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9 questions for Martha Nussbaum

The philosopher on key intellectual influences and the importance of contrary opinions.

Javier Zarracina

This week, Martha Nussbaum — philosopher, author, and professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago — answers our questions.

What’s the first piece of media you consume every day?

The Chicago Tribune and the New York Times, both papers, delivered to my door each day.

Name a writer or publication you disagree with but still read.

This strikes me as the most hilarious question, given that I'm a philosopher. Philosophy is all about respectful disagreement, and learning from disagreement. No decent philosopher simply parrots some other philosopher, so there must be disagreements somewhere in every case.

I disagree less with J.S. Mill than with any other major philosopher, but I still disagree with Mill a good deal. Aristotle is insightful on some matters, not so insightful on others. As for Plato, Kant, Bentham, Sidgwick, and Rawls, my disagreements are larger, but still compatible with thinking that in some very major ways they were on the right track. I would not say that about Lord Devlin or James Fitzjames Stephen, but I still teach both, in order to learn from their arguments.

If I didn't disagree with a philosopher it would hardly be worth engaging with him or her, because there would be nothing to learn.

Who is the person who has most influenced the way you think?

Probably my parents, but in complicated ways (frequently involving opposition and reaction), and only a good analyst could know how and how far. If you mean later intellectual influences, so many: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristotle, Lucretius, Seneca, Adam Smith, Rousseau, Kant, J.S. Mill, Rawls, Bernard Williams, Donald Winnicott.

When was the last time you changed your mind about something?

In November I realized that there was a major defect in my account of emotions that meant that I had to write a new book showing the primary role of fear, and how fear infects all the other emotions. So that's the most recent large change.

What’s your worst intellectual habit?

I am pretty happy with my habits. I do a lot of work, I teach a lot, I am a good colleague, and I have plenty of time for the people I love. So the balance seems right. It used to be more difficult to find this balance: In particular I used to be unsure how much to travel for conferences and lectures. Now I have very firm rules: No lecturing in July or August, and no international travel during teaching weeks. No canceled classes, and at most one or two domestic trips per month.

So it's only if something arrives by surprise that I feel overbooked, as, for example, the Kyoto Prize requires four weeks of lecturing for the Inamori Foundation. Every morning before I get up I read my email on my phone, and am delighted if I can turn down three or four invitations (those from abroad often arrive overnight) before I even get up. This is a delightful habit that starts my day on the right footing.

What inspires you to learn?

Happiness and zest.

What do you need to believe in order to get through the day?

I find this question alien. It never occurs to me to ask whether I will get through the day. I have fun every day. I guess at times, when I have too many committee meetings or too many exams to grade, I do need to believe that I will find time to write pretty soon. But those times are rare.

What’s a view that you hold but can’t defend?

That I will live to be over 100.

What book have you recommended the most?

Well most of the books that I love are well-known, so I don't need to recommend them. However, books by the great founders of India are not read often enough, apart from Gandhi's autobiography, which is well-known. So I do find myself recommending Jawaharlal Nehru's The Discovery of India and B.R. Ambedkar's Annihilation of Caste, two masterpieces that most Americans have not read.

You can read last week’s edition of 9 questions with Whitney Cummings here.