Prof. Martha Nussbaum to deliver Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities

Martha Nussbaum
Prof. Martha Nussbaum
Photo by
Jeff Brown
Mark Peters
News Director and Social Sciences SpecialistUniversity Communications

World-renowned philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum, the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, will deliver the 2017 Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on May 1 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Her talk, “Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame,” will draw upon her years of work on the role of emotion in politics to explore the emotional dynamics at play in American and other societies, including the ways in which uncertainty leads to the blaming of outsider groups.

The lecture, established by the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1972, is considered the federal government’s highest honor in the humanities. Previous speakers include jurist and law professor Paul Freund, writer Saul Bellow, historian Henry Louis Gates Jr., literary critic Helen Vendler and filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Leon Kass, the Addie Clark Harding Professor Emeritus of Social Thought and the College, was selected in 2009, joining former UChicago scholars Edward Shils (1979) and John Hope Franklin (1976) as past lecturers. 

“I'm deeply honored to be invited to deliver the Jefferson Lecture, and happy to have this chance to speak for the humanities at a time when they are under threat—both in our nation and all over the world,” said Nussbaum, who last year was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for contributions that include developing a measure of global welfare that focuses on human capabilities rather than only on economic growth.

NEH Chairman William D. Adams said: “We are deeply honored that Martha Nussbaum has agreed to give the 2017 Jefferson Lecture, and we look forward to learning her thoughts on ‘Powerlessness and the Politics of Blame.’ Across her long and immensely productive career, Martha has been a tireless and peerless advocate for the role and utility of philosophy in our public life. With this honor, we celebrate at once her philosophical achievements and her example as an engaged and passionate public philosopher.”

Nussbaum has earned international acclaim for her work on moral and political theory, emotions, human rights, social equality, education, feminism, and ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. Her Jefferson Lecture will draw from her latest book project, which brings a philosophical view to political crises in America, Europe and India by offering a deeper understanding of how fear, anger, disgust and envy interact to create a divisiveness that threatens democracy.

“It is urgent for us to understand ourselves better, to see why we have arrived at this state of division, hostility and non-communication,” Nussbaum said. “A philosophical approach, focused on a close look at human emotions, offers that understanding of ourselves … I believe it also offers us strategies of hope and connection.”

Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics, said he was pleased to see the NEH honor Nussbaum and her achievements.

“Martha joins an esteemed list of thinkers, writers, humanitarians and artists who have been chosen to deliver this important lecture,” he said. “It is a well-deserved recognition, given her influential contributions on a range of issues, including social justice, equality and human dignity. Martha’s longstanding and passionate support for humanities education makes her selection for the Jefferson Lecture especially fitting.”

Nussbaum is appointed in the Law School and Department of Philosophy. She also is an associate in the Department of Classics, the Divinity School, and the Department of Political Science, as well as a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a board member of the Human Rights Program.

Nussbaum, who has written and edited dozens of books and written more than 400 papers, received her MA and PhD from Harvard University. Prior to joining the faculty of the University of Chicago, she was a University Professor at Brown University. From 1986 to 1993, while teaching at Brown, Nussbaum was also a research advisor at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki, a branch of the United Nations University. She is a founding president of the Human Development and Capability Association, and she has received 57 honorary degrees from universities in North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa. In addition to the Kyoto Prize, Nussbaum has been awarded the Prince of Asturias Prize in 2012, the Nonino Prize in 2015 and the Inamori Ethics Prize, also in 2015, among others.

Tickets will be available to the public beginning in April through neh.gov. The lecture is free and open to the public and will stream live online at neh.gov.