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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Elyn Saks Wins MacArthur Genius Award

USC law professor Elyn Saks has just won a $500,000 MacArthur "Genius" Award (see here).  Saks writes about a variety of issues at the intersection of law and mental health, including her own struggles with schizophrenia and psychosis.  Here is a link to her recent book, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.

I'm not aware of other law professors who have won this award, though people might want to list past recipients (assuming there are some) in the comments.

Posted by Adam Kolber on September 22, 2009 at 10:29 AM | Permalink


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These awards are many things, but recognition of "genius" is obviously not one of them. There have been, as Matt notes, awards to philosophers, but they have been extremely idiosyncratic choices, and have never recognized people whom philosophers might actually view as "geniuses." And in some cases they have recognized philosophers of extremely mixed reputations. There is more on the subject here:

Posted by: Brian | Sep 23, 2009 9:36:59 AM

Pam Samuelson of Berkeley Law School received a MacArthur. I am not sure why being a well paid law professor should preclude one from getting the award. It buys off teaching and otherwise frees up time to continue great work. A extremely nice benefit when many universities, even elite ones, are forced to cut back.

Posted by: shubhaghosh | Sep 22, 2009 7:35:08 PM

Well, in response to Mark Tushet's comment, here's a snippet from the foundation annoucement:

"Elyn Saks is a legal scholar and mental health-policy advocate whose work and life story are expanding the options for those suffering from severe mental illness. Trained at Oxford in philosophy, at Yale in jurisprudence, and currently a Ph.D. candidate in psychoanalysis, Saks is recognized by the mental health profession and by legal scholars alike as an important contributor to national debates on mental health policy. She has played a major role in contemporary discussions of mental health law, patients’ rights, and multiple-personality disorder, including such issues as involuntary commitment, competency to be executed, proxy consent, and the right to refuse treatment. Her contributions and commitment to mental health law took on a personal dimension with the publication of her 2007 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness....Though Saks achieved professional acclaim as a legal scholar before most friends and colleagues knew of her own battle with mental illness, the publication of her memoir has provided additional gravity to her contribution to scholarship, practice, and policy...."

I'm not sure whether Mark is thinking of interdisciplinarity as "associated activity," or actism. By outing herself as a person with severe mental illness, an act of bravery and professional risk, Saks had a broader impact on public understanding of mental illness, but her scholarship, which is interdisciplinary legal scholarship, still appears to have been central to her consideration.

Posted by: Mary Dudziak | Sep 22, 2009 3:15:24 PM

I've put up a little response to the selection of Prof. Saks and other profs, over here:

Posted by: Dan Markel | Sep 22, 2009 2:27:23 PM

Close tags,

Sorry for that.

Posted by: Matt | Sep 22, 2009 2:04:34 PM

Bryan Stevenson (NYU) and David Rudovsky (Penn) have won as well. But judging from what I know about these two professors, I would have to agree with Mr. Tushnet's assessment.

Posted by: Robert | Sep 22, 2009 1:47:21 PM

Mark Tushnet asked, (I wonder,not having followed the issue, whether any philosophers have won these fellowships for their work as philosophers.)Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was out, but when he was still more doing philosophy than cultural criticism. Other philosophers who have won include Stanley Cavell (I suppose it might be film theory that impressed people, but it's still philosophical when he does it), Nancy Cartwright (certainly a solid philosopher rewarded for her philosophical work). Thomas Scanlon won the same year as Cartwright, and it must be for his philosophical work. Robert Adams, the Leibniz scholar and philosopher of religion won in '94, but I don't think that any philosophers have won since then. (I might have missed them, though.)

Posted by: Matt | Sep 22, 2009 1:38:53 PM

Although I've not read The Center Cannot Hold...(an account of her personal struggles with mental illness), I have read two utterly remarkable and indispensable (at least for those with an interest in their topics) books by Saks that I cannot recommend highly enough: Jekyll on Trial: Multiple Personality Disorder and Criminal Law (1997), and Refusing Care: Forced Treatment of the Mentally Ill (2002). The latter book might be seen as an exemplary model of books of this sort, as she covers the myriad and messy legal, ethical, scientific and medical issues in a manner that combines a philosophical temperament with a seasoned social scientist's grasp of the relevant literature. As Kenneth Kress says in his blurb from the back jacket cover, she displays "...an admirable breadth of knowledge in both psychiatry and mental health law, strong analytical skills, striking creativity, and an unparalleled sensitivity to the perspective of persons who suffer from mental illnes."

It's gratifying to see her work recognized in this way (and in the end of course we'll all reap the fruits).

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Sep 22, 2009 1:20:05 PM

Professor Patricia Williams (Columbia) has won the award.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Sep 22, 2009 12:55:52 PM

Sylvia Law of NYU won one early on. A snarky comment: My sense is that none of the few law professors won the awards for their work qua legal academics, but for associated activity, although Gordon's right on the borderline, I think. (I take John Pfaff's formulation, "work with" rather than "work on," to be suggestive.) This suggests to me that the Macarthur people may think that legal scholarship as such is not an enterprise in which genius, as they understand it, can be manifested. (I wonder,not having followed the issue, whether any philosophers have won these fellowships for their work as philosophers.)

Posted by: Mark Tushnet | Sep 22, 2009 11:41:26 AM

Jennifer Gordon here at Fordham won a MacArthur several years ago for her work with immigrants and labor law.

Posted by: John Pfaff | Sep 22, 2009 10:55:36 AM

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