Tuesday, July 24, 2007

High Creativity is Rare - But Joining the Conversation is Worthwhile

Randall Collins estimates that there will be, at best, 2 majors philosophers per generation, and perhaps another dozen or so important secondary philosophers. In The Sociology of Philosophies he contends that high levels of intellectual creativity are rare. Taking the long view, it is likely that none of the major thinkers of today will rate a paragraph in the intellectual histories of 500 years from now. This can be somewhat depressing.

On the other hand, the great intellectual project of understanding the world is worth doing. Even being a provincial intellectual, or a thoughtful member of the reading public, is an important part in making creative thought real. How can this be so? Because, Collins argues, the right measure of creative thought is how much other people use and develop your ideas. His rule of thumb is that we can't really begin to say that a thinker is a creative intellectual until a third generation of thinkers has taken up that person's ideas. That means that we, the readers and thinkers (to whatever degree) of this day, are vital to the creative intellectual work of those who went before. Our thoughts are really what makes a genius a genius.

One of the most inviting images in Collins' argument is his account of what intellectual life is, at its heart:

"The intellectual world is a massive conversation. … What makes one an intellectual is one's attraction to this conversation."


Stuart Gordon said...


I think I'll keep citing your blog - maybe one day you'll be famous. : )

Tyler Ward said...

What about artistic intellectual creativity? I assume that a similar approach would be appropriate? Some performing artists have renown that extends back a few generations, but only recently has the technology progressed enough so that succeeding generations can partake of the same core of material as the initial generation. I would argue that artistic genius is a separate category all together, but generally would hold to Collins's principle, with adaptations for performing artists. Agree?

Gruntled said...

I am not sure what to think about artistic creativity. It should follow the same principle -- a limited number of schools competing with one another in the same attention space. On the other hand, I have a better idea of what intellectuals do to compete with one another -- they oppose one another's arguments, and offer syntheses of competing arguments. Artists don't do that, exactly, so how one competes artistically is more mysterious.

(and thanks, Stuart; just keep it up for a hundred years :-) )

Tyler Ward said...

I agree with you that the way artists compete is much more mysterious than the way academics compete with ideas. However, a more bona fide example of artistic "competition" might be the different "schools" of opera, like the Italian, German, French etc. They teach and fiercely advocate their technique and I would argue, compete in a similar way as do intellectuals. I would be curious as to your thoughts on this.

Gruntled said...

And many visual artists are also part of movements that write manifestos, so there is a verbal component to the competition among those kinds of artists, too.