Academic Action Figure

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You don't see many philosophers around these days, and when you do, they often seem to be playing word games or obsessing about theories of no practical importance. Not Martha Nussbaum. She is a philosopher who approaches the life of the mind with her sleeves rolled up. Good philosophy, she believes, should make a difference in the world.

Nussbaum's philosophy has. Acting on her conviction that philosophers should be "lawyers for humanity" (as her beloved Seneca put it), she has thrown herself repeatedly into the public arena--citing Plato on the witness stand in a Colorado courtroom, for example, to argue that there were no ancient precedents for discriminating against homosexuals. That performance sparked an uproar in academic circles and helped make her America's most prominent female philosopher. She has been interviewed by Bill Moyers and photographed by Annie Leibowitz, and she regularly entertains readers of the New Republic and the New York Review of Books with long, acerbic essays.

Nussbaum believes that one of the best ways she can affect public life is through teaching (first at Harvard and Brown, now at the University of Chicago), but she also puts her money where her mouth and her mind are. She spent six years working as an adviser to the U.N.'s World Institute for Development Economics Research, trying to find a better way to measure progress than GNP. (Her alternative: a yardstick based on universal rights such as life, health, holding property and participating in politics.) She has also made frequent trips to India, where she advised programs that promote literacy and prosecute domestic violence.

Nussbaum is often described as a contentious centrist. She takes on conservatives and cultural radicals--and takes plenty of heat as a result. She has been savagely criticized for her zeal, her sense of mission and her moral certitude.

Nussbaum, in turn, is impatient with those who see philosophizing as an escape from reality. She has staked out important but uncomfortable territory for a 21st century academic. Make what you think--and feel--count, she urges; the examined life has global dimensions too.