What Tower? What Babel?
Martha C. Nussbaum
Harvard University Press, 1997, 338 pgs.
Conservatives and leftists often characterize the struggle over the contemporary university in
same way, though of course accompanied by opposing value judgments. On the one side stands
the traditional curriculum, with subjects such as classics, philosophy, history, English, foreign
languages, mathematics, and the sciences. Opposed to this is the new multiculturalism, whose
advocates contend that the traditional subjects serve as instruments of oppression.
To secure the interests of blacks, Asians, Hispanics, women, homosexuals, and various other
hitherto silent sufferers, new subjects are necessary: Black Studies, Women's Studies, Gay
Studies, and so on and on. Among the main forces the new disciplines aim to combat, according
to many of their practitioners, is that supreme instrument of white male oppression Western logic
Classics, the study of Latin and Greek, occupies a central place in the traditional view; and
might anticipate that an eminent classicist writing on the university would have little good to say
about multiculturalism. Martha Nussbaum, a well-known specialist in classical philosophy,
seems ideally qualified to champion the old values. Surely the eminent author of A Commentary
on Aristotle's "De Motu Animalium" and The Fragility of Goodness will not look with favor on
efforts to replace Plato with LeRoi Jones in the classroom.
But Nussbaum cuts across conventional expectations. She maintains that devotion to the
of classical philosophy, especially as Socrates and the Stoics embody these values, mandates
The first step in her argument seems to me unquestionably right. Students need to learn to
logically. They must be able to analyze discourse critically, discerning whether an argument's
premises validly imply its conclusion. Nussbaum rightly instances Socrates as a prime advocate
of this style of thought, and she has some appropriately severe things to say about
deconstructionists and others who question the binding force of logic.
"What is deeply pernicious in today's academy, then," she writes, "is the tendency to dismiss
whole idea of pursuing truth and objectivity as if those aims could no longer guide us....
Postmodernists do not justify their more extreme conclusions with compelling arguments....
Derrida on truth is simply not worth studying for someone who has been studying Quine and
Putnam and Davidson" (pp. 40 41).
I have so far left unstated a fact crucial if one is to understand Martha Nussbaum. She is in
view an unscrupulous propagandist, avid to defend her opinions by fair means or foul; and I
regret to say that this aspect of her modus operandi soon surfaces in the book.
After defending logic, she briefly describes a cosmopolitan view that she derives from her
of Stoicism. This she insinuates without proof is demanded of someone adequately trained in
critical reasoning. She states: "The education of the Kosmou polites [world-citizen] is thus
closely connected to Socratic inquiry and the goal of an examined life. For attaining membership
in the world community entails a willingness to doubt the goodness of one's own way and to
enter into the give and take of critical argument about ethical and political choices" (p. 62).
Whatever one thinks of the Stoic goal, or for that matter of Socratic questioning, it should be
clear that this is not to be identified with logical thought. Why cannot, say, a religious believer,
who accepts his creed as axiomatically true, think in entire accord with the rules of logic? It is
not a principle of logic, Professor Nussbaum to the contrary notwithstanding, that "all questions
are open questions."
And surely Professor Nussbaum knows full well that this very issue has occasioned much
discussion in contemporary analytic philosophy. Alvin Plantinga and others have famously
contended that it is not a requirement of rationality that a "properly basic belief" be supported by
argument. Nussbaum no doubt disagrees: but surely she had a duty to inform her readers of the
existence of controversy on the point. She omits to do so, instead proceeding rather like this:
logic Socrates Stoicism The Good.
Indeed, Nussbaum has a habit of eliding facts inconvenient to her thesis. She never bothers to
inform us that the Stoic defense of cosmopolitanism often rested on metaphysical doctrines that,
to say the least, are highly controversial. As an example, many Stoics were cosmopolitans
because they believed that human beings all contain sparks from the same divine fire. She thinks
it unnecessary to mention that her beloved Marcus Aurelius was a worse persecutor of Christians
than Nero, nor does she quote Seneca's "humanitarian" statement that it is natural to recoil in
horror at the sight of a poor man. Readers dependent on her will not learn that her account of
Socrates as a democrat, though backed by the eminent authority of Gregory Vlastos, is
Though it is a bit by the way, I shall give two more examples from other sources that show
Nussbaum in her true colors. In her sworn testimony at a trial in Colorado involving that state's
ordinance banning affirmative action for homosexuals, she found herself in dispute with John
Finnis, a Roman Catholic legal theorist from Oxford. She claimed, against Finnis, that a Greek
word used by Plato in The Laws should not be taken as critical of homosexuality. In support she
cited an outdated edition of the standard Greek lexicon, Liddell and Scott. She did not inform the
Court that the current edition of Liddell-Scott cites the very sentence at issue in The Laws as an
instance of the word's pejorative use.
Again, in a recent dispute, Roger Scruton questioned her reliance on Gary Comstock for
about violence toward homosexuals. In response to Scruton's claim that Comstock is biased,
Nussbaum remarked that there is no evidence in Comstock's book that he is in fact homosexual.
In point of fact, Comstock is a leading "gay theologian." Surely Nussbaum must have come
across Comstock's Gay Theology Without Apology. Her carefully worded remark not in this
book is disingenuous or, at best, ignorant in the extreme.
To return to Cultivating Humanity, it appears at first glance that Nussbaum's slippery way
truth avails her nothing. She defends Stoic cosmopolitanism and Socratic questioning; but what
have these to do with multiculturalism? Are not the supporters of identity politics and
postmodernism opponents of the Stoicism she admires?
But this difficulty proves amendable to our author's methods. She describes a number of
multicultural courses in which, she claims, the values of critical thinking occupy a high place:
"At Harvard University, Amartya Sen offers a course called 'Hunger and Famine.' Standard
in development economics are given a new twist, as students learn to think about the relationship
of hunger to gender and also to democratic political institutions in areas of the world ranging
from Africa to China to India" (p. 78).
No doubt Sen, a world-famous economist, offers a valuable course; and Nussbaum mentions
few other offerings that sound promising. But how can a few instances, described by someone
with a proven record of tendentiousness, counter the fact, known to every informed observer, that
multiculturalism is synonymous with leftist slogans and racial strife? (Readers who doubt this
should consult Literature Lost, reviewed elsewhere in this issue.)
Once more our author is equal to the task. Critics of multiculturalism practice a fatally
method: "is the feminist classroom a place of indoctrination instead of a place of reasoned
debate? [Christina] Hoff Sommers' claim has been echoed by former women's studies professors
Daphne Patai and Noretta Kortge [sic the correct spelling is Koertge] in their book Professing
Feminism.... Like Hoff Sommers, they base their conclusions on a small number of anecdotes,
and professors interviewed for the volume make their comments anonymously" (p. 202).
Professor Nussbaum has really outdone herself here. The whole basis of her roseate view of
new courses consists of a few anecdotes of her own, told in the unbiased way we have already
examined. But it is her opponents who lack methodological rigor. Oh, brother!