Sunday, 1 August 2010

Who were the only-moderately-high-IQ geniuses?

I believe that genius is essentially a combination of high intelligence, and high creativity (in the sense of a semi-psychotic, trance-like ability to think poetically and with loose-associations) - plus sufficient application to work very hard on those subjects which really inspire the genius.

A genius also needs an awkward personality, or else he will simply fit-in with the normal social expectations; and sufficient autonomy that this misfit status does not bother him.

(Note: these ideas mostly derive from HJ Eysenck's book - Genius.) 

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According to most studies, it looks as if most geniuses were of *very* high intelligence (general intelligence, 'g' or IQ) - being something like three or more standard deviations above average (IQ 145 plus when the average IQ is defined as 100 and the standard deviation as 15).

However, in my reading of the biographies of geniuses, some seem to be more more normal in intelligence than this - certainly in the top ten percent, say IQ 120 plus, but not more.

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Just for fun, I will nominate Ludwig Wittgenstein as one of these.

To my mind, Wittgenstein seems to have a much lower IQ than most philosophers, he approaches things in a relatively straightforward manner. What is unusual about Wittgenstein is not his ability to think abstractly, reason extensively and learn rapidly -  but his amazing persistence at picking away, with searing intensity and poetic expressivity, year after year, again and again, at matters which most people would regard as minutiae.

For what it is worth, Wittgenstein's academic record was very good but not amazing - which is at least consistent with the above.

Any other suggestions of only-moderately-high IQ-geniuses?

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[I am assuming that Wittgenstein really was a genius, since he was so massively influential in 20th century philosophy - and was rated so highly by extremely intelligent people such as Bertrand Russell and Elizabeth Anscombe. However, Wittgenstein seems to me always to have been wrong about everything -  and indeed twentieth century philosophy is always wrong about everything; so maybe Wittgenstein was not a genius but a nutter who happened to be taken seriously by a silly and corrupt area of intellectual endeavor, due to other aspects of his personality which led to a cult growing around him.]

9 comments:

dearieme said...

Memory says that J J Thomson was said in Cambridge to be "not even clever". But I've looked at his Wikipedia entry - perhaps "they" meant that his cleverness was restricted to science.

bgc said...

Yes I agree - Second Wrangler (i.e. roughly the second best technical mathematician of his age in England) is hardly consistent with an only moderately high IQ.

bgc said...

More on JJ Thomson - I found a mini biography in Noel Annan's The Dons:

'He read mathematics and became second Wrangler. In doing so he joined a remarkable band of those who came second in the mathematical tripos: Whewell, Clerk Maxwell, Kelvin, WK Clifford, William Cavendish and the economist Alfred Marshall.'

From the impression gained by the rest of the biog, JJ Thomson looks like a typical genius characterized by super-high-IQ, high creativity (intuitive to the point of being semi-psychotic), autonomous (low empathizing - didn't care what other people thought), and moderately-low conscientiousness - that is Thomson was shambolic and unreliable wrt. boring things like 'life' but worked very hard, continuously, at what *really* interested him.

dearieme said...

To return to an old topic, the second wranglership has produced more top drawer people than the USA. Maxwell is assuredly top drawer, Kelvin and JJ both have a strong case, depending on where your intuition draws the line.

ab said...

"indeed twentieth century philosophy is always wrong about everything"

My guess is that philosophy has been affected by professionalization in a way that is similar to how science has been affected.

Chris said...

I majored in philosophy in college, and Wittgenstein was the only philosopher I studied that I really got a lot out of. His early stuff meant nothing to me, but the later work, which was hardly philosophy but rather a way of looking at philosophical questions, floored me. When you say you think he was wrong about everything, bgc, do you mean early Witt, later Witt, or both?

bgc said...

@Chris - both. I was smitten by Wittgenstein for about 4 years - and went so far as to get the offer of a place to study undergraduate philosophy at Trinity College, Cambridge - i.e. Wittgenstien's home (in the end, I didn't do this, fortunately); but I now consider myself to have been - essentially - hoodwinked or bewitched.

Chris said...

bgc, wow, that's interesting to hear. I suppose maybe I've been bewitched myself but just haven't snapped out of it yet.

I like your blog a lot. Especially your comments on the world of modern science. Great stuff.

Richard Johns said...

Maybe Descartes? His solution to the collision problem was a joke. Yet he had the right idea about many things, and did some very good work.

In general, there's a difference between cognitive agility and having a "nose for the truth". Being smart can be a liability, as smart people will keeping fixing up a theory that doesn't work. Duffers will just give up. See, for example, the brilliantly terrible David Lewis.