U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Who are the ten most influential American intellectuals of the 20th century?

Dear readers: Below is a guest post/query from Christian Olaf Christiansen and Astrid Louise Nonbo Andersen, intellectual historians at University of Aarhus, Denmark.

A growing interest in US politics, culture and history can be seen in Denmark these days, where people watch The Daily Show regularly and follow the primary elections with great interest. Intellectal history as an academic discipline in Denmark, however, has only recently begun to move its area of interest outside Europe. Whereas a lot of work is available to the wider public on e.g. French and German intellectuals, there is not much work available on American intellectual history in the Danish language. This is why we want to write and edit an anthology whose title is ‘American Intellectuals in the Twentieth Century’. Such a book is going to be limited in space, however, and will only include introductions to about ten American intellectuals.

And how does this concern members of the S-USIH or readers of the S-USIH blog? Well, we thought it would only be appropirate to ask you natives before we foreigners begin to decide who are your most influential intellectuals. We are aware of the fact that making a list of 10 people seems bound to raise endless discussions. But still, inviting more people to voice their opinions on the topic is surely better than omitting it altogether. So, if you dont have anything else important to do today, you can help us set the record straight, and help foster a growing interest in US intellectual history outside US.

It is important to stress that we by ‘intellectuals’ here are mainly interested in people that actively engaged in US society and politics – not necessarily as politicians, of course, but as someone who contributed to important debates. We have found much inspiration in vol. 2 of Hollinger and Capper’s sourcebook, The American Intellectual Tradition, but as said we only have limited space in our planned anthology.

1. There are some names which we are very sure of at the moment (but we still need to cut down these lists):
Dewey, Rorty, Chomsky, Walzer, Rawls

2. …And some names we are quite sure of:
Arendt, Bell, C.W. Mills, Niebuhr/Strauss, Fukuyama/Huntington, Butler, W.E.B. du Bois/M.Luther King, I. Wallerstein.

3. …And a few other names we haven’t left out yet:
Nozick, Veblen, S. Fish, Paul de Man, W. James, G. Myrdahl, R. Dahl, T. Parsons.

Finally, we have considered making the anthology more ‘school’, ‘theme’, or ‘movement’ based, with chapters on e.g. ‘pragmatism’, ‘New School of Social Research’, ‘Afro-American intellectuals’, The Chicago School’. This would allow us to include much more material and intellectuals, but we havent been able quite to work out an organizing principle yet, and some key intellectuals might not fit into any of these categories.

Any thoughts on the matter are most welcome, both concerning names we have forgotten, names you think should definetely be part of such a book, and names you think should definetely not be on the list.

Christian Olaf Christiansen and Astrid Louise Nonbo Andersen,intellectual historians at University of Aarhus, Denmark

28 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Of course, there is the question of whether a public intellectual is most influential because he/she is most studied as such (and has had the most influence in academic circles) or whether the “public” in the phrase should be given more emphasis. In that case, the question is about the impact of their ideas on the public during their lifetimes. If you think the second definition acceptable, I would nominate Jane Addams, whose ideas challenged the status quo in fresh ways, as one of the ten. She was far more widely known and read than John Dewey, gave far more speeches and was far more influential than he was among her contemporaries. And, to add extra weight to my argument, several scholars, including myself, are currently building the case that she was a pragmatist before Dewey and, more broadly, that she was a major influence on this thought.

  2. To put a different spin on your “Finally, …” paragraph near the end, I would consider constructing this volume around the _types_ of influence in America you want to demonstrate—religious, racial, gender, academic, political, social, educational, economic, corporate, foreign affairs, etc. (aside: my list hit ten areas accidentally). And then I would pick an intellectual who best represents “influence” in relation to the broadest number of subthemes under the topic of choice. By constructing the volume in this fashion you’ll avoid unnecessary thematic repetition among the top ten. – TL

  3. I like Tim’s idea. But even this would be difficult. For example, you could argue Niebuhr (who by the way is nothing like Strauss, so that’s a weird pairing) is the most influential American religious thinker of the 20th century. But only to liberal-minded intellectuals. He’s nowhere near as influential on American religious thought as, say, Frances Schaeffer. So “influential” is a difficult category to assess. Influential to whom?

  4. True the question that hangs over the project is how to understand influence that intellectuals have. So to take Andrew’s point about Frances Schaeffer and Reinhold Niebuhr, he is correct that Schaeffer had more direct influence on shifts in policy and group formation among the religious right, but when considering issues of morality in foreign affairs, war, and social ethics you can’t get anywhere in postwar America without bumping into Niebuhr. Schaeffer is not nearly as relevant in terms of establishing categories of thought, but he was far more significant in motivating huge numbers of Americans to move in particular directions.

  5. I will be touching on this issue (*very* obliquely) in my post for the weekend, but one might argue that one of the most influential thinkers in 20th century America was Henry Luce.

