Emory Report

October 5, 1998

 Volume 51, No. 7

Large turnout to support Chopp, hear scholar Nussbaum

The 400 or so faculty, students and staff who attended Martha Nussbaum's lecture on "Feminist Internationalism: In Defense of Universal Values" on Sept. 28 were left with no doubt that scholarship had been feted. The lecture, billed as a "Celebration of Scholarship" to honor Rebecca Chopp's appointment as provost, was in fact more of a festival as Nussbaum's pace, breadth and grasp of her subject enthralled the audience.

Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago, wowed the audience with a 60-minute, rapid-fire explanation of her work that has led to a list of central human capabilities. This list is most likely the basis of her next book, Feminist Internationalism, a book based on her 1998 Seeley Lectures at Cambridge University.

Nussbaum used the anecdotes of two very different women in India, whose desire for independence and self-sufficiency had been thwarted by cultural and governmental practices, as a backdrop to her central proposal of a universal framework for women's rights. "The question is how to think well about what is right," said Nussbaum. "For international feminism with a bite, normative recommendations that cross cultural boundaries are essential."

In her conclusion, she offered a general framework of universal norms of equality and liberty formulated around a set of 10 essential human capabilities, among them bodily health, practical reason and control over one's environment. "A reasonable answer to governments and international agencies to compare the quality of life measures across countries is this capabilities approach. ... The central question asked by this approach is, 'Is the person capable or not?' These capabilities define a human as a dignified free being able to live life as one chooses."

Nussbaum said her lecture grew primarily out of her work on women and the quality of life research she has done for the World Institute for Development Economics Research, a United Nations-connected agency.

In his introduction, President Bill Chace noted that Nussbaum's work "particularly confronts cross-cultural moral standards; she does not descend into moral relativism which is a grave cause for concern, but questions the possibility of common human needs."

"What was important to me about her lecture and her writing in general is that it represents the finest in contemporary feminist theory," said Patti Owen-Smith, associate professor of psychology at Oxford College. "Her willingness to privilege the narratives of two Indian women as a backdrop for the discussion of international feminism illuminates one of the key tenants of feminist analysis." Owen-Smith noted that Oxford's Associate Dean Kent Linville initiated a faculty study of Nussbaum's book, Cultivating Humanity, and two informal but important faculty seminars have been held to discuss the book, in which Nussbaum champions changes in the academy from the perspective of classical scholarship, according to the lecture's program.

Bill Gruber, professor and chair of the English department, wasn't surprised by the large turnout at the lecture. "The amazing turnout was a show of support for Rebecca Chopp but also a testimony to the interest in Martha Nussbaum among the faculty. I talked to a number of my colleagues who were familiar with her work and intended to attend the lecture.

"Her work is both immensely learned and immensely compassionate. Those two qualities in combination are rare; that's why I find her work so compelling," said Gruber, who teaches drama and has read some of Nussbaum's earlier work. "She is so good at taking small anecdotal events, whether in literature or real life, and finding in them food for speculative thought. She has the ability to take the briefest of moments in a work of literature-a phrase or merest gesture--and bring sympathetic understanding to those moments.

"It's an important event when someone of Nussbaum's stature comes to Emory and speaks of work that she's deeply engaged in. For someone like her to be concerned with basic human rights, universal values, that's bound to have an impact on discussions on campus," Gruber added.

Nussbaum's scholarship has ranged from Greek tragedy, to the nature of emotions, to moral dilemmas and core values of liberal education.

--Jan Gleason

An audio recording of Nussbaum's lecture is available at <www.emory.edu/PROVOST/NUSSBAUM/nussbaum.html>.

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