Who is the greatest modern-day thinker?

Stephen Dubner asks, his readers answer.  I say dead people don’t count and give your answers in the comments.  Can I consider Tim Berners-Lee for my nomination or Marc Andreessen — you used a browser to read this post — or whichever single person is most responsible for Google or search more generally?  I don’t intend any slight to Richard Dawkins or the others but I just don’t see how they stand up to these guys.

Addendum: Arnold Kling nominates Vinton Cerf.


Maybe you should instead consider the Gopher team from the Univ. of Minnesota. They created a system with hyperlinking in 1991, before Berners-Lee (but never got the credit). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gopher_(protocol)

Maybe Peter Singer.

It seems to me you misconstrue the question. Tim Berners-Lee is a great engineer and scientist, but he doesn't engage in philosophy. That doesn't lessen his accomplishments, perhaps it makes them more impressive, but he doesn't fit the question's definition.

Here are my votes:

For pure philosophy, as much as I disagree with Objectivism, I'd put Ayn Rand up there, just for her effort to create a coherent living philosophy, complete with metaphysics and ethics, based around capitalism. I don't think she succeeds, but then again, no philosopher has yet, so cut her some slack.

Culturally, probably Joseph Campbell. His analysis of how a loss of mythic and ritual structure in modern life seems, to me, to be the only believable explanation for the persistent neuroses that plague modern people. If you've ever read an interview of his, the man's brain is encyclopedic.

Literature: Bill Watterson, Philip K. Dick and Terry Pratchett. I'll defend any of those if someone asks.

But to go from the comments from the article itself, I'd have to agree on Alan Turing (his theories and tests shattered concepts of consciousness and mind) and Albert Einstein (for a plethora of reasons). I would add Michael Kaku, simply for his efforts to bring complex theories of science to the masses.

The history of economic thought is not my forte by a long shot, so I pose a more specific question to you, Cowen:

Of all the economists who flourished (were adults and publishing) after World War II, who do you believe is the most important/greatest thinker?

We have a sizeable spread of yery, very good thinkers around, even a few in economics. But great? and living? The nearest I can get is James Lovelock.

Tim Berners-Lee and Marc Andreessen are very bright guys, but their critical actions were incremental and at the margin. For greatest thinker I'd go for someone more original and more (pardon guys) sustained.

I'm afraid I also think Tim's Semantic Web is wrongheaded. The web grew emergently from small standards ... unfortunately small standards (free from IP restrictions) are under supported.

Marc's Ning is technically interesting, but doesn't really aspire to web-wide infrastructure change.

Oh, consider Ted Nelson in the web relm:


Rene Girard. He's a French anthropologist, most original thinker of the post War era. Cuts against the orthodoxy so you probably won't have heard of him. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ren%C3%A9_Girard

How do we define "modern"? I'd consider "people who were alive in my lifetime" or "people who are still alive". Seconding Bernard Yomtov's observation, I wonder whether we don't mean "modern thinker of whom I have heard"?

Andreesen or Berners-Lee? No, that's availability bias. Claude Shannon is more important to reading this post, as are Robert Metcalfe, Shockley, Bardeen and Brattain (and now Jimbo Wales!). Going further back, Tesla is a monumental figure.

If you've ever survived a high-speed vehicle accident, you might have noted the work of John Paul Stapp. More important than Bing Crosby (who, besides the obvious, pioneered the use of mag tape recording equipment?)?

Charles Taylor

I think tha Norman Borlaug is the greatest living doer. If one considers that he needs to think in order to do, then it is not unreasonable to nominate him for greatest living thinker.

If we can extend it to the recently deceased, I nominate Milton Friedman, but I can't help but think that that is for parochial reasons.

What is it with people's obsession with Marc Andreessen? He is a one-hit-wonder. Has anything he did since Netscape been a success? I don't think so. Andreessen was more of a right-place-right-time kind of success. Smart guy, obviously, you have to be smart to take advantage of your luck, but Netscape's actual success should be credited more to Clark/Barksdale. And even then I don't know if Netscape should be counted as a success. These days when I talk about the early Internet to anyone under 25 I can't rely on the fact that they know what Netscape was!

Tim-BL-- very smart, but he didn't invent hypertext. Per odograph, I think Ted Nelson takes that one.

For greatest living thinker, it's a tough battle for second place following far behind Tom Schelling.

