A Nobel Prize for Philosophy?  (updated)

A Nobel Prize for Philosophy? (updated)


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…

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 a there’s a strong case for a separate Nobel Prize for Philosophy, recognising the discipline’s particular “benefit to mankind”.

So writes Russell Blackford (Newcastle) at The Drum. Reasons he offers in favor of a Nobel Prize for Philosophy include:

  • “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… are prominent in public debate across a wide range of urgent issues”
  • “Philosophy provides an indispensable counterweight” to debate that is too often “dominated by tribalism, dogma and emotional manipulation”

Blackford also says that the technical nature or difficulty of some philosophy ought not to disqualify it, as other disciplines, like physics, are also technical and difficult.

Still, he seems skeptical that his arguments will win out over the tradition, and suggests that the new Berggruen Prize could end up being the equivalent of a Nobel for philosophy.

Nobel Prize winners are selected from a pool of nominated candidates by a committee of members of the Swedish Academy. There does not appear to be any fixed criteria, and, at least for the literature prize, “the criteria for winners have changed over the years” as “the committee has during various decades sought to promote different aims.”

If there were a Nobel Prize in philosophy, what would good criteria be? What would the aims of the prize be? And who would be on the short list?

nobel medal 2

UPDATE (10/12/15): In addition to the Berggruen Prize, there is also, as some commenters have pointed out, the Schock Prize. Additionally, there is the University of Pittsburgh’s Rescher Prize (latest winner: Hilary Putnam) about which Anil Gupta says, “We hope, over time, this prize could become the major prize in philosophy like the Pulitzer Prize in journalism and the Fields Medal in mathematics.”

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