Does the mind of a genius follow different stages of development?
Prof. Dr. Liah Greenfeld
Professor of Sociology, Political Science and Anthropology at Boston University. She has a PhD in Sociology of Art from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and has taught Sociology in several American universities, including Harvard, Chicago and MIT.
The Scale/Scope of Personality and Stages of Personality Evolution (Development)
It is impossible to conduct an international discussion on a question of any importance without, first, agreeing on the meaning of the terms used. In mathematics and natural sciences such agreement necessarily precedes any conversation. Cross-border intellectual exchanges in traditional areas of humanities scholarship, relying on the shared knowledge of pertinent languages (as in classics and medieval history) similarly presuppose agreed-upon nomenclature. But such is certainly not the case of the present discussion the terms of which are so ill-defined in any language that the positions of the speakers, as thought in their respective idioms, are mutually untranslatable.
The questions posed in English for this panel are translated from Russian. But how can we be sure that “personality” has the same referent as “lichnost’,” when neither “personality” nor “lichnost’” are clearly defined?
Let’s take a clue from the focus on the “scale” or “scope,” or “masshtab,” in the first question. Not that the significance here is self-evident, in fact, the organizers felt that the speakers required a personal explanation with specific examples. I understood that the organizers wanted us to address the relative historical impact of (or mark left by) a person, an individual, which indeed can be translated into Russian as “lichnost’” (in distinction to “personality,” which, rather, refers specifically to the temperament of a person). What allows one to talk of the impact or mark left by a person or “lichnost’” (or, in other words, what this presupposes) is that a person, an individual, “lichnost’” is understood as an agent. The question concerns the historical impact of, or mark left by, a person’s, individual’s, action, whether mostly mental, such as the thought of Darwin and Einstein, or the creativity of Shakespeare and Mozart; or mostly outward – numbers of people killed because of Hitler, Stalin, or Mao, for instance. Only a very small percentage (perhaps, 1%) of humanity ever have an historical impact or leave any noticeable mark, so indeed it is an interesting question why they do.
English has a specific term for the seat of human agency, and thus personhood and individuality – the mind. Most other languages (including Russian and French, for instance) lack the exact equivalent of it and, in academic discussions, are forced to substitute for it such esoteric terms as “mentalitet” (which derives from the same Latin root). Though obscured by the lack of the term for the seat of agency, there is a general awareness among participants in related discussions that all action originates as mental, and, since the Romantic period, there is also a specific term in all European languages at least for the exceptional person, individual, “lichnost’” – the agent who leaves a mark: we call it genius.
This conceptual analysis and (hopefully) clarification allow us to translate – and reformulate — the first question for this panel. The question we actually want to discuss and understand is: Does the mind of a genius develop differently from regular minds? Specifically, does the mind of a genius follow different stages (“stadii”) of development? Is it more or better developed than regular minds? When we recognize that the greatest mark has been left by murderous political leaders of the kraftgenie (genius of power) variety, who, in addition, represent at least half of “large-scale (krupno-masshtabnyi), so to speak, personalities” envisioned by the organizers of our panel, the answer to the last question is, clearly, no.
Answering the general formulation of question 1 depends on the understanding of the mind and the definition of genius; giving this question a reliable, objective, that is a scientific answer depends on the recognition of the actual nature of the mind and genius as empirical phenomena. How does one access this actual nature? In the same manner in which physics and biology access their respective subjects, i.e., via the scientific method of conjectures and refutations, the logical formulation of hypotheses and search for contradictions to them in the relevant evidence. Both logical formulations and search for empirical contradictions to conjectures necessitate comparisons. Comparison is the essential practice in every scientific pursuit. Among other things, this points to the unreliability (in the best case, insufficiency which is the flaw of induction, in the worst, outright deceitfulness) of all attempts to understand anything in isolation. It so happens that this is the common problem of all social sciences (indeed explaining the absence of progress in them), and this is nowhere more damaging than in psychology. Psychology focuses on the human individual as a self-contained phenomenon, and self-contained phenomena, i.e., phenomena intrinsically unconnected to their environments, do not exist. Presuming that the explanation of the individual lies within the individual makes psychology – which presents itself as the science of the mind – a futile pursuit. (This makes questionable all psychological theories, including those in developmental psychology that postulate various stages in mental development.)
