Martha Nussbaum: on the 1983 NLH special issue on “Literature and/as Moral Philosophy”

I’m guessing that most of you are familiar with the now classic 1983 special issue of New Literary History devoted to the topic of “Literature and/as Moral Philosophy” (to view its table of contents, click here). The most recent issue of NLH, commemorating the retirement of its founding editor Ralph Cohen, includes an essay by Martha Nussbaum — entitled “Ralph Cohen and the Dialogue between Philosophy and Literature” — which gives her account of the genesis of that very important special issue (Prof. Nussbaum’s essay, “Flawed Crystals: James’s The Golden Bowl and Literature as Moral Philosophy,” was of course a centerpiece of that issue). We thought a number of you would be interested in reading Prof. Nussbaum’s account. To access it, please click here.

Here is how it begins:

Philosophy and literature have had a very uneasy relationship throughout the Western philosophical tradition. Already in the Republic (c. 380–370 BCE), Plato’s Socrates refers to a “quarrel of long standing” between the poets and the philosophers—which he then pursues, expressing both a deep love of literary art and a reluctance to admit it into the instructional plan of the ideal city. So central was this debate to subsequent Greek and Roman philosophers that one could write the history of at least the ethical portion of those traditions as an extended conversation about this theme. Later philosophers in the Western tradition continue the conversation, never without considerable ambivalence, but usually with a lively sense of the ethical insight that literature may possibly offer. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger—all these major Western philosophers, and many others, have contributed to keeping the conversation alive. Only in twentieth-century Anglo-American philosophy has the relationship between the two disciplines been virtually neglected. Analytic philosophers sought to write in a nonliterary style and rarely discussed the contribution of literature to understanding; literary authors and writers about literature felt, with much justice, that philosophy offered little that was relevant to their concerns. With the exception of figures such as Iris Murdoch and Stanley Cavell, always treated as eccentric and marginal, there was little sustained cross-disciplinary conversation.

Today, all of this has changed. Young philosophers working on ethics are likely to have a keen interest in works of literature—not just as grab bags of examples, but as sources of ethical insight in their own right. Particularly in the part of the discipline known as “virtue ethics,” concern with notions of character, ethical vision, and virtue, as well as a preoccupation with relationships of love and friendship, lead almost every participant in the subfield to turn to literature. Meanwhile, writers about literature are far more likely to discuss the ideas of moral philosophers than they were before. Conferences that bring critics and literary historians and theorists together with moral philosophers are reasonably common, and joint dissertation committees are very common indeed.

What produced this remarkable change? One major factor, at least, was a bold enterprise of Ralph Cohen’s: an issue of New Literary History on the theme “Literature and Moral Philosophy.” The issue was a typical example of Ralph’s uncanny ability to identify significant debates that ought to occur, and then to set the stage for their occurrence—to lead fashion, rather than to be led by it. In recognition of his remarkable insight and courage, I shall devote this essay to telling the story of how that issue came into being, and then to some reflections on the changes we have seen since then. I can’t avoid telling the story from the point of view of my own involvement in the issue, but I hope to make it clear that other thinkers played a generative role.

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