Prospect and Foreign Policy's list of the world's top 100 public intellectuals is, of course, hugely dominated by the west and above all America. Thirty years ago Europe would still have been in contention and Marxists and Freudians would have been far more visible. Could this list in fact mark the end of the age of the great public intellectual?by David Herman / October 22, 2005 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2005 issue of Prospect Magazine
Lists often say more about those who draw them up than they do about the real world. If this list had been drawn up by the women’s pages of the Guardian, there would have been many more women. The London Review of Books would have looked more favourably on the smouldering embers of the theory revolution and the new left. Le Monde would have included more French thinkers and so on.
This list is, in part, a reflection of the preoccupations of the Anglo-American centre at a particular moment. Some might argue that the compilers have bent over backwards to include thinkers from outside the west. After all, a list based on more “objective” measurement of intellectual achievement—Nobel prizes, academic citations and so on—would have seen an even greater tilt to the west. Would there have been so many Africans and Arabs ten years ago? Is this a consequence of 9/11? Is it bad conscience or plain bad thinking? Or is it an honest attempt to do justice to ideas that are under-represented by a western media focused on the English-speaking world? (Within the west both Japan and eastern Europe/Russia are oddly under-represented.)
Whatever the bias of the compilers, the list has revealing things to say about the state of our intellectual culture today. First, the excessive role of the media in promoting certain names and in setting the cultural agenda. Some will argue that Fukuyama and Baudrillard, Paglia and Greer owe too much to media excitement. They are well known because they are well known.