Everyone knows the mythical stories of moments of sudden revelation in the lives of great discoverers: Archimedes rising from his bath, so deeply impressed by his new discovery that he takes to the streets naked, crying “Eureka!”; Isaac Newton formulating his theory of gravitation upon seeing an apple fall from a tree (or, in the cartoon-like version, after being hit on the head by a falling apple); Albert Einstein witnessing a man drop from a neighboring roof while sitting in his Berlin apartment. Such stories, often distorted and exaggerated, aim to capture the dazzling moments in which the human mind takes its most stupendous leaps. These stories of genius are engraved in our psyches.
However, we tend to neglect a question of great significance:
What preceded these sudden leaps? Surely, prior to these moments of profound insight, intense, perhaps unconscious thought processes had taken place in the minds of these discoverers. Something was slowly consolidating in the depths, wordless and elusive. So what were the extraordinary thought processes that enabled these particular discoverers to tap into great cosmic secrets? What unique structures of thinking made it possible for Archimedes to learn so much from his mundane bath and for Newton to deduce a cosmic principle from a falling apple in his garden?
This was the key question that drove us to write this book. We sought to learn about the ways of thinking that yielded such mental accomplishments. In Barbara McClintock’s time, there were many other geneticists striving to decode the mysteries of the genome and, in Einstein’s time, more than a few physicists and mathematicians came close to discerning the principles of the special and general relativity theory. They looked at the same equations, gathered very similar data, sometimes even shared the same revolutionary thoughts, and yet they could not make that leap. It was our belief that there had to be some factor that propelled thinkers like McClintock and Einstein toward their groundbreaking conclusions.
Shifting the focus to the mental factor
The enormity of the final discovery is often so dazzling that it is difficult to shift the focus to the hidden mental factor that facilitated it. Thus, we constantly needed to remind ourselves while brainstorming together that our focus had to be the qualities of the discovering mind, rather than the discovery itself. It is so easy to get carried away by Sigmund Freud’s intricate models of the subconscious or to become fascinated by the form of the Socratic dialogue that we often ended up straying from the path we had marked out for ourselves. We had set ourselves the task of illuminating the great mind, so although any creation obviously reflects the mind of its creator, it is still the end result of exceptional processes of thinking.
With this guiding question in mind, we did not necessarily choose the most obvious list of geniuses. The Renaissance figure Giordano Bruno, for instance, will clearly never be as well remembered in the history of science as Galileo Galilei; however, it was precisely his ability, as a non-scientist, to realize the infinity and centerlessness of the universe that drew our attention. In addition to choosing well-known figures, like Einstein and Socrates, we allowed ourselves to deviate from the common route in order to explore a few roads that are less traveled by. We were looking not so much for “geniuses” as original and innovative thinkers who were more than simply creative and perceptive within their own field. We sought those rich, complex, and even poetic minds that were characterized by exceptional profundity and insight.
Such thinkers seem to possess their own grand vision of the world. Their way of thinking is “larger than life.” Consequently, such thinkers often redefine the way humanity as a whole perceives the world in which it lives.
Our criteria make the list of discoverers discussed in this book a rather personal one; although, it must be acknowledged that any selection of the hundreds of great thinkers throughout human history would involve some personal selectivity. We didn’t pick anyone who didn’t excite us to the root of our being. Delving deeply into someone’s mind, especially when that someone is highly intelligent, is so demanding that we felt it would require great passion and curiosity on our part. That is why you will find figures on our list who are less known outside of their particular fields. Jiddu Krishnamurti, for instance, is very famous within spiritual philosophy circles, but hardly known to the general public and Barbara McClintock is far less known than, say, Marie Curie. Yet their unique styles of thinking struck us as well suited to the premise of this book as a whole.
Is it fair that great thinkers like Newton or Michael Faraday, Nikola Tesla or Immanuel Kant, had to be omitted to make room for our less conventional choices? Of course not! We found the decisions about whom to include agonizing—an agony that is experienced, it seems, by all authors who take it upon themselves to create compilations and anthologies. Most probably, we will be haunted by those great figures we omitted for many years, knowing that our list could never really be complete without them.