  6. After mulling it over, here’s my list, in no particular order. These are the thinkers I believe most influential to 20th century American social thought:

    1. John Dewey
    2. Margaret Mead
    3. Reinhold Niebuhr
    4. W. E. B. DuBois
    5. John Rawls
    6. Milton Friedman
    7. Judith Butler
    8. Derrick Bell
    9. C. Wright Mills
    10. William F. Buckley

    Let the debate ensue.

  7. “These are the thinkers I believe most influential to 20th century American social thought.”

    That’s not the same as the ten most influential American intellectuals of the twentieth century. A more focused list, though, I think is more likely to be coherent.

    Since it’s not clear how America is being defined, I’ll suggest Albert Einstein belongs on any such list. He was influential, he was an intellectual, and he was (eventually) an American. So put him on there!

    Kidding aside, I think Thomas Kuhn would certainly be a legitimate for such a list. So too James Watson. In general, the natural sciences should not be overlooked here. It would be a mistake to do so.

  8. Another question occurred to me: Are we going for “intellectuals” or thinkers? Will the difference be defined in the book? And how to “public intellectuals” fit into that distinction? Those questions aside, here’s my list of eleven (just to be different, in no particular order):

    1. John Dewey
    2. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
    3. Reinhold Niebuhr
    4. Martin Luther King, Jr.
    5. Milton Friedman
    6. Jane Addams
    7. Betty Friedan
    8. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
    9. Richard Rorty
    10. William F. Buckley
    11. Albert Einstein

    This is really difficult.

    In case anyone is wondering, because we’re talking “influence” and influence tracks in many directions (side-to-side, as well as top-to-bottom), I’d have Mortimer J. Adler in the top 20. His Britannica work alone, and its infusion/dissemination in American culture, gets him into the discussion. …And yes, I rank him over Robert M. Hutchins in that corner of the world. – TL

  9. A couple more nontraditional choices:

    Edwin Hubble
    Joseph Campbell

    If this were an internet poll, Ayn Rand would be leading, because the Randians always come out and vote. But it’s not, so she’s not.

  10. I don’t know. I’m not convinced that this is a good question. It seems too much like giving a wine rating–reducing the various kinds of flavors, body, ability to mature, pairings with food, and idiosyncrasies of taste and mood to a number. Can you really rank intellectuals without the same sort of reduction?

  11. OK, in spite of what I said above, I find this question irresistible. But I think 10 is too few, especially without a criteria of selection. So here is a list of my top ten (really eleven) American intellectuals who were influential in American politics (in roughly chronological order):

    1. John Dewey
    2. Louis Brandeis
    3. Walter Lippmann
    4. Reinhold Niebuhr
    5. George F. Kennan
    6. Arthur Schlesinger Jr.
    7. William F. Buckley Jr.
    8. Tom Hayden
    8. Betty Friedan
    9. Milton Friedman
    10. Edward Said

    I personally don’t find Chomsky, Rorty, or Walzer sufficiently influential in politics to put them in my top ten, in spite of their obviously important intellectual influence. Rawls was hugely influential in American political thought, but I’m less sure he was influential in actual politics. So I guess it depends on what we mean by “influential” as others have mentioned above. I also think the intended audience and scope of the anthology would determine my choices, more than any conception of influence. And I would like to make clear that I will retreat instantly when challenged on any of the choices above.

  12. Another name I’ll throw into the ring: Peter Singer.

    Influence in politics is not the only kind, of course. Another way of categorizing it might be impact on the broader culture, that is, not just within their own field or in the academy. That’s the kind of criterion that would keep somone like Clifford Geertz off the list.

  13. One last thought: W.E.B. DuBois would have to go on my list. Not sure how I left him off. To keep it at the same number, I’d take of Schlesinger for DuBois.

    And I have to point out that there is a leftist bias in many of the selections here (and even in my own list). I’m sure there are probably obvious reasons for that, but would someone like Phyllis Schlafly be considered an intellectual? She is certainly more influential in society and politics than Chomsky, who is widely read on the left at a time when leftist political thought is in decline (at least in the United States).

  14. Surely Chomsky’s political and social influence has been modest at best. (Being “widely read on the left” isn’t exactly a recpipe for success these days.) But as an intellectual surely his work in linguistics puts him in the conversation. Again, we’re back to defining “intellectual” and “influence.” Chomsky’s case perhaps illustrates that as one kind of “intellectual” one can have profound “influence,” but as another kind, be insignificant.

  15. I’d agree Chomsky doesn’t belong.

    No one’s mentioned T.S. Eliot. You can’t study literary modernism without him, plus he was a big influence on conservatism.

