White, J. (2008) ‘Illusory Intelligences’, in  Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 42, No. 3-4: 611–630.

Gardner’s intelligences: linguistic, musical, logico-mathematical, spatial, bodily kinaesthetic, intrapersonal and interpersonal, to which have now been added naturalist and possibly existential intelligences.

Gardner proposes that these intelligences arise from his attempt to apply certain prerequisites.  Intelligences must indicate a general ability widespread among human cultures.  White says this is already a problem—all human cultures or just some?  He also does not like the first example which is rejected—the ability to recognise human faces.  This is the first example of what seems to be arbitrary choice at the heart of  Gardner’s system.

Then there are specific criteria:

potential isolation of the area by brain damage
the existence in it of idiots savants, prodigies and other exceptional individuals
an identifiable core operation/set of operations
a distinctive developmental history, along with a definable set of expert ‘end-state’ performances
an evolutionary history and evolutionary plausibility support from experimental psychological tasks
support from psychometric findings
susceptibility to encoding in a symbol system (Gardner, 1983, pp. 62–9).

White indicate some problems with these criteria, principally the idea that there is a development in intelligences.  This is misleading, because human abilities do not develop in the same way in which biological faculties do: they might change and grow, but not in a preordained way as an unfolding of some quality.  To apply developmentalism here is to imply that there is some upper end state, a ceiling. This leaves Gardner with the need to define what he means by maturity, and this is inevitably subjective, depending on value judgments.  Gardner does try to obtain objectivity by suggesting that evil tyrants can also display a maturity, but this then invalidates the prerequisite.

White indicates additional problems with the idea of encoding in a symbol system.  Gardner depends on another writer, Goodman, here. In general terms, there is also an ambiguity about the symbol: in one sense it means expressing emotion, but in another it has a more technical meaning as in a mathematical symbol.

White also dislikes the idea of brain damage and brain localisation, which he says are connected to Gardner’s developmentalism.  White denies that idiots savants possessed distinct kinds of intelligences, and prefers the concept of a particular mental facility to describe their unusual achievements.

 In general, Gardner’s criteria are far from easy to applying without invoking subjective meanings.  They seem to depend on particular theories of developmentalism and symbolisation. Gardner himself seems to suggest that not all the criteria are crucial anyway, but simply a majority of them.  He admits that it is a matter of judgement, indeed, artistic judgment, whether to admit a candidate or not.  Nevertheless, Gardner insists he is doing science, and not offering some kind of philosophical account of forms of knowledge.  Gardner has tried to reply to White’s criticism here by suggesting the whole scheme is tentative, a mere first step to be confirmed by later work, but this is not enough for White who points out that the whole thing might be misplaced.  White says he finds no strong arguments in Gardner to defend this particular choice of criteria.

Instead, White proposes to explain Gardner’s by looking at the intellectual influences that affected his approach.  He was interested in Piaget and structuralism, for example, which explains the developmentalism.  However, he saw symbols as important to explain innovation and creativity, borrowing from structuralism the idea that these are basic codes which can produce innovative combinations.  Goodman supplied the necessary symbol theory: Gardner used it to extend Piaget into the Arts.  Of course, both Piaget and Goodman have been much criticised.  Interests in the other areas arose from Gardner’s participation in a project to extend human potential at Harvard—Gardner was the social psychologist on the team.  Further doubts with subjective judgments were aroused in the course of this work, Gardner admits, and he flirted with terms other than ‘intelligence’ to describe human accomplishments.  However, he resisted the idea of forms of knowledge because that seemed too philosophical and a priori.  Gardner wanted to base his theory on biological psychology.

The extension of the original model to include naturalistic and existential intelligence also reveals its arbitrary nature.  The idea here was simply to try to expand the scheme to incorporate all human knowledge—a forms of knowledge approach, denying that the categories just merge out of empirical study.  Gardner wants to modify his approach in later work to separate the intelligence, the capacity, from the domain, the area in which it is applied.  But this introduces incoherence, since the whole approach depends on the biological and psychological being closely linked to the social.  Now they are potentially separated, with the symbolic relocated to the domain, the social aspects of intelligence.  However, the criteria remain unchanged, and they feature the symbolic as part of the biological and psychological notion of intelligence.

Although they are not central in Gardner himself, the educational implications have been substantial, and the theory of multiple intelligences has been eagerly adopted by teachers.  White is not denying that there have been useful improvements in dethroning the idea of a central intelligence measured by IQ, and in allowing greater diversity.  However, there is no need to adopt Gardner’s multiple intelligences to justify this practice.  Indeed, it might be even more satisfying to suggest there are more than just the seven kinds, and that individuals have many more ways of demonstrating their abilities.  It is important for White that practices are not based on theories that are so demonstrably ‘flaky’.

Gardner is really in the business of defining a liberal curriculum, although he denies it.  There’s nothing wrong with this idea, but we should remember that it is only one option that will not suit everybody.

The article ends with White running over some of the counter arguments that Gardner has made.  The main one for our purposes is that White denies he is merely getting philosophically picky with what is essentially an empirical psychological project.  It is not a matter of different approaches or paradigms, simply that Gardner misunderstands his own project as a scientific one.

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