Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal ran an adulatory profile (paywall) of philanthropist Nicolas Berggruen. At first glance Berggruen seems like an interesting character. The Parisian son of an art collector and an actress, Berggruen studied existentialist thought before launching a highly profitable hedge fund in 1988. For a time the press took to calling Berggruen the “homeless billionaire”—he owned no super-sized mansion or downtown penthouse, preferring instead to jet from one luxury hotel to another. Now, age fifty-five, Berggruen is a single father with a pair of young children from surrogate mothers, and he’s left behind the world of finance to focus instead on the world of ideas.

Apparently still enthralled by the Big Ideas that first seized his mind as a precocious schoolboy, Berggruen launched in 2010 the eponymous Berggruen Institute, devoted to ‘developing foundational ideas and through them shaping the political and social institutions of the 21st century’.

In the intervening seven years, the Institute has made a name for itself, attracting global movers and shakers and popular academics to a series of conference, colloquia, and working groups: Francis Fukukyama and Elon Musk sit on the ‘21st Century Council’, to ‘address the challenges of a multipolar world’; Gerhard Schröder, Gordon Brown, and Jacques Delors rank among the members of something called the ‘Council for the Future of Europe’, which tasks itself with ‘moving forward the project of a unified Europe’ (they certainly have their work cut out for them!); and last year a panel including Amartya Sen and Kwame Anthony Appiah awarded Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor a $1 million ‘Berggruen Prize’, which ‘recognizes humanistic thinkers whose ideas have helped us find direction, wisdom, and improved self-understanding’.  

And as the WSJ profile mentions, Berggruen’s current dream is what he calls a “secular monastery” in the hills of Los Angeles—a lavish, sprawling think-tank-cum-oasis where up to fifty thinkers can work on the biggest issues of the age in relative peace and comfort. The L.A. Times’ Thomas Curwen notes that the “cloistered campus […] would occupy half the remaining, private open space between Topanga State Park and the San Diego Freeway”—some 450 acres. Berggruen hopes to break ground on the site in the coming few years, and eventually attract the best and brightest to his little intellectual Valhalla—a place where Socrates and Confucius will meet to discuss Bitcoin and Brexit.

Again, this all sounds well and good. The prospect of applying a deep, millennia-old tradition of thought to the challenges of the day is in some sense precisely what ‘conservative’ foundations like the Hertog Foundation or the Claremont Institute have been promoting for decades. And after Berggruen endowed his Institute with more than $500 million last year, we can expect the work to go on for many years to come.

But—and this almost seems rude to say—I’m still not sure what the Institute is really all about.

O.K., sure, it’s is committed to ‘addressing the challenges of a multipolar world’, but its most significant geopolitical efforts in the last few years have centered on helping China’s ruling Communist Party think through how to effectively manage an increasingly digitalized economy.

Yes, the Institute aims to ‘recognize humanistic thinkers’ whose ‘ideas have influenced our beliefs and way of life’, but it comes at this task with no explicit commitments to certain values over others, leaving its Academic Board a kind of hodge-podge of tenured dons and avant-garde futurists.

And yes, the Institute talks a good talk regarding the ‘future of Europe’, but has assembled a group consisting almost entirely of former leaders and bureaucrats that seem merely to be singing from Brussels’ hymnbook.

That’s fine, of course—but if the Berggruen Institute wants to be a hub of internationalist, techno-futurist thought, they should come out and say so. As it stands, the group’s vague commitments to ‘humanistic thinking’ and ‘foundational ideas’ just sounds like so much committee-approved group-think. Sometimes this lack of clarity borders on the bizarre, as it does when one finds (within the pages of a Berggruen five-year report) the noted cellist Yo-Yo Ma extolling the power that the internet has to promote empathy—it’s almost like some poor intern was forced to play Mad Libs with a list of the snappiest philanthro-buzzwords he could think of.

“Ideas matter”, as Nicolas Berggruen likes to say. But which ideas? Whose? These questions are often left unanswered by the amorphous self-description of groups like the Berggruen Institute.

And, what’s more, as long as ‘Philosophy’ continues to be treated as a kind of resource, a productive source of practical wisdom that can be mined by conscientious technocrats facing intransigent political predicaments, then we will go on misunderstanding both philosophy and our prevailing social problems.

Photo credit: Casa de América via Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC-ND