Rethinking How We Think: The Critical Role of Multiple Intelligences

When it comes to culturally mature understanding, one of the most essential recognitions can also initially be particularly hard for people to get their minds around: the simple fact that intelligence has multiple aspects. Culturally mature systemic perspective requires that we apply intelligence in the rational sense—indeed that we do so with a new precision. But it also necessarily draws on other aspects of intelligence—such as the emotional, our imaginations, and the intelligence of our bodies. Future choices of all sorts will more and more often require, along with knowledge, also wisdom. Wisdom—certainly the kind of wisdom we need going forward—is a product necessarily of including not just all the pieces that we need to consider, but also including all of ourselves when doing the considering. It demands that we consciously draw on the whole of our cognitive complexity.

The fact that rational discourse by itself is not sufficient for culturally mature understanding can at first be disorienting—we like to think that being smart and thinking hard enough can get us to the truth. And identifying with the rational is only way we can miss what is needed. Some psychological and humanistic thinkers identify with the emotions; people of more spiritual inclination can place final truth with the more symbolic sensibilities of the imaginal; others miss the mark by reaching conclusions that reflect making body intelligence primary (I think of the extreme identification with nature we can find with the more radical of animal rights advocates).

The recognition that we have multiple kinds of intelligence that serve different functions is not new. It has always been obvious that in sharing feelings with a friend, doing our taxes, or playing music that we draw on different sensibilities. But the ability to consciously draw on our multiple intelligences in an integrated fashion is new—and an increasingly essential capacity. It comes close to defining culturally mature understanding. Certainly it provides one of the simplest ways of describing the cognitive changes that produce such understanding.

At Cultural Maturity’s threshold, what Creative Systems Theory calls Integrative Meta-Perspective replaces the Modern Age picture—that which 300 years ago gave us from-a-balcony objectivity and made rationality the ideal and end point of knowing—with a more encompassing notion of how we think and what it means to think effectively. The result is understanding that is more complete and also more dynamic (rational intelligence, in isolation, limits us to an engineering model world). By more deeply engaging the whole of who we are, such understanding allows us to think in ways that better reflect that we are alive, and alive in the particular ways that make us human. That it does provides some of the best evidence that today’s changes are challenging us to engage a wholly new chapter in our human development story.

The need to draw on more than intelligence as we commonly think of it had an important role in Creative Systems Theory’s beginnings. Inspired by my early experience as a sculptor and musician, I became fascinated with the more general workings of creative process—with how it is that things that matter come into being. I assumed that academic psychology had extensively researched the topic, and I set out to find what had been written. To my great surprise, very little had been written, and almost all that had been written was superficial at best. I now better understand why I found this surprising absence (and I now recognize its important implications for education—see later in this post), but at that time all I knew was that I was going to be more on my own in this inquiry than I had expected. As I began to delve into creative process, I was immediately struck by the fact that it necessarily draws on multiple intelligences. I also saw how it does so in predictable ways, how different stages in the creative process (and human formative processes of all sorts) draw on different intelligences and relationships between intelligences (see Intelligence and Creative Change). Creative Systems Theory’s approach to understanding our toolmaking, meaning-making human natures was the result.

The need to expand how we think about intelligence has much more than just theoretical importance. Creative Systems Theory argues that we need the whole of our systemic cognitive natures to understand anything about ourselves deeply. More specifically, it argues that drawing on our multiple intelligences in newly conscious and integrated ways is becoming necessary to effective decision-making in every part of lives, from the most personal of choices to the collective decisions that will determine our future well-being as a species—and perhaps even our survival. A small handful of examples, each of which has a central role in reflections found in this blog, highlight this critical necessity.

I’ve repeatedly emphasized the importance of thinking about cultural change in evolutionary terms (for example, see terrorism post). Effective global policy becomes impossible without an appreciation for the particular times in culture’s developmental story in which different groups reside. And certainly Cultural Maturity as a chapter in culture’s story makes no sense without evolutionary perspective. The kind of developmental/evolutionary thinking we need to make such discernments requires the conscious access to multiple intelligences that Integrative Meta-Perspective provides. Creative Systems Theory describes how each stage in cultural development, as with human developmental processes of all sorts, is ordered by particular intelligences (or, more precisely, by particular relationships between intelligences).

A simplified outline: In tribal realities, body intelligence is primary (to not know the songs and dances in a tribal society would be incomprehensible). With civilization’s early rise, the intelligence of imagination came to the fore (we looked increasingly to great myths and pantheons of gods). Later still, the more emotional aspects of intelligence came to hold the greater sway (as with the moral ardencies of the European Middle Ages). With the emergence of Modern Age sensibility, rational intelligence came to have defining influence (“I think therefore I am.”)

We similarly need to draw on multiple intelligences if we wish to effectively tease apart more here-and-now systemic differences. In first developing Creative Systems Theory’s framework for understanding personality styles. I found it quite baffling that we commonly don’t recognize temperament differences that are so striking on close examination—and so obviously significant. The fact that we might think we can could effectively teach our children, or work usefully as psychologists or physicians, without such perspective seemed ludicrous. I now better understand why such understanding has before now been lacking. We need the kind of conscious engagement with our multiple ways of knowing that comes with Integrative Meta-Perspective for temperament differences to fully make sense (and really, ultimately, for us to tolerate this depth of difference). The Creative Systems Personality Typology describes how temperament differences, in a way similar to what we find with developmental stages, reflect the preferential influence of different intelligences (or again, more accurately, on different relationships of intelligences).

The most important example is more basic. I’ve written about how the most critical questions of our time are not technical, but moral—how they are questions of value. To address moral questions in any way other than by applying outdated absolutist moral dictates, we must be able to draw on the whole of ourselves in making our determinations. Moral right ultimately reflects the degree to which an act is “life-affirming.” To discern whether an act is life-affirming, we need to be able to draw on the whole of what makes us alive. To do so consciously and responsibly requires Integrative Meta-Perspective and a new, more mature relationship to intelligence’s multiplicity.

This observation applies directly to today’s most defining question of value. I’ve argued that as a species, we face a crisis of purpose: We lack a way of understanding what matters sufficient to our time. Framed in terms of values, we face the essential challenge of rethinking wealth and progress in a way that can effectively guide us going forward. I’ve proposed that this basic rethinking of what advancement should entail represents our times most essential responsibility. It is a responsibility we can engage at all effectively only if we have the whole of human cognitive complexity to draw on—the whole of who we are as creative, meaning-making beings (see the Question of Referent).

Note that recognizing the importance of a more complete picture of intelligence presents a fundamental challenge not just to how we have tended to think in modern times, but also to the assumptions of many of our institutions. Education makes a good example. Modern higher education came to prominence with culture’s Modern Age. Consistent with these beginnings, it makes rational intelligence understanding’s last word (the promised explanation for why academic inquiry provided so little that might be helpful for understanding creative process). I’ve argued that if this historical assumption is not challenged, it will increasingly get in the way of higher education providing needed leadership (see “The Future of Education.”)
The rewards of the needed, more mature, dynamic, and encompassing conception of intelligence are immense. Besides offering that we might better appreciate developmental and here-and-now human difference and more directly address questions of value—each of which will be essential to a healthy future—there are also important more “philosophical” rewards. In my book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions: Creative Systems Theory Explains What It Is All About (Really). I describe how Integrative Meta-Perspective makes it possible to address an array of big-picture questions that before now have been impossible to answer—such as how to best understand the relationship of determinism and free will, or how science and religion might be compatible. The ability to consciously draw on the whole of intelligence lets us see beyond past partial answers to such before baffling questions and frame questions in ways that make more complete answers newly available to us—indeed, that seem almost self-evident.


Fill out the form below to receive monthly articles and updates from Charles Johnston, M.D.