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Dennett receives 2012 Erasmus Prize for cultural contributions

Published: Friday, February 24, 2012

Updated: Friday, February 24, 2012 01:02


Andrew Schneer / Tufts Daily

The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation is awarding the prestigious 2012 Erasmus Prize to Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett for his contributions to translating the cultural importance of technology.


The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation, a Dutch nonprofit founded to strengthen the position of the humanities, the social sciences and the arts, has awarded the 2012 Erasmus Prize to Professor of Philosophy Daniel Dennett, according to the Foundation's Jan. 25 press release.

The Foundation praised Dennett, who will also receive a 150,000 euro prize, for his contribution to translating the cultural importance of technology and science to a broader audience, according to the press release.

The Board of the Foundation selects a yearly theme to narrow down the type of candidates they consider. This year, the theme was "the cultural meaning of life-sciences," Max Sparreboom, the director of the Foundation, told the Daily.

To choose the winner, the Foundation  — which counts the ideas of renaissance Dutch humanist and proponent of religious tolerance Desiderius Erasmus as its basis — set up a search committee composed of its members as well as external specialists, Sparreboom said.

The committee concluded that the character of Dennett's work aligned with the values of the foundation, which include tolerance and unbiased critical thinking. Sparreboom added that Dennett's teaching style and academic effort outside the classroom demonstrated a high level of scholarship. 

Dennett, who learned he won the award while in Amsterdam, said he was very proud to be chosen because the desire to translate the importance of technology and science to a broader audience is his personal career goal.

"The most important job for philosophers is to negotiate traffic between our everyday vision of the world with science," Dennett said.  

Sparreboom emphasized that the Erasmus Prize is intended as a reward, rather than as a grant.

"The prize is awarded for acknowledged achievements and is not intended as a stimulant to young talent," he said. "Dennett receives the prize not just for one book, but for his entire oeuvre."

Dennett's status as a renowned scholar was also a key factor in his selection, according to Sparreboom.

"Dennett was not nominated by somebody, but his work was known to each committee member," he said. 

He will officially receive the award Nov. 14 in the Royal Palace in Amsterdam, according to Sparreboom. 

Since its creation in 1958, the Foundation has awarded the Erasmus Prize to scholars such as philosopher Martin Buber, anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and former Irish President Mary Robinson. 

Dennett's lauded scholarship  —  for which he has received such awards as the American Humanist Association's Humanist of the Year - has focused on topics such as secular thinking and atheism. As a result, he has become one of the "Four Horsemen of New Atheism," a group that includes fellow scientists Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, as well as the late Christopher Hitchens, Dennett said. 

Dennett has also presented several times at the elite Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference — commonly known as TED talks — where he has discussed topics ranging from consciousness and memes to the science behind humor and cuteness. 

In addition to his position as the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts, he also serves as Co−Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies.

Apart from his lectures at TED and his academic papers, Dennett recently co-wrote a book, "Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind," which examines the evolutionary basis for humor. 

"A lot of people want to keep science at bay," Dennett said. "I want to show them that all of these treasures are more wonderful when you show them how they work. I want to understand the mind and religion. All of these things are natural. There's got to be a natural as opposed to supernatural account for them."

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