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The Fool Who Knows He’s a Fool is Wise

There seems to be a myth that the smarter you are, the less you need other people to help you form a sound opinion of things.  I don’t think my friend Eric has bought into that myth though.  Eric is one of the most brilliant young men I know — an advanced physics student — and yet he is intellectually humble.

The other day, Eric wrote asking for a reality check.  He wanted to know if someone else was being a fool, or if he himself was simply not seeing her clearly.  I believe that in asking for help, he displayed great maturity and wisdom — to say nothing of humility.

It seems to me intellectual maturity and wisdom go hand in hand with the often difficult and painful recognition we are not always reasonable.

The recognition is often difficult because it can be very hard for us to know — without help from others — when we are being unreasonable.

The recognition is often painful because most of us are emotionally invested in seeing ourselves as reasonable people.  We do not want to think of ourselves as irrational fools.

Yet, it’s arguable that all of us are to one extent or another — at one time or another — unreasonable. That seems to be a tragedy of our species.  Consider how much suffering we cause ourselves and others on those occasions when we are least reasonable.  What a different world it would be if we could only outgrow it.  But, instead of outgrowing it, intellectual maturity and wisdom involve recognizing it, accepting it, and working around it — for it turns out that we can never truly outgrow the human tendency to be unreasonable.  We are born to it.  It is part of our nature.

The Buddha somewhere says, “The fool who knows he is a fool is, let us say, wise.”  There is a powerful truth in that.  Even though most of us have moments of great insight and intelligence, we never really know when we’re going to be blindsided by some foolishness or the other.  And it is often the very moment when we feel most confident we are right, that we are most wrong.

Fortunately, there are many ways of coping with the natural human tendency to be an intellectual ass.  For instance, one can find challenging teachers, and one can train one’s mind just as a dedicated athlete trains his or her body.  We need not be geniuses to push ourselves to do our personal best.  Yet, by far the single most effective way to cope with our intellectual limits is to get help from other people.

In some ways, that’s not a radical idea.  Most of us instinctively know others can offer us valuable insights and perspectives we might ourselves never come up with.  But why is that so?

I’m of the opinion that Howard Gardner has shed considerable light on the question of why we humans benefit so greatly from sharing our views and opinions with each other.  Gardner, you might remember, is the Harvard psychologist who hypothesized (some would say “discovered”) eight distinct kinds of human intelligence.  That is, instead of one overall general intelligence, Gardner found eight separate intelligences.

These eight kinds of intelligence can be briefly described in these ways:

PeopleSmart (interpersonal intelligence) involves the ability to work cooperatively in a group as well as the ability to communicate, verbally and non-verbally, with other people. It builds on the capacity to notice distinctions among others, for example, contrasts in moods, temperament, motivations, and intentions. In the more advanced forms of this intelligence one can literally “pass over” into another person’s life context (that is, stand in their shoes, so to speak) and experience their intentions and desires. One can have genuine empathy for another’s feelings, fears, anticipations, and beliefs.

SelfSmart (intrapersonal intelligence) involves knowledge of the internal aspects of the self such as knowledge of feelings, the range of emotional responses, thinking processes, self-reflection, and a sense of or intuition about spiritual realities. Intrapersonal intelligence allows us to be conscious of our consciousness; that is, to step back from ourselves and watch ourselves as an outside observer does. Our self-identity and the ability to transcend the self are part of the functioning of this intelligence. SelfSmart is the most private and requires all other intelligence forms to express itself, such as language, art, music, dance, symbols, and interpersonal communication with others.

WordSmart(verbal-linguistic intelligence) is responsible for the production of language and all the complex possibilities that follow, including poetry, humor, grammar, metaphors, similes, abstract reasoning, symbolic thinking, and of course, the written word. Verbal-linguistic intelligence is awakened by the spoken word; by reading someone’s ideas or poetry; and by writing one’s own ideas, thoughts, or poetry

BodySmart (bodily-kinesthetic intelligence) is the ability to use the body to express emotion, to play a game, to communicate with others using “body language”, or to create a new product. Our bodies are very wise. They know things our conscious minds don’t and can’t know in any other way. For example, if you had to lay out the keyboard of a computer on a piece of paper without moving your fingers, could you do it? Probably not. But your fingers know the keyboard without even pausing.

NatureSmart (NatureSmart (naturalist intelligence) is related to our recognition, appreciation, and understanding of the natural world around us. It involves such capacities as species discernment, the ability to recognize and classify various flora and fauna, and our knowledge of and communion with the natural world. You can see the naturalist intelligence when you find yourself drawn to and fascinated by animals and their behaviors. You see it when you notice the effect on your mood and sense of well-being when someone brings plants and-or cut flowers into an otherwise sterile, humanly-created environment. Think how often we head for nature when we want to relax, “unwind” or find inner renewal!

ImageSmart (visual-spatial intelligence) involves such activities as painting, drawing, and sculpture; navigation, mapmaking and architecture, and games such as chess (which requires the ability to visualize objects from different perspectives and angles). The key sensory base of this intelligence is the sense of sight, but it also involves the ability to form images and pictures in the mind. Our childhood daydreaming, when we pretended we could fly or that we were magical beings, or maybe that we were heroes-heroines in fabulous adventure stories used this intelligence to the hilt!

SoundSmart (musical-rhythmic intelligence) includes such capacities as the recognition and use of rhythmic and tonal patterns, and sensitivity to sounds from the environment, the human voice, and musical instruments. Many of us learned the alphabet through this intelligence and the “A-B-C song.” Of all forms of intelligence identified, the “consciousness altering” effect of music and rhythm on the brain is the greatest. Just think of how music can calm you when you are stressed, stimulate you when you’re bored, and help you attain a steady rhythm in such things as typing and exercising. It has been used to inspire our religious beliefs, intensify national loyalties, and to express great loss or intense joy.

