My dad is cleverer than your dad!
July 1, 2004 4:17 AM   Subscribe

Top 100 British...Intellectuals? Rock bands, schmock bands. Who are currently the cream of British Intelligentsia? Prospect names 100 of (supposedly) the UK's finest and asks you to vote for your top 5, plus a write-in. The list is discussed further here. Some entrants may make you wonder, some may make you gasp, most you just won't have a clue about!
posted by biffa (22 comments total)
If Melanie Phillips is one of the top 100 intellectuals in this country then I'm the Pope.

And I'm not, by the way.
posted by ciderwoman at 4:23 AM on July 1, 2004

My thoughts exactly ciderwoman, I think they may have been struggling for right 'leaning' social commentators.
posted by biffa at 4:33 AM on July 1, 2004

First, we are stressing current contribution—by which we mean the past five to ten years.

I was about to go horribly demented that Bertrand Russell was not suggested, until then.
posted by ed\26h at 4:37 AM on July 1, 2004

Not nearly enough academics. But then, what do you expect really?
posted by Pretty_Generic at 4:38 AM on July 1, 2004

Are they happy??
posted by kenaman at 4:49 AM on July 1, 2004

I actually know the work of a couple of the historians on the list, and they are good, but not better than many (as in hundreds) other good historians. But they are the kind of historian most likely to be known among the fashionable in London, rather than the ones necessarily doing the most important history.

And that's my huge beef with lists like this. Certain fields are just more fashionable right now, especially anything that can be easily written up in an article in a newspaper. Nationalism, cold war history, theories (often quite laughable) on international relations (Fukuyama comes to mind - what a dingbat!). Lists like this don't feature the history with really strong methodology, or history that astounds one with its imaginative approach to difficult and meager records.

Maybe it's because many of the best historians don't conciously try to be public intellectuals - they tend to focus on their work and their students rather than publishing in the mainstream press. But if any history is to influence the public and public policy, it should be excatly the kinds of history that isn't fashionable - history about social trends, economic history with centuries of perspective, history about western culture before it was western culture, so that we understand what we were and more about who we are, and how we're really much more like the rest of the world than any of us think.
posted by jb at 5:34 AM on July 1, 2004

Good post, biffa.
posted by dash_slot- at 5:47 AM on July 1, 2004

There was an interesting discussion of this at Crooked Timber a few days ago, pointing out some of the people who ought to have been on the list: Alan Bennett, Alan Ryan, Marina Warner ..

Myself, I think it's a pretty good selection; there are only about half a dozen names I would seriously quarrel with. (I disagree with you, jb, over the historians, most of whom are not merely "fashionable" but genuinely distinguished: David Cannadine, Linda Colley, Peter Hennessy, Noel Malcolm and Quentin Skinner all deserve their place on the list, though I'd have liked to see Roy Foster included as well.)

But the fact is that very few of the "public intellectuals" on the list have any real influence over public policy. (Not counting Gordon Brown, of course; but then I'm not sure what he's doing on this list anyway.) The other day I was reading an interview with the former editor of the Sun, David Yelland, who boasted that his job gave him instant access to virtually anyone in power:

I used to play a game where I would get my PA to see who I could get. So I would say 'get me the foreign secretary' and then Robin Cook would come on the line, and then 'get me the PM' and after a couple of hours .. You could get almost anybody. It was incredible really. (full interview here, but reg. reqd.)

No one on this list has one iota of the influence that the editor of the Sun can exercise over government policy. If all of them were to sign a joint letter to Tony Blair, criticising (say) the war in Iraq, would it have the slightest impact? I doubt it. Or if all the historians on the list were to sign a joint letter criticising (say) the way history is taught in schools, would anyone in government pay attention? I doubt it.

The real trouble with this list is that the notion of a "public intellectual" -- whether you take it in the context of public policy, or in the context of public opinion -- doesn't have much meaning any more. Many of the people on this list are highly distinguished in their own specialist fields, but very few of them have the intellectual authority of a Macaulay, or a Carlyle, or a Matthew Arnold -- the kind of authority that makes their opinion worth listening to, and makes you want to read what they have to say, whatever they happen to be writing about.
posted by verstegan at 7:10 AM on July 1, 2004

While surprised to see a number of people on the list (especially Melanie Phillips), I thought that it was quite a reasonable list.

My top ten (in no particular order) is:

  • Jonathan Miller - a man who can span leading edge satire, medical qualifications, directing opera and Shakespeare and television production is obviously someone to be reckoned with. I met him once and he struck me as the most intelligent person I've ever talked to.
  • Melvyn Bragg - has been a leading populariser of 'the arts' in the UK over the past 10-20 years. Comes in for a lot of stick these days, but has achieved a lot.
  • Brian Eno - a music catalogue (solo and collaborative) to die for and now a leading light in the Long Now Foundation.
  • Philip Pullman - has managed to write some books that appeal to both adults and children, as well as raising a modern debate about religion.
  • Richard Rogers - top flight architect, has produced some high profile buildings and has helped move discussion of architecture out of the 1950s
  • AC Grayling - has produced a plethora of accessible philosophy books (most notably Philosophy: A Guide Through the Subject - probably the best introduction to Western philosophy) [Also admissions tutor at the college where I hope to study later this year!]
  • Mary Warnock - another philosopher, not quite as easy to read as Grayling, but has produced excellent books in a number of areas, specialising in ethics(interesting interview from a different perspective interview)
  • Jonathan Sachs - Britain's chief rabbi had a very high profile for a while and was a leading light in religious discussion. Seems to have lost his way a bit over the last few years.
  • Germaine Greer - the epitome of feminism in the 60's-70's. Has become a bit of a caricature more recently, but still provides some interesting views.