As an empirical phenomenon, the mind, like any other empirical phenomenon, therefore, cannot be productively accessed outside of its environment. Analyzing human environment, however, allows one to deduce from it logically (i.e., hypothesize) the nature of the mind, which then can be tested against empirical evidence. (For example, we can conjecture what a healthy mind would need to consist of to allow for the survival of the individual within that environment and the continuation of the environment itself, and then test this conjecture against the clinical evidence of mental disease. This is what I did in Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience.) Given that humans are also animals, the essence of human environment only can be understood in comparison with non-human animal environments, which unavoidably leads one to recognize the centrality of the symbolic dimension in it. Given that much of the human environment is symbolic, in turn, means that the organ of the brain in humans needs to process symbols, something that animals in the wild do not have to do. Because of the symbolic element in the environment, this processing – this mental process – acquires a symbolic dimension as well and, while happening by the means of the brain, cannot be reduced to the regularities of organic processing. The human mental process – the mind – is a symbolic process; it, in effect, is culture in the brain. The organic faculties or capacities of the animal brain, such as learning, memory, imagination, are transformed and become, in addition to being organic, symbolic learning, memory, and imagination. This transformation, the development, or, rather, acquisition, of human mind, happens very early in life, simultaneously with the acquisition of language – the main symbolic process on the collective level. And it happens at once, not in stages: one can no more have a bit of a mind than be a little pregnant.
The symbolic phenomenon of the mind, however, exists by means of the organic phenomenon of the brain, and the organic (including genetic) qualities of each individual brain add to the individuality of the mind, just as the organic qualities of each individual stomach add – together with the food the stomach must process – to the individual experience of digestion. The individual mental process, in other words, has both symbolic and organic components, depending on both and reflecting both in its expressions. The mind of a genius is the mind characterized by a particularly strong, organically produced, imagination (i.e., a particularly swift processing) of a specific symbolic material (which may be musical or military, literary or political, and so on), a capacity of the brain activated by a particular symbolic environment. The mark a genius leaves can never be attributed to the individual alone: it is always a product of the symbolic environment, culture, as much as of the individual’s organic constitution.
Interdependence of personality development level and the mentality of a person
Again, we must start with translating the question into terms making certain that, as posed in English, it means the same as when posed in Russian. Building on the conceptual analysis of the first question (including the clarification that the mind does not develop in stages) and taking into account that “level” (“uroven’”) is a quantitative term, I presume that question 2 addresses the issue of the possible dependence of the quality of one’s mind (“mentality of a person,” “mentalitetnaya sostavliayuschaya cheloveka”) on the degree of its cultivation. I.e., asking: “Is a cultivated/educated mind better (more active, more creative) than an uncultivated one?” Or, to relate this to question 1, “Is a higher level of education likely to produce a genius, that is, a person who would leave a mark?”
The answer to this question is no: no quantity of symbolic/cultural information or stimuli from the environment can affect the mind’s quality. This quality is affected only by the quality of the individual brain and the qualities — nature/configuration/contents – of the culture in which it operates. The qualitative differences between the mental processes of humans and non-human animals are partly a product of the different quantity of stimuli from the environment. They have to do, first of all with the fact that the complexity of the human environment is not simply greater than that of animals in the wild, but that it is of an altogether different order of magnitude. Animals carry their immediate and most important environment – their social environment, the organization of interaction with other organisms in their species – in their genes; it is a part of their biological constitution. Therefore, while members of other animal species have to adapt only to their physical environment and the organic environment of the species, humans have to adapt, above all, to their immediate, most pertinent, intraspecies environment – human society. Human society is genetically undetermined; we chart it symbolically and thus construct culture. We know this because of the almost infinite variability of human societies.
