Martha Nussbaum’s Question: How Can We Activate Our Imaginative, Critical, And Moral Intelligences Against Invisibility?

In her essay, “The Narrative Imagination” (1997), Martha Nussbaum (b. 1947), a classicist, philosopher, and legal scholar who contributes regularly to the New Republic and teaches at the University of Chicago, writes the following:

When a child and a parent begin to tell stories together, the child is acquiring essential moral capacities. Even a simple nursery rhyme such as ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are’ leads children to feel wonder—a sense of mystery that mingles curiosity with awe.

This wonder, on Nussbaum’s accounting, does not stop with the star’s outward beauty—its power to dazzle the eyes—but runs beneath the star’s surface, to its inner life, and how it must be in some ways similar and in other ways different from the child’s own:

Children wonder about the little star. In so doing they learn to imagine that a mere shape in the heavens has an inner world, in some ways mysterious, in some ways like their own. They learn to attribute life, emotion, and thought to a form whose insides are hidden.

In other words, even the youngest child is an interpreter. When story-telling, she is theorizing about the inner “goings-on” of people, animals, and things. Never mind that the child’s early theorizing about a star is fallacious in its anthropomorphism (attributing human characteristics to an object). The point is that the process of theorizing and interpretation starts there, and becomes more complex and nuanced as the child matures.

Now let’s move to an instance of adult story-telling: a play of Sophocles’s from 2400 years ago titled Philoctetes (named after an archer in the Trojan War). Here’s Nussbaum telling part of his story:

On his way to Troy to fight with the Greeks in the Trojan War, Philoctetes stepped by mistake into a sacred shrine. His foot, bitten by the serpent who guards the shrine, began to ooze with an ulcerous sore, and cries of pain disrupted the army’s religious festivals. So the commanders abandoned him on the deserted island of Lemnos, with no companions and no resources but his bow and arrows. Ten years later, learning that they cannot win the war without his magical bow, they return, determined to ensnare him by a series of lies into participating in the war. The commander Odysseus shows no interest in Philoctetes as a person; he speaks of him only as a tool of public ends. The chorus of common soldiers has a different response (lines 169-176):

For my part, I have compassion for him. Think how

with no human company or care,

no sight of a friendly face,

wretched, always alone,

he wastes away with that savage disease,

with no way of meeting his daily needs.

How, how in the world, does the poor man survive?

Of these lines, Nussbaum comments:

Unlike their leader, the men of the chorus vividly and sympathetically imagine the life of a man whom they have never seen, picturing his loneliness, his pain, his struggle for survival.

This is the move inward that accompanies story telling: sometimes we readily and easily identify with the inward lives of others and at other times we must enter their world by an act of imaginative sympathy (as a man might imagine what it’s like for a woman to give birth). In the case of the first audience to have experienced Sophocles’s play, some may have been veterans of war and could readily identify with Philoctetes as soldier even as they had not (as yet) been abandoned to illness by family, comrades, or nation. The latter state, however, could be imagined. This movement of imagination beneath the appearance of things develops, not just our intellectual (analytic and synthetic) capacities, but our “moral capacities.” Nussbaum offers Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man (1952), as a contemporary example of what it means to delve beneath the outward appearance of things:

Its hero describes himself as ‘invisible’ because throughout the novel he is seen by those he encounters as a vehicle for various race-inflected stereotypes: the poor, humiliated black boy who snatches like an animal at the coins that lie on an electrified mat; the good student trusted to chauffeur a wealthy patron; . . .

The ‘others,’ meanwhile, are all ‘lost in a dream world’—in which they see only what their own minds have created, never the reality of the person who stands before them. ‘You go along for years knowing something is wrong, then suddenly you discover that you’re as transparent as air.’ Invisibility is ‘a matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality.’

Ellison’s grotesque, surreal world is very unlike the classical world of Sophocles’s play. Its concerns, however, are closely linked: social stratification and injustice, manipulation and use, and above all invisibility and the condition of being transparent to and for one’s fellow citizens. Like Sophocles’ drama, it explores and savagely excoriates these refusals to see. Like that drama, it invites its readers to know and see more than the unseeing characters. ‘Being invisible and without substance, a disembodied voice, as it were, what else could I do? What else but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through?’

