Sciences Humaines Q&A

In an exclusive interview with French magazine Sciences Humaines, Howard Gardner answers a series of questions ranging from the current state of Multiple Intelligences to the implications of the book Truth, Beauty and Goodness: Reframed

To view the original, French version of the interview, please visit the Sciences Humaines website.


Q: Why did you choose to write a book about what you call the three virtues : truth, beauty and goodness?

A: In 1999, I published a book called THE DISCIPLINED MIND. In that book I argued that the major purpose of education, beyond the achievement of literacy, is to give individuals the tools– and particularly the scholarly disciplines– which allow them to discriminate between what is true and what is not;  to make and be able to justify judgements of beauty in art, nature, and other spheres; and to guide judgment and action in the moral and ethical spheres.

When I wrote the book, I was somewhat of a naif;  I thought that these traditionanl virtues were unproblematic.  I soon discovered that I was wrong.  And in the next decade, I rethought my argument in terms of both philosophical analyses (post modernism, relativism) and technological advances (the advent of the new digital media).
Q: You say these virtues are threatened by postmodernism and more recently the Internet, that you describe as a “general chaos” creating “confusion” in an “almost total lack of reflection.” Do you see a problem in the quality or in the abundance of information?

A: Problems exist in both spheres.   We know that when individuals are burdened/overwhelmed by too much information, too many choices, they get paralyzed and have difficulty in making judicious decisions.   This is compounded when much of the information is of dubious quality– which is certainly the case in many blogs, social media , websites etc.  Yet, my conclusions in the book about truth are not depressing.  Indeed, we live at a time when it is more possible than ever before to figure out just what has happened– if we are willing to take the time and make a disciplined judgment.

A current example. In April 2013 there was a major terrorist bombing at the conclusion of the Boston marathon race.  With each passing day, we have learned more about what happened and why. This would have been inconceivable before the era of the digital media, with the traces left by the two brothers on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media.  Of course, there are still individuals who believe that the two brothers did not commit the crime and are being framed. But these ‘deniers’ only speak to one another, just as those who continue to claim that Barack Obama is really a Muslim and was really born in Africa.

Q: On the Internet, the multiplicity of more or less reliable points of view promotes an excessive relativism that you criticize. But doesn’t it also invite systematic doubt, a valuable asset to the scientific mind?

A: Yes, I do agree that the Internet calls into question the notion of a single, authoritative truth. When I was growing up, the number of broadcast media was very small, and when they all told the same story, we assumed it was correct. Nowadays, we are more skeptical — consider, for example, the realization that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even though the ‘mainstream media’ insisted that such weapons exists. So, yes, a doubtful attitude has its merits.

But it is not good when doubt yield to wholesale skepticism. And as I argued earlier, if we are willing to be diligent, we are more likely to find out the truth than ever before — whether we are talking about history, politics, or science. Indeed, scientific frauds are being revealed regularly now, whereas they would have been more difficult to detect in a pre-digital era.

Q: You who are best known for your theory of multiple intelligences, do you think that the Internet has changed one of them in particular, for good or bad? 

A: Intelligences reflect the human brain, and of course, the human brain changes very slowly, over thousands of years, not as a result of technologies that are a few years or decades old.

I would vote against the assertion of a ‘digital intelligence.’  On the other hand, there is no question that new technologies involve a different ‘ratio of intelligences,’ as Marshall McLuhan would have put it.

And so, for example, we do not get the same ‘interpersonal information’ online than we do when we converse or interact with a person face-to-face.

In general, I think that the new digital media are wonderful for multiple intelligences. Apps, games, educational programs now exist which can mobilize an array of intelligences that work together in new and powerful ways. I don’t see any downside for a view of intellect that is pluralistic.

Q: And, when you speak quickly about wisdom of the masses, saying that Amazon comments, for instance, can learn more things about the value of a book than a prestigious critic would do, do you think the Web can be seen as the vector of a new kind of human intelligence, not multiple, but collective?

A: Groups of individuals have long since weighed in on issues of interest and controversy. The “Greek chorus” dates back thousands of years. But I would insist that groups can exhibit collective intelligence as well as collective stupidity. As was understood a century ago by critics like Georges Sorel or Elias Canetti, crowds can be destructive as well as constructive. Also, we are now learning that deceptive corporations and institutions can manipulate ratings and rankings on line — so we are not just hearing from ‘the people’ but also from those who have been compensated for endorsing certain views and certain experiences. It is interesting and informative to know about the number of ‘likes’ and ‘dislikes’ — but I am personally more interested in the QUALITY of a judgment and in the WISDOM of the individual who renders it. Quantity is not the same as quality!

