The notion of genius as it is known in the early twenty-first century emerged most fully during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period. Although the idea of genius was around before the time of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Kant most clearly defined it in the late eighteenth century in his third critique, The Critique of Judgment. In fact, Kant's discussion still influences contemporary notions of genius. Kant opposed genius to a notion of taste. Genius, Kant says, is "the exemplary originality of the natural endowments of an individual in the free employment of his cognitive faculties" (p. 181). Genius is a natural human ability; it is not measurable or traceable, and the vagaries of language cannot adequately articulate it. Genius cannot define itself. Genius must, nonetheless, inspire imitation, so that the concept of the product of that genius may be derivatively articulated. Genius must inspire concept, but it cannot conceptualize.
To the function of taste is accorded the responsibility of conceptualizing the products of genius. Kant wrote that "taste, like judgment in general, is the discipline (or corrective) of genius. It severely clips its wings, and makes it orderly or polished; but at the same time it gives it guidance directing and controlling its flight, so that it may preserve its character of finality" (p. 183). Taste is a matter of judgment, a critical faculty that works in relation to genius. In contrast, genius is a matter of imagination. In Kant's model, taste and genius work together dialectically: taste shapes and guides genius, whereas genius creates fine art precisely by working free "from all guidance of rules" (p. 180). In Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844–1900) view, the genius is in fact a criminal, because he or she works outside conventional standards.
Kant's notion of genius is still quite viable in the academic institutions of the twenty-first century. Most English departments, for instance, continue to categorize their curricula according to "literature"—or the critical study of literature—and "creative writing." The underlying assumption of this organization is that creation of art is one thing, the critical assessment of art entirely another.
Genius, above all, was for the eighteenth century and even much of the nineteenth century ahistorical : although still considered human, the genius artist was not thought by eighteenth-century thinkers to be confined to social, political, or historical circumstances. The genius artist was judged to be so to the degree that she or he realized universal values or truths. An entirely Romantic notion, genius emerged contemporaneously with the idea of the self, the free and creatively self-sustaining individual of classical liberalism. The genius artist, like the self in classical liberalism, was thought to be a spontaneous creator, in a nearly divine sense. Seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) proved the veracity of his existence merely by asserting, "I think, therefore I am." It is this lionization of the human ability to reason from which the notion of genius gained its energy. If the human self is powerful enough to reason, then the human self is powerful enough to create ex nihilo.
Genius in the Twentieth Century
Although much eighteenth-century thought about genius continues to be retained in academic institutions as well as in popular culture, late-twentieth-century critics returned to reconsider the category of genius in the light of contemporary critical trends. Literary criticism was dominated in the latter half of the twentieth century by poststructuralism, a critical school the major by-product of which is the critique of discourse. The meaning of any linguistic utterance always exceeds the utterance itself; there is always more meaning in any text than may be apprehended by simply understanding the words. This excess meaning, the poststructuralists say, is socially, historically, and politically determined and produced. With this critical apparatus, critics have reconsidered the category of genius of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a discursive formation. That is, current critics see the notion of genius as an idea that was shaped, indeed constructed, by the social, political, and historical circumstances of the Enlightenment.
In addition to the poststructuralist idea that meaning is produced, the twentieth-century philosopher and critic Jacques Derrida (b. 1930), in his theory that is now called deconstruction, has pointed out that all of Western thinking is predicated on a system of binary oppositions, such as good and evil, man and woman, white and black. More important, Derrida argues that one component of these Western oppositions is always prioritized over the other. Good is always better than evil, white is always better than black, and man is always better than woman. Likewise, reason has always, for nearly the entire span of recorded Western history, been prioritized over feeling. Both Aristotle and Plato valued reason above emotion; these Aristotelian and Platonic ideas were revived by Renaissance thinkers in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. By the eighteenth century the priority of reason was fully entrenched. Western culture has not yet let it go. Derrida's principal contribution was to point out that all the prioritized components in Western oppositions tend to enjoy similar advantage. Reason, prioritized over emotion, is thus a predominantly male characteristic. Genius, with its divine ability to create, was on a par with the divine ability to reason; likewise, genius was associated with masculinity and with men's superior ability to reason. While Kant opposed genius to taste, this opposition did not obtain in the discursive formation of genius. Rather, genius, in its association with human power (of reason and creation), became notably opposed to sentiment.
