Wednesday, November 12, 2008


On a shelf in the room where I keep my laptop at the college: The Horizon Book of Makers of Modern Thought, published in 1972 by American Heritage. Thirty-six short biographies. One woman. One non-European.
Leonardo da Vinci. Niccolo Machiavelli. Desiderius Erasmus. Nicolaus Copernicus. Martin Luther. John Calvin. Francis Bacon. Thomas Hobbes. Rene Descartes. Blaise Pascal. John Locke. Isaac Newton. Voltaire. Jean Jacques Rousseau. Adam Smith. Immanuel Kant. Jeremy Bentham. Mary Wollstonecraft. Thomas Robert Malthus. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Robert Owen. Karl Maria von Clausewitz. George Perkins Marsh. Charles Robert Darwin. Karl Marx. Michael Bakunin. William James. Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. James George Frazer. Sigmund Freud. Mahandas Karamchand Gandhi. Albert Einstein. John Maynard Keynes. Ludwig Wittgenstein. Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch (who share an essay).
Obviously, any such list is idiosyncratic and to some extent arbitrary. Why Pavlov, for example, and not Pasteur? Why Pascal and not Spinoza? Why Descartes and not Galileo? Why Bakunin and not Jefferson? Why Hobbes and not Hume? Why Marsh and not Thoreau? Why Wiener/McCulloch and not Shannon/von Neumann? Of course, any list today would be more inclusive by ethnicity and gender.

Less arbitrary would be a list of Makers of Your Thought, or Makers of My Thought. Who among the list above were most influential in creating the intellectual world I personally inhabit?

Erasmus for humanism and tolerance.

Francis Bacon for empiricism.

John Locke for understanding the limits of knowing.

George Perkins Marsh for ecology.

Charles Darwin for naturalism -- and "grandeur in this view of life."

William James for natural religion.

Mahandas Gandhi for nonviolence.

Norbert Wiener and Warren McCulloch for the embodiment of mind.