Intelligence, Creativity and your own Contribution

“The point is, I’m intelligent and you’re stupid. … ha-ha-ha”
German philosophy student summing up his view on Heidegger after arguing about it with another philosophy student

I overheard1 a conversation this week, where a student of philosophy was basking in his own sense of self-importance and superiority while talking to another (female) philosophy student about his take on Heidegger. He was even going so far to (awkwardly) exclaim that he was intelligent and his conversation partner was not.

I still agree with authors who argue that (genius level) intelligence is not a necessary condition to be creative. Sure, you have to learn a lot and being smart really helps with it (if you have cultivated a studying attitude).

However, one danger for intelligent people is that they might confuse other people’s ideas with their own achievements. For example, this philosophy student might be quick to understand philosophers. This is an achievement, no doubt — philosophers are notorious for expressing easy things very, very complicated, and deciphering what they mean is difficult.

But understanding the ideas of great philosophers is a completely different game than coming up with the ideas oneself.

Unfortunately, some people confuse the two. They think that just because they have understood a difficult(ly expressed) idea, they take ‘ownership’ of that idea. They think that they could have come up with the ideas themselves, because the ideas are so simple and they understand them completely. Some even overestimate their intelligence and fall into a very arrogant stance when they use the words of the philosophers themselves in conversations, like an actor uses scripts. They are able to converse using difficult terms, can deal with counters because they have read the answers by the philosophers, and they will certainly appear smart — but their only achievement was that they have read and understood the ideas of another person. They have learned it, but they have not developed it.

And they have not created their own ideas.

Don’t get me wrong. Like written, it is an achievement and you must do this. You have to get to know the domain before you can contribute to it. Otherwise you just reinvent the wheel and you cannot express your idea in the terms used by the field that decides about the value of your ideas.

But one is not a smart conversationalist because one has understood the ideas of others and parrots their arguments, and one is certainly not superior to those who did never hear about these ideas.

And, above all, one certainly has not made an intelligent and creative contribution to the world this way.


1 I didn’t plan to do it, I was just drinking my Frappuccino and tried to relax.