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)


‘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 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


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.

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

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

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?

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.

A Year with the Philosophy of Education Reading Network

It has actually been more than a year since I joined this reading network, so it’s maybe time to take stock and reflect on my experience. Here is a list of the books and authors that the group has read. Most (but not all) the links are to my blog posts about my reading. Further details can also be found on the Philosophy of Education Reading Network website.

August 2020Iris MurdochThe Sovereignty of GoodI found out about the group just before their first meeting, so didn’t have time to read the book, although I did find information about the work online.
September 2020Gert BiestaThe Beautiful Risk of EducationThis book was already on my bookshelf
October 2020Mary MidgleyWhat is Philosophy For?I knew of Mary Midgley as she wrote a review of Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. I have been thinking about McGilchrist’s work for more than 10 years, but his books are too long to recommend to this group!
November 2020Paulo FreirePedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed

See also Paulo Freire’s questions for educators
This book was already on my bookshelf, as it surely is on many educators’ shelves.
December 2020Richard RortyPhilosophy and Social HopeI knew of Richard Rorty as a friend gave me his book ‘Philosophy as Poetry’
January 2021Hannah ArendtThe Gap Between Past and Future
Chapter 1. Tradition and the Modern Age
Chapter 2. The Concept of History. Ancient and Modern
Chapter 3. What is Authority?
Chapter 4. What is Freedom?
Chapter 5. The Crisis in Education
Chapter 6. The Crisis in Culture
Chapter 7. Truth and Politics
Chapter 8. The Conquest of Space and the Stature of Man
I knew of Hannah Arendt, but had never read her work before. This book was a real eye-opener. It really captured my interest.
February 2021Amélie RortyPhilosophers on Education (Chapters 1-4 and 26-27)The Reading Network helped me access this very big and expensive book. Thank you.
March 2021bell hooksTeaching to TransgressThis book was already on my bookshelf. bell hooks was a legend in education.
April 2021Decolonising Education.
In April the theme of the Reading Network was Decolonising Education, with a particular focus on Higher Education. The group read a selection of papers from a special edition of Cultural Studies journal (2007 – Vol 21, Issue 2-3)
I did not read these papers and took a break in April.
May 2021Nel NoddingsA Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education
See also. Nel Noddings. A Feminine Approach to Moral Education
This book was already on my bookshelf. It was required reading for a Masters module in 1994/5. I enjoyed it and could relate to it more this second time of reading. Age does have some advantages!
June 2021Simone WeilAn Anthology complied by Siân MilesI didn’t have time to read this book properly but I enjoyed looking into Simone Weil’s background. Quite a tour de force!
July 2021Maxine GreeneReleasing the ImaginationThis book had been on my radar for years and I finally read it. An important text for educators.
August 2021Martin BuberI and ThouThis book had a profound effect on me. The best book of the year for me, together with Hannah Arendt’s book.
September 2021John DeweyExperience and Education
See also. John Dewey. Traditional and Progressive Education
Many teachers will be familiar with John Dewey’s work, but it was good be reminded of it
October 2021Paula AllmanRevolutionary Social Transformation. Democratic Hopes, Political Possibilities and Critical EducationI took a break this month and did not read this book
November 2021Josef PieperLeisure the Basis of CultureThis book and author were completely new to me
December 2021John Hattie and Steen LarsenThe Purposes of EducationThis is the only book in the list that has irritated me 🙂

The Philosophy of Education Reading Network meets once a month, on the third Tuesday of the month on Zoom. Details of the zoom call are posted on their website and also on Twitter @PhilofEd. It was set up by two philosophy PhD candidates, Elizabeth O’Brien and Victoria Jamieson. How they have time to organise this and do their PhDs and their jobs, and live their lives, I really don’t know. I couldn’t even have contemplated taking this on, on top of everything else, but as one of the group members (Winnie O’Connell-Wong) has said, engagement with this group means that you end up reading books you would never have come across or got round to reading otherwise.

Every book that I have read so far because of @PhilofEd is not what I would have chosen to read myself, but I have been repeatedly surprised by how good the selection has been so far.

I really appreciate the democratic approach to the organisation of the group. The group is open to anyone who wants to join. If you do join you are not required to be on video or to speak. There is no hierarchy of group members. Each month a speaker is invited (either a group member or someone with expertise related to the text) to introduce the book and raise questions for the group to consider. If you go to the PhilofEd website and click on the images of books read, most of the time this will bring up the list of questions raised for the book. The introduction to the book on Zoom usually takes about 10 to 15 minutes. The group can then discuss those questions or discuss anything else that is of interest. If you want to speak you simply unmute yourself and start to speak when there is a pause. The meeting lasts an hour and rarely runs over, and even then only runs over for administrative purposes. I like this tight time-keeping.

The selection of books to be read is also a very democratic process. Members of the group can suggest texts that they would like to read and discuss. These are then posted on the PhilofEd website. Every three months texts are randomly selected from members’ suggestions, which are numbered. A random number generator software is used to pick 4 trios of books. A poll is then set up on Twitter and members vote for which trio of books they would like to read over the coming three months.

It took me about 10 months to find my voice in this group. I have no background in philosophy, although since I retired I have attended a number of different adult education philosophy courses, but they have been taught courses, led by a tutor, who invites you to speak. Currently I am attending a face-to-face course on Fantastic Female Philosophers, which is being run over a number of months. The Philosophy of Education group is a reading network not a course.

I am also a member of my local U3A (University of the Third Age) philosophy group which meets monthly in Kendal to discuss a wide variety of topics dependent on members’ interests and who is willing to lead a session. The last one I went to in November was on the question ‘What can Covid teach us about Climate Change?’ with reference to the Stoics. Again, these are structured sessions.

