What counts for genius in our times? Is it the same as what has always counted for genius? Or, are there shifting criteria that reflect the priorities and affordances of a particular age?
Mary Carruthers opens The Book of Memory, her study of memory in medieval culture, with a contrast between Thomas Aquinas and Albert Einstein. Both were regarded as the outstanding intellects of their era; each elicited enthusiastic, wonder-struck praise from his contemporaries. Carruthers cites a letter by an associate of each man as typical of the praise that each received. Summing up both she writes:
Of Einstein: ingenuity, intricate reasoning, originality, imagination, essentially new ideas couples with the notion that to achieve truth one must err of necessity, deep devotion to and understanding of physics, obstinacy, vital force, single-minded concentration, solitude. Of Thomas Aquinas: subtlety and brilliance of intellect, original discoveries coupled with deep understanding of Scripture, memory, nothing forgotten and knowledge ever-increasing, special grace, inward recourse, single-minded concentration, intense recollection, solitude.
Carruthers goes on to note how similar the lists of qualities are “in terms of what they needed for their compositional activity (activity of thought), the social isolation required by each individual, and what is perceived to be the remarkable subtlety, originality, and understanding of the product of such reasoning.” The difference, appropriate to the object of Carruther’s study, lies in the relationship between memory and the imagination.
Carruthers is eager to remind us that “human beings did not suddenly acquire imagination and intuition with Coleridge, having previously been poor clods.” But there is a difference in the way these qualities were understood:
The difference is that whereas now geniuses are said to have creative imagination which they express in intricate reasoning and original discovery, in earlier times they were said to have richly retentive memories, which they expressed in intricate reasoning and original discovery.
This latter perspective, the earlier Medieval perspective, is not too far removed from the connections between memory and creativity drawn by Jim Holt based on the experiences of French mathematician, Henri Poincare. We might also note that the changing status of memory within the ecology of genius is owed at least in part to the evolution of technologies which supplement the memory. Aquinas, working in a culture for which books were still relatively scarce, would have needed a remarkably retentive memory to continue working with the knowledge he acquired through reading. This becomes less of a priority for post-Gutenberg society.
Mostly, however, Carruthers’ comparison suggested to me the question of what might count for genius in our own time. We are not nearly so far removed from Einstein as Einstein was from Aquinas, but a good deal has changed nonetheless which makes the question at least plausible. I suspect that, as was the case between Aquinas and Einstein, there will be a good deal of continuity, a kind of base-line of genius perhaps. But that baseline makes the shifts in emphasis all the more telling.
I don’t have a particular model for contemporary genius in mind, so this is entirely speculative, but I wonder if today, or in coming years, we might not transfer some of the wonder previously elicited by memory and imagination to something like rapid pattern recognition. I realize there is significant overlap within these categories. Just as memory and imagination are related in important ways, so pattern recognition is also implicit in both and has always been an important ability. So again, it is a matter of emphasis. But it seems to me that the ability to rapidly recognize, or even generate meaningful patterns from an undifferentiated flow of information may be the characteristic of intelligence most suited to our times.
In Aquinas’ day the emphasis was on the memory needed in order to retain the knowledge which was relatively scarce. In Einstein’s time the emphasis was on the ability to jump out of established patterns of thought generated by abundant, but sometimes static knowledge. In our day, we are overwhelmed by a torrent of easily available and ever shifting information, we won’t quite say knowledge. Under these conditions memory loses its pride of place, as does perhaps imagination. However, the ability to draw together disparate pieces of information or to connect seemingly unrelated points of data into a meaningful pattern that we might count as knowledge now becomes a dimension of human intelligence that may inspire comparable awe and admiration from culture drowning in noise.
Perhaps an analogy to wrap up: Think of the constellations as instances of pattern recognition. Lot’s of data points against the night sky drawn into patterns that are meaningful, useful, and beautiful to human beings. For Aquinas the stars of knowledge might appear but for a moment and to recognize the pattern he had to hold in memory their location as he learned and remembered the location of other stars. For Einstein many more stars had appeared and they remained steadily in his intellectual field of vision, seeing new patterns were old ones had been established was his challenge.
Today we might say that the night sky is not only full to overflowing, but the configuration is constantly shifting. Our task is not necessarily to remember the location of few but fading stars, nor is it to see new patterns in a fuller but steady field. It is to constantly recognize new and possibly temporary patterns in a full and flickering field of information. Those who are able to do this most effectively may garner the kind of respect earlier reserved for the memory of Aquinas and the imagination of Einstein.
For a different, but I think related take on a new form of thinking for our age that draws on the imagery of constellations I encourage you to take a look at this thread at Snark Market.