A peculiar feature of our intellectual culture is that we don’t believe anything until we can describe it in a language which looks like physics. The reason the social sciences have not advanced as far as physics is that they are trying to be the same sort of thing.
You won’t think much of the proposition “Justice is giving each person what is due to him” if your model is the proposition “Applied force is the product of mass and acceleration.” As a chemist friend once asked me when we were talking about politics and justice, “Where are your variables?”
The irony is that there really is a variable in “Justice is giving each person what is due to him”: The variable is what is due. But it is not a physical quantity, there is no instrument to measure it but mind and conscience, and although there are principles to rely upon, they don’t work like algorithms. You can’t use them unless you get them.
So in discipline after discipline, we ignore most of the classical traditions of inquiry and set out to reinvent the wheel. Since we have strange conceptions of wheels, we have strange conceptions of progress. “Behold, the triangular wheel. See how much better it is than the square wheel, because it eliminates one bump.”
Take intelligence. Psychologists are gradually beginning to recognize that intellect isn’t the sort of thing that can be described by the old-fashioned intelligence quotient, because it isn’t a single ability; now they are coming to view it as a set of different abilities. To put it another way, if they spoke of an intelligence quotient at all, it would have be a vector: Instead of saying “Your level of intelligence is 120,” they would say something like “Your levels of intelligence are 95, 150, 80, 120, and 155,” with 95 indicating your arithmetic intelligence, 150 indicating your spatial intelligence, 80 indicating what they oddly call your emotional intelligence, and so on.
Well, this is an advance, of sorts. It is quite true that intelligence is not a single ability. But viewing it instead as a set of abilities is like switching from square wheels to triangular: It only eliminates one bump. Rather than thinking of abilities, we should be thinking of dispositions which supervene upon abilities. In the classical tradition -- for which the distinction between abilities and dispositions was fundamental -- these dispositions were called moral and intellectual virtues.
For example, what our own psychologists seem to be trying to get at with the clumsy new term “emotional intelligence” is what the classical tradition called the moral virtues, for example courage, frankness, temperance, justice, and generosity. These are dispositions -- “habits of the heart” – to make choices in a particular way, according to a mean relative to us, determined by a rational principle recognized by persons of practical wisdom.
To see the difference between abilities on the one hand and dispositions or habits on the other, consider courage. True, a certain ability is required for me to be courageous: It must be possible to repress fear and to stir up confidence. That sounds simple. But it is not enough that the horse be broken; the rider must know how to ride. I must learn to choose in just the right way, with neither too much fear nor too much confidence, just as the circumstances demand, and the habit of doing so must be settled in my bones. How do I determine what the right way is? By practical wisdom, which is also a virtue – not a moral but an intellectual virtue. These two kinds of virtue interact.
What I am suggesting is that intelligence is not so much about abilities as about character – about moral and intellectual personality – about “habits of the heart” which supervene on abilities, for better or for worse.
Perhaps you think this is going too far. I can imagine someone objecting, “What you’ve been saying is all well and good when applied to so-called emotional intelligence. Perhaps that sort of thing really is about dispositions; moral virtues I can buy. But surely the other facets of intelligence are mere abilities. To be smart in a certain sort of way is nothing more than to be able to perform a certain kind of mental operation. It isn’t about personality.”
I think it is about personality. And I would go farther: Just as there are many virtues, there are many kinds of intelligent minds. I am not falling into relativism. Just as the tuning of each kind of musical instrument depends on the same principles of harmony, so the tuning of each kind of mind depends on the same principles of virtue. But just as different musical instruments are adapted for different parts in a symphony, so are different minds. Some are flutes, some are cymbals, some are cellos, some are trumpets, some are harps.
In the next post I hope to say something about the kinds of minds one encounters as a teacher -- and what to do with them.