Howard Gardner & The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

On Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences:

Note: This is part five of a series of articles that examine the relationship between music and the brain by integrating scholarly work on the philosophy of music with research in the psychology of emotion and intelligence. Part five examines Howard Gardner's theory of Multiple Intelligences. All parts can be read independently, though they may make references to other parts. Please click here for an overall abstract and links to the rest of the parts in the series.


Each conception of intelligence presented thus far (the traditional “IQ” view, the Piagetian view, and the view of Information Processing Theory) has been found to have legitimate uses and to bring to light various valuable insights. A recurrent theme in all of them, however, is a seemingly limited focus and applicability, in all cases revolving around an almost unconscious belief that rational thinking, logical-mathematical, and linguistic considerations are the factors in determining intelligence. Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI Theory), as presented in his book Frames of Mind, is a central theoretical example of a recent movement in psychological research to change this overall conception of intelligence.[1] His primary contention is that there is no single form of intelligence or single function that defines intelligent activity. Instead, there are multiple forms of intelligence that are, for the most part, functionally independent and possessed by all normal individuals to some degree.

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences
The Theory of Multiple Intelligences

Foundational Concepts of MI Theory

Three beliefs are central to Gardner’s theory of intelligence. The first is that the human ability to symbolize experience is central to the work of intelligence.[2] He writes: “According to such influential thinkers as Ernst Cassirer, Susanne Langer, and Alfred North Whitehead, the ability of human beings to use various symbolic vehicles in expressing and communicating meanings distinguishes human beings sharply from other organisms.”[3] In essence, the suggestion is that all of the great achievements of the human race can, in part, be attributed to our ability to physically and mentally represent the world in symbolic forms. The processes of thought involve the manipulation, combination, and comparison of these mental symbols to give insight into relationships that hold between them and that which they represent. It is the perception of these relationships that constitutes understanding, and it is the ability to create, work with, comprehend and communicate these relationships that constitutes intelligence.

Gardner’s second fundamental belief is that understanding the biology of the human organism (especially the mind) is important to understanding the nature of intelligence. Though not fully understood at this point, it is clear that the physical functions of the brain lie at the root of all mental activity. Studies of persons who have experienced brain damage reveal that physical damage to certain parts of the brain creates specific problems in mental processing.[4] Using this form of study, certain physical and mental functions have been located in the brain with reasonable accuracy. What Gardner proposes is that our brains are physically set up to function in certain ways and to process certain kinds of information. If the specific neurological functions of the brain can be associated with various kinds of thought and action it may help in the identification of distinct intellectual abilities.

The third belief concerns a customary distinction that is commonly addressed in discussions of intelligence. He states:

In the study of skills and abilities, it is customary to honor a distinction between know-how (tacit knowledge of how to execute something) and know-that (propositional knowledge about the actual set of procedures involved in execution). . . . [so] it is helpful to think of various intelligences as sets of know-how--procedures for doing things.[5]

As we shall see, in Gardner’s mind, one’s ability to understand the propositional knowledge of the traditional view of intelligence is actually the manifestation of only two forms of intelligence, logical-mathematical and linguistic. Such knowledge about things is unquestionably important, but when intelligence is seen as “know-how,” it brings a number of other abilities into consideration as possible candidates for intelligent behavior.

The Eight Identified Forms of Intelligence

Gardner identifies seven intelligences based on these three beliefs. For each intelligence, Gardner presents evidence that it is biologically independent. He also identifies the various symbolic domains that lie at the center of each intelligence and discusses their specific forms of “know-how.” The seven forms of intelligence Gardner identifies are: logical-mathematical, linguistic, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal and intrapersonal.[6] In recent years, Gardner has added another form of intelligence known as naturalistic intelligence.[7]

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence
Logical-Mathematical Intelligence | Source

Logical-Mathematical Intelligence:

Gardner conceives of logical-mathematical intelligence as one’s ability to understand and manipulate the relationships described by propositional statements and discourse as well as mathematical laws and equations. Such relationships are always verified and manipulated through “logical” analysis, and, thus, one’s facility with logic lies at the center of this intelligence.[8] It should be pointed out here that it is this intelligence with which the traditional conception of intelligence and education is primarily concerned. Gardner’s conception of linguistic intelligence is also addressed but generally with a focus on developing propositional arguments that are underscored by logical-mathematical understandings.

