It was while I was teaching at Yale last year that I first came across Harvard professor Howard Gardner’s work on the many kinds of intelligence. In ordinary life, we tend to talk about people as being intelligent if they are good at academic things like reading complex books, retaining information, passing exams, performing mathematical calculations, and formulating new ideas. In our society, this is the kind of intelligence that gets rewarded – with good grades, decent salaries, impressive job titles and corner offices.

But this logical-mathematical is far from the only kind of intelligence, as Howard Gardner illuminated. He suggested there are at least eight different kinds of intelligence:

Linguistic/verbal: naturally good with writing or speaking and memorization (Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill)

Logical/mathematical: driven by logic and reasoning (Mr Spock, Albert Einstein)

Visual/spatial: good at remembering images and are aware of surroundings (Picasso, Frank Lloyd Wright)

Intrapersonal: adept at looking inward (Aldous Huxley, Eleanor Roosevelt)

Interpersonal: good with people and thrive in social interactions (Oprah, Gandhi)

Musical: musically gifted and have a “good ear” for rhythm and composition (Mozart, Prince)

Bodily/Kinaesthetic: love movement, have good motor skills and are aware of their bodies (Charlie Chaplin, Michael Jordan)

Naturalistic: sensitivity to and appreciation for nature (Charles Darwin, David Attenborough)

You can find out what kinds of intelligence you have by taking this ultra-quick test.

Here are my results. Strong on Intrapersonal (that will be all that reflection and soul-searching that used to happen on the ocean, and that now happens in coffee shops with my journal). Weak on musical (for sure) and bodily-kinaesthetic (matter of opinion).

Why does this even matter? Howard Gardner says:

Extraordinary individuals are distinguished less by their impressive “raw powers” than by their ability to identify their strengths and then to exploit them. 

Too often we try to be good at a kind of intelligence that doesn’t come naturally to us. Because “success” in our educational and economic systems is so heavily skewed towards logical-mathematical intelligence, that’s often what we try to develop. Some will succeed, many won’t.

(Interestingly, it is also a form of intelligence that is traditionally identified as more masculine, while intelligences like linguistic and interpersonal are regarded as more feminine. I’m wondering out loud if the stubborn persistence of the gender pay gap is partly due to the more feminine intelligences being less rewarded in financial terms under the present system.)

But the intelligence I am most interested in is the one that Howard Gardner added only as an afterthought, and even then somewhat tentatively – The Ninth Intelligence: Existential/Spiritual. His provisional definition was “Individuals who exhibit the proclivity to pose and ponder questions about life, death, and ultimate realities”.

These questions might include things such as:

Who am I?

What am I here for?

What does it mean to be human?

Where are we going?


I’d like to suggest that we need to focus on developing this one, collectively and individually, and fast. Fortunately the realms of neuroscience, psychology, behavioural economics, and of course philosophy, are exploding in popularity at the moment. It seems that the time of the Ninth Intelligence has come, and we would do well to not just ponder these questions, but also to find some seriously good answers.

And in case this is all getting too serious, I think this would be a good moment for some (admittedly rather nerdy) existentialist jokes:

Descartes is sitting in a bar, having a drink. The bartender asks him if he would like another. “I think not,” he says and vanishes in a puff of logic.

The French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre was sitting in a cafe when a waitress approached him: “Can I get you something to drink, Monsieur Sartre?”
Sartre replied, “Yes, I’d like a cup of coffee with sugar, but no cream”.
Nodding agreement, the waitress walked off to fill the order and Sartre returned to working. A few minutes later, however, the waitress returned and said, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, we are all out of cream — how about with no milk?

“Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?”

“Day 19, I have successfully conditioned my master to smile and write in his book every time I drool.” — Pavlov’s Dog

Boom, boom!



One Comment

  • Thanks to Henry, who sent me this excellent philosopher joke:
    So Descartes is sitting, alone, at a bar, devising the founding philosophy for the West. The bartender comes over and asks him if he’d like another; he says “I think not,” and vanishes. The bartender turns to Locke, who is sitting at a nearby table picking over a plate of munchies, and asks him “did you see that? Descartes just disappeared!” Locke responds “There was nothing there to begin with.” At which point Buber, from the other side of the room, announces to the whole place: “You know, if those two ever got together, they could do some real damage.”

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