But even before the poststructuralism of the latter part of the twentieth century, feminists were already beginning to ascertain the historical vicissitudes of genius. Virginia Woolf, in her remarkable 1929 book A Room of One's Own, conducts a lively thought experiment, imagining that Shakespeare had a sister named Judith and wondering what life would have been like for her. After considering all the social constraints placed on an Englishwoman of the sixteenth century, Woolf concludes that "a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by other people, so tortured and pulled asunder by her own contrary instincts, that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty" (p. 49). Woolf points to the unevenness of history's representation of genius; she identifies the sociohistorical circumstances that determined which writers would be published and read, and what those writers would write about. And although Woolf wrote before Derrida, Derrida's critique of Western culture applies.
Woolf, however, does not identify genius itself as a discursive formation, because she still believes in it, and argues for the genius of women writers; but she does indicate the way in which women were not allowed to realize their genius until around the nineteenth century. While Woolf rightly identifies the exclusion of women writers from "high culture," she does not consider "genius" itself to be a discursively formed masculine category. For Woolf, poetry is the "high culture" into which women ought to be admitted. Although Woolf recognizes the gendering of genre, she fails to recognize the gender of genius. A deconstructive reading, by contrast, identifies genius as a prioritized oppositional category; moreover, the category of "high culture" is prioritized in its opposition to "popular culture."
In the late twentieth-and early twenty-first centuries critics have considered genius precisely through the critical lens of gender. Literary reviewers most often relegated women writers of the nineteenth century to the category of sentimentalism. In Derrida's register, genius was opposed to sentiment, with the concomitant prioritization of genius. In nineteenth-century evaluations of artists, genius and sentiment worked as a gender-determined opposition. Woolf is aware of this opposition in A Room of One's Own. She evaluates the novel as the likely genre for women writers such as Jane Austen and Emily Brontë because of the novel's propensity for feeling and sentiment. Yet Woolf wishes for women to realize their genius in poetry —she seems not to notice the genderedness of genius, as do late-twentieth-century critics. Historically, genius was, gender studies critics maintain, a territory mapped out for masculine writers. The categories of domesticity and sentiment emerged as a standard for evaluating women's writing that excluded women from the "high culture" of genius.
Queer theorists have taken this work in the gender of genius and explored the ways in which nineteenth-century constructions of genius actually crossed gender lines. The critic Gustavus Stadler has found that many male authors were consumptives and victims of affect, indulgences that the literary community was generally content to allow its genius writers. These afflictions were typically associated with the feminine gender; the degree to which male "geniuses" were afflicted with these tendencies suggests the way in which "genius" routinely crossed the gender divide in the nineteenth century. Stadler points out that, "It is on this queer turf [of genius], in which famous literary men become madwomen and dying girls enable women to become public authors, that the discourse of genius holds the most promise for disrupting and diversifying the assumptions about gender and sexuality that undergird our understanding of nineteenth-century American literature" (p. 662).
Critics have also noted the ways in which conventions and styles of writing were overtly gendered by nineteenth-century literary movers and shakers. For instance, Andrew Elfenbein has noted that women writers were considered poor writers if they engaged in "literary cross-dressing" (p. 931)—if, that is, they wrote in genres that were the reserved province of male writers, or wrote in a style usually thought of as masculine. In short, women were supposed to write about private life, domesticity, and matters exclusively feminine in concern. Some writers, however, did cross-dress, Elfenbein tells us, such as Mary Wollstonecraft, who thought that genius was a combination of masculine characteristics, such as logical thinking and intense concentration, with feminine qualities, such as emotionality and loss of control. Here in Wollstonecraft can be seen an attempt to deconstruct the traditional oppositions associated with nineteenth-century notions of genius.
See also Creativity in the Arts and Sciences ; Enlightenment ; Person, Idea of the .
Kant, Immanuel. The Critique of Judgment. Translated by James Creed Meredith. Oxford: Clarendon, 1952. The best translation in English.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Foreword by Mary Gordon. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1929.
Battersby, Christine. Gender and Genius: Towards a Feminist Aesthetics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Writers often refer to this text for a discussion of gender and genius.
Bromwich, David. A Choice of Inheritance: Self and Community from Edmund Burke to Robert Frost. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989. See especially "Reflections on the Word Genius, " 20–42.
Elfenbein, Andrew. "Lesbianism and Romantic Genius: The Poetry of Anne Bannerman." English Literary History 63, no. 4 (1996): 929–957
Murray, Penelope, ed. Genius: The History of an Idea. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989. This volume is a comprehensive study of the history of genius from antiquity to postmodernism. It also examines the role of genius across several disciplines, from literature to psychiatry.