Our final list contained two biologists—one a naturalist and the other a geneticist—a physicist, a psychologist, and an artist and inventor. The other five people on our list are different kinds of philosophers – one materialist, one spiritual, one scientific, one classical, and one political. Interestingly, and unintentionally, four of them – Freud, Einstein, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Hannah Arendt – came from German-speaking countries. For reasons we will explain below, seven of them have been chosen from either the nineteenth or the twentieth centuries. Only three of them—Socrates, Bruno, and Leonardo da Vinci—lived in more ancient times.
Sometimes it was our wish for variety in terms of fields of research and types of personalities that led us to set aside a particular intellectual giant, as in the case of Newton, who seemed somewhat close in spirit to his “successor” Einstein. But in more than a few cases, we felt compelled to neglect some fascinating figure for the simple reason that not enough biographical materials had been gathered or that not enough of their direct thoughts had survived the vicissitudes of history. That is why you will not find a fair chronological treatment of great minds in this book. For obvious reasons, there is far more documentation regarding the inner worlds of nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers. As our intention was to tap into the inner worlds that gave rise to breakthroughs, we had to rely on such documentation.
The lack of documentation was a major problem when it came to great women thinkers. Here, we were faced with one of the saddest aspects of human history: the fact that women were not encouraged to think at all. Learning about courageous women here and there throughout history, like Hypatia or Anne Conway, Émilie du Châtelet or Mary Somerville, who vehemently resisted the status quo and creatively participated in a patriarchal world filled us with admiration. Even in the twentieth century, especially its first half, women had to demonstrate their genius literally against all odds. They were rarely allowed to hold powerful positions and were too often robbed of their discoveries, which were claimed by the men around them. Biographers and historians are toiling to grant these women the historical status they truly deserve. In light of this state of affairs, we chose two twentieth-century female figures, about whom there is richer and more intimate documentation.
Now, we are not biologists or physicists or psychologists. We do not pretend to be among the “twelve people in the world who understand Einstein’s relativity theory,”1 nor do we claim to fathom the intricate developments of twentieth-century genetics (though we certainly went over and above our intellectual limits in our attempts to comprehend both!). Fortunately, the aspiration of this book is not to provide a complete understanding of such discoveries. Revealing the structure of thinking that led to them is a very different task: It doesn’t necessitate being a specialist in the field, but it does require a more direct understanding of the way in which the person’s mind encountered its object of study. This allows for a much more intimate and personal approach, during which we no doubt exhausted our capacities as an investigating journalist who has been observing social and psychological phenomena for years (Theresa) and an independent thinker who has been looking into the human psyche and mind for quite some time (Shai).
How exactly did we accomplish our goal of merging with these great minds? After all, our extensive study of the materials at hand could not directly provide us with the answers we sought. As we have said, ways of thinking tend to hide between the lines, more hinted at or echoed in the biographical material itself than explicitly stated. Over time, we found several ways of cracking their ways of thinking, though this did not spare us occasional frustration:
- Comparing the figure’s way of thinking with the ways of thinking of other brilliant thinkers who were alive at the same time and yet did not manage to make such a breakthrough. What inhibited such realization? And what made it easier for our chosen thinker to succeed where everyone else seemed to have failed? Put more simply: Why Einstein and not Max Planck? Why Bruno and not a real scientist of his time?
- Attentively reading the descriptions of the inner processes that occurred just before the irruption of insight. This bubbling inner process is usually disclosed in letters that such figures wrote to their friends or colleagues, in private diaries, and in their friends’ and colleagues’ direct testimonies.
- Looking for the common ground shared by all of the figure’s various discoveries and accomplishments. Some accomplishments seem to be very different from one another, such as da Vinci’s Last Supper and his drawings of the flying machine, but they emerged from one mind, one structure of thinking. Finding that subtle connecting thread was of crucial importance to us. This thread also served as a measure against which we later tested the validity of the way of thinking we defined: Did it apply only to some of the discoveries or did it apply to all discoveries?
