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The Multiple Intelligences Of Europeans

(Traduit en français)

Howard Gardner’s Frame of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, published in 1983, is one of the most influential books of the 20th century. His theory that humans have multiple intelligences, rather than a single, general capacity that can be measured by standardized IQ tests, has been applied in classrooms across the Western world. Gardner persuaded millions of educators (and psychologists) that IQ tests measured only two out of eight human intelligences, linguistic and logical-mathematical aptitudes. He argued (persuasively, I think) that humans “know the world” not just through language and logical-mathematical analysis, but also through “spatial representation, musical thinking, the use of the body to solve problems or to make things, an understanding of other individuals, and an understanding of ourselves” [1].

I say persuasively even though IQ tests do measure crucial aptitudes for educational success in our modern, scientifically oriented societies. Numerous studies have shown that high IQ scores accurately predict educational success. But what really stands out for me about Gardner’s book is that:

  1. the evidence and arguments he relies upon decisively show that Europeans have displayed throughout history far higher levels of achievement and creativity in all the eight intelligences. 
  2. one of the intelligences, intrapersonal, “intelligence of the self,” developed only among Europeans — the very intelligence that “serves as a kind of central processor, or reflector, upon the other capacities” (295).

No one has noticed, as far as I can tell, these two standing features of Gardner’s book. Everyone has been misguided by Gardner’s thesis that these eight intelligences have a biological foundation and that all known cultures have exhibited “highly developed” forms of all the intelligences.

Gardner does not deny that different individuals have different natural capacities and that upbringing and overall cultural surroundings affect the degree to which individuals will be able to develop their varying potentials for these intelligences. He regularly condemns “Western education”, indeed, for its narrow and erroneous preoccupation with linguistic and logical reasoning; and implies, by extension, that non-Western cultures have been more “holistic” and rounded in their equal promotion of the other intelligences. Gardner forgets that his theory is a product of the West, a synthesis of vast amounts of research conducted by academics inside Western universities. He forgets as well that Western schools and universities have long emphasized these eight intelligences in their curricula, though only under Gardner’s influence did they go on to claim that all students are generally equal in being good at one or more of these intelligences.

For all this, Gardner can’t hide Western superior achievement in all the eight intelligences. Deep down he knows that without Western examples he would have found it very difficult to elucidate what each of these intelligences are about, what musical talent and spatial reasoning are about; who or what works are the highest exemplars of these intelligences. He knows that these intelligences were mostly cultivated, to the highest degree, in the West. But as a dutiful academic who must kneel before the idol of Multicultural Equality, he regularly sprinkles his book with sections dedicated to the ways other cultures developed these intelligences. In these sections he very much tries to negate the notion that Europeans developed higher forms of intelligences. Even in logic and mathematics, he condemns as ignorant and bigoted “claims for Western superiority,” and insists that “the concerns of this chapter are not parochial to the West” since “the many systems of number and calculation which have evolved in different corners of the world” are “amply documented” (159). He says that “the numerical core of mathematical intelligence” is universal, and that “both pre-literate societies recognize these skills as being important” (162-3). Yet, for all these appeals to multicultural equality, Gardner cannot help relying primarily on Western examples and achievements.

Actually, Gardner’s determination to identify instances of simple numerical accounting among primitive peoples as viable demonstrations of the “universality” of logical-mathematical reasoning constitutes an egregious downgrading of the very meaning of this form of intelligence. This intelligence has been characterized by stages of development from a sensorimotor stage, through pre-operational and concrete operational stages, to a formal operational stage. In the chapter where Gardner’s writes that Piaget “painted a brilliant portrait of development in one domain — that of logical-mathematical thought,” he forgets that adolescents in traditional cultures (not educated by the West) barely reach and cultivate the final stage of development in Piaget’s theory, the stage of formal operations, in which young adolescents exhibit a capacity to figure out the “implications that obtain among a set of relative propositions” (to use Gardner’s own words, 19).

No just in primitive cultures, but outside the West, the logical-mathematical intelligence barely exhibited its full potential. Mathematics is essentially a European accomplishment. Gardner says that “it is left to the greatest scientists to pose questions that no one has posed before, and then to arrive at an answer” (149). Does he know that Europeans and North Americans account for 97 percent of scientific accomplishment?

The history of logic, too, is overwhelmingly European. The magisterial eleven-volume work, Handbook of the History of Logic (2004 –2012), which was written from a “global perspective,” and contains four chapters in the first two volumes on Indian and Arabic logic, cannot but dedicate all the other chapter and volumes to the West since almost all developments in logic came from this civilization.

