December 15, 1999
UW law professor wins international prize for essay on the nature of time
University of Washington law professor Louis Wolcher has received a $15,800 prize in a unique global essay competition involving 2,481 writers from 123 countries.
Wolcher’s philosophical treatise on Eastern and Western concepts of time, entitled “Time’s Language,” took second place overall in the first-ever International Essay Prize Contest.
The contest was conducted by Weimar 1999, designated as this year’s “Cultural Capital of Europe,” along with the worldwide literary magazine Lettre International and Germany’s Goethe Institute.
A panel of 900 of the world’s most prestigious historians, scientists, artists and other luminaries had posed as the topic: “Liberating the Past from the Future? Liberating the Future from the Past?”
The idea, as the New York Times’ Alan Riding put it, was to revive on the millennium’s eve an Enlightenment tradition of putting the best minds to work to wrestle with the issues of the day.
But the globe-spanning Weimar 1999 competition, which invited anyone to submit an essay in any of seven languages, reached far beyond anything Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his brethren could have imagined.
Riding reported in yesterday’s New York Times the results of the contest, which also has attracted great press interest in Europe.
The overall winner, 20-year-old Ivesta Gerasimchuk, took $26,300 back to her native Moscow for her Russian-language essay, “A Dictionary of Winds.”
Wolcher, with his second-place finish, was the highest-ranking American. The international jury of scholars called Wolcher’s 30-page essay “brilliant and precise.”
While meditations on time and language might not conform to the stereotype of what law professors usually write, the 52-year-old Wolcher has long delved into what he calls “the fundamental questions” through the study of Wittgenstein, Kant and many other thinkers.
And Wolcher said such concerns play a central part in his UW teachings on the philosophy of law, contracts and torts. The philosophers’ wisdom helps clarify for law students, he said, that the law “isn’t something immutable, handed down from above.”
“There’s a kind of education about law in which the texts are worshipped,” Wolcher said, “and we pretend that our own human creation is greater than ourselves.”
Though immersed in philosophical inquiry, Wocher has not always made academia his headquarters. After earning Stanford bachelor’s and Harvard law degrees, he worked for eight years in a major San Francisco law firm, rising to partner.
Wolcher joined the UW in 1986. The Student Bar Association named him “Professor of the Year” in 1993.
He and his wife live on Mercer Island. They have a son and a daughter.