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The term 'genius' is surprisingly emotionally charged. This, plus unclear application-conditions, means it clouds rather than clarifies thinking.

So I would rather consider the questions "What is it to be among the best in the field?" and "Can that sort of thing be cultivated?"

In reply to the first, I'm certain it's a pluralistic affair; philosophical work that is "great" might be such for a variety of reasons. I'm sure each of us has our own list of traits that tend to occur in (what we consider) great philosophy.

In response to the second question, it seems obvious that, at the least, one's abilities can be greatly improved by special tutoring from a highly accomplished philosopher (not necessarily McGinn). Though of course the degree of success would depend on the specifics of the situation. In particular, the specifics would determine whether, via such tutoring, you could become among the best in the field. Though it seems entirely possible (and not merely metaphysically possible). The real question, I suspect, is how likely this is. And it again depends on the details. But beyond this, I am not confident to speculate non-empirically on a generic probability.


I think 'genius' is usefully distinguished from 'expert'. Experts know a lot, and perhaps usefully touch up theories etc. They may even be considered leaders in their fields, providing the clearest and best statements of currently popular arguments in that field.

Geniuses usually (although not always) know a lot too, but they also see further, introducing a hitherto unimagined perspective to an area of investigation. Sometimes geniuses don't actually have much knowledge of the literature, but nevertheless manage to advance the field in a revolutionary way. Some have even suggested that being an expert can hinder one's ability to exhibit genius - I've heard it said Wittgenstein wouldn't have been so revolutionary had he been extensively trained in philosophy the way today's grad students are. I can see the rationale for this, but I'm not sure it's not partially based on a quasi-mystical approach to genius in general and Wittgenstein in particular.

Both expertise and genius obviously require a mixture of nature and nurture, and a good deal of luck. I think setting out to cultivate a genius in McGinn's slightly creepily put way is sort of akin to setting out to achieve happiness. If one is consciously trying to be a genius, one will probably fail in this aim.

Marcus Arvan

Moti: it seems to me that in order to discuss your questions fruitfully, we should probably try to pin down philosophical figures who count as "geniuses" and see what they have in common. Pace eyeeyethink, I don't think we should equate "genius" with tops in the field. There are many people who are tops in the field at any given time, almost none of whom are philosophical geniuses.

Who, then, has been a philosophical genius? I think it's hard to say. I don't think there have been many. Kant obviously comes to mind to me. So does Nietzsche. Wittgenstein? I'm not sure. He certainly had the *look* of a philosophical genius, but I'm not sure whether his philosophy is actually fruitful enough to qualify him (he attempted to "end" philosophy twice, neither time very successfully). Kripke? I expect some would say so, thanks to his developing modal logic. But again, I demur. I'm not among those who find his general philosophy of language and metaphysics very compelling. Russell? I don't think so. His and Whitehead's Principia was one big blind alley. David Lewis? I dunno.

Anyway, given that I'm not a historian, there's probably tons of people I'm not thinking of. Heidegger? I'll go out on a limb and say I think he *was* a philosophical genius, one still not appreciated well enough due, no doubt, to his awful, awful capacities as a writer. I'll also go out on a limb and say I think we could probably count all of the true philosophical geniuses in history on one hand. This isn't unusual by the way. How many true *scientific* geniuses have there been? Newton, Einstein, and how many others? The only real fields that I can think of in which there were a lot of geniuses are mathematics and music, which are also unique in that they are the only areas of human performance associated with genuine psychobiological syndromes: mathematical and musical savantism.

Anyway, if all this is correct -- if there have only been a handful of true philosophical geniuses -- what can we learn about what it takes to become a genius? Not much, I fear. It's hard to gleam reliable information from a handful of anecdotal cases. Perhaps, though, we can gleam something from looking at geniuses in many different fields. Geniuses in mathematics and music seem to me, again, to be unique. Geniuses in these areas are almost always marked by incredible mental or physical capacities (e.g. the capacity perform incredible computations or compositions in their head from scratch). In all other fields -- e.g. philosophy and science -- the geniuses almost never seem to be those with the greatest natural abilities. There were, for instance, a great many mathematicians better than Einstein (Einstein was a very, very good mathematician, but not a great one). The reason for this, based on the many biographies I've read, is that great natural abilities are seductive and can make someone "miss the forest for the trees." People with great natural abilities often seem to work through problems in incredibly sophisticated ways but seem less apt to "take a step back" and reconceptualize problems in the ways that "geniuses" do.

