Issue 14. Existential Investigation

Issue 14. Jan. 23

What’s the deal with Existential thinking?

Whose hand is this? The fickle finger of fate? God? One of the gods (or Godz)? Who hasn’t felt this way at some point in life? Is this a daily activity? Or a middle of the night, it’s 2am and I can’t sleep thing?  Are there special moments in life when existential thinking comes to the fore? Am I having an existential crisis as the hand of death approaches?  Some of us do it often, with more intensity or greater complexity and nuance. Are complex answers to existential questions somehow better? Is there existential humor?  Is humor an answer to existential pain?  I’m serious. This is no joke. Do I have to have All The Answers to existential questions to be considered existentially intelligent? Are there “really” answers? Or will simple solutions to complex problems suffice for a happy life? Are these somehow less intelligent? Perhaps it is all word play. A product of our overactive imaginations. Logic run amok. Navel gazing ad nauseam. Can I stop now?
If dog is God spelled backwards, is that why I still mourn the death of my sweet dog Honey? If I continue to sense her presence with me when it is time to go for a walk and this consoles me, am I being existentially intelligent? Or just a silly, sentimental old man? Does it matter? Honey rarely enjoyed silly play. She was serious about life. She had an important job to do spreading her affections all around town. I learned from her to activate Honey’s “radar” when I encounter new people. Can I sense this person’s story? Eye contact reveals or conceals.
Honey had a difficult early life and developed keen sensitivity to humans. We both got excited when it was time to wander in the Plum Creek woods. Our happy place with a singing creek, drumming bridge and the comfort of nature. We knew the routine that resulted in peace and rest. Scamper dash through the grass. Cool water. A snack. Let’s go home now. It’s been a good day. Life is good.

Tomorrow is another day and I hope you’ll join us in the coming months for a discussion on the meaning of Existential thinking and how it fits into multiple intelligences theory.

MI@40- Unfinished Business:   Is Existential Thinking an Intelligence?

In 1999 Howard Gardner added the Naturalist intelligence to the existing list of seven intelligences (Intelligence Reframed). At the same time, he speculated on the possibility of other forms of intelligence that scientific evidence might confirm in the 16 years since MI theory was first introduced. As a good scholar-scientist he carefully reviewed the rationale and evidence for and against several proposed sets of abilities. His review compared evidence against the eight criteria established in 1983 to determine what constitutes an intelligence. Each intelligence must also be aligned with the essential definition that an intelligence is used to solve problems, create products that are valued in a culture.

Are There Spiritual or Moral Intelligences?

Gardner conducted a detailed review of proposed spiritual and moral intelligences and concluded that they do not meet the necessary criteria but instead are valued human activities of a different sort. He wrote, “’Morality’ is then properly a statement about personality, individuality, will, character – and, in the happiest cases, about the highest realization of human nature” (p. 77). Likewise, spirituality is problematic for several reasons. A fundamental problem is its lack of definitional clarity and difficulty delineating observable levels of skill because “it refers to everything: mind, body, self, nature, and the supernatural – and, sometimes, even to nothing!” (p. 55).  This leads Gardner to conclude that “the essence of spirit (is) primarily phenomenological—the attainment of a certain state of being” rather than a set of skills that allow for the solving of problems or fashioning of products.

The Possibility of an Existential Intelligence

But Gardner gives much consideration to the possibility of “existential intelligence, or a concern with “ultimate” issues, seems the most unambiguously cognitive strand of the spiritual”.  He defines existential thinking as a kind of philosophical “capacity to locate oneself with respect to the furthest reaches of the cosmos . . .  to engage in transcendental concerns” as demonstrated by theologians, artists, poets and theoretical scientists. In the end, however, he concludes that there is insufficient evidence to support its classification as an intelligence. It is a valued human activity but not one of the multiple intelligences.

A Review of the Evidence Regarding Existential Intelligence: Three Questions

It has been more than two decades since Gardner arrived at this conclusion. My own research found that it is best described as “Existential Thinking” rather than as a distinct form of intelligence. Many people continue to wonder about its status and some (wrongly) label it as the 9th of the multiple intelligences.

Over the next several months, you are invited to participate in a discussion of three questions:

1.         Is there evidence to support its inclusion in MI as a scientific theory of human intelligences?

2.         Can Existential Thinking (ET) be measured with distinct, observable levels of skill and ability?

3.         What are the implications for education? Both positive and/or negative.

This discussion will take place on my Blog and conclude with a set of essays summarizing the results. An invitation and background materials are posted on my website:   Hope to hear your thoughts on this weighty topic!  

Existential Thinking in Theory, Practice and Social Science

Many people have deep interest in this topic since it plays an important role in our community life, religions and happiness. If you share these interests the following materials may be of interest.

The Harvard Flourishing Program focuses its attention on what society can do to promote human well-being. It’s mission is similar to that associated with the multiple intelligences to

“ . . . promote human flourishing and develop systematic approaches to the synthesis of knowledge across discplines.”  It organizes its well-being agenda around six themes including religion, purpose and meaning in life.

The promotion of well-being appears to be a central goal often associated with the exploration of Existential Thinking. This is not merely an academic or theoretical discussion. 

Wong, P.T.P.; Cowden, R.G.; Yu, T.T.F.; Arslan, G. Existential Wellbeing in Palliative Care: A Paradigm of Existential Positive Psychology. Preprints 2024, 2024010747.

