Geoffrey Long
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Philosophical question of the day: what is intelligence?

One of my friends once remarked that someone we knew was a genius, which caught me off-guard because the person in question is largely a memorizer, and has never (to my knowledge) actually synthesized anything new. I agreed that he knew quite a few things, but I had a problem calling him a genius. This, of course, got me thinking. Does being knowledgeable make you smart? Does it make you intelligent? Does it make you a genius? What do these things require?

To my mind, knowing a great deal of things requires only good memorization skills, and memorization (to me) is little more than teaching a dog a trick. It's programming yourself to perform a certain action without thinking. And it's that last part that concerns me.

I've pissed off more than one musician with this theory – and if the musician doesn't feel any inclination to add any interpretation to the music, to bring any of themselves to it, then I argue that the analogy stands. It's the difference between being a performer and a translator. A performer performs something exactly the way he's told. A translator thinks about it, analyzes it, and brings their own solution to the problem. I personally respect composers more than translators, and translators more than performers, and I respect composers who perform their own works more than anything else. To me, the act of creating something from nothing is far more respectable than merely placing your own spin on a previously created work, because it inherently requires more creativity. It requires more thinking.

So, to return to our supposed genius... If this analysis is true, then a person who memorizes a great deal may be a useful librarian, and even a useful teacher, but until that person demonstrates that they really think about what they've learned, usually by making something from nothing, they're no genius. It's the thinking that requires creativity. Therefore, in order to be considered a genius, you have to be able to create as well as memorize.

So the question becomes: is this correct? Is 'being smart' merely having memorized a great deal of things, while 'intelligent' means having the ability to put them together into something new? Please comment below to help me sort this out.

(And mad props to the wild and woolly Ben Brown for his input this morning.)

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