Tuesday 2 October 2012

What can be done about the Genius famine?


I seem to have evolved such a distinctive view of the nature and effect of Creative Genius that I don't suppose anyone else holds any similar views...

And, in the end, I am ambivalent about Genius. Clearly Genius is such a powerful weapon that it can scarcely be trusted in the hands of a fallen Man.

Genius is thus more likely to lead to harm than good, for the same reason that any machine will usually do more harm than good.


But if the modern world has been necessarily based on the work of relatively few Geniuses - as I believe it has; and if Genius is disappearing fast - as I believe it is; then what would be a rational response of a pro-modernizer to the situation.

What is actually happening is not rational, because in fact the modern world has become (and is becoming more so) hostile to Genius; so that the relatively few who emerge are usually kept from having any chance of influence.

This happens passively by bureaucracy and actively by Leftism (pretty much all of the Leftist 'moral' priorities will have the net effect of making it harder, or impossible, for a Genius to get into any position of influence or be taken notice of).


So on the one hand there is a 'famine' of Genius - which afflicts the science, technology, the arts, politics, philosophy, law... pretty much everything with very few people of that sort within the fields

But on the other hand, there is near zero awareness of the rapid and (from a modernizing perspective) catastrophic decline in Genius.


Take classical music. There are essentially zero geniuses operating in composing Western classical music nowadays, although there used to be many; and this has been the situation for many decades; and indeed the kind of people who might potentially do work of genius are utterly absent from these social systems - yet nobody ever talks about this.

Or in academic scholarship. In the vastly bloated British university systems, not only is there essentially nobody doing work of Genius (I can think of just one); but there is probably nobody who would even be capable of having a shot at Genius-level work: the people are just the wrong kind of people altogether.

In the first place, they are not even trying to do the best work of which they are capable - so it is not going to happen,

In the second place they have the wrong personality type: conscientious, obedient, empathic, following of established rules...

In the third place they are of lesser intelligence compared with the past.


Nothing much can be done about the demographic decline in intelligence; and the process continues.

However, it would, in principle, seemingly be possible to compensate for this - for a while - by a better 'search process': a more effective way of unearthing more individuals from the declining pool of potential geniuses and giving them a better chance of coming through to a position where they might attain the best work of which they were capable - and then taking some notice of it.

Yet, to write that paragraph is to see that it will not happen, and also perhaps why it will not happen.

How could a society which is root and branch hostile to the kind of person who might (but probably wont) become a Genius, do anything of the sort?

And there is the paradox of organizing society to encourage the emergence of the disorganized and disorganizing and disruptive.


But if something of the sort was actually put into effect (and this might well be a plot for a science fiction novel, perhaps by Philip K Dick), then it could happen by means of a program of psychological profiling and testing rather like the process which already exists for discovering talent in musical performance.

That is, a multitude of individual coaches, teachers or Maestros who would take on promising youngsters for training; and a variety of competitions aimed at evaluating both achieved performance and (more important) potential.

The framework is that what is happening is that talent is being discovered then developed to a point where the talent can take-over its own development.


The apprentice would need to find, and trust, a Master.

The Master would need to want to find, and work with, the best apprentices. 

The Masters would be in control of the system.

Because only the Masters can see what is going on. 

But aside from that, there is no 'system'. No formal requirements. No standard progression. No accreditation of any significance.


Very individualistic, very elitist, very esoteric.

It sees talent and the potential for Genius as essentially innate.

If you haven't got it you can't do it; and if even you have, you probably won't.


The only place I think anything of this sort continues (at least until recently) in the scholarly world is mathematics in some countries - where there exists a system of competitions for sifting the general population, identifying then developing the small number of kids who show special mathematical talent.

If modern society was concerned with its own continuation - which very clearly it is not, instead being devoted to its own extinction - then something of this kind would need to occur to locate and empower sufficient numbers of Geniuses to maintain the frequent and relevant breakthroughs necessary to enable continued growth in efficiency and capability.

But instead we have public relations which convinces everybody who matters that everything is fine and getting better. 



Matthew C. said...

"I can think of just one"

-- Sheldrake?

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC - Okay - make that two...

Matthew C. said...

Who's the other one?

Your own work in the medical / psychiatric field is pretty impressive. I find your analysis of mental disorders particularly cogent. I've always been confused by the whole "mental illness" body of knowledge and seeing a lot of those conditions as driven by delirium and sleep disorder is a great insight.

I've always been impressed by anyone who comes up with a hypothesis that takes a field of confusion and, after reading them, I get the "ahh, of course!" sensation. That is very rare with modern "science" which seems to be chiefly concerned with an entirely different agenda. . .

Bruce Charlton said...

@MC "Who's the other one?"

Well, it isn't me!

I was thinking of Psychiatrist David Healy - although the economic historian Greg Clark is another possibility; except that due to modern constraints he has been hampered in his work by having to express himself indirectly.

