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Last modified: Monday, February 4, 2008

Philosopher Martha Nussbaum to deliver next Patten Lectures

Will discuss human capabilities and the U.S. Constitution

February 4, 2008

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher and influential intellectual from the University of Chicago Law School, will present two Indiana University Patten lectures, titled "Constitutions and Capabilities: History of an Idea" (Tuesday, Feb. 12) and "Capabilities and Today's Supreme Court" (Thursday, Feb. 14). Both lectures will be in the Chemistry Building, room 122 at 7:30 p.m., and are free and open to the public.

Martha Nussbaum

Martha Nussbaum

Print-Quality Photo

Nussbaum's first lecture investigates the roots of the idea that all citizens in a nation are equally entitled to a set of basic opportunities, with a set of substantial preconditions for a dignified human life, based on the teachings of Aristotle and the Stoics. Nussbaum will map the idea's influence on 18th-century thinkers, such as Smith and Paine, and the American Founding. Finally, Nussbaum examines this idea's embodiment in some strands of the U.S. tradition of constitutional law.

Her second lecture maps the decline of this "capabilities approach" in the recent jurisprudence of the U.S. Supreme Court, focusing on a group of cases from the 2006 term involving employment discrimination, abortion and affirmative action. Nussbaum argues that a type of obtuse formalism is in the ascendancy on the Court, displacing a realistic and historically informed focus on what people are actually able to do and to be.

Nussbaum received her Bachor of Arts degree from New York University and her Master of Arts and doctorate from Harvard. She taught at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford universities prior to being the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago. She has an appointment in the Philosophy Department, Law School and Divinity School. She is an associate in the Classics Department and the Political Science Department, a member of the committee on Southern Asian Studies and a board member of the Human Rights Program. She is the founder and coordinator of the Center for Comparative Constitutionalism.

From 1986 to 1993, Nussbaum was a research adviser at the World Institute for Development Economics Research, Helsinki, a part of the United Nations University. She has chaired the Committee on International Cooperation and the Committee on the Status of Women of the American Philosophical Association, and currently chairs its new Committee for Public Philosophy. She has received honorary degrees from 32 colleges and universities in the U. S., Canada, Asia and Europe. She received the NYU Distinguished Alumni Award in 2000, the Grawemeyer Award in Education in 2002, the Barnard College Medal of Distinction in 2003 and the Radcliffe Alumnae Recognition Award in 2007. She is an Academician in the Academy of Finland.

Her numerous publications span from Aristotle's De Motu Animalium published in 1978 to Liberty of Conscience: In Defense of America's Tradition of Religious Equality published in February 2008. She has also edited 13 books. Her current work in progress includes The Cosmopolitan Tradition (the Castle Lectures delivered at Yale University in 2000 and under contract to Yale University Press) and Compassion and Capabilities (under contract to Cambridge University Press).

For more information on Nussbaum, visit

Patten Lecture Series

Since 1937, the William T. Patten Foundation has provided generous funds to bring to IU Bloomington people of extraordinary national and international distinction. Since the first Patten lecture, more than 180 world-renowned scholars have lectured at Indiana University under the auspices of the Patten Foundation. Noted specialists in their fields, speakers have been chosen for their ability to convey the significance of their work to a general audience. Chosen by a campus-wide faculty committee, Patten Lectures have represented more than 50 academic departments and programs.

William T. Patten received his A.B. degree in 1893 in history from IU. After graduation he settled in Indianapolis, where he made a career in real estate and politics, including serving as county auditor. He remained appreciative of the educational opportunities that IU had afforded him, and toward the end of his life, in 1931, made a gift to the university in the form of liberty bonds and Indiana municipal and county bonds. The gift was to be held as an endowment bearing his name, and the income used for bringing to the campus eminent leaders in their fields for residence and lectures to enrich the intellectual life of the campus.

The remaining lecture in the Patten 2007-08 series is:

  • Gillian Beer, King Edward VII Professor of English Literature and President of Clare Hall (ret.), University of Cambridge, will speak on Tuesday, April 8 and Thursday, April 10.

For a more complete history on William T. Patten and further details on the upcoming lecture series, visit