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The 760 pages of Nussbaum's book make for many hours of absorbing reading. Her aim is to bring back into philosophy what it has lacked so often: emotions. The book gives splendid summaries of the best in (Western) philosophy, literature and music. Having read the chapters on Seneca, Dante, Spinoza, Proust, Mahler, Joyce and others, many readers will feel tempted to go back to the originals and read or re-read them.
It is not too difficult, either, to disagree with much that Nussbaum proffers. Take music. She has much to say about the "contents" and "meaning" of Mahler's music, in detailed descriptions of such works as the Second Symphony. She cannot, however, really convince us that it is the music itself which conveys the message. Mahler thought and wrote a lot about what prompted him to write music. But apart from the words of songs included in his symphonies, can the music itself "mean" anything? What we hear is chords, tempi, structure - which through mysterious ways move and touch us. But there may be nothing, really, which would prompt the listener to hear any part of that symphony as particularly "heroic" of "tragic" or "fateful" if that listener does not know of Mahler's commentary - he or she may well feel those parts are spirited, or hurt, or just plain "beautiful" - or maybe tedious and longwinded. The same could be said for other arts: paintings, sculpture, dance (which Nussbaum, remarkably, does not refer to at all).
Language can express emotions a lot more explicitly, but again: can fiction be "about" something? Is Joyce's Ulysses really "about love", as Nussbaum stipulates, or is it a lot more that that? Is not Ulysses rather about, well, everything in the book called Ulysses?
In this book, compassion and love are the core themes. Nussbaum adduces a wealth of literature, fiction and non-fiction, to explain how these two emotions dominate both personal and public life. Each of her arguments makes a point, but also jeopardizes to weaken another. Love is such a complicated concept (and Nussbaum deals with all possible ramifications of it) that at the end one wonders whether anything succinct can be said about it. Compassion is a value of enormous significance in public life, but is so rife with contradictions that no political philosopher (let alone politician) would base her theory on it.
This book, indeed, is very hard to summarize. It may be significant that it does not have a conclusion. In philosophy, Great Thinkers have tried to get to the heart of things. They have come up with simple catchwords - such as alienation, abandonment, human flourishing, righteousness, existential angst, and much more - to offer us something of a grip on the bewildering experience of life. In their methodology, as Nussbaum points out, they have often overlooked or sidelined the vicissitudes of emotional life. But "mining the full wealth of personal experience" (Nussbaum's words) may produce so much debris, valuable as it is, that it becomes impossible to find that one small nugget of gold.
The many hours I spent on reading this book certainly have felt rewarding. It merits a four star appraisal for its combination of forceful intellectual stimulus, fascinating erudition and engaging moral debate. To deserve five stars it might have needed more than just the solid editing that another customer reviewer suggested. It should have had some definite clue, something that would have guided the reader from the outset. The map of experience displayed in this book threatens to become as large as the landscape.
This book is a real treat for everyone who is an avid reader, even if not by far as well-read as Nussbaum. In signaling that emotions are paramount she responds to the frustrations which many of us will have felt about what is sadly lacking in so much formal philosophy. But the book is not a philosophical breakthrough, since Nussbaum has not come up with a (refutable, falsifiable, debatable) answer to the philosophical question of "what it is really all about".