29 February 2024

Talent development, a philosophical perspective

Talent development, a philosophical perspective

Talent development, a philosophical perspective

Summary of the Talent Development seminar, delivered engagingly by Anne Van de Vijver, an ECHA Specialist in Gifted Education, on December 7th in Leuven.

Do gifted individuals have a responsibility to contribute their talents to society or are they allowed to pursue personal happiness? 

We are faced with complex problems where talent development serves as a solution - benefiting society. However, the pursuit of personal happiness, chasing dreams, and prioritizing artistic expression over, for example, mathematics, can be seen as detrimental to society.

The philosophical question that arises finds an answer in Kant and Aristotle. Both seem to highlight one of these two contrasts: Kant with his emphasis on duty ethics and Aristotle with his focus on virtue ethics. Interestingly, this dilemma applies to all individuals, not just gifted ones, although this question is more frequently posed within this group due to their diverse talents. However, is there an implicit value judgment hidden in this contrast?

Research on giftedness rarely illuminates the deeper reasons behind talent development; this seems to be more of a philosophical issue than a subject of psychological or pedagogical research. While the need for talent development for society is often cited as justification for research, such as in cases of underachievement, the 'why' of talent development itself often remains overlooked. Usually, this is approached from the needs of the labor market and the demands of competitiveness. There are only a limited number of publications specifically focusing on promoting personal happiness and well-being through talent development.

What does Aristotle say about the why of talent development?

Everything in life has an intended purpose, a 'telos'. Just as an acorn's purpose is to become the best possible version of an oak tree. Living in harmony with that 'telos' results in a happy and ethical life. So, what is the 'telos' of humanity? It is living in accordance with what is essential to us as humans: our human virtues and talents. The aim is to become the best version of ourselves, fully developing our talents.

Both intellectual and moral talents need to be developed. This involves not only intelligence per se but broader aspects such as scientific knowledge (research), arts or skills (craftsmanship), practical understanding (metacognition), intuitive reason or intellect (prior thinking before embarking on research), and philosophical wisdom (the combination of intuitive knowledge with scientific knowledge). Moral talents include finding a golden mean, for example, courage as the balance between cowardice and recklessness, justice, kindness - without extremes. Intellectual talents can be honed through education, while moral talents thrive through habit formation within upbringing and environment. It is the synergy of all these talents that determines the essence of humanity. It is important to create space and give focused attention to each of these facets, enabling their development.

What does Kant say about the why of talent development?

Kant's Categorical Imperative emphasizes the principles of universality and humanity - a duty for everyone to develop their talents.

The principle of universality asks whether your actions are based on principles that everyone should follow. For example, in talent development: suppose you have a mathematical talent but do not want to develop it. If this were a general law, no one would want to develop their talents. Therefore, not developing talents clashes with this principle; it then becomes a duty to do so.

The humanity principle revolves around considering both yourself and others as ends in themselves. You may not use others to achieve your own goals and must respect yourself as an end. This implies that you must develop your talents to develop yourself as an end and respect this end.

What talents should you develop then? It is in the nature of humans to contribute to society in a meaningful way. This does not come from external compulsion but from intrinsic motivation. Free will is crucial in Kant's philosophy. People must be free to choose how they deploy their talents in society in a meaningful way, depending on their self-determined goals.

According to Kant, there are natural and moral talents. Natural talents include intellectual abilities (reasoning), mental capacities (imagination), and physical abilities. A moral talent is the feeling that arises when you consciously act in line with the mentioned principles and this gives you a good feeling. Kant assumes that both types of talents can be developed, with education playing a crucial role. However, this is an ideal to strive for, as some people are hindered by it, for example, by poverty.

Talent development of gifted individuals

In the literature on giftedness, the 'why' often remains overlooked. If it is addressed at all, it is usually a movement from society towards the individual. Talent development thus often seems to be influenced by external pressure. In Kant and Aristotle's philosophy, however, the 'why' is central. For them, this question arises from the core of humanity, from within. A question that every coach or guide of gifted children and adults should ask is: are you committed to self-actualization or do you focus more on addressing world problems? Is the starting point with the gifted individual or with the commitment to society?

Or still: is the ultimate goal excellent performance or self-fulfillment? Take, for example, Gagné's model; this model emphasizes performance as the outcome. That explains why the focus is on 'useful' skills, while there is little attention to moral talents. Self-knowledge and autonomy serve as moderators within this process. In a model based on Kant or Aristotle, self-knowledge and autonomy would rather be the outcome of the model than a means. Here, the starting point would no longer be limited to just 'useful' talents but would instead focus on a wide range of talents. Self-fulfillment is central as a goal: realizing one's full potential and leading a meaningful life, driven by self-chosen goals. Excellent performance can be a result of this, but is not necessarily necessary.

Perhaps gifted individuals harbor specific talents that have not yet been fully discovered, because we look too much from the perspective of socially valued skills. It may be valuable to look at talents less strongly through the lens of economic value.

Reference: Van de Vijver, A., & Mathijssen, S. (2024). A Philosophical Approach to Talent Development, Roeper Review, 46(1), 27-38, DOI: 10.1080/02783193.2023.2285053

Copyright © 2024 Anne Van de Vijver – All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission of the author. Sharing online is allowed provided author and link to this article are mentioned.


{{ popup_title }}

{{ popup_close_text }}