Linguistic Intelligence
Linguistic Intelligence | Source

Linguistic Intelligence:

Central to linguistic intelligence are both “sensitivity to the meaning of words”[9] and an ability to organize them with subtlety and precision. In speaking of sensitivity to words, Gardner does not just refer to a familiarity with the dictionary definitions of words but to their connotative meanings, their imagery, their etymology (history), and their phonology (the way they sound) within various contexts. Linguistic intelligence also allows one to make effective syntactical decisions based on a sensitivity to the power of language to create insightful relationships between ideas. On this point, it can be difficult to distinguish between linguistic intelligence and logical-mathematical intelligence since words can be used to communicate propositional statements and construct logical arguments.[10]

In this situation, however, both intelligences are put to use because the overall linguistic organization is underscored by a propositional progression of ideas. Linguistic intelligence is still present in the development of syntax and word choice, but it is employed in the service of a logical argument that is regulated by one’s logical-mathematical intelligence. Linguistic intelligence is used in perfecting the insight that the subtleties of language can bring to the logical argument, not in determining the organization or validity of the argument itself.[11]

Visual-Spatial Intelligence
Visual-Spatial Intelligence | Source

Spatial Intelligence:

Central elements of spatial intelligence are:

. . . the capacity to perceive the visual world accurately, to perform transformations and modifications upon one’s initial perceptions, and to be able to re-create aspects of one’s visual experience, even in the absence of relevant physical stimuli.[12]

The ability to read maps, to find one’s way through a maze, to remember how to get back to a place one has been before, and to perceive three dimensional objects drawn in two-dimensional space are good examples of skills that draw on spatial intelligence.[13]

Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence:   Athletics & Dance
Bodily-Kinesthetic Intelligence: Athletics & Dance | Source

Bodily–Kinesthetic Intelligence:

The two cores of bodily-kinesthetic intelligence are the control of bodily motion and the ability to handle objects skillfully. This intelligence plays a prominent part in the activities of dancers and athletes as they develop their abilities to control the subtleties of each gesture or the precise placement of a thrown ball. This form of intelligence is present in many other human activities as well, however. The musician who learns to control the keys of the piano, the carpenter who learns to control a saw, and even the young child who struggles with learning to control a pencil well enough to form the letters of the alphabet all employ bodily-kinesthetic intelligence in their respective activities.[14]

Musical Intelligence
Musical Intelligence | Source

Musical Intelligence:

Musical intelligence concerns one’s ability to understand, manipulate, and create meaningful, musical structures in sound. The ability to match pitch, remember sequences of sound, recognize subtle relationships between sound patterns, and distinguish between various timbres of sound constitute Gardner’s view of musical intelligence.[15]

Interpersonal Intelligence
Interpersonal Intelligence | Source
Intrapersonal Intelligence
Intrapersonal Intelligence | Source

Interpersonal & Intrapersonal Intelligence:

Interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence are closely related. The most important aspect of interpersonal intelligence is “access to one’s own feeling life ,”[16] where the most important aspect of intrapersonal intelligence is “the ability to notice and make distinctions among other individuals and in particular, among their moods, temperaments, motivations, and intentions.”[17] These are the intelligences that deal heavily with emotional life both within the individual and in his interactions with others. Those with a high interpersonal intelligence know themselves very well, handle stress well, and can consciously focus their emotional energy. Those with a high intrapersonal intelligence are extremely sensitive to how others are feeling and can aid or influence others based on that knowledge.[18]

Naturalistic Intelligence
Naturalistic Intelligence | Source

Naturalistic Intelligence:

In naturalistic intelligence, one develops skills in identifying and categorizing elements of the natural world including plants, animals, various aspects of geography and the relationships that hold among them. Those who have a well-developed sense of this intelligence put it to practical use in professions that require a broad understanding of such knowledge such as mining, farming, gardening and natural research.

Conclusion & Observed Limitations

It is an extremely important point in Gardner’s theory that all of the identified intelligences are functionally independent with the possible exception of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence.[19] To support this conclusion, he discusses how separate parts of the brain seem to be wired for the core functions described by each of his intelligences. Additionally, in each case, there exist prodigies, idiot savants and other exceptional individuals who retain marked abilities in one of the intelligences while having at best minimal abilities in the other intelligences. Each of the intelligences also seems to have distinct levels of developmental proficiency that progress independently of one another.

Gardner also stresses the point that these intelligences are possessed by all normal individuals to some degree. While geniuses in any of the intelligences are rare, all people develop a basic understanding of logic, language, space, bodily control, music, self-other relations, naturalism and existential concepts.

