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October 13, 2005

Jeremy Black on Prospect, Public Intellectuals, and the Fancy of the List

Posted by Jeremy Black

To mark its tenth anniversary, Prospect magazine (October 2005) - together with Foreign Policy - has published a list of the world's top 100 "public intellectuals". Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - is left unimpressed.

"Procurer to the Quality" is the role of Prospect, at least if you understand the Quality as fashionable opinion. It caters more for Bayswater than Bedford, let alone Barrow or Bideford, but the tenth anniversary of the journal is a matter for congratulation. The writing is generally good, the range is impressive, and many of the articles deal pertinently with issues of considerable importance. Space is given to permit contributors to tackle topics at length, there are instructive debates, and the American material is useful, if less searching than that in the Economist. The number of books reviewed is disappointing given the intellectual pretensions of the journal, and, at times, there is something of the TLS about reviewers chosen presumably for their name rather than their expertise. But, on the whole, well done, not least in that frequently Prospect is more interesting than either the New Statesman or The Spectator, although it does not often approach the Economist.

What a disappointment then to see the tenth anniversary issue spoiled by the appearance of a list. This one is of that nebulous individual, the public intellectual, surely a deserved target for a modern day W. S. Gilbert, although, judging from the list, he would have been tripping from Harvard to a television studio and not down Piccadilly.

Drawn up by Prospect and Foreign Policy, and based on consultation with "dozens of our regular writers and readers", the list of the "Top 100 Global Public Intellectuals" defines the latter as:

someone who has shown distinction in their own field along with the ability to communicate ideas and influence debate outside of it.
The result is bizarre. Some of the entries are very much of the here and now (e.g. Robert Cooper), whereas others have been influential over a longer period (e.g. Amartya Sen). Several are noted for the vacuous character of much of their writing (e.g. Anthony Giddens) or are associated, at least in part, with questionable books (e.g. Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington). Others are vigorous, rather than perceptive (e.g. Camille Paglia). A few entries add a leavening of humour, most obviously Germaine Greer, who is an amusing companion for the Pope. The list is strong on the USA and, to a lesser extent, Britain, but, as an accompanying piece by David Herman notes, under-represents the sciences, Japan and Eastern Europe. He argues that the decline of the left is clear in the list, but it is possibly more apposite to see a reshaping of modishness, away from Marxism, towards a looser left. It is striking how relatively few religious thinkers are included.

Applauding or criticising choices, however, is not the point. What is noteworthy is the silliness of the competition to name the top five, as well as the fatuousness of the list, which, indeed, ranges from architect and novelists to plant pathologist and astrophysicist, and younger sparks to exhausted volcanoes. What next? Will Prospect encourage a Big Brother approach to intellectual life? If such a list encourages reflection, it may well be valuable, but it is more likely to excite wry amusement. Herman suggests that the list might mark the end of the:

great tradition of the oppositional intellectual.
Such a statement rather reflects a narrow perception of the latter in terms of the revolutionary left than any guidance to the future.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, forthcoming).

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Haven't they had one of these silly lists of intellectuals before? I think the readers of Prospect are using the 'it takes one to know one' approach. If they can list intellectuals, they must be intellectual themselves. Their need to reassure themselves of this status is pathetic in the real sense of the word. I do pity them. They should do the list every month, like the pop charts.

Posted by: simon at October 13, 2005 09:16 PM

Well, I live in Bayswater and I don't think Prospect is on sale nearer than Paddington station...

As to the comment that relatively few religious thinkers are included - well, they tend to burn with a long fuse... as a Professor of History might possibly know!

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at October 13, 2005 10:59 PM

i walked the extra sixty feel past my newsagent and bought instead a copy of Encounter from the used book shop. it is quite clear that, in terms of periodicals, of non-specialist, non-academic publishing at least, there is no longer an intellectual life in Britain. One glance at any copy of Encounter, at the giants contributing or the topics (imagine a piece on Spengler in a popular magazine nowadays!) there is little left but poseurs and fly-weights. Prospect is thus the ideal intelllectual companion for modern Britain, and this silly list reinforces its reputation as Hello! Magazine for intellectual chavs.

Posted by: s masty at October 14, 2005 08:42 AM

Simon, the previous list was of Britain's greatest public intellectuals - now they have widened their scope. This is the world's greatest public intellectuals - their pretensions have obviously grown.

Posted by: John at October 14, 2005 11:40 AM

Now I see Noam Chomsky has won/come top in the Foreign Policy/Prospect on-line poll of who among the "world's top 100 public intellectuals" is actually the top public intellectual. Says it all doesn't it.

Posted by: Jonathan at October 24, 2005 12:33 AM
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