Stadler, Gustavus. "Louisa May Alcott's Queer Geniuses." American Literature 71, no. 4 (1999): 657–677.
For 2000 years a body image bequeathed by Greek philosophy held sway amongst doctors and the educated, known as the ‘humoral model’. The body's state was broadly grasped in terms of natural rhythms of development and change, determined by the major fluids constrained within the skin envelope, their balance producing health, their upset causing illness. Classically, these crucial juices sustaining vitality were blood, choler (or yellow bile), phlegm, and melancholy (or black bile). Excess of black bile would produce pathological conditions that would lead to depression. Aretaeus (c. ad 150–200), in his De Causis et Signis Morborum, thus described the condition:
The patients are dull or stern: dejected or unreasonably torpid, without any manifest cause: such is the commencement of melancholy, and they also become peevish, dispirited, sleepless, and start up from a disturbed sleep. Unreasonable fears also seize them …They are prone to change their mind readily, to become base, mean-spirited, liberal.But in a parallel tradition attributed to Aristotle, that self-same black fluid (melancholy) was also said to be the humour of genius. A combination of fundamental physical attributes (dark hair, a swarthy complexion, black eyes) and personality traits (sudden and erratic movements, rapid mood swings from lethargy to excitability, indifference to hunger and other bodily needs and wants) were supposed to distinguish gifted and creative individuals. Melancholy malcontents like Prince Hamlet, dressed all in black, were difficult, disdainful, dangerous. Yet, for Hamlet' or for Jaques in As You Like It, there was also something bittersweet to be savoured in a contemplative sorrow; Jacques spoke of sucking ‘melancholy out of a stone’. Melancholy thus was seen as the midwife of poetry and philosophy, as was exhaustively discussed in Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (1621).
A newly eligible mode of melancholy emerged in the age of sensibility and in the Romantic era. Amongst social and artistic élites, it became rather fashionable to parade as a hypersensitive soul, one whose personality was too delicate, whose nerves were too highly strung, to cope with a high-pressure urban milieu. For a fashionable man-about-town like James Boswell (1740–95), who wrote a magazine column under the penname ‘The Hypochondriack’, it became the done thing to be depressed, or to put on a show of depression, because torment and suffering were hallmarks of a beautiful soul, proofs of superior sensibility.
Fashionable melancholy had an exquisite future ahead of it. On both sides of the Atlantic, eminent Victorians revelled in hypochondria (mainly a male condition), hysteria (strictly for the ladies), and the ‘blue devils’ (a form of dyspepsia, validating invalidism).
In particular, élite depression underwent a gender switch, becomely closely associated with women — and with ‘effeminate’ males. Traditional images of creative depression had been man centred. The traditional genius, poet, or artist was male. From the eighteenth century, however, and especially with the foregrounding of the image of the hysteric, melancholy genius became feminized. The novels of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759–97) popularized the image of a heroine becoming victimized and crazed through being too sensitive to survive in a heartless world. Depressive, hysterical, suicidal, and self-destructive behaviour among unstable artists have become deeply associated, since early-Victorian times, with images of womanhood; in the psychiatric profession, in the public mind, and amongst women themselves. The old links between writing, genius, and melancholy were traditionally fixed upon male intellectuals like John Milton, author of Il Penseroso (1632), or Matthew Green, author of The Spleen (1737). During the last 150 years, they have undergone a sex-change, clustering around female writers like Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Janet Frame. The explanation was said to lie in female physiology — above all in creative gynaecological disturbance or more sensitive nervous physiology.
In modern times, the linking of melancholy with genius has assumed two further twists. The Romantic movement renewed the interest in the mad genius that had been cultivated by Renaissance Platonism but dampened by the age of reason. From Blake, through Hölderlin, to Schumann, poets and composers either gloried in their transcendental visions or believed that madness was the inevitable price of creativity.
Then, in the last third of the nineteenth century, degenerationist psychiatry turned the tables. Leading clinical spokesmen for the ‘degenerationist’ position, notably the Italian Cesare Lombroso, or, in Britain, Theo Hyslop, began to contend that the ‘madness’ of artists and writers (including their Bohemian disregard for conventional respectabilities) revealed them as sociopaths, moral cripples, and, generally, undesirables. Lombroso summed up and added to a long tradition that held that geniuses (and their cousins, degenerates) were visibly distinctive through physical and physiognomical marks as well as by personality traits. Amongst the main physical signs, he believed, were large ears, irregular teeth, asymmetry of the face and head, left handedness, stammering, a tubercular disposition, and a tendency towards sterility. Lombroso was also convinced that geniuses were commonly short of stature — he cited by way of evidence Aristotle, Linnaeus, Gibbon, Beethoven, Heine, and both the Brownings. Such traditions lingered into the twentieth century; Havelock Ellis believed that a statistically significant proportion of geniuses suffered from gout.
