Former Principal with ‘extraordinary ability’ to be awarded one of the largest international prizes for arts and humanities

Onora O'Neill

A former Principal of Newnham College has been named as the recipient of the The Holberg Prize – worth around £430,000 – for ‘shedding light on pressing and intellectual and ethical questions of our time’.

The Norwegian prize is one of the largest international prizes awarded to an outstanding scholar in the arts and humanities, the social sciences, law or theology.

Philosophy Professor Onora O’Neill, former Principal and Honorary Fellow of Newnham College and a crossbench member of the House of Lords, has been named as the 2017 Laureate for the contribution she has made during her career which has spanned nearly half a century.

O’Neill has combined writing on political philosophy and ethics with a range of public activities, and her work has influenced generations of scholars, policy makers and practitioners alike. She has written extensively on political philosophy and ethics, bioethics and international justice, and is highly regarded as a specialist on human rights. She has applied a rigorous philosophical thinking when discussing major contemporary issues and her scholarship has had an immeasurable impact on the wider public sphere.

Her contribution to our understanding of Immanuel Kant is regarded as transformative and has led to a renewed interest in his work. In particular, O’Neill has explored the requirements of public reason and how they relate to international justice and to the roles of trust and accountability in public life.

Dr Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Chair of the Holberg Academic Committee, said: “O’Neill has an extraordinary ability to blend questions of morality, with an account of psychological plausibility and institutional legitimacy that makes her a powerful guide to the most profound ethical questions of our time. Not only has she transformed our understanding of Kant, she has also demonstrated how to do philosophy in a way that measures up to the complex moral demands of the world. Her philosophical work is rigorous, yet gracious in its articulation and profoundly moved by a deep and abiding concern for humanity.”

The Holberg Prize was established by the Norwegian Parliament 1 July 2003, and was awarded for the first time in 2004, it is named after the Danish-Norwegian writer Ludvig Holberg, who excelled in all of the sciences covered by the award.

O’Neill was Principal of Newnham College, University of Cambridge, from 1992 until 2006. She studied philosophy, psychology and physiology at the University of Oxford before she received her PhD from Harvard University in 1969. In 1970 she became Assistant Professor at Barnard College, the women’s college at Columbia University. In 1977 she returned to Britain and took up a post at the University of Essex, where she became full Professor of Philosophy in 1987.

O’Neill was created a life peer as Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve in 1999 and has served as a crossbench member of the House of Lords since 2000. She has won a number of awards, and was appointed a Commander of the British Empire in 1995 and a Member of the Order of the Companions of Honour in 2014. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious International Kant Prize.

She will receive the financial award of NOK 4,500,000 (approximately £430,000) during a formal ceremony at the University of Bergen in Norway on June 8.

Caption: Former Principal Onora O’Neill with current Newnham Principal Professor Dame Carol Black