Nussbaum Reaches out to Psychology, Finds Only Philosophy

I highly enjoy Martha Nussbaum’s “Who is the Happy Warrior? Philosophy Poses Questions to Psychology” but Pamela believes that Nussbaum is not fair to the psychologists she mentions. It’s been a month or two since I first read the paper, so I decided to reread it with Pamela’s critique in mind.

Nussbaum certainly presents a good, nuanced picture of the various theories of happiness and satisfaction in philosophy. What she does not do is really engage with psychology, even with the two psychologists—Seligman and Kahneman—on whom she focuses her criticism.

I am convinced by the paper that Nussbaum knows what she’s talking about when it comes to the philosophy of this area. Indeed, I would be concerned if she did not. What I did not come away with is the sense that she had really familiarized herself with the positions of any psychologists. It’s quite possible that she has—but I don’t think she quotes more than three words of Kahneman in the whole paper, and even Seligman, who she treats in greater length, she does not deal with in more than paraphrase.

The contrast with the philosophers, with whom she is obviously quite familiar, is stark. Even Rousseau’s Emile, which she only mentions in passing, she manages to communicate the sense that she is quite familiar with the work and could explain it in depth if called to.

The greatest sin that Deirdre McCloskey calls out in Knowledge and Persuasion in Economics is the failure to even credibly attempt to understand what someone is criticizing. Unfortunately, “Who is the Happy Warrior” seems more like an opportunity Nussbaum took to restate what she had already said elsewhere, rather than an opportunity to engage seriously with points of view within another discipline.

Staking out a position is an important part of starting a conversation, but so is listening.

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