The close of the nineteenth century brought a further extraordinarily fruitful development. A new possibility opened up for the hordes of neuropaths, neurasthenics, hysterics, and hypochondriacs who had emerged in Biedermeier and Victorian bourgeois society and filled the clinics and health spas of affluent Europe and America: Freudian psychoanalysis. Since the eighteenth century, the depressed person had been depicted as attention-seeking. From the time of Freud (1856–1939), neurosis offered the possibility of being infinitely fascinating — but its stress on the unconscious threatened to severe the ties long linking genius to the body.
Murray, P. (ed.) (1989). Genius: the history of an idea. Blackwell, Oxford.
See also humours; hypochondria; intelligence; nervousness.
Generally used to denote a human being of extraordinary intelligence, but historically indicating a superior class of entities holding an intermediate rank between mortals and immortals. The latter meaning appears to be the signification of daemon, the corresponding term in Greek. It is probable that the whole system of demonology was invented by the Platonic philosophers and grafted by degrees onto popular mythology.
The Platonists, however, professed to derive their doctrines from the "theology of the ancients," so this system may have come originally from the East, where it formed a part of the te-nets of Zoroaster. This sage ascribed all the operations of nature to the agency of celestial beings, the ministers of one supreme first cause, to whose brilliant image—fire—homage was paid.
Some Roman writers referred to the genius as "the God of Nature," or "Nature" itself, but their notions seem to have been modified by, if not formed from, etymological considerations more likely to mislead than to afford a clue to the real meaning of the term. At a later period they supposed almost every created thing, animate or inanimate, to be protected by its guardian genius—a sort of demigod who presided over its birth and was its constant companion until death. Censorinus, who lived about the middle of the third century, noted:
"The genius is a god supposed to be attendant on everyone from the time of his birth…. Many think the genius to be the same as the lars of the ancients…. We may well believe that its power over us is great, yea, absolute…. Some ascribe two genii at least to those who live in the houses of married persons."
Euclid, the Socratic philosopher, gave two genii to everyone, a point on which Lucilius, in his Satires, insists we cannot be informed.
To the genius, therefore, so powerful through the whole course of one's life, yearly sacrifices were offered. As the birth of every mortal was a peculiar object of his guardian genius's solicitude, the marriage bed was called the genial bed (lectus genialis ). The same invisible patron was also supposed to be the author of joy and hilarity, hence a joyous life was called a genial life (genialis vita ).
"… from it [i.e., the agency of genii] proceed all the arts of divination, and all the science of priests, with respect to sacrifices, initiations, incantations, and everything, in short, which relates to oracles and enchantments. The deity holds no direct intercourse with man; but, by this means, all the converse and communications between gods and men, whether asleep or awake, take place; and he who is wise in these things is a man peculiarly guided by his genius. "
Plato highlights the connection between demonology and magic, an association characteristic of the romances of the East if the jinns of the Moslems are compared to the genii of the Platonists.
A modern understanding of the term genius is well illustrated by F. W. H. Myers in his book Human Personality and its Survival of Bodily Death (1903):
"Genius should be regarded as a power of utilising a wider range than other men can utilise of faculties in some degree innate in all; a power of appropriating the results of subliminal mentation to subserve the supraliminal stream of thought; so that an 'inspiration of genius' will be in truth a subliminal up-rush, an emergence into the current of ideas which the man is consciously manipulating of other ideas which he has not consciously originated but which have shaped themselves beyond his will, in profounder regions of his being."
Theodore Flournoy said he considered Myers's chapter on genius one of the most remarkable and strongest of the work because it made one feel the insufficiency of all the naturalistic explanations advanced up to that time.
In The Road to Immortality (1932), claimed to be composed of posthumous communications from Myers through the mediumship of Geraldine Cummins, the discarnate "Myers" expands on genius with reference to the idea of a group-soul:
"If a certain type of psyche is continually being evolved in the one group, you will find that eventually that type, if it be musical, will have a musical genius as its representative on earth. It will harvest all the tendencies in those vanished lives, and it will then have the amazing unconscious knowledge that is the property of genius."
