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The Wiley Handbook of Genius by Dean Keith Simonton

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10 Varieties of Genius

Robert J. Sternberg and Stacey L. Bridges

Genius exists in the perceived interaction of three elements: a person, a product, and a setting. To be labeled a genius, a person must produce a product that, in the context of some time and place, is held to be of such extraordinary value that people conclude that the product only could have been produced by someone with absolutely extraordinary talents.

We refer to “genius” as perceived because it is not some inherent characteristic of a person. Rather, it is a labeling phenomenon, an implicit theory some group of people holds about someone. People labeled as geniuses in one time or place may not be so labeled in another. Today's fool may be tomorrow's genius. Ignaz Semmelweis was treated like a madman when he said that doctors should wash their hands between patients to prevent the transmission of germs. Indeed, he eventually went crazy. Today's genius, the man who said we must wash our hands to kill bacteria, was yesterday's fool. Similarly, today's genius may be tomorrow's fool (as in the case of the scientists who proposed the drug thalidomide for use during pregnancy). Babies of mothers using this drug in many cases were born with gross bodily deformities.

Unless all three elements are present – person, product, and context – one does not have genius. That is, there must be a person. We do not refer to products – works of art, music, or science, for example, as “geniuses,” and we do not refer to nonhuman ...

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