Maarten Maartensz:    Philosophical Dictionary | Filosofisch Woordenboek                      

 G - Genius

Genius: Someone who excels in creating new ideas, formulations or art, to such an extent that his individual excellence is quite evident to the vast majority of those capable to judge.

There are geniuses of many kinds - linguistic, like Shakespeare; in drawing, like Leonardo; in sculpting, like Michelangelo; in mathematics, like Newton, Euler and Gauss; in music, like Mozart and Beethoven - but there are very few (Leonardo, Michelangelo) who excel in several fields, and no one who excels in many or all.

"Particular talent or genius does not imply general capacity. Those who are most versatile are seldom great in any one department: and the stupidest people can generally do something. The highest pre-eminence in any one study commonly arises from the concentration of the attention and faculties on that one study. He who expects from a great name in politics, in philosophy, in art, equal greatness in other things, is little versed in human nature." (Hazlitt, Characteristics)

Apparently, at least three things are required to be a true genius:

  • great general intelligence, since one cannot profitably use a great talent without good general gifts
  • some specially great talent for something, since great intelligence by itself is neither original nor creative
  • an inclination for personal originality, since real genius requires creating from one's own depths, spontaneous and without imitation.

As I use the term, "genius" applies to exceptional talents of an intellectual or artistic kind, that involve a combination of native ability and personal development, and does not apply to less pronouncedly human gifts that are mostly natural and non-intellectual, like excellent sportsmanship or an amazingly beautiful face or body. These may be enviable or widely pleasing and rare gifts, but they do not contribute to the development of human civilization, since they do not produce new ideas or values that anybody else who is intelligent enough can use.

Persons of a pronounced "democratic" - really: egalitarian - bend of mind tend to deny there are geniuses, apparently because they believe that the existence of genius is offensive to their own sense of personal worth, or because they believe it is unfair that there is a very small minority - in the order of 1 or less in a million - who truly excel in some valuable native talent over others.

As I indicated, the reason for this belief tends to be mostly envy, that also is not justified, in as much as real genius in something that is not popular like art or chess, but is in mathematics or philosophy, for example, does not usually seem to lead to a happy life, and may involve a lot of discrimination, misunderstanding or persecution.

In any case, a very good case can be made for the proposition that humankind rules the earth and developed itself beyond all other animals because, next to its unique capacity for language, it is a species that produces rare individuals that are capable of generating completely new ideas, values and forms, and that has sufficiently many other individuals to understand the meaning and use of these.

It is hard to grasp what human civilization would be like without the occasional Buddha, Socrates, Archimedes, Shakespeare or Newton, but safe to guess that it would be far less different from what, say, chimps can produce under their own  steam, than what human civilization is as a result of the existence of such rare human individuals.

Finally, there is one partial exception to the recognizability of genius: Especially those who are philosophically exceptional run a great risk of being discriminated or persecuted rather than praised or admired, since what they have to say will normally be quite impopular. (Indeed, a popular philosopher, at least when alive, seems a contradictio in adjecto. To speak the truth about human beings to human beings is always a dangerous thing to do.)

It is likely that the communist dictatorship in the Soviet Union and China has cost the lives of several geniuses, at least, before they ever got a chance of making themselves heard and understood where this was not mortally dangerous. (See e.g. Liu Binyan).

See also: Creativiteit, Imagination,



 Original: May 22, 2005                                                Last edited: 12 December 2011.   Top