Existential Intelligence – What is it?
I would define existential intelligence as the ability to be sensitive to, or have the capacity for, conceptualizing or tackling deeper or larger questions about human existence. In my mind folks who have this intelligence are not afraid to tackle thinking about questions that revolve around such issues as the meaning of life, or contemplate questions like why are we born, why do we die, what is consciousness, or how did we get here?
There are many people who feel that there should be a ninth intelligence, existential intelligence (A.K.A.: “wondering smart, cosmic smart, spiritually smart, or metaphysical intelligence”). The possibility of this intelligence has been alluded to by Howard Gardner in several of his works. He has stated that existential intelligence might be manifest in someone who is concerned with fundamental questions about existence, or who questions the intricacies of existence. And while Professor Gardner has offered a preliminary definition as: “Individuals who exhibit the proclivity to pose and ponder questions about life, death, and ultimate realities,” he has not fully confirmed, endorsed, or described this intelligence.
Perhaps the difficulty is that Gardner wisely believes that if he offered an official definition it would open a can of worms best left out of the arena of education. Or, since a great deal of the importance and credibility of Gardner’s work rests on neurological evidence of site specific locations within the brain, it might be that it is a bit risky for any author or scientist to definitively pinpoint the exact biological seat of spiritual wonder or cosmic awareness without offending any number of people, or some cultural or religious groups. I think it is important to remember that part of the power of Gardner’s work depends upon careful examination of the available data and scientific evidence. So, at this point in time, it might be safer to say that existential intelligence is the “half” in 8-1/2 intelligences that comprise MI Theory.
Despite this avoidance on Gardner’s part to definitively commit to existential intelligence, there are many who have accepted the presence of this intelligence as fact and have attempted to clarify what it might look like if it were part of the MI array. For those who have met children who appear to have “old souls,” it is often easy to accept the existence of existential intelligence as something very real and important. These are the children who appear to have a sixth sense, they may be highly intuitive and insightful, even what some might describe as psychic, or they are the ones who pose, and sometimes even answer, life’s larger questions – like:
Why am I here? Why are we here?
Are there other dimensions and if so what are they like?
Can animals understand us, or do animals go to heaven?
Are there really ghosts?
Where do we go when we die?
Why are some people evil?
Is there life on other planets?
Where is heaven?
Where does God live?
These may be those children who can be described as “fully aware” of the cosmos — of its diversity, complexity, interconnected threads, its wonder. Frequently, these are the children who persist in asking those “big” questions that adults cannot or will not answer.
Gardner also addresses this issue more fully in his 1999 work. So I recommend you read this as it comes from the source himself – Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century.
Notes: A number of folks have asked what existential intelligence might look like in the form of a human being — after all we can readily give examples of persons having other types of intelligence. I think one has to answer that question on a personal level as it would depend on one’s world, cultural, or religious views. Obvious figures that immediately come to mind when thinking about this type of intelligence might be Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Black Elk, etc. But they are historic figures. Today one might think of Pope Francis or the Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso) or some other world religious figure. But I have met ordinary folks, and even some children, who I would say had this type of intelligence. For me they exude an inner peace, a deep sense of knowing, a wisdom that far exceeds that of everyone else. They make connections very easily as if they see far beyond us mortal beings. As I indicated earlier, they seem to have “old souls,” a knowing that transcends this time or place. In this era, in its tumult and chaos, my only wish is that there were more folks who fell into this categorization — I think the world really needs them!