Posted in Communication, conversation, Dialogue

Genius is an Interaction

Joshua Wolf Shenk (2014) offered an intriguing new look at “genius” in The New York Times Sunday Review, in The End of ‘Genius.’  His premise is that the image of the solitary genius is a cultural myth. Many people who we might think of as lone geniuses, like Shakespeare, Einstein, or Picasso, actually developed their scholarship and their art in collaboration with others. With new insights from the scientific study of relationships, the “creative network” is gaining recognition as a more accurate model of creative genius. The “pair” is an especially powerful model. As Shenk noted,

The pair is the primary creative unit — not just because pairs produce such a staggering amount of work but also because they help us to grasp the concept of dialectical exchange. At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people, or even a single person and the voice inside her head. Indeed, thinking itself is a kind of download of dialogue between ourselves and others. And when we listen to creative people describe breakthrough moments that occur when they are alone, they often mention the sensation of having a conversation in their own minds.

In other words, true creative genius lies in the “between” – in human interaction, dialogue, cooperation, and collaboration.  Conversation is the root metaphor.

As I reflect on Shenk’s article, I am encouraged by the move away from an individualistic concept of agency. I have pondered “agency” and “empowerment” for some time now, recognizing that these are limited explanations for human activity, especially if one understands that the “self” is always “in relation” (the heart of the relational worldview). My concern has been that an emphasis on agency and empowerment in interaction often causes people to revert to individualistic models of “quality” interaction in times of stress or crisis. The old justifications for behavior remain unchanged, and self-interest, selfishness, and greed regain the foreground. That is, concern for other is nice, until the other gets in your way.

At the same time, I have been reluctant to dispose of the notion of a separate self, especially in light of various feminist arguments that abandoning individual agency as a primary factor in human interaction leads too easily to oppression. Thus, I have been drawn to models of behavior, like the transformative mediation model, that place self and other “in relation” at the heart of human interaction. But, self and other can still be atomized in these models, even if that is not what the creators of the models intended. Thus, I am becoming persuaded that we need a new language, and new concepts, to capture the notion of a self that is always in relation, and to consider what that means for models of human interaction. Shenk’s views on “genius” are a step in that direction.


Shenk, J. W. (2014, July 19). The end of ‘genius.’ The New York Times Sunday Review.  Retrieved from

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