Few people are not at all concerned to improve their own level of intelligence where possible. One key to doing this is to have a balanced appreciation of what human intelligence is, what are its best qualities and - perhaps more importantly, what it is not.

The subject of intelligence covers a broad spectrum of phenomena and many theories or sub-theories from classical to modern times in pedagogy and psychology. In outlining the view of intelligence that runs through Vedantic thought, we need to distinguish it from the dominant ideas of intelligence in modern industrialised society. From the viewpoint of Vedanta, these ideas are based only on practical considerations, not at all on any fuller view of human life. The Western approach is foreshortened and presents a somewhat warped conception of the human psyche.

The most popular standard in psychology has long been the 'IQ' test (Binet's intelligence quotient test), which measures mostly mental or conceptual skills. This standard will be contrasted with intelligence as practical ability, as aesthetic sense, as theoretical intellect, as holistic synthesising ability, as a social skill and as human understanding. Further, and yet more important, is the concept of intelligence as the ability to know right from wrong, or moral discrimination.A high IQ score gives no indication on how to do other things than the mental operations typified by the test qestions, such as thinking differently, having creative ideas and new conceptions, developing independent and/or critical opinions than the popular view. A higher IQ does not show that one can communicate effectively, nor have an effective organization of thoughts. The way in which the individual mind is structured is always unique depending on early learning experience and the situations one has had to deal with cognitively, emotionally and otherwise. Even the way in which ones memory is ordered and searched can differ considerably, making some more efficient in tasks like code-breaking, others is artistic sensibility and visual or auditory memory. Of course, having high IQ does not excludethe person from also being good as any of these other modalities.


Intelligence testing was first employed for the purpose of evaluating, sorting and allocating recruits to where they may best serve the war effort in World War II. The general concept of intelligence and generalisations on the data collected then has tended to dominate Western psychological and pedagogical thinking on the subject since.

In short, the most dominant current conception of intelligence, though modified and expanded since the days of the original Binet test, still only represents one segment of the whole spectrum of human intelligence. Moreover, that segment is very largely the area of mental operations which computers and related forms of artificial intelligence are increasingly being designed to simulate.

So the criteria of intelligence used today in psychology aims almost only at the measurement of conceptual, verbal, spatial, abstract or creative mental skills. These standards are used in practice chiefly in evaluating candidates for training, finding suitably skilled employees and in placing clients or patients in clinical psychological work with social aspects.

In societies where advanced technology plays key roles in many aspects of life, the intelligence is identified increasingly with higher education. This mostly means an advanced degree of literacy, well-trained use of current ideas and conversance with recognised facts, analytical methods, established theories and current views. These qualities are increasingly called for by employers. Many people still regard the test of 'genuine' thought to lie mainly in a comprehensive and well-ordered memory of specialised concepts (as in maths, logic or science) on the basis of which logical analysis and theoretical synthesis is attempted. This is held to be impossible without a corresponding fluency and command of a means of expression in one's language. The avoidance of conceptual confusions of all sorts through the precision in the expression and interpretations of language go hand in hand.


Intellectual conceptualism is not so important or highly valued in some societies or sub-cultures, nor where intellectualism for its own sake is a predominant feature of certain privileged professions and social classes. Some who think 'practically' may labour under the mistaken impression that they are not good thinkers, simply because they are not trained in intellectual conceptualism.

Human understanding doubtless began with the growth of practical and social intelligence. One test of a person's understanding is the extent of one's appreciation of one's relation to both the environing world, other persons and to oneself. The originality of an idea or its production of far-reaching ideological consequences in society or of industrial gadgetry etc. is quite another matter, usually with little direct relevance to the quality of a person's wider understanding and self-knowledge.

