Monday, March 04, 2013

Gerard on Taste and Genius IV: The Nature of Genius

Gerard's Essay on Genius was published much later (1774) than the Essay on Taste, although he seems to have begun writing it at about the same time, but like its predecessor it had a considerable influence. Indeed, while the Essay on Taste probably was more influential in the English-speaking world, one can argue that the Essay on Genius had a much more extensive and important influence in the German-speaking world: Gerard's work on taste became an important reference point for the British, but his work on genius revolutionized Geramn philosophy when it was translated into German in 1776. It was read by practically all the major German philosophers of the period, including Immanuel Kant, who would later call Gerard's book the best work on the subject. Gerard is thus a major influence on Kant's discussion of genius in the Critique of Judgment, for all that Kant here as elsewhere goes his own way; he also was a major influence on the Romantic philosophy that was beginning to take shape at this time, especially by way of Schelling. The importance of Gerard's work on taste and genius is remarkable, and all the more so considering the fact that he is hardly studied today.

Gerard notes (EG 3) that despite the fact that it is "the leading faculty of the mind", genius had been hardly discussed in any systematic way. The main difficulty behind this is that genius seems to be governed by no general laws: genius invents, and thus it is the source of things that were not known before. How can there be general rules for deriving the unexpected? Gerard thinks, however, that we can get farther in the study of genius than this might suggest. We can make our conception of genius much more precise and also explore its relations with other faculties of mind. He starts with a basic description (EG 8-9):

GENIUS is properly the faculty of invention; by means of which a man is qualified, for making new discoveries in science, or for producing original works of art. We may ascribe taste, judgment, or knowledge, to a man who is incapable of invention; but we cannot reckon him a man of genius. In order to determine, how far he merits this character, we must enquire, whether he has discovered any new principle in science, or invented any new art, or carried those arts which are already practiced, to a higher degree of perfection, than former masters? Or, whether, at least, he has, in matters of science, improved on the discoveries of his predecessors, and reduced principles formerly known, to a greater degree of simplicity and consistence, or traced them through a train of consequences hitherto unknown? Or, in the arts, designed some new work, different from those of his predecessors, though not perhaps excelling them? Whatever falls short of this, is servile imitation, or a dull effort of plodding industry, which, as not implying invention, can be deemed no proof of genius, whatever capacity, skill, or diligence it may evidence.

Gerard gives a number of examples of this: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Homer. (One difference between the Essay on Taste and the Essay on Genius is that the latter is seeded much more thickly with examples, perhaps because Gerard thinks that one of the most important tasks in the study of Gerard is to clarify the topic.) He argues that Homer is superior to Virgil in genius, despite Virgil's many excellences, because the latter is more imitative; and that Milton, too, shows more genius than Virgil, while Shakespeare shows more genius than Milton, despite his technical faults. Likewise Chaucer is regarded as the first great English poet because of his power of invention. He also gives examples on the science side: Socrates, Aristotle, Sir Francis Bacon (who was still at the height of being esteemed in the period when Gerard wrote). The reason for all these examples here is to emphasize the point that, however interwoven it may be with other faculties, genius has a distinctive characteristic, and that characteristic is invention. (Gerard is clearly getting the term from manuals of rhetoric, in which invention is discovery of what to say; he later will say it is interwoven with disposition, another of the five canons of rhetoric, concerned with the arrangements of parts.) Those with first-rank genius are those who came up with something utterly new, while those of second-rank genius are those who follow up on the discoveries of others and improve them, although sometimes a follow-up is so important that we regard it as a sign of first-rank genius. His particular argument for this latter qualification reads somewhat oddly today, since he argues that Sir Francis Bacon was one of the originators and that Sir Isaac Newton merely followed up on some hints, but did so in such a way that it is simply unclear which of the two had the greater genius.

So if genius is marked out by inventiveness, what features of the mind qualify us for invention? In Gerard's conception, invention is chiefly a matter of recombination of ideas: it "can be accomplished only by assembling ideas in various positions and arrangements, that we may obtain uncommon views of them" (EG 27). So if we divide human mental capacities into Sense, Memory, Imagination, and Judgment, we can pick out the one that most obviously allows for this kind of recombination. Sense is too narrow; while the inner sense tradition in which Gerard operates is much more expansive with what counts as a sense than we usually are, all of these senses are nonetheless concerned only with presentation. Memory only reviews; far from being inventive, remembering is the opposite of inventing. This leaves Imagination and Judgment. Imagination is clearly a source of invention, because it is constantly producing new things from our ideas. There is likewise some reason to think of Judgment as inventive; however, on Gerard's account it only discovers new relations, and many forms of invention are not concerned with these kinds of relations. Thus even if Judgment is inventive, it is not the inventive power in us; it is at best a supplement. Gerard, however, ultimately thinks that Judgment is not inventive, even if it sometimes seems as if it might be. Reason, for instance, is a kind of judgment that often seems like it is coming up with new things, but if you look more closely you can see that reason is not the real originator of the novelty. Only Imagination is truly innovative. To be sure, not every kind of novelty produced in the imagination has a real claim to being considered genius; but genius, whatever more it requires, is entirely in the province of the Imagination.