The often-quoted dictums of Jane Ellice Hopkins, "Genius only means an infinite capacity for taking pains," and Thomas Edison, "genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration," draw attention to the phenomenon that prolonged absorption and study often result in an inspirational leap of awareness and insight. Many new concepts and discoveries have taken place in this way. This is comparable to the mystic's experience in which meditation leads to enhancement of consciousness, sometimes to ecstatic conditions of so-called cosmic consciousness.
Cummins, Geraldine. The Road to Immortality. London: Ivor Nicholson & Watson, 1933.
Galton, Francis. Hereditary Genius. London, 1869. Reprint, London: Watts, 1950.
Kenmore, Dallas. The Nature of Genius. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1972.
Lombroso, Cesare. The Man of Genius. London: Scott, 1889.
Storr, Anthony. The School of Genius. London: A. Deutsch, 1988.
A state of intellectual or creative giftedness.
There are differences in intellectual attainment among people. Some people make strides in learning and creativity that are well beyond what would normally be expected and are called geniuses. Although definitions of genius, or giftedness , are inevitably culture-bound and subjective, psychologists are trying to determine what factors might contribute to its emergence.
In a 1981 study, William Fowler surveyed decades of scientific inquiry into the making of genius. He found that in one important study, 87% of the gifted children studied had been given substantial, intensive training by their parents at home, focusing on speech, reading, and mathematics—all highly structured avenues. The parents of these gifted children had ambitious and sometimes very specific plans for their children. The parents were nearly all from the professional class, allowing them the time and the money to devote such resources to the intellectual development of their children.
Psychologists have examined various home-tutoring techniques and have found that there appears to be no single kind of stimulation that might turn a normal child into a gifted child. All methods seem to work, provided they center on language or math. It has even been suggested that the method matters little because the child is responding to the quantity of attention rather than to the content of what is being taught.
When a person reaches school age, it becomes possible to measure his or her intelligence more reliably. Intelligence tests are the subject of intense debate among psychologists, educators, and the general public. Most standardized tests measure logical-mathematical, linguistic, and spatial intelligence. However, the idea of multiple intelligences was formulated by psychologist Howard Gardner , who defined six components of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, and personal. Today, many people regard intelligence as comprising different types of skills and talents. Most school systems, however, continue to measure intelligence, and giftedness, according to test results measuring logical-mathematical, linguistic, and spatial intelligence. Gifted people are often identified by their unusually high scores on traditional intelligence tests.
Allman, Arthur. "The Anatomy of a Genius." U.S. News and World Report, (October 25, 1993).
Begley, Sharon. "The Puzzle of Genius." Newsweek, (June 28, 1993).
Gottfried, Allen W., et al. Gifted IQ: Early Developmental Aspects. New York: Plenum Press, 1994.
Howe, Michael J.A. The Origins of Exceptional Abilities. Cambridge, MA: Basil Blackwell, 1990.
gen·ius / ˈjēnyəs/ • n. (pl. gen·ius·es ) 1. exceptional intellectual or creative power or other natural ability: she was a teacher of genius | Gardner had a real genius for tapping wealth. 2. a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, either generally or in some particular respect: one of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century. 3. (pl. gen·i·i / ˈjēnēˌī/ ) (in some mythologies) a guardian spirit associated with a person, place, or institution. ∎ a person regarded as exerting a powerful influence over another for good or evil: he sees Adams as the man's evil genius. 4. (pl. gen·i·i ) the prevalent character or spirit of something such as a nation or age: Boucher's paintings did not suit the austere genius of neoclassicism.
295. Genius (See also Wisdom.)
- Aquinas, St. Thomas (1225–1274) preeminent mind of medieval church. [Eur. Hist.: Bishop, 273–274]
- Aristotle (384–322 B. C.) famous Greek philosopher of a priori reasoning. [Gk. Hist.: NCE, 147]
- Aronnax, Prof. scholarly mental giant; Capt. Nemo’s captive guest. [Fr. Lit.: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ]
- Jean-Christophe musical prodigy who, in an adventurous life, becomes a world-famous musician. [Fr. Lit.: Romain Rolland Jean-Christophe ; Magill I, 439]
- Leverkühn, Adrian a composer who imagines he has made a pact with the devil, and achieves greatness. [Ger. Lit.: Thomas Mann Doctor Faustus ]
- Nemo, Captain epitome of the genius in science fiction; inventor and creator of fabulous submarine, Nautilus. [Fr. Lit.: Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea ]