What Is Existential Intelligence?

Sandi Johnson

Existential intelligence is an individual’s capacity or ability to understand and contemplate philosophical topics relating to mankind’s existence. According to the theory of existential intelligence, some individuals have an easier time conceptualizing deep philosophical questions, such as the origin of mankind, what constitutes consciousness, and man’s purpose on earth. Those individuals with a strong tendency toward existential intelligence are, according to some experts, more inclined to ask questions regarding these ultimate realities, including the meaning of life.

Howard Gardner of Harvard University first presented the idea of existential intelligence.
Howard Gardner of Harvard University first presented the idea of existential intelligence.

In terms of the origin of the phrase, the concept is tied to philosophical theories as well as the theory of multiple intelligences. Regarding the concept’s definition, this type of intelligence draws on many of the same questions and topics associated with existentialism, a method of philosophical inquiry popularized in the 1940s and 1950s. Existentialism proposes that human existence cannot be defined by spiritual or scientific categories currently in existence, but rather requires a deeper understanding. Using existentialism as a basis of understanding, the concept of existential intelligence is then associated with Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.

Gardner theorized that there were seven types of intelligence, including musical.
Gardner theorized that there were seven types of intelligence, including musical.

Howard Gardner of Harvard University first presented the idea of multiple intelligences in the early 1980s. Education and psychology experts had sought a better understanding of the natural way children think and learn, so Gardner developed a theory to help identify the strongest tendencies in school age children. Initially, Gardner presented the concept of seven intelligences, including logical or mathematical, spatial, musical, and others. The theory of multiple intelligences was designed to explain different types of learning modalities and thus allow educators to develop learning plans to work with the strengths of each child.

After introducing his theory of multiple intelligences, Gardner and other education and psychology experts continued researching the concept. Several professionals, including Gardner, later proposed additional types of intelligence. Although Gardner neither publicly nor officially included existential intelligence in his revised theory, he and other professionals discussed its existence. While remaining unofficial in terms of including this concept in his theory, Gardner proposed a definition for the concept if it were to be included with his other intelligences.

Since the theory of multiple intelligences centers on education and early childhood psychology, some experts argue the validity of including existential intelligence with Gardner’s other intelligences. Deep philosophical questions regarding mankind’s existence often stir intense, passionate debate, a prospect some experts argue has no place in childhood education. Avoiding such debates is the primary reason most experts decline to add this concept to the greater theory of multiple intelligences.

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Discussion Comments


@browncoat - Still it's fascinating to think of this kind of ability being latent in some people. Perhaps they are the ones who question existence that much more and end up becoming great leaders and thinkers. I mean, it takes more than mathematical skill to really know what to look at when you're looking at the world and wondering about its mysteries.


@bythewell - I'm not sure that that's really an argument for acknowledging existential intelligence, but rather for certain philosophical concepts and foundations to be taught at school.

Existential intelligence may not be a real thing. If you've ever read Gardner's books, he's been very careful to only put forward a handful of intelligences that he feels there is fairly definitive proof for. For example, musical intelligence. He's researched brain injuries where people have suddenly developed or lost musical ability and inclination. He also doesn't advocate that these intelligences are set in stone, and talks about them as something that can be developed.

I don't think existential intelligence has the kind of proof that the others do at the moment. It might be a result of having one or more of the other intelligences particularly developed, for example.


One of the reasons I don't think existential intelligence should be ignored, whether or not people think the topic is suitable for children, is that children who have the tendency to think about these kinds of topics will do so anyway.

I wonder if that isn't related to some of the depression that shows up in teenagers. I remember when I was just starting to hit puberty and was being flooded with hormones and had a tendency to feel down about myself anyway, I was particularly stuck on the idea of human existence and what the point of it all was. I had no idea how to process that kind of thought, no idea that there were relevant philosophical debates that could have helped me.

In some ways it was a good thing, because it helped me to think up my own take on existence and I'm happy with it. But, I wonder how many kids with this form of intelligence feel so isolated and confused that they eventually harm themselves? It's a terrifying question for a teenager, what if there is no point to anything? And if the teenager is not given the tools to really explore the question they might give up all together.

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