Here we see one reason why Gerard was so insistent on the distinction between genius and taste: taste is a combination of both internal sense and judgment, it is a "derived power" (EG 36n), which is why it is so difficult to pin down. We also see here one of the important differences between Gerard's account of genius and Kant's more famous account, despite the influence of the former on the latter. Kant's genius, like Gerard's taste, arises from the interplay between imagination and reason or judgment, and in the case of Kant's account of genius, judgment has the more important role to play. (It's not an accident that Kant discusses genius in a work called the Critique of Judgment.) I think this is also at the root of another, and even more obvious, difference between Gerard and Kant. Gerard holds that art and science alike have a genius appropriate to them. Kant, on the other hand, restricts the role of genius to art (and only beautiful art, at that), explicitly denying that science has any room for it. (Given the time at which they are writing, of course, both of them include mathematics and philosophy whenever they talk about science -- and, indeed, are usually thinking primarily of these things.) Given Gerard's account of invention, genius is primarily a facility for combining ideas in different ways, and obviously mathematicians and philosophers (experimental or not) do this. Kant, however, sees genius itself as being something rather different from mere recombination; it is a talent for originating rules and standards, itself producing things according to no rule, but doing so in such a way that its products are capable of being exemplars, rules, or standards for other things. On Kant's account of genius, no matter how brilliant Newton was, the physics he produced was itself according to a rule, and the whole point of something like the Principia is to lay out in a clean way the kind of rule that produces it. You can have rules for producing the Principia, and the Principia itself lays them out. There are no rules for producing an Iliad, though, and you certainly can't find anything like them in the Iliad itself; the Iliad can only be imitated. It is fundamental to the way physics works that the lowliest physicist can do exactly the same thing Newton did; but this is not true of poets, because what Homer did was in some sense incomparable to what the lowliest poets do. Kant does not think this is an advantage of art over science; science works this way because it is progressive and useful for everyone, whereas beautiful art is not, since it is constantly reaching points beyond which no progress is possible. This is a typical Kantian flip: it's precisely the fact that science does not involve genius that gives it greater value. But it derives, in any case, from the fact that Kant thinks that in at least one important way genius has to do more with a particular kind of judgment than with recombination in the imagination, despite the need for both. Gerard, on the other hand, attributes invention, and thus genius, to something that clearly would be found both in science and in arts other than those concerned with the beautiful.

Nonetheless, Gerard thinks that genius does need judgment. The source of genius is in the imagination, but judgment is needed not so that we can be inventive but so that its products can be developed. As Gerard puts it, "Without judgment, imagination would be extravagant; but without imagination, judgment could do nothing" (EG 38).

Because he locates genius in the imagination, Gerard sees its operation as primarily associative, and therefore as following regular rules and laws. All of our imaginations operate according to the same principles of association (resemblance, contiguity, contrariety, etc.), and where genius is involved, the association is combined with a special degree of comprehensiveness, regularity, and activity.

(1) Comprehensiveness. The reason why the man of genius can be so innovative is that he doesn't have to follow memory as closely as the rest of us. The strongly associative imagination can reach from its starting point to almost any other idea, whereas the more weakly associative imagination must go step by step through what has worked previously. Genius arises when someone can swiftly and easily overview a vast number of possibilities and make a selection from them. Someone like Homer is obviously at every moment able to draw images and ideas from almost every part of nature; someone like Newton seems at every point to be able to pull in almost any experiment or mathematical idea with which he has ever been acquainted.

(2) Regularity. Merely coming up with ideas is not enough; they have to be placed in an order, scheme, or design, as well. The person of genius is not merely taking everything into account; he is identifying what is appropriate to the whole. Those who have genius, then, are able (as we say) to stick to the point: looking over the whole compass of the imagination, they nonetheless at the same time are able to keep the purpose of their inquiry unwaveringly in view. This imparts a greater order on the final product than could otherwise be the case. If we look at the work of the great scientists or artists, we find that (whether they seem orderly in their proceeding or not) their work gives a much greater sense of everything being in its proper place. No matter how far they roam across the landscape of the imagination, they are rarely lost. Homer's ability to unify everything in a narrative is so remarkable that Aristotle's comments on it gave rise to the idea of the poetic unities; Newton stands out as rarely if ever appealing to anything superfluous, so that everything contributes to the reasoning in an important way. Without regularity, comprehensiveness of imagination merely gives a sort of profligacy of imagination, full of the superfluous and distracting: lots of material, no adequate form. People have difficulty with Ariosto, or Spencer, or Locke, because they seem sometimes to pour out ideas in a way that sometimes loses the point; when people criticize this, they are saying that there is more comprehensiveness than regularity involved in their invention. Gerard connects this to the problem of the essay. In Montaigne everything is connected almost by accident; the novelty and humor of it made the original striking, thus leading to imitation. But essay-writing by its nature is irregular composition, unsuitable for genius: even very good essays are marked out by the excellences of this or that part, not the excellence of the whole, which is often a merely artificial or superficial unity.

