Martha Nussbaum Wins $1 Million Berggruen Prize

The philosophy and law professor is the recipient of $1 million prize for helping to show how philosophy is not just an “armchair discipline.”

By Yuezhen Li, Contributor

Martha Nussbaum, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and in the philosophy department, won the 2018 Berggruen Prize for Philosophy and Culture. The prize, announced last week, comes with an award of $1 million.  

“Nussbaum shows how philosophy, far from being merely an armchair discipline, offers a greater understanding of who we are, our place in the world, and a way to live a well-lived life,” says the prize announcement.  

Nussbaum is author of more than 20 books, including The Fragility of GoodnessFrontiers of Justice, and Upheavals of Thought, and is known for her philosophical analysis of emotions in moral and political life. She developed the “capabilities approach,” which measures human flourishing in terms of emotional and intellectual capacities, life expectancy, and education. Her idea is widely understood to be the basis for the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI). 

Her latest book, The Monarchy of Fear, attempts a philosophical account of how emotions like fear and anger can lead to political division and polarization. Looking at current political crises through the lenses of ancient Greek democracy and Stoic philosophy can show how humans have an “animal vulnerability” that can be used to foster unity and cooperation as much as it can turn into hatred and mistrust. 

“Because I know I’d be no good holding or running for political office, I do not follow the lead of Cicero and Seneca, trying to combine the two careers. I just try to write in a way that offers illumination and guidance for public life.”  

Nussbaum disagrees with the idea that philosophy is an armchair discipline. Modern academia, she believes, provides a historically unparalleled level of academic freedom that radical thinkers like Rousseau, Bentham, and John Stuart Mill could only dream of.  

Nussbaum is concerned, however, about the wider reach of philosophical ideas to the general public. 

“The lack of interest in philosophy on the part of the media, the decline of book publishing, and the virtual extinction of general-reader journals of ideas makes it really hard to get out there into the public realm,” she wrote in an e-mail to The Maroon.  

Nussbaum does not believe that all philosophers must enter political discussion; through teaching, she thinks, they can fulfill their civic duty by contributing to the formation of young citizens. 

The Berggruen Prize’s jury includes noted philosophers such as Kwame Anthony Appiah, David Chalmers, Antonio Damasio, as well as Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen and University of Pennsylvania’s president, Amy Gutmann.  

The 2018 Berggruen Prize is in its third year; previous winners are Canadian philosopher and social theorist Charles Taylor and British political philosopher Onora O’Neill. It is sponsored by and named after German-American financier Nicolas Berggruen.