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Prospect's blunder

Prospect's list of the world's top 100 public intellectuals is an intellectual blunder of the first order. By Arno Widmann

The list of the world's 100 best and most important public intellectuals has been published by Prospect (here) and Foreign Policy (here) magazines. No, that's wrong. It's not about the best or the most important. It's about "the world's top 100 public intellectuals." A stupid list. Those who are reading this closely can stop now. Because they know this list is going to turn up nothing new.

Who is on "top" has been decided purely by how famous they are. No one in their right mind can take this list seriously, not even the people who drew it up. If they had really followed the criteria they set for themselves, they wouldn't even have come up with one hundred names. For one simple reason: there are probably not even half a dozen intellectuals in the world whose statements are taken note of in different milieus all over the world. If you were to apply the criteria to the intellectuals on this list, there would be a massacre that hardly anyone apart from the Pope would survive.

Even those who are prepared to see in the Pope – a professional dogmatic – an intellectual, would have trouble getting him on the list. Benedict XVI has not got his intellectual status to thank for his number one spot, but his public office, which is light years from Ratzinger the person. Just a few months ago he wouldn't have even made it onto this list.

Thomas Friedman is a journalistic big shot in the beautiful, clearly laid out world of the New York Times reader. But is this brilliant columnist really one of today's top intellectuals? And who reads Abdolkarim Soroush? Who is waiting for his new essays or books on Islam and democracy? Soroush, who is on the list, proves just how inane it really is. His relevance lies in the fact that his utterances are on the fringe of intellectual society. He has no place on any top public intellectual list at all. Not in Iran, not in the USA and not in Germany. A look at his print run figures, at his real pubic stature, makes this immediately clear.

The fact that his name appears shows that this Prospect and Foreign Policy list is actually leering at another, much more exciting list, one that names the hundred most important idea providers of today. If this list were put together, all at once we would be rid of the gentlemen from the New York Times and a few other media. Instead we would find ourselves in a conflict about just what the ideas of today are, the global, globalising world of today. We would no longer be confronted by the same old faces, but by men and women who have played a central role in making up our different world views. Not because they have held forth every day in editorials and commentaries about their own world views, but because they have researched and pondered, because they have figured something out that changes our lives and/or our views in a radical way.

We are celebrating the Einstein Year. A hundred years ago a small-time employee in Bern's patent office revolutionised our view of the world. More than his contemporaries Stalin, Hitler, Keynes, Joyce or Picasso. But was Einstein an intellectual? First and foremost he was a scientist. It was through his scientific work that he became a public intellectual. You can say the same thing about Jean-Paul Sartre. He was first a philosopher, and then a public figure. Someone who is just an intellectual – and this list is teaming with them – has not figured anything out for himself, but simply understands what others have figured out to make it big. That is deserving of praise, and nothing speaks against putting these people in a list of their own, as far as I'm concerned it could have a hundred names. However such a list would be uninteresting, because we already know who's on it.

But in the media this logic is turned on its head. In the media the most interesting person is the star, the person everyone sees and knows everything about. The person who has been photographed ten thousand times is the one photographers flock to shoot. Prospect and Foreign Policy are paying homage to just this principle, and that's stupid. Not just for the reader, but for the magazine as well. There's no better way to drive up contribution rates. The next time they print an article by Vargas Llosa, he'll remind them he was on their list. The disaster of the Prospect and Foreign Policy list is that the more people take part in the online selection, the fewer people it will contain. This allegedly globalised list does not utilize the knowledge produced throughout the world for a global audience. It merely highlights the provincialism of the few media that operate worldwide.


The article originally appeared in German on Perlentaucher on October 6, 2005.

Arno Widmann was born in 1948 and studied philosophy in Frankfurt with Theodor W. Adorno. A founder and editor-in-chief of die tageszeitung, he has also worked as senior editor of the German Vogue and arts editor of Die Zeit. Today he runs the opinion pages of the Berliner Zeitung. He has translated Umberto Eco, Curzio Malaparte and Victor Serge into German. His literary debut came with his 2002 novel "Sprenger".

Translation: Ruth Elkins. - let's talk european