Genius In The Twentieth Century, Bibliography
The notion of genius as it is known in the early twenty-first century emerged most fully during the eighteenth-century Enlightenment period. Although the idea of genius was around before the time of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), Kant most clearly defined it in the late eighteenth century in his third critique, The Critique of Judgment. In fact, Kant's discussion still influences contemporary notions of genius. Kant opposed genius to a notion of taste. Genius, Kant says, is "the exemplary originality of the natural endowments of an individual in the free employment of his cognitive faculties" (p. 181). Genius is a natural human ability; it is not measurable or traceable, and the vagaries of language cannot adequately articulate it. Genius cannot define itself. Genius must, nonetheless, inspire imitation, so that the concept of the product of that genius may be derivatively articulated. Genius must inspire concept, but it cannot conceptualize.
To the function of taste is accorded the responsibility of conceptualizing the products of genius. Kant wrote that "taste, like judgment in general, is the discipline (or corrective) of genius. It severely clips its wings, and makes it orderly or polished; but at the same time it gives it guidance directing and controlling its flight, so that it may preserve its character of finality" (p. 183). Taste is a matter of judgment, a critical faculty that works in relation to genius. In contrast, genius is a matter of imagination. In Kant's model, taste and genius work together dialectically: taste shapes and guides genius, whereas genius creates fine art precisely by working free "from all guidance of rules" (p. 180). In Friedrich Nietzsche's (1844–1900) view, the genius is in fact a criminal, because he or she works outside conventional standards.
Kant's notion of genius is still quite viable in the academic institutions of the twenty-first century. Most English departments, for instance, continue to categorize their curricula according to "literature"—or the critical study of literature—and "creative writing." The underlying assumption of this organization is that creation of art is one thing, the critical assessment of art entirely another.
Genius, above all, was for the eighteenth century and even much of the nineteenth century ahistorical: although still considered human, the genius artist was not thought by eighteenth-century thinkers to be confined to social, political, or historical circumstances. The genius artist was judged to be so to the degree that she or he realized universal values or truths. An entirely Romantic notion, genius emerged contemporaneously with the idea of the self, the free and creatively self-sustaining individual of classical liberalism. The genius artist, like the self in classical liberalism, was thought to be a spontaneous creator, in a nearly divine sense. Seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes (1596–1650) proved the veracity of his existence merely by asserting, "I think, therefore I am." It is this lionization of the human ability to reason from which the notion of genius gained its energy. If the human self is powerful enough to reason, then the human self is powerful enough to create ex nihilo.