Q: Intellectual or artistic trends such as surrealism and postmodernism, showing radical protest, emerged after the two world wars. Today, the world left by previous generations is a powder keg with threats not only for the human species, but for nature itself. Isn’t it normal, not to say wise, that the young generation manifests strong skepticism and derision to the values of truth and goodness ​​assumed by their elders?

A: It is certainly understandable why younger persons would be skeptical about any automatic embracing of the traditional virtues, let alone the assertion that the elder generation KNOWS what is true, beautiful, moral, etc. And indeed, it is appropriate for young persons to be skeptical — I was once young myself! But the conclusion should not be to throw out the virtues. Almost no one would want to live in a world where there is not truth, not goodness, not beauty, and very few would like to simply flip a coin to determine what is true (do we live in a Darwinian or a Lamarckian universe?) or what is good (no difference between Nelson Mandela and Slobodan Milosevic?). So the challenge is to have criteria on which to make such judgments, the confidence to defend one’s judgments when they are well considered, and the humility to admit when one is wrong.

The alternative is nihilism and chaos. And I wrote my book because I refuse to accept either of these dystopic alternatives.

Q: When you deplore that truth, beauty and goodness seem too questioned, isn’t your main concern the dilution or disappearance of authority?

A: I have no patience for authority that is simply asserted. I don’t care how many degrees you have after your name, nor how old you are. But I care greatly about what knowledge you have, what judgment you have, whether you are willing to defend your perspective when it has been thought through, and to admit that you are wrong when new counter-evidence is brought to bear. There is the old joke “On the Internet, no one knows I am a dog.” If we can substitute ‘earned authority’ or ‘demonstrated authority’ for ‘ascribed authority,’ then I am a full advocate of authority.

Q: You explain that it is necessary to refine our judgment, to learn during our whole life. But sometimes the more you know a certain matter, the more you realize its complexity, and the more certainty becomes difficult. So why lifespan development for all of us would lead to a better consensus about truth, goodness and beauty, instead of leading to even more doubts, and to always more personal sensibilities and beliefs?

A: Interesting question. As you might say, ca depend. In some arenas, more knowledge might lead to less certainty. My own knowledge of human personality has certainly become more complex over the years. In other arenas, more knowledge leads to more certainty. IN judging the quality of student work in a subject that I know well, I am much more certain of my judgments. Meteorologists are listened to much more today than they were 50 years ago. So, it is important to reflect on which sphere you are judging, and on what basis.

In my book, I make exactly the argument that you are putting forth, when I write about beauty. There is no reason whatsoever for our judgments of  beauty to remain fixed, nor should they necessarily coincide with those of others (de gustibus non est disputandum). But when it comes to the other virtues, the situation is different. Unless there is a chance for some convergence on what is true, what is false, and what is uncertain; and unless there is some convergence, within and across cultures, about what is moral/ethical and what is not, we cannot have a society that  endures.

In fact, in practice, almost everyone acts as as if they believe in the possible of greater consensus about truth and morality. It is only philosophers and humanists who, for varying reasons, wants to explode those concepts. They still expect their children to tell the truth and to behave in certain ways and not in others. And so do the readers of these words!

Q: You explain that you praise Darwin and that you were pleading for neurosciences at a time when no psychologist wanted to hear about them. Yet you are very critical about evolutionary psychology. Why ?

A: With respect to both evolutionary psychology and rational choice economics,  each of these explanatory frameworks has an appropriate place (as do developmental psychology and behavioral economics). I object to an intellectual atmosphere in which the explanatory powers of these frameworks is injudiciously expanded. As has happened in the American popular media and also in some scholarly circles. And so, for example, I think evolutionary psychology explains a good deal about mating behavior within and across cultures and some things about altruism and selfishness. On the other hand, efforts to explain historical or cultural trends in terms of evolutionary psychology are ludicrous. In the 1960s, in the US and elsewhere, powerful movements of feminism, civil rights, gay rights, etc. arose. There is no tenable explanation from EP. Similarly, in the early years of the 20th century there were major artistic upheavals (Cubism in painting, atonal classical music, stream of consciousness novels, etc.). There is no tenable explanation from EP, only unconvincing ‘just-so’ stories.

There is a theme to my responses here. We should be alert to major trends in philosophy, technology, and explanatory frameworks. They can cause us to rethink certain assumptions. But this alertness should not blind us to the merit of what happened in the past and its relevance to today.  A young author once said to T.S. Eliot, “Oh– those old writers, we know so much more than they do.”  “Yes,” responded Eliot, “and they are what we know.” 


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