Monday, May 10, 2010

Me and Martha Nussbaum: Once More Without Feeling



"...I have my doubts about the idea that there is a way of reading Shakespeare that involves "doing philosophy" as such. Critical emphasis, Northrop Frye said, should be bear wise proportion to the emphasis in the poem. So the second of Ms Nussbaum’s criteria makes sense to me as it sounds like a good description of good old textual criticism. But the first and third of her criteria have me scratching my head.

She does not want the plays to be mere springboards for philosophical discussion, or mere grist for argumentation, such that, once launched, the plays are left behind. But how does the philosopher discussing Shakespeare “really do philosophy” without either leaving the plays behind or without violating Frye’s dictum?

For example, the nice sampled discussion of the differences between the young, world-transcending love of Romeo and Juliet and the contrasting of the mature, of-this-world love of Antony and Cleopatra seems to owe everything to close, thoughtful and perceptive readings of those plays and little, if anything, to the discipline of philosophy...

And, so, the subject philosophers... read like literary critics, though interesting and perceptive ones to be sure. And I don’t see how it could be otherwise.

The third criterion seems made up of whole cloth. And if her first criterion is faulty, the third, which I read as a complement to the first, makes very little sense. Why *must* anyone care about the plays? But that cannot be Ms Nussbaum’s question. Her question is: why should philosophers in the way of doing philosophy care about the plays; which is to ask, what in the plays helps philosophers fill in gaps in the ordinary doing of philosophy such that they help fill out the philosophical project? She has not satisfactorily answered that question; nor has she demonstrated by the discussions of Shakespeare she reviews that the question can be answered...."

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