Europeans have also been the best in “linguistic intelligence.” Most of the examples of great poets, essayists, and novelists Gardner mentions are Western. We all know that humans have an innate capacity for language, but Europeans have developed the literary capabilities of their languages to the highest degree. Take the novel; it is really a European invention. The word “novel” came into use at the end of the 18th century in England  as a transliteration of the Italian word “novella.” The roots of the  novel can be traced back to i) Spanish picaresque tales (1500s) with their strings of episodic adventures held together by the personality of the central figure; ii) Elizabethan prose fiction and the translation of ancient Greek romances into the vernacular, iii) French heroic romance (mid 17th century) with its huge baroque narratives about thinly veiled contemporaries who always acted nobly and spoke high-flown sentiments. What British novelists added in the 1700s was a more unified and plausible (down-to-earth) plot structure, with sharply individualized and believable characters, and a less aristocratic (or more “middle class”) style of writing. The novel, in these respects, was invented in Europe, particularly after 1750 (Watt 2001). It was “associated from its inception,” in the words of Roy Porter, “with individualism and a certain political liberalism” (2000: 283). England played the leading role in this genre, cultivating a new sensibility for authenticity, personal experience and feeling, a spirit of nonconformity towards rigid and “insincere” conventions, a fascination with the inner depths of the self. Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa was one of such novels, as was Pamela and Sir Charles Grandison by the same author; as well as Sarah Fielding’s The Adventures of David  Simple (1744), Henry Brooke’s The Fool of Quality (1765), Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and  Moll Flanders (1722), Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67) and A Sentimental Journey (1767).

Same goes for musical intelligence. All humans have this intelligence but it is empirically beyond question that the European world produced most musical styles, the most sophisticated forms of musical notation, and a new polyphonic music where sounds could be seen as a phenomena moving through time, written on a paper using a codified and standardized system of notation for all sounds and rests. Europeans developed into their current forms almost all the known musical instruments. All the greatest classical composers in history are Western.

We are told that “spatial intelligence” refers to an ability to think in terms of physical space, as do architects and  navigators. Drawing, jigsaw puzzles, maps, all rely on this intelligence, as well as models, graphics, charts, photographs, drawings, 3-D modeling, multimedia. Again, it so happens to be the case that almost all the greatest navigators, explorers, and geographers in history were European. The invention of modern maps, the cartographic revolution, was strictly European.  Europeans are responsible for the development of models, charts, photographs, and the like. Gardner tries to downplay this reality by saying that “the capacity to make one’s way around an intricate environment, to engage in complex arts and crafts, and to play sports and games of various types seems to be found everywhere” (p. 200). But most of what he says about spatial reasoning relies on Western instances. His appeals to spatial reasoning outside the West for the sake of pushing the notion that all cultures are equal constitute a downgrading of the very meaning of intelligence.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence is about body awareness, using the body effectively and graciously, body language, hands-on-learning, making tools. Again, Europeans cultivated the highest instances of this form of intelligence.  Europeans, for starters, are better athletes in most sports. Gardner says that “of all the uses of the body, none has reached greater heights…than the dance” (p. 222). Well, Europeans invented most of  the dance forms in history, including the dances which reached the greater heights in difficulty and creativity, ballet and modern. They are also the greatest dancers and the greatest hands-on inventors.

Europeans have exhibited the highest levels of “naturalistic intelligence” in their far higher understanding of nature, their sensitivity towards plants and animals, their unique love for pets and for street animals. The creation of national parks is a Western achievement. 

The Unique Personal Intelligences of Europeans

Why have Europeans been the greatest in all the eight forms of intelligence? An answer to this question may be hinted at in what Gardner has to say about the other two forms of intelligences, “intrapersonal” and “interpersonal”. Gardner groups these two intelligences under the term “personal intelligences,” because they are about the ability to know one’s self and “the ability to notice and make distinctions among other individuals…their moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions” (239). Gardner’s description of these intelligences are somewhat confusing, inconsistent, unsure, lacking in precision. At times he seems to mean that personal intelligence is exhibited best when we are able to understand our “inner feelings” and the feelings of others. With the word “feeling” on the horizon, it would not take long for a Daniel Coleman to “unpack” what Gardner called the “intrapersonal” and “interpersonal” intelligences, with the argument that these intelligences are all about “emotional intelligence“. This definition has been eagerly adopted by the education establishment. Today all Western children are taught that showing empathy for millions of invading immigrants is the highest form of emotional intelligence, that “it can matter more than IQ”.

But there are passages in Gardner’s description which suggest that “personal intelligences” are about the ability of humans to have “a sense of self,” a sense that they are distinctive individual beings with a capacity to reason, capable of introspection, that is, of examining one’s own mental and emotional processes, as well as the mental processes of other persons. He writes that “an emerging sense of self proves to be a key element in the realm of the personal intelligences” (242). He is aware that a sense of self , of personal identity, in detachment from the world around, “achieved increasing prominence within our own [Western] society” (275). But he confounds matters by also saying that the capacity to know oneself and others is part of the “species birth right” of “every infant” in the world. Other cultures, he wants us to believe, understood that “individuals may have the potential to develop in individualistic ways,” but they decided to “reject this line of development as inimical to a sense of community and to the virtue of selflessness” (253).

