the links you so painstakingly put together to try to tease out, and clarify, the meaning of this chapter. I have read (or skimmed) them all.

    My conclusion (and exit from the field of battle) is that Nussbaum did, at one stage in the history of moral philosophy – and literary criticism – and feminism – make some very pertinent and important interventions. (I know this looks like ‘damning by faint praise,’ but it is!)

    But I think she got a bit stuck, and lost sight of the context, so she over-generalised her own experience (of love and eroticism – although this text is almost silent on the details of the latter), and made it a ’thing.’ That in itself was not a problem. Going on about it for sooooooo long, and getting stuck there, however, was. Her work is, unfortunately, dating fast as a result. (In all honesty, I have not read her most recent work, so it’s possible I could be quite wrong).

    I have now worked through enough of her very erudite arguments, and will happily leave it to others to explore further. If nothing else, I have been defeated by exhaustion, not argument.

    >

  2. jennymackness February 7, 2022 / 5:13 am

    Many thanks for your comment Roy. In particular, thanks for the article you have written on your wiki, which I have linked to in my post above. I think you are not alone in the criticisms you make of Nussbaum’s work, and others have had similar thoughts. It will be interesting to hear how people in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network respond to the book.

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