Saturday, May 16, 2020

Evening Note for Saturday, May 16

Thought for the Evening: Imitating Genius

Genius, etymologically speaking, is the spirit presiding over your birth; it is particularly known in inspiration, which, again etymologically speaking, is spirit flowing in. Of course, we usually take it in a more metaphorical and naturalistic sense, along the lines of Kant, "Genius is the talent (natural endowment) which gives the rule to art" or "Genius is the innate mental aptitude (ingenium) through which nature gives the rule to art", or Gerard, "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." It follows from the definition of genius, whether taken etymologically or metaphorically, that genius eludes all rule and method. But it does not follow from this that there could not be rules or methods that imitate genius. Quite the reverse. It follows directly that rule and method are by their nature ways in which we chase after genius, by which we build a mechanism that works a little like inspiration. There are several ways in which, lacking genius, you might make up the lack by working up an imitation of genius.

(1) Hypercombinatorial. Genius going beyond rule, it accesses unexpected possibilities. So one of the ways in which one could do an imitation of genius by brute force is by initiating an explosion of possibilities. As a chess computer can brute-force its way to victory on the chessboard by considering massive quantities of possible moves, and thus by running through many possibilities imitate the chess master who simply looks at the board and sees immediately many of the best possibilities, so we can run through massive numbers of combinations of ideas and eventually hit something that would be absolutely brilliant if we had thought of it at once.

This method is actually quite important for intellectual inquiry. Academics can occasionally be creative geniuses, although perhaps much less often than some of them think, but academia is certainly not creative. Academia is a hypercombinatorial machine. Essentially academic life works under two major pressures that affect inquiry: you are supposed to come up with something new, and this new thing is supposed to be relevant to what other people are working on. These two almost-conflicting rules, to come up with something new but to make sure that it is not too new, are together a recipe for ringing through combinations. Suppose people are working on vagueness (that was the faddish philosophical topic when I was in graduate school). Then, inevitably, the academic gears whir into motion and you get graduate students and professors running through the combinations to find something that will get published:

Vagueness and Divine Knowledge
Vagueness and the Ontological Argument
Vagueness and the Problem of Other Minds
Vagueness and Dialetheism
Vagueness and Deontological Dilemmas
Vagueness and Bayesian Epistemology
Vagueness and Feminist Standpoint Theory

And so on and so on and so on. Sometimes the field will get too crowded and you'll need to make the topics more narrow, based on previous runs through combinations,

Epistemic Accounts of Vagueness and Epistemic Injustice in Racial Contexts

There's a joke in philosophy that you can make everything more philosophical by adding the word 'epistemic' to it, and that conveys the same idea. It could be anything -- there are always lots of ideas on the table at any given time. And sometimes there's an outside disruption that shifts the possibilities that you run through; I've no doubt that we will see a few COVID-19-inspired combinations in the near future. It's this aspect of academia that sometimes makes academics sound like a parody of themselves; you are going to get absurd and strained combinations as well as promising and fruitful ones.

But there is a constraint on all of this; the explosion of possibilities is then filtered according to some standard or standards. This derives from the 'not too new'. In practice this means that you have to convince other academics that your new thing is sufficiently like what they do, or relevant enough to what they do, that you are in their vicinity. The exact requirements will vary from discipline to discipline; some will be very stringent, and some less so, depending on what they see themselves as doing. (Disciplines also differ on exactly where they apply the filter.) There needs to be some sort of constraint or you just have combinations, not anything definite. But academia as a whole accomplishes, sometimes, something like genius, because at any given time it is rolling through a vast number of possible combinations of ideas. And you could do it on a smaller scale, as well. We see this, in fact; someone of only moderate ability who obsessively spends years on something, sheer hard work in trying things out, sometimes comes up with brilliance.

(2) Hyperanalogical. There's another way that possibly might be said to imitate genius, based not on running through combinations of ideas but on repeatedly trying analogies and taking them to the breaking point. This is like the combinatorial approach, except it involves a side-step; you are running through combinations, but through combinations of apparently similar things. Finding out the point that an analogy breaks down is often an important discovery; finding out that the analogy does not break down at all is often an even more important one. Doing this with a lot of analogies is bound to get you something. And once you get that something, you can often move on to analogize from it.