There's an interesting analogy here to language acquisition, by the way. I recall reading a whole back that one going hypothesis of why children are so good at learning new languages and adults so poor is that children lack the ability to remember details, which lead them to learn language more intuitively, whereas adult minds get fixated so much on all of the details (e.g. Does this word come before that one?) that our brains get swamped with too much information that child brains ignore by necessity.

This brings me to two other things I've noticed from reading biographies. First, it seems that "geniuses" rarely read a lot. Here again I think the thought is that they don't want to pollute their minds too much with how others have thought about problems. It's easier to think outside of a dominant paradigm if you don't find yourself trapped in it in the first place.

The third thing I've noticed from biography reading is that "genius" sometimes seems like more of a moral accomplishment than an intellectual one. Einstein, for example, wasn't the first to see that the constant speed of light in all reference frames imply relative space-time. He *was* the first to actually follow through the implications to their logical conclusion (whereas everyone else -- e.g. Poincare -- essentially thought, "Nah, space and time can't be relative" and just gave up). Sorry to use the Einstein case all the time by the way; it's just the most vivid case.

Anyway, it seems to me that the "geniuses" in most fields are often just very smart people who, for one reason or another -- usually but not always a streak of nonconformity -- refuse to get caught up in dominant ways of thinking about things, which seems to me less of an intellectual virtue than a moral one (though I think it is both).

The fourth thing of note, it seems to me, is that "geniuses" often seem willing to go very big, even if it involves going beyond what they can do very well. Kant and Heidegger seem to me to be the best philosophical examples of this. Kant tried to understand *all* of human reasoning, even though his arguments often fail. He wasn't content with making neat, small steps; he was willing to take big, messy ones. Same goes for Heidegger. And this, I think, is what philosophy has unfortunately lost too much of in our current climate of specialization. Even the too people in our field seem willing to content themselves with specific problems instead of grand philosophical pictures. This isn't to say that everyone should pursue grand pictures, but rather that it is what "geniuses" have done. I should, by the way, probably note that I very much admire Dave Chalmers' attempt to think really big in his new book. I do hope that Chalmers has paved the way for more "big thinking."

Finally, it seems to me that we should also not underestimate one final element of genius: namely, luck. In a lot of cases, "genius" seems to consist in large part of a person being at the right place at the right time.


Hi Marcus,
Just for the record, I didn't mean to suggest that anyone at the top of the field is a genius. Rather, I want to avoid the word 'genius' altogether. When one asks "what is philosophical genius," it seems to me that one is asking something like "what is it to be among the best?" To be sure, there are different overtones and associations with the term 'genius', so something is lost. But it is those associations/overtones that I find unhelpful, and make the application of the term horribly unclear. (Witness your indecision about many cases in science and philosophy.) There are ways of sharpening the concept, as you do above, though such precisifications strike me as quasi-stipulative, e.g., the moral accomplishment idea. (Is that really characteristic of a *genius*? It seems the use of the term is just indeterminate on this matter.) So again, I just prefer to avoid using the term altogether.

Marcus Arvan

Eyeyethink: I understand your reasons for wanting to do away with the term, but I'm not yet convinced. Your reasons are (A) it's emotionally charged and (B) it has unclear application conditions. But these considerations neither individually nor jointly seem to me to be reasons to stop using the term. Something can be emotionally charged and have unclear application conditions yet be important to discuss and think about. One of the reasons I think "genius" *is* worth discussing and thinking about despite having both properties is that the individuals commonly alluded to as geniuses almost always, as a rule rather than exception, flouted certain norms of professionalization. Einstein, for instance, was more or less blackballed from his grad school professors due to perceptions of "arrogance." But, in fact, he wasn't arrogant so much as he didn't want to do fiddling little work like grad students were expected to do. Or consider Mochizuki's recent proof of the ABC conjecture. M has been assailed by the math community for failing to abide by common norms of presentation (i.e. he had refused to explain his proof above and beyond his actual written publication of it).

Here's why I think this is important. Many people have noted that philosophy is now in a period of hyper-professionalization. I think, given history, that the "intellectual virtues" recognized in hyper professionalized contexts aren't virtues: I think they are vices, as I think hyper professionalized contexts encourage *normality* all around, which I take to be stultifying. I think we should encourage *more* big thinking, not less, and that reflection on the history of "genius" can go some real distance toward explaining why we should do this. For again, Most of the big breakthroughs in history came by people flouting normal standards. Example: can you really think of a philosopher in today's hyperprofessionalized environment sitting on their work for three decades like Kant did? Neither can I. But of course it was just that fact -- the fact that Kant was willing to do something *different* -- that led him to construct many of the most fruitful philosophical advances in history. The problem, as I see it, isn't that people today aren't intellectually capable of being the next Kant. It's that they're unwilling to *believe* they can be the next Kant and take the kinds of chances he did. That, in my book, is a moral failure, and it's one that warrants discussion and reflection, not sweeping under the rug because we may find a concept emotionally charged and unclear.

