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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Should there be a Nobel Prize for Philosophy?

Note: similarly to my previous post, I'm republishing this op-ed piece in light of the unfortunate decision, announced earlier today, to close the ABC's opinion site, "The Drum". This piece was first published there on 8 October 2015.

There's a strong case for having a Nobel Prize for philosophy, recognising the discipline's particular benefit to mankind. After all, in our age of propaganda there is surely cause to reward an emphasis on reason and clarity, writes Russell Blackford.
When Alfred Nobel, the renowned inventor of dynamite, died in 1896, he left behind a will that laid a foundation for the prestigious Nobel Prizes.
He directed most of his wealth to fund prizes for those who confer the "greatest benefit on mankind" in a number of specified fields. Hence we have the Nobel Prizes for physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature, and peace.
The prize winners for 2015 are being announced with much fanfare, and the prizes will be awarded formally in December at splendid ceremonies in Sweden and Norway. Apart from the worldwide recognition involved, each prize carries a monetary component of eight million Swedish kronor (well over 1.3 million Australian dollars).
A separate Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences was created in 1968, funded by the central bank of Sweden, but many fields of learning are still not covered.
Notably, there is no Nobel Prize for philosophy, although Bertrand Russell won the Literature Prize in 1950. Albert Camus also won it (in 1957), as did Jean-Paul Sartre (in 1964), though he chose to turn it down. Camus and Sartre were, of course, largely known as creative writers.
I doubt that any philosophers begrudge creative writers the Nobel Prize for Literature, but there's a strong case for a separate Nobel Prize for Philosophy, recognising the discipline's particular "benefit to mankind".
Philosophy is the reason-based, intellectually rigorous, investigation of deep questions that have always caused puzzlement and anxiety: Is there a god or an afterlife? Do we possess free will? What is a good life for a human being? What is the nature of a just society? Philosophy challenges obfuscation and orthodoxies, and extends into examining the foundations of inquiry itself.
Thus, it includes the sub-disciplines of epistemology (or theory of knowledge) and logic - the study of what should count as a good argument for a claim.
As with any other academic discipline, much philosophical research is specialised and technical. By necessity, this can be inaccessible to a general audience. Yet, philosophers often bring their skills to the great questions of our time, including problems of global injustice and the risks to humanity's future.
Major living philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas (in Germany), A.C. Grayling (in the UK), and Martha Nussbaum (in the United States) are prominent in public debate across a wide range of urgent issues.
All too often, that debate is dominated by tribalism, dogma and emotional manipulation. We live, as has often been said, in an age of propaganda. With its emphasis on reason and clarity, the study of philosophy provides an indispensable counterweight to this. In particular, it offers valuable training for leaders of the future.
The main barrier to a Nobel Prize for Philosophy is simply tradition: it's unlikely that the Nobel Foundation would want to extend the established fields any further, even if it received additional funding. Fair enough, I think, so what about an equivalent to a Nobel Prize for Philosophy?
Until recently, the nearest equivalent was possibly the Templeton Prize, awarded annually to an individual who "has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works". Though it has sometimes been won by a philosopher (such as Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor in 2007), this prize's recipients have been a varied group. They include, for example, Mother Teresa (1973) and the Dalai Lama (2012). The Templeton Prize has a clear religious bias, whereas many philosophers treat the claims of religion with suspicion.
Over the past decade or two, there has been a growth of lucrative new prizes for high intellectual achievement. Among these, the government of Norway has introduced two prizes that can be seen as near-equivalents to Nobel Prizes in their fields. The Abel Prize, which had its first winner in 2003, is almost a Nobel Prize for Mathematics under another name. Similarly, the Holberg Prize can be seen as a Nobel Prize for scholarship in the humanities and related disciplines. It has sometimes been won by philosophers, including Habermas in 2005 and the late Ronald Dworkin in 2007.
The Holberg Prize notwithstanding, philosophy still lacks a clear equivalent to its own Nobel Prize. Most recently, however, the Berggruen Philosophy Prize has been announced for "a living thinker whose ideas have deeply influenced our world". From 2016, it will be awarded annually by the recently launched Berggruen Philosophy and Culture Center, based in Los Angeles.
The reputations of the Berggruen Center and the Berggruen Prize remain to be established, but the prize money of $US1 million makes a large symbolic statement. It rivals the monetary value of a Nobel Prize.
Perhaps the Berrgruen Prize can become, in time, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for Philosophy, as seems to be intended. That will depend on the wisdom of its judges and the quality of its future laureates.

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