Intelligence is not a property or product of the mind alone, but is the result of interaction between a person and the environment, including other minds. Intelligence grows through interacting with the world in innumerable different ways. For example, many kinds of emotional intelligence exist, being the abilities to intuit others' feelings in great depth and to communicate well on this basis. At the same time, intelligence does also depend on interaction within one's own mind, and such reflective and self-investigative capacities can also become highly developed. It requires a particular kind of intelligence, for example, to reach and maintain unperturbed peace of mind in everyday living. Likewise, intelligence of a special kind is seen in unique skills in thinking and acting effectively for the benefit of others, smoothing the way for their security or happiness through forethought and patience. In brief, there are very many possible unique combinations of skills which represent the developed human intelligence. Many practical skills for physically forming things and dealing bodily with the natural environment, represent aspects of intelligence seldom considered in psychological intelligence tests.

The increasing study world-wide of human brain functions shows that there are several fairly distinct types of intelligence. Of these, the two that have been partly measurable by the Binet IQ test are left side brain functions, being logical-mathematical and linguistic abilities. More primary are those of the right side of the brain, which are largely connected with bodily movement and the sensory faculties. These are musical, visual-spatial, kinesthetic, social-inter-relational and intra-personal (self-awareness). The right side of the brain controls breathing, heartbeat, habit, the subconscious, and the fright-fight-flight complexes. Right side brain reactions are usually 20 times faster than on the left side, but the present educational systems of developed industrialised countries make only minimal use of the right side functions and tries to control them by left side work done while sitting still etc.

This very seriously hinders the development of intelligence, which has a far greater potential than the norm reached today, according to Howard Gardner of Harvard University. Instead of putting all weight on classroom existence and the three R's at an early age, the curriculum in schools generally, and especially until teenage, should be firstly 1) personal development, learning to know about one's own nature and abilities etc.; 2) life skills, such as communication and relationships; 3) learning to learn, including self-study, facts of learning psychology and about different sorts of intelligence and brain function; 4) content, which includes the traditional studies, though taught in a more inter-connected way than by the present systems with strict subject divisions. According to the progressive Canadian educator Jeanette Los, the fact that about 1% of adults she interviewed could remember anything of significance from their chemistry lessons lends weight to adopting the above order of educational priorities suggested by Howard Gardner1.

That higher development of intelligence often known as (human) understanding, and once called wisdom, is very often poorly understood both by psychologists and intellectuals. Its importance is such, however, that a separate chapter is devoted to the psychology of understanding.


The study of human intelligence cannot be carried out intelligently without appreciating the possible extent of the mind's development and the scope of its comprehension. Its synthesising function is evident in all people, yet its actual realised scope and degree of facility may of course often remain a little-developed potential in some people. No single set of standards - however extended - can encompass the full scope of human intelligence in its many-sided 'holistic' nature combining reason and evaluation, cognition and sentiment, vision and imaginative subtlety, compassion and understanding.

One practical model exemplifying the nature of mental intelligence as an organising and synthesising function is found in the thought of political/military 'intelligence' where organisations have been built up in stages to cope with at least three major levels necessary to arriving at the overall judgements of 'intelligence'. The stages are 1) signals, 2) deciphering, 3) intelligence. The building up of an intelligence network, such as the enormous one developed by the Allies during World War II, involves (1) the registering of a very large volume of radio and other 'signals traffic' (the observations that form the main basis), (2) a painstaking process of decoding (i.e. understanding and relating the content of the recorded signals) as a preliminary to (3) the cross-analysis of their mass for general features and their relation to other relevant sources of knowledge. Even then it remains to draw conclusions from all this information about future action: about the intentions they reveal (on the part of 'the enemy') and to formulate strategies to counteract them where necessary.

For the individual psyche the three stages correspond to (1) perception, (2) interpretation and (3) understanding. Depending upon the very different requirements of the whole environment in which any person lives, the mass of materials or 'data traffic' that must be handled at the basic level and the complexities that 'deciphering' them calls for, some minds remain 'undeveloped' in that they cannot master sufficient organisation at the first or second stages, while even a majority of educated persons may remain incapable of syntheses of a very comprehensive nature at a high level of generality.

