Over his long paradigm-busting career, the philosopher Kojin Karatani has recast Kant and Marx for a new generation. He has offered a trenchant critique of the limits of global capitalism. And he has engaged with other leading thinkers like Jacques Derrida, becoming one of the most important literary critics and philosophers in his native Japan.
Now, Mr. Karatani has been named the recipient of the 2022 Berggruen Prize, a $1 million award given annually to a thinker whose ideas have “provided wisdom and self-understanding in a rapidly changing world,” according to the Berggruen Institute, the Los Angeles-based foundation that funds the prize. Mr. Karatani has been a visiting professor at Columbia University and Yale University, where he was a contemporary of the eminent critics and theorists Paul de Man and Fredric Jameson. He is the first Asian laureate of the prize, which was first awarded in 2016.
Mr. Karatani, 81, was selected from hundreds of nominees in the fields of philosophy, social science, economics, human rights and theoretical physics. Previous Berggruen Prize winners include the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, the former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Paul Farmer, a pioneer in global health care.
Announcing the award, the Berggruen Prize jury lauded Mr. Karatani as a polymath whose scholarly breadth has encompassed philosophy, literary theory, economics, politics and aesthetics, among other disciplines. It observed that his clarion call for reciprocity and fairness had particular resonance at a time when war and economic crises were buffeting the world.
Mr. Karatani said by email that he was delighted and surprised by the award, initially thinking that the news that he had won, which arrived by email, was a “scam.” Befitting a man who has challenged the perils of state authority, he said he planned to donate at least part of the prize money to social movements. The money may also give him more time to pursue his passions outside of philosophy: hiking the hills and woods of his Tokyo neighborhood, and playing baseball on a team with other writers and scholars.
Mr. Karatani’s work became influential across Asia before it was well-known in the West — shaping ways in which Asian scholars took up the challenge of analyzing their national cultures with a critical eye.
Nicolas Berggruen, chairman of the Berggruen Institute, said that Mr. Karatani had promoted a modern form of “reciprocity” he had observed in ancient Ionian culture and that he had sought to apply it in contemporary Japan, calling for the creation of citizens’ assemblies that would exercise democracy from the bottom up. Mr. Karatani had also been an important voice during the reckoning that took place after the devastating Fukushima nuclear disaster in northern Japan in 2011, calling for the collusive power of the state to be tamed.
Among his most important philosophical works is “Transcritique,” in which he deconstructs Kant through the prism of Marx, and Marx through the prism of Kant. In another seminal work, “The Structure of World History,” he turns Marx on his head, focusing his critical gaze on modes of exchange in societies such as trade rather than on the means of production.
Born in 1941 in Amagasaki, an industrial city in central Japan, Mr. Karatani first came to prominence as a literary critic while at Hosei University in Tokyo. At the age of 27, he won the Gunzo Literary Prize, a prestigious Japanese literary prize, for a probing essay on Natsume Soseki, who is regarded among his compatriots as the first major fiction writer of modern Japan. As a literary critic, Mr. Karatani’s tastes have been encyclopedic, offering original readings of writers as eclectic as Shakespeare and Wittgenstein.
In 2000, Mr. Karatani organized the New Associationist Movement, which aimed to promote a counterpoint to the neoliberal notion that capitalism was inevitable. He has written more than 20 books and edited the influential Japanese intellectual journal “Critical Space,” which dominated Japanese intellectual circles for more than a decade before it closed in 2002. In 2006, he retired from teaching in Japan to devote himself full time to writing and lecturing.
On a break from writing, he said he was currently reading the Old Testament. The current global upheaval, he added, had echoes in his life’s work. “I feel that the current world situation is heading toward the final stage of a crisis.”