Photo credits (O'Neill):
Martin Dijkstra

SCAS News - 26 April, 2017

Two Generations of Kant Scholars:
Angela Breitenbach on the Holberg Prize Laureate 2017 Onora O’Neill

Recently it was announced that the Holberg Prize 2017 is conferred upon the British philosopher
Onora O'Neill. Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve is Professor of Philosophy em. at the University of
Cambridge, a crossbench member of the House of Lords, and a former President of the British
Academy. She is awarded the prize for her influential work in the field of moral and political
philosophy, and is particularly well known for her work on Kant, bioethics, human rights, trust
and communication ethics.

One SCAS scholar who has worked closely with O’Neill is Pro Futura Scientia Fellow Angela
Breitenbach, and she serves as the expert contact on behalf of the prize winner at present. Breiten-
bach - who is in residence at the Collegium during the academic year 2016-17 - is a Lecturer in Philo-
sophy at the University of Cambridge, and she recognises that O’Neill has been a deeply inspiring
and encouraging teacher who has had a major influence on the way she herself thinks about and do
philosophy. She sees O’Neill as an important role model, not only for being a powerful woman and
philosopher, but also for her ability to translate her philosophical ideas into arguments and actions
relevant to the current debate on social and political issues. In many fields, such as human rights,
medical ethics, and media and communication ethics, O’Neill’s contributions to the debate have been
very influential also beyond the world of academic philosophy, Breitenbach says.

Breitenbach is very excited about the recognition that O’Neill gets as this year’s recipient of the Holberg
Prize but says that to her, the decision of the Holberg Prize Committee “comes as no surprise” as O’Neill’s
contributions to philosophy, the arts and humanities, and to society more generally are immense.

Below Angela Breitenbach offers some comments on O’Neill’s importance to her own research, and
on her views on O’Neill’s main contributions to philosophy and how her work has influenced the
society in general.
The Holberg Prize is awarded annually to a scholar who have made outstanding contributions to
research in the arts and humanities, social sciences, law or theology. The Prize amounts to 4.5 million
Norwegian kroner (approximately €538,000) and was awarded for the first time in 2004. SCAS Principal
Björn Wittrock serves as a one of five members of the Holberg Prize Committee since 2014.

Angela Breitenbach on Onora O’Neill:
SCAS: What has Onora O’Neill and her research meant to you/your research/your career?
AB: Onora O’Neill has had a major influence on the way I think about and do philosophy. She
has been a uniquely inspiring teacher and was key in getting me interested in Kant’s philosophy.
She encouraged me to think through Kantian ideas and their relevance to significant contempo-
rary issues – as she’d say, “Don’t be afraid to argue with the old man!” For me and, I know,
for others of my generation who worked with her, she has been an important role model, pivotal
as an example of a powerful woman who is both a brilliant philosopher and deeply concerned
with current social and political issues. What is so impressive about her and her work is the way
she combines these two roles: she thinks through complex philosophical issues with a real sense
of the core questions that require an answer today, and her political work is deeply informed by
her philosophical principles.

SCAS: What is/are O’Neill’s (main) contribution/s to philosophy in your opinion, and why?
AB: One of her key contributions to the subject is to have put a compelling constructivist interpre-
tation of Kant’s conception of reason on the philosophical agenda. An important Kantian insight
she has promoted is the thought that in reasoning and communicating we cannot fall back on
indubitable foundations but must first construct such foundations. The obvious difficulty with this
approach is, of course, that it may seem impossible to reason without relying on at least a few un-
justified assumptions that, inevitably, will be unacceptable to some. The answer O’Neill has promoted
is that assumptions are acceptable unless they cannot be accepted by all. Reasoning is universal and
social at its core. This, I think, is one of the most important and central ideas that guides much of her
work in moral and political philosophy, on human rights and global justice, on bioethics and media
ethics, and on the character of public reason.

SCAS: In what way/s has Onora O’Neill influenced the society in general the most according to you
and what importance does this have?

AB: Onora O’Neill is a very accessible philosopher who has brought rigorous philosophical argument
to current social and political debates (e.g. in her BBC Reith Lectures on trust). She is also dedicated
to public service and has held many important offices (e.g. as Chair of the Equality and Human Rights
Commission). In these roles, her contributions to debates about human rights, to medical ethics, and
to media and communication ethics have been very influential beyond the world of academic philosophy.
She has offered forceful considerations in favour of a universal justification of human rights, pointing
out the centrality of counterpart duties for any such justification. And she has pressed the important
point that freedom of speech and communication is not an end in itself but stands under the higher end
of providing reliable and accountable information to the public. We do not have to think hard or look far
to see how important and topical this point is.

Read more about Onora O'Neill and the Holberg Prize 2017 >>

Read more about Angela Breitenbach >>

SCAS News - 15 December, 2016: Björn Wittrock to Be a Member of the Holberg Prize Committee for
Three More Years >>