Who Do You Think are the Best Thinkers

Every year Foreign Policy magazine produces a list of the top 100 global thinkers. Not an easy task, I assume. Even in the age of twitter the world is pretty big place. Actually social media probably makes a task like picking the best thinkers even harder because there’s so much more intellectual detritus clouding out the real stars in the egghead universe.

The list does a pretty good job of being international and interdisciplinarian. But no list is without it’s problems. I, for example, would like to see a lot less ties with two, three, or four people sharing a single numbered slot. (Twitter and Facebook CEOs, for example tie for “Changing the way we do almost everything.”) And I’m not necessarily in favor of putting high-profile poor thinkers on the list just because their bad ideas were popular or influential. Why Dick Cheney and Condoleeza Rice make the list (in a tie) because they “made the world we live in today” is beyond me. The world we live in today, in many significant ways, well, #itblowsalot, to borrow and tweak a phrase. And I happen to know a couple of professors of mine that would roll their eyes at the inclusion of #94–author of an excellent novel, but a second-rate Chomsky in her political writing.

I first discovered the list myself a handful of years ago and used it to help me find books that would make me smarter or streamline my own thinking or, better still, improve my problem-solving skills by widening my creative horizons. I’d half-hoped that now, five years later, I would be able to recognize most of the names on the list because I’m so much more entrenched in the community of people who think or act globally. But alas, I know about as many people this time around as last time. The only difference now is that my exposure to the works of those I recognize is deeper. I’m not just familiar with the names this time around, sometimes I’ve read or even own their books. I’m not saying that to brag. Trust me, having read The World is Flat hasn’t made me any smarter.

Actually I bring it up, not as a criticism of the list, but as a criticism to myself today and especially the self I was five years ago. It’s poison to think that one day we will have read all the right things, or talked to all the right people and that we will then be able to churn out works so brilliant they escape damning critique. In one specific way, this year’s list drives that point home clearer than previous years’. The reason I don’t know who a lot of those people are is because they aren’t writers per se, or academics. They’re not really “thinkers” in the way we typically understand that term. They’re doers. The first several names on the list are the activists behind the Arab Spring revolts/revolutions. And that’s an important point.

Machiavelli (but Plato before him) distinguish men of action from men of thought. The “philosopher-king” is necessary, but unfortunately it is an impossible creation. Philosophers never act because better, more precise, more full knowledge–the kind of knowledge on which actions should be based–is just around the corner, up ahead, and out of reach. Politics demands action, but so does marketing, pharmaceuticals, and road-building.

And so does writing your thesis (slacker).

All of us have to balance these conflicting modes of thinking and doing. And it’s probably true that most of us tilt one way or the other. But so long as any thinker does at all, he should encourage himself to do more. And so long as any doer thinks, he should probably think more too. Not to wax to Aristotelian, but achieving a balance here would be better for everyone. That’s the goal of a true “technocracy,” right? To place in political power thinking men of action, the enlightened dictators, but elected this time around. Not Alexander the Great but some bespectacled graduate of the London School of Economics with a taste for spreading liberty to the masses along with roads, hospitals, and schools. But if that balance is ultimately unachievable in aggregate, it’s good that we have a world of thinkers to advise a world of doers. As long as we don’t consider the Dick Cheney’s of the world in a class with the former.

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