Moti Mizrahi

Thanks for an excellent discussion, everyone.

Although I see why eyeeyethink wants to avoid using the term 'genius', I think that we can--and should--distinguish between genius and expertise (as Craig says) as well as genius and top-notch work (as Marcus says). I think we can agree that one can produce top-notch work without being a genius. Similarly, one can be a genius without producing top-notch work (or any work, for that matter). Is that the case with philosophical genius as well (if there even is such a thing)? I don't know.

Like Marcus, I am not sure I can point to examples of genius from the history of philosophy. But if we do want to take the "paradigm case" approach Marcus proposed, then I agree with Marcus that those who are labeled 'geniuses' are often those who are not hyper-professionalized super-specialists. In fact, some have almost no formal training and limited access to the professional community at large, including the professional literature, like the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Do we have a parallel case in philosophy?

Robert Laird

I am a philosophical genius, and -yes- it can be taught. It's just a mattet of convincing, simplifying, and inspiring your subjects.


What I've understood from the previous comments...
There is a hierarchy of knowledge and that there are people that can be philosophical geniuses.

What is a philosophical genius?
Well I think a good question to follow this one is What is a philosophical idiot? You wouldn't be able to identify an idiot from a genius because of their nonconformity. I did notice Einstein being brought up and I don't know too much about him but from what I read, it seems that he did face troubles like being "more or less blackballed from his grad school professors..." just because they thought he was arrogant. I think a philosophical genius is even harder to spot because you can't prove philosophy right or wrong so far, meaning there could be a genius anywhere and we'd consider that person an outcast just because of the potential radicalism that person portrays. Maybe the philosopher genius goes as far to say that any human endeavor is wrong and that people should follow the genius to find a cure for futility. Idiot or Genius? Can't prove him wrong if he's within the contexts of philosophy because philosophy is too neutral-grounded. Scientifically, the philosophical genius/idiot is wrong because science has physical evidence which gives science purpose. What if an alien comes to earth and disproves all our science, making science futile? Was the person a philosophical genius or idiot?

I don't believe that there is a hierarchy of understanding and knowledge, focusing on genius > idiot with philosophy but more so a system of spontaneity or a spectrum of philosophical positioning (idealistic, realistic, solipsistic etc...)

2) If I believed in a philosophical genius, then I say they could easily be cultivated, but to keep the ideas genuine I think it should be in person. By being in person, it offers platonic intimacy in which the influence of learning or teaching philosophical genius becomes a lot more sentimentally valuable. As soon as philosophy invites emotion and personal attachment I think that the added passion towards philosophy will promote a more personalized rational process that complies with no one, therefore spiking controversial discussions that give volume to the idea. (understand that the relationship is between philosophy and the student, not the teacher and student like with Colin McGinn)

in short 1) Would be misunderstood and labelled an idiot (or synonymous with idiot)
2) Yes

Bruce clark

Because they are rare in that they ponder those topics that once resolved are considered truths in a process of irrefutablness via justification the process is one where frivolity affects the conception of a great thinker and confuses it with am idle hairsplitter.
A philosophical genius needs impart the knowledge that is describing a field of duality and unify that field and doing so is absurd yet still necessary as linear evolution predicts success in the intelligent endeavour which reduces differences into metaphysical monads and works with those finding elegance and clarifying this simple yet inconceivable arena we find ourselves when we ask who am I really or what is the reality of existence .The philosopher is the genius with words that breaks their dominion on certainty via duality yet words are unavoidable so how .
If there is or was a philosophical genius then they would now but may be still battling language to deliver insights .The philosopher delivers the philosophical truth which relates to science as the theory of everything but must solve all analytical problems simulateneously as a means at least .God can't be left out as religion needs be placed with rational cause and effect into a mechanism that predicts the philosophical theses these religions have underpinning them and unify them into absracyion and verification .
Very hard but synonymns are at play in all categories we refute the monad as its reality ...call it mass matter and found it epistemically as unknown ,the action becomes absurd and the truth impossible and yet here we are and so we are done and noone the wiser

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