Ariston said...

It sees talent and the potential for Genius as essentially innate.

Mind you, I'm not very old, but I have seen nothing in my life or in my reading up to now to make me think otherwise.

There's almost always been an esoteric component to genius; the problem is more that modernity has systematically destroyed or discouraged those close male bonds (both in terms of peers and in terms of teachers) which have fed it.

Part of Tolkien's reaction is in celebrating it in its more usual form in LotR; he knew it was going away.

Ariston said...

Also, I am not quite sure if Arvo Pärt is a genius, but he's the closest thing we have at the moment. Generally speaking, it's hard to tell a composer's genius within his lifetime. You can find those who recognized Mozart's genius in his lifetime, but others who found him less impressive. The same is true for most things; perhaps only mathematics is otherwise.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - actually I think that is almost completely wrong, an 'urban myth' if you like - there are very, very few geniuses who were not recognized in their lifetimes, and most of these died young (Schubert, for instance).

Ariston said...

It's not a myth entire, and it's more true in philosophy and (sometimes) poetry.

Novel–writing is back and forth… you see some authors who were recognized and had a small public only to later be forgotten and then ‘re–discovered’. There are also those geniuses who remain recognized for decades or longer before their true brilliance is brought to light. You also have men who weren't geniuses (Galileo leaps to mind) who were later made so by narratives.

Being speakers of English, perhaps one of the greatest examples of all is available to us in the person of William Shakespeare.

And note I did not say unrecognized, rather that it takes some time for the sort of recognition we usually accord to historical geniuses. I think some confirmation bias happens, too; we remember those who were lauded upon death who have remained so, but (for obvious reasons) we do not remember those who were lauded upon death and then faded away. (Mencken, a great writer of literary obituaries, reveled in the archeology and deconstruction of fallen critical favorites.)

The big reason is this:

Recognizing genius requires some genius, or to at least be a near–genius. Not necessarily in the art of the genius himself— I think there is a sort of critical genius as well, that person who can peer into someone's works and see their import and power. I think you see this particularly clearly (once again) in philosophy, where it is the master's disciples who ultimately disperse his genius in many ways.

(I joked once about Strauss and Heidegger both having ‘cults’ of a sort, and the friend I was talking to said, ‘All great, or almost great, philosophers have an inner circle. They're supposed to.’ True enough.)

Part of the nature of genius is that it stands apart; while this isn't entirely appropriate, I am reminded of the A. A. Milne line about The Wind in The Willows: ‘When you sit down to it, don't be so ridiculous as to suppose that you are sitting in judgment on my taste, or on the art of Kenneth Grahame. You are merely sitting in judgment on yourself. You may be worthy: I don't know, But it is you who are on trial.’

In nearly all cases, and with nearly all men (for could Socrates stand in judgment on Shakespeare? I don't know) when confronted with genius, it is not the genius on trial, but ourselves.

Classical music is, in many ways, a poor example (and I shouldn't have drawn myself into it), because it was—in its heyday—a popular art, not just an elite one. And among elites, it had a dominating role in attention in a way most of us would find hard to imagine; when I first read of Kierkegaard seeing Mozart's Don Giovanni over and over and over again, it seemed so boring (and I love Don Giovanni)… the craving of novelty likely blinds all but the most sensitive to artistic genius. (Thus that most boring criticism of Tolkien: Unoriginality.)

In any case, there was an attention and broad range of opinion that would have had a much easier time separating the wheat from the chaff.

Whatever my sentiments otherwise, I constantly drown myself in novelty; I sometimes wonder what I've failed to pick up.

The modern attempt to create a veil between art and life (while, of course, claiming the latter) also blinds us to places that genius may express itself in daily life: Is there any reason why there should not be geniuses of industrial design or materials science?

I think history also requires a large degree of unknown genius; our cultural memory is not as great as our cultural needs.

Perhaps it is fortunate we have architects, sculptors, painters, poets, and more whose works we still admire, and whose workers are silent.

Ariston said...

Thinking further, I think one of the most serious maladaptations in our culture regarding geniuses is the ever–creeping retardation of growth. Tall poppies may not be cut down, but they are not fed well, either. Genius needs opportunity to fail, as well, and the slow crawl of modern education and the lack of admission that some are ready to be adults or semi–adults at ages we think they are children. This is not a problem just for genius, but high achievement in general.

Other than the victory of the philistines in art, philosophy, and religion, another big issue would seem to be comfort. There has been very little in recent memory in the West to inspire greatness, much less require it. This may last for sometime, perhaps, but those who need to find a way may find it. I do not believe that God creates a person who cannot do in some fashion the work for which they were created. They have been given a logos and it is not for the new earth, alone.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Ariston - thanks for the good comments.

Ivan Nilin Navi said...

What about David Deutsch? I'd say he qualifies as a genius, given that he invented an entire subfield of physics.