Liah Greenfeld Ph.D.

The Modern Mind

Culture, Mind, and Genius

It takes much more than a brain to produce a genius.

Posted Sep 26, 2013

In the previous post I wrote that the essential function of the thinking self is to assure the symbolic process on the collective level. In distinction to the other two processes constituting the mind, identity and will, which are necessary for the survival of every one of us in the very complex cultural environment, the explicitly-symbolic, thinking self is not necessary for such individual survival. Because of this, it is unlikely that the thinking self and the life of the mind in its specific meaning of the life of thought would be all that common.

It is, however, precisely the process that must occur in the uncommon cases of genius. A genius is a mind coordinated with culture to an unusually high degree. This close coordination between the symbolic process on the individual level and the symbolic process on the collective level is expressed in the complete individualization of certain parts of culture, their appropriation as the thinking self and full integration with other, necessarily individualized, mental processes. As a result, it is characterized by an unusually powerful symbolic imagination, capable of leaping huge distances over particular “logical“ chains. An unusually powerful intelligence alone, or imagination which is not symbolic, is not enough. Moreover, the unusually powerful symbolic imagination in genius is powered by formal symbolic systems.

There are not many geniuses in the whole of human history, and they are recognized, indisputably, only in a number of areas: in literature, in mathematics, in science, in music, and in visual art. Too often even in these areas we use the word imprecisely, as an intentional exaggeration; whenever we use it in other fields we, consciously or unconsciously, use it as a metaphor. Like so many other concepts that capture an important reality, the word “genius” is rarely defined and is used mostly without a precise meaning behind it. And yet, there is a close to universal consensus in regard to a very small number of people throughout the Western tradition, that these are men of geniuses. What they share may be said to constitute genius.

These people, whose right to be so called is very, very rarely disputed, include in visual art Rembrandt  and the high Renaissance trio of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rafael, in literature Shakespeare, in music Mozart and, perhaps, Bach; in mathematics and science Newton, Darwin, and Einstein. There are some others whose claim to the status of genius is rarely disputed, but they are not as universally known; there are, clearly, also a number of geniuses rarely, if ever, so called (the word acquired its present meaning only in the 18th century and was not, except in visual art, in which special right to it was asserted, applied too far in retrospect), but who must be so called, if we are to define genius as what unites these nine or ten universally acknowledged geniuses. But this is beside the point.

What unites these undisputed geniuses in art, literature, music, and mathematics/science is their ability to establish the organizing principles of a particular “logic” of great complexity on the basis of relatively limited learning experience and then make it explicit, i.e., think it through, or reconstruct it in an explicit symbolic medium. The complex “logic” in question may be that of biological evolution (perceived and explicitly reconstructed/formulated in language by Darwin); it may be the organizing principles of a new form of social experience and organization, which came to be called “modernity” (perceived and captured in words by Shakespeare—see here and here); it may be the “logic” of musical resources inherited and perfectly realized in the inimitable oeuvre of Mozart or of the visual aspects of the human form at the height of physical perfection, fully imagined and explicitly reconstructed by Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael, and of the actual, ever and, with age increasingly, imperfect human form, made glorious by Rembrandt, or the iron, mathematical logic of Newtonian physics, presented in the formulas of Principia Mathematica.

The outcome in all these cases of ultimate creativity on the individual level of the symbolic process is a new page in cultural development on the collective level, a dramatic cultural change. Genius either brings to a full realization and so exhausts the symbolic resources of the time (in the respective symbolic system) or, uncovering new resources, it outlines the framework in which activity in the area continues until the system exhausts itself. Only new directions were possible after Mozart and after Rembrandt, they could be imitated only intentionally and thus were truly creatively inimitable, and it is not coincidental that the style of Mannerism (i.e. intentional and exaggerated imitation, working in the manner of) followed high Renaissance art. In science, Newton defined physics from his day to the end of the 19th century; Einstein did the same for the later period, and Darwin provided the foundation for contemporary biology with all its ramifications. As to Shakespeare, we still live in his world, so to speak: he did more to construct it than any other single individual.

The phenomenon of genius allows us to articulate the mechanisms which make the mind and culture interdependent. The relationship obtaining between the symbolic process on the individual level and that on the collective level in the cases of the mental structures of identity and will (or of the relationally-constructed self and acting self) is reversed in the case of culture appropriated as the thinking self. While it is evidently culture which creates identity and will in the mind, it is the thinking self of the individual mind that generates culture.

Evidently, certain characteristics of the individual brain contribute to the making of a genius, as they do to other, less unusual cases of artistic (broadly defined) and scientific creativity. It is not clear what these characteristics are. Surely, they are not the ones measured however accurately by IQ tests. Superior intelligence (capacity for logical thinking) is, probably, involved in genius in science and mathematics, but does not seem of particular importance for one in music or literature. The definitive characteristic of genius, undoubtedly, is a characteristic of the mind not of the brain. It is having the vast resources of a certain sphere of culture at the mind’s command, at one’s willed recall—that is, the perfect integration of the thinking self with the structures of identity and will. It is not the degree of development or activity of this structure that matters, but its integration with the other two processual systems which reflects the unusually close coordination between the mind and culture. A very developed and active thinking system, often combined with acute intelligence, may lead to madness as well as to genius, and, if we remember how much more abnormal (that is rare) the condition of genius is from that of madness, is rather more likely to lead to the latter. In this case it must change its function too. Instead of being the “I of self-consciousness,” it must become the eye of unwilled self-consciousness, culture not individualized observing the mind and experienced as an alien presence within the self.

Understanding the “anatomy” of the healthy mind and the dependence of its constituent processes on culture puts us in a position to attempt a new, culturalist, interpretation of schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness. In a series of upcoming posts we’ll see whether the clinical descriptions and the findings of neurobiological, psychological, and epidemiological research justify the thinking that leads to it.   


Liah Greenfeld is the author of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience

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