Prof. Martha C. Nussbaum, a philosopher whose prolific and influential contributions have made her one of the world’s leading public intellectuals, has been named the winner of the 2021 Holberg Prize—one of the largest international awards given to an outstanding researcher in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, law or theology.
Nussbaum, the University of Chicago’s Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics, is appointed in both the Law School and the Department of Philosophy.
In giving the award, the Holberg Prize committee cited the breadth and influence of Nussbaum’s work, as well as her “stupendous intellectual energy and productivity to address issues of major academic concern, as well as issues that have concrete economic, political, and legal impact.”
“Professor Nussbaum’s writing is always scrupulous about arguments, perceptive about human emotions and vulnerability, and attentive to the realities of human situations, social interactions, and the many forms of dependence and interdependence that can arise within them,” said Graeme Turner, chair of the Holberg Prize Committee, in a citation released today. “Her influence and impact extend well beyond her own disciplines, and she has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to the task of distributing the benefits of academic knowledge to a wider public.”
A member of the University of Chicago faculty since 1995, Nussbaum has written 26 books, with one shortly forthcoming (Citadels of Pride: Sexual Abuse, Accountability, and Reconciliation) and three in progress. In addition, she has published about 500 articles and edited 26 books. Her books have been translated into two dozen languages.
Nussbaum is widely respected for her commitment to human well-being—including her work on the philosophy of emotions and her development of the Capabilities Approach, a measure of global welfare that examines what a nation’s individuals are actually able to be and do. Centered on the idea of respect for the agency and opportunity of each individual, the Capabilities Approach, developed in different versions by Nussbaum and economist Amartya Sen, has shaped the global conversation about human rights and development.
“While Nussbaum’s eminence in her fields of academic endeavor is unquestionable, what is particularly admirable is her dedication to the task of putting her knowledge to work, towards making a real and lasting difference to people across the world,” Turner wrote.
Nussbaum’s wide-ranging work spans moral and political theory, emotions, human rights, social equality, education, the philosophy of literature, feminism, animal rights, ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, cosmopolitanism, and more, often bringing what the Holberg Prize committee called “a distinctive, passionate, powerful, and much needed, voice.”
Much of Nussbaum’s work centers on the costs and beauty of human vulnerability.
“On the one hand, I have spent many years producing philosophical accounts of emotions, which are our inner road map of our significant vulnerable attachments, and how they are faring in a world of uncontrolled events,” she said. “On the other hand, in developing the Capabilities Approach, I have asked this question: ‘What forms of vulnerability and impeded activity are incompatible with political justice?’ A just society will protect its citizens from hunger, lack of medical care, sexual assault, and a variety of other obstacles to a flourishing life, while protecting significant freedoms of choice.”
In recent work, she has been extending the approach to the lives of non-human animals.
Nussbaum will receive the award worth approximately US$705,000 during a ceremony at the University of Bergen, Norway, on June 9, provided travel restrictions allow for it.
In addition to her Law School and Philosophy Department appointments, Nussbaum is an associate in the Classics Department, the Divinity School, and the Political Science Department, as well as a member of the Committee on Southern Asian Studies, and a board member of the Human Rights Program.
“Professor Nussbaum is unique among classicists, philosophers, and professors of law,” Law School Dean Thomas J. Miles, the Clifton R. Musser Professor of Law and Economics, and Humanities Division Dean Anne W. Robertson, the Claire Dux Swift Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Music and the College, wrote in a letter nominating Nussbaum for the prize. “She has an extraordinarily fertile and exciting mind, and everything she writes is marked by a combination of passionate commitment with scholarly and conceptual sophistication.”
Nussbaum has had an extraordinary impact at the University, particularly in creating opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. She fostered interaction between the Law School and Philosophy Department through the annual Law and Philosophy Workshop, which she founded. She also recently endowed the Ernst Freund Prize in Law and Philosophy, an award that not only recognizes completed work but enables the intellectual development and mentorship of a promising student in either the Philosophy Department or the Law School. In addition, she endowed student roundtables at the Law School to facilitate discussions between professors and students about topics of legal and societal import.
“Martha is a tremendously engaged member of our community, and one for whom the interdisciplinary mission is paramount,” Miles said. “She combines the humanities with law, philosophy, public affairs and the arts in singular fashion. She is a powerful advocate for education in the arts through her books, her commentaries on opera performances, and her own singing. Over the past decade, she has led six conferences on law and literature, each of which resulted in a volume of provocative essays. Her dedication to both her work and to our world is truly remarkable. She is exceedingly deserving of this honor.”
Robertson called Nussbaum an “unconditionally generous scholar.”
“Martha is the rare academic whose work influences both her scholarly colleagues and the broader public,” Robertson said. “Her work draws on her vast knowledge of ancient thought and modern science, literature and history, jurisprudence and moral philosophy. As a result, she has profoundly transformed our understanding of culture, society and human life.”
Nussbaum’s numerous awards include the Berggruen Prize in Philosophy and Culture (2018), the Don M. Randel Prize for Achievement in the Humanities from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2018), and the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy (2016). Nussbaum, who received her Ph.D. from Harvard in 1975 (Classical Philology), has received honorary degrees from more than 60 colleges and universities in the U.S., Canada, Latin America, Asia, Africa and Europe. She is an academician in the Academy of Finland, a fellow of the British Academy, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is also a member of the American Philosophical Association, where she was President of the Central Division from 1999 to 2000. She has taught at Harvard University, Brown University and Oxford University.
The Holberg Prize, established by the Norwegian Parliament in 2003, is funded by the government of Norway. Past Holberg laureates include Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein, a former member of the University of Chicago Law School faculty; British-Canadian scholar Griselda Pollock; British scholar Paul Gilroy; Bulgarian-French psychoanalyst and philosopher Julia Kristeva; German philosopher and sociologist Jürgen Habermas; Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells; and British philosopher Onora O’Neill.
—This story was first published by the University of Chicago Law School.