Brief lives of the world's top intellectuals, as selected by the readers of Prospect and Foreign Policyby prospect / November 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
Born in 1928 in Philadelphia, Chomsky earned his academic stripes as a young linguistics professor at MIT in the 1950s. His theory of transformational grammar, forged at this time, posits that the capability to form structured language is innate to the human mind. But the general public first came to know Chomsky for his outspoken opposition to the Vietnam war. For more than 40 years, he has been the academy’s loudest and most consistent critic of US policies at home and abroad. Chomsky has written more than 40 books and continues to lecture frequently, as prolific a provocateur as ever.
Umberto Eco might be known as a medievalist, but it is probably more apt to call him a renaissance man. Although the 73-year-old Italian is employed as a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, his body of work defies a single label. He has written about the philosophy of Aquinas, the relevance of aesthetics throughout time and the cultural influence of comic strips. And that’s just the non-fiction. Eco became known around the world for his novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, and the former was turned into a major Hollywood film starring Sean Connery.
Richard Dawkins burst on to the scene with his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, which presented the gene as the central unit of natural selection. Now professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford, Dawkins, 64, is a formidable critic of organised religion—as witnessed by his piece on “Gerin oil” for last month’s Prospect—and is now perhaps the world’s most vocal atheist. In books, essays and media appearances, Dawkins makes the case for science to the general public in a way few can match. He is now reportedly working on a documentary about religion, tentatively titled The Root of All Evil.
Born in 1936 in Prague, Havel came to prominence in the 1970s for writing plays that ridiculed the absurdities of life in a dictatorship. His involvement with the Charter 77 initiative led to imprisonment and the banning of his work. In 1989, with the Berlin wall crumbling,…