Consider Derrida what you will—charlatan, great philosopher—he was an astute analyst of the language of homo academicus. And about the current academic fortunes of genius, Derrida had a point. Genius does make us squirm. When we consider it at all, we’re inclined to deny it, deconstruct it, or explain it away as an “ideology of genius.” Geniuses of the past seem to have been perched on their pedestals so that we might drag them down. “People love to come up with reasons for saying Shakespeare was not a genius,” Ann Donnelly, a former curator at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust museum, has pointed out. Far from lavishing praise on genius, scholars are more inclined to scoff.
Something of this same reflexive dismissal and discomfort can be heard in department halls when the MacArthur foundation announces, as it did several weeks ago, its annual “genius” fellows. Although the foundation avoids the term, the news media flaunt it, with predictable results. University administrators gloat about the “geniuses” in their midst, trade publishers fawn, salaries (and egos) swell. Meanwhile, colleagues, more than a little jealous, speak of the new “geniuses” with scare quotes, mocking with their fingers a word that can be used only ironically, if at all.
The democratization of genius represents a victory for human equality. But if everyone can be a genius, then what does it mean?
It wasn’t always so. Indeed for much of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, scholars across a range of fields in the natural and human sciences made the study (and celebration) of genius and geniuses their business. By taking a look at their labors, we can better understand why that research was abandoned, and gain insight into a paradox of our democratic age: The genius as a figure of startling exception is dead, yet nominal geniuses multiply in popular culture. As football coaches, rock stars, and fashion designers are hailed as geniuses, scholars remain suspicious of heroes of the mind. Will we come to regret killing off genius? Will we grow tired of what seems to have taken its place, the celebrity intellect who, like Derrida, is better known for being known than for anything he or she has said or done?
A culture that prostrates before idols makes itself small. But those who cannot take the measure of true stature diminish themselves. In an age as suspicious of greatness as our own, perhaps it is time to recognize that for all the perversion of the cult of genius in the past, it did preserve a sense of wonder in the face of human possibility, an exhilarating sense of awe at being—and being transcendent—in the world. We relinquish that wonder at a cost.
Geniuses, in the modern sense of the word, have been spoken about since only the Age of Enlightenment. Newton was an early exemplar, along with Benjamin Franklin, Goethe, and Napoleon. Also in this period, Shakespeare and Homer were “discovered” as geniuses and celebrated as such, hailed as paragons of creativity, originality, imagination, and brilliance.
Just why the genius emerged in the 18th century as a model of the highest human type is an interesting question. Scholars have suggested a number of explanations, ranging from the advent of capitalism to new notions of aesthetics to new understandings of the author and the self. I would add religious change—the “withdrawal of God,” to quote the philosopher Marcel Gauchet—and a decline in the belief in supernatural beings like angels and saints, which had long served to mediate between the human and the divine.
A related, and somewhat surprising, context was a growing belief in human equality, which provided a foil to the allegedly natural differences that distinguished human beings. In societies increasingly reluctant to treat noble birth and privilege as a legitimate basis for establishing social hierarchies, intelligence and creativity served as new criteria to justify human distinction, with the genius singled out as a member of what contemporaries (including Thomas Jefferson) called a “natural aristocracy.”
What, precisely, were the traits that distinguished these exceptional men? (Genius was treated as exclusively male at the start.) That question was at the heart of the first investigations of genius, and it continued to drive research on the topic into the 20th century.
The first to take it up were men of letters. As early as 1711, the British critic Joseph Addison asked in the pages of his magazine, the London Spectator, “What is properly a great genius?” Throughout the 18th century, commentators across Europe endeavored to supply an answer, producing a voluminous literature that debated the characteristics of genius on aesthetic and philosophical grounds. The rise of Romanticism, in the early 19th century, intensified the speculation, while laying bare, as Isaac D’Israeli (father of the British prime minister) put it, the Literary Character of Men of Genius (1828), highlighting the eccentricities, habits, and traits that set these special beings apart.
