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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.

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