If the last 18 months haven’t got you thinking, then thinking probably isn’t your thing. We have witnessed microbes’ revenge on civilisation, seen the limits of the “politically possible” being reset and come to revere vaccinologists. We have learned how an economy can keep going after “business as usual” stops, and endured an enforced pause in which we could reconsider life’s priorities. Some of us were conscripted into teaching our children. Some may even have got round to reading the books they had always meant to. Many others didn’t, and got lost instead in armchair epidemiology.
There has been plenty to think about—but what sorts of thought are most important in a world emerging from a pandemic? In consultation with the experts who write for us, Prospect presents the world’s top 50 thinkers for this moment. In lively and occasionally heated discussions about who should make the grade, our criteria were not only originality and eminence within a field, but the singular pursuit of an identifiable idea and an ability to gain traction for it. We also insisted on some form of “intervention”—be it a book, speech or a public stand—over the past 12 months.
There is one paradoxical pattern in our 2021 list. In practical and even emotional terms, this is a collectivist moment. The events of the last year and a half have reminded humans anew of how connected their fates are and, from edicts about masks to furlough schemes and global minimum tax deals, the big state is back in public policy. But when we turn to the world of ideas, this is a year for people who are individualists by temperament, if not intellect.
Take technology. By my reckoning there are no fewer than nine tech experts on our list, perhaps not surprising if the test is “rebuilding the world.” But what’s striking is how many refuseniks are among them. Three walked away from Google: Timnit Gebru over a question of principle; John Martinis after deciding he didn’t quite fit; and Tristan Harris to pursue cyber-ethics outside—and in some senses against—the tech giant. Then there is Audrey Tang, a Taiwanese software developer and public health minister who is, literally, an anarchist in government; and Lina Khan, who upended a generation of thinking about competition policy before Joe Biden brought her in to tame Big Tech.
In politics, as well as saluting the extraordinary bravery of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, we hail Rebecca Solnit, whose radical genius is an ability to turn on its head the question that everyone else is asking, and Robert Tombs who, politely, but very firmly, upsets just about everyone in the academic world by maintaining Brexit is a good idea. In science, we have Tim Spector, who was remaking the science of nutrition before redirecting his efforts into a Covid tracker. And also Laura Spinney, who pursued her own interest in the 1918 Spanish Flu when no one else cared, but then became one of the most prescient and prominent public voices when a new pandemic hit.
In the arts, we highlight figures who create new forms (Lawrence Abu Hamdan) or shine a light on worlds everyone else had neglected (director Chloé Zhao, novelist Douglas Stuart). Writer and performer Michaela Coel showed grit by turning down a deal that wasn’t on her terms with the behemoth Netflix, and instead got her series made with the BBC at home in Britain, scoring a massive hit. And in business, we have Elon Musk, whose eccentricities and ego have helped his firm Tesla push electric cars to the point where they might soon make a real difference on climate.
This is the most diverse list we have ever produced—most importantly in terms of ideas, but also gender, race and world regions. In stark contrast to the overwhelmingly male intellectual hit parades that Prospect used to produce in the early 2000s, the list is more or less gender balanced. I won’t be more precise—not least because at least three of our 50 are non-binary, a term almost unheard of in our magazine’s early days. So the list reflects how thinking life has evolved, but also some of the mixed feelings some changes have wrought: alongside the (non-binary) feminist philosopher Judith Butler sits novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has been in the firing line for her remarks about the role of innate biological sex in the feminist struggle.
There has been talk about a “pivot to the east” since the dawn of the 21st century, but the way Asia dealt with Covid-19 has catalysed the shift. And now, more than ever before, we can see this reflected in the world of public thought: as well as the Taiwanese Tang, three of our 50 are Chinese citizens, and another (Rana Mitter) is the west’s most insightful guide to the country.
Moreover, we seriously weighed up others—such as Jiang Shigong of the Peking Law School and political Confucian Jiang Qing—to represent other strands of Chinese thought fast assuming global importance. Ultimately, we didn’t feel comfortable including them as thinkers to “rebuild the world.” Jiang Shigong’s reappraisal of Carl Schmitt is of real interest, but—important philosopher though he was—Schmitt was also a (literal) Nazi who rationalised the setting aside of the law; his Chinese interpreter does the same on behalf of President Xi. Likewise, Jiang Qing’s idealised Confucian order seems—to us—to wind the clock back too far on questions such as gender.
As in previous years, you can vote for who you think the top thinker of all should be—and also tell us who we have missed, including whether you think we’ve been unduly squeamish about Jiang Shigong or anyone else. Whether our list delights or riles you, there’s bound to be someone here who inspires you, so do remember to vote online. Full results will be published in the next issue.
Lawrence Abu Hamdan
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Writer and actor
W Gyude Moore
Doctor and writer
Journalist and geographer
Physicist and computer scientist
Maria Leusa Munduruku
Dan-el Padilla Peralta
Public health expert
Developer and politician
Özlem Türeci & Ugur Şahin
US treasury secretary
Founder of TikTok
Biographies by Tom Clark, Sameer Rahim, Alex Dean, Rebecca Liu, Emily Lawford, Chris Tilbury, David McAllister, Keir Bradwell and Eleanor Noyce