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Martha Nussbaum’s Calcutta Interview December 17, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Uncategorized.
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Philosophybites tweets that American philosopher Martha Nussbaum was just interviewed in the Calcutta newspaper The Telegraph. The interview conducted by Somak Ghoshal focuses on her interest in Rabindranath Tagore, but she also expresses her views on philosophy as a discipline, and her interest in the value of emotions–an interest that she has expressed long before the current trend, ever since her book Love’s Knowledge (1990).

…The arts and the humanities are being cut back, education now is about producing useful bodies that can increase the national profit.” Tagore, too, had outlined such a conflict between the moral man and the man of limited purpose in The Religion of Man.

I ask her if philosophy, which is usually looked down upon as a “useless subject”, especially in countries such as India, has been the worst hit. Nussbaum agrees. “In the US, at least, the study of philosophy forms some part of a liberal education. Students take general courses in it before majoring in something else,” she says. “But in the British system, which is similar to the Indian system, students have to focus on only one subject. In that case, what does philosophy do for you?” In a recent book, Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Nussbaum makes a powerful connection between democracy, imagination and empathy. “Every single university student should study philosophy,” she says with a disarming earnestness, “You need to lead the examined life and question your beliefs. If you don’t learn critical thinking, then political debate degenerates into a contest of slogans.” She believes this process has set in in the US, where debate is used to attack others, not as a tool to understand the structure of an argument. “Socrates was right when he said that democracies are prone to sloppy, hasty reasoning,” she says, “People need to slow down and analyse what they are saying. Tagore understood this too well, and so the style of instruction in his school was Socratic.”

Does she feel that Tagore is trying to forge a new philosophical language to talk about education in The Religion of Man? Is that why he seems to waver between an emotional and an empirical register? “Mill, too, had argued that a full human life requires a balance between the analytical faculties and a deep, spiritual appreciation of beauty,” Nussbaum clarifies, “You must be able to appreciate the depth of another human being.” “But,” she continues, “Tagore is better than Mill because he thinks about love.” In fact, Nussbaum’s current project is “a long book on political emotions” where she shows that society can’t be held together merely “by cold feelings of respect” — there must be room for love.

Habermas on Rawls on Religion December 14, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Political Philosophy, religion.
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In his blog on Habermas and Rawls, Thomas Gregersen has published a link to a new afterword by Habermas about the young Rawls’ analysis of religion in his senior thesis from 1942, “A Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith.” This piece apparently wasn’t known to exist until after Rawls’ death in 2002. In 1942 Rawls was 21, and since I’m right now grading what seems like a stack of several thousand papers 🙂 from students in that age-bracket, I am acutely aware of the quality of writing and argumentation…however, I’ll pursue Rawls’ own text at a later date, and leave it to Habermas to “grade” Rawls!

I thought you might find it interesting to (1) see Gregersen’s blog, (2) read the Habermas piece .

An excerpt from Habermas’ review, quoted by Gregersen:

“I will limit myself here to four observations. (1) This confident work, which is strikingly mature for a twenty-one-year-old, merits interest in the first instance as a surprising biographical testimony concerning the work and personality of the most important political theorist of the twentieth century. (2) The philosophical substance of the senior thesis consists in a religious ethics which already exhibits all of the essential features of an egalitarian and universalistic ethics of duty tailored to the absolute worth of the individual. (3) At the same time the posthumous insight into the biographical sources of the author’s work offers an outstanding example of the philosophical translation of religious motives. It is as if one were examining the religious roots of a deontological morality based on reason alone under a magnifying glass. (4) The student’s senior thesis also foreshadows his later recognition that the secularisation of state power must not be confused with the secularisation of civil society. Rawls owes his unique standing in the social contract tradition to the systematic attention he devotes to religious and metaphysical pluralism.”

