The world’s top 50 thinkers 2020
Prospect salutes the scientists, philosophers and writers reshaping our times—and asks for your help choosing our 2020 winners
There is nothing like an emergency to make you realise the value of practical ideas. When the chips are down, and death rates are up, the world wants answers—especially from its sharpest thinkers.
As Prospect revisits the task of identifying the leading minds of the moment, in the intellectual hit parade which we have produced in varying formats since 2004, that test of immediate and real-world relevance looms large. As we compiled our longlist—drawing on the advice of distinguished experts in various fields who have written for us over the years—and then whittled it down towards 50, we were struck by how different the list looked from 2019’s. It was at the point where we had around 35 confirmed names that we noticed not one of them was a holdover.
A measure of churn was expected—we put a premium on new books and recent interventions, after all—but not a wholesale changing of the guard. Having previously been sceptical of those claims that Covid-19 would “change everything”—why would it?—I suddenly felt there was something in them. We decided to make a virtue of the disruption, and produce an entirely new list for a shaken world that is beginning to reset.
The immediate relevance of some of our thinkers to the Covid-19 era speaks for itself: vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert and science writer Ed Yong being prime examples. Just as interesting, however, are those who work in fields a mile away from medicine, but who have nonetheless acquired a new salience in the dark and peculiar circumstances of 2020.
In economics, after the sudden stop followed by all the stimulus and bailouts, we are plainly going to need to talk about debt. Having something to say on that helps two of our big brains—Stephanie Kelton and Thomas Piketty—earn a place on the list. In public policy, with a staggering proportion of the workforce furloughed, there is a sense that the hour of the godfather of the Universal Basic Income movement, Philippe Van Parijs, might at last have come. Likewise, the polymathic thoughts of Ari Ezra Waldman on the problems of privacy in a digital age rocket up the agenda when governments everywhere are grappling with intrusive “track-and-trace” schemes. And in politics, while New Zealand’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern had already shown creativity in developing a governing ethos of “kindness,” it always sounded rather airy—until she showed how it could be put to practical effect in the coronavirus context, and achieved some of the world’s best results.
So all-encompassing has been the disruption that many varied and otherwise unrelated minds have found new ways to shine: Sally Rooney moved from the page to the TV screen, and kept us culturally (and tearfully) engaged in lockdown; Eric Yuan Zoomed in from relative obscurity as his video platform became the virtual meeting room, as well as the substitute pub.
Other—more enduring—implications will eventually flow from the chance the lockdown gave us to reset. In the arts, different sorts of names come to the fore: names like Jenny Odell, for example, who uses discarded everyday objects to invite mindful meditation on the transience of our day-to-day lives and how they this fit (or don’t fit) with nature.
“This year we have produced an entirely new list for a shaken world that is beginning to reset”
Spending time away from the usual bustle, and perhaps in the garden, has raised environmental consciousness. So, too, has the jolt to reflect afresh on how all the life, health and happiness that civilisation affords hangs by a thread. We duly hail all manner of minds that engage with ecology, whether that be through the critical thinking of Timothy Morton, the rigorous popularisation of David Attenborough or Carlota Perez’s thoughts on how the economy can be steered in a greener direction as it splutters back into life.
A spell of enforced solitude will also turn the mind to the question of who “we” really are—and prompt it to interrogate all the old stories about where we come from. Although it was catalysed by police brutality in the US, it may be no coincidence that the history wars over statue-toppling took hold this year. Thaddeus Metz, Angela Saini, Cornel West, Olivette Otele and William Dalrymple are all top thinkers with things to say about the many warped consequences that can result from one culture subjugating another; Ross Douthat, meanwhile, is a thoughtful conservative voice who cautions us against allowing frenzied arguments about identity to silence discussion.
There are some names here whose special interest it would be contrived to put down to Covid-19. But even here—coming back to my starting point—amid a mood of anxious uncertainty, they have to earn their place by way of practical relevance, even if that is relevance to the big contemporary challenges that existed before the virus. Challenges like, say, the rise of China (Julia Lovell), the decline of the west (Anne Applebaum), the politics of personality (Hilary Mantel) or the twin threats to the rule of law and sound constitutional governance (Bruce Ackerman, Dahlia Lithwick, Philippe Sands).
The diversity of the list is rich. It contains a preponderance of women for the first time ever, and pleasingly mixes brilliant young minds (Lisa Piccirillo) with a couple of nonagenarians.
While it also includes a good mix of liberal, socialist and conservative voices, I can anticipate one objection in the absence of any thinker who can truly be said to have emerged from within the global populist insurgency associated with Donald Trump. We have thought long and hard about this. We have run and will continue to run pieces by nostalgic writers who reject globalisation. We make space for serious minds who rage about all the communities it has left behind (see Paul Collier). But as the Trumpian project becomes ever-more nakedly anti-intellectual and anti-reason, we struggle to regard even intelligent individuals who choose to defend it as serious thinkers. Some readers may take a different view, and see more substance in “nativism.” But for me, Steve Bannon and his like are cynics; the value of ideas for them is purely instrumental, for use in power play.
With that one caveat, the mix is something to marvel at. The range of intellectual endeavours is a reminder of the breadth of human genius. I hope you’ll enjoy finding out more about the thinkers who strike us as most pertinent to our age as much as we on the inside of Prospect did. Salute them and take the chance to cast a vote (details at the end of the package) to help crown a top thinker for 2020. We’ll publish the full results in our next issue. Oh, and please don’t miss the chance to tell us who we missed—there’s a space on the voting form. Because with the liveliest minds and the biggest questions, there is never a final answer. Long may human beings continue to discuss, disagree—and think!
Tom Clark is editor of Prospect
Have your say
Our panel of experts and editors has chosen the shortlist of 50—now it’s over to you.
Vote for your favourite, and tell us who we missed.
Those votes, combined with the thoughts of our editorial panel, will determine the identity of Prospect’s top 10 of 2020. The results will be announced in the next issue.
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