Is Martha Nussbaum terrified? Anti-Metaphysical Essentialism as Soft-Washed Universalism

Veröffentlicht (Aktualisiert: ) in Philosophie. Schlagwörter: , , , , , .

I. Introduction

Is Martha Nussbaum terrified?

This question must be asked. Because in her essay „Human Functioning and Social Justice – In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism“ the American philosopher tries to justify a non-metaphysical universalism or essentialism, which neither slips into the pitfalls of anti-essentialist cultural relativism nor those of metaphysical or Eurocentric essentialism. In this thesis resides not only the rejection of religious myths for the study of universally valid values, which in itself is problematic, but there is also much more in its design. Namely, the total submission to its enemy: the cultural relativist cancel-culture.

This is a steep thesis and it will be substantiated in the following. Therefore, under II. the Nussbaumian theory of Aristotelian essentialism will be paraphrased in a shortened form as soft-washed universalism, in order to oppose this theory under III. with metaphysical essentialism as occidental universalism.

II. The Anti-Metaphysical Essentialism as Soft-Washed Universalism

Martha Nussbaum introduces her essay with an exemplary critique of the consequences of cultural relativism. She uses conference debates to demonstrate the extent to which some human scientists in the 21st century are willing to show solidarity with reactionary tribal societies and their anachronistic norms in the name of anti-colonialism and cultural relativism. Up to this point, metaphysical essentialism is perfectly in accord with Nussbaum.
To introduce a concrete example into the debate:
The hijab is not, as Judith Butler (Footnote: 1) claims in „War and Affect“, a sign of solidarity with one’s own culture, but, according to Western-influenced psychoanalysis, a branding of patriarchal repression of female sexuality by an unenlightened society.

This said Nussbaum would most likely break with an occidental universalism just because of the way of argumentation. She is an Aristotelian essentialist. Which, in the final analysis, means that her essay is based on Aristotelian logic.
The controversy of whether Aristotle or Plato has permeated the philosophical tradition for two millennia. It appears in the scholastic debates between realism and nominalism and comes back in the epistemological discourses between empiricism and rationalism, its sublation in Kantianism, and termination in the dispute between idealism and positivism.
Invariably, the question is whether to start from pre-existing ideas respectively a conceptual matrix (Platonism) or to aim scientistic from the single entity to the abstract (Aristotelianism). The latter method was established by Aristotle in his Categories, in which he derived the substances and properties of the second-order from the first order.
An example:
The hypokeimenon (substance) Julius has white (properties) skin. The hypokeimenon Marius also has white skin. Through comparative identification, i.e., the traditional, pre-Kantian mode of concept formation, the second-order substances (human) and properties (white color) are subsequently abstracted from these underlying, single individuals. This logically results in an ontological quadrilateral, which is still discussed in analytic philosophy today. How far this method falls behind Kant, who recognized the mediation of the object by the transcendental subject, and Hegel, who conceived that subject in historical mediation, will not be methodically discussed here. However, the remark is relevant for the later critique.

freud wortvorstellung
Fig. Psychological scheme of the word conception according to Freud

Why, then, would Nussbaum break with metaphysical essentialism?

She is a classical Aristotelian. In this sense, she is against relativism, since already the old Greek knew that only from the viewpoint of the right can the wrong be stated. However, she derives her „human capabilities“ (Nussbaum 1992, S. 222) and universal values from individual peoples and their basal needs:

  1. „Being able to live to the of a complete human life, as far as is possible; not dying prematurely, or before one’s life is so reduced as to be not worth living.
  2. Being able to have good health; to be adequately nourished; to have adequate shelter; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction; being able to move place to place.
  3. Being able to avoid unnecessary and nonbeneficial pain and to have pleasurable experiences.
  4. Being able to use the five senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason.
  5. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence, in general, to love grieve, to feel longing and gratitude.
  6. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflextion about the planning of one’s own life.
  7. Being able to live for and with others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various form of familial and social interaction.
  8. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature.
  9. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities.
  10. Being able to live one’s own life and nobody else’s; being able to live one’s own life in one’s very own surroundings and context.“ (Nussbaum 1992, S. 222)

She emphasizes that her list is not complete and needs to be extended, but at the end of the day, she only arrives at such general descriptions that she has to accept the question of whether her methodology does not merely lead to a rather superficial „common sense“.

