Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Martha Nussbaum and the Judicious Spectator

Philosophy has typically been thought of as rather different from literature. The separation started at least as far back as Plato, who wanted to eject the poets from his Republic. Indeed the idea that philosophy could learn from literature seems as strange as the idea that psychology might do so.

It is striking, then, that one of America's most distinguished philosophers, Martha Nussbaum, has built her career, in part, from her analyses of works of fiction. The first book by which she became widely known was The fragility of goodness (1986) in which she argued that for Plato the route to goodness was a life of contemplation, insulated from the shocks of the external world. By contrast, she argues, real life is full of accidents, which make goodness more fragile. So where do we find analyses of life as affected by accidents? In literary fiction. Nussbaum points us towards Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and says: "Greek tragedy shows good people being ruined because of things that just happen to them, things they do not control ... Tragedy also, however, shows something more deeply disturbing: it shows good people doing bad things, things otherwise repugnant to their ethical character and commitments, because of circumstances whose origin does not lie within them" (p. 25).

Plato’s descendants are the natural sciences, in which we strive towards ideal truths that transcend individual human cognition. No informed person would wish to argue against inferences drawn validly from empirical science, including science done in the domain of psychology. But complementary to such inferences, as Nussbaum argues, are understandings from literary fiction, whose truths are relative to the reader, and point to vulnerability rather than Platonic self-sufficiency as the centre of our humanity.

In 1995, Nussbaum published Poetic justice: The literary imagination and public life. She starts the book with Adam Smith’s idea of the “judicious spectator” who can mentally enter the plight of another person. She argues that this ability, of identifying with others by means of empathy or compassion, is developed by the reading of fiction. It is this kind of development for which Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, dela Paz & Peterson (2006) have offered empirical evidence (see our academic papers, accessible by clicking here). Without being able to imagine one's self into the minds of others, in their often fragile circumstances, as one does in fiction, such issues as justice and fairness in public life would be impossible. You can access a review of Poetic justice by clicking here.


Anonymous said...

The 'judicious spectator' was the notion created by David Hume and used as a device to arrive at a stable moral judgment not varying by strength of sentiment based on an observer's resemblance to the person being observed. Adam's Smith's device of the 'impartial spectator' is different from the judicious spectator; Smith opposes Hume in the view that sentiments are contagious and advocates the impartial spectator as a device of imaging how this unbiased observer would feel if he were in the position of the person whose actions/character traits we are judging.

Keith Oatley said...

Thanks very much for this, I am sorry to have been misleading. This is a helpful clarification. Keith

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