Should We Include Gardner’s ‘8 ½th Intelligence’ in Classroom Applications?

Multiple Intelligence Theory in ELT: Thorny Issues 1

Should we include Gardner’s ‘8 ½th intelligence’ in classroom applications?

The most recently proposed addition to the cannon of Multiple Intelligences, ‘existential’ intelligence, ‘entails the human capacity to pose and ponder the biggest questions: “Who are we? Why are we here? What is going to happen to us? Why do we die? What is it all about?” (Gardner, 2004, pp40-41).

Initially examining whether a ‘spiritual’ intelligence may be a candidate, Gardner concluded that, ‘Existential intelligence, or a concern with “ultimate” issues, seems the most unambiguously cognitive strand of the spiritual.’ (Gardner, 1999, p60)

To substantiate the existence of an intelligence, Gardner suggests that the following criteria must apply: the potential for brain isolation by brain damage, 
a place in evolutionary history, 
the presence of core operations, 
susceptibility to encoding, 
a distinct developmental progression, the existence of idiot-savants, prodigies and other exceptional people, 
support from experimental psychology, and support from psychometric findings (Gardner, 1999)

It was particularly in relation to both the second and final descriptors that spiritual intelligence as a ‘whole’ was harder to pin down; Gardner admitting that, ‘…we do not have convincing evidence that “existential intelligence” draws on dedicated neural or brain centres or has a distinctive evolutionary history.’ (Gardner, 2004, p41) Though it in fact scores reasonably well on the last criteria, Gardner admits the following conundrum: evidence is sparse, but what evidence there is would not contradict the idea of an existential intelligence (Gardner, 1999,p64). In this respect, Gardner is hesitant to fully proclaim a ‘9th Intelligence’, preferring, cautiously, to refer to ‘8 ½ Intelligences’.

Implications for ELT

I would suggest that, during the absence of this latest discernment of intelligence, aspects of existential intelligence have been incorrectly attributed to intrapersonal intelligence within ELT materials and methodology. Throughout his work, Gardner is careful to refer to intrapersonal intelligence always in relation to interpersonal intelligence – the two aspects of the personal intelligences. However, the frequent distortion of the nature of intrapersonal intelligence has in turn lead to two erroneous interpretations of MI theory:

1) elements of existential intelligence are attributed to intrapersonal intelligence, which leads to…

2) intrapersonal intelligence being seen as something contrary rather than complementary to interpersonal intelligence.

Error 1 leads to a somewhat ‘mystical’ interpretation of intrapersonal intelligence. An article, for example in the English Teaching Professional describes the intrapersonal as ‘dreaming’, ‘meditating’ and being ‘deeply inside’ (Wingate, 1997, 28-30), while more pop sources offer such misconceptions as the intrapersonal being symbolized in the figure of a ‘monk’ (Knight, 2003)

Gardner suggests that intrapersonal intelligence is no more (or no less) that that which enables a person to have, ‘a good working model of herself; … identify personal feelings, goals, fears, strengths and weaknesses; and …, in the happiest circumstance, use that model to make judicious decisions about herself.’ (Gardner, 2004, p39)

The addition of an existentialist intelligence should therefore help to move the interpretation of intrapersonal intelligence (with its resulting implications for classroom application) back within the realms proposed by Gardner. Interestingly, the same evolution can be seen within Gardner’s work with such overlaps as:

(On intrapersonal intelligence in 1983)

‘It seems legitimate to construe rituals, religious codes, mythic and totemic systems as symbolic codes that capture and convey crucial aspects of personal intelligence.’ (1983, p234)

(On existential intelligence in 1999)

‘Major cognitive activities among early humans was a grappling with these existential issues and that much early art, dance, myth, and drama dealt implicitly or explicitly with cosmic themes.’ (1999, p62)

An interesting piece of research possibly adds further light to error 1. Although practitioners should treat any ‘multiple intelligence test’ with care (see articles 4 and 5 in this series), C. Branton Shearer’s rigorously developed ‘MIDAS’ test revealed that within groups of professions tested, those scoring highest in the ‘intrapersonal’ category were pilots while the lowest were writers. When teachers were tested, the highest were music and phys. ed teachers and the lowest were English teachers (Branton Shearer, 2004). If this evidence is to be trusted, it would seem to substantiate the more grounded interpretation of intrapersonal intelligence, and suggest that ‘dreaming’ and ‘meditating’ lie elsewhere.

The usual implication of error 2 is that intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligences become associated with the (layperson’s) polarized conception of introversion and extroversion, resulting, for example, in the following website claims:

‘This intelligence makes you quiet and introvert.’

‘The sensitive introvert : Intrapersonal’

‘The Extrovert-Introvert criterion of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is contextually comparable with the Interpersonal or Intrapersonal definitions of Multiple Intelligence Inventory.’

Such claims are based on a basic misunderstanding of MI theory, and the idea that someone ‘is’ an intelligence type in the same way as, say, they may be a ‘Keirsey’ type (Champion, Crafter, etc) (Keirsey, 1984). Indeed, at times, representations of intelligences read like Zodiac profiles, and, for that matter, you don’t have to look long on the internet before finding claims like:

‘This shift in psychology towards multiple intelligences brings it one step closer to convergence with the astrological perception of skills’

In fact, an individual has a ‘profile’ of intelligences. It is quite possible for someone to have a similar quota of intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence that they can draw upon or through which they interpret and interact with the world around them. As such then, the conception of intrapersonal as introvert and interpersonal as extrovert is misleading and is nowhere mentioned by Gardner, who rather states, ‘these two forms of knowledge are intimately intermingled in any culture, with knowledge of one’s own person perennially dependent upon the ability to apply lessons learned from the observations of other people, while knowledge of others draws upon the internal discriminations the individual routinely makes.’ (1983, p241)

To conclude then, prior to the ‘announcement’ of existential intelligence, existential elements of classroom tasks or activities seem to have been applied by educators to intrapersonal intelligence. This has in turn lead to a misunderstanding of the relationship between intrapersonal and interpersonal intelligence. For these reasons I would suggest, where possible, that existential intelligence should be included within ELT applications of Multiple Intelligence theory, despite Gardner’s cautious approach to the 8 ½th intelligence.


Branton Shearer, C. (2004), “Using a Multiple Intelligences Assessment to Promote Teacher Development and Student Achievement”, Teachers College Record 106:1C. p147

Gardner, H. (1983), Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences.

New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1999), Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (2004), Changing Minds. Harvard Business School Press

Keirsey, D. and Bates, M. (1984), Please Understand Me: Character and Temperament Types, Prometheus Nemesis.

Knight M.N. (2003), .

Wingate, M (1997), “Multiple Intelligences and Lesson Planning”, English Teaching Professional, 2:28-30

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