Friday, July 18, 2008

Intellectual leaders

In 2005 the Nouvel Observateur published a special issue devoted to "25 grands penseurs du monde entier" -- 25 great global thinkers. (The issue was published separately as Le monde selon les grands penseurs actuels.) The selection of thinkers was excellent: Stanley Cavell, Souleymane Diagne, Nestor Garcia Canclini, Sudhir Kakar, Vladimir Kantor, José Gil, Ian Hacking, Candido Mendes, Slavoj Zizek, Jon Elster, Kwame Appiah, Giorgio Agamben, Axel Honneth, Martha Nussbaum, Carlos Maria Vilas, Simon Blackburn, Toni Negri, Charles Taylor, Peter Sloterdijk, Richard Rorty, Philip Petitt, Daniel Innerarity, Jaakko Hintikka, Amartya Sen, and Michael Walzer. The volume consists of smart articles about each thinker offering a brief but meaningful précis of the thinker's main contributions, followed usually by a short impromptu interview with the subject.  (Here is a brief description available online.)

The volume begins with these words:

A l'heure oú l’on parle d’une communauté intellectuelle mondiale virtuelle, on pourrait croire que ce que la planète compte de penseurs originaux est connu de tous ou, à tout le moins, accessible et disponsible à tous. Et pourtant, le provincialisme intellectuel sévit un peu partout, ainsi qu’en témoigne chez nous le germanopratisme de la classe intello-médiatique. On continue d’écrire et de réfléxir ici dans l’ignorance la plus totale de ce que d’éminents penseurs étrangers ont produit là.
A very strong impression of polyglot global intellect emerges from a reading of the whole issue. The collection as a whole is a great antidote to the various forms of parochialism to which the intellectual world is prone -- national assumptions, disciplinary assumptions, north-south assumptions. These thinkers are original, innovative, and usually boundary-crossing. And they are most frequently concerned with issues that are front and center in the task of understanding and improving the global world we collectively inhabit.

There are quite a few cross-cutting themes that recur across various groups of these thinkers. (It would be a very interesting exercise to "tag" each of these thinkers with a handful of topics and then map the relationships among them.) And certainly this is true: we will collectively do a better job of understanding and improving our global world, if we find ways of engaging with the thinking, issues, and frameworks of observers throughout the world. Sociology and philosophy both require new ideas -- and a deep and sustained international conversation can be a source of ideas and corrections to old ideas.

It is very interesting to take stock of the ways that the Internet can now facilitate these international conversations. YouTube is a good example; mixed among the millions of videos of pets and birthday parties are invaluable snippets of insight from the world's most innovative thinkers. Certainly it would be possible to conduct a transformative advanced seminar in social theory -- perhaps online! -- based on materials and videos available on YouTube. But it is interesting as well what we can't yet find on YouTube: selections from intellectuals and theorists from the developing world. It is substantially more difficult to locate web-based resources documenting the thinking of intellectuals from Africa, Latin America, or China.

Here are some YouTube resources on several of the thinkers included in the Nouvel Obs list. Roughly half of the people on the list are featured with snippets of lectures or interviews on YouTube. Think of this posting as a "mash-up" of great ideas and critical thinking.

Amartya Sen, March, 2005

Martha Nussbaum, 2006

Slavoj Zizek - Rules, Race, and Mel Gibson 2006 1/8, European Graduate School

Anthony Appiah, commencement speech at Dickinson College, 2008

Tony Negri, 2008

Stanley Cavell, 2002

Candido Mendes

Giorgio Agamben

Peter Sloterdijk

Richard Rorty

Daniel Innerarity

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