I think it's fair to say that in general this is a much harder method than the first. Speaking as someone who has a natural talent for analogical reasoning, I find myself in constantly baffling (and frustrating) situations in which people naturally reach for analogies to understand things, but in which it is also very difficult to get most people to understand any particular analogy and why it breaks down or does not. And because analogical inferences are based on apparent similarities, many of which are merely apparent, there are traps for everyone everywhere, anyway. I have seen professional philosophers make absolute fools of themselves over parity arguments (which involve analogical inferences with respect to structures of arguments, and simple versions of which are one of the most fundamental things you need for accurate analysis of arguments). I have seen professional theologians completely bungle how analogies work in (say) Trinitarian theology. Perhaps you wouldn't expect consistent practice with analogical reasoning in academia, though; perhaps the hyperanalogical machines are things like science fiction publishing or such. Or perhaps it just doesn't scale as well as the hypercombinatorial approach; perhaps it needs to be done by smaller groups of people working on smaller problems, and perhaps it runs through a lot more chaff to get to the wheat.

(3) Hyperdialogical. Perhaps there is a third, although with this approach we are getting to the point where, when effective, imitation of genius perhaps sometimes blurs into and blends with real acts of genius. Instead of running through possible combinations of ideas or repeatedly finding possible analogies and pressing them until they break, you could instead look at the problem from multiple points of view simultaneously. (This is related to the notion of romantic irony, which Romantics like Schlegel in fact connected to ingenium.) Well, doing that is strictly speaking probably a major act of ingenium already, so what we're really talking about it is building in stages something like that. Instead of 'simultaneously', unfold it slowly. And the way we normally do that is by conversation, dialogue. So in addressing problems, one way to go about it is to have a discussion -- an argument, broadly speaking -- between perspectives that make different assumptions. You can do this in your own head, but of course, it can also play out between people. I suspect that the hyperdialogical machines are found in collaborative work of various kinds. But of course, the reason these are all 'hyper' is that it has to go well beyond normal; merely having a conversation is not an act of genius. It's the intensity and extent of discussion on a particular topic that matters here. Methods (1) and (2) work by expanding the possibilities and then filtering them according to some goal; but the hyperdialogical approach in a sense works in the reverse direction -- you start with a topic, which gives you the goal, and then you expand possibilities by arguing it out between different perspectives, always constrained by that goal.

There are probably more, of course. I've put this all in terms of 'imitating genius'; but arguably you could reframe it as 'exercising genius'. People often have the idea that there is a group of people out there who are 'the geniuses' by nature. This is obviously absurd if taken to be more than a figure of speech. Everyone has their native genius, a faculty of ingenium, sharp wits; and even in those who seem exemplars of ingenuity, it is sporadic in the best of times. There is in fact about genius something of the lucky; not that works of genius are sheer matters of luck but that every work of genius in part makes use of luck. I've talked about that in the context of art. To make use of luck, though, you have to be ready for it; 'lucky people' are in general not people who have better luck but people who have better preparation for lucky moments. There is a practice to it. And I think many people do starve their native genius. It needs exercise, like any other ability, if it is to make use of the right opportunities. I think Novalis says somewhere that the acuity of genius is the acute use of acuity, and I think that gets something very right: genius is the ingenious use of your ingenuity; it is the brilliant use of whatever brilliance you have; it is the inventive use of your aptitude for invention. People use their ingenuity in narrow and repetitive ways all the time; genius comes when your use of your ingenuity is itself ingenious. That requires a lot of deliberate practice in thinking about possibilities, making comparisons, and shifting points of view.

Various Links of Interest

* Adam Schwartz, What He Saw in America: G.K. Chesterton’s View of the United States

* J. E. H. Smith, The Yakut Verbal Voice System

* Paul Shakeshaft, The Via Media of George Herbert

* David Carrier, When Philosophy and Art Intersect, discusses the philosophical drawings of Maria Bussman.

* Steele Brand, The Diseases that Kill Republics: Insights from Ancient Rome's Epidemics

* I have had no extra time for podcasts or the like, but if I had, The History of the Vikings sounds like it is interesting.

* Jim Baggott, How science fails, at, on Imre Lakatos.

* Emma Green, Nuns vs. the Coronavirus, discusses the difficulties of the Little Sisters of the Poor as they struggle in their mission to assist the elderly and vulnerable in the midst of an epidemic.

* Sabine Hossenfelder, Predictions are overrated

* Thomas Poole, Leviathan in Lockdown

* Richard Whately: Defending Logic, at "Irish Philosophy"

* Steven Greydanus looks at the depictions of the sacrament of confession in movies.

* Donovan Cleckley, In Defense of Sex as a Category of Significance

Currently Reading
Because the shift to online teaching while trying not to disadvantage students unnecessarily has made my life much, much busier over the past couple of weeks, my reading is in an unusual state of disarray. But a few things I have been reading in chaotic bits and pieces:

Wace, The History of the Norman People
John Wright, Titans of Chaos
John Poinsot, Treatise on Signs

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