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The Wiley Handbook of Genius by Dean Keith Simonton

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2 The Psychobiography of Genius

William Todd Schultz

Introduction

Psychobiography is a sometimes confusing, possibly even misleading name for a most commonplace endeavor – the attempt to understand people through the use of psychological concepts. It is what everybody does, less officially, every single day. Relying on whatever psychological or folk-psychological knowledge we happen to possess, we try figuring out why people do what they do, or feel what they feel, or think what they think. It is difficult to judge, but perhaps 50% of our waking, maybe more of our insomniac, time is spent in a mode of assessment. There is nothing exotic about it. We do it to survive.

As a research endeavor taken up mostly by personality psychologists, psychobiography proceeds similarly, from the same impulse, although more thoughtfully, planfully, and explicitly. Biographical evidence is carefully and thoroughly presented; key scenes or moments in a life are identified; theories are laid out as necessary; and some facet of a person's inner world is illuminated. It makes no difference whether the individual in question is a genius, by some measure, or a person quite a bit less exalted. The goal is to shed light on motives, emotional dynamics, relational strategies, or unconscious gestalts of thought and feeling, on the inner, subjective origins – often obscure to creators themselves – of publicly shared products or life events. One now classic essay by Runyan (2005), for instance, pursued ...

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