- Identifying other hobbies or interests that fascinated the thinker, such as the music he or she loved or how he or she chose to spend free time. Einstein’s love of Mozart, for example, and Freud’s obsession with artifacts were of great help to us.
- Sometimes the thinkers themselves were generous enough to provide us with their own direct description of their way of thinking. This was usually encouraged by some keen researcher. When seeking the right words for this unique self-observation, they tended to use metaphors, which have proved so helpful to us that we ultimately decided to use them as titles for all of our chapters.
- We sometimes tried to look through the eyes of these thinkers in order to see the world as they saw it. In doing so, we used the richness of our imagination (a capacity which many of these figures greatly encouraged) to sense and feel the intimate way in which their mind perceived, and communicated with, life.
Though all ten chapters have the same structure, we consider each one of the chapters a whole journey in itself (only in the epilogue will we present the connections and relations between all the different journeys contained in the chapters). This is how we experienced the writing of this book: Each encounter with a great mind seemed like a trip into a new world without visible horizons. Indeed, such minds are so vast that we couldn’t possibly explore all aspects of them within the limitations of one chapter. We could easily write a whole book on the basis of each of these figures’ ways of thinking. The profundity and intimacy of our encounters has also made this volume a personal journey. This is yet another reason why there is no biographical commitment in these chapters or any scientific commitment to outline in detail any of the thinkers’ discoveries. Everything else serves as a backdrop for the one drama that truly excited us: the extraordinarily original mechanism of thinking that characterized these great minds.
Can we confidently claim that the mental factor we identify is the fundamental reason for the astonishing breakthroughs made by these figures? Most probably not. There seems to be another “secret” factor that makes a genius a genius—some innate reason for this unique structure of thinking. Though highly inspiring, this element does not seem to be something we can replicate or imitate. So, contrary to Simone de Beauvoir’s famous statement that “one is not born a genius; one becomes a genius,”2 and contrary to those books that claim that we can all become geniuses like da Vinci, we find it questionable, with this secret factor in mind, that anyone can become a genius.
However, this book’s true hero is not these ten figures. It is, rather, human thinking, yours and ours, and its dormant potential. The book is all about how our thinking, when it operates optimally, can be a source of tremendous creative worlds, innovative discoveries, and breathtaking insights—as well as how, when distorted and flawed, it can entrap us in hopelessly stubborn patterns and habits. In this broader context, the reason we turned to these great thinkers was less about them and more about us. Assuming that, at least in their own fields of study, their minds were functioning at their maximal potential, we were motivated by the hope of extricating secret ways in which minds, in general, can operate better. So, beyond our declared intention to fathom the workings of great minds, this book also aims to study how we, too, can at least partially imitate or copy such structures of thinking. This latter ambition was at least as important as the former. Otherwise, reading this book would have been akin to looking at some supermodel, half-admiring, half-envying her beauty, and knowing we could never even get close to attaining it ourselves. Rather than merely presenting these original patterns of thinking, we aspired to bring the mind of the genius closer to that of the reader; in other words, to demonstrate that the ways of thinking of such a mind are at least partially acquirable. Most likely, no one among us is expected, in the near future, to revolutionize physics, as Einstein did, but Einstein’s way of thinking can certainly illuminate our thinking errors, as well as new pathways to enhanced forms of thinking.
To fulfill our aim, we intentionally distinguished the pattern of thinking from the thinker and gave it a title (like “paradoxical thinking” or “organic thinking”), thereby making it a principle of thinking, independent of the person. We then present it alongside another more conditioned and erroneous principle of thinking (like “either/or thinking” or “detached thinking”). We felt that presenting two opposing principles of thinking would be more conducive to an inner journey during which self-reflection would be possible. We also related these principles of thinking to the wonderful emerging field of research of cognitive errors and biases. In addition, we dedicated a few pages in each chapter to a more direct confrontation with standard patterns of thinking and the way in which the enhanced pattern of thinking reflects our mental errors and, if adopted, can also correct them. Though this is not a practical guidebook, readers may find suggestions for ways of improving their thinking, as well as thought experiments that they can try.