Monday, October 17, 2005

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All we are is dust in the wind

Foreign Policy and the UK's Prospect magazine have announced the results of their contest to determine the world's top public intellectuals.

I had my own problems with this exercise when it was first announced, but I'm a booster compared with the message contained in Chris Bertram's posting:

Not much there that is worthy of comment. Nearly everyone on the list has made a contribution which is either totally ephemeral, or which will simply be absorbed into the body of human knowledge without leaving much trace of its originator. Ideas from Sen, Habermas or Chomsky will survive in some form, but nobody will read them in 100 years. And the rest will be utterly forgotten—or so I predict.

Bertram is likely correct that many of the contributions are ephemeral, but is it really so bad to come up with an idea that is "absorbed into the body of human knowledge"? Isn't that kind of the point?

[But according to Bertram, there won't be much trace of the idea's progenitor--ed. On the one hand, duh. Current writers always interpret older writers in the context of their current epoch. On the other hand, it is precisely this habit in our thinking that then leaves the door open to graduate students eager to engage in their own kind of revisionism -- which can't happen without reading the originator.]

posted by Dan on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM


The sole point of this list is to allow 100 people (or their marketers) to declare themselves "on the list."

The sheer randomness of the list--some are clearly in the public eye, some are clearly intellectuals, I don't see many if any that are truly both--points to the fatuousness of the entire exercise.

Vaclav Havel, for instance, is not a public intellectual but a philosopher/dramatist turned statesman. He did not think deep thoughts in a public forum--he formulated a political ideology, went out and publicized it, suffered deeply on its behalf, then recognized his moment and LED his people to freedom.

Harold Pinter, newly beNobelled, by contrast is a half-baked dramatist desperate to lead a political revolution but, blessedly, unable to inspire anyone at all. He is much more a "public intellectual" simply by dint of his ineffectualness to move others.

As far as anyone with a reasonable claim to being recognized on the street (or at least by name) by persons of above-average intelligence--and not just the name and/or face, but the ideas espoused, I'd have to give the prize to C. Hitchens. However, is he truly an "intellectual" or just a very clever journalist? I'd go with the latter, but then I'm an ex-academic who still looks for qualifications even when they've been proved irrelevent or worse.

And what's with Paul Wolfowitz? Yes, he's brilliant, yes he's public, but is he a PI? Well, if he is than so are most Supreme Court justices, any number of Washington insiders and quite possibly a number of heads of state. It all gets meaningless and muddled and brings me back to my first point--the list exists only to be cited in marketing copy. Bosh.

posted by: Kelli on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Will we see the results of this survey turned into a television special on the Bravo channel?

posted by: Zathras on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

This week, on Big Brother: Public Intellectuals, Bjorn Lomborg and Benedict XVI try to pigeonhole Eco to see just what one reference in Foucault's Pendulum was about, while Jurgen Habermas tries to get Noam Chomsky and Naomi Klein to clean the kitchen!

posted by: Tom on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

The problem with this kind of list is defining who qualifies to be on it. It's not like choosing the best movies, or baseball players.

It is interesting to see who "wins," though, not because it tells us anything about the winners, but rather because it tells us something about the voters. Why are Chomskyites motivated to vote in something as silly as this? Kind of an interesting question.

posted by: Andrew Steele on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Chomsky at #1? What more evidence could you ask for that the survey is flawed. Exactly what has he done since "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax"? What school of philosophy has he founded?

I begin to believe that one becomes an intellectual nowadays in the same way one becomes a celebrity - by having enough other people say it's so.

posted by: Mike Z on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Man this is depressing.

posted by: geezer on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Exactly what has he done since "Aspects of the Theory of Syntax"?

He has written many very influential works in the field of Linguistics, including "The Sound Pattern of English" with Morris Halle, the article "Remarks on Nominalization", "Lectures on Government and Binding" outlining this extremely influential theory of Syntax and "The Minimalist Program". Through this vast body of work Chomsky has managed to dominate the field of Linguistics for almost half a century. While many Linguists disagree with Chomsky, I seriously doubt any would deny his incredible influence. I don't think any other intellectual figure of the last half a century has dominated any field quite in the way Chomsky has.

posted by: Andrew on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

oh please everybody ...

there is one very obvious reason that
norman chimpsky is "THE MOST IMPORTANT

based on the above posts it must be clear
to everyone that he is, quite simply, a
cunning linguist.

posted by: Ted on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Did Norman Chomsky make the list too?

I think he's a plumber in Pittsburgh. Now I know the list is rigged.

posted by: Kelli on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

Sean Connery was not the lone star in "The Name of The Rose" - Christian Slater co-starred. I think Eco's biography is incomplete without Slater, and I'm upset that Foreign Policy, apparently the latest pop-culture sounding board, omitted him.

posted by: b. phillips on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

I agree that the most influential people may be forgotten long before their ideas lose impact.
The late sociologist Robert K Merton (father of the economist of the Nobel Prize-winning economist) had a felicitous phrase: "obliteration by incorporation" to describe the tendency for people to lose sight of the originators/inventors of influential ideas or pithy phrases.

The Chicago historian of statistics Stigler has written about a "law of eponymy" whereby "no scientific discovery is named after its original discoverer." Example: Gaussian distribution was not discovered by Gauss.

posted by: Jake on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

I'm not sure I can rigorously define what a public intellectual is, but what I have in my mind is a list of people whom I think qualify.

Hugo, Zola, Sarte, Beauvoir, Camus, Goethe, Bertrand Russell, Thorsten Veblen, Keynes, Freideman, Becker, possibly Paul Johnson.

France used to produce a gush of them but the tap seems to have been cut off since the prewar generation. Sometimes I wonder whether the ENA hasn't canaliszed all France's top minds into banality?

posted by: Don on 10.17.05 at 11:41 AM [permalink]

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