    And a write in for no. 10: Indarjit Singh - unfortunately has not broken through on TV (usually relegated to late night religious discussion programmes), but speaks more sense on religious matters than anyone I know of. Has been a true agent for peace and understanding between religions in the UK (and internationally).

  • My top 5 varies, but currently:
    1. Indarjit Singh
    2. Mary Warnock
    3. Jonathan Miller
    4. Melvyn Bragg
    5. Brian Eno
    On preview verstegan: Given her pivotal role in defining human reproductive policy in the UK, Lady Warnock has arguably had more influence on public policy and public life than any other on the list, or any newspaper editor.


    Initially, I read David Cannadine's name as David Carradine and was both surprised and extremely amused.
    posted by daveg at 7:16 AM on July 1, 2004 [1 favorite]

    Am I right in assuming that the proportion of women on this list is just over 10%?
    posted by jokeefe at 7:19 AM on July 1, 2004

    Better not tell paxo that he hasn't made the list!
    posted by johnnyboy at 7:19 AM on July 1, 2004

    verstegan: This isn't a list of most powerful people in the country, inevitably that isn't the same as having intellectual credentials, as the discussion of the list points out.
    Intellectualism as I would perceive it is more concerned with opening up new areas of thought, inherently this isn't going to be about those with power at the centre of society but about those with the ability to open potential new cultural, policy and scientific pathways for the future.
    posted by biffa at 7:28 AM on July 1, 2004

    My choice for #1 - Anthony Giddens.
    posted by Quartermass at 7:31 AM on July 1, 2004

    This may be the nadir of the "vote for your favorite" craze that is sweeping the English-speaking media.

    Below, my favorite elements:

    1. Oxygen -- Who doesn't love this spunky little gas?

    2. Hydrogen -- Uninteresting on its own, it combines with Oxygen to form sweet, delicious water.

    3. Platinum -- A kiss on the hand may be quite Continental, but this shiny, stylish element is the modern girl's best friend.

    4. Carbon -- From Doritos to diamonds, this workhorse of an element brings us everything that makes life worth living.

    5. Molybdenum -- This unsung hero of the Periodic Table is the insiders' pick for 2004's Element To Watch.
    posted by Sidhedevil at 7:41 AM on July 1, 2004

    How about your top 5 guts?
    posted by ed\26h at 7:51 AM on July 1, 2004

    Sidhedevil: A stunning omission of Silicon, without which all of this wouldn't have been possible.
    posted by daveg at 8:11 AM on July 1, 2004

    Is this list supposed to be the people that have had the most impact on the public, or just the ones that have put out the most interesting/new/enlightening ideas?

    (and i was happy to see Schama and Rushdie and Winterson there, but where's Zadie Smith?)
    posted by amberglow at 8:50 AM on July 1, 2004

    verstegan: Cannadine is a very good, though on the history of social relations there are a few perhaps better; Colley is good, but no better than many other historians, and the work that made her famous (Britons) is important for its controversial and influencial thesis, but not as solid as it mght have been. I don't know enough about Hennessy or Malcolm to say, but Skinner does have the reputation of being a remarkable thinker. However, Ferguson I have only ever heard of as a newspaper pundit and Empire apologist. So it's a mixed bag.

    To be honest, I don't know how much I trust public intellectuals. Macauley wrote history to support his party, inventing Whiggish historiography. Do we want that in our intellectuals? Or do we want intellectual honesty?

    I would rather see the public become intellectual. To discuss health care, read some epidemiology. For debates on class, sociology and social history are very useful. But acessibility is a problem, not one I have any answers to. And perhaps I am just bitter. I have seen too many good intellectuals with solid, even field-establishing research being ignored in favour of the flashy.

    But I probably shouldn't have taken the list so seriously. The prize for the readers is a book by Samuel Huntington, who makes even Fukuyama look sane.
    posted by jb at 8:56 AM on July 1, 2004

    What's the second prize? Two books by Sam Huntington?
    posted by Sidhedevil at 9:06 AM on July 1, 2004

    Oliver Sacks.
    Freeman Dyson.
    Rupert Sheldrake, but I know that I'm alone on that one.
    posted by goethean at 11:49 AM on July 1, 2004

    Am I right in assuming that the proportion of women on this list is just over 10%?

    The Guardian noticed this too and suggests 101 women who might have made the list.
    posted by biffa at 7:08 AM on July 3, 2004

    And by a considerable margin, the winner is...
    posted by biffa at 3:41 PM on July 25, 2004

    « Older Two years ago - a tremendous tragedy.   |   Virtual Tour of a Nepalese Village Newer »

    This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments