Wednesday, 28 January 2015

The nature of the 'genie' of creativity

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Genius can be conceptualized as a 'genie' within us - the word genie being derived from the Roman concept of a guardian and tutelary spirit, akin to the Greek 'daemon' (like Socrates's daemon who advised him and give him insights) - the concept then gathering connotations of creativity, and then 'genie' being used for the Arabian Jinn, which are autonomous supernatural entities (some good, some evil).

I am coining a usage which somewhat playfully takes all these elements so as to indicate the way in which the creativity of a classic genius:

1. Guides the genius - not in all the minute and specific details of living, but in a long-term, strategic fashion

2. Has apparently 'supernatural' powers - since real creativity is ultimately mysterious, and

3. Acts somewhat like an independent and autonomous personage - with whom the conscious and rational mind must build a relationship (the conscious rational mind may influence but does not control the genie, and cannot force the genie to do his will).

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My understanding is that - in the above sense - almost everybody will have a genie of creativity - but the genie will vary considerably in power and dominance - in most people the genie has modest power and is usually ignored or suppressed; in a great genius the genie will have great power and will tend to dominate life strategy in many ways.

(Other in-between and dissociated states are presumably possible.)

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The genie of a normal (non-genius) person will only be apparent in short bursts and perhaps in a crisis. In a short term crisis a person may demonstrate remarkable and seemingly-inexplicable powers or abilities (which can look like sheer luck). This could be explained in terms of them drawing upon the mysterious insights, intuitions, and knowledge of their genie.

However, this state can seldom be maintained over the long term, because most people are set-up to be dominated not by the genie but instead by more 'normal' motivations - such as social esteem (e.g. the striving for status and admiration), familial and sexual motivations, comfort, convenience, excitement etc.

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So, creative genius is quantitative - the genie varies in power and dominance - at at a certain degree of power and degree of dominance the genie will have 'taken-over' the life strategy of a person (not completely, but primarily) - and such as person is A Genius.

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Why is this important?

Because we live in a society where, for whatever reason, genius tends to be unacknowledged, denied, ignored and even (but usually indirectly, for other and usually 'political' given-reasons) actively persecuted.

Also, because the world-historical geniuses, which for the past four hundred years used to be common in all major domains of life in The West - art, literature, science, medicine, law, politics, the military, and religion - has become extremely rare; indeed has almost disappeared.

Therefore - if modern society wishes to avail itself of the benefits that genius (and only genius) can bring (e.g. solving unyielding problems by intuitive insights, making breakthrough discoveries), then modernity needs to become more sensitive in its detection, acknowledgement and recognition of genius: this is so even from the perspective of pure self-interest.

Perhaps a starting point is to recognize our own individual creative genie - no matter how relatively feeble it may be, and how infrequently it becomes apparent - we may notice it when, in a crisis, we may, briefly, be able to do something rather extraordinary and inexplicable.

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4 comments:

Ngoc Nguyen said...


"My understanding is that - in the above sense - almost everybody will have a genie of creativity - but the genie will vary considerably in power and dominance - in most people the genie has modest power and is usually ignored or suppressed; in a great genius the genie will have great power and will tend to dominate life strategy in many ways."


Some people are thralls to their genie, not only in good or positive ways but also in seemingly bad or negative ways. For example, both Lewis Terman and Dr. Leta S. Hollingworth independently arrived at the same conclusion that excessive IQ can become detrimental in terms of observable social maladjustment, a correlation borne out by their individual researches into young children of exceptional intelligence as measured by IQ tests of the time. Other problems were a tendency of this group towards isolation in later life; difficulty in finding similar counterparts, whether in friendships or in romantic relationships; low latent-inhibition; and so forth. I can go on. But that is totally unnecessary as it is all in the literature and on the Internet. The point that I am trying to make is that the genie can dominate life strategy in many positive and/or negative ways. Of course, what is considered positive or negative in terms of profound intelligence or genius is relative. To the media and the uneducated public at large, genius is something to be coveted and prized without exception--something to be extremely envious of or jealous over another. In reality, genius--unless you find your purpose and are able to use your genius to fulfill that purpose--is probably as much a curse as it is a blessing.


