12 Great thinkers of our time

James Lovelock, E O wilson, Martha Nussbaum, Li Hongzhi, Peter Singer, Noam Chomsky, Maulana Sayyid

In 1978 the broadcaster and writer Bryan Magee published a book called Men of Ideas. It was based on a BBC television series of the same name in which Magee, in conversation with leading philosophers and cultural critics of that time, sought to identify, as he put it, the creators of contemporary philosophy. But his book was misnamed - one of Magee's men of ideas was none other than Iris Murdoch, the only woman to be featured in the series.

How did Murdoch feel to be represented as a man of ideas? And why had Magee not sought the opinion and expertise of other female philosophers? One could equally ask a similar question of our own selection of influential contemporary thinkers, which includes only two women, the feminist Kate Millett and the philosopher and liberal internationalist Martha Nussbaum. Is there something about the enterprise of abstract thought itself - thought as an expression of a complete world-view or philosophy for living - that is inherently masculine? Is it only men that have the temerity and arrogance to construct a Weltanschauung, a total view of the world? Or is it simply that women, for so long excluded from the world of ideas and professional scholarship, will in time catch up with, and even surpass, the contribution of men in this area as they have in so many others?

There are no easy answers to these questions. The purpose behind any such list is to illuminate, inform, entertain and provoke. In seeking to find the 12 most influential thinkers of our disturbed modern age, I consulted philosophers, scientists and journalists, as well as many of our regular contributors. I was looking to identify not only thinkers who were scholars of world renown, those who had made original contributions to their areas of expertise, but also those whose ideas transcended their natural constituency to reach a wider public. I was not seeking conformity or accessibility, but rather tension and even danger. And one could not ignore thinkers such as Li Hongzhi, the founder of the Falun Gong, or Sayyid Abul-Ala Maududi, thinkers whose ideas, though seldom coherent, continue to exert powerful influence over hundreds of millions of people throughout the world. Indeed, so influential are Maududi's ideas, and so profound has been his impact on Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda as well as moderate Muslims, that we included him even though he died in 1979. The rest of our thinkers are, we hope, very much alive.

We are often told that ours is a post-political age, that the old ideological battles have long since been won and we have now entered a period of rest. The truth of the matter is that we are living through a period of rapid change and deep disturbance. Since the events of 11 September 2001, there is a terrible tension at large in the world. We have little idea in which direction we are moving, little belief in progress and much anxiety about the dangers that lie ahead. Never has there been a greater need for rational and enlightened thought and for dialogue between different cultures and traditions.

To think well is often to think unpredictably; it is to unsettle received opinion. Thinking unpredictably can result in extreme or preposterous positions - Peter Singer, author of Animal Liberation, has even discussed the moral value of bestiality. Most of the thinkers on our list have at one time or another been mocked or reviled for their beliefs and ideas - deservedly so, in certain cases. But what distinguishes them is their intellectual daring and their desire not only to explain the world, but also to change it. For better or worse, they are among the most important thinkers of this or any other time.

Additional research (biographies) by Dan Rosenheck