2021 PROSE Award in Philosophy


The Association of American Publishers (AAP) has announced the subject-category winners of its 2021 awards for Professional and Scholarly Excellence (PROSE awards). The awards recognize the authors, editors, and publishers of books that have made “significant advancements in their respective fields of study each year.”

The winner in the philosophy category is Freedom: An Unruly History by Annelein de Dijn, published by Harvard University Press.

From the publisher’s description:

We tend to think of freedom as something that is best protected by carefully circumscribing the boundaries of legitimate state activity. But who came up with this understanding of freedom, and for what purposes? In a masterful and surprising reappraisal of more than two thousand years of thinking about freedom in the West, Annelien de Dijn argues that we owe our view of freedom not to the liberty lovers of the Age of Revolution but to the enemies of democracy.

The conception of freedom most prevalent today—that it depends on the limitation of state power—is a deliberate and dramatic rupture with long-established ways of thinking about liberty. For centuries people in the West identified freedom not with being left alone by the state but with the ability to exercise control over the way in which they were governed. They had what might best be described as a democratic conception of liberty.

Understanding the long history of freedom underscores how recently it has come to be identified with limited government. It also reveals something crucial about the genealogy of current ways of thinking about freedom. The notion that freedom is best preserved by shrinking the sphere of government was not invented by the revolutionaries of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who created our modern democracies—it was invented by their critics and opponents. Rather than following in the path of the American founders, today’s “big government” antagonists more closely resemble the counterrevolutionaries who tried to undo their work.

Annelein De Dijn is a professor of history at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, focusing on political an intellectual history.

One question that readers might be asking themselves is: why did the philosophy award go to an intellectual history book?

To be clear, this is not at all a comment on the quality of De Dijn’s book. Rather, it’s a question about the AAP’s awards process. The AAP gives out awards in 45 different subjects. How does it decide which category a book goes in, and is that a good method?

As I noted in previous post about the PROSE awards, philosophy was only recognized as a distinct category in 2002. Perhaps the AAP needs to add “intellectual history” as a category—adding to its existing array of history categories: “European History”, “North American History”, and “World History”, not to mention “Art History & Criticism”, “Biological Anthropology, Ancient History & Archaeology”, and “History of Science, Medicine, and Technology”—so that works in philosophy are given their due. Or perhaps it should add more categories in philosophy.


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Martin Lenz
9 months ago

Congratulations to Annelien on this award for her truly excellent book!

So “why did the philosophy award go to an intellectual history book? … Or perhaps [AAP] should add more categories in philosophy.” – Yes, as Rorty famously noted, intellectual history is a perfectly acceptable genre in the history of philosophy, and history of philosophy is still part of philosophy.Report

Annelien de Dijn
Annelien de Dijn
9 months ago

Thanks Martin ! @Daily Nous: While I currently hold a position in a history department, the history of freedom has long been a locus for philosophical inquiry (Isaiah Berlin, anyone?), and I very much engage with that field in my book. Also, this is probably as good a place as any to thank the Dutch Research School for Philosophy for supporting me while I was working on my manuscript. Glad philosophers in the Netherlands don’t feel the need to police disciplinary boundaries.Report

Malcolm Keating
Malcolm Keating
9 months ago

Maybe I’m misunderstanding–please correct me, if so–but this reply seems to beg the question about who counts as “someone trained and working in the discipline.” Setting aside the fact that not all institutions have a departmental structure, and agreeing that preserving philosophy departments could be a desiderata, isn’t the issue at question here whether intellectual history is “an adjacent discipline”? As Martin Lenz has pointed out, in certain cases, intellectual history might be considered under the broad category of history of philosophy (which I will take as part of philosophy, though I know there are some who might disagree with me here).

Here’s an analog that impacts my subfield. People working in Indian philosophy are often not trained in philosophy departments (given that few of them have the faculty to do so). Yet we might want to publicize the work of people working in Indian philosophy, who are doing philosophy methodologically (and whom I would consider then philosophers). This might mean publicizing the work of someone who is in a religious studies department or a South Asian studies department. That person very well may not have received a PhD in philosophy.

This situation may be unpleasant for philosophy departments who would prefer one of their faculty win such awards. But in the fictional case I’ve described, perhaps one solution would be to hire people who work in these areas, and then train more of them, so that we have philosophers with philosophy PhDs doing (e.g.) Indian philosophy in philosophy departments.Report

Martin Shuster
9 months ago

Honestly, as a philosopher, I am embarrassed by this post.

The award in question is meant to acknowledge an advance in the field in question. By any except the most narrow and myopic view of things, Annelein de Dijn’s excellent book makes an advance in the field of philosophy.

To raise some sort of stink about this–instead of, for example, reading the book and engaging with its ideas–is shameful, given the broad platform that this blog enjoys. While claiming to champion the interests of the field of philosophy, this post instead locates those interests as needlessly narrow, parochial, frightened, and defensive. This is not who I want to be as a philosopher.

I realize that it isn’t said explicitly, but the post also seems to suggest that Annelein de Dijn should not receive this award solely because she’s employed as a professor of history (of course, this is absurd). Similarly, the idea that giving a (well-deserved) award to Annelein de Dijn will somehow send a disparaging message about the field of philosophy (as opposed to this unseemly post) is equally peculiar (and it is even coupled with–again–the seeming suggestion that all of this may somehow be related to philosophy departments closing in the future).

Perhaps one thing that could help the field of philosophy–and equally prevent departments from closing–is for the discipline to take a much broader conception of itself, acknowledging how broad the range of people working in it actually are (whether in philosophy departments or outside), and how the humanities are intimately related, oftentimes rising and falling as one.Report

Aaron V Garrett
9 months ago

As a historian of philosophy who has often been accused of being an intellectual historian, and who does not take that to be an insult, I agree with Justin’s point. Intellectual history has been under threat in history departments for a long time now. Philosophy is often disregarded by other humanities disciplines because of a combination of unwillingness to take the time to seriously engage and a belief internal to some other humanities disciplines that they really know what the important philosophy is (and philosophers don’t). I agree that the boundaries are unclear. But I see making having one category both as a disregard for philosophy and intellectual history. Both merit their own categories.

Obviously as Justin said this has nothing to do with the book which won. I’m sure it’s an appropriate winner in both categories and I look forward to reading it! Congratulations!Report

Matt McAdam
Matt McAdam
9 months ago

Books are nominated for Prose Awards by their publishers, who also decide what category a book should be nominated in. So this book won the philosophy award in part because Harvard UP nominated it for the philosophy category.Report

Michael Walschots
9 months ago

I think a lot of the disagreement in the comments would be resolved if the AAP simply had more philosophy awards (and perhaps a separate intellectual history award). De Dijn’s book is without a doubt a contribution to the history of philosophy and therefore deserves an award for a work in philosophy. (Unless, of course, you think history of philosophy is not philosophy. In which case, them’s fightin’ words.) If a philosopher won an award intended for scholars of, say, psychology or cognitive science, philosophers would be enthused that a work of a colleague gained wider recognition and crossed disciplinary boundaries. I’d say we should therefore extend the same enthusiasm and congratulations to de Dijn. Can’t wait to read the book!Report

GradHistorianPhilosopher
GradHistorianPhilosopher
9 months ago

As a historian of philosophy and a philosopher, albeit one still in training, I simply cannot judge whether the book is an instance of philosophy (in addition to being intellectual history) until I’ve actually read the book. Until then, I’m willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and take it on trust that it is a work of history of philosophy. That said, I am inclined to disagree with Martin, and thereby Rorty as well, in assimilating intellectual history and history of philosophy. Like Michael, I do think that history of philosophy is philosophy and I would lament any attempt to draw a categorical distinction between them. Of course, this may be because I have idiosyncratic or incorrect views about what intellectual history, history of philosophy, and philosophy are. All this is to say, Justin’s worry seems premature, though Garrett’s proposal seems right.Report

Anne Keany
Anne Keany
9 months ago

Perhaps it is relevant that one of the five winners of the 2021 Prose Excellence Awards was a book on the philosophy of science (“A Philosophical Approach to MOND”) and that it won the award in the category of Physical Science and Mathematics!Report