Genius Before and After Einstein

Photo of Albert EinsteinPhoto of Albert Einstein [Public domain], Library of Congress

“Genius”: What comes to mind when you hear the term?

If you pictured Albert Einstein, or a mad-scientist in a lab coat, you are likely not alone. In the twentieth century, the term ‘genius’ came to be almost synonymous with great scientists like Einstein. But this has not always been the case. The connection between genius and science is historically disputed. According to Immanuel Kant’s particularly narrow definition, for example, genius pertains only to excellence and innovation in the fine arts—to the poets, painters, and orators—and not to science or mechanical arts (Kant, 1997).

For Ralph Waldo Emerson, however, genius, or “the enchantment of the intellect,” is crucial for any number of vocations.  The “man of science” (he would never adopt the term “scientist”) as well as the poet, prophet, and philosopher will need to cultivate their own genius or creative powers (Emerson, 1972). He insists that Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and other great natural philosophers or “men of science” be considered geniuses. In this, he prefigures the twentieth century association of genius with science. Nonetheless, he warns against such a narrow view of genius, one that would conflate the genius with the scientific enterprise narrowly conceived. The genius of the scientist does not, for Emerson, eclipse that of the philosopher, poet, writer, or mystic. Rather each from their particular vantage illuminates something of the universal.

Can Genius be Taught?

According to Darrin McMahon, in Divine Fury, his recent intellectual history of the term, genius is now dead, a relic of the past (McMahon, 2013). If we take McMahon at his word, a discussion about genius holds nothing more than historic significance. The question—can genius be taught?—belongs in a museum of natural history. Whether genius pertains to science is an idle question, of interest perhaps only to historians and philosophers of science.

Alternatively, if Emerson is right, these questions are not only live and well, but crucial for the practice of science today and for our ability to make a home as modern moral agents. Understood in Emerson’s terms, genius is crucial for moral education in every discipline and practice, in religion every bit as much as in science.

How, then, did the notion of genius, understood as a person (typically a man, and typically white) rather than as a daemon or spirit, emerge in the eighteenth-century? And, as McMahon claims, is it now dead? McMahon emphasizes the religious and socio-political factors that contributed to the advent of the modern term. Put simply, if God is dead, we need new mediators of the divine. What’s more, in light of the newfangled doctrine of human equality we need some account of human excellence and distinction. In modernity, then, natural philosophers and eventually modern natural scientists became modern priests.

Ewd Isaac Newton 300x360Isaac Newton

In this respect, Kant is an exception. He refuses to bestow the title of genius on natural philosophers, including Isaac Newton, reserving it strictly for the painters, poets, and sculptors. Why? Genius’s distinguishing trait is that it cannot be taught. Of course, Kant’s admits that such an “immortal work” as Newton’s could only come from a great mind. Nonetheless, he thinks that both the content and process of Newton’s discoveries could be taught and learned. After all, is this not one benefit of the so-called scientific method? Conversely, he thought that one cannot simply learn to write inspired poetry. It does not matter if one has the best teachers, models, and books. Genius remains somewhat of a mystery, even or especially to the genius herself. We cannot simply will it or learn it.

Emerson couldn’t agree more. But he attributes precisely this sort of mysterious inspiration to the creative and imaginative process of scientific discovery. A host of eighteenth and nineteenth century philosophers helped to canonize Newton as a modern genius. Still, if McMahon is right, scientists in the nineteenth-century had a secondary place in the “pantheon of genius.” It was not until Einstein’s coronation over a century after Newton’s that this trend would be confirmed: the modern scientist as genius par excellence.

What then, was the death knell of genius?

Put simply, its twentieth-century democratization. With the onset of large-scale industrial research and development, scientists were encouraged to work and thus be recognized collaboratively. The “mythology of individual genius” became irrelevant. The man of genius had already become a secularized version of its premodern counterpart. Now Genius has exploded as a trope in popular culture, at the same time, that it has waned if not disappeared as a topic for academic consideration. Genius no longer enjoys the literary prominence that it did at its height.

Nonetheless, McMahon’s death certificate seems premature. For Emerson, genius does not only mean extraordinary works or persons of elevated capacities.

Genius is the creative action of the soul, specifically of the intellect, that can be fostered by all. Learning to trust oneself is its chief virtue. Emerson’s account—at once perfectionist and democratic--joins the possibility of unmediated divine access for all, with that of modern bards who ascend to the heights of pure genius. His notion of genius holds in tension the radical equality of all human beings and the unequal use or expression of our creative powers.

Ewd Marie Curie 300x360Marie Curie

Interestingly, McMahon gives Emerson the first and last word. Despite pronouncing the death of individual genius, he holds out hope for what Emerson describes as “the genius of humanity… the right point of view of history.” Genius, at least as Emerson understood it, is far from dead. It is present whenever imitation, emulation, and innovation mix; whenever self-reliance and divine reception unite; whenever we are taken by a delightful surprise or wonder; whenever we embody our highest ideals; and whenever we arrive at the right point of view of history. To borrow McMahon’s benediction, “May it ever be so.”

Nonetheless, McMahon’s death certificate seems premature. For Emerson, genius does not only mean extraordinary works or persons of elevated capacities. Genius is the creative action of the soul, specifically of the intellect, that can be fostered by all. Learning to trust oneself is its chief virtue. Emerson’s account—at once perfectionist and democratic--joins the possibility of unmediated divine access for all, with that of modern bards who ascend to the heights of pure genius. His notion of genius holds in tension the radical equality of all human beings and the unequal use or expression of our creative powers.

Interestingly, McMahon gives Emerson the first and last word. Despite pronouncing the death of individual genius, he holds out hope for what Emerson describes as “the genius of humanity… the right point of view of history.” Genius, at least as Emerson understood it, is far from dead. It is present whenever imitation, emulation, and innovation mix; whenever self-reliance and divine reception unite; whenever we are taken by a delightful surprise or wonder; whenever we embody our highest ideals; and whenever we arrive at the right point of view of history. To borrow McMahon’s benediction, “May it ever be so.”