The World’s Most Important Living Intellectuals

I wrote in an article in The Hawaiʻi Independent that most Americans couldn’t name a single intellectual. When then-candidate George W. Bush was asked who his favorite philosopher was, he famously answered “Jesus,” suggesting that he, like most Americans couldn’t name a single philosopher. In this post, I attempt a quick and dirty remedy to this. This is not a list for intellectuals, who will ask “where’s Agamben, or Ranciere, or [insert their favorite  theorist]?” but a list of intellectuals:

Cornel West

“Without the presence of black people in America, European-Americans would not be “white”– they would be Irish, Italians, Poles, Welsh, and other engaged in class, ethnic, and gender struggles over resources and identity. (p. 107-108)”
― Cornel WestRace Matters

West is an intellectual who manages to balance popular relevance (he was in one of the Matrix films and did the DVD analysis track, along with Integral philosopher Ken Wilber – see below) and intellectual weight – a tricky balance. A “jazz man in the world of ideas,” his Race Matters, remains a critical text for negotiating the politically-correct halls of academe. A theologian by training, West has specialized in African-American – Jewish relations. West does not only engage in popular formats, he speaks in pop culture terms: he said regarding Obama that progressives expected of him John Coltrane and got Kenny G. He called Hillary Clinton “the Milli Vanilli of politics” – there’s no bigger insult, as far as I am concerned, than to compare someone to the group that almost single-handedly destroyed pop music my Senior year in high school.

His battle with Neo-Conservative Harvard President Lawrence Summers precipitated a return to Princeton, breaking up the greatest Afro-American Studies department in history. There he was a colleague of…

Henry Louis Gates

“The thing about black history is that the truth is so much more complex than anything you could make up.”
— Henry Louis Gates

An Afro-American Studies professor of mine at Harvard once hinted to me, somewhat scornfully, that Gates had a 40-page CV (academic resume). When I mentioned this to another academic acquaintance, she said “that sounds about right, for him.” As much a documentarian as a scholar these days, Gates’s most recent history of Africa may be his Magnum Opus.

Slavoj Zizek

We feel free because we lack the very language to articulate our unfreedom.

A Lacanian Marxist from Slovenia: this strange epithet is surprisingly descriptive of the Elvis of Cultural Studies, and yet inadequate. His apprenticeship to the enigmatic psychotherapist Jaques Lacan partly accounts, in my view, for Zizek’s seemingly endless string of insights into the underlying psychological bases of ideology – his main object of study. Zizek has a magnetic presence, an entertaining style, even, by his own admission, a “half-clown” persona. These make him a star on YouTube, the world’s number one website. But Zizek’s constant attention to popular culture (Star Wars, The Avengers, etc.) belie his status as a true philosopher – his The Sublime Object of Ideology is a tome to Hegel, the philosopher to whom all other moderns are merely footnotes. In this Big Think video, Zizek encourages us not to act, “just think:”

Gayatri Spivak

“Can the subaltern speak?”

A translator of Jaques Derrida, Spivak is in a way his intellectual heir. Her contributions to subaltern studies (the study of the powerless) shows the class power dynamic functions in academia. To illustrate the concept of how the global South (the so-called “third world”) is silenced, she used footnotes to compose an entire “subaltern” text in the “South” of the paper. A famous question she asks is “can the subaltern speak?” Her answer in the negative shows the entrenched nature of the very power structure she examines.

Alain de Botton

“We will cease to be angry once we cease to be so hopeful.”

Some may scream here “pseudo-intellectual!” but I disagree. de Botton was in the process of getting a PhD in French philosophy at Harvard when he was unceremoniously kicked out of the program for writing How Proust can Change your Life, which the department saw as a self-help book (he has a Master’s in philosophy from Cambridge University). “We do not write self-help books” was the response; de Botton once said “under different circumstances I might have been an academic” – he never looked back and has probably laughed all the way to the bank (his account in which is considerable being the son of a financier worth 250 million pounds). After several best-selling books he started the School of Life, a YouTube channel with some of my favorite videos and which is an actual school of practical philosophy, with campuses around the world. One of his contributions is to bring back the value of stoicism and even pessimism, as the epigraph to this section shows. As I wrote in “Philosophy as Therapy:”

Alain de Botton wrote The Consolations of Philosophy, which became one of the best-selling books on philosophy in recent years. He certainly has a knack for making the  field of philosophy practical for everyday use. Along with an accompanying series of videos, de Botton shows us how Schopenhauer can help us with love, Seneca with anger and fear, Montaigne with self-esteem, Epicurus with happiness, and Socrates with self-confidence.


Judith Butler

“There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results.”

Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (1990)

Winner of the “Worst writing award” from New Republic, which didnʻt like what it saw as her excessive use of jargon, Butler nevertheless remains central to the field of gender studies. The worst writing award may be taken by some (possibly Butler “her”self) as a badge of honor showing mastery of the word-play of academia. Similarly, a recent video from The Onion parodied her contributions, but in a way that actually explains them:

Ken Wilber

“The point is to unify the opposites, both positive and negative, by discovering a ground which transcends and encompasses both.”

– Ken Wilber

Like de Botton, some will definitely object to Wilber’s inclusion in a list like this, because while Wilber’s influence has been immense, it has been entirely outside of academia.


Wilber is the architect of Integral theory, and the reasons for his exclusion from the academy are hinted at in this passage I wrote for the post “Integral 101:”

Integral theory is a map that integrates the major domains of reality: the physical (biology, physics), the social (sociology, anthropology, political science), and what could be called our interior (psychology, religion, philosophy), into a meta-system. And here is where it collides with one of the prevailing approaches of academia: postmodernism. Postmodernism is a view that allows for the simultaneous existence of multiple worldviews, even within an individual. It is suspicious of meta narratives, or grand narratives that claim to be independent of their cultural context. Because Integral makes this claim to be cross-cultural, it violates postmodernism’s prime directive. And yet Integral sees postmodernism as a high level of consciousness development, and it is this development that makes up the next component of Integral theory – [what Wilber calls “evolution.”]

Wilber’s integral influence has extended to Bill Clinton and (former UK Prime Minister) Tony Blair, UNESCO and Whole Foods Market.

Neil DeGrasse Tyson*

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson

Director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson has become a celebrity for skillfully using media, especially social media to bring popular understanding of science. His raison dʻetre:

“The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things in life like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people in life recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation. For me, I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

*This description is a place-holder while I wait for my colleague Robert Hutchison to send me his write up of Tyson.

Jurgen Habermas

Science can only be comprehended epistemologically, which means as one category of possible knowledge, as long as knowledge is not equated either effusively with the absolute knowledge of a great philosophy or blindly with scientistic self-understanding of the actual business of research.”

-Jurgen Habermas

The last remaining member of the classic Frankfurt School (Herbert Marcuse, Thodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer were the most prominent members), which began the ongoing analysis of popular culture. Habermas is, along with Badiou, Levy, and Chomsky, the last of the old-school intellectuals. He was adamantly opposed to postmodernism and had debates with Jaques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction. He had the following four critiques of postmodernism:

  1. The postmodernists are equivocal about whether they are producing serious theory or literature;
  2. Habermas feels that the postmodernists are animated by normative sentiments but the nature of those sentiments remains concealed from the reader;
  3. Habermas accuses postmodernism of a totalizing perspective that fails “to differentiate phenomena and practices that occur within modern society”
  4. Habermas asserts that postmodernists ignore that which Habermas finds absolutely central – namely, everyday life and its practices.

I started a group on Facebook called “Building an Intellectual Culture,” and in the description I cite Habermas:

The philosopher Jurgen Habermas came up with the idea of the public sphere, a public space in which ideas are informally exchanged – outside of universities and where coffee abounds. The idea for this group came out of a short article I wrote of the same name in the Hawaiʻi Independent. The group attempts to bridge the gap between the ivory tower and mainstream popular culture, which is increasingly anti-intellectual. The group holds Antonio Gramsci’s contention that an intellectual can be “any[one].”

Noam Chomsky

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

– Noam Chomsky


Chomsky’s influence is hard to describe – it is both massive and subaltern, suppressed. As I wrote in my review of his book Who Rules the World?

Chomsky is the founder of modern linguistics. It’s Einstein. And the linguist uses his field’s most powerful weapon: sarcasm. Politically, Chomsky is an Anarcho-syndicalist, or as he has confusingly put it: a “Libertarian Socialist” (most who know these terms would call that an oxymoron). Over time, I, like many others, have grudgingly come to respect Chomsky as perhaps the legitimate “world’s leading intellectual” – certainly he is the last of a great generation. He also may be the worldʻs most important ignored intellectual. While researching a piece I wrote for Summit magazine on Gore Vidal, I found a clip in which Vidal said that he and Chomsky tried to speak in Harvard Yard, put up flyers, and found them all torn down half an hour later – somehow, 3000 people still showed up. And there is the enigma of his celebrity – the love/hate relationship he has with his supporters and detractors may be precisely the sign of his greatness, or perhaps simply his breadth of thought.

1 Comment

Filed under Education

One response to “The World’s Most Important Living Intellectuals

  1. Cornel West is intense. Aloha Kumu ‘Umi!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s