The above is not to suggest that the mind builds up a good overall understanding of any wider matters according to any describable systematic method. Neither the principles of logic nor of scientific hypothetical methods need apply - except perhaps for some persons with peculiarities of inclination or of profession. The intelligence model illustrates that there are (at least) three gross levels, the contents of which are interdependently related, yet which exhibit 'lower' and 'higher' levels of understanding (epistemological hierarchy).

What is known in philosophy as 'reason' is a form of calculative operation of the mind according to the principles of logic. The model of reason is pure mathematics. This is a highly specialised ability dependent upon (systematic and well-motivated) training. Proficiency in it gives no guarantee of intelligence in general, though there are likely to be high correlations between those proficient in maths and in some other aspects of intelligence.

While some philosophers and psychologists have held reason to be the chief distinguishing mark between the human and the animal, there are in fact many other such. For example, the species is also distinguished by the ability to abstract and use symbols generally, the ability to feel and make moral evaluation, the capacity for humour, and for conceiving and experiencing divinity. Reason, having everywhere been dealt with more thoroughly than any other aspect of human intelligence, seems to require no further discussion here.

The quality of mental awareness involved is not connected with the number and type of ideas or with the restless 'mental gymnastic' of intellectualism, but rather with a dispassionate inner attitude towards the world. The clarity of mind that comes of broad awareness is a superior quality of mind in general, the opposite of dullness and narrowness, that can sometimes be recognised but is not easily demonstrated, for it is properly known only when subjectively experienced. By nature the scope of a more clear or self-transparent consciousness cannot usually be expressed in conceptual symbols in the same way as one can with systematic, linear thinking. In reflective reviews of cumulated experience and knowledge, this contemplative understanding can really only be observed in the depth, quality, relevance and effectiveness of its various expressions (behaviour, words, writings). In its higher forms, the intuitive, contemplative approach often results in what is called 'inspired creativity', which is superior to theoretical or intellectual thought and which may express itself in unique ways.


The word intelligence is very general and is not equivalent to intellect. In ordinary language, intellect is often interpreted as scholarly, learned and abstract kinds of intelligence. However, what many thinkers have long termed 'intellectual intuition' is a part of the make-up of all human beings. It is equivalent to an inward apprehension of certain aspects of truth, not least those having to do with humanitarian and moral perceptions (roughly, what is considered right and good or not). The ability to conceptualise, analyse and reason all go towards enabling the application of these 'higher' intuitions to practical life in its great variation.

Mental intelligence, as it becomes established in the growing mind, gradually comes to develop - under suitable conditions - into the 'intellect', which is the traditional name for the forms of abstract and wide-ranging understanding. A moral intellect is one which discriminates between the nuances of ethical considerations of actions and is somewhat equivalent to the Vedic buddhi and Classical Greek nous. The meaning of intellect cannot be defined in clear, concrete terms because it is an 'inner' intuition. It is sometimes called the conscience, the power of ethical judgement or our faculty of moral discrimination.

The role that conscience plays in human thought and action is very many-sided and is thus often very difficult to describe, define or categorise. This is the ability to evaluate rightly... where 'right' refers to what is both sensible, compassionate, circumspect and just in view of the many factual circumstances that apply in any instyance. The moral-discriminative capacity is requires both broad understanding and the ability to reach sound decisions and initiate positive acts.

o integrate experience and reason meaningfully according to principles of behaviour is perhaps not necessarily a prerequisite of morality, though this may be the mark of a mature mind. The level of practical ethical intelligence tends to increase with age, but it can be well developed in youth under the right circumstances just as it can also be very weak or virtually absent in adults. This latter is markedly found in sociopathic and psychopathic persons.

This aspect of intelligence is related to self-discipline and it is exhibited through maturity in reasoning about the possible positive and negative consequences of actions, particularly one's own actions. Maturity does not necessarily depend upon the extent of one's experience so much as upon the degree of a person's character, self-control, equanimity, ability for empathy, detachment and other personal qualities.

