U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Top "Global Thinkers" in the U.S.

Two Top Thinkers

The journal Foreign Policy has named its “Top 100 Global Thinkers” for 2011 [h/t 3 Quarks Daily].  Lists like this tend to be arbitrary and even a bit silly. Nevertheless, compared to, e.g., TIME magazine’s list of 100 Best Non-Fiction Books, about which I blogged back in August, FP’s list is–and might be in the future–of somewhat more interest in U.S. intellectual historians.  FP is a far more intellectually serious publication than TIME. At the very least, FP is closely enough connected to the foreign policy establishment that a list like this probably tells us something about who that policy elite is paying (or perhaps will be paying) attention to.

Rather than review the entire list, I’m going to focus on the U.S. “thinkers” who appear on it (in the interest of inclusivity, I’ve counted some foreign nationals who permanently reside in the U.S.).

Below the jump you’ll find their rankings and links to their FP blurbs….

1 (tie with various leaders of the “Arab Spring”). Gene Sharp
10. Ben Bernanke
11. Barack Obama
12. Dick Cheney and Condoleezza Rice
13. Bill and Melinda Gates
17. Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg
20. Bill and Hillary Clinton
23. Gene Cretz, Elizabeth Dibble, Robert Godec, Carlos Pascual, and Anne Patterson
25. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff
30. Nouriel Roubini
32. Paul Krugman
33. Joseph Stiglitz
34. Elizabeth Warren
35. Amy Chua
36. Terry Engelder, Gary Lash, and George P. Mitchell
38. Mike Mullen
40. Paul Ryan
41. Robert Zoellick
43. Edward Glaeser and Saskia Sassen
44. David Scheffer (along with Luis Moreno-Ocampo)
45. Robert Gates
46. Christina Romer
48. Steven Pinker
49. Andrew Sullivan
50. Ron Paul
51. John McCain 
53. Samantha Power
54. Mohamed El-Erian
58. Thomas Friedman
60. Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo
64. Joseph Nye
65. Nancy Birdsall
66. Barry Eichengreen
67. Robert D. Kaplan
68. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita
69. Kenneth Roth
70. Daniel Kahneman
72. Tyler Cowen
73. Joi Ito and Ethan Zuckerman
78. Lester Brown
82. Clay Shirky
83. Jared Cohen and Alec Ross
84. Paul Farmer
90. Anne-Marie Slaughter
93. Lant Pritchett
96. Mari Kuraishi
97. Arvind Subramanian

Some random thoughts on this (sub)list:

  • In what sense are these folks “thinkers”?  FP doesn’t really say what it means by the word, other than describing its entire article as “a unique portrait of 2011’s global marketplace of ideas and the thinkers who make them.”  
  • While the list is certainly global, it includes an awful lot of Americans (forty-seven of the hundred slots are occupied, at least in part, by US citizens and permanent residents).
  • Apparently the “global marketplace of ideas” does not include the arts (high-, low-, or middle-brow) or the humanities.
  • What it does include are an awful lot of politicians, pundits, and social scientists. Especially economists.  Given the track record of the economics profession, its dominance of this list is a little surprising. Then again, given the state of the world, perhaps it really isn’t.
  • There’s a lot of careful balancing being done here: men and women, Republicans and Democrats, famous and (relatively) obscure, new media and old media.
  • Despite these balancing acts, the list doesn’t seem to include anyone who FP sees as important but villainous.  The political balancing only involves US and European politics. Both sides of the mainstream U.S. political divide are presented, but while prominent dissidents around the world are featured in the longer list, the Arab opposition to the “Arab Spring” is nowhere in sight, nor are Putin or Medvedev, Castro or Chavez, Ahmadinijad or Khamenei.  
  • While the leaders of the Arab Spring top the list, Occupy, in its various manifestations, is utterly absent.
  • At least one person on the list is a reader of this blog.  Does that mean USIH is participating in the global marketplace of ideas?

20 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ron Paul reads the SUSIH blog? Who knew?

    And why are some of the “thinkers” in teams? Do Condaleeza Rice and Dick Cheney share a mind? I look forward to People Magazine’s top 100 entertaining thinkers. But how come none of these magazines have adopted the pop radio idiom by saying “top thinkers of all time”? Is it because they might have to put Marx in the top ten?

    Ben, I know you said that FP is “more intellectually serious” than Time, but having a list like this goes a long way to narrow that distance.

  2. Well, Dan, I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that this list indicated that FP was more intellectually serious than TIME!

    Besides shoehorning extra people into the list (why stop at 100?!?), the grouping indicates people who share a “citation.” For example, Cheney and Rice are #12 “For making the world we live in,” which of course underestimates the contributions of, among many others, the architects of the Cold War, al Qaeda, Milton Friedman, Donald Rumsfeld, and perhaps even George W. Bush…though if you read the full blurb you discover the “ideas” in question are to be found in Dick ‘n’ Condie’s memoirs, whose relatively recent publication seems to have prompted their appearance on the list.

  3. I got to thinking about this (put me on the list of thinkers!), and it seems to me that the whole “global marketplace of ideas” idea, as well as the way “ideas” are talked about in American mainstream media ever since Newt Gingrich took up the slogan “ideas have consequences” from Richard Weaver and declared that the Republican Party was “the party of ideas,” really marks a strange turn in American public culture, and particularly in “the idea of idea.” (that’s my coinage now!) This discourse seems to mark ideas as packaged commodities, often associated with slogans of some kind (e.g. “leading from behind,” “the twitter revolution,” “triangulation,” etc.), and amenable to “buzz” and “hype,” rather than as sustained and developed mental conceptions or categories of thought. So, a thinker, in this conception, is someone who can be associated with some particular slogan or buzzword, either as its creator or its manifestation. If they act on this slogan, all the better, since ideas only signify when they produce concrete manifestations in behavior. A conception of idea and thinker such as this one, of course, lends itself very easily to top 100 lists. In fact, it seems to be a product of a culture that thinks in terms of top 100 lists!

