Last year’s winner, the author of “The God Delusion” has failed to make it on to Prospect magazine’s 2014 longlist for the world’s most influential thinker
Who is the world’s most significant thinker? Hardly the simplest question to answer. But in one brave – foolhardy? – attempt, Prospect magazine has been inviting the public to vote on lists of influential thinkers on and off for the past 10 years.
It started in 2004, when we drew up a list of the top 100 British “public intellectuals”. The following year, we extended our search to the rest of the globe and readers voted online in their thousands. They crowned the American linguistics professor and veteran political activist Noam Chomsky the world’s leading public intellectual, a result that probably said more about prevailing attitudes towards the conduct of US foreign policy at the time than it did about Chomsky’s work.
When, after a few years’ hiatus, we revived the poll in 2013, we dropped the designation “public intellectual” for “world thinker”. More than 10,000 people voted, from a list drawn up by our panel of writers and editors, for the person they thought was “engaging most originally and profoundly with the central questions of the world today”. The winner was Richard Dawkins, who’d topped the UK-wide poll in 2004 and had come third in 2005, behind Chomsky and the Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco.
Polls such as this are imperfect indicators of the intellectual preoccupations of the age, of course. And Dawkins’s victory last year arguably owed as much to his talent for self-promotion – he has nearly a million followers on Twitter – as anything else. Since publishing his bestselling atheist tract The God Delusion in 2006, he has written a book for children, a memoir, published last year, and a lot of journalism.
In his memoir, Dawkins describes himself as a “reasonably effective persuader”, though it’s hard to imagine that many people have been actually persuaded out of their faith by his anti-religious writings over the past decade. These aren’t arguments so much as reminders to the apostate that they’re not alone (though that’s not to diminish their importance to the lonely atheist in Tucson or Tallahassee).
Dawkins doesn’t even appear on Prospect‘s 2014 longlist of 50 (published in full in the April issue of the magazine). We gave credit for the currency of candidates’ work, their influence over the past 12 months and their continuing significance for this year’s biggest questions. The list contains 17 economists, which suggests that the Great Crash of 2008 continues to cast a long shadow. They include Amartya Sen, still producing original work on poverty and development 16 years after winning a Nobel prize, Ha-Joon Chang, the South Korean author of 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, and Thomas Piketty, author of a new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that is currently compulsory reading in Ed Miliband’s office.
Other disciplines and preoccupations are well represented too: there are 13 philosophers (specialists in ethics, theory of mind and political philosophy), several scientists (including 2013’s Nobel prize winner in physics, Peter Higgs), technology theorists and a handful of writer-activists. Oh, and a representative of one of the world’s great religions: Pope Francis.
Jonathan Derbyshire is managing editor of Prospect. Voting in its world thinkers poll opens on Wednesday: www.prospect-magazine.co.uk/worldthinkers
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