In some sense regularity explains why people of genius are apparently able to overview the entire field of possibilities so easily: their ability to keep their intent or aim in view means that they are able to set aside immediately anything that is not appropriate to what they are doing.

(3) Activity. In works of genius we see evidence that people are not merely uniting comprehensiveness with regularity, but doing so vigorously, constantly, often swiftly. Mere activity does not do much but cause distraction; however, activity combined with regularity and comprehensiveness accomplishes extraordinary things. Likewise, you can have some kind of genius without much activity, but genius that is idle or dormant is genius that is not accomplishing anything.

The combination of activity and strength of association explains why genius is often associated with enthusiasm or inspiration, that is, with a kind of visionary madness; in genius the mind is (one might say) working like crazy, seeing things vividly, warming up to its task: "the fire of genius, like a divine impulse, raises the mind above itself, and by the natural influence of the imagination actuates it as if were supernaturally inspired" (EG 68). Likewise, a certain kind of enthusiasm may fuel the work of genius by raising the mind to a high degree of activity. (Gerard's discussion of this is somewhat remarkable in that it is the only discussion of enthusiasm in the Scottish Enlightenment that says unambiguously positive things about enthusiasm, at least that I know of.)

It is important to note, however, that none of this means that genius produces works that cannot be improved. This is precisely why judgment is still necessary to genius. This is as true in art as it is in science. You can have genius without good judgment, but the greatest genius requires the cultivation good judgment provides (EG 75-76):

In a man of genius, imagination can scarce take a single step, but judgment should attend it. The most luxuriant fancy stands most in need of being checked by judgment. As a rich soil produces not only the largest quantity of grain, but also the greatest profusion of such weeds as tend to choak it; so a fertile imagination, along with just and useful ideas, produces many trifling, false, and improper thoughts, which, if they be not immediately examined by reason, and speedily rejected, will over-run and obstruct the truth or the beauty which others might have produced.

Philosophers and scientists without good judgment may produce many good ideas, but they will also produce many wild hypotheses. Artists and poets without good judgment may produce many beauties, but they will also produce many bizarre improbabilities. Gerard points to a very common phenomenon: someone in the grip of invention is fired up by his own ideas, which take on a sort of brilliance, but if he sets it aside for a while and comes back to it, he finds things that were not in the best judgment, even if the work in general is still sound. Genius is not a magic faculty for attaining to truth and beauty; it just discovers the means and materials for reaching these things. Gerard points to Shakespeare's famous exuberance for an example: without being any less a result of genius, some of Shakespeare's speeches (Gerard gives as his example Midsummer Night's Dream Act III, Scene 8) are such a flood of ideas, association after association, that by the end of them you are nowhere near where you started. The first part of the speech was making a point, but the last part just gets carried away by imagination. Gerard is very critical of some Renaissance painting for the same reason: they are constantly putting things into the painting just for the sake of putting them into it. Undeniable genius, yes, but not always good judgment about what would make sense in the context of the whole painting. These examples show that where judgment is most necessary is in maintaining regularity of imagination, keeping to the point no matter how far you travel. All of this is why sketches and revisions are necessary even for geniuses: "The first sketch of every work of genius, is always very different from the finished piece" (EG 82). Even artists and scientists of extraordinary genius have to try things out and then go back and correct them. They may make it look much easiers than others can, but in the last analysis they are as much in new territory as anyone else. Their imaginations sometimes run away with them, their sense of the whole sometimes wavers, and sometimes they just don't follow through as they should. When they have good judgment, however, they can identify and correct these problems.

Judgment also does something else for genius: it discovers relations that can provide material to genius. When judgment surveys what genius has produced, it can often find relationships that were not in view before. They are already there, at least in part, but they weren't being taken into account in the first production. Once judgment steps in, these relations can be recognized and in revision genius can now take them into account as well, leading to a new coherence and richness in the work. A scientist needs genius to come up with excellent experiments, but this will often depend on being able first to recognize the patterns in experiments that have already been done. Given this new information by judgment, genius can fill the gaps, or come up with experiments that don't rely on some potentially questionable assumption. An author needs to recognize patterns in beginning and middle in order to come up with an appropriate end. Having come up with a wide variety of images in a first draft, a poet needs good judgment to see which ones need modification in order to improve the poem.

This gives us some sense of how genius works in general, at least as Gerard argues it, but genius also exhibits an extraordinary amount of diversity, and we will discuss this in the next post in the series.

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