Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Does genius exist?
January 6, 2002 12:30 PM   Subscribe

Does genius exist?
According to commonplace descriptions, a genius creates artworks beyond the abilities of the merely talented. A genius's achievements are uninfluenced by vagaries of taste and marketplace; in fact, a genius may be shunned at first and only later acclaimed.
But genius has been far more flexible a concept than its critics recognize; it is less a reflection of a rigid ideology than an attempt to characterize an infinitely variable phenomenon. [NYTimes, registration required]
posted by Blake (23 comments total)

Of course it exists- but it's a label that is thrown about too easily. Mozart was a genius by any measure: his "phonographic" memory that enabled him to transcribe, note for note, a 3-hour choral work after one hearing with but a handful of mistakes, or his ability to visualize entire sheets of music in his head at a time as he composed, not to mention the musicologically perfect compositions themselves, all of which suggest a musical mind so vastly ahead of even our modern musical titans that the label "genius" seems almost a letdown. Likewise, Beethoven wrote a massive and phenomenal composition like the 9th symphony while completely deaf (regardless of whether you 'like' it or not)- compare this to many musicians who tinker at the piano or guitar until they stumble upon a pleasing 4 bar riff for a hook in their next pop song. Are these people smart? Sure. Talented? Yep, they can do something many people cannot. Genius? Well... unless you want to devalue the term, no.

Plenty of people- people who are accomplished, in particular- are labeled geniuses, and that doesn't fit. Being accomplished or successful doesn't make you a genius- you may be smart, and ambitious and a bit lucky, but not a "genius". I tend to think their are 3 real strata of intelligence/talent: the "normal", covering the average to a little above average; the "bright", covering a span of people who clearly think faster, think differently, some even exceptionally so; and the "geniuses", those whose gifts are so unusual they deserve distinction from even otherwise very bright people.

Many of our greatest talents in the arts and sciences today do some amazing stuff, but they don't understand their craft the way Mozart understood music, the way Ramanujan could just 'see' complex number theory solutions, or the way Michelangelo would take huge chunks of marble out in a single whack of his chisel because he could see and feel the finished sculpture trapped inside. Indeed, I sometimes wonder what an 'average' person could do if they were raised from early childhood to play an instrument, paint, write, etc. They'd learn the "language", the linguistic structure of music and art and writing, perhaps even skillfully- but they'd never be a Shakespeare. To me, that's what genius is. You can't teach it, and the geniuses themselves can't understand it or explain it. It just happens in their heads...
posted by hincandenza at 1:27 PM on January 6, 2002

hincandenza is a genius.
posted by Optamystic at 1:36 PM on January 6, 2002

I think I'm a genius, but that's just 'cause I'm unsuccessful.

OK, I'll stop banging my drum. I promise.
posted by Domain Master 666 at 1:43 PM on January 6, 2002

My first response to that question was, "Of course it does, it's a specific term in IQ testing." After a bit of poking about though I found that the general consensus (take this as an example) seems to be that 'genius' isn't a very useful term in an intelligence classification system.

I've always thought that a genius is someone who can make an intuitive leap from what is known or what has gone before to something new and of inherent value. Basically, they skip all the tedious deduction, refinement and piecing together of intermediary steps simply because they can, making genius separate from the normal continuum of intelligence or talent.
posted by MUD at 1:57 PM on January 6, 2002

So the existence of artistic genius would support belief in the possibility of 1) a hierarchy of talent, 2) objective judgment and 3) aesthetic autonomy.

I'm with the post-modernists on this one. Objective judgment regarding the arts is a non-sensical concept for something so objective. I've always considered the use of the word talent a great motivator and calling someone talentless a great demotivator.

Genius, unless your talking in the strict IQ sense, is a myth and lately an abused concept. Remember "Battle of the child geniuses" on Fox a little while back?
posted by skallas at 2:13 PM on January 6, 2002

Of course it exists - have you not seen the Budweiser ads? My favourite must be the guy who invented the foot-long hot-dog. :)

(You know, something tells me those ads are a UK-only thing...)
posted by malross at 2:18 PM on January 6, 2002

This reminds me of a section at the beginning of Kierkegaard'sEither/Or where the "author" is talking about the greatness of Mozart and "the happy view" that infers that there are countless others with just as much talent as Mozart that, thanks to chance and circumstance, were simply not recognized as such.

"The author's" commentary: "Now this wisdom contains much solace and comfort for all mediocre minds since it lets them and like-minded spirits fancy that the reason that they are not as celebrated as the celebrities is some confusion of fate, a mistake on the part of the world."
posted by lizs at 2:19 PM on January 6, 2002

Daryl, I agree with your assessment of Hincadenza's comment--and my apologies again for my smartypants remarks elsewhere. Blake, thanks for the post. It's food for thought and that's why I signed up here in the first place.
posted by y2karl at 3:12 PM on January 6, 2002

Does it exist? Yes.
posted by geoff. at 3:17 PM on January 6, 2002

geoff=a nose sooooo brown....
posted by mecran01 at 3:21 PM on January 6, 2002

re genius:
actually one girl I used to work with said that by age 30, I'd wind up in some bar face down in my nachos telling the bartender what a genius I am.
She was half-right. Instead of a bar. I'm doing it here, and I don't have any nachos. Damn!
posted by jonmc at 4:02 PM on January 6, 2002

Genius, unless your talking in the strict IQ sense, is a myth and lately an abused concept.

why isn't the strict IQ sense as much a myth? Those tests are all created from a subjective perspective of what makes up intelligence, after all. I was surprised from that link that 140 was the mark for "genius" - I thought it was like 200... At 140, there are a helluva lot of geniuses (genii? :) ) in the world.

