Psychology and the Concept of Intelligence

Published December 30, 2007 by Psych n Stats Tutor

I have been writing up support notes for developmental psychology based on questions from students. Here is a sample of what the final pdf/audio/power point will contain. Feeback is appreciated…

Intelligence remains undefined. The North American journalist Walter Lippman (1920) stated that, “We cannot measure intelligence when we have not defined it.”

A solitary definition of intelligence does not seem to exist. Not knowing how to operationalise a concept makes measuring it difficult.

The consensus to date is that intelligence is not unifactor in structure (i.e., a general intelligence).

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) a French philosopher stated that “I think therefore I exist.” To Descartes a person’s intelligence was responsible for creating knowledge and for validating the truth. And although he recognised that intelligence is at least partly responsible for what it is that makes each human unique, he maintained that mind and matter (body) were separate entities.

John Locke (1632-1704) an English philosopher and political theorist said,

Let us suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all characters, without any ideas; how comes this to be furnished? . . . whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge? To this I answer, in a word, from experience.

Locke believed that a person was born as a blank slate (tabula rosa) and that intelligence was the ability to reason built up over time by interactions with the environment.

In the 19th century the practice of craniometry became highly popular amongst academics. Cranial measurement in the west was used to classify people; intelligence, temperament and morals were thought to be revealed in the shape and size of the cranial cavity. Also known as physiognomy, the method is not to be confused with the Oriental arts of face reading which informs about wellbeing.

The low empirical evidence to support this method of testing intelligence was not realised until early in the 20th with the introduction of psychometric testing.

A multi-factorial structure appears better able to answer pertinent questions about intelligence: What abilities define intelligence? Can these be measured?

A multifactorial structure of intelligence would encompass many of the various types of intelligence; e.g., spatial, visual, auditory, adaptive. However, not all intelligences can be measured, such as creativity, curiosity, vision, charm.

A first step in identifying the factors that make up “intelligence” is to separate the concepts of Achievement and Aptitude;

Achievement: experience leading to knowledge and skills in a specific area; e.g., statistics in psychology

Aptitude: a measure of the capability to learn or become skilled in one or more areas; e.g., obtain psychology degree

Intelligence: ability to adapt in all aspects of life; e.g., fulltime-student with part-time work and two kids

A popular definition of intelligence for the 21st century includes four general factors; skills of logical reasoning, problem solving, critical thinking and adaption.

Across time, the ability to learn and apply new information seems to be a constant factor in the definition of intelligence. How a person navigates the world and their level of resiliency during adversity seems to be a key determinant of intelligence. The ability to cope may be the defining element of intelligence.

Further reading with:


Inventing Intelligence: A Social History of Smart

Online IQ Test Reviews 

Intelligent Insights on Intelligence Theories and Test (aka IQ’s Corner)¬†



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9 comments on “Psychology and the Concept of Intelligence

  • I was just looking at your definition and the statement:

    “How a person navigates the world and their level of resiliency during adversity seems to be a key determinant of intelligence”

    What is interesting is that this seems to describe what most of us call “street smart.” Doing well on an intelligence test doesn’t always translate to real live situations.

    It fits the quote of that great American philosopher Mike Tyson. He said, “Everyone’s got a plan until they get hit.” How people respond after being punched in the face is an interesting phenomina.

  • I really like your presentation of intelligence here. It is a nice analysis that demonstrates the necessary link between philosophy and modern psychological conceptualizations. Still, probably the most important statement that is made on this page is that there is no adequate definition of intelligence. The quotes that follow demonstrate this fact. For example, both Descartes and Locke were speaking of cognition (thought) and/or experience, not intelligence, per se. As such, what you are presenting, at least with these statements, is not so much a declaration of their conceptions of intelligence but their conceptions of consciousness, cognition, and experience (or determinism and agency, as the case may be). In order to make a logical connection between the two, a definition of intelligence that equate it to consciousness, cognition, and/or experience, directly, is necessary. Certainly there are definitions that equate intelligence to the capacity to understand, which may or may not involve consciousness, cognition, and/or experience. The may or may not is important, here, as it is required to demonstrate (or, at the very least, theorize) such in order for it to be a component of the definition. Lacking such a definition, then, it is meerely an illusory correlation. Still, I think it may be a good starting point (a clear definition is certainly important – but, as of yet, intelligence has not been clearly linked, denotatively, to consciousness/cognition/experience) – perhaps you could begin defining intelligence as, “the capacity to understand, incorporating mental capacities derived from consciousness, cognition, and experience”.

