AppreciationRudolf G. Wagner posthumously awarded the Karl Jaspers Prize

15 November 2019

University, Academy and City of Heidelberg honour Wagner’s internationally renowned body of work

The sinologist Prof. Dr Rudolf G. Wagner of Heidelberg University has been posthumously awarded the Karl Jaspers Prize for his “groundbreaking, internationally renowned studies”; Prof. Wagner passed away just days after the award was announced. During the award ceremony on 14 November 2019, his wife, Prof. Dr Catherine Vance Yeh, accepted the prize in her husband’s name from University Rector Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel. The laudatory speech was given by Prof. Dr Jens Halfwassen of the Department of Philosophy, while Prof. Dr Barbara Mittler of the Institute of Chinese Studies presented an outline of the laureate’s biography entitled “A life with Chinese studies”. Endowed with 25,000 euros, the Karl Jaspers Prize is awarded by Heidelberg University together with the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the City of Heidelberg.

Prof. Dr Catherine Vance Yeh with Rector Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel, Prof. Dr Eckart Würzner, the mayor of the City of Heidelberg, and Prof. Dr Thomas W. Holstein, president of the Heidelberg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.

In stating the reasons for their decision, the jury members explained that Rudolf G. Wagner had paved the way for a “transcultural turning point in the humanities that has immense potential, especially in times when democracy is under threat, and that inspires discussions far beyond the discipline of Chinese studies and the University”. A researcher widely known for his extraordinary depth of knowledge far beyond China, Rudolf G. Wagner chose a field of study that covers a wide chronological, thematic and geographical range. His interests spanned the entire spectrum from classical Chinese philosophy to the contemporary politics of China. In this, he shared Karl Jaspers’ passion for world history and world philosophy. The jury of the Karl Jaspers Prize acknowledged that “Jaspers’ descriptions of ‘axial ages’ in world history make him a pioneer of transcultural interpretations of the world; these interpretations are echoed by the work of Rudolf G. Wagner, which, though focused primarily on cultural history, also had a solid philological foundation”.

Rudolf G. Wagner (1941–2019) earned degrees in Chinese studies, Japanese studies, political science and philosophy in Bonn, Heidelberg and Paris (France), as well as Munich, where he obtained his doctorate in 1969. He went on to work at Harvard University and at the University of California in Berkeley (USA). In 1972 he became an assistant professor at Freie Universität Berlin, where he completed his habilitation in 1981. Following a number of research stays in the United States, he accepted a professorship in Chinese studies at Heidelberg University in 1987. He initiated the Cluster of Excellence “Asia and Europa in a Global Context”, which he headed for five years. Prof. Wagner received several awards for his scientific work, among them the 1993 Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation. He was an associate professor of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences and regularly conducted research in China.

The Karl Jaspers Prize commemorates a “scholar whose life’s work in psychopathology, philosophy and world philosophy has been recognised around the world”. Moreover, the donors want to “gratefully honour Jaspers’ fight against the demons of an era”. As one of the fathers of existentialism, Karl Jaspers (1883–1969) is among the most important German-speaking philosophers of the 20th century. Following his residency at the Department of General Psychiatry of Heidelberg University Hospital, he completed his habilitation in psychology and taught this subject at Heidelberg University from the early 1920s until his dismissal by the Nazi regime. After the end of the war, Jaspers served on the so-called “Dreizehnerausschuss” (committee of the thirteen) that organised the reconstruction of the University. He resumed his academic work at Ruperto Carola and was made an Honorary Senator in 1946. In this year, which marks the 50th anniversary of his death, the life and work of Karl Jaspers are commemorated by numerous events.