What is Intelligence?
Most people define intelligence in terms of our ability to
learn and to solve problems. This is a useful definition. To the
extent we're intelligent, we can figure out what's going on and
how things relate to each other -- and then we can apply that
understanding to the world around us, selecting good options and
influencing -- or adapting to -- the actual situations we face.
This definition tells us that intelligence is related to knowledge.
Old knowledge -- knowledge stored in our memory -- helps us respond
to usual, hum-drum situations in life. It doesn't take much smarts
to do that; it's relatively automatic. But we do need intelligence
to create or apply new knowledge to new situations -- to solve
problems, to respond successfully to changes and challenges, and
to make sense of novelty. Perhaps most importantly, our intelligence
helps us understand our successes and failures and learn from
While I agree that intelligence plays a dominant role in learning
and solving problems, I see these as expressions of a broader
capacity: I think that in a more general sense, intelligence is
what gives us the workable patterns we use to shape our lives
and the coherence that makes sense of all the pieces. Intelligence
sculpts congruence between the patterns of the world and the patterns
in our minds. It does this outwardly by helping us shape the real
world according to our understandings and dreams. And it does
this inwardly, by helping us rework our mental models and plans
to better align with "what is." So intelligence can
be viewed as a feedback loop between the real world and our minds.
Based on that understanding, I believe the most useful definition
of intelligence is the capacity to respond creatively, appropriately
and successfully to varied (or varying) circumstances.
This sort of intelligence is not a single aptitude or cluster
of aptitudes, but rather a broad functional capacity (i.e., responsiveness)
which arises out of, but is greater than, the interaction of many
aptitudes (perception, reason, intuition, emotion, compassion,
memory, category formation, synthesis, timing, motion, etc.) --
an interaction that creates and applies useful patterns of response.*
That capacity has helped many organisms survive and evolve in
But we are still mid-evolution in this regard. Our intelligence
capacities are fragmented, both within us (e.g., emotion vs. reason)
and among us (your intelligence vs. mine). This fragmentation
has led directly to a state of affairs filled with unprecedented
dangers and challenges for us all. Our collective knowledge-making
capacity has alienated us from reality, even as it has given us
power. We find ourselves beset by the entrapping logic of ideologies;
the out-of-context experiments of science; the social decisions
of self-serving elites and experts; and the ubiquitous manipulation
of our personal thoughts and feelings by special interests --
all forms of alienated power arising from alienated knowledge.
Our predicament arises because "knowledge is power"
and "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Our fragmented
intelligence has produced powerful and unbalanced knowledge, technologies,
structures and practices that divide us from each other and from
the larger, interconnected natural and human communities we inhabit
and depend on.
Many of the most horrendous achievements -- toxins, wars, gas
chambers, species extinctions, etc. -- are accomplished by high-IQ
individuals. Most measures of IQ examine select clusters of a
few intelligence-related aptitudes, but fail to test our capacity
to generate the full product of intelligence, which is appropriate
responses in a changing world. To compound this error, we
fail to test people's ability to generate these responses together,
even though in real life we seldom respond in isolation. And our
sense of what's appropriate is often shallow indeed!
We then proceed to use these fragmented IQ measurements to
favor fragmented intelligences that produce maximized, alienated
power. Those with the most alienated intelligence capacities rise
to the top of our social institutions. And the rest of us have
our intelligence -- our capacity to respond well -- numbed or
manipulated by those leaders and their mass media.
Is it any wonder we're in trouble?
There are many forms of responsiveness -- many intelligence-facilitating
aptitudes such as interpersonal and aesthetic sensibilities, big-picture
intuition, doubt, compassion and curiosity -- to which our society
assigns little status or reward. Our infatuation with fragmented,
alienated IQ hinders our ability to respond, both individually
and collectively. The many forms of responsiveness and the many
possible combinations of aptitudes are each more useful in certain
circumstances than in others. We need access to them all. We need
to respect and cultivate them all and understand their interactions
and co-actions. We need to know our own strengths and weaknesses
in this regard, and to include others who have different strengths
than ours. We need, in short, an intelligence grounded in our
whole capacities, an intelligence that helps us creatively find
our way together through the complexities of the whole situations
we need to deal with.
is that special form of intelligence -- grounded in interconnectedness,
wholeness and co-creativity -- that provides us with a way
to engage our full cognitive and responsive capacities in greater
harmony with each other and with the larger forces of Life. It
is not different from intelligence. It is a more wholesome form
of intelligence that includes everything we think of as intelligence,
* The concept of multiple
intelligences is explored by a number of investigators of
intelligence, and is part of most models of co-intelligence.