U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reviewing Genius: Individual Or Environmental?

I open with this false dichotomy not merely to draw your eye. In reading a dual review of two biographies about Einstein, published this morning in the Chicago Tribune, it seems that this fallacy is a quiet assumption of the reviewer, Daniel Sutherland.

This is not to disparage the review or reviewer; the piece is informative and insightful. Sutherland, a philosophy professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, relays that the two books in question, Walter Isaacson’s Einstein: His Life and Universe and Jurgen Neffe’s Einstein, both contextualize their subject.

The differences between the two works are substantial. In building their respective cases for Einstein, according to the reviewer, Isaacson focuses on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries while Neffe utilizes the long duree of the Annales School in exploring the history of science back to the seventeenth century. Isaacson apparently treats Einstein sympathetically, while Neffe is “concerned with deflating the myth and settling accounts.” Finally, Isaacson’s work is long (680 pages) and Neffe’s is relatively shorter (461 pages). But length didn’t daunt Sutherland, as he found Isaacson’s book “hard to put down.” With that, the reviewer’s preference between the two books is clear. And since Sutherland is a philosopher by training and not a historian, questions that would concern an historian are naturally not as important.

But Sutherland touches on a few issues that are crucial to intellectual historians in his review. They come to the foreground in what I see as the intellectual heart of Sutherland’s review. Here’s a passage from that heart:

“A final challenge for the biographer is Einstein’s genius. What is a genius, and what did Einstein’s consist in? Was his brain different from other brains, a suggestion that inspired the doctor who performed his autopsy to abscond with it? What was unique to his thinking? Einstein himself said he was not more gifted than anyone else, just more curious and tenacious than the average person. . . . The question of genius quickly expands into a broader analysis of what made his achievements possible. What effect did his early reading have on his discoveries, and how much help did he have from those around him? What cultural and social conditions contributed to his revolutionary thoughts? As Neffe says, ‘Einstein never saw himself as part of a team,’ and we tend not to as well. How much of his genius is a simplifying story that ignores the complexities of the way science works, and how much of it can be rightly attributed to him?”

This heady stuff for a newspaper review, but it touches the heart of a philosophical problem in working on the margins of biography and history. Which way do we turn, Sutherland asks?

The answer is simply to split the middle between individual and environment. This seems common sense enough, but Sutherland refrains from addressing the question of which author found the best balance: he leaves it to the reader. To me this shouldn’t be the philosophy of a reviewer of the popular bio-history genre. The reviewer must attempt to assess whether a book’s author properly balanced the individual with his or her environment. What is proper, you might ask? I’m not a 100 percent sure, but I’d like to hear the reviewer’s assessment of the issue in the context of the subject (in this case Einstein).

Now I know something about the practical questions of newspaper publishing and the history of reviewing. Do readers want to know what’s in a book, or the reviewer’s opinion of the book? This tension in reviewing began around the turn of the last century, and has been documented, for instance, in Joan Shelley Rubin’s The Making of Middlebrow Culture (1992). Why can’t newspaper book reviewers find a balance between the two? Is it some kind of fear (such as exposing biases) on the part of the newspaper or the reviewer? I don’t know. I’m sure this issue was discussed, in part, at the recent BookExpo panel on the “intellectual history of book reviewing.”

Is it responsible for a reviewer of the bio-history genre to leave open a judgment of balance? When historians find occasion to review this book genre, should we leave our readers suspended in this false dichotomy or try to take a stand?

Isn’t the problem of balance most acute in intellectual history? Doesn’t an author who underplays environment contribute to hero worship, thereby fostering forms of elitism? This is has been a perennial problem in, or accusation against, intellectual history. But in turn, doesn’t a focus on the environment undercut the uniqueness of the individual, thereby undermining her or his dignity? If the answer to these questions of paragraph are all affirmative (or at least mostly so), then the question of balance cannot be ignored.

Since we at USIH conduct reviews, I also wonder about the thoughts of my fellow contributors on this issue. Ought we not seek a strict balance in assessing the strengths of this genre? Or should we at least offer an explanation if we think is not balanced? – TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, your discussion of book reviews winds my clock! Let me unwind a bit with a rant of my own opinion, and others can do the same if they like. As one of the book review editors at USIH, I can not answer for the book review effort as a whole, nor can anyone else. All that anyone might do is to put forth some ideas. Those ideas that resonate for others (for the good or bad) will stimulate more discussion. And that is the purpose of our book review effort, to stimulate discussions about our colleagues’ scholarly projects, in a forum that will attract the attention of other scholars. We harbor the–perhaps optimistic–hope that if more scholarly books are talked about, then more of them will be purchased and read. If more are purchased and read, then presses will devote more of their precious resources towards the kinds of projects that we consider intellectual history. Participation in the USIH Book Review effort is unabashedly, self interested!