This is basically what every Western academic concludes whenever they treat the topic “sense of self”. They can’t help pointing to the beatific communal understanding of non-Whites. Gardner actually surmises that other cultures developed a richer variety of intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences. Whereas Westerners were fascinated by the “isolated individual person,” with the outside environment and the presence of other humans providing a “mere background support or interference” (271), Africans and Asians developed a more balanced relationship between the individual and the community. So wonderful.

Truth is only Europeans developed a real sense of self. The ancient Greek aphorism “know thyself” was a conscious expression of the importance of intrapersonal knowledge. Only Europeans came to the realization that there is a faculty they called “mind” which is responsible for thinking and that this faculty can engage in logical-mathematical thinking, a form that should be carefully identified and employed in our linguistic expressions and in our intelligent investigations of the nature of things, since we should be logical and consistent, which is why Aristotle was the first to develop methods for prior and posterior methods of analytical thinking. As I argued in an earlier article,

Having an individual identity, an awareness of one’s inner being, that one’s actions can be causally dependent on one’s free will rather than on preceding events, that one can set oneself apart from the conventions of the time, free from the blind determinations of nature, as an individual capable of rational self-mastery, is historically intrinsic to Europeans. It is this self-awareness that has made possible the saying of “I” so common in Western culture. Europeans, and only Europeans, have nurtured an ability to turn inside their own consciousness and be aware that they have an “I” that is at the center of their inner being. When Europeans say “I” they apprehend their unique identity as an “I” that is inside them and that is different and apart from everything that is outside. Non-Europeans have acquired a certain degree of individualism under the massive influence of the West, but their “I” is less fully developed, and their history is utterly lacking in cultural resources exhibiting a reflective consciousness that can make clear analytical distinctions between the inner and the outer worlds.

Without a sense of self, knowledge can barely grow, for true knowledge presupposes the identification of the self as a separate agency that knows itself as a thinking self in contradistinction to the influence and obfuscations of our bodily appetites, our emotional inclinations, and unreflective traditional views. Because Europeans learned so much about their own selves, they also learned simultaneously about the inclinations and motivations of other persons. Is it any wonder that Westerners were responsible not only for the rise of novels with their insights into human personalities but for the entire history of psychology?

The personal intelligences are about introspection, looking inside one’s own mind and the mind of others. It is not possible to look into one’s mind without a sense of self. Having a sense of self is itself an indication that one is looking into one’s own mental and emotional processes. More than this, the development of a sense of self, which involves reflecting about one’s own thinking, is the only way one can reflect about the other intelligences. Gardner was able to develop a theory of multiple intelligences by looking into his mind and into other people’s mental processes. Garner seems to be momentarily aware of this when he writes: “it seems reasonable to deem the individual’s sense of self as a kind of second-level regulator, an overall metaphor for the rest of the person, and one that can…come to understand and to modulate an individual’s other capacities” (275).

Personal intelligence is not merely one more intelligence among others; it is the one intelligence capable of functioning as the regulator of the other intelligences, and, therefore, the one intelligence that is capable of seamlessly moving from one intelligence to another, allowing them to work together.

Gardner says that even though each of the intelligences is relatively autonomous, in actual life there is always interaction between the multiple intelligences: “in the normal course of events, the intelligences actually interact with, and build upon one another” (278).  He says that the wisest individuals are the ones who have managed to make the most connections between the different intelligences. Should we wonder why all the greatest philosophers in human history came from the West? In a section that seems to stand out of place with the title “Metaphorical Capacity”, he writes about “the abilities to make metaphors, to perceive analogies, and to cut across various intellectual domains in the process of forging such illuminating connections”. This section should have been included in the chapter on personal intelligences, since what is most important about our personal intelligences is not the nonsense Coleman says about emotions; it is rather the “capacity to find connections” between the intelligences, as can be witnessed in the use of metaphors and analogies.

Europeans have been the greatest in all the 8 intelligences because they developed a sense of self that allowed them to draw insightful connections across the different domains of intelligence. This is what creativity is about. In a future article we will explain why a sense of self is necessary to achieve consciousness, why the only beings on planet earth who are conscious are Europeans.


[1] This one quote comes from Howard Gardner’s The Unschooled Mind: How Children Think and How Schools Should Teach (Basic Books, 1991, p. 12. All the other cited words come from Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (Basic Books, 1993, Tenth Anniversary Edition).

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