Of course it is always fascinating when precursors to a thinker’s prominent contributions can be found in his or her early writings. But that shouldn’t detract from the significance of a good thinker being able to change his or her mind…

Imagining John Lennon December 8, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Art and Music, Culture, Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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Today we should commemorate another passing, but this one lies 30 years in the past. Dec.8, 1980, John Lennon was murdered. For my generation it is a date we remember, always, because of Lennon’s standing as a cultural personality, as well as the symbolism of his passing. Now Rolling Stone Magazine has published his final interview with audio clips. For those of you who were around on that winter’s day in 1980, it may remind you of how so many of us felt. For those of you for whom this is ancient history, maybe this will give you a bit of a feel for why Lennon was such a significant person—even a philosopher, as some would call him, and why his death was so devastating for an entire generation. Some of us see the world through different eyes now, but that doesn’t mean his words have stopped resonating, because they came from the heart of a great artist.

Here is what MTV has to say today:

It was 30 years ago today that former Beatle John Lennon was murdered by a crazed fan outside his home in New York. To mark that tragic event, fans around the world are planning commemorations of the singer’s life and legacy on Wednesday (December 8), remembering his message of peace and love and paying tribute to one of the premier songwriters of the modern era.

As part of that celebration of Lennon’s life, Rolling Stone magazine has devoted its final 2010 issue to a nine-hour interview the singer did just three days before his death on December 8, 1980. Select excerpts from the interview writer Jonathan Cott conducted with Lennon ran in a tribute issue put out by the magazine in January 1981, but the full talk sat on a shelf in Cott’s closet for nearly 30 years.

In audio excerpts from the interview on Rolling Stone‘s website, Lennon laments, “I cannot live up to other people’s expectations of me, because they’re illusory,” he said of his efforts to include positive messages of hope and togetherness in his music and the pressure to live up to his legacy. “Give peace a chance, not shoot people for peace … I only put out songs and answer questions … I cannot be 18 and a be a punk … I see the world through different eyes. I still believe in love, peace and understanding, as Elvis Costello says.”

Philippa Foot in Memoriam December 6, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy.
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An amazing woman philosopher has passed away. It only just now came to my attention that the British moral philosopher Philippa Foot died Oct.3, on her 90th birthday. It is primarily thanks to Foot that we today enjoy a revival and revision of Virtue Ethics. I hope to write more about Foot at a later date, but for now I will share these words from her obituary in The Guardian with you:

 The moral philosopher Philippa Foot, who has died aged 90, started a new trend in ethics. She challenged, in two seminal papers given in the late 1950s, the prevailing Oxbridge orthodoxy of AJ Ayer and Richard Hare; and, for the next few decades, passionate debate over her naturalism, as against Hare’s prescriptivism, occupied most moral philosophers in Britain and America. She was also one of the pioneers of virtue ethics, a key development in philosophy from the 1970s onwards.

From her essay Moral Beliefs (1958) to the collection Moral Dilemmas (2002), and throughout her academic life at Oxford and universities in North America, she was always passionate that “the grounding of a moral argument is ultimately in facts about human life” and in what it is rational for humans to want.

In the 1950s she had begun, along with Anscombe, to shift the focus away from what makes an isolated action good or bad, to the Aristotelian concentration on what makes a person good or bad in the long-term. Morality, she argued, is about how to live – not so much a series of logically consistent, well-calculated decisions as a lifetime endeavour to become the sort of person who habitually and happily does virtuous things. And “virtuous”, for Foot, meant well-rounded and human. She condemned as moral faults “the kind of timidity, conventionality and wilful self-abnegation that may spoil no one’s life but one’s own”, advocating “hope and a readiness to accept good things”.

Foot continued, and modified, her onslaught on subjectivism in ethics throughout her life. She also attacked utilitarian theories, which see goodness as a matter of actions’ consequences, and tend to equate the badness of failing to prevent an evil outcome with perpetrating it. In a paper on abortion (The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of Double Effect, 1967), she used what became a much-cited example to pinpoint fine distinctions in moral permissibility where an action has both good and bad results – the dilemma facing the driver of a suddenly brakeless trolley-bus that would hit five people unless he steered it on to another track into only one person.

Unlike many philosophers, Foot never strained our basic intuitions in the interests of pursuing some wild theory to its (il)logical conclusion. She said that, in doing philosophy, she felt like a geologist tapping away with a tiny hammer on a huge cliff. But her resolute tapping hit many fault-lines and reduced several inflated edifices. “Very tender and adorable, yet morally tough and subtle, and with lots of will and self-control,” was how Murdoch described her.