Thursday, August 5, 2010

To think, perchance to influence

By Bob Gaydos
A couple of friends of mine, who clearly have too much time on their hands, recently asked me a question that was guaranteed to provoke feelings of anxiety, inadequacy and insecurity: Who are the 20 most influential thinkers of the 20th century and beyond?

My inner voice immediately screamed out (in?), “How the hell should I know? I know baseball and politics, a few writers, some movie directors, and enough philosophy to be decent at Jeopardy. That’s it.”

The truth is, something inside me recoils at the challenge to come up with my list of the “best” or “most influential” or “most important” or “my favorite” of anything. I haven’t figured out why. Then I thought, “Well, that’s just an excuse to avoid thinking a bit beyond the normal exertion and, being retired, I have no legitimate excuse for that, so why not give it a try. Besides, it will give me something to post on my Facebook page.

The trick, for me, in compiling such lists is getting past the obvious names, the ones that go on the list automatically and, if anyone challenges them, their name goes on another list. So I have to have Albert Einstein, Gandhi, Henry Ford, the Wright Brothers (they count for one), Thomas Edison and Picasso. Already, it’s getting tough.

Off the top of my head and with just the briefest scanning of the web to remove the cobwebs, I also came up with Bertrand Russell, Noam Chomsky, Carl Jung, Jean Paul Sartre, Sigmund Freud, T.S. Eliot, George Carlin, Albert Camus, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Rachel Carson, John Dewey, Bill Wilson, Dorothy Day, Bill Gates, Thomas Watson, Sam Walton, George Orwell, Margaret Sanger, Winston Churchill, Khalil Gibran, Philo Farnsworth, Betty Friedan and Isaac Asimov.

That’s 29 names in all and I don’t think I’m done. Even my cursory Internet refresher suggests to me that Martin Heidegger was a great 20th century philosopher, if just because all the other philosophers seem to think he was. (Personal confession: Reading philosophical writings often demands the kind of attention to minute detail for which I have seldom had the patience, even in college when I wanted to get a decent grade. This is one of my character defects with which I have learned to live. It’s also probably why I got into journalism. Truthfully, when Bill Clinton said he wasn’t sure what the meaning of the word “is’’ is, I got a headache even though I knew what he was trying to do.)

But this list, say my friends, is for influential thinkers, not just philosophers, and Heidegger happened to be a genuine Nazi, to which I can only ask, “What was he thinking?” And since this is a personal list, even though he had wide influence I will leave him -- and Adolf Hitler -- off my list since their core idea was soundly rejected.

I’m going to stop here before I start including Knute Rockne because he popularized the forward pass or Miller Huggins for making Babe Ruth a fulltime outfielder. Those were pure genius.
* * *

Dot, dot, dot: No, I’m not going to leave it there. This is a blog, which means it’s interactive. I’m sure someone thinks I’m an idiot for names I included or excluded. Or maybe you’re just nice and want to share your own names. Send them along and we’ll compare notes. It’s bound to be more satisfying than following the ramblings of the tea partiers.


  1. While you listed a few names I puzzled over, I noticed no musicians in your list of thinkers. I would add either Billie Holiday (birth name of Eleanora Fagan) or The Beatles (counting them as one), both of whom made significant contributions to contemporary music.

  2. I agree with most of your list. I would add Ken Wilbur, Vivekananda, Bob Dylan and Thomas Merton as candidates. Thanks for your new blog.


Please be civil.