Should philosophers be vulnerable or invincible?

In the Guardian this week, Giles Fraser meets Martha Nussbaum, the great philosopher of vulnerability and of emotions, and was apparently somewhat put off by how controlled and, well, frosty she seemed. He writes:

She emanates detached academic cool – fully in command of herself and her material. From someone who has spent a distinguished academic career emphasising the riskiness and vulnerability of the human condition, all this slightly frosty control comes as something of a surprise.

Why, she once asked in a brilliant essay entitled “Love’s Knowledge”, do the gods of the ancient world often fall in love with human beings? Why would they prefer mortals to immortals? It is precisely because human beings are able to fail, she argues, that they are able to manifest so many attractive qualities. Take courage. What place can courage have in the world of immortal gods? How could an immortal god risk everything for another if their own welfare were always guaranteed in advance? And what sort of parent would an immortal parent be to an immortal child? Certainly not one that is up half the night worrying. Risk and vulnerability are intrinsic to being human. And that is what makes us attractive, sometimes heroic.

But up in her office on the fifth floor of the law building, beautifully designed by the Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in the rational style of high modernism, the Ernst Freund distinguished service professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago does not seem all that much like a risk-taker. She may not be a lawyer, but she chooses her words and her subjects with lawyer-like care. I decide to ask her first about risk and financial markets. It seems a fair enough question, given her interest in risk and the topicality of the issue – and she is famous for having worked with economists such as Amartya Sen and others. But she will not be drawn. “I don’t want to talk about the regulation of financial markets because that is not my sphere of expertise. It’s a very complicated topic, and if I have written a number of books they are always on topics that I think I know something about.”

Well, perhaps that’s more wise prudence than frosty detachment. Nussbaum is very careful to pick her topics and to speak from an informed position – and that’s why she’s a much more credible public thinker than poseurs like Slavoj Zizek, who will give you a long-winded and purple opinion on any topic you should throw at them. Still, I wondered if Fraser had a point, and if Nussbaum’s cosmopolitanism, her embrace of humanity, was perhaps too intellectual, too distant and abstract, and therefore lacking in full humanity? I was reminded of the opening of her great book on the emotions, Upheavals of Thought, where she describes the death of her mother, before using it as a launch-pad for a philosophical consideration of human vulnerability. I agreed with one reviewer who found it somewhat cold and intellectual a consideration of one’s mother’s death.

This is an old dispute, of course, about how vulnerable philosophers should be. Should they be ‘invincible’, as Epictetus suggested, and beyond the reach of any emotions? Or do we want them floridly emotional, like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who could barely do a talk without breaking down into soggy, sentimental crying jags? Christian philosophers like Fraser have, over the centuries, often accused Hellenistic philosophers like Nussbaum of being too detached and cool, as compared to the chest-beating desperation of Christian thinkers like Augustine, who was prepared to spill his guts out completely in his work, just to show how weak, broken and human he was.

So how much should a philosopher reveal of their inner world? How much emotion should they show? It’s a bit of a balancing act. Certainly, philosophers become much more human and easy to relate to when they share their personal stories – as Nussbaum does movingly in the interview below, in which she talks about her mother’s alcoholism. And it also becomes easier to connect with an audience when you share stories of your own struggles, rather than pretending to be a superman who never hurts and never fails. At the same time, there’s a danger of one’s own emotional dramas becoming a histrionic public performance, so that one’s life becomes a commodity to be wheeled out every week…

As philosophy becomes more ‘everyday’ and personal, philosophers have to consider how much of themselves to put in to their work…and they can also expect to be held more and more to account not simply for what they write, but for how they live. What a nuisance!


  • Frugal Stoic says:

    Naturally, I’m in the Epictetus camp. In order to be invincible one must overcome negative emotions, it is not a condition that anyone has from birth. Not only that, but one can’t be invincible and still care what others think – that would be inherently inconsistent.

    From reading about Epictetus and Musonius Rufus, they proved what they had overcome by accurately describing the troubles that their students (and all of humanity) experience and showing a way out. Whether we take it or not is our choice.

  • Konrad says:


    By myself I would be very careful with proposing any definite and general solution here. Instead of this, rather, I would be happy to follow Aristotle and say that one should express ones private life at the proper moment, in the proper way and in the proper quantity. Sometimes the proper quantity would be simply zero.
    More specifically, I think, there is a difference between a scientific paper (where I am first of all supposed to provide an argument) and an essay or journal paper where I can be a bit more open (it would fit the context). Also, and very importantly, I would give a lot of autonomy concerning this issue to philosophers themselves. If some of them don’t want to share their lives at all I cannot see any reason to say that they are wrong. It is up to them after all what they do. A personal testimony can provide a kind of support for ones ideas which cannot be provided in any other way but it still should be left to the persons involved to decide if they want to provide it.
    All the best,


  • […] reflecting on the anger, tears, and other passions of leading political figures; and a recent commentary on Giles Fraser’s impressions of  the philosopher of emotion Martha Nussbaum as excessively cool and controlled. This entry was posted in General, Philosophies of Emotion, […]

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