SocraticGadfly: Stirring the intellectual pot: Genius, pick-five version

September 24, 2005

Stirring the intellectual pot: Genius, pick-five version

The American magazine Foreign Policy and Britain’s counterpart Prospect have started an online voting campaign for the world’s top intellectual.

The webpage has a list of what the two magazines judged as the world’s top 100 intellectuals. You are allowed to vote for up to five, and in a sidebar, nominate one intellectual that you think should not have been overlooked.

They had Noam Chomsky, but no Alexander Cockburn? I’m shocked, shocked! Cockburn will probably use a future issue of Counterpoint to explain it as part of some Jewish conspiracy to repress Palestinians and their supporters like him.

On the other hand, it does have Christopher SnHitchens, sans bottle.

Anyway, that snark aside, here’s my Fab Five, followed by Overlooked One:

1. Daniel Dennett, American philosopher. Somebody from the field of cognitive science has to be here. Dennett is a far better representative than also-listed Steven Pinker, as well as having a broader range of intellectual interests, including linguistic and analytic philosophy touching on metaphysics, free will, epistemology and other issues, the “nature” side of a still-smoldering nature-vs.-nurture debate, and more. Plus, as Darwin’s biggest bulldog this side of the pond, that lets me leave out Richard Dawkins and keep another space open.

2. Jared Diamond, listed as geohistorian. Paleohistorian, anthropologist, might also fit. So, too, as his warnings to today’s world in “Collapse” indicate, would the word “pundit” or similar. Because his historical and geographic knowledge is so strong, this allowed me to not bother looking at pundits who, although academics, are better known for their punditry (especially on the progressive side), such as Paul Krugman.

3. Paul Kennedy, British historian and most notably, author of “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers.” His book stops with the fall of Great Britain, but he points out that the U.S. moving from a manufacturing, engineering and (non-entertainment) creativity and invention society to one based on making money through financial speculation and manipulation could easily go the way of the British and Dutch before them. This pick, too, allowed me to avoid more narrow pundit-type writers, as well as get a more conventional historian than Diamond on the list.

4. Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, British astrophysicist. If some version of string theory, or beyond it, gains traction in today’s cosmological world, it will be in fair part because of Rees’ work. I had considered Freeman Dyson, but, although his mind is still sharp today, went with someone younger and more active in the field.

5. Peter Singer, Australian bioethicist (labeled as philosopher). Although much of his philosophy impacts animal rights, he certainly can’t be pegged just as that. Among philosophers, especially since Walter Kaufmann is dead and therefore not eligible, he has to be considered the foremost ethicist of our age. Some of his cognitive work, from the non-human animal perspective, butts up against some of Dennett’s.

And the Overlooked One? Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran. I picked him for several reasons. First and foremost, as a neuroscientist, he has served as a welcome check to some of Dennett’s thinly-substantiated claims in cognitive science. Second, he would appear to be the successor to the storytelling mantle of Oliver Sacks, and Dennett, in the “strange but true” of the human mind in action in abnormal cases.

That said, there are others I considered giving one of my votes.

They would include Dawkins, Dyson, Umberto Eco. Howard Gardner, Clifford Geertz, James Lovelock, Richard Rorty, Salman Rushdie, and Steven Weinburg, for whom I probably would have voted instead of Rees if I had noticed his name! (Well, I guess I can vote again, right?) Naomi Klein would have made it with another decade of age and its attendant gravitas, probably. Speaking of that, while the list has a decent about of non-Caucasians from non-Western countries, it doesn’t have a lot of women, it seems.

People who should not have been on there, in my opinion:
Francis Fukayama. Last I checked, history was moving on in its merry old way, with no neo-capitalism version triumphalist version of a Hegelian final synthesis.

Hans Küng. There are religious philosophers, and even more so, critical scholars like some of the better-grounded people associated with the Jesus Seminar, who qualify ahead of Küng in my book.

Bjørn Lomborg. “environmental skeptic.” Don’t you have to have more of your facts correct to qualify as an intellectual?

Others besides Ramachandran who could have been the Overlooked One? Author Gerald Posner, who deserves it for the definitive Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone book, “Case Closed.” The religious scholars to replace Küng. More scientists outside of physics. Perhaps fewer economists?

A partial list of of other blogs weighing in is here.

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