This literary and philosophical discussion begged insight from science. For if genius was not the consequence of a divine infusion—the inspiring breath of an angel, muse, or God—it must be resident in the body or soul. Was genius contingent upon good blood and a favorable climate, as some believed? Or was it a “certain conformation of the head and the viscera,” as Diderot surmised?
Such possibilities were pursued well into the 20th century. Physiognomists tried to detect genius in the folds of the face; phrenologists looked for it in bumps on the head; craniometrists tried to grasp it with calipers; and in places like Göttingen and Paris, researchers amassed weighty collections of brains and skulls, prompting one French skeptic to note that if size alone determined intelligence, the whale would be lord of us all.
As craniometry waned, other fields flourished. Psychologists and physicians pursued an etiological explanation for the oft-asserted relationship between genius and madness. In extensive “pathographies,” or case histories of celebrated minds, scholars probed the links among genius, mental illness, and crime. At the same time, brain scientists searched for the cerebral pathways of genius from institutional strongholds like the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Brain Research, in Berlin, and the Brain Research Institute, in Moscow, which was founded shortly after Lenin’s death, in 1924, as part of an effort to demonstrate what one Soviet official called the “material substrate” of the revolutionary’s genius.
Meanwhile, eugenicists and psychologists built on the foundation laid by Francis Galton in his monumental 1869 study, Hereditary Genius, and attempted to create instruments to identify genius among the races. Particularly in the wake of the development of the intelligence quotient (IQ), in the early 20th century, and the British psychologist Charles Spearman’s theory about an underlying (and inborn) general factor of intelligence (the so-called “g-factor”), hereditarians dreamed of screening for genius on a mass scale while weeding out the unfit. The matter was deemed crucial to human welfare. As Lewis Terman, an American psychologist and acolyte of Galton who was instrumental in adapting the IQ exam for widespread use, emphasized in the introduction to his multivolume Genetic Studies of Genius, in 1925: “It should go without saying that a nation’s resources of intellectual talent are among the most precious it will ever have. The origin of genius, the natural laws of its development, and the environmental influences by which it may be affected for good or ill, are scientific problems of almost unequaled importance for human welfare.”
Historians and sociologists, too, were moved to study genius’s origin. In a great many cases, their work was little more than hero worship. But a few dissenting voices detected a troubling development—what the Austrian historian Edgar Zilsel called in a seminal 1918 book of the same name, “the religion of genius.” Zilsel argued that the worship of genius had taken the place of more traditional varieties of religious devotion, imputing higher powers to nature’s chosen and fostering a kind of “salvation addiction” among people who yearned for the redemptive leadership of extraordinary men. There was something distinctly menacing about this modern faith. In a prescient analysis published in Berlin in 1931, the legal theorist Hermann Heller wrote, “the political genius religion must necessarily be a religion of violence.”
Whatever the reservations of critics like Zilsel and Heller, they were in the minority. The psychiatrist and pathographer Wilhelm Lange-Eichbaum summed up the situation in a short book also published in 1931, The Problem of Genius. “Among modern civilized beings,” he noted, “a reverence for genius has become a substitute for the lost dogmatic religions of the past.” Lange-Eichbaum found the situation troubling, adding that “the notion … that genius has a peculiar sanctity is widely diffused throughout the modern world.”
Though historians have tended to overlook the fact, this reverence and imputed sanctity were undoubtedly a factor in the rise of Hitler, who skillfully and self-consciously presented himself as a genius—a trope that figures in Nazi propaganda from early on. Joseph Goebbels claimed to have known from his first encounter with Hitler that he was a “genius,” “a natural, creative instrument of divine fate,” who would shape the GermanVolk into a political-artistic masterpiece. “The people are for the statesman what stone is for the sculptor,” Goebbels observed in his novel Michael, first published in the 1920s. “Geniuses use up people. That is just the way it is.”