Anyway, I tend toward hincandenza's definition, that genius is not about being really really smart, but about perceiving the world in an entirely different way, one that allows you to go further than your peers in a given field. Also, like talent, being a genius must be specific to something, I think - a particular natural strength in one field that goes beyond what might be acquired through learning.

The part I disagree with is that the word means there must be objective judgment. We can all disagree on who is a genius and still agree on the concept of what a genius is.

The hierarchical structure need not be absolute, either - each individual doesn't have to be placed above or below others - but in the end, some people are better at certain things than others. It's just a little more fluid and a lot more complicated than traditional hierarchical structures.
posted by mdn at 4:03 PM on January 6, 2002

A nice essay on genius by Malcom Gladwell.
posted by grrarrgh00 at 4:26 PM on January 6, 2002

why isn't the strict IQ sense as much a myth?

Because its a standardized test and you can pick a percentile and call it genius or call it whatever you please. What that means at best is one's performance on a certain standardized test. I never liked using the word genius when it comes to the arts. Master seems more appropriate, as a Master is someone who regularly turns out masterpieces.
posted by skallas at 5:35 PM on January 6, 2002

I'm a genius, but none of you can appreciate me because I'm not dead yet.
posted by Jeremy at 5:44 PM on January 6, 2002

Does genius exist?

I thought they split up after Phil Collins went solo.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 8:39 PM on January 6, 2002

A better question is: What is genius?

Is it the most agile athlete with such a fluidity in rythym? Is it the speed at which one can calculate the smaller equations in their head?

I have a friend who can remember any phone number; we use him as a personal address book, even calling him up for such tasks.

I can recall all 52 cards of a shuffled deck, number and suite, in perfect order.

I wouldn't consider either of us genuises.

Where does creativity come into play?

not to mention the musicologically perfect compositions themselves, all of which suggest a musical mind so vastly ahead of even our modern musical titans that the label "genius" seems almost a letdown.

"perfect?" According to who? If music is so scientific, then it would be easy calculate scores.

Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton....Michael Jordan? All "genuises" in my mind.
posted by Mach3avelli at 11:36 PM on January 6, 2002

in fact, a genius may be shunned at first and only later acclaimed.

I think this is a very telling comment that goes to any of several recent MeFi discussions on modern art. I submit that many modernists see this observation and turn it into a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. That is, they go out of their way to invite scorn and derision believing (erroneously) that it is a prerequisite -- a necessary first step -- if they are to be ultimately acknowledged as artistic visionaries or "geniuses".
posted by RavinDave at 12:12 AM on January 7, 2002

That is, they go out of their way to invite scorn and derision believing (erroneously) that it is a prerequisite -- a necessary first step -- if they are to be ultimately acknowledged as artistic visionaries or "geniuses".

since you're going to pull out the latin and all, I'd like to point out that the link you cite (re:p.h.e.p.h.) talks about causation and not pre-requisites. i.e., for people to consider me a genius it might be a pre-requisite for me to be born, but that does not mean I harbor the belief that the mere fact of being born causes me to be a genius.
posted by juv3nal at 3:44 AM on January 7, 2002

Estimated IQs of some vintage eggheads.
posted by liam at 1:43 PM on January 7, 2002

I'm a genus.
posted by hellinskira at 5:33 PM on January 7, 2002

That estimated IQ list points out much of what is wrong with labeling intelligence or genius- the baldfaced elitism and silliness of such rankings makes me chuckle ("highest genius"?!). While I believe in such a thing as 'genius', what these people are doing is the [allegedly] high-IQ equivalent of grabbing a ruler, pulling down their pants, and whipping it out. A simple- minded, one-dimensional, and ultimately meaningless and pointless "measure" of a human being.

In addition, they have it segmented their list into intervals of 9 IQ points, except in the upper stratosphere where it's 15 and 20 points- yet, as I've expounded in the past, the asymptotic nature of the IQ makes it such that the difference between an IQ of 100 and 110 is negligible (in terms of "rarity") while the difference between an IQ of 180 and 190 is literally several orders of magnitude.

Finally, barring a rather stunningly unlikely coincidence, an IQ of 200 would statistically make you the smartest person alive on the planet. Not to mention the fact that three people had an estimated IQ of 205+, putting them all in that rarified air of "1 in 37 billion". Um.... what is the estimate, that the entire history of human kind has produced about 60 billion homo sapiens?

In short, IQ is bunk, and attempting to label or rank brilliant people is a pointless exercise.
posted by hincandenza at 5:54 PM on January 7, 2002

Well, since according to that list I'm just as bright as Mozart and Darwin, let me put forth my much considered theory:

posted by Foosnark at 11:22 AM on January 8, 2002

« Older There are a number of culture-specific disorders, ...  |  Consider This, America.... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments