On Minority Genius in Philosophy

Is this what genius looks like?

There’s a lot of reasons to worry about “genius” and other evaluations of general intelligence. My own character skepticism militates against the notion of measurable general intelligence, or even field-specific genius. But the report last month that women and racial minorities in the humanities are less likely to be described as geniuses is another such reason: it looks like genius is often merely a way of saying “white male.” Thus perhaps we should give up on genius and cultivate other virtues, especially if we want to create diverse faculty communities.

And yet.

My experience in philosophy has usually been the opposite: women and African-American philosophers have usually struck me as brighter, more insightful, and making a greater contribution to the discipline than their male and white colleagues (including of course myself.) I wrote my dissertation on a woman, Hannah Arendt. I’m frequently struck by the amazing work done by women and Black philosophers like Elizabeth Anderson, Angela Davis, Christine Korsgaard, Elizabeth Anscombe, Kristie Dotson, Karen Stohr, Chris Lebron, Shannon Sullivan, Sharon Meagher, Charles Mills, Noëlle McAfee, Anthony Appiah, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Tommie Shelby, Rebecca Kukla, Elinor Ostrom, and Jacqueline Scott.

And so I wonder if the error is the language and preference for genius or our poor ability to recognize it. That is: is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that genius exists, and it doesn’t? Or is the problem that philosophers and folks in the humanities think that they can detect genius, and they can’t?

There’s a plausible explanation of the feeling I have of being awed by women and Black philosophers, of course: in a field that values genius but has a bias against believing in the genius of women and Black philosophers, the only women and Black philosophers who survive the gauntlet of graduate school and job market will be those who can project that genius. They’ll be exceptions that prove the rule, tokens that demonstrate that the whole business of evaluating genius can’t be flawed because, after all, we recognized the greatness of these few scholars.

Moreover, the failure of all the mediocre and merely above-average women and Black philosophers will go unmentioned. We’ll rarely ask: why is it that almost every minority scholar is a genius? Why are all the merely-really-good and maybe-slightly-below-average scholars white and male? One possibility is that genius (of the particular sort preferred by humanities scholars) is unevenly distributed to non-white and non-male scholars: they bring a perspective that comes naturally to them (by virtue of their exclusion from the majority) that makes it especially easy to make outsized contributons. Another possibility is that average scholars are ignored when they are women or Black. What’s more, both of these explanations could hold for part of the injustice we observe: we might need to start talking about the comparative effect size of each of these explanations and not an exclusive disjunction between them.

There’s been a lot of work, lately, chipping away at the sense that the university is meritocratic. Far fewer are working on whether merit is even a meaningful characteristic to evaluate. That still seems like an important question to ask, an insightful and bright question. But I’d also like to see more people take genius as a possibility, to be “genius realists” and question whether the current crop of white, male elites just don’t have it or the ability to recognize it. I am suspicious of the effort to withdraw the merit that accrues to great philosophical scholarship just as women and Black philosophers are eligible to claim it in larger numbers. (The solution to unjust distributions of the pie is not always to throw out the pie.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t give up on genius just yet: perhaps we just need to accept that we’re not smart enough to recognize it when we see it. And perhaps, too, we can give up on the innateness of genius in favor of an account of intelligence as plasticity, as the result of environment and treatment: perhaps philosophical geniuses are not born, but trained and prepared.

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