Gideon Rachman's FT comment piece alerts me to a pretty hilarious 'Top 100 Global Thinkers' list, compiled by Foreign Policy magazine. Rachman wants to know 'where have all the thinkers gone?' Well wherever they are, Foreign Policy clearly has no idea.
The top ten includes none other than Warren Buffett and Bill Gates (tied 1st equal), Ben Bernanke, Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, Robert Gates, David Petraeus, Dominique Strauss-Kahn... err.. hang on, no, surely that's the invite list for a Davos breakfast seminar on 'Chinese Monetary Policy for Beginners'. But no! Quite seriously, these are presented as amongst the world's ten leading 'thinkers'.
This almost requires someone to write an updated and abridged version of Heidegger's What is Called Thinking. Because if these are the world's leading practitioners of that mysterious art, then I have no idea what it is any more. Is 'thinking' now something that requires access to billions of dollars? If so, it is certainly the case that when Bill Gates or Ben Bernanke has a 'thought', that it must be a truly excellent one. Or is (what is called) 'thinking' now a polite word for 'altering' or 'impacting'. I'd have to agree that Angela Merkel's and General Petraeus's 'thoughts' therefore put them amongst the world's great intellectuals. Or is Foreign Policy merely engaged in the lowest form of sycophancy to power, to rival that of the aristocrats deliberately letting Henry VIII win at tennis?
I diagnose come combination of all of the above. This is the problem of Reverse Platonism, common to American neo-conservatism. Plato deduced from the idea of Truth that the perfect state would be run by philosophers, ensuring that power was allied to wisdom. Foreign Policy has simply done the reverse. Where Plato asked 'who should be powerful?', and answered 'the wise', Foreign Policy asks 'who should be wise', and answers 'the powerful'.
Seeing names such as Obama, Hilary Clinton and David Cameron on this list would appear to announce the most monumental aristocracy (rule by the best) ever imagined! Or else spell the end of intellectual discourse, as something separate from the wheels of power. Kant famously defined Enlightenment as the separation between one's 'public' and one's 'private' use of reason, where the former (as exercised in the media, academia, bourgeois salons) was to be uncensored, and the latter (as exercised in one's paid employment, public office or religious role) was amenable to regulation and censorship. Where, then, does Foreign Policy leave Enlightenment, if one can only become a top 'thinker' through clambering to the top of political and financial ladders?
This may betray the profound, if unintentional, impact of a century of American pragmatism. So strong was the Deweyian desire to inject rationality into government, to connect expertise to the state, and so extensive were the efforts of think tanks and the like to support this from the 1950s onwards, that the distinction between 'truth' and 'power' appears to have been lost in some strange post-modern soup of 'power-knowledge'. What has also been lost is the progressive suspicion of money in public life, with Gates, Buffett, Jobs, Brin and other American billionaires all in the top 25 'thinkers' in the world. The blurb introducing the list remarks on the 'great new ideas' that this 'very smart crowd' has produced. The question is whether an 'idea' still exists, without the financial, technological and military muscle to convert it into something beyond its own expression. This list suggests not.