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Philosophers are supposed to be reclusive souls who prefer to keep themselves busy high up in their ivory towers — not at the ironing board. However, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at Chicago University, begs to differ. When I called in for her at a city hotel last week, a few minutes early for my appointment, she was ironing her clothes, getting ready for a long day, in the course of which she delivered a keynote address on Rabindranath Tagore at a panel discussion. But she had still found time for a brisk workout at the gym. “I love to exercise,” she confessed, looking strikingly fit for her 63 years. Nussbaum had once said that the American actress, Candice Bergen, should play her in a film on her life. After my first few minutes with her, I was willing to agree.

It would not have been odd for Nussbaum to become a famous actress anyway. At 11, she played Joan of Arc in a school play, wrote another one on Robespierre, in French, where she played the title role. She even started out as a student of theatre at New York University, before choosing to train as a classicist. “I thought as an actress I would be able to have broader emotional experiences,” she says, “but then, I quickly figured out that I wanted to think about tragic dramas, not act in them.” Even in her Robespierre play, she was more interested in the “conflict between high ideals and personal friendship”, in exploring the idea that “universal ideals must be balanced against a love of particulars”.

Nussbaum detects this spirit of idealism in Tagore as well. “He operates in a tradition of political idealism that talked about forming extensive sympathies.” Although Tagore was profoundly influenced by Auguste Comte, “his implicit critique is that Comte does not build in enough room for particular love and individual self-expression,” Nussbaum explains. “This was also J.S. Mill’s critique of Comte, though I don’t think Tagore knew Mill.”

I remind Nussbaum of a remark she had made in a 2007 interview. On being asked where she would go if she could go back in time, she had said, “I’d like to be a student in Rabindranath Tagore’s school in Santiniketan in around 1915, dancing in the dance-dramas he wrote.” For a moment, the look of steely concentration on her face dissolves into a warm smile as she recounts her experience of attending “a traditional school” where the kind of “integrated education” that Tagore advocated wasn’t very common. Nussbaum also remembers her “good friend”, Amita Sen (Amartya Sen’s mother), telling her of the times she danced in Tagore’s dramas and demonstrating to her some of the arm movements. In Amita’s time, women, mostly confined indoors, found the idea of expressing themselves through their bodies joyful, “since they hadn’t been taught to move like that in public”. Nussbaum tried to find for her daughter a school in America that was similar to Tagore’s, but unfortunately, that kind of institution was, and still remains, rare all over the world.

In her talk that evening, Nussbaum argued, focusing closely on Tagore’s lecture, The Religion of Man, that a programme of human development can only be implemented through the right kind of schools. “We are in a very dire situation now,” she rued, “perhaps a little less dire in the United States of America which has a long tradition of liberal education and private funding for it.” She thinks that private donors, who are usually able to see the long-term picture, are probably better than government policy-makers. “[The former] don’t have to go to the next electoral cycle and say, ‘I’ve created so many jobs’. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is not doing very much other than holding up China and Singapore as models of education. 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.

From her work on the classics to her contribution as a theorist of global justice, a profound understanding of emotions has enabled Nussbaum to tackle “a unity of problems”. “My interest in the Greeks was not so much historical,” she explains, “I was more interested in their ideas about human life.” Emotions involve vulnerability to other people and events. Nussbaum acknowledges that there are some kinds of vulnerability we do not want to remove, such as those that we feel when we lose our loved ones. But there are other kinds of vulnerability that no human being should experience, such as hunger and physical violence. Thinking about the latter led her, along with economists like Amartya Sen and Jean Drèze, to formulate the capabilities approach, which, put simply, argues for equal opportunities and freedoms for everyone.

“At Chicago I offer a course on Emotion, Reason and the Law that law students just love,” Nussbaum says. “But I am not there as a lawyer, my job is to teach philosophy.” So how does she fit into law school? “The law school in Chicago is highly influenced by neoclassical economists such as Gary Becker, George Stigler and Richard Posner, who were also the founders of the law and economics movement,” she explains. “These very people felt that they needed a foil — someone with, if you will, a more leftwing view of social justice — to argue against.” And that is the role Nussbaum fills in. “My colleagues and I are constantly commenting on one another’s work, although we may be working on completely different things.” So the law school, for Nussbaum, is “a rich intellectual home” where “I am just myself.”

At the Divinity School, where she teaches religious ethics, and as member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, Nussbaum gets to interact with a very different set of colleagues, such as Dipesh Chakrabarty and Wendy Doniger. COSAS has already opened an institute in China and is opening one next year in Delhi. Focusing on the humanities, it intends to fund young Indian scholars to carry out collaborative research at Chicago. Nussbaum, who has written a book on the rise of the Hindu Right in India, The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future (2007), is understandably excited by her university’s deepening association with the country she has been visiting for over two decades.

So what does she think of the New India? “The physical changes are indeed tremendous,” she admits, “I mean, getting off at the new Terminal 3 of Delhi airport is quite an experience in itself. Even the roads are so much better now.” However, she feels that there is “an increasing dominance of the kind of egoism and greed that Tagore was worried about”. “People I know — mainly the old Nehruvians — are horrified by the open display of wealth. It is something they would associate with the kind of divisiveness you find in Pakistan, where the elites flaunt their money.” Among her close friends Nussbaum counts academics Amiya and Jasodhara Bagchi, Bina Agarwal, director of the Institute of Economic Growth, Mushirul Hasan, former vice-chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia, Zoya Hasan, the political scientist, and Indira Jaising, additional solicitor-general. “Now this is exciting to me,” she beams, “In the US, you rarely see real empowerment of good intellectuals. Someone like Kaushik Basu, for instance, would never be made part of the government in America because he’s just too heterodox — a real intellectual interested in thinking through the theoretical plane.” Unlike the US, where theoretical ideas have to be introduced into political debates gently, India makes room for “the people with the big ideas”.

So does she think that the capabilities theory has been integrated into the administration by the Indian State? “I think the rural employment guarantee act has made some real change,” Nussbaum says, before going on to express concern over the state of education, healthcare and the legal system. “There is a need to reform legal practice, police behaviour and legal education. More high-quality people should be coming into this field.” In this regard, the prospective collaboration with Chicago law school could prove to be particularly beneficial for India.

As for West Bengal, Nussbaum finds the healthcare system in the state, especially the maternal mortality rate, appalling. As information economy will gain prominence over the years to come, so will industrialization end up being a crucial source of employment generation. “But you can’t move in chemical plants when people don’t have the skills to get jobs in those plants,” she says. “There should be the right kind of industrial development, with employers investing in the human development of their workers by setting up schools and hospitals, and by being alert to environmental issues. I believe Ratan Tata is pretty good on these matters, and that Singur was a very different problem from Nandigram, where the employer wasn’t sensitive to these issues.”

We end our conversation with Calcutta, the city Nussbaum claims to feel “emotionally drawn to”. “It’s a wonderful place,” she says warmly, “I would really love to see it claim its pride of place once again as the centre of India.”

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