On “smartness”, “genius”, etc.

Philosophers are very prone to discussions of “who’s smart”, and also of “who’s stupid”. I vividly remember discussions in the lounge when I was a grad student of who was stupid (discussions amongst both staff and students) and my terror of making it onto the stupid list. In recent years, lots of good worries have been raised about such discussions.

Recent research supporting the hypothesis below:

In some disciplines success may be seen as depending on sustained effort and dedication, whereas in others it may be seen as requiring a “gift” or brilliance that cannot be taught. Because women are stereotyped as being less likely than men to possess innate intellectual talent, they may find the academic fields that emphasize brilliance as the key to success to be unwelcoming.

Eric Schwitzgebel on seeming smart:

I have been collecting anecdotal data on seeming smart. One thing I’ve noticed is what sort of person tends spontaneously to be described, in my presence, as “seeming smart”. A very striking pattern emerges: In every case I have noted the smart-seeming person has been a young white male. Now my sample size is small and philosophy is about 75% white male anyway, so I want to be cautious in this inference. Women and minorities must sometimes “seem smart”. And older people maybe have already proven or failed to prove their brilliance so that remarks about their apparent intelligence aren’t as natural. (Maybe also it is less our place to evaluate them.) But still I would guess that there is something real behind that pattern, to wit:

Seeming smart is probably to a large extent about activating people’s associations with intelligence. This is probably especially true when one is overhearing a comment about a complex subject that isn’t exactly in one’s expertise, so that the quality of the comment is hard to evaluate.

And now Carolyn Dicey Jennings on the negative side of things– criticising people as not intelligent, rather than simply criticising their arguments.

Eric Schliesser, in a related vein, on boy wonders:

I define a ‘boy-wonder’ as follows: a male — aged 20-28 — who is quick on his feet, precocious, often with gifts in formal areas of philosophic, and annointed as ‘the next big thing’ by Some Important Philosopher(s) (SIPS) at a top department.* Words like ‘genius’ and ‘brilliant’ are often used in this context. (Often SIPS and their boy-wonders are dismissive of other people’s contributions.) Philosophy is by no means the only discipline that has ‘anointed’ boy-wonders (economics does, too), but we like them a lot. By this I mean that boy-wonders do not only show up in the inflationary context of letters of recommendation, but they also impact the sexist mores in philosophy.

I offer seven considerations to rid ourselves from the whole set of practices that involve boy-wonders.
First, it’s very hard to judge future philosophical performance. While it may be true that some future fantastic philosophers are recognized at an early age (fill in your favorite example), there are also lots of false positives.

Second, once somebody is annointed as a boy-wonder in some privileged circle, they often benefit from this for a long time in their career. Their work is systematically over-rated (fill in your favorite example), over-cited, and it happily carries them into exalted status (where they can annoint, etc.) They benefit from a positive feedback loop with material and psychological support that will help some of the boy wonders produce enough to retroactively justify the anointing within the (magic) circle of sympathy (see this analysis by Eric Schwitzgebel).

Third, undoubtedly, some boy-wonders crack under pressure, and suffer from not being able to live up to to expectation. I suspect that all anointed boy-wonders are harmed in some such way, but they may not care when they really make it in the profession.

Fourth, boy-wonders can get away with a lot. And, sadly, that means a lot of sexist stuff, too. Boy-wonders get a lot of second-chances. (I am *not* claiming that boy-wonders are more likely to be harassers.)

Fifth, the proxies that are often used to ‘track’ boy-wonder potential are, frankly, themselves sexist; they tend to rely on tacit bias, heuristics, and social norms many of which are known to favor men.

Sixth, because the intellectual gifts and virtues that tend to be associated with boy-wonder-hood tend to be associated with only a limited sub-set of philosophical areas/interests, they also skew everybody’s sense of what matters in philosophy.

Seventh, the phenomenon reinforces some of the worst features of the system of commodification of philosophy (and other disciplines)–the sociology around boy-wonders, facilitates Deans and Chairs to ‘sell’ their latest hire as a potential ‘superstar.’

I suspect that questioning the intelligence of any philosopher in a public forum could trigger stereotype threat for marginalized groups and such questioning adds nothing of value to public discourse.

I think we should all try to just stop talking this way. It’s not easy, and we’ll surely slip up. But we should try.