  4. Not to go all metameta, but the idea of the idea of ideas has been floating around for a while. I think Barney Frank, back in the ’90s, said that Newt Gingrich didn’t have a lot of ideas, but that he liked the idea of ideas. I tried googling that, but only came up with later uses of “the idea of ideas” in relation to Gingrich, such as this quip from TNR:

    Gingrich has one of the loosest, least rigorous, most pretentious minds in politics. He loves ideas, he’s just no good at them; and the idea of ideas is not enough to make a man a serious intellectual.

    But I’m with Dan that the idea of ideas, however much it fits Newt like a cheap suit, has broader cultural significance. Renaissance Weekends, Aspen Institutes, TED Talks, Alvin Toffler books…for at least three decades our culture has been into the idea of ideas. Though Newt certainly brought the idea of ideas to the halls of Congress, I’m not even sure he was a particularly early adopter.

  5. Although I believe she overplays the relationship between a middlebrow love for the “idea of ideas,” the great books idea, and Mortimer Adler, Rubin’s characterization of a middlebrow-type of great books-ish pseudo-intellectuality fits Gingrich too a tee. Many “great bookies” most certainly fit the kind of paradoxical template of intellectuality without rigor or subtlety. Despite his PhD (which he disavowed professionally but not for political purposes), Gingrich is a suburban great books discussion facilitator from the 1950s. – TL

  6. Dan Wickberg’s idea of “the idea of idea” as commodity puts him on my list of world’s greater marketers of ideas. I propose a contest: who can ‘friend’ most of the top 100?

    No one could have said it better than Ayn Rand, another world-maker for sure:

    Just as a man’s actions are preceded and determined by some form of idea in his mind, so a society’s existential conditions are preceded and determined by the ascendancy of a certain philosophy among those whose job is to deal with ideas. [For the New Intellectual, 1961, 27]

  7. As you’ll see in my book, that’s high middlebrow or low highbrow. It was the Britannica version of the great books idea that hit the true middle-middlebrow consumer in the head and heart. 🙂 …No offense, but I think when you read Rubin closely she makes a similar argument, but doesn’t back it up with the evidence I will from the 1940s going forward. – TL

  8. Alex Beam shared my sentiment, in his own quirky, idiosyncratic way, in his NYT notable book A Great Idea at the Time from 2008. He used some of my research in his work.

  9. I really didn’t mean to argue with you, Tim…though I do think there’s a long pre-history here (as you well know). I’m more than happy to defer to your much greater knowledge of this stuff!

    But I do have a question:

    Do you think there’s an important difference between a cultural obsession with the idea of old ideas (e.g. Great Books) and the idea of new ideas (e.g. TED)?

  10. Ben,

    As you know, my argument is with Rubin, not you! She wrote a fine history, but like all histories it’s arguable and, in fact, needs updating. It’s hard to believe, but that book is nearly 20 years old. We should have a USIH Roundtable on it next year.

    But your other question is, well, awesome. I’m not sure I’d put up an impregnable wall between old and new ideas, even in relation to pols like Gingrich. It’s the historian in me that refuses to do that. Plus, I think Gingrich is just saavy enough to appreciate the connection as well (even if he were to deny the oldness of any of his “new” political ideas in an upcoming Iowa talk).

    But you weren’t talking just Gingrich, but our culture generally. I agree with you that we, as moderns and postmoderns, obsess over new ideas. It’s a part of the cult of progress (or even the anti-progress of some postmodern thinking—e.g. conservation and preservation in environmentalism as an improvement over just technological progress).

    And we have philosophies—a philosophical tradition really—that (ironically) support cultural and intellectual _disconnections_ with the past. Think Nietzsche’s anti-foundationalism, as well as the anti-foundationalism of the existentialists and pragmatists.

    Great bookies, as a historical and slimly-still-present cultural group, seem to appreciate new and old ideas. I think of those I’ve encountered through the Great Books Foundation when I say this.

    Politicians, being a wily bunch, associate with new or old ideas insofar as ideas from either get them elected.

    Great topic.

    – TL

  11. I think the new “idea of ideas” goes along with all of the “creative class” blather. Ideas, in this sense, are figured as “creative.” Which helps explain why none of the people on FP’s list are villainous thinkers, possessed with “bad” ideas. If ideas are inherently tools for creative change, they can’t be organizing principles, such as religious or metaphysical ideas, that are in some sense controlling or demanding.

  12. Dan, the absence of “villainous thinkers” on the list goes hand in hand with the “idea of idea” you have pointed out: idea as commodity. Thinking of ideas as commodities — discrete, separable, “swappable” on the “marketplace of ideas” (where they are both the medium of exchange and the good acquired?) — necessarily excludes ideologies, systematic modes of thought, philosophies, etc. Following the logic of market exchange, ideas must be able to be “packaged and sold separately” or they are not really ideas. So people can dismiss “villainous thinkers” — and, I suppose, “principled” thinkers, people who think within a tradition — as not really thinkers at all. This atomistic conceptualization of ideas as detachable and detached commodities, as instrumentalized “tools for creative change” that are somehow separate from the sensibility of this era, rather than particular expressions of it, seems to me to carry some pernicious risks.

Comments are closed.