Back in 2005, the British magazine Prospect, in a joint project with Foreign Policy, asked its readers to vote on the top 100 public intellectuals. It set off a wave of local public intellectual lists. Now Prospect is seeing how our public intellectual tastes have changed with another vote. (At least one change the editors have decided on already – Naomi Klein who came 11th last time isn’t even on the 100 person short list.) Anyone can vote for up to five of their favourite intellectuals, plus offer a suggestion as to who the short list misses, with the poll closing on 15 May.
There were about 20 names on the short list I’d consider voting for, but for quite different reasons so it is hard to rank them. But here are my choices and why:
Steve Levitt: I wasn’t as keen on Freakonomics as other people were, but following on from my criticism that moralists and storytellers are over-represented on these lists an economist with a technical reputation should get support. Krugman is there as well, but he will pick up plenty of partisan votes for his anti-Bush polemics (remember that Chomsky came first last time) so I’ll go for Levitt.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali: I don’t think her ideas are very original, but she is bravely arguing for liberalism against Islam.
Richard Posner: He’s amazingly productive across a wide range of subjects, despite having a day job as a judge. Plus it would be fun to have a person who wrote a book that was critical of public intellectuals do well on a list of them.
Steven Pinker: The science of what goes on in our heads as been very important to intellectual life for the last 15 or so years, and Pinker has been one of its most effective explainers.
Michael Walzer: On the left, but as my fellow classical liberal Jacob Levy noted earlier this year, Walzer is very impressive in the breadth and scale of his intellectual achievement (and I say that without even having read his most famous book, Just and Unjust Wars.) A political theorist whose work is rich in insightful consideration of specific detail rather than abstract theory.
And who would I have added? There are no glaring omissions from my perspective. But if they can put on the list someone like Malcolm Gladwell, an excellent journalist but only a populariser of other people’s work, there is a case for putting Tyler Cowen on as well, who is a different kind of populariser via his excellent blog Marginal Revolution, a columnist for the New York Times, and the author of several good books. I think I suggested Louis Menand last time, but perhaps people who are primarily critics rather than promoters of their own ideas belong on a different list.