Julien Simon +for sure

Vinton Cerf
Richard Feynmman+
Milton Friedmann+
James Watson

If you like Berners-Lee, Andreessen, et al, I think you should consider Doug Engelbart. More or less invented the mouse, hypertext (or Nelson, hard to say), and graphical user interface and was heavily involved with ARPAnet, the precursor to the Internet.

Re: Sameer, I think you're giving Andreessen a bad rap. He sold Opsware for $1.6 B (in 2007, which would make it something like $10-20 B in 1999 dollars), and his latest company, Ning, got funded for $44 M so far. Not bad for a guy in his late thirties. I don't think he belongs in the great thinkers debate, but he seems like a pretty good entrepreneur.

Why is actually doing something considered a detriment to being a great thinker?

Edward O. Wilson

I think the more interesting question is: Of all the great thinkers, who should be more famous than they currently are.

Among people who lived into this decade and whose accomplishments are underappreciated by the general educated public, William D. Hamilton's name comes first to mind.

Among the giants of the 20th Century whose impact isn't adequately understood by the, say, PBS documentary watching public, I'd think first of Ronald A. Fisher.

As Richard Dawkins wrote in 2000:

"W D Hamilton is a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin. Other candidates would have to include R A Fisher, whom Hamilton revered as a young student at Cambridge. Hamilton resembled Fisher in his penetrating biological intuition and his ability to render it in mathematics. But, like Darwin and unlike Fisher, he was also a superb field naturalist and explorer. I suspect that, of all his twentieth century successors, Darwin would most have enjoyed talking to Hamilton. Partly because they could have swapped jungle tales and beetle lore, partly because both were gentle and deep, but mostly because Hamilton the theorist was responsible for clearing up so many of the very problems that had intrigued and tantalised Darwin."


John Bogle, Vanguard founder. It takes a thinker to invent a new investment paradigm and to carry it through, despite powerful industry's resistance to low-cost index funds.

If we're going to discuss technologists, how about Alan Kay and Dan Ingalls? I doubt the modern computer or computing languages would look much like they do without those two gentlemen, and they are still quite productive with ideas.

If some of his more interesting hypotheses about how to model complexity turn out to be correct, the Stephen Wolfram might be the most important thinker of our era.

I second Byomtov (his insight, not nomination). This falls under the category of not knowing what we don't know.

Alan, you need to wipe that thing from your nose.

Someone left italics tags on. I enjoy reading Eliezer Yudkowsky's thoughts the most, but he hasn't accomplished as much as Norman Borlaug.

My nomination is Ronald Coase.

He successfully defended his ideas about transaction costs and the nature of the firm against what was probably the most formidable Economics faculty that has ever been assembled and won them all over in the process (Aron Director, Milton Freidman, George Stigler et al at U Chicago). He filled a major gap in the theory of the firm. He wrote the most cited article in the economics literature (The Problem of Social Cost). He demolished the idea that externalities and public goods require government intervention. He started two major bodies of economic research (law & economics and transaction cost economics) and reinvigorated a third (industrial organisation). He won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

I rest my case.

Berners-Lee < Ted Nelson. Thomas Sowell < Larry Arnn < Leo Strauss. Stuart Brand has to be up there, not so much as an original thinker but as an incubator of thought. But I think, categorically, the most influential mind living today, influential on the future that is, is Craig Venter. If you haven't heard what this man is saying lately, you are in for a deep, deep surprise. By the way, for all of you who might be interested, I have bundled up a good deal of conservative blogging in favor of finding out exactly this question except that I am rounding it off to the top fifty. I've been cruising TED and The Long Now Foundation for several months now. Venter does really stand head and shoulders above the rest when you consider the implications of his work. Very simply he is arguing that using techniques he is pioneering, human beings will for the first time in history actually do with agriculture what we think we've been doing, which is improve on random genetic mutations and select the 'best' tomatoes, etc. As things stand, we really have no idea why one tomato is better than another aside from the farmer's eye and his educated guesswork. Incidentally, Venter has singlehandedly identified more bacteria in the past five years than has been done in all of human history.

I think Hilary Putnam or Amartya Sen.

Ken Wilber. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ken_Wilber

Ever heard of Neil Gershenfeld at MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms?

He's the Tim Berners-Lee waiting to happen. The major changes in our lives in the next 20 years will be thanks to his work.

Here's a video of him at TED:

Watch it and you will know why he's my pick.

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