Announcing The Berggruen Prize Essay Competition

A $25,000 award for innovative ideas on ‘the planetary.’
(Berggruen Institute)

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

This week, the Berggruen Institute announced the launch of an open essay competition to broaden the scope of our quest for fresh ideas and new paradigms for new times.

The “Berggruen Prize Essay Competition” seeks to stimulate new thinking and innovative concepts while embracing perspectives that cross cultures, fields, disciplines and geographies. By posing fundamental philosophical questions of significance for both contemporary life and for the future, the competition will serve as a complement to the Berggruen Prize for Philosophy & Culture, which recognizes major lifetime achievements in advancing ideas that have shaped the world.

The inspiration for the competition originates from the role essays have played in the past, including the essay contest held by the Académie de Dijon. In 1750, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s essay “Discourse on the Arts and Sciences,” won and notably marked the onset of his prominence as a profoundly influential thinker. Similarly, our competition aspires to create a platform for groundbreaking ideas and intellectual innovation.

The annual competition will accept submissions in two languages: Chinese and English. Each language category will have a prize of $25,000 and intends to recognize one winner, though there may be multiple winners in any given year.

The Berggruen Institute will host an award ceremony and convene the authors of the winning essays in dialogue with established scholars and thinkers at one of our global centers. We plan to publish the winning essays in our award-winning English-language magazine Noema and Chinese-language magazine Cuiling, giving readers insight into perspectives of both East and West.

Submissions should present novel ideas that are compellingly argued — not academic in form or style, but accessible to intellectually serious readers.

The competition’s focus for 2024 is on the concept of “planetarity,” a topic the organizers have framed this way:

Humans live on a finite planet on which we depend to survive. The Earth operates as an integrated intricate and fragile ecosystem, containing myriad layers of interdependency between nature’s systems and living beings — both human and nonhuman. These systems are geochemical, biological, social and computational. For the first time in human history, a rapidly developing, planetary-scale technostructure of sensors and supercomputers is enabling us to perceive, monitor and predict this vast and complex system. In so doing, technology is making the world seem smaller and our collective belonging to it and each other more undeniable. 

In short, the planetary technostructure that humans have created and in which we are embedded is revealing our condition of planetarity — that is, the inescapability of our embeddedness in an Earth-spanning biogeochemical system in which humans cannot thrive unless the ecosystems we inhabit are themselves thriving. 

This emergent condition demands a novel framework to parse philosophical, institutional and political realms. 

To date, most ideas about our shared future on this scale have centered on the global (an extension of the traditional nation-state), the international (politics, economics and infrastructures of the global), and the human (other than and dominant over nature). The nation-state is a type of sociopolitical architecture that has historically tended to foster self-interest and encourage competition. The planetary, which represents conditions and ways of being that exceed the human and our anthropocentric categories, is an opportunity to recast both the players and the play.

The Berggruen Institute proposes further developing the concept of the planetary. Framed as an invitation to a deepening understanding of the planet and our shared fate with all living beings, as well as our emerging ability to shape it, it invites us to reevaluate our relationships to each other, to nonhuman others and to the planetary whole. We are looking for new frameworks and categories to understand life on Earth, new ideas that decentralize the human as the premise for understanding the world and building institutions that effectively manage it.

Here are some examples of topics that could be tackled:

  • Philosophical conceptions of the self in a planetary context;
  • New or adapted models of governance that would be optimized for planetary thriving;
  • The definitional instability of the category of “life” as it relates to the planetary;
  • The limits of the sovereign liberal subject codified by Western philosophy to understand planetary interconnectedness and embeddedness;
  • The concept of planetary citizenship as it relates to issues of inclusion and agency;
  • Novel theories of technology in the age of AI, social media and computation that disclose the condition of planetarity;
  • Models of governance optimized for multispecies flourishing and whole-planet thriving;
  • The extraplanetary: Earth as a particular planet that has evolved life of one of many planets that might or might not host life;
  • Ideas from non-Western philosophy that inform the planetary;
  • Simulations, virtual environments and AIs that transform traditional perceptions of the planetary;
  • Nomos of the cloud: New political geographies in a digital world.

The submission requirements, terms and conditions and details for filing applications can be found here.