The Problem of Genius

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I wrote this in response to a writing prompt. The writing prompt asked me to examine one great mind in-depth. As often happens with writing prompts, the mind tends to wander....I ended up writing about the problem of genius.


There are no citations for this work. The writing is based on some scattered readings and my own personal reflections. So, read at your own risk.


The Problem of Genius Part 1 -- The Subject-Matter Idiot


I have worked under the assumption that except in a few rare cases, the capabilities of the human mind are scarce. The problem with "great minds" is that being "great" in one area often leads to something akin to autism in others.


How many times have you heard of the genius who lacked practical common sense or social skills? How many virtuosos have had problems navigating everyday problems in life?


So, while there might be many great minds I admire in one area, I always work under the assumption that this genius doesn't carry very far.


For similar reasons, I don't like the question, "Which author would you have dinner with?" I always imagine authors as horrible dinner guests (and great dinner guests as potentially horrible writers). 


So, what is a great mind as a subject-matter idiot? A person who is irrationally in love with their subject. He or she is a dull married person who has lost the ability to socialize outside of his or her group. When their old high school friends come calling to go on an adventure, they usually find some suitable excuse to stay home in their comfort zone.


The Problem of Genius Part 2 -- The Habits of the Flaneur (or Renaissance Man)


The flaneur is different. I use the term to refer to the person who dabbles, experiments, and tries new things. The flaneur is like the Renaissance Man. But the age of the Renaissance Man has passed, hasn't it? We're now in the age of the specialist, right? Perhaps the internet and social media have brought that person back.


Twitter and other social media make the clever "framers" of knowledge more important than the generators of that knowledge.


Malcolm Gladwell strikes me as someone who is very flaneurish -- but Mr. Gladwell always risks looking like a fool. He or she is a pseudo-genius who merely inks the sketches of true geniuses (the subject-matter idiots).


Others, such as Thomas Friedman, do okay, but suffer from similar slights. To those who have studied economics and the body of research on complex-interdependence, the works of Thomas Friedman probably don't look too fresh or innovative. They might even look downright dumb.


So, while flaneurship seems more fun, maybe even cooler, there is a legitimacy issue. There is the question of whether these people are ever anything more than samplers from the deep well of experts.


And even with flaneurs, you might get a quasi-specialist who turns out to be a boring dinner guest.


Final Thought - You Lose the World to Gain the World


"You lose the world to gain the world."


I wish I could remember where I heard this from. I believe this notion comes from Bruno Latour and his philosophy of science. But I'm not sure that's where it comes from. I tried to track down its origin and got lost in the internet of things.


Such is my devotion to flaneurship and the flaneur lifestyle that I didn't even both to persist in my efforts to track it down. I moved on to a different topic.


You lose the world to gain the world.


The statement applies to a lot of things. It applies to theory -- when you look through the prism of one theory, your mind loses other (perhaps important) details. It applies to lifestyle choices.


It applies to specialists and flaneurs. When you commit to specialization (marriage to a subject), you lose your bachelor ways and the adventures that come with it. When you commit to the flaneur lifestyle (bachelorhood), you may be the envy of many scholars, but your lifestyle will always be scandalous and your reputation will suffer.


Is there any way out of this conundrum? I don't think so.


I think, just like with so many other things in life: You lose the world to gain the world.


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