    Like history, philosophy, fiction, graffiti, and poetry, a book review is also a piece of literary art. So what is the purpose of a literary art? A literary art serves the purpose intended by the writer. But it serves every reader’s individual and group purposes as well. Not talking about the legalistic notions of ownership here, I am echoing the idea that any text can be “readerly” and “writerly” and both and all these together at the same time. For many, the purpose of a literary art is to horrify the prior generation. Look back and you will find that most of the great writers accomplished this goal; it’s a part of what made them great writers. Other goals included the noble goal to change the world through persuasive arguments, marshaled information, and workable strategies. Another goal is to entertain. And there are other goals out there as well.

    One of these other goals is to provide a reader with information. We all attempt these propagandistic efforts from time to time; this is nothing to be too embarrassed about. We think we have something to supply the world, so we package it in a form that may deliver the information we hope to transmit. Most of us like to think that we are forthright in our reasons for being a propagandist. Not out to brainwash or to mislead in any vulgar way, we like to think that our approach is more sensitive, less “in-your-face.” But we do have a purpose or we would not waste the bandwidth. Many forthright writers even expend a little of this bandwidth by expressing, right up front, the reason they have taken the time and trouble to package this information. And for the most part, readers can take it, leave it, or shape it into something more like what the reader wants it to be.

    But beware the writer who packages his or her propaganda in such a way as to imply that they have their back soundly up against The Truth, and they are providing the rest of us with “balanced” information. They have been to the mountain, and have the answer written down here on these tablets, oops! Usually this “balanced” information is just another way of packaging an argument in an attempt to lead the reader to take an action or to believe something.

    Given me own druthers, I’ll have my information straight up in a snifter. No ice, no water, no claim of being balanced. Tell me what it is you want me to do and why you want me to do this, then give me your argument and your evidence. There will be others out there who can better phrase the opposing argument. Then I can take two or more trustworthy arguments, none of them pretending to be balanced, and I will make my own decisions. If the arguments contradict each other, then it is time for me to learn to be a critical reader. I might even have to look into a topic before making up my mind.

    Now, I imagine that I can hear the retort, in unison, of historians throughout the academy, all with one finger in the air (their index finger, of course), leaning back from their archive and defending the claim that their training and so called “method” has inoculated them from urges to try anything so pedantic as to support an opinion of their own. On the contrary, historians are always balanced and appropriate!

    But some of the best history being written today actually has a purpose, and admits to having it. Yes, that is an individual opinion of my own. You might have another opinion, and that’s okay too. And book reviews are also allowed to express an opinion. In fact, to my knowledge, there is no recipe for book reviews, no Generally Accepted Reviewing Practices. As my daughter constantly informs me “Rules are for Sports!” These book reviews are each written by an individual reviewer who has an individual point of view. And because, all of our reviewers at USIH are professionals who work in higher education, and who have devoted their lives to their particular scholarly pursuit of illumination, we can expect many different kinds of reviews, all of them worthwhile to read.

    On the other hand, we ask two things from our reviewers. We ask first that each review should accurately describe—in a very short synopsis—what that book has to offer other readers in the field. And we ask the reviewer to undertake books that are interesting to that reviewer. Some of these reviews will make the claim of being impartial and balanced. Some will have both an axe to pick and a bone to grind. We hope all of them will stimulate conversations about new books in the field of US Intellectual History.

    So, are our reviews to be contained in a format that will make them easy to write and easy to read? Not mine, sorry. Will the reviews come with a guarantee for balance and appropriateness? Again, not mine. Will other reviewers do otherwise? I hope so, that diversity is what will make them interesting!

    And before I go back to my reading Tim, thanks for this interesting description of Professor Sutherland’s review of the two Einstein biographies. And for this great photo that will serve as a constant reminder that serious thinkers are not always serious!


  2. Joe (& Others),

    I did not intend to be so provocative. I fear I missed the mark in conveying a subtle point.

    I didn’t mean to come off like a Fox News anchor, trading on the “fair and balanced” mantra to hide the fact that I’m subjective.

    I meant only to advocate for balance with regard to a particular genre: bio-history. I hoped to encourage intellectual historians who review this book genre to talk about HOW the book balanced those two fields.

    Perhaps my post rambles a bit, enabling the reader to lose focus on my admittedly fine point. My apologies for not being more succinct.

    But back to reviewing. All historians necessarily tell stories with subjective aspects. There’s no doubt that we historians bring that trait to our reviews. As reviewers, however, we are not merely telling our story: we’re trying to convey information and informed opinion in a brief format. That requires some suppression of subjectivity.

    But intellectual historians, due to their contact with larger ideas in philosophy, carry a few more tools in their analytical toolbox. Theoretically intellectual historians know something about the philosophical issues in their field; they can talk about fallacies, formal logic, etc.

    Finally, without trumpeting one’s fairness, one can still attempt the virtue. And in this case (bio-histories), that virtue can be applied in a helpful fashion.

    – TL

  3. Hi Tim, I have always enjoyed your retrospectives and historiography summaries. Please do not apologize for being provocative…being provocative is a good thing. I took the opportunity of your analysis of Daniel Sutherland’s review as a stepping off point, an exit ramp for a tangent to talk about general book reviewing, subjectivity, and the USIH book reviewing effort. Once we hit the send button, your own text becomes our text. If it is successful, it stimulates discussions. And it did.


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