A Talent for Objectivity

28 January 2010

Thursday


Our contemporary usage of the term "talent" is derived from the New Testament parable of the talents.

While this may sound a bit odd, I have come to view objectivity as a talent. Some individuals have a talent for objectivity, and some decidedly do not. This is true for most talents. I also believe that the talent for objectivity is somewhat rare, perhaps not as rare as artistic vision and genius, but perhaps close to it.

Talent is closely related to intuitive or instinctive mastery of some skill, but it is not reducible to this. Dedicated individuals can cultivate and improve their talents, even while intuitive and instinctive mastery remains the standard by which all efforts are measured.

What do I mean by intuitive and instinctive mastery? Why is this the standard by which all efforts are measured? Think of it like this. Artistic vision and genius constitute a paradigm of talent. Take, for example, a person with no particular talent for drawing or painting or the visual arts (which describes myself as well as the majority of people in the world). Give such an individual intensive and extensive training in painting. Certainly their talent will improve. They might even attain a level at which they can paint competent if not beautiful pictures. But even if such a person devoted a lifetime of effort to improving their talent at painting, they would never paint like Botticelli or Jan van Eyck or Rembrandt.

On the other hand, take someone with the obvious natural talent of a Botticelli or a Rembrandt, and while their talent may show a marginal technical improvement from training, the essential gift of talent is not changed, and probably not improved. Indeed, some natural talents are spoiled by the attempt to give them the kind of formal training that turns mediocre talents into competent painters.

As I see it, objectivity is a talent analogous to a talent for painting. Anyone can attempt to exercise objective judgment, but to some people it comes naturally. If objectivity comes naturally to an individual, their objectivity will not be substantially improved by formal training intended to improve their judgment, and the training may in fact do harm to the natural intuitions that are the basis of untrained but instinctive judgment. If objectivity does not come naturally to an individual, or if an individual’s objectivity is merely of a mediocre caliber, training will improve that mediocre talent, but it will never bring the trained mediocrity to the point of intuitive objectivity (which latter may sound like something of an oxymoron).

I realize that all this may sound a little odd to the reader. Classical ideals such as objectivity, rationality, harmony, order, and proportion have not fared well in the modern world. Our aesthetic vision has been so transformed by modernity that we may well feel more attracted to the Dionysian riot of the irrational and the subjective than to the Apollonian appeal of the rational and the objective. The effects of such cultural changes are very real, but the lingering claim that classical ideals possess are no less real. Even a mind distracted by the grotesque, the horrific, and the tormented will still recognize the purity of the classical vision, regardless of that mind’s individual preferences.

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