The human faculty of conscience or evaluative discrimination, is what allows one to see a clear course ahead through discerning what is right and good. This moral discriminatory function is in major world philosophies frequently rated as a higher power of the mind, the ability that enables us to evaluate and it is sometimes termed moral intellect'. that it, the faculty enabling analysis and determining what is best, right and what is worst or wrong, what is passing and what is lasting."

Conscience is the 'voice' of some inner faculty of mind, possibly to deep-seated inherited proclivities or archetypal conceptions to which the conscious memory usually has only indirect access. The conscience does not arise in a vacuum, and is not a voice in the wilderness or an actual audible voice within one's head. It is at formed through - and informed by - processes of learning that we can call 'moral experience'. It is influenced very much by the surroundings in which on grows up and the way one is taught - or oneslef learns - to make judgements of right and wrong. The person who has not had the benefit of a love-filled and properly-directed moral upbringing must unfortunately strive the harder to learn and to counteract what bad habits of thought, speech and action one has assimilated through slack living or and from the influence of persons of poor understanding and weaker natures.

Intelligence of the sort represented by scholarly learning and scientific knowledge does not guarantee a higher likelihood or capability of applying the intuitions derived from conscience than any others. Much will depend upon the wider culture generally and its modes or extent of morality in practice, so that the particular society and environment tends strongly to influence or even determind the moral, amoral and immoral norms that apply.

Without ethical-practical reason,2 conscience cannot lead to righteous action because the active use of intelligence based on experience is an inseparable part of right action. It is proverbial how good intentions, when acted on, can sometimes lead to disasterous practical results. This does not necessarily make the act immoral, because inability and excusable ignorance can be the cause of its negative results. Yet ignorance is far from always an extenuating circumstance and one can be held morally responsible even for foolish, inconsiderate and hasty acts. This helps to show that the voice of conscience does not give specific directions like some 'Big Brother', independent of the individual's own insights and responsibilities. Those who claim to be the mere and unwilling instruments of such an authoritative and definitive inner voice are the victims of self-deception, ego or mental derangements of a yet more serious nature.

The expression of an evaluation in adopting one judgement or course of action before others is a result of moral-practical reason, which enables us to apply the intimations of conscience to actual situations. The faculty of moral discrimination is evidently not equally developed in everyone, depending at least partly upon practice rather than neglect. Moral training in upbringing and the growth of insight and sympathy are factors known to affect the development of moral discrimination. It seems unlikely that even the most psychopathic individual does not experience any sort of conscience at all.

Many moral philosophers through the ages have held that the ability to distinguise at an intellectual level is inherent to human nature, often apparently because holding the opposite would exonerate persons who commit heinous acts from responsibility or punishment. Whether moral intelligence is intrinsic to every human being is a question that science cannot answer, for there is no experimental or demonstrable access to the inner life itself. This is available only to direct consciousness. Whether or not the power of discriminating 'right from wrong' is present does not easily lend itself to investigation either scientifically or in jurisprudence. Whether the conscience remains undeveloped or has been disturbed in some people is very difficult to judge. The mind is not necessarily motivated to act by the intelligence for on must also act by will. When the will is informed by intellect, there can be the basis of right action. Otherwise we have the neglect of right action.

There are evidently certain 'levels' or structures to any mind
so that how one reaches a final decision or judgement can be motivated by very different sets of tendencies, thoughts and considerations. Some actions are intuitive, spontaneous, some are or immediate while other can be based very largely on decisions of principle. This 'information' is itself formed by aid of (but not by) the understanding one has developed and synthesised as a more or less inclusive whole.

At an elementary level, mental intelligence describes, marshals and compares facts, theories, plans and visions, 'evaluating' them only in calculative, comparative and systematic ways. It does not evaluate in the strict sense of setting up values or by determining right or wrong. Intellect, however, refers to a higherr level of overview, abstraction and principle, variousl supported by the more elmentary cognitive functions. Among the influences that help to form the intellect are the philosophical teachings of the world, whether found in prosaic or poetic form, expressed through science or literature and even sometimes scripture. The form our moral sense takes is historically derived and has been passed down through generations, frequently being modified or extended on the way. Essential insights into the nature of beauty, truth, compassion, peace, love - independent of whatever other dogmatic or traditional prejudices may have accumulated around them - alone eventually satisfy the inescapable human desire to know.


Another species of intelligence arises in direct intuition. This is a kind of perception which involves no mental or intellectual effort. To intuit is to apprehend something directly without any intermediate thought or preconception. Even intellectual reason relies at some point on such self-evident and self-given insight. But intuition brings knowledge into one's consciousness, somehow short-circuiting all goal-directed cognition. Investigation of this ill-defined and often elusive human faculty of intuition must largely remain an affair for individual self-discovery rather than systematic or experimental research, due to its germane nature. It is seldom controllable on testable grounds or inter-subjectively. For, as its prefix 'in' suggests, intuition is an inward phenomenon and not an observable fact. Even so, when expressed in words or acts, it can sometimes be studied and checked by indirect evidence and other subtle means. So-called 'dictates of conscience' are often direct intuitions, as may be various other intimations, 'psychic' promptings, precognitive flashes and déjà vu etc.

The word 'intuition', originally meant 'look upon, consider, contemplate'. It has been used in this sense in much philosophy and psychology to refer to every kind of perceptions, whether through the five senses or in mental reflection on the contents of the mind. Intuitions are inner perceptions (or conceptions) which may benefit the individual but are not necessarily valid for others. There is a fund of mounting evidence that it may take the form of instantaneous awareness of distant events, precognition and various other kinds of mental impression extremely difficult to check or evaluate. We speak of 'intuitions' that come 'as a sixth sense' and which can be both vague or sometimes extremely accurate, as is proven in countless recorded instances from all around the world throughout history. Unfortunately, there are doubtless also many spiritual fantasies propagated by would-be message-makers and others who dabble in the kind of intuition connected with clairvoyance, training or straining to sense vibrations, correspondences, voices, auras, chackras, disembodied intelligences and what have you. For any number of good reasons, such 'para-normal' sensings are not to be relied on as a substitute for personal self-inquiry, personal experience or for making decisions based on normal channels. Though the subject of 'spirit-possession' is a study in itself, one which is often based on genuine phenomena experienced in depersonalised states, it is a diversion from genuine self-development and has no real relevance to self-realisation.

Intuition was called an inner voice or 'daimon', to which Socrates often referred, and which has since been renamed the 'voice of conscience' and, less helpfully, the "demon". Historical study shows that the inner voice of conscience is regarded as demonic virtually only by established interests that feel threatened, such as those represented by the various churches in times such as those of the Inquisition, or by dictatorial states that wish to remove individuals who act on their consciences and oppose them in some way. However, it is the power of moral reason, call it nous or the pure intellect or the power of ethical discrimination - upon which civilisation itself depends. What is taught by illumined reason is necessarily the touchstone of any philosophical psychology.

While truth is something learned by personal application of good values in living, it is nevertheless also connected with having a sound grasp of both the facts of outer worldly experience and of inner self-investigation. We may not have all the relevant, correct facts on which to reach judgement of the rightness or fruitfulness of various explanations, belief systems or unvalidated theories, yet when there is something not in accordance with truth, a rational person with well-developed intuition also invariably knows that to be so. Something warns us that 'something's not quite as it should be'. Presuming that we know correctly all the facts relevant to any serious question (i.e. not trivial matters, mere details etc.), rational intuition can make an adequate interpretation of them. It can also very often contribute to the clearing up of the facts themselves, primarily where these have become confused or distorted through human error.

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1. H. Gardner Frames of Mind London 1983 & Multiple Intelligence N.Y. 1993.

2. This may be taken for all intents and purposes in the Kantian sense as a faculty superior to calculative or intellectual reason. In The Critique of Practical Reason Kant investigated the relation between principles of right and wrong, conscience and practical action in a way which accords very largely with Vedanta.