The arts and the promotion of capabilities approach in times of crisis. Martha Nussbaum’s philosophy from the perspective of political aesthetics

Lisowska, Urszula (2014). 'The arts and the promotion of capabilities approach in times of crisis. Martha Nussbaum's philosophy from the perspective of political aesthetics' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, 2-5 September 2014, Athens, Greece.

The aim of the paper will be to present the viability of Martha Nussbaum's capabilities approach in the context of the current global crisis. It will be argued that the relevance of her philosophy can best be grasped when considering it from the perspective of political aesthetics. The argumentation will involve two steps. First, a theoretical background will be outlined in order to demonstrate the applicability of the chosen paradigm to Nussbaum's project. Its key ideas will be reinterpreted in politico-aesthetic terms. Secondly, practical implications of Nussbaum's philosophy thus understood will be discussed. The arts will be presented as the means of promoting capabilities-based policies and practices as opposed to the reductionist quantitative thinking, which is in the increase due to the crisis.


As an introduction to the first stage of the presentation, the very idea of political aesthetics will be sketched. This will be, broadly, understood as the inquiry into the political implications of aesthetics. More specifically, the focal point of the research will be the intersections between ethical and aesthetic values and the respective forms of cognition – practical rationality and aesthetic judgments. The basic intuition behind this approach can be expressed etymologically, by reference to the ancient Greek term aisthesis – sensual perception. Political aesthetics would, then, involve the study of  the political importance of aesthetic judgments understood as perceptions – immediate responses to the complexity of a work of art. It attempts to bring out the affinity between such acts of cognition and the political judgments of value (i.e. judgments concerned with justice, a good life, etc).


The category of perception plays an important role in Nussbaum's  philosophy. It appears already in her earlier works aimed at the revision of ethical theory. The objective of the first part of the research will be to combine Nussbaum's perception-based account of practical rationality with her capabilities approach. The idea of perception will be analysed in conjunction with the overview of human life which underlies Nussbaum's capabilities approach. To wit, perception will be presented as the form of reasoning in which we acknowledge our dependency on external support and so recognise ourselves and each other as the subjects of capabilities (defined as the actual possibilities for functioning, i.e. human faculties coupled with facilitating external conditions). That is, perception will be interpreted as the condition of ethically right interpersonal relationships, in which we are ready to both give and receive support.


Next, the aesthetic component in perception will be exposed. It will be found in the perception being based on the interpretative capabilities of imagination and emotions. The emotion of wonder will be presented as particularly important in this respect. Since it involves the recognition of the intrinsic worth of a good and the delight in it, when directed at another person, it comprises the grasping of her dignity. This suggests that the appreciation of the non-instrumental value of a human being is similar to the admiration of beauty.  Thus defined, wonder can, furthermore, inspire compassion, which records our sense of community with other people. As a compassion-aiding factor, wonder can broaden our idea of citizenship towards greater inclusiveness.


This theoretical framework will provide the background for the consideration of the practical implications of Nussbaum's capabilities approach. The affinity between ethical and aesthetic judgments (revealed by the creative character of perception and the ethical dimension of wonder) suggests that the arts can play an important role in the enhancement of perception and therefore the promotion of capabilities approach. In particular, it will be argued, the arts and liberal education can contribute to the preservation of human values in times of crisis. The arts will be presented as the expression of the model of rationality alternative to the quantitative, instrumental calculation. They will emerge as the stimuli to the imaginative sensitivity to different perspectives and compassion. Their political relevance will, therefore, be shown to consist in their ability to inspire a more qualitative, human-oriented method of public reasoning. As such, the arts will be understood as capable of alleviating the negative consequences of the crisis.


Several examples will be cited in order to support this thesis. Nussbaum's defense of liberal education (powerfully delivered in the books such as Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education and Not for Profit. Why Democracy Needs the Humanities) will be recalled. Her inquiries into the perception-inspiring character of literature (with the particular focus on classic realist novels and ancient tragedies) will be discussed as well. Apart from the cases derived directly from Nussbaum's works, however, a recent example of the urban policy project will be mentioned. Namely, Wroclaw's successful bid for the title of the European capital of culture 2016 will be presented as an attempt at redefining urban space in politico-aesthetic terms. The idea of space, as it is envisaged in the application, will be interpreted as the space of perception which enables the promotion of capabilities.


To sum up, the paper will attempt to propose an original interpretative approach to Nussbaum's philosophy with the intention of demonstrating its relevance in the current socio-economic situation. The arts will be presented as the key factors in the implementation of capabilities approach.


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