"Perhaps a starting point is to recognize our own individual creative genie - no matter how relatively feeble it may be, and how infrequently it becomes apparent - we may notice it when, in a crisis, we may, briefly, be able to do something rather extraordinary and inexplicable."

In other words, as a college dorm mate of mine once pointed out to me, some of us are capable of "rising to the occasion" (per the dictates of a crisis or an urgent need).

Bruce Charlton said...

@NN - Yes. In worldly, material, success, everyday terms - the geniuses gifts are primarily for the good of the group, not himself - at least, that is the implication of group selection as a cause.

As for happiness; in a reductive biological sense nobody and nothing is designed for happiness, but instead for reproductive success - which is a very different thing. Happiness is just a kind of bait.

But that is to leave out the religious dimension, which we must do in science, but should not do in life.

santoculto said...

Creative people are ressuscitators of old ideas too. Genie of genius correlate with my idea of 3 fundamental human personas, two dualistic primitive persona, good and bad, and the union of both dualistic persona, real God or wisdom.

Sonny said...

[The following comment is like a blog post essay in length and digressions, so I'm hesitant about posting it here and looking like an uninvited self-important rambler, but I don't have a blog that anyone reads, so otherwise I would just file it away and that wouldn't do any good.]

That concept of a genie is a resuscitation of the original meaning of the word genie, which is simply the French form of the word genius. I don't doubt that individuals can do better at moments of extreme need; however, I would explain that as mainly caused by "taking off the brakes" that are usually present, the largely self-imposed limits that have the purpose of staying within safe bounds of behavior, so as to reduce the chance of errors from which it is too difficult for that individual to recover. That explanation also in my view applies the same to the phenomenon of seemingly impossible feats of strength performed by ordinary individuals in dire emergencies, the typical example being lifting a car off someone trapped under it, with the added explanation of an adrenaline response physiologically and a useful form of the flight-or-fight response.

Human beings ordinarily limit their strength to far less than half the strength of similarly muscled apes, which seems like a good strategy for safety and prevents breaking their own bones (which is possibility given the bone weakening that occurs with a combination of aging and a diet of animal products, which is not what chimpanzees or gorillas eat.) A common explanation of the usual weakness of humans relative to other apes is that a higher cephalic index (or a higher ratio of brain neurons to muscular neurons) makes it inevitable. Another scientific sounding hypothesis about it is that there's poor muscle tone related to neoteny. Currently considering it, I would put it all down to humans being a gentle and cautious species by nature, instinctively and neurochemically set to limit their strength to less than half of their potential usually, whether they're aware of that or not.

The essay The Energies of Men by William James is something relevant to this subject. That describes a similar hypothesis to "taking off the brakes," and speculates about how to make that happen more often. It mainly refers to energy in the less physical sense of how long someone stays awake and working with attention and effectiveness on one thing. It seems very common to have limits to attention and to claim "tiredness" or "inability to concentrate" or "distraction" after only one tenth the time trying some activity for self-education or self-improvement that a person would spend in a day at school or work or watching television.

Here's what I had in mind for a more speculative response: I would go further in taking the idea of genius back to its origin. First I'd dispense with the word genie on the grounds that the word genius was earlier used in the same way in English. Then I wouldn't stop at the medieval and superstitious sounding figurative language of saying great individuals each have a genius that inspires their works, as a guiding spirit or muse. The original meaning as shown by etymology was that genius was "generative power." My speculation is that if a person exercises and develops his or her power of creating things, and has the intellect to create something of intellectual quality, and does so, by many hundreds of hours of sustained and attentively mindful effort, and that work is recognizable and recognized as such by others, then that person is one who deserves to be said to have achieved a work of genius.

That's what I have to say about genius for tonight, and in case you weren't already aware of the references and ideas I covered. I think there's still some value to the idea of recognizing the genie within, both in the sense of a better self that's a potential and in the sense of a dissociated creative process within one's own mind.