Associations with the Nazis and eugenics cast aspersions on the academic study of genius, but there were other forces that helped to strip genius of scholarly legitimacy. Perhaps most important was the increasingly widespread recognition of the social underpinnings of labor, which undermined the idea of the lone, heroic creator. It was Marx, scoffing at what he called the practice of “bowing to nature’s noble and wise,” who first offered this insight. It was later developed in academic circles, where Marxist scholars critiqued the cult of the genius as a bourgeois ideology.
Ironically, many capitalists were coming to a similar conclusion. As the manager of the consulting firm Arthur D. Little put it, “organized research does not depend upon individual genius; it is a group activity. … Supermen are not required.” That perspective gained widespread adherence with the expansion of industrial research and development. Modern marvels like the “idea factory” at Bell Laboratories, which at its height employed close to 1,200 Ph.D.’s, underscored the point with a succession of stunning innovations and Nobel Prizes. It seemed clear: Many heads were better than one.
Scientists registered the development, playing down the myth of individual genius. Some still made an exception for Einstein—the genius of geniuses and arguably the last of the titans—but among practicing scientists, the word “genius” fell out of favor after World War II, its use treated as a professional and social faux pas.
That has largely proved true in the humanities and social sciences as well. In the 1980s, feminist scholars like Julia Kristeva focused attention on the gender bias that had been a stubborn feature of so much attention to (male) genius and the cult of great men. Historians of science, taking a cue from Stephen Jay Gould’s landmark The Mismeasure of Man (1981), revealed how research on intelligence had been shaped by assumptions about the inherent superiority of white males of European descent. At a moment when dead white males of all persuasions were drawing scholarly suspicion, geniuses appeared deader and whiter than most. And while reputable psychologists like Dean Keith Simonton, of the University of California at Davis, continue to study “genius” described as such, scholars more often focus on creativity, giftedness, or intelligence.
So the situation identified by Derrida—that to invoke genius is to relinquish intellectual credibility—took hold in academe. Genius lost its luster. But a funny thing happened on the way to the funeral. As scholars delivered last rites to a higher being they had brought down to earth, the genius was reborn in the popular imagination as a man—and woman—of the people.
When and how this happened is a story in its own right. Europeans and especially Americans had long spoken of genius not only as a rarefied power, but also as an individual talent or bent. Everyone, it followed, had a particular capacity or genius, some attribute that helped define that person. That belief sat better with notions of democracy and equality than an understanding of genius as nature’s exception, and in the 20th century it began to show up in surprising places. Even the arch-hereditarian and theorist of the all-governing “g-factor,” Charles Spearman, observed that “every normal man, woman, and child is … a genius at something.”
A 1993 cover story in Newsweek observed that “judging by the hundreds to the thousands of newspaper references to ‘geniuses’ every month, we’re overrun with them.” We are “living in an age of genius,” Esquire declared in its end of the millennium “Genius Issue.” Among those enjoying their 15 minutes of genius: the fashion designer Tom Ford, the Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, the Broadway singer Audra McDonald, the basketball star Allen Iverson, and the actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
More recently, the German newspaper Die Zeit devoted a special issue to “geniuses who have changed our life,” profiling such modern incarnations as the Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz; Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook; Miuccia Prada, the Italian designer; Ingvar Kamprad, founder of Ikea; and, of course, Steve Jobs, widely hailed at the time of his death, in 2011, as a genius.
Closer to home, genius has found its way into the playroom, with Baby Einstein and Baby Mozart, and onto the nightstand with self-help books like How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci: Seven Steps to Genius Every Dayand Ignite the Genius Within that promise genius to one and all. Once the exception, genius is now the rule.