Existential Wellbeing is explored both theoretically and practically by Paul T.P. Wong and colleagues as part of palliative care for people during times of trauma, illness and suffering. This article describes the role of Existential Positive Psychology and their preliminary Existential Wellbeing Scale as a means “ . . . to achieve sustainable wellbeing and global flourishing . . . to reduce unnecessary suffering and transform inevitable suffering” (p. 7).

They define Existential Wellbeing (EWB) “. . . as the quality-of-life characterized by living well and dying well in spite of pain, obstacles, and the shadow of death; wellbeing within the context of human suffering can only be fully understood from the perspective of existential positive psychology (EPP), dedicated to the study of sustainable wellbeing based on the foundation of transcending suffering. The basic tenets of EPP are (1) redefining positivity or wellbeing in terms of seeing and being the light in the darkness; (2) focusing on the dialectical process of navigating an adaptive balance; and (3) re-orienting one’s life attitude from egotism to self-transcendence (Wong, 2023a).”

A more detailed account for how Existential Thinking is used during palliative care is presented by Marc Haufe and colleagues in their literature review of clinical approaches to manage and reduce patient suffering.

Haufe M, Leget C, Potma M, et al. BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care Epub ahead of print:


They distill their findings down to five factors with 16 dimensions vital to well-being that are addressed by Existential Thinking.

The propeller; a model of existential/spiritual strength approaches

Of note, they describe each of these as Existential or Spiritual Strengths without a distinction between spiritual care and existential thinking.

It is a task for MI theory to clarify this distinction in determining if Existential qualifies as the 9th intelligence. As Gardner understands it, they are related but not synonymous concepts and to combine them is misleading.

Another point of concern is that Existential Thinking cannot be wedded to a religion or a culture’s beliefs, creed or a particular philosophy. Much like music cannot be simply defined as jazz, classical or pop. It is problematic when existential is used interchangeably with spiritual because it implies a necessary link with a religion such as Christianity, Islam, shamanism, etc. Each of the multiple intelligences are “tools” rather than a prescribed set of beliefs or dogma. A wrench can be used equally well to repair a Ford Fairlane, Rolls Royce or the Pope Mobile.

What are your thoughts about this idea of Existential Intelligence? I’m looking forward to hearing from you on  my Blog discussion.  Maybe together we can sort out these sticky questions.  We know it is important, but does it qualify as a separate, distinct coherent form of intelligence?  Branton

4 thoughts on “Issue 14. Existential Investigation”

  1. To address spirtualist intelligence as opposed to existential, I would cite Jung’s view of the collective unconscious. The parodox of life vs. death, or more appropriately death and afterlife, is an existentialist problem because it questions social constructs, religious or ethical. The individual is looking for solutions based on information from their social milieu. The collective unconscious, however, is the environment where spiritualist intelligence bridges differences and resolves paradox. Individuals who have left the polarity of a social collective can experience an omniscient or third point of view. They are those who are able to shape society from a context outside the collective. First, we learn from our environment. Then, we shape our environment by creating novel ideas and products that become part of the social milieu resulting in change. Spiritualist intelligence is not solving the question about the existence of God because that would be a right or wrong answer (a polarity) depending on one’s viewpoint. Truth is relevant to all as individuals bring unconscious experiences into conscious present day society.

  2. Jung’s writings are among some of the most profound on existential issues. The concept of ‘collective unconscious’ is vast. I really appreciate your statement= Truth is relevant to all as individuals bring unconscious experiences into conscious present day society”. Much to ponder there . . .

  3. The first thing that occurred to me was that this discussion had already passed. This subject is regularly discussed during our training sessions (MIDAS Certification Foundation) and during our MIDAS Master meetings, but more so because it is believed that Howard Gardner added these intelligences at the time.
    I can still agree with the reason he didn’t do that. These intelligences did not fit into the 8 criteria he gave at the time. Certainly, it is an interesting topic, but adding this as an intelligence (or, if you like, a cognitive skill) to the other 8 is not possible for me.
    I then try to determine for myself how this intelligence should be interpreted and which sub-skills can be distinguished. With any other intelligence it is possible to explain in concrete terms what someone does or undertakes or shows. How is the application of intelligence in daily life (your work, private education, etc.).
    Just as creativity can be found in all 8 intelligences, creativity is not an intelligence in itself. I also experience this with a term like Existential thinking.
    Apart from that, it is good to have a conversation about it, but then the 8 criteria will also have to be discussed in the conversation.
    It is interesting to me why this alleged intelligence is now back on the table. Is it the spirit of the times, where people are looking for something? I think that the question of existence is more relevant than the question of whether it should be an added intelligence within the Multiple Intelligences.
    Second: I’m not convinced about the argumentation so far concerning the existentially intelligence . Is it a special hype? I’m still asking myself… what are they looking for? Does it have something to do with all the violence in the world? Rusland-OekraÏne, Iran-Irak, North vs South Korea? Are people lost their trust in politics? Hunger for tranquillity and peace? In times of need, people once again look for something to hold on to. Is that what they are looking for? Interesting

  4. Hi Frits, thanks for your insightful comments. ET definitely has to be evaluated in regards to the 8 criteria. Comparing Existential to creativity might be a very good analogy. I am now looking more closely at the “higher level” cognitive abilities that Gardner describes in the back of Frames of Mind. Do you kn0ow them? My latest thinking is that fitting Existential Reasoning (ER) into these categories along with Wisdom and Common Sense, might be the best solution.

    Why interest in Existential now? The items you cite sound right especially when you think about how ER;s role in palliative care to decrease and manage pain.

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