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Martha Nussbaum's Political Emotions is a long work which brings together strands of Nussbaum's research on the philosophy of emotion, an attention to the psychology of attachment, and liberal traditions in political philosophy. This volume is impressive for its breadth of references in liberal political philosophy to literature and art theory, but all the more impressive for the care and enthusiasm expressed for the subject matter. The heart of the book, and what makes it a rather novel contribution, is Nussbaum's attention to the psychology of emotions, particularly in how she draws upon the lessons of attachment theory to inspire lessons for building a caring, loving society and a rich notion of political justice.
The subtitle, "Why love matters for justice," harkens to the conclusion of Nussbaum's interview in Astra Taylor's 2009 film Examined Life, where Nussbaum engaged in a lively discussion focused around the theme of "justice." In the conclusion of that discussion, Nussbaum asked: "Why do people get together to form a society in the first place?" She responds that "really, it's not because they're afraid and they want to strike a new deal for mutual advantage; it's much more out of love – it's out of the love of humanity and the love of human dignity that they want to join with others in creating a world that's as good as it can be." (Taylor, 132) It is such a connection to love and care in the cultivation of communities which animates Political Emotions. In this volume as well she stresses that love is at heart the force which motivates human beings to pursue a better world, leading us to posit and struggle for ideals which have had an impact already on our societies. "The ideal...is real. At the same time, the real also contains the ideal. Real people aspire. They imagine possibilities better than the world they know, and they try to actualize them."(384)
In Part II of the text's three major divisions, Nussbaum focuses her attention on psychology, taking the time to illuminate key points from prominent research in attachment theory, developmental psychology and the effects of play on human development before considering the findings of Stanley Milgram and the ways in which we can lose our sense of connection. The work of D.H. Winnicott is central for Nussbaum and his findings are used to highlight the ways in which humans need to learn and be cared for as children in order to develop emotional capacities that allow for rich, open and trusting adult relationships to prosper.
Nussbaum's focus here builds from her previous work on justice, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Harvard, 2011), in which Nussbaum highlighted ten central capabilities which it would be the role of any just society to care for. These concerns include the need to cultivate emotional capability and emotional health as well as recognition of the need for play and recreational opportunities. There is a reciprocal relation here in Nussbaum's work where the notion of a just social arrangement must include attention to emotional and psychological health, while it is these very capabilities that will allow for a more caring and capable population with the ability to affirm one another and to coexist in a more just fashion.
In the text's appendix, Nussbaum devotes attention to public works in art and music as means of cultivating a spirit of camaraderie and collective identification and inclusion. It opens the door to interesting discussions on the role of public art projects and aides in considering the emotional and psychological impact of our physical surroundings, including the architecture of our cities.
These psychological analyses and considerations of affective dimensions help to expand the base of analysis which Nussbaum builds off of in traditional social contract theory and liberalism. John Stuart Mill is a prominent touchstone in her work, but so too are figures from South Asian political traditions and culture, such as Gandhi, Nehru and Rabindranath Tagore whose concept of a "religion of man" plays prominently in Nussbaum's work to manifest a renewed sense of "patriotism" and enchantment of the public sphere.
Political Emotions is an exciting contribution to liberal political theory. Nussbaum's recent forays in bridging political philosophy with attention to aesthetic affect, emotion and attachment have genuinely enriched the terrain of liberal theory. Hopefully the discussions Nussbaum introduces here will help to enrich our collective public life as well.
Taylor, Astra. Examined Life. The New Press. NY, 2009
© 2013 Michael Larson
Michael Larson, M.A. Instructor at Point Park University, Pittsburgh, PA. Primary interests: Continental philosophy, Foucault, Deconstruction, Social and Political thought, Modern and Contemporary art.
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