Prospect salutes the scientists, philosophers and writers reshaping our times—and asks for your help choosing our 2019 winners
Never doubt that thoughtful minds can change the world; they are the only things that ever do. Margaret Mead is thought to have said something like that, which chimes with Keynes, who wrote that the self-styled practical men running the world were unwittingly guided by forgotten academic scribblers. For Victor Hugo, meanwhile, the one thing stronger than all the armies in the world was “an idea whose time had come.”
These reflections on the power of thought are worth unearthing because these are anti-intellectual times—and not only because of the proud ignoramus in the White House. No: the roots of current disdain for educated, “liberal elites” go much deeper, tracing back to well before the financial crisis and populist backlash.
The seeds were planted in the 1970s by the New Right’s Irving Kristol, who saw reactionary potential in rallying mass opposition to the “new class” of university graduates, who had the sort of fancy ideas that would go down badly with those Nigel Farage defines as “real people.” Over the decades since, Rupert Murdoch and the popular press, preferred reflex reactions to rationality, and called them “common sense.” They have derided intellectuals, who rarely rank among the economic elite, as a class apart in ivory towers. Today we have reached the Trumpian point where, for perhaps the first time in free societies since the French Revolution, reason has to be defended as a value.
This context makes it timely to revive the Prospect tradition of identifying the world’s leading thinkers. The urge to rank and measure might itself seem anti-intellectual—more Top Trumps than top scholarship. But the aim is not to chase a chimera still less to deliver the results of some supposedly objective IQ test. Rather it is simply to honour the minds engaging most fruitfully with the questions of the moment.
We go into it aware that any such list will say as much about the people doing the listing as the names that make the grade; indeed, you—the readers—will reveal something about yourselves if and when you vote for the very top thinkers in our online poll.
But with all these caveats the exercise is not, we hope, entirely arbitrary. Because of the books we review and the writing we run month in and month out, our editorial team is well-placed to spot the ideas that are making waves. Each of us covers distinctive fields, and in drawing up our list, we asked the many world-leading experts who write for us—economists, scientists, philosophers and so on—to suggest the names of their most outstanding peers.
As in every previous incarnation of this Prospect list since the first in 2004, we’ve given weight to originality, impact and communication. To keep things current, we’ve focused on work done since the last list in 2015. There is some continuity, but compared with the original lists of British public intellectuals (2004) and then world thinkers (2005) there are also striking differences. Even back then, it was noted in these pages that there were more experts and fewer of the “grand narrative” intellectuals in the tradition of Marx, Freud or the New Left than you might have expected in the 1960s or 70s. Today, things are again more specialised than they would have been in or before the mid-20th century, and masters of some particular fields—climate, law—loom larger than 15 years ago.
There are, however, also heartening signs of a new eclecticism in the work of the thinkers. Part of that is about technology, which is reshaping intellectual life as surely as daily life. Tech is central to what six of our 50 names do, from novelists to lawyers. Part of the work of many more involves computers crunching data.
Some other things that might once have been predicted to fall away haven’t—like religion. Its scholars, reformers and devotees still make the grade. Another big preoccupation of Prospect since its inception has been identity, which now looms larger than ever. Not the finger-jabbing loudmouths of the Twittersphere, but the lawyers, historians and campaigners reckoning with how our sometimes-competing selves can be reconciled.
There is probably more of an emphasis on disruptive voices—minds that want to change the world, rather than merely explain why the world is as it is. In fields like post-crash economics the justification for that switch is plain; more generally, it fits with a mercurial mood. Another change is the diversity of our list, particularly the equal place of women. In 2005, there were just 10 female names to 90 male. Today, the split is essentially 50-50. The new prominence may be the long-delayed fruit of the ideas of successive waves of feminism. The very composition of the list, then, might be regarded as demonstrating the difference that bold thought can eventually make.
—Tom Clark, editor