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Innateness and All That

By Reuven Kotleras on October 4, 2023

Reuven Kotleras is a profoundly gifted ex-child and polymath. He has published professionally on European political history, Eurasian economic development, epistemology of science, and mathematical logic, among other topics. His skills include decision analysis, organizational design, and strategic foresight. He also is a poet, pianist, runner, and dog-lover.


Innateness and All That


There are two questions: what is innateness, and what is innate in you. Since this group is composed of gifted persons and dedicated to issues related to being gifted, I construe the second question in the sense of asking what is innate in me insofar as I am a gifted person. That is: what essence, phenomena, or qualities characterize me as a gifted person that may be called “innate”. So, we have to figure out what innateness is in the first place.


From a biological standpoint, innate traits have classically been contrasted with acquired traits. For the purposes of this discussion, I construe traits to be “personality traits” or other distinctive qualities that mark me as a gifted person. I leave out things like native intelligence, which are at least partly biologically determined or inherited, even if they may develop or manifest differentially over the course of a lifetime. The recognition of change and evolution and cognitive, emotional, intellectual, and behavioral development somewhat complicates the matter, since it can always be asked: If you have developed such and such a characteristic, then was not the potential for its development somehow “innate”?


This is not always the case: if I were to dye my hair blonde, for example, that would not mean that I had the potential to have blonde hair in any way meaningful to the intent of this discussion. In the context of another discussion, it could be suggested that the ability to do this could be an “innate" trait in the sense that I was born as a member of a species biologically inheriting the characteristic of having opposable thumbs; but such considerations are not the issue here, especially since I have already stated that the purpose of the reflection is to seek to arrive at a clarification both of innateness and of what may be called traits innate to a gifted person.


Conveniently enough, I already seem to have a starting point. In my 2007 article on the workplace mobbing of the gifted (“The Workplace Mobbing of Highly Gifted Adults: An Unremarked Barbarism," Advanced Development 11: 130–48), I enumerate seven “trait-clusters” of the gifted, which I constructed from a list of 35 traits given by Anne-Marie Roeper (“Gifted Adults: Their Characteristics and Emotions,” Advanced Development 7: 21–34) in 1995. This list may be taken at least as a starting- point for determining whether any of these traits may be “innate”. (In the 2007 article, I discussed them also on a phenomenological basis through my own experience, interpreted according to the set of categories represented in this list.)


These “trait-clusters” are:

(A) Difference from others and their misunderstanding (B) Distinct moral sense (C) Drivenness and strength of feeling (D) Perfectionism and aestheticism (E) Overwhelming perceptiveness (F) Overwhelming multifacetedness (G) Need for solitude and search for meaning.


For ease of reading only, I will italicize these categories throughout the rest of this post.


It will be observed that these categories are not without some relation to Dabrowski's list of five overexcitabilities. Indeed, that is the case, and I have ongoing unpublished work that discusses such relationship from an idiographic phenomenological (i.e., introspectively-based) basis. However, the overexcitabilities are slightly better known. Also, to introduce them substantively may diffuse the focus here and therefore may deserve a separate discussion. Given that the overexcitabilities are biologically based or have their origin in an atypical development of the central nervous system including the brain (see Nicole Tetrault’s 2016 paper on “the gifted brain” and her subsequent work; for an earlier yet more comprehensive and scholastic treatment, see David Sousa, How the Gifted Brain Learns, 2nd ed. [Sage, 2009; Chapter 1 available online]), it may be possible to argue that the overexcitabilities are in fact somehow more “fundamental” and therefore potentially more “innate” than the seven trait-clusters. I reserve this question and its implications for discussion in the live seminar, if at all.


Leaving aside the overexcitabilities, the thought arises that one way to get a handle on the question of what is “innate” to the gifted, would be to ask the question whether these seven trait-clusters could be grouped into a smaller number of trait-cluster chunks. In Figure 1 of my 2007 paper, which proposes a kind of “flow-chart” depicting how certain clusters may arise from other clusters (or be “caused” by them), there are four clusters that have no antecedents. These are A, B, E, and F.



I make bold to suggest that a useful distinction between the first two would be, that the first (A: Difference from others and their misunderstanding) is phenomenological while the second (B: Distinct moral sense) is existential. With this distinction, it becomes possible then to suggest also, that the third (E: Overwhelming perceptiveness) is phenomenological, while the 4th (F: Overwhelming multifaceted) is existential. It so happens that A and E (plus B) “cause” C: Drivenness and strength of feeling; while B and F (plus A) “cause” D: Perfectionism and aestheticism.


