A Resurgence of Interest in Existential Intelligence: Why now?

by Howard Gardner

Recently, I have noticed an interesting phenomenon: an uptick in the number of inquiries I receive about “existential intelligence” (which I’ve abbreviated as Ex I). I have become intrigued by the reason for this phenomenon and how to respond to it.

Let me explain.

A dozen years after I introduced the theory of multiple intelligences (1983), I speculated about the possibility of a 9th or “existential intelligence.” As I described it at the time, “existential intelligence” is the cognitive capacity to raise and ponder “big questions”—queries about love, about evil, about life and death— indeed, about the nature and quality of existence. I quipped that these are the questions that nearly every child raises—but most young people are more engaged in asking the question than in pondering the possible answers. “Existential questions” are the particular purview of philosophers and religious leaders, but most of us ponder them from time to time, and they are raised regularly in works of art and literature.

At the time I hesitated to anoint this candidate as a “full-fledged intelligence.” I was uncertain about some kind of brain or neurological basis for this capacity (one of the criteria I had proposed for an independent intelligence); whether it was a universal capacity or one that only emerged in a post-Socratic society; and, most fundamentally, whether it might genuinely be considered a separate intelligence, or just an amalgam of several already identified intelligences—perhaps linguistic, logical- mathematical, and the personal intelligences. Also, I insisted that existential intelligence was not in and of itself a religious or spiritual or sacred capacity; as I quipped, “If I announced a spiritual intelligence, it might please some of my friends, but it would also delight my enemies.”

In the intervening period, though much of my correspondence still concerns “MI” theory, I have gone on to other pursuits (see the thegoodproject.org). In particular, I am no longer in the business of announcing or denouncing candidate intelligences. Of course, individuals have always been free to describe other intelligences—and, on the basis of some intriguing evidence from developmental psychology, I myself sometimes speculate about a “pedagogical” or “teaching intelligence.”

Back to the correspondence: some writers want to know whether “Ex I” has passed the test and is now officially an intelligence. (Answer: “Sorry, no, It’s still in limbo.) Some writers want a test for “Ex I,” or claim that they have already created a test. (Answer: “No test from me, but if you send me your sample test, I’ll give you some feedback.”) And whether explicitly or implicitly, some writers assume that existential intelligence has been established—it is a genuine phenomenon—and that it is the same as “spiritual” or “religious” intelligence. (Answer: “the candidate intelligence features the raising and pondering of big questions; these can certainly include spiritual or religious issues thought they need not—pondering the universe or a grain of sand qualify as well. And please do not assume that I am promoting any specific religion, or religion in general—though it’s fine if you do so in your own name.”)

Of course, the raising of questions about existential intelligence might just be a fluke or a coincidence—perhaps next year, it will be bodily intelligence or musical intelligence or computer intelligence (a favorite some years ago). But I suspect that there is another phenomenon at work in others and in myself.

Almost no one in the world was prepared for the COVID-19 pandemic. Suddenly, immediate and long-term plans have had to be scuttled; daily routines have been substantially altered for months, with no end in sight; we need to protect ourselves and others every waking hour; and, alas, many have lost their livelihoods and their security and some have lost their lives. Except for those on the front lines (to whom we will always be indebted) many of us have additional time available. And while we can and of course do while away the time in many ways, some of that time may well be devoted to the pondering of Big Questions—the kinds of questions that many of us pondered as children, or at times of change or crisis—but are now confronting most of the conscious world. I suspect that some of my correspondents may well be devoting significant amounts of time to pondering such life-and-death issues and wondering about the ontological status of this capacity—more concretely, whether it draws on existential intelligence.

As I reflect on my own preoccupations, I find evidence for this trend. In my case, it began in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump and my worries about the threats to democracy, decency, and to other values that I hold dear. I began to read books (e.g. 1984, The Plot Against America, It Can’t happen Here) and watch movies (A Face in the Crowd, All the King’s Men, Casablanca) that deal with the delicate state of democratic institutions and values at a time of nationalism, xenophobia, the rise of fascism, loss of status, and the like.

The advent of COVID-19 constituted an additional whammy. I should say, at the start, that my wife and my immediate family are fortunate—far more fortunate than most—in that we have been safe and secure to this point. And I have been able to continue much of my work in my home and in daily—sometimes hourly—online conversations with colleagues. But of course, much of the world is not in that protected situation. Moreover, I’ve been personally shocked by the number of individuals, particularly in the United States, who do not take the pandemic seriously and openly defy advice and even mandates to protect themselves and—more importantly—to protect others.

The combination of threats, on the one hand, and time to think, on the other, has also affected the timing of my thinking and what I think and read about. Each morning, at the crack of dawn, I walk around the neighborhood for the better part of an hour—and each evening before I go to sleep—I recline in bed for a comparable length of time—and simply think about things—including the themes of this blog post. I had never engaged in either of these activities before. And much of the unstructured time is spent pondering big questions—including ones that deserve to be called existential. Of course, some of this cognitive wandering may simply reflect my age and point in the life cycle—I am 77 years old and have had significant health challenges. As my mentor the psychoanalyst Erik Erikson put it, this last stage of life is a time to weigh feelings of integrity versus feelings of despair. But some of this mental meandering seems to be tied more closely to the events in the world. I’ve been reading “big books” about Western and Eastern philosophy and watching many American and British movies from the 1930s and 1940s, a time similar to ours in some ways.

Most directly related to the topic of this blog, recently my wife and I have been re-reading Albert Camus’ famous novel La Peste (usually translated as The Plague). Camus describes the sudden eruption of a plague in a North African city and the way in which this epidemic disrupts all the lives of the city’s inhabitants and causes many deaths. The novel can be read simply as the account of a terrible disease and its expected as well as its surprising sequelae.

But in my view The Plague is fundamentally an essay on the essential meaninglessness of life and the need, accordingly, for all of us to seek to make meaning. The plague itself has no meaning. This message comes out most dramatically in the vignette of the Jesuit priest, Paneloux, who castigates his congregation for not behaving well enough and having been accordingly punished by God with the deadly disease. But before he himself succumbs to the plague, as he watches the cruel suffering of a young boy, the priest comes to realize that there is no hidden message of reward or revenge in the plague—as we might say today, “it is what it is.” Camus’ message: plagues never go away. They erupt, then hide, and can fester and reappear at any time in our lives. Hence, our only choice is to make meaning out of the brief time we have on earth. Perhaps the most important meaning is decency towards our fellow humans.

There is a name for this perspective—existential philosophy. Though one can find roots of existentialism in the Greeks, particularly the Stoics, it is generally attributed to the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, and to the 20th century French writers Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. And while many other writers (and other artists and even, occasionally, political leaders) across the world and across topics now reflect an existential perspective, I find it best captured in Camus’ brief novel.

And so even if I had not noticed an uptick in my mailbox, I would still have been engaged in using (and pondering the nature of) my existential intelligence. I thank my correspondents for bringing this latent motive into my consciousness—and I am pleased to have the opportunity to share it with you.

© Howard Gardner 2020

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  1. A Resurgence of Interest in Existential Intelligence: Why now? — Howard Gardner | enivel's Blog - July 10, 2020

    […] via A Resurgence of Interest in Existential Intelligence: Why now? — Howard Gardner […]

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