Notice that, concerning reality, even the racist is theorizing, “lost in a dream world,” but this is the type of theorizing and dreaming that renders certain others invisible, and raises a caution: theorizing, in addition to being imaginative, can also distort reality and direct one toward immoral purposes. This is where, not just the imaginative intelligence, but one’s critical and moral intelligences, can come into play. As Nussbaum puts it:

[I]t is next to impossible to see what it could mean to read a drama of Sophocles, or a novel of Dickens or George Eliot, in the detached way. It is impossible to care about characters and their well-being in the way the text invites, without having some very definite political and moral interests awakened in oneself . . .

There was a brief moment in the recent history of literary criticism when it did seem possible and desirable to hold such concerns in abeyance. This was the moment of the flourishing of the so-called New Criticism, which held (to simplify) that when one read a poem one should bring nothing external to that reading—no historical context, no questions of one’s own about life and how to live it. Not surprisingly, this movement produced its best work in the area of lyric poetry, and there only by a degree of inconsistency—for critics did allow themselves to ask what a word could have meant in 1786, say, and did permit themselves the extraneous knowledge that a certain other meaning came into being only in 1925. If they had not done so they would have produced gibberish. . . .

For this reason it [the New Criticism] was resisted by some of the finest minds in the field [of literary studies], among them British moral critic F. R. Leavis and American social thinker Lionel Trilling. Both of these men had a political agenda. Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination made explicit his own commitment to liberalism and democracy, and argued brilliantly that the novel as genre is committed to liberalism in its very form, in the way in which it shows respect for the individuality and the privacy of each human mind.

And this, according to Nussbaum, is what most contemporary critics are also up to. Like the New Critics, they’re still committed to close reading, but, like Leavis and Trilling, they’re not interested in treating the imagination as if it takes place in a vacuum. They also want to know what intellectual and moral impulses are activated by imaginative texts.

What . . . contemporary critics are doing today, feminist critics prominently among them, is to continue such approaches [as initiated by the New Criticism] and to render them more sophisticated by asking more subtle questions about the ways in which works construct desire and thought, inviting the imagination to be active in these or those ways. . . .

We are now trying to build an academy that will overcome defects of vision and receptivity that marred the humanities departments of earlier eras, an academy in which no group will be invisible in Ellison’s sense. . . .

The current agenda is radical in the way that Stoic world citizenship was radical in a Rome built on hierarchy and rank, in the way that the Christian idea of love of one’s neighbor was and is radical, in a world anxious to deny our common membership in the kingdom of ends or the kingdom of heaven. We should defend that radical agenda as the only one worthy of our conception of democracy and worthy of guiding its future.

Imaginative literature and criticism, in addition to cultivating habits of skeptical inquiry and moral inclusion, also remind us, via the emotion of wonder, of imagination’s limits, the places in others where one cannot go but can still acknowledge and respect:

[T]he child adept at storytelling soon learns that people in stories are frequently easier to know than people in real life, who, as Proust puts it in The Past Recaptured, frequently offer ‘a dead weight that our sensitivity cannot remove,’ a closed exterior that cannot be penetrated even by a sensitive imagination. The child, wondering about its parents, soon learns about these obstacles, just as it also learns that its parents need not know everything that goes on in its own mind. The habits of wonder promoted by storytelling thus define the other person as spacious and deep, with qualitative differences from oneself and hidden places worthy of respect.

In short, in Nussbaum’s view, one can activate the imaginative, critical, and moral intelligences—as well as the sense of wonder, by engagement with imaginative literature and literary criticism.


  • Nussbaum, Martha. Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (Harvard 1997). Nussbaum’s “The Narrative Imagination” is chapter 3 in this book.
  • Nussbaum, Martha. Philosophical Interventions: Reviews 1986-2011 (Oxford 2012).


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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