The PhilofEd reading network sessions are only very loosely structured. There are some introductory questions, but I am always amazed that often few of them are addressed, if at all. The discussion goes in any direction that members want to take it. This lack of structure can be unnerving, particularly for newcomers who have to take the initiative and grasp the bull by the horns to speak.

Also unnerving can be the silences. Sometimes there are long pauses when no-one speaks. I was very amused in one meeting which was introduced by a Professor of Philosophy, who could not cope with the silence that followed the questions he raised, so he answered all the questions himself. This went down very well with the group because he was very knowledgeable and informative and as we know it is easier to sit back and be told than to have to think for yourself.

I definitely had to take the bull by the horns to speak the first time (and even to put my video on initially). I find it easier if I have seen the questions to be discussed before the meeting so that I have time to think about them. I have never been good at thinking on my feet. Ultimately I realised that particularly in the cases where I had done a very thorough reading of the book, then I could be confident that I might have something of value to contribute.

So gradually I have overcome the feeling of being a fish out of water and have found the group meetings more enjoyable. The group itself is not at all threatening. Everyone is very welcoming and over time faces and individual modes of expression become familiar. The books that have had the biggest impact on me this past year have been Hannah Arendt’s The Gap Between Past and Future, Nel Noddings’ A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education, and Martin Buber’s I and Thou. And I have also noted, that on the whole, I find the female authors’ works resonated with me more. I think that is probably a discussion for another time.

January 2022 will start with an intriguing book which I have started to read – Lines by Tim Ingold. Sometimes it takes me a while to see the relevance of some of these texts for education and so far Tim Ingold’s book falls into that category, but I have only just started it, and maybe by the end it will have become clear.

I was asked today how long I have been participating in the Philosophy of Education Reading Network and when I said more than a year, I was then asked how long I was going to continue. It was these questions that prompted this post. I will continue to read the texts selected by the network for as long as I find them stimulating and thought-provoking, and for as long as my ageing brain can cope with them 🙂

Technology, teenagers and books


Ripley St. Thomas Academy, Lancaster

It has been nearly three years since I wrote a post which considered the question of the role of books in today’s digital world – That post led to a surprisingly heated discussion about the value of books and a comment quoting Iain McGilchrist.


“Life can certainly have meaning without books, but books cannot have meaning without life. Most of us probably share a belief that life is greatly enriched by them: life goes into books and books go back into life.” (p. 195, The Master and his Emissary)

This week I have watched a BBC documentary that seems to support McGilchrist’s view. The title of the documentary was ‘The School that got Teens Reading’. It caught my attention because it was filmed at a local secondary school, Ripley St Thomas Academy in Lancaster which is purportedly the biggest state school in Lancashire and has received an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted Report. Despite this the Headteacher bemoaned the fact that too many of her teenage pupils could not be persuaded to read a novel. Her attempt to solve this problem was to call in the help of actor and comedian Javonne Prince who owned to having left school at the age of 16 without being able to read properly, but who was introduced to Shakespeare and the power of books in drama school and now believes that discovering books changed his life. The Headteacher gave him three weeks to convert 15 reluctant and resistant teenagers into passionate readers. These pupils were selected because they admitted to not having read a book for the past two years or more.

Needless to say Javonne found he had a tough job on his hands and after a rocky start had to call in the help of two friends, Helen Skelton, a children’s author and TV presenter and Russell Kane, another comedian and actor. Ultimately through the use of a variety of strategies they achieved success, at least in the short-term, with 11 of the pupils. Only time will tell whether these teenagers become long-term passionate readers.

What was interesting were the initial attitudes of these teenagers, who said things like ‘I don’t do reading’, ‘Reading is boring’ and that books are not relevant to their lives. They claim not to have time to read and would prefer to be on Facebook, or watch films on Netflix, TV or YouTube. If they need to know something they Google it on their phones. They like a ‘quick fix’ to any questions they have. A shot of the pupils at the end of the school day in the school grounds showed most of them on their phones. One pupil said, ‘I don’t think I have the attention span to get into the book and understand the character’.

During the documentary reference was made to various pieces of research, clearly selected for the purposes of the documentary and unsubstantiated in any way, but nevertheless interesting and no doubt it would be possible to check on them. The following statements were made:

  • British schools’ teenagers don’t like to read. Reading novels has fallen out of fashion all over the country.
  • Year 10 (14 & 15 years old) reading rates have declined
  • The percentage of 11-17 year olds who don’t read at all has more than doubled in recent years from 13 to 27%
  • Research shows that teenagers who read for the joy of it are much more likely to get a better job as adults.
  • Research shows that teenagers who spend just an hour a day playing on their screens can drop the equivalent of two GCSEs
  • Parents play an important role. Primary school children who are read to every day are more likely to enjoy reading into adult life.
  • Most teenagers spend 4 hours a day online which is double the time of 10 years ago.
  • Reading is one of the best ways to strengthen empathy. Some American psychologists believe that reading literary fiction helps us recognise other people’s emotions and understand how they feel.

Iain McGilchrist has also talked about how children are losing the ability to empathise –

The documentary did not at any time suggest that the problem lay with technology; rather it attempted to make the case for the valuable learning that can come from reading novels. One thing that did come out of the programme is that there is little point in having the whole class read the same book, since each child/teenager has their own unique personality, skills and interests. What was not discussed was why the teenagers were asked to read a hard copy of the same book. If they had used technology (Kindle, phone etc.) they could each have read a book of their choice, but presumably this approach would not fit with the school’s assessment constraints!