    Or Lionel Trilling–big influence on both politics and literature, plus he illuminates a lot about the cold war, the 60’s, and nascent neoconservatism…

  16. No particular order:

    John Dewey
    Walter Lippmann
    Reinhold Niebuhr
    Arthur Schlesinger
    William F. Buckley
    T.S. Eliot
    Lionel Trilling
    Oliver Wendell Holmes
    Martin Luther King
    Milton Friedman

    Albert Einstein would make the list, but he’s more European, just like TS Eliot was an emigre in England, but still American.

  17. From the OP: “people who actively engaged in US society and politics…contributed to important debates”

    Arguably need at least two separate lists: one for those who contributed to US foreign policy debates, one for debates on domestic issues (broadly construed). So George Kennan, for ex., really was only influential on the foreign-policy debates; he remained aloof from the mass/populist aspects of the anti-Vietnam war mvt, although he opposed the war. Rawls was influential in the academy and beyond, but not personally involved in political debates.

    Here’s one crack at it, skewed toward the second half of the twentieth century (in no particular order):

    M.L. King
    W.F. Buckley
    Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
    J.K. Galbraith
    Daniel Bell
    Irving Howe
    Michael Harrington
    Betty Friedan
    Tom Hayden
    Irving Kristol

  18. Thank you all very much for contributing to this debate, it has given us a lot of ideas to work with, and more thinking to do – not only concerning choices to be made, but more importantly the ways in which we can define ‘intellectual’, ‘influence’, or ‘contribution’ in this context. One way of proceeding might be to tighten the criteria for ‘public intellectual’ by using a kind of double standard, e.g. that the thinkers involved did both contribute significantly to acadademic debates as well as to public debates (as e.g. Einstein or Niebuhr did). However, we still need to think this over. And one thing we surely need to do is to write a comprehensive introducion to the anthology, explaining our choices and writing about many of the persons that did not become part of the book, but just as well could have. A book like this should be very self-reflexive concerning the choices it has made. It is important also to stress here, we think, that we don’t want yet another ‘ranking list’, but that it does, on the other hand, make some sense to talk about (academic or public) influence of public intellectuals, and to write an anthology about some of these. Tim Lacy’s idea of themes definitely gives us something to work with, but I think Andrew Hartman is rigth that this way of proceeding raises its own problems. Also for pragmatic reasons, we might have to select only one intellectual concerning e.g. ‘political influence’, which seems very difficult. Nonetheless, this is something we need to think more about.
    Anyways, your comments have helped guide us in new directions, and the list we presented in the above seems not to have passed this critical test. Some of the names we mentioned were not mentioned by any of you (as e.g. Fukuyama, Wallerstein, Veblen, and many others), some were written out (Chomsky in particular), and other names were mentioned many times, such as Reinhold Neibuhr, John Dewey, Milton Friedman, W.F. Buckley, A. Schlesinger Jr. (From this little ‘pool’ among US intellectual historians, these names seems ‘safe’ on the list). Also mentioned many times were Rawls (although not so directly publicly engaged), ML King, du Bois, Jane Addams, and a few others. We were somewhat surprised that authors like Rorty or CW Mills were not among the ‘obvious choices’, but surprises like this were part of the whole idea of asking. So, again, thankyou for ‘insider’ thoughts and knowledge on this subject.

    Christian Olaf Christiansen & Astrid Louise Nonbo Andersen

  19. A quick p.s. to my earlier comment:
    I think you could make a case for “Fukuyama/Huntington” (you paired them this way originally) depending on the direction you ultimately decide on for your book. As for Wallerstein, the Modern World-System volumes and some of his other writings have been quite influential for (some) academics (and in my opinion they are v. impressive accomplishments, whether one agrees with everything he says or not), but my sense is that his more topical/political writing has had less influence.
    This is all subjective, obviously. (I am not btw an intellectual historian, but when you put up the post you didn’t say that you wanted only historians to comment.)

  20. If by “influence” you are referring to impact on wider public discourse, and specifically on public policy, there are a number of names which really should be mentioned:
    * Madison Grant – for his race thinking and thinking about immigration
    * Randolph Bourne – for the idea of a multicultural America
    * David Lilienthal – for the idea of government-sponsored public works as a worthy American national endeavor
    * Milton Friedman – we all know why
    * Betty Friedan – ditto
    * Rachel Carson – environmentalism
    * George Kennan – so-called “containment”
    * MLK (and maybe Malcolm X, too)
    * Ralph Nader – consumer protection

    These are people whose ideas fundamentally changed political discourse and policy direction, not always in positive ways. That’s a narrow definition of influence, of course, and I think Tim’s suggestion for thinking about different kinds of influence is a very good one. It might be possible to create a visual map of the different, overlapping kinds of influence that different intellectuals wielded,

  21. I would be interested in a sub-set of Intellectuals, where the emphasis is on how articulate they are “on their feet,” that is, on their prowess as “magicians” of the English language. At the top of my list would be William F. Buckley and Christopher Hitchens. Who are other favorites?

Comments are closed.