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Philosophy and Literature 25.1 (2001) 181-196

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What is Genius?

Denis Dutton

There's a school of thought which holds that there's nothing much of interest that can be said about genius. The root idea is older than Kant, but it was well summarized by him: genius is a natural endowment, deep, strange, and mysterious, at least with respect to putative explanations. Schubert can get up in the morning and before lunch knock off five songs that captivate us hundreds of years later. There's no way for us to account for this, and we ought not to expect, Kant claims, that genius can explain itself either: Schubert doesn't have a clue how he does it.

Yet trying to figure out how creative geniuses do it remains a permanent source of fascination, most of it fairly naïve. When the ingénue reporter is sent out by the City Editor to interview the famous, crusty old novelist, the first question is normally, "Where do you get your ideas?" Of course, if the novelist knew that, he'd not be likely to blab it in the press. Kant's point is that he cannot really know; no one can. Monroe Beardsley relays a story about Picasso, who claimed to suffer from "an indigestion of greenness" from walking in the woods on a summer's day: "I must empty this sensation into a picture," Picasso said. "Green dominates it. The painter paints as if in urgent need to discharge himself of his sensations and his visions." Beardsley observes that green indigestion could have been even more plausibly used to "explain" a red painting ("I needed an antidote to all that green"), or a pen-and-ink drawing ("I needed to get away from color"), or anything else. There is in this a general point about why we are so often disappointed by interviews with artists. The artist can do; the artist can't explain how. [End Page 181]

It does not follow, however, that nothing of interest can be learned, at least at a descriptive level, about genius. Dean Keith Simonton has spent most of a career looking at the subject as a psychologist, and his Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity (Oxford University Press, $27.50) ties together much of his research and that of others in a way that extends thinking on genius far beyond armchair meditations or mere platitudes. At the heart of Simonton's project are two very different ideas: first, he argues that evolution and processes of natural selection provide illuminating models to explain the existence and operation of creative genius in the sciences and the arts. Second, he propounds a rather more dubious thesis, that the process of natural selection itself is an adequate model for understanding genius at work, that the history of human ideas demonstrates a kind of secondary evolution. To these hypotheses, Simonton adds a further Darwinian overlay: he returns repeatedly to the personality and biography of Charles Darwin himself as the paradigm of a life of creative genius. While this has the advantage of anchoring the discussion, giving it a kind of ostinato ground, it diverts Simonton from the manifestations of genius, especially artistic genius, which do not resemble Darwin's personal example.

Creative genius is defined by Simonton as the capacity to originate scientific discoveries, artistic works, technical inventions, or engage in political leadership, in a manner that achieves what is conventionally termed eminence. The eminent person creates, discovers, or invents something that passes the test of time and, like the similar test devised by Hume to mark out artistic greatness, appeals to cultures beyond that of the original act of creation. It is not hard for the philosophically trained reader to devise counter-examples to Simonton's general theses, but the value of his book does not require a rigorous definition at the outset. Whatever genius is, and however we might dispute it, there is no doubting that Leonardo Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Newton, and Einstein count as creative geniuses in Simonton's sense. High raw IQ is frequently associated with genius...


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