Philosopher Martha Nussbaum's complex prose doesn't fit into Twitter's 280-character format. Still, at a time when sound bites dominate political discourse, her work is improbably attracting the public's attention. In addition to writing more than 25 books and editing another 21, Nussbaum has sparred about the nature of good and evil with Bill Moyers on PBS and filmed a documentary about Plato for the Discovery Channel. She was featured in photographer Annie Leibovitz's 1999 collection, Women, and counts Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra as fans. She has written for, and been covered by, virtually every major U.S. publication, with The New York Times describing her as "the most prominent female philosopher in America."
Nussbaum is determined to make philosophy relevant to the 21st century. She transcends the field's traditional boundaries to explore race, gender and sexuality and advocates that international development be based on a set of universal rights and values. Above all, she insists that philosophy must be useful--not esoteric. She taught at Harvard (where she was controversially denied tenure) for 20 years, then at Brown until 1995, when she joined the faculty of the University of Chicago, where she holds joint tenured appointments in several departments, as well as in both the divinity and law schools. The last is especially important given Nussbaum's desire for philosophy to have real-world applications. Nussbaum believes that philosophers should be "lawyers for humanity" and that teaching at the law school allows her to directly shape and change public life.
Along the way, Nussbaum has not shied away from public clashes with some of her most famous peers. She rose to prominence in 1987 with a blistering attack on fellow philosopher Allan Bloom's landmark conservative book, The Closing of the American Mind. In a lengthy piece in The New York Review of Books, she denounced Bloom's work as elitist, anti-democratic and even unAmerican. She derided his intellectual capacities, writing, "How good a philosopher, then, is Allan Bloom? The answer is, we cannot say, and we are given no reason to think him one at all." She cemented her reputation for pitiless prose in 1999 when she took on radical feminist Judith Butler in an 8,000-word essay in The New Republic titled "The Professor of Parody." In it, she accused Butler of a "self-involved feminism" that encourages women to focus on abstract ideals rather than real-world problems such as wage disparity and sexual harassment. By engaging in this "hip defeatism," Nussbaum asserted, Butler "collaborates with evil." The article ignited a maelstrom that extended into popular culture. Historian Joan Scott condemned the piece as "a crassly opportunistic act," while journalist Katha Pollitt applauded it as a "skillful and long-overdue shredding."
At age 71, Nussbaum runs daily, including 12 miles every Sunday, and regularly lifts weights. Disdaining earphones and popular music, she silently sings the full libretto of The Marriage of Figaro as she works out. And her personal life has long been as dramatic as her professional one. She dropped out of Wellesley...