Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. By Howard Gardner. Basic Books, $23.50.

Printer friendly version |

D.H. Lawrence waged a lifelong guerrilla campaign against the imperialism of intellect. In “Why the Novel Matters,” he wrote:

Why should I look at my hand, as it so cleverly writes these words, and decide that it is a mere nothing compared to the mind that directs it? Is there really any huge difference between my band and my brain? Or my mind? My hand is alive, it flickers with a life of its own. It meets all the strange universe in touch, and learns a vast number of things, and knows a vast number of things. My hand, as it writes these words, slips gaily along, jumps like a grasshopper to dot an i, feels the table rather cold, gets a little bored if I write too long, has its own rudiments of thought, and is just as much me as is my brain, my mind, or my soul.”

But the empire of Mind effectively contained Lawrence’s quixotic insurgency. Beginning in the 1920s, the theories of Jean Piaget enshrined abstract reasoning as the goal of cognitive development, implicitly reinforcing the hierarchical conception of intelligence against which Lawrence had rebelled. And academic psychology became increasingly dominated by the theory and practice of intelligence testing, with its assumption of a distinct, quantifiable mental endowment: “g,” or general intelligence.

In recent years, doubts about the unitary model of human intelligence have become widespread and scientifically respectable. New sciences of cognition— transformational linguistics, neurobiology, the philosophy of symbolic forms— have flourished, and their findings have complicated the picture, hinting at the variety and autonomy of the mind’s “frames” or faculties where their unity and hierarchy had been taken for granted. No theoretical synthesis has yet been achieved, so Howard Gardner’s attempt to formulate one is of considerable interest.

Gardner is something of a cognitivist polymath. A Harvard-trained psychologist, he did postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School and is now associate professor of neurology at Boston University Medical School. He is also a senior research associate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and co-director of Project Zero, an interdisciplinary research group (founded by philosopher Nelson Goodman) that investigates symbolic thinking, especially in the arts. At age forty, he has published a dozen books and 150 scholarly articles, has won a national award for scientific journalism, and currently holds a MacArthur Prize Fellowship.

“Frames of Mind” is an argument for conceptual pluralism. Gardner has taken a long and detailed look at the gamut of human abilities and concluded that they are, in important respects, incommensurable: i.e., they cannot usefully be assigned a single measure, a single pattern of development, or even a single descriptive terminology. Having for many years made use of innovative methods to observe children, Gardner is acutely aware of the shortcomings of paper-and-pencil tests. He points out—what is becoming obvious, even to most academic psychologists— that the “intelligence” measured by such tests is of limited significance, and may be largely an artifact of the testing situation.

What has not been so obvious is the scope and complexity of our non-intellectual skills. Most of “Frames of Mind” is devoted to a wide-ranging review of the data about each of Gardner’s candidate intelligences: linguistic, musical, logical- mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, and personal (emotional). Gardner’s evidence comes from biography, clinical observation, biological and social-scientific research, and nearly every other imaginable source, and much of it is intriguing. We glimpse boys in the Caroline Islands becoming master navigators, reassess the significance of rote learning in medieval universities, follow Stephen Spender working his way through a half-dozen versions of a couplet, and listen to Igor Stravinsky reminiscing about music heard and fancied in the nursery. Less entertaining but equally instructive is a good deal of information about aphasics and other neurological patients, whose differentially surviving capacities after brain damage are a crucial index of the localization of mental functions.

Gardner’s approach to this mass of material is systematic, not eclectic. In an introductory chapter he offers an interesting (and apparently original) set of defining criteria, against which he there after evaluates each proposed type of intelligence. Gardner’s criteria include: potential isolation by brain damage; the existence of prodigies, idiots savants, and other selectively endowed individuals; an identifiable core operation or set of operations; a distinctive developmental history, along with a set of expert “end state” performances; a plausible evolutionary history; support from experimental psychological tasks; support from psychometric findings (where quantitative tests are relevant); and susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system. The application of these criteria is not a straight forward matter, as Gardner admits. But, their formulation in these interdisciplinary terms is important, and may turn out to be the book’s enduring contribution to the theory of intelligence.

Having sketched a profile of each of his hypothetical intelligences (and also, engagingly, a critique of his own theory), Gardner shifts his attention from capacity to context, from the individual to society. To qualify his emphasis on biology and “endogenous developmental trajectories,” he takes up an anthropological perspective, asking how the symbol systems through which intelligences express themselves are evoked and shaped by the surrounding culture. This leads him to some discussion of symbolic development in general, and also to a look at educational practices in nonliterate societies (navigation among the Puluwat), traditional societies (Koranic schools), hybrid societies (Suzuki violin-training), and what one might call hyper-modem societies (computer-assisted instruction). After all of this, he restates his theoretical project: “it ought to be possible to… take seriously the nature of innate intellectual proclivities, the heterogeneous processes of development, and the ways in which these are shaped and trans formed by the practices and values of culture.” Fittingly, these words express a hope rather than a claim.

“Frames of Mind” comes garlanded with advance praise from eminent academic psychologists; Jerome Bruner called it “brilliant” in the “New York Review of Books”, and the author’s colleagues have hailed it as “refreshing . . . impressive important. . . valuable. . . seminal wonderful. . . a tour de force.” But I was, I confess, disappointed. Gardner leaves the most mysterious and intractable questions about his subject not only unanswered, but unasked.

Here is a random list of (no doubt unrigorously formulated) questions about intelligence that have, I suspect, long haunted most lay persons What is intuition— is it really just ratiocination with a few steps left out? Can one really “feel out” a situation through a heightened power of sympathy, the way children and schizophrenics are said to do? Is there a logic, a “discourse,” of imagination, issuing not in propositions but in some thing else, which may nonetheless be cumulative and capable of producing consensus among practitioners? What do actors actually learn in the course of training—can it be made explicit? Similarly, what about “esoteric” or mystical knowledge, in principle available to everyone and yet not expressible in language— can we characterize the “learning” or “intelligence” involved? Can we analyze originality—the miraculous dexterity of Julius Erving, the miraculous insightfulness of Pauline Kael, the miraculous wackiness of Monty Python—or can we only marvel? And in this society, obsessed with sexual technique, is there really something that some people know about lovemaking that the rest of us don’t—and can the rest of us learn it?

Of course, it would be irresponsible, given our present knowledge, for a serious student of intelligence to speculate at length about such questions. Unfortunately, Howard Gardner is not at all irresponsible, at least in “Frames of Mind”. Occasionally his material—e.g., Kenneth Clark on what connoisseurs know, or Norman Mailer on what boxers know— seems to offer an opportunity for an idle digression or flight of fancy. But Gardner has a theory to expound, and he plows forward, doggedly.

“Frames of Mind” is admirable and illuminating. But it’s not nearly as much fun as it should be: Lawrence’s numerous pronouncements about mind, though sometimes bewildering or exasperating, were usually fun. And if some version of Gardner’s theory holds up, Lawrence’s intuitions will have turned out to be largely true—in fact, prophetic. Perhaps imagination is only intelligence having fun.


Powered By Movable Type 4.1

Copyright © 2004-2008
George Scialabba