Martha Craven Nussbaum

Sunday, May 22, 2011 - 09:02

Honorary Degree Citation

Martha Nussbaum, philosopher of sweeping range, deep intellect, inquisitive spirit, and enormous influence: you are a walking, thinking, and writing embodiment of the chief goal of this or any other excellent education—purposeful engagement with the world. Born in New York City, you studied classics and theatre at New York University, and then moved to Harvard for your master’s and Ph.D. in philosophy. You have taught at Harvard, Brown, Oxford, and the University of Chicago, where you are the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, with appointments in the Philosophy Department, the Law School, and the Divinity School, and with affiliations of one sort or another with the Classics and Political Science Departments, the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, the Human Rights Program, and the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism, which you founded and coordinate. You have contributed to the fields of ethics, political theory, classics, philosophy of mind, legal theory, educational theory, public policy, and gender studies. While your range is wide, you return to a few themes over and over: the nature of emotion and its role in philosophical argument, the role of philosophical argument and reflection in the public sphere, the relations between philosophy and the arts, and the power of education to change individuals, nations, and the globe.

The titles of just a few of your books will show the profound extent of your interests: The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy (1986); Love’s Knowledge (1990); The Therapy of Desire (1994); Poetic Justice (1996); Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (1997); Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions (2001); Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law (2004); From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and Constitutional Law (2010); Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010); and the recently published Creating Capabilities (2011). The capability approach, you tell us, “begins with a simple question: what are people actually able to do and to be?” You go on to develop a counter-theory of human development that is pressingly needed, you tell us, “in an era of urgent human problems and unjustifiable human inequalities.”

For us on this occasion, it is your work on education that we especially salute. For many years and in many venues, you have been a compelling voice in defense of liberal education generally, and the humanities and women’s education particularly. Liberal education, you have reminded us, is education for democratic and global citizenship, for individual responsibility, and for the examined and empathic life. Arguing against forms of education that are increasingly utilitarian and market-driven, you bring us back to the deeper purposes of the liberal arts and sciences: producing responsible global citizens with the intelligence and skills to cross borders in every sphere of human endeavor. Liberal education produces people who can imagine the situations of others. Your claim for the humanities, in your book Not for Profit, is true more broadly of the liberal arts and sciences: “They make a world that is worth living in, people who are able to see other human beings as full people, and nations that are able to overcome fear and suspicion in favor of sympathetic and reasoned debate.” For your many contributions to our understanding of what makes a powerful education, a good life, and a better world, Mount Holyoke is proud to bestow upon you the degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa.