MARTHA, MARTHA, MARTHA!

A woman won a $1 million philosophy prize for the second year in a row

Nussbaum is one of the great living philosophers.
Nussbaum is one of the great living philosophers.
Image: Reuters/ Eloy Alonso
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The philosopher Martha Nussbaum, whose work includes analyses of anger and disgust, has been awarded the 2018 Berggruen Prize for philosophy and culture. This marks the second year in a row that the prize, which awards $1 million in recognition of thinkers whose ideas “have the potential to shape a better human future” has been awarded to a woman. The prize has only existed for three years.

Though recognizing women’s accomplishments two years in a row is hardly remarkable (after all, 43 of the last elected US presidents were men, and men won the Nobel Prize in physics for 55 years in a row  until 2018), it’s a striking counter to both sexist stereotypes of what a philosopher looks like, and the demographics of the field overall.

Estimates suggest that women make up just 21.9% of tenure and tenure-track philosophy faculty in the US, and 19% of professors in the UK. Philosophy departments are even more racially homogenous: A 2014 report (pdf) found there were just 156 black tenure and tenure-track philosophy professors in the US at the time. “Assuming that there are still 13,000 full-time philosophy instructors in the United States, the representation of scholars of color is plausibly worse than in any other field in the academy, including not only physics, but also engineering. Inexcusable,” wrote MIT philosophy professor Sally Haslanger in the New York Times (emphasis hers).

Clearly, women and people of color are capable of outstanding philosophy. Nussbaum has led the contemporary philosophical discourse on emotions, and is a prolific writer, with 25 books and over 500 articles published. Onora O’Neill, who was awarded the Berggruen Prize in 2017, is known for her ethical theories on trust, and served as chair of the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission.

All too often, though, female philosophers do not get the recognition they deserve. A recent interactive timeline of the history of philosophy left out both Nussbaum and O’Neill, while failing to include other giants of the field like Hannah Arendt, Simone Weil, and Anne Conway. Those are the ones we know about. Centuries of refusing to give credit to women has effectively written many great female philosophers out of history; philosophy professor Christia Mercer only recently discovered that some of René Descartes’s great ideas were first set out by female philosopher Teresa of Ávila. The blog What is it like to be a woman in philosophy? Includes plenty of contemporary examples of the field ignoring and under-acknowledging women.

The Berggruen Institute has likely done a better job, so far, of celebrating women because the prize jury doesn’t reflect the field’s overall demographics: In a jury of seven, two are white men, two are men of color, and three are women. Promoting non-white-male philosophers to positions of influence helps lift up others in turn. Hopefully, the Berggruen Institute will help continue this cycle.