‘It is worth examining Nussbaum’s logic partly because it is absolutely correct’
Much of Not for Profit is a précis of arguments she’s made at greater length and with more texture in her denser, more “academic” treatises, but the force of the argument loses little when translated into the form of a manifesto. Nussbaum positions herself at the end of the heroic period of bourgeois idealism: human development and economic development no longer mesh smoothly, and the result is that moral sensitivity, for which Nussbaum uses the battered term “sympathy,” is not just a luxury but an obstacle. Sympathy “is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.” The humanities, however, are anti-instrumentalist, and their collective work is to give us lenses for seeing otherness — for imagining, and making room for, the stubborn facts of other people. Without the humanities and its sympathetic imagination, various forms of frustrated narcissism go unchecked and become dominant in public life: helplessness, torpor, disgust, shame, fear of others, and, most worryingly, identification with the constraints that torture us. Her picture of a world without sympathetic engagement is really a world made up of cynical accommodation, which says: So what if you don’t like the way things are? No one does. Grow up, deal with it, and maybe have some fun at its expense, from time to time. Love the unlovable.
Or, to put it in the terms of the most popular tautology of our time: It is what it is. Nussbaum suggests that the humanities, in their ability to transcend a narcissistic relation to the world, work us free of this trap. Her representative humanists are therefore philosophers of freedom and education: Socrates, Pestalozzi, Rousseau, Winnicott, Dewey. (This is a tactical shift in emphasis: in much of her other work Nussbaum privileges literature, and novelists in particular. Art in general is deemphasized in Not for Profit, although implied throughout as part of “the humanities.”) These figures are not everyone’s idea of the humanities, nor need they be. Nussbaum crafts a deliberately eccentric genealogy of humanistic education to warn us of what we are losing. It is a genealogy designed to address the angry skeptic who thinks the liberal arts have nothing to say. If this is a somewhat safer lineage than, say, Marx or Adorno (or Lacan, or Butler), well, so be it; it is no less important and deserving of consideration.
One can’t, I think, contest the effectiveness of this strategy, as far as it goes; it can stir the spirit of even the most defeatist of humanists. The trouble is that it only goes so far. If we take the argument a step further, we face the possibility that the humanities are actually countereconomic; the notion of alterity and sympathy, taken seriously, would undo the profit motive and put a fair amount of grit into the workings of economic activity. It would undermine the individualism upon which exchange, in its current forms, is based. It would be critical. It would give parents of undergraduates good reason to worry. Instead, we get this:
Let us now consider the relevance of this ability to the current state of modern pluralistic democracies surrounded by a powerful global marketplace. First of all, we can report that, even if we were just aiming at economic success, leading corporate executives understand very well the importance of creating a corporate culture in which critical voices are not silenced, a culture of both individuality and accountability. . . .
A second issue in business is innovation, and there are reasons to suppose that a liberal arts education strengthens the skills of imagining and independent thinking that are crucial to maintaining a successful culture of innovation. Again, leading business educators typically urge students to pursue a broad-based program and to develop their imaginations, and many firms prefer liberal arts graduates to those with a narrower training.
No reason to worry here. It is worth examining Nussbaum’s logic partly because it is absolutely correct. Postindustrial economies rely on exactly the kinds of skills humanities departments teach: intellectual flexibility, detachment, an understanding of pluralities or difference, creative skepticism. This is scarcely news to anyone anymore. It’s a litany familiar from every tech-sector TV ad of the last twenty years. And Nussbaum is absolutely right to trace these business-world desiderata to the educational theory of Dewey, which encouraged collective endeavors (playing together), practical problem-solving (tactile play), and group creativity. “Innovation,” Nussbaum puts it succinctly, “requires minds that are flexible, open, and creative; literature and the arts cultivate these capacities.”
Active cultivation of useful intellectual qualities — not, it should be noted, instruction in that all-too-troubling cognate, culture. This argument of Nussbaum’s steers entirely and successfully clear of the implied elitism of “culture”; anyone who calls the book elitist simply hasn’t read it. The problem is that this business-friendly argument sits uneasily next to her broader argument about alterity and sympathy. And in the gap between the two arguments lies the humanistic dilemma.