The expansion and democratization of genius—what Harvard’s Marjorie Garber has described as our “genius problem”—represents, in part, the confluence of genius and celebrity (yet another 18th-century notion). But it also represents a belated victory for human equality, long genius’s dialectical foil, which has done more to yank the genius from lofty eminence than any academic tract. A recent collection of essays put out byTime magazine, titled Secrets of Genius: Discovering the Nature of Brilliance features on its cover not only Shakespeare and Einstein, but also Serena Williams, the African-American tennis star. The collection includes articles about Asian whiz kids, female geneticists, and prodigies who represent humanity in all its glorious diversity. At least in popular culture, genius is now conceived in different shapes, shades, and sizes. And while academics, too, have made attempts to democratize and pluralize the category, their efforts, however sincere, have never been pursued as wholeheartedly or successfully as the attempt to deconstruct genius altogether.
It isn’t the first time, of course, that academe and the world have missed each other, and maybe the popularity of genius in a media-driven and celebrity-obsessed culture feeds a further, and somewhat stuffy, intellectual disdain for a category rendered all but meaningless by its widespread application and abuse. If everyone can be a genius, then what does genius even mean?
Yet the fact that genius has largely vanished as a topic of academic research while exploding as a pop-culture trope points to an underlying connection. For not only does research emphasizing the social underpinnings of creativity track with the broader democratization of genius since World War II, but it also, paradoxically, renders the myth of the lone creator more appealing. In a complex and interconnected world that tends by its very nature to thwart individual agency, an emphasis on the achievements of individuals is reassuring, if also a bit quaint. And so geniuses multiply in the media, while dying an ignominious death in academe.
Those with a historical bent will point out that it is only when a subject is dead and gone that it becomes interesting to think about. In that spirit, consider Harold Bloom’s argument in his self-consciously contrarianGenius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds (Warner, 2002) that genius is an idea we can’t live without. “We need genius, however envious or uncomfortable it makes many among us,” he writes. “Our desire for the transcendental and extraordinary seems part of our common heritage, and abandons us slowly and never completely.”
His use of the first-person plural refers to Bloom and the “public”—not primarily to scholars, who, he notes, have become “cultural levelers,” immune to awe. Even so, Bloom’s point is intriguing, especially because Derrida, in his 2003 talk at the Bibliothèque Nationale, seemed to agree, going so far as to apply the proscribed g-word to the French writer Hélène Cixous, whose work his talk honored on the occasion of the gift of her papers to the French national library. Genius itself is a gift, Derrida observed, one that might live to give again, but it would first need to extricate itself from its past (not least from its strongly gendered associations). In posing the question “What is going to happen with genius?,” Derrida envisioned that it might still claim a space to “upset the order of things,” to inspire awe.
When critics as otherwise opposed as Bloom and Derrida converge on a point, it is worth listening. Do we in fact need some form of genius? Kristeva has described genius as a “therapeutic invention that keeps us from dying of equality in a world without a hereafter.”
Not all have renounced a belief in an afterlife, and far fewer in the academy dread the fatal consequences of too much equality. Still, most scholars refuse to believe that there is genius in everyone. Might that prompt us to consider whether the long and long-necessary suspicion of intellectual “elites,” of “greatness”—in a word, of “genius”—has served its purpose and run its course? For is not such a suspicion, in the end, at odds with who we are and what we do in this most elite institution, the modern American university? Shouldn’t we be willing to bow our heads from time to time in gratitude before genius’s wondrous gifts?
Instead we are left with what we have today, the sanctimonious praise of “excellence” (how that word has been abused) and a form of intellectual celebrity that, in practice, is not far removed from the genius of popular culture. A constellation of stars, a world of fashions, an ebb and flow of trends, a new group of MacArthur fellows. No one doubts their merits, but surely not so many geniuses are created in a year, and surely not so many of them reside in the United States. In a world without a genuine appreciation of genius, this is what we get—excellence by committee and blind peer review. And with it, a nagging sense of nostalgia for a world that could stand to wonder and marvel a little more.
Darrin M. McMahon is a professor of history at Florida State University and the author, most recently, of Divine Fury: A History of Genius, published this month by Basic Books.