World’s top living thinkers listed and ranked

A London magazine has published its list of top global thinkers for 2013. These are the people defining the world’s intellectual climate today – but do thinkers really matter in the end?

Who is the most important thinker in the world? Prospect Magazine has set out to answer the question, asking readers to chose from a list of 65 of the most respected writers, artists, scientists and philosophers alive today.

The overall winner of the contest will not be decided until all votes are in – but the names on the longlist, chosen by a panel of judges, give a fascinating insight into the intellectual landscape of 2013.

In this age of financial instability, it is no surprise that economists are well represented on the list, taking 19 of the 65 places. The most famous of them is the American Paul Krugman, a fiery liberal academic who writes passionate columns in the New York Times, denouncing what he sees as the idiocy of conservative politics and spending cuts.

From the world of business comes one of the most powerful women on the list: Sheryl Sandberg, second-in-command at Facebook. Sandberg is famous for challenging the male-dominated atmosphere among the giant tech companies of ‘Silicon Valley’, and wrote a controversial book this year urging women to push harder against an unfair system. Her message: ‘Be assertive. You can have it all.’

The sciences, of course, are well represented. Hans Rosling is one strong contender. He uses statistics to tell dramatic and hopeful stories about our changing world. Craig Venter, genetics pioneer, Oliver Sacks, neurologist, and Peter Higgs, particle physicist, are in the running too.

Of the philosophers, the two most famous are Slavoj Zizek and Richard Dawkins. Zizek is a Slovenian marxist famous for his chaotic and charismatic style. Many think him a genius. Some think him a charlatan. Dawkins, meanwhile, has devoted his later life to one idea: that religion is bad and that it must be eradicated from society.

Last come the artists, led by Booker Prize-winner Hilary Mantel. Her Wolf Hall trilogy has introduced millions of people to the strange and violent world of Tudor England. Zadie Smith’s novels capture the spirit of British life today. Ai Weiwei, meanwhile, uses his art to challenge political oppression in China.

Top of the profs

Sixty-five thinkers from every intellectual field. Who is the most important? Economists teach us how to create wealth and manage countries; scientists unlock the secrets of the universe; philosophers argue about right and wrong, illusion and reality; artists and writers try to understand human experience, and our place in the world. It is hard to say which of these matters most.

But how much do thinkers matter at all? They can debate with each other all they like; but what do they actually do? What really drives the world forward, you could argue, is not thought but action.

You Decide

  1. What field of intellectual activity do you think is most important in modern life?
  2. The Suffragettes, who fought for women’s rights in the early 20th Century, had the motto: ‘deeds not words’. Do you prefer words or deeds?


  1. Go and look at theProspect Magazinevoting page. Click on the names to learn more about the thinkers, and then cast your vote.
  2. Whose thoughts have influenced your life the most? Write a brief profile of a thinker who matters to you. It can be anyone.

Some People Say...

“So-called “thinkers” are just pretentious fakes.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Being a thinker sounds like a fun job.
It probably is fun. You travel around talking at conferences, doing interviews, writing books, spreading your big ideas. Hard work, surely, but always interesting.
Great! Where do I apply?
If only it were so easy! The best way is probably to go into higher education. Do a degree, then a doctorate, and then become an academic in some popular field. Or you could invent something amazing, or start a successful business.
Easier said than done!
Indeed. The real key, though, is simple. What all thinkers have in common is that they work hard, and are always interested in the world around them.

Word Watch

Craig Venter
American biologist Craig Venter was one of the first people to successfully unravel the human genome. His big hope at the moment is to use advanced genetics to create artificial life forms.
Peter Higgs
Peter Higgs is the man who first predicted the existence of the Higgs boson, a mysterious subatomic particle. Over the last year, more and more evidence has emerged that his prediction was correct, a discovery that could lead to a much deeper understanding of fundamental physical laws.
Marxists follow the philosophy of Karl Marx, a historian and economist who saw all human history in terms of class struggle. He believed that capitalism was an unstable system and that all societies would end up communist.
Tudor England
The Tudor period in English history starts with the reign of Henry VII and ends with the death of his granddaughter, Elizabeth I. The Tudor monarchs (Tudor was their family name) saw England move from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance.


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