On the other hand, she cannot be accused of not applying her method practically. She went to Bangladesh and asked women from the slums what their highest value would be. Interestingly, they answered with „human dignity,“ which was proof for Nussbaum that this value, which is the basis of many Western-style constitutions, must be valid. Thus, she does not need any religious myths for the legitimation of this value, not even the myth of the occidental enlightenment (Footnote 2), but abstracts Aristotelian from the individual slum women to the universal values. She, therefore, opposes any attempt to derive universal values from any kind of metaphysical or Eurocentric essentialism, instead, she’s always working with the individual using her nominalistic method.

It is worth objecting to this that in the globalized world, certain values have already been disseminated worldwide. Thus, Nussbaum only encountered historical mediations that existed longer than she has even been alive. In the 19th century, human scientists imagined humans as toolmaking animals until it was discovered that apes not only use tools to eat ants but also to wage deliberate wars (Cf. World War Chimp).
„Der Gebrauch und die Schöpfung von Arbeitsmitteln, obgleich im Keim schon gewissen Tierarten eigen, charakterisieren den spezifisch menschlichen Arbeitsprozeß, und Franklin definiert daher den Menschen als „a toolmaking animal“, ein Werkzeuge fabrizierendes Tier.“ (Karl Marx – Das Kapital I)

Mediations can cloud the perception of even a dialectician like Marx. So our idea of what distinguishes the human species from other animals is always already corrupted by historical conditioning. In Marx’s time, industrialization led to the concept of man as a toolmaking animal. Since Aristotle lived in a slave society, to take up an example of Nussbaum, he did not identify women and slaves as human beings. For this analysis, one needs the Hegelian category of totality. The Nussbaumian difference of an internal, i.e. nomalist, versus an external, i.e. realist, essentialism becomes fragile at this point.

So why is Nussbaum terrified?

I accused Nussbaum at the beginning that in her essay „Human Functioning and Social Justice – In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism“ she would try to substantiate a non-metaphysical universalism or essentialism, which would neither want to fall into the pitfalls of anti-essentialist cultural relativism nor into those of metaphysical or Eurocentric essentialism and in this course would totally submit to her enemy, the cultural relativist cancel culture.

This rather harsh (and probably a bit mean-spirited) accusation arises from the fact that Nussbaum does not refer to the Occidental Enlightenment for the justification of universalism, but to nominalist Aristotelianism, in order to avoid the accusation of Eurocentrism or Western thinking with slum women – so the accusation goes – like a weasel. Even the adjective „occidental“ before „Enlightenment“ could lead to demonstrations at Uchicago.
In short:
She does not want to be counted amongst the culture-industrial spectacle of the Intellectual Dark Web and is also terrified of losing her teaching position due to the virulent cancel culture.
A less mean interpretation would at this point refer to her Aristotelian method, but anyone who reads her essay carefully will recognize the weaseling in front of the cultural relativists in the sub-text.
She makes them an offer in a figurative sense:
With Aristotle you can do both:
Be against colonialist Western values and at the same time preserve universalism.
Nevertheless, her attempt ends precisely with said „common sense“ and a very thin list of human capabilities that dehumanizes various disabled people (Cf. her own dementia example).
So, in theory, I make Martha Nussbaum the following counter-offer:
With Kant and Freud, you can do both:
Be against cultural relativists from a Eurocentric perspective and nonetheless embrace Critical Theory.

This conception will be briefly explained in Chapter III, the conclusion of this essay.

III. Metaphysical essentialism as occidental universalism

The Enlightenment and its critique emerged in the Occident. The accusation of Eurocentrism is in this sense a factual description of reality: Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Freud were born in Western Europe. The advocates of post-colonial and critical-whiteness studies like to forget that their own philoracist theories originated in the West.
They are philoracist, since they culturally relativistically apply different normative, double standards to groups of people based on geographical origin. They are completely off the track, since, as Nussbaum correctly stated with Aristotle, the wrong can only be stated from the position of the right. This, by the way, is a dialectical logic and can be found in, for example, Negative Dialectics:
„An Ideologiekritik ist es, über den Anteil von Subjekt und Objekt und seine Dynamik zu urteilen. Sie dementiert falsche Objektivität, den Fetischismus der Begriffe, durch die Reduktion aufs gesellschaftliche Subjekt; falsche Subjektivität, den zuweilen bis zur Unsichtbarkeit verhüllten Anspruch, was ist, sei Geist, durch den Nachweis des Betrugs, seines parasitären Unwesens ebenso wie seiner immanenten Geistfeindschaft. Das Alles des unterschiedslos totalen Ideologiebegriffs dagegen terminiert im Nichts“ (Negative Dialektik, S. 198)

Adorno’s Negative Dialectic shall now serve as a starting point for the foundation of metaphysical essentialism. Given the space available (max. 1.500 words: already over it), this can only be done in a roughly abbreviated way. In light of the fact that the Aristotelian categories are constantly mediated by Kantian categories or Platonic ideas, they cannot serve as a starting point. Since, according to Hegel, the transcendental subject is always already shaped by the historical stage of the development of the world spirit, the critique must be negative. In a positive determination, the epistemological subject would take values of the existing order, which has to be negated, into its thinking (Cf. toolmaking animal example above). In the determinate negation as critique, this deficiency is cleared up by pointing out mere contradictions. However, in order not to slip into relativism, negative dialectics needs a normative scale. This yardstick is the difference between the ideological promises of a society (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité, American Dream) and their unredeemed realization. Further above I did not write anything about how a woman has to behave morally, only that according to psychoanalysis the hijab is a patriarchal branding. This would be – Notabene – genuine feminism, which the representatives of the 3rd and 4th generation like to repress.

Culturalrelativism overdose
I once asked freshmen sociology students if discrimination against women is still a problem today (row) as well as if the headscarf is a sign of patriarchy (column). Most of them checked that the headscarf is not a sign of patriarchy, but that there are still problems with discrimination against women

Metaphysical essentialism can be derived from this conception by determined negating the promises of happiness of religious myths with their unfulfilled reality. There are various sociological studies of religion available that deal solely with the question of the socially necessary or even structural function of religious norms like washing. Myths like the resurrection of the flesh even aim at utopian ideas. As a philosopher, one can now take up these studies to understand to what extent ancient metaphysics could give us a normative measure. Because ancient metaphysics aims at the socially necessary or even the utopian, the – according to Nussbaum – external metaphysics is thus internal in a dialectical reversal. Here, however, it is important to remember that, speaking with Hegel and Norbert Elias, we are already at a much higher stage of civilization.

This rough conception of metaphysical essentialism would be critical, universal as well as occidental, and could avoid the weaseling of Nussbaum in a continental philosophical way.


  1. Die Burka „symbolisiert, dass eine Frau bescheiden ist und dass sie ihrer Familie verbunden ist, aber auch, dass sie stolz auf ihre Familie und Gemeinschaft ist. Sie symbolisiert Modi der Zugehörigkeit innerhalb eines sozialen Netzwerks. Die Burka zu verlieren bedeutet mithin auch, einen gewissen Verlust dieser Verwandtschaftsbande zu erleiden, den man nicht unterschätzen sollte. Der Verlust der Burka kann eine Erfahrung von Entfremdung und Zwangsverwestlichung mit sich bringen, die Spuren hinterlassen wird.“ (Butler 2009, S. 86)
  2. According to Horkheimer and Adornos Dialectic of Enlightenment, the occidental Enlightenment itself becomes a myth through its positivist and nature-dominating method.

Nietzsche’s relativistic conception of language as a total lie still includes the intermediate step of figurative imagination. Adorno went with Hegel and Nietzsche beyond both Hegel and Nietzsche.