Measuring intellectual influence is not an exact scienceby Jonathan Derbyshire / February 16, 2015 / Leave a comment
Voting has opened for Prospect‘s 2015 World Thinkers poll (you can cast your votes here). With the help of several of our regular contributors and other friends of the magazine, we’ve assembled a list of 50 thinkers who we believe are “engaging in original and profound ways with the central questions of the world today”. You’ll notice that we’ve given credit for “their influence over the past 12 months”—which means that people didn’t qualify by eminence alone—and for their continuing significance for “this year’s biggest questions” (in economics, science, philosophy, cultural and social criticism and in politics).
The poll, which began in 2013 (when it was won by Richard Dawkins, who fell foul of our strictures on currency the following year and disappeared from the list), is the descendant of a list of 100 “global public intellectuals” that Prospect first ran in 2005, in collaboration with the American journal Foreign Policy (the exercise was repeated in 2008). There are some fascinating and, I think, instructive differences between the way the poll was run then and now.
The first and most obvious difference is one of nomenclature: the 2005 and 2008 lists were lists of “global public intellectuals”; today, we’re soliciting votes for “world thinkers”. Those who drew up the 2005 list were strikingly frank about the difficulty of settling the hoary question of what a “public intellectual” is, exactly. “The irony of this list,” they wrote, “is that it does not bear thinking about too closely.” That, you might say, was part of the problem, since the criteria they did manage to spell out were ambiguous to say the least: “What is a public intellectual?Someone who has shown distinction in their own field along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside it.”
As I wrote in 2006, in a review of Stefan Collini’s excellent book about intellectuals in Britain, Absent Minds, in which I commented on the Prospect/Foreign Policy list, there appeared to be two distinct models of the public intellectual in play here. “In one,” I suggested,”call it the ‘popularising’ model, the intellectual makes his [or her] work accessible to an audience of non-specialists.” Steven Pinker and EO Wilson, who were both on the 2005 list, are “public intellectuals” in this sense. In the other model, a “political” one, “the intellectual takes advantage of his [or her]…