If we consider, also on the basis of introspection at first glance validated by this conceptual setting-in-order, that C: Drivenness and strength of feeling may also be phenomenological, while D: Perfectionism and aestheticism may also be existential, then without knowing it what I did in Figure 1 of the 2007 article was to arrange A, C, and E in the flow-chart in a column and B, D, and F also in a column: thus neatly separating, without knowing it, the phenomenological trait-clusters from the existential trait-clusters. (Recall that both sets of trait-clusters equally produce or “cause” the seventh trait-cluster, G: Need for solitude and search for meaning.)


From this exercise, it emerges that the two “chunks” of trait-clusters our first, phenomenological (A, C, E), and second, existential (B, D, F). The trait-cluster G may be considered a synthesis or combination, although all clusters are combinations of both types: yet C is produced predominantly by other phenomenological clusters, while D is produced predominantly by other existential clusters; whereas G is, however, produced equally by both.


So as not to go on at too great a length, I should begin to conclude. For this purpose, I introduce the distinction between essence and phenomenon. Whole articles, of course, have been written on these topics, and they are not necessarily unrelated to discussions of innateness. As author, however, I claim authority to contradistinguish them by positing that “essence” signifies the fundamental intrinsic meaning that characterizes issues and appearances, revealing their basis, while a “phenomenon” is properly considered as the extrinsic form of the expression of the essence.


The two cluster-chunks, one composed of phenomenological trait-clusters and the other composed of existential trait-clusters, are then “essential” (and, being essential—i.e., literal-etymologically being “of being"—therefore innate: did you notice the sleight-of-hand there, implying that essence precedes existence 😎; I guess that makes me a Platonist here, which could be weird, given the existentialist démarche, but the primacy of the phenomenological approach saves me, which, come to think of it, is something this approach would have in common with Dabrowski, whose concept of “authentism" was basically a linguistic marker seeking to save Husserl from Heidegger) in that they pertain to fundamental intrinsic meaning, specifically the fundamental intrinsic meaning of the experience of being a gifted person.


The seven trait-clusters themselves (which, I say in the article, represent only an “interpretive condensation” of the 35 traits enumerated by Roeper and are intended “only [as] a vehicle for … clinical work”) are then “phenomenal” not in the everyday-language sense of “spectacular” but in rather the technical sense of being phenomena as contradistinguished from essence.


Insofar as Dabrowski’s five overexcitabilities are, more or less, categories for the classification of behavior—whether cognitive, affective, or evaluational—they may be considered as the proximate drivers of behavioral events that may themselves be of clinical significance. In this context, the “phenomenon” (in this case, the pertinent trait-cluster) becomes that in which the (phenomenological or existential) essence of such an overexcited behavior is revealed. This whole discussion, of course, finesses (or avoids) the whole “innate vs. acquired” question, and implications for it of evolution, all of which would deserve anyway separate treatment.


And this is enough for now, except to say that I conclude, on the basis of my introspective N=1, that (1) “innate" means nothing more than literal-etymologically “inborn", the meaning of which merits discussion elsewhere; and (2) that what is innate to gifted persons is a complex composite of exceptional phenomenological and existential sensibilities that I have unpacked into seven characteristic traits that make sense to at least one gifted person.


There are two questions: what is innateness, and what is innate in you. Since this group is composed of gifted persons and dedicated to issues related to being gifted, I construe the second question in the sense of asking what is innate in me insofar as I am a gifted person. That is: what essence, phenomena, or qualities characterize me as a gifted person that may be called “innate”. So, we have to figure out what innateness is in the first place.


From a biological standpoint, innate traits have classically been contrasted with acquired traits. For the purposes of this discussion, I construe traits to be “personality traits” or other distinctive qualities that mark me as a gifted person. I leave out things like native intelligence, which are at least partly biologically determined or inherited, even if they may develop or manifest differentially over the course of a lifetime. The recognition of change and evolution and cognitive, emotional, intellectual, and behavioral development complicates somewhat the matter, since it can always be asked: If you have developed such and such a characteristic, then was not the potential for its development somehow “innate”?


This is not always the case: if I were to dye my hair blonde, for example, that would not mean that I had the potential to have blonde hair in any way meaningful to the intent of this discussion. In the context of another discussion, it could be suggested that the ability to do this could be an innate trait I was born as a member of a species biologically inheriting the characteristic of having opposable thumbs; but such considerations are not the issue here, especially since I have already stated that the purpose of the reflection is to seek to arrive at a clarification both of innateness and of what may be called traits innate to a gifted person.


Conveniently enough, I already seem to have a starting point. In my 2007 article on the workplace mobbing of the gifted (“The Workplace Mobbing of Highly Gifted Adults: An Unremarked Barbarism, Advanced Development 11: 130–48), I enumerate seven “trait-clusters” of the gifted, which I constructed from a list of 35 traits given by Anne-Marie Roeper (“Gifted Adults: Their Characteristics and Emotions,” Advanced Development 7: 21–34) in 1995. This list may be taken at least as a starting- point for determining whether any of these traits may be “innate”. (In the 2007 article, I discussed them also on a phenomenological basis through my own experience, interpreted according to the set of categories represented in this list.)


