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August 28, 2009

How to Tell a Failed Genius from a Diligent Mediocrity – in One’s Own Lifetime

I operate in many different fields, and I am always interested in passing judgement. In fact, I don’t feel that I’ve made my mark as a human being until I have passed judgement. My sense of ‘human being’ is theologically informed: God passes judgement but infallibly, whereas humans – created in his image and likeness – do so too, but fallibly. And this fallibility appears in the dissent, censure and/or ridicule that such judgements receive from others so created. But that’s no reason to stop passing judgement.

I realize that fellow academics are uncomfortable with the idea of passing judgement, which is routinely seen as the stuff of ethics, politics, aesthetics – but not ‘science’! But this is to shortchange science’s centrality to our humanity, understood in this robust Biblical sense. Of course, my colleagues may not feel that science needs to be understood this way, and that a careful and balanced presentation of various sides of an issue is sufficient for ‘scientific’ purposes.

My response is that, like any virtue, fairness needs to be exercised in moderation. And the refusal to pass judgement may amount to being ‘too fair’, in that it neglects the fact that however the arguments stack up now is unlikely to be how they will stack up in the future. Perhaps more importantly, and certainly more subtly, the refusal to pass judgement is itself a judgement that will affect what subsequently happens. Just because you cannot fully determine the future doesn’t mean that you can opt out of bearing at least some responsibility for it. As Sartre said, there is no exit.

So, given that we are ‘always already’ making judgements, which ones are most crucial for the future? How to tell a failed genius from a diligent mediocrity – that is, the ‘A-‘ from the ‘B+’ mind. Consider two rather different cases: In the future, will Craig Venter appear as a visionary who helped to turn biology into a branch of engineering or merely an entrepreneur who happened to hit upon a lucrative technique for sequencing genes? Will Slavoj Zizek be seen as someone who leveraged philosophy’s weak academic position to revive the modern mission of public enlightenment or merely a clever and popular purveyor of (by now) familiar Marxo-Freudian themes?

For some benchmarks on how to think about these matters, consider the difference between the significance that was accorded to Edison and Voltaire, respectively, in their lifetimes and today.

Readers may recall that a decade ago I published a long and scathing study of the origins and influence of Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the most influential account of science in the second half of the 20th century – and perhaps the entire century. To his credit, Kuhn seemed to be sensitive to the issue that I am raising here. But he was convinced – very much like Hegel – that it could only be decided in retrospect. In other words, it makes no sense to speculate about future value judgements. I disagree: The present is the site in which the future is constructed. What Kuhn did not fully appreciate – though he half-recognised it – is that we get the future that matches our current judgements by carefully selecting the chain of historical precedents that lay the foundation for them.

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