Gardener’s theory, like all of those presented thus far, also has its limitations. In his conception of intelligence, Gardner is concerned with the various processing powers of the human mind and in what mediums those powers operate. There is a great deal more that becomes involved, however, once one enters the world of human potential as actualized in human activity. He himself points out that personality, motivation, creativity, and advanced metaphorical understanding, as well as plain common sense, may play some significant part in realizing his broader definition of intelligence:[20] “the ability to solve problems, or to create products, that are valued in one or more cultural settings.”[21] Gardner also points out that in practice, almost all activities in human life involve the application of more than one form of intelligence at any given time. Thus, while they are functionally independent, they are not so in the reality of experience.

End Notes:

[Return to Contents]

[1] Robert Sternberg’s Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, the theories of distributed cognition, and the theories of emotional intelligence (which will all be expanded upon later) are also examples of this relatively recent movement.

[2] The development of this idea, which is really more philosophical than psychological, is the purpose of Chapter IV, with a particular focus on the work of Susanne K. Langer.

[3] Gardner, Frames of Mind, 25.

[4] Ibid., 41, 38, 51, 63, 88, 118, 181–183, 187, 212, 213, 261, 264, 265, 266, 267.

[5] Ibid., 68–69.

[6] Gardner has recently discovered another one and a half intelligences that fit into the original framework of his theory, the naturalist intelligence (sensitivity to relationships in nature) and the existentialist intelligence (sensitivity to the deeper, philosophical meaning of things). He calls it one and a half intelligences because, while the naturalist intelligence fulfills all his requirements for defining an intelligence, the existentialist intelligence only fulfills some of them due to lack of research (Howard Gardner, “Keynote Address: Is Musical Intelligence Special?” In Ithaca Conference ‘96: Music as Intelligence: A Sourcebook, Verna Brummett ed. (Ithaca, New York: Ithaca College, 1997).

[7] Gardner, Howard. Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century. (New York: Basic Books, 1999.)

[8] Gardner, Frames of Mind, 128–169.

[9] Ibid.,77.

[10] Chapter IV contains an in-depth discussion of the nature of language as a symbol system which sheds some light on why it is capable of logical proposition.

[11] Gardner, Frames of Mind, 73–98.

[12] Ibid.,173.

[13] Ibid., 170–203. The abilities covered by this branch of Gardner’s intelligences come under the heading of visual-spatial abilities in other literature. Gardner points out, however, that the visual component of spatial ability is not universally necessary because even those who are totally blind develop spatial intelligence through a physical knowledge of space (Gardner, Frames of Mind, 185–186).

[14] Gardner, Frames of Mind, 205–236.

[15] Ibid., 99–129.

[16] Ibid., 239.

[17] Ibid., 239.

[18] Ibid., 237–276.

[19] Because both of these intelligences are based on emotional life, it is possible that emotional understandings gleaned from one may bring insight to the other (Gardner, Frames of Mind, 242–243).

[20] Gardner, Frames of Mind, 285–294.

[21] Ibid., p. x.

Series Abstract:

Important efforts in recent musical research have been devoted to exploring how music affects intellectual processing, the emotions and personality. Most of these efforts have been focused on exploring music’s effect on the neurology of the brain and its possible contributions to development in other non-musical domains such as language or mathematics. Much of this research is, by necessity, very specific and of a limited focus. A broader understanding of the positive results of music study can now be established, however, by synthesizing the theories of musical meaning provided by music philosophy and new psychological research on the nature of intelligence and emotion. This synthesis reveals that studying music has demonstrable holistic benefits on cognitive processing, emotional fluency and character development.

[Return to Contents]

Music & The Brain
Music & The Brain | Source

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John Sarkis 4 years ago from Los Angeles, CA

wayseeker, you're so smart...I was waiting for you to write a new article. This hub is truly exceptional.

Voted up


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wayseeker 4 years ago from Colorado Author


Thanks so much, and right back at you! I've been impressed by your writing ever since I read your piece on Beethoven and Dostoyevsky--wonderful. I'm afraid my life got a little chaotic and work got crazy for awhile, pulling me away from hubpages. Gladly, I'm back...and pretty sure I'm here to stay, now.

These articles are derived from a thesis I wrote for undergraduate school. By the time I finish publishing it here there should be about 20 to 25 hubs in the series...possibly more. It'll take awhile, but I'll get them all up eventually.

Thanks so much for stopping in!


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