These “trait-clusters” are: (A) Difference from others and their misunderstanding (B) Distinct moral sense (C) Drivenness and strength of feeling (D) Perfectionism and aestheticism (E) Overwhelming perceptiveness (F) Overwhelming multifacetedness (G) Need for solitude and search for meaning.

For ease of reading only, I will italicize these categories through the rest of this post.


It will be observed that these categories are not without some relation to Dabrowski's list of five overexcitabilities. Indeed, that is the case, and I have ongoing unpublished work that discusses such relationship from an idiographic phenomenological (i.e., introspectively-based) basis. However, the overexcitabilities are slightly better known. Also, to introduce them substantively may diffuse the focus here and therefore may deserve a separate discussion. Given that the overexcitabilities are biologically based or have their origin in an atypical development of the central nervous system including the brain (see Nicole Tetrault’s 2016 paper on “the gifted brain” and her subsequent work; for an earlier yet more comprehensive and scholastic treatment, see David Sousa, How the Gifted Brain Learns, 2nd ed. [Sage, 2009; Chapter 1 available online]), it may be possible to argue that the overexcitabilities are in fact somehow more “fundamental” and therefore potentially more “innate” than the seven trait-clusters. I reserve this question and its implications for discussion in the live seminar, if at all.


Leaving aside the overexcitabilities, the thought arises that one way to get a handle on the question of what is “innate” to the gifted, would be to ask the question whether these seven trait-clusters could be grouped into a smaller number of trait-cluster chunks. In Figure 1 of my 2007 paper, which proposes a kind of “flow-chart” depicting how certain clusters may arise from other clusters (or be “caused” by them), there are four clusters that have no antecedents. These are A, B, E, and F.



I make bold to suggest that a useful distinction between the first two would be, that the first (A: Difference from others and their misunderstanding) is phenomenological while the second (B: Distinct moral sense) is existential. With this distinction, it becomes possible then to suggest also, that the third (E: Overwhelming perceptiveness) is phenomenological, while the 4th (F: Overwhelming multifaceted) is existential. It so happens that A and E (plus B) “cause” C: Drivenness and strength of feeling; while B and F (plus A) “cause” D: Perfectionism and aestheticism. If we consider, also on the basis of introspection at first glance validated by conceptual setting- in-order, that drivenness and strength of feeling may also be phenomenological, while D: Perfectionism and aestheticism may also be existential, then without knowing it what I did in Figure 1 of the 2007 article was to arrange A, C, and E in the flow-chart in a column and B, D, and F also in a column: thus neatly separating, without knowing it, the phenomenological trait-clusters from the existential trait-clusters. (Recall that both sets of trait-clusters equally produce or “cause” the seventh trait-cluster, G: Need for solitude and search for meaning.)


From this exercise, it emerges that the two “chunks” of trait-clusters are first, phenomenological (A, C, E), and second, existential (B, D, F). The trait-cluster G may be considered a synthesis or combination, although all clusters are combinations of both types: yet C is produced predominantly by other phenomenological clusters, while D is produced predominantly by other existential clusters; whereas G is, however, produced equally by both.


So as not to go on at too great a length, I should begin to conclude. For this purpose, I introduce the distinction between essence and phenomenon. Whole articles, of course, have been written on these topics, and they are not necessarily unrelated to discussions of innateness. As author, however, I claim authority to contradistinguish them by positing that “essence” signifies the fundamental intrinsic meaning that characterizes issues and appearances, revealing their basis, while a “phenomenon” is properly considered as the extrinsic form of the expression of the essence.


The two cluster-chunks, one composed of phenomenological trait-clusters and the other composed of existential trait-clusters, are then “essential” in that they pertain to fundamental intrinsic meaning, specifically the fundamental intrinsic meaning of the experience of being a gifted person. The seven trait-clusters themselves (which, I say in the article, represent only an “interpretive condensation” of the 35 traits enumerated by Roeper and are intended “only [as] a vehicle for … clinical work”) are then “phenomenal” not in the everyday-language sense of “spectacular” but in rather the technical sense of being phenomena as contradistinguished from essence.


Insofar as Dabrowski’s five overexcitabilities are, more or less, categories for the classification of behavior—whether cognitive, affective, or evaluational—they may be considered as the proximate drivers of behavioral events that may themselves be of clinical significance. In this context, the “phenomenon” (in this case, the pertinent trait-cluster) becomes that in which the (phenomenological or existential) essence of such an overexcited behavior is revealed. This whole discussion, of course, finesses (or avoids) the whole “innate vs. acquired” question, and implications for it of evolution, all of which would deserve anyway separate treatment. And this is enough for now.


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