In the first of his bi-weekly columns, Billy Allen muses on the toolkit for human knowledge and understanding, examining intelligence vs intellect
The idea that we know things and learn things is one of those conceptually incorrigible aspects of humanity – it doesn’t matter where we are, it doesn’t matter when we are. Most of the time, it doesn’t even matter why we are. It just happens. We learn things, we know things. Humanity simply can’t help itself. It has an intractable thirst for this idea of ‘knowledge’ that roots itself in the fabric of what we are.
Therefore, the fabrication of our history is a weaving of the pursuit of knowledge, of its step by step accumulation which seems to know no bounds. And that capricious weaving process in turn gives rise to the institutional fabrics of our society: our universities, our schools, our customs and codes of conduct. As much as we make our own history day by day, those same institutions and ways of knowing and learning are forever changing. Our definitions and interpretations are always shifting and reshaping, and so the process of knowledge gathering has been, and continues to be, pulled in many directions.
What are the driving forces, reshaping and casting new light on the human experience? What, in other words, is the toolkit which humanity deploys to get from the frustrating state of “not knowing” to a far more satisfying state of knowledge acquisition. I’ll warrant that a hypothetical builder, wishing to assemble a bare-bones toolkit for the basics of our knowledge-gathering endeavours, might pluck out two notions from the psychological fulcrum of the human brain. Intelligence and intellect. Indeed, to understand the place of those two concepts in our modern frames of mind, is to shed a little light on the trends and patterns which have come to establish the common route-to-knowledge, and thus to human development, today.
The history of science teaches us that the first idea – intelligence – is easier to define than the second. Intelligence is after all, as the Oxford English Dictionary loyally proclaims, simply “the faculty of understanding”. Biologically and psychologically explicable brain activity that aggregate, into the complex functionalities of the mind. Typically, when we think of such functionalities, such intelligence, we call to mind our reason, our logic, our capacity for abstraction, invention, and so on. Science will continue with its intriguing research, homing in on each manifestation of our raw intelligence, quantifying it to see what electrical impulse leads to what ability – and what chemical formations give rise to which of our myriad reactions to the external environment of the world. Case closed, one would think, as far as defining intelligence is concerned.
Yet with ‘intellect’ I hit a snag. A rather duplicitous semantic snag, to be precise. For where the reliable tomes of the Oxford English Dictionary were useful in defining intelligence, they rub against our instincts of what ‘intellect’– so written it is merely another faculty of understanding – intelligence. A synonym in the vast quagmire of English synonyms. Frustratingly, so rich and highly developed is our language, so embodied with that human thirst for knowledge, that our linguistic enquiries have led us nowhere.
No matter. Let us try a different approach, one which, not coincidentally, allows us to clearly differentiate between our two concepts – intelligence and intellect. Let us take “intellect”, and like so many of our words today, broaden its horizons and call it instead “intellectualism”. We have, therefore, ‘ism-ified’ it. With all the political and sociological heatedness implied by our innocent suffixation, we have created a word far less synonymous with pure, raw scientific intelligence. We now have something much more ideological, potent and dangerous, yet with the capacity for extraordinary enlightenment. And it follows that if we can convert our intellect to ideological intellectualism, there must be some creative panache, some ingenious spark of wisdom to be found in our intellect, that is, conversely, somewhat absent in our usual definitions of intelligence.
Having defined our intelligence and our intellect (with our caveat ‘ism’ suffix), what of it? Philosophers may be content to ponder in metaphysical vacuum, but there is surely a case for contextualising this in the throes of our evolving social institutions. Such, perhaps, is the argument of the sociologist, and the argument of common-sense in a world where isolation of ideas – infamous ceteris paribus – showcases our capacity for problem solving and logic, and less so our creativity and sagacity. To put it another way, then, it is the interplay between our intelligence and intellect which is of interest to us. It is the extent to which one trumps the over in our daily exercise of knowledge acquisition.
In some respects, our findings might reveal a certain coldness, a mean-spirited methodology of knowing things that doesn’t do justify to the human cultural legacy of art and music, adventurousness and audacity. Since, after all, aren’t we all here, now, studying at academic institutions, enrolled at universities, pursuing successful careers, because of our intelligence? Psychometric testing does exist, after all. The scramble for vaunted internships at assessment centres, evidentially scrutinizing our ability to reason and deduce, and the speed of those deductions, do exist. Examinations, of course, do exist. Indeed, meritocracy, promotion in society on ability, does exist both in our thoughts and in our deeds. Surely our intellectual aloofness has no place in these things – that would be all too subjective, for it is nigh impossible to judge creative insight – there, we are warned, lies the way of prejudice, of a dystopia of Orwellian proportions.
There is, nevertheless, danger in such dismissal; it is a trap into which we fall, not unlike those semantic snags into which we so easily stumble. Quantifying intelligence is achievable, with varying degrees of accuracy, yet the same cannot be said of our intellect. The latter is as unique as our personality, the formation of our knowledge in a quite spectacular way as to give way to a wisdom that goes far beyond the conventional benefits of intelligence alone. Many intelligent minds gift this world, yet only a fraction is adopted into the legacy of human intellect. The mistake would be to think it is pre-determined. We limit ourselves with our diagnostic, quantitative theory of knowledge – but we can break free of those restraints. Thinking with creativity, with passion, and with an all-encompassing appreciation for what is past as well as present, the journey to knowledge can be just that – an adventure stretching outwards conceptually, not to assert ourselves amongst others, but to operate in a frame of mind fitting of academic institutions in any place, in any time.