With the addition of symbolic stimuli and experience (with the emergence of the new reality of culture and the mind), the complexity of the environment increases exponentially and proportionally increases the mass of the brain. This jump – between the natural animal and human-cultured brain – is so great, that all additional increments in the human brain mass (owing to the relatively greater complexity of the already cultural environment) may be considered negligible. This means that humans normally learn by an order of magnitude more than the most intelligent wild animals and store much more and much more varied information from the outside (the overwhelming part of which is qualitatively different – symbolic) in their memory. Much of this learning and memory takes place and is formed in infancy. And then we manipulate this vast amount of information acquired from the outside – complete it, construct or create new information through imagination, and store products of our imagination, or records of our inner experiences, in our memory, to manipulate it again and again. A snowball effect is created. Most of the stimuli of the symbolic – primary for humans – environment are in fact products of the mental process itself. With the emergence of culture and the symbolic environment, in other words, human consciousness or mental life (though not the mental life of every human) becomes self-sustaining, i.e., independent.
Specifically, it becomes independent of learning above a certain minimum. Above a certain minimum, which may be received in childhood, the mind needs very little stimulus from the outside; instead, it manipulates and remanipulates – namely, augments through imagination – information already stored in memory, much of which, to start with, it has created at an earlier point. Memory becomes the major reservoir of stimuli for the continued activity of the nervous system/the brain. In a way it competes with the environment; for some it becomes more important than the environment in the individual’s efforts to construct the state of equilibrium/comfort. Or, perhaps, we can say that the cultural environment enters the brain in a major way to start operations there (thus returning to the definition of the mind as culture in the brain), thereby allowing the brains of some, very few, to contribute in major way to the creation of this environment.
In addition to making human consciousness self-sufficient, the symbolic/cultural human environment necessitates certain other characteristics of the mind. The mind, though a process, can be likened to an individual organism, which exists in a larger structure/process, analogous to a species – a culture. Within the mind, culture, supported by the imaginative capacities of the animal brain, transformed by the symbolic environment into the specifically human, symbolic imagination, necessarily creates three patterned, systematic processes which further distinguish the human mind from the mental life of animals. These are compartments of the self or of I (which would also be translated into Russian as “lichnost’”) and include (1) identity – the relationally constituted self; (2) agency, will, or acting self, the acting I; and (3) the thinking self, the “I of self-consciousness” or “I of Descartes.”
In a healthy mind these three processes are perfectly integrated, serving the needs of the individual and ensuring he/she is well adjusted to the environment. However, while identity and will are necessary for the individual’s adaptation to the cultural environment and thus for the survival of every individual human, one does not need the “I of Descartes” to adapt to life within culture. Instead, it is a necessary condition for the culture process on the collective level: what makes possible self-consciousness for any one of us is precisely that which makes possible indirect learning and thus the transmission of human ways of life across generations and distances. This is so because among all the symbolic mental processes, it is the one which is explicitly symbolic in the sense that it actually operates with formal symbols, the formal media of symbolic expression, particularly language. This is the reason for the dependence of thought on language. Our thought extends only as far as the possibilities of the formal symbolic medium in which it operates. (That’s why terms of scholarly discussion must be clearly defined: confusing language produces confused thought.) It is the “I of Descartes” that stores all the explicit symbolic information, i.e., the explicit culture, in the mind.
The essential function of the thinking self being to assure the symbolic process on the collective level, it is enough that only some humans actually use this explicit culture for this process to continue and for culture to be maintained. Because it is unnecessary, 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. The uncommon cases of genius, however, are necessarily characterized by such explicit use of culture stored in the mind. Though genius depends a particularly efficient brain, 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 complete individualization of the mental process of the “I of Descartes,” its perfect integration with the processes of identity and will, and becoming a component of the self. Otherwise, a very developed and active “I of Descartes,” often combined with acute intelligence, may lead to madness as well as 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. This is what happens when the mind becomes sick/disintegrates. In this case, the “I of Descartes” changes its function from the thinking self or the “I of self-consciousness,” which it is by definition, it turns into the eye of unwilled self-consciousness, culture not individualized observing the mind and experienced as an alien presence within the self. In other words, the higher level of cultivation/education increases one’s chances to become a schizophrenic to a far greater extent than one’s chances to leave a mark.