Issues in Philosophy #IdeasMatter: Interview with Nicolas Berggruen

#IdeasMatter: Interview with Nicolas Berggruen

Charles Taylor has been awarded the first $1 million Berggruen Philosophy Prize. According to the Berggruen Institute’s website, “The Berggruen Prize is awarded annually to a thinker whose ideas are of broad significance for shaping human self-understanding and the advancement of humanity. It seeks to recognize and encourage philosophy in the ancient sense of the love of wisdom and in the 18th Century sense of intellectual inquiry into all the basic questions of human knowledge. It rewards thinkers whose ideas are intellectually profound but also able to inform practical and public life across the range of world civilizations.” I spoke with Nicolas Berggruen about the award, the future of philosophy, and the future of the world.

Mr. Berggruen, thank you for taking the time to speak with the APA Blog. Congratulations on awarding the 2016 Berggruen Philosophy Prize to Charles Taylor. I noticed that Justin Trudeau tweeted his congratulations too.

Thank you. We are grateful to Prime Minister Trudeau and grateful to have someone like Charles Taylor writing and contributing to the world of ideas. Taylor is an outstanding winner for our inaugural Prize, which is designed to reward thinkers whose ideas have made a significant impact on our thinking.

What do you hope the Berggruen Philosophy Prize winners will do with $1 million?  

The point of the Prize is to show our appreciation and gratitude for the work philosophers do. We are confident that our winners will make the best use of the Prize to help advance our understanding of humanity.

Charles Taylor has also won the John W. Kluge Prize, the Templeton Prize, and the Kyoto Prize.  How is the Berggruen Philosophy Prize different from these awards?

While all these awards recognize those that have contributed to the study of humanities and social sciences—areas not covered by the Nobel Prize—our goal is to bring people’s attention to the fact that philosophy and the world of ideas are important and have more influence on us than any other human thoughtful endeavor. That’s the origin of the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy. We also want our Prize to be cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary, so, the winner doesn’t always have to be someone from the West. The winner doesn’t even have to be a philosopher. In fact, a number of this year’s nominees were not strictly philosophers nor were they from the West. In the future, it’s very possible that we will see less obvious award recipients.

Should there be a Nobel Prize for philosophy? 

Yes, because philosophers and thinkers in general help to shine a light on what makes us human, who we are, who we can be, what our potential is, and how we progress.

If you had been giving this award out throughout history, who are some surprising philosophers you might have awarded it to?

There are so many. But, let’s take Socrates as an example. Socrates was not popular or very well known in his time, yet his ideas were important enough to wield great influence on humanity for millennia. It is my hope that the jury will someday award the prize to someone like him—someone with important, but little known ideas, so that the prize can help bring the deserved recognition.

The challenge is that philosophical ideas are more complicated to judge compared to other areas of study, such as science, where it’s easier–in some ways–to make a connection by looking at specific contributions to society’s advancement. In the world of ideas, I don’t think there’s one truth. We are not moving from one truth to a new truth. It’s much more dynamic and flexible because it’s really a vision of the world, humanity, humans, and how we relate to each other.

What was the process of choosing the recipient of this award?

I am responsible for the Institute but I’m not involved in the selection. A nine-member jury went through a long list of nominees from all over the world, narrowed it down to a group of people who they thought were most interesting, discussed it, and then made the final selection.

Photo of Berggruen Prize jury
The Berggruen Philosophy Prize Jury. Seated left to right: Nicolas Berggruen, Antonio Damasio, Amy Gutmann, Michael Spence. Standing left to right: Leszek Borysiewicz, Alison Simmons, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Amartya Sen, Wang Hui, Craig Calhoun.

I understand that one of the Institute’s goals is to close the gap in an increasingly fractured world. Some might say that we’ve just hit the accelerator on fracturing the world, in light of events such as Brexit and the U.S. presidential election. How can philosophy save humanity?

As much as Charles Taylor is respected, his views are becoming less popular in the current political environment, which is much more about creating divisions and fracturing the world. Charles Taylor’s teachings encourage cooperation and bringing different opinions together. We need to build bridges, not walls. I grew up in Paris, but my parents were German. After the war, Germany was divided in two and I think both parts of Germany suffered. When the wall came down, the country did better. Bringing people and ideas together seems to have long-term benefits and it works better.