  • yes steve~ it’s the “keep on going” after a punch in the face that is the hurdle; but once scaled, one can look back at a range of achievements. always worth the journey~ is this what makes one “intelligent”?

    cmburch13~ philosophy is a realm i merely aspire to; i spent ages surfing for comments of Descartes and Locke on intelligence, rather than consciousness, thinking and mathematical formula to analyse concepts.

    as an undergraduate philosophy was not part made part of the curriculum, neither did teaching staff draw on the foundations of psychology to communicate knowledge.

    i realise the philosophers statements that i used do not attempt to define intelligence; i obviously need to read beyond “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintencance”.

    personally i think the western emphasis on intelligence is over-rated. does it really matter if we can’t define beyond what we have got?

    if we can accurately test abilities that enable a child to grow into a functioning adult why seek to label this into one process? if only to measure and compare ourselves, again to what ultimate purpose?

    i exist therefore i must define and measure things…?

    no thx~ it’s more a hobby of mine

  • I appreciate the response. It may be that you are very well correct – we may be that our emphasis on intelligence is over-rated. Or, in fact, it may be a fabrication. We seem to do a great job at conflating constructs with reality (such as the correlation between brain states and responsibility of behaviors or a response occurring subsequent to a stimulus meaning that the stimulus is sufficient for explaining the response). Fortunately, in the area of intelligence, there are now a plethora of theories (Binet, Wechsler, Goleman, Sternberg, Thorndike, Merleau-Ponty, Gardner, etc.) that at least permit discussion of alternative perspectives on the concept – so that is not reified as having a singular existence. Still, old habits die hard and the concept remains fixed for many people.

    As far as philosophy goes, I would contend that we all are either formal or informal philosophers. In the end, philosophy has informed nearly every aspect of our lives – especially as it relates to science and scientific method. For example, the scientific method used in psychology (the hypothetico-deductive model) is based on Humean (ala David Hume) causality and classical physics logic related to investigation of phenomena. Many argue (philosophize?) that this was the wrong way to determine what manner of determining the means of investigation because it means that the investigatory tool forms the investigation. Much like having only a hammer leads us to treat everything as a nail, having a singular method leads us to treat everything as if they must fit under the assumptions that relate to that tool – in the case of scientific method this means reductionisitc, deterministic, and quantifiable (many more assumptions may be included here, but I don’t want to enumerate them all – I’m not much into quantification ). These assumptions have their own implications, as well, which are related to interpretations of data as indicating linear causality, etc.

    Given the foregoing, I believe, it is important for us all to consider at least the ramifications of philosophy. I believe this is so because it informs us of the assumptions, implications, and necessary revisions of perspectives…leading to more fruitful explorations and understandings (not merely navel gazing). That is, I believe we need to do this so that we can have a multiplicity of theories that can be tested (by various means that are also theoretical contextualized and informed). In the end, this is the only way that I can see now of developing truly coherent, holistic understandings of psychological phenomena such as intelligence.

    Maybe, in the end, this doesn’t mean a singular concept but, instead, a continual dialogue (ala the hermeneutic circle) where the whole arguments inform the part arguments leading to more and more adequate revisions (including revisions of biases). Unfortunately, this requires a certain amount of humility that many scientists lack – especially when they are strict adherents to particular schools of thought…such as those who hold to traditional theories of intelligence – leading to the western emphasis on intelligence that you note is overrated.

  • Hi

    Veyr nice piece

    just a note though

    Physiognomy refers to the study of facila features and has nothing to do with phenology the study of the lumps & bumps on the cranium. Physiognomy got a bad reputation as a result of phronology and the craniometry which was ultimately discredited by the likes of Freud, neuman etc

    Your research is not complete in this respect and I suggest looking into rose Rosetree, mac fulfer and some of the other modern physiognomists work befoore making statements on such matters.

    As with most things in life when a bunch of greedy people come onto something that works and twist it to thier own needs good wrok can get skewed.

  • walter, i agree that craniometry and physiognomy are not the same thing, but they are sometimes referred to as the same. which is why i made the point and included a link for people to learn more about the art of face reading.
    i will make use of your references in future when i write of physiognomy

  • thx for the references cm~ the topic of intelligence is popular at the moment in psychology and other disciplines. i like to build robots so it’s one of those things that twirls around in my head as i am talking to my plastic friend- what is intelligence? how will i know if my friend has it? does it really matter :-)

  • Intelligence can only be measured through external criteria such as speech or movement and as such is irrelevant as a quantitative measure. As yet, we are not able to measure human potential which would be the real measure of one’s intelligence. It would be wonderful if we were able to observe young children (birth to 4 years) and “quantify” their ability to pretend, use objects for things other than their intended use, or their power of imagination. Frequently, I see adults working with young children trying to deter them from using their imagination. Such deterrents stifle one’s ability to think freely and see possibilities rather than just “what is”. For me, intelligence is the ability to think freely, improvise and imagine with a purpose in mind, i.e.thinking outside the box.

    • I agree Donna~ many nowadays are infringing on children (and adults) flow of imagination, and it does inhibit our ability to think and learn and relate to ourselves and each other. Potential and possibilities in thought are part of what makes us human~ so much in life is becoming structured and controlled~ no wonder so many live lives without a sense of hope of change or joy for what the day may bring.

      Have you visited the new blogsite…?

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