And more than ever, we need longer-term and more profound thinking—rather than reactionary and populist thinking.  It’s a scary time, but I feel strongly that humanity doesn’t advance in a straight line.  This could be a period where there are set backs.  Ultimately, I hope what we do at the Institute will be helpful in finding solutions to these obstacles and will help advance humanity.  It’s my personal opinion that it’s quite timely that Charles Taylor, who thinks about humans and cultures in a cooperative way, was awarded the Prize. It’s an important message at a difficult time.

What drew you to philosophy?

I always found the world of ideas fascinating. I grew up in Paris and, as a teenager, read French and German philosophy. It wasn’t taught at school. I read it on my own from when I was maybe 12 or 13. I found the intellectual speculation, around concepts such as who we are and where are we going, to be fascinating. I was fascinated by existentialism and I read Sartre, Camus, and also Nietzsche. They had enormous influence on me then, and they stay with me today. I don’t necessarily agree with all of their thinking, but they certainly shaped me.

Why is there so much interest in philosophy at the moment?  

I actually think that there’s not enough interest in philosophy at the moment. But I hope you are right because we are at a very unusual time, where significant changes are happening and the pace of change is only getting faster.

For example, over the last 50 years, world economic order went through a tectonic transformation, accompanied by, and in part caused by, groundbreaking advances in science and technology and the rise of globalization.

Countries and cultures like China and India have become major contributors to the world economy. Technology has fundamentally changed—and continues to change—the way we work and occupy ourselves. For the first time, humans have the ability to change themselves through gene editing and artificial intelligence. These changes give us an opportunity to reflect on who we are as humans, where we are going, how societies function, as well as the dominance of cultures. We are confronted by not just living in one culture, but respecting different cultures. I think philosophy, in a broad sense, is necessary for thinking and questioning and inquiring into these fundamental changes.

Can you tell me about the ideas contest that you will be launching in 2017?

It’s still early days. Our thinking behind the Philosophy Prize is to reward a thinker who has already had a significant influence on the way we think and function. The ideas contest–although we may rename it–is more about encouraging fresh and new ideas that will change who we are in the next 50 years.

We expect there will be a financial reward, but because this is about developing new ideas, it could be something more dynamic, like a chance to develop an idea through a scholarship or fellowship. That way it becomes more about enabling and helping the source of the idea.

You also have a few other projects going on at Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center, such as the fellowship program and cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary work.  What sort of things might we expect to see come out of these initiatives? 

New ideas, new thinking, and new answers in fundamental areas. We are in a period of time when the world is going through great transformations. Capitalism and labor as we know them will change. We may be going into a post-capitalist world that focuses more on knowledge, access, and information, rather than the traditional labor model that is tied to time. We may go into a world beyond traditional party politics. All of this means that we need to rethink almost every aspect of how we function and ultimately, in a philosophical and ethical sense, who we are as humans.

The Institute has the luxury of time and fewer boundaries than some universities and other institutions. We have the ability to help thinkers and researchers come up with ideas about how to address these big transformations in multi-cultural and multi-dimensional ways. This is why we are giving fellows opportunities to research at leading universities around the world and hope that we can help answer some of the questions that come from great transformations.

Have you considered supporting philosophy in schools?  

I think it would be great if it were in schools because it makes you think of more than yourself and the immediate and that’s very healthy.

What advice do you have for early career philosophers who would aspire to win the Berggruen prize? 

Think hard. Think deep. And come up with meaningful and creative ideas.

How can philosophers find out more about, and potentially get involved with, Berggruen initiatives?

We are building our own center in Los Angeles to welcome thinkers, but that will take a few years. There’s our fellowship program and, next year, we will launch the ideas contest and announce another winner for the Berggruen Philosophy Prize.

The Berggruen award ceremony will be held in New York City on December 1, 2016.  More about the Berggruen Philosophy Prize can be found here and details about the Berggruen Institute’s Philosophy and Culture Center’s projects and fellowships are available here.

Images courtesy of the Berggruen Institute.

Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.

Skye Cleary
Skye Cleary PhD MBA is a philosopher and author of 'Existentialism and Romantic Love' (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). She lectures at Columbia University, Barnard College, and City College of New York, and tweets at @skye_cleary.


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