LogicSmart (logical-mathematical intelligence) is most often associated with what we call “scientific thinking.” Logical-mathematical intelligence is activated in situations requiring problem-solving or meeting a new challenge. This intelligence likewise involves the capacity to recognize patterns, to work with abstract symbols such as numbers and geometric shapes, and to discern relationships and-or see connections between separate and distinct pieces of information.

It is impossible to understand the implications of Gardner’s theory unless we grasp that each of us is smart in some ways, but not in others.  For instance, we might be very “Body Smart”, but not so “Image Smart”.  Or we might have high Logic and Word intelligence, but only average Nature intelligence, and very low People intelligence.  Once we have grasped that each of is more or less an unique mix of intelligences, we can easily understand how natural it is for opinions of the very same thing to differ from one person to the next.

Suppose, for instance, Ted and Sally go to a movie.  Ted is highly intelligent in a Logic  and Word oriented way, while Sally is highly intelligent in a People and Image oriented way.  After the movie, Ted raves about the themes and hidden meanings he discovered, while Sally raves just as enthusiastically about the acting and character development.  Have you ever had anything like that happen to you?

Neither Ted nor Sally sees “the whole truth, the complete truth” of the movie.  But by taking into account each other’s views and opinions, each can arrive at a more thorough understanding of the movie than either one of them could arrive at on his or her own.

Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences is just one of many lines of evidence that together strongly suggest humans must rely on cooperating with each other to form an accurate, comprehensive view of reality.

It is often said we are “social animals”.  But perhaps it cannot be fully understood just how social we are until we grasp that we even depend on each other to see things we ourselves cannot see alone — or can see only poorly. The myth that the smarter you are, the less you need others to form an accurate opinion of things is patently false.  Without input from our fellow humans, we at best only see a part of the whole.

Just as there is wisdom in finding friends who will share their honest opinions with us, even if they disagree with us, there is foolishness in surrounding ourselves with “yes men”.  I cannot help but think here of George W. Bush.

By all accounts, Bush is someone who cannot tolerate hearing an opinion that differs in any great degree from his own.  Consequently, he has surrounded himself with advisers who confirm his own limited understanding of things.  I personally believe that goes far to explain why his has been one of the most mistake-prone presidencies in American history.

I think the roots of intellectual maturity and wisdom are deep down entwined with the sometimes paradoxical recognition that we are all fools at one time or another, in one way or another.  Fortunately there seem to be sound ways of coping with our natural, individual limits.  We evolved as social animals, and therefore it should not come as too much of a surprise that even our very notion of reality might in many cases be best arrived at through a cooperative effort with others.  At least, that’s how it looks to me this morning.  But what do you make of all this?

4 thoughts on “The Fool Who Knows He’s a Fool is Wise”

  1. interesting article, i enjoyed it, i must say. also, i agree in so far as ‘I think the roots of intellectual maturity and wisdom are deep down entwined..’ being a people watcher as i am, i have noticed this more and more on a regular basis. intellectual maturity is some, that in my opinion, may never be reached by certain people. the idea of the different kinds of Smart is a novel one, i would have to agree with it; or at least with its implications. i enjoyed the definitions and attempting to choose which ‘smarts’ i could recognize in daily life


  2. Another great post here… Definitely agree with you on the wisdom of getting input from other people.

    Apart from anything else, I know from my own experience that the reason I don’t want to seek someone else’s opinion is generally because, deep down, I fear I’m wrong and don’t want to find out.

    It would, for example, have saved me a huge amount of heartbreak had I applied this principle to the early stages of my relationship break up last autumn. My friends would have told me earlier that his behaviour and judgements about me were wrong – but I didn’t want to mention it to them because I didn’t want them to point out the truth.

    Now, not wanting to discuss something with my friends is now a real red flag issue – it tells me there’s something I really do need to look at, and get second opinions.


  3. Great post, Paul. Strikes a chord with me, since the way I handle disagreements has been brought up over the course of a few of my friendships. Until recently I haven’t understood the criticism, which generally asserts that I am so sure I’m right I don’t bother listening to alternative views, but am now starting to recognize that since it happens with all kinds of people it’s probably me, not them.

    Last year I started to make a conscious effort to make the appropriate noises and facial expressions to demonstrate that I am really listening and considering other people’s opinions and it’s amazing what a difference it makes to my relationships. I am still very aware of the fact I am putting on a show for their sake, though, and I feel like a bit of a fraud.

    But what the heck, the friends and family are really starting to open up because of it, and it’s nice. I still take their views into consideration to the same extent I ever did – which was always far more than they thought – but you’d be shocked how far a few timely brow-furrowings, onomatopoeic murmerings and contemplative silences can go toward making other people feel comfortable, content, unguarded and understood.

    I hope the underlying feeling of insincerity eventually wears off – I know I have a long way to go since I grew up in almost perpetual vigorous intellectual debate with my dad, who does not take account of the need of others to feel listened to and understood, so my habit of ripping the ideas of others to shreds during conversation and re-examining them later in private will be hard to change.

    But there you go, I’m a hardheaded fool myself, so I can certainly sympathize with people who give off the appearance of formulating their opinions without any outside help. (To be honest, I quite like those people!)


  4. This is a really great post on social interdependence. I’ve heard of Gardner’s theory before, but never quite in the context you’ve put it in here.

    And being able to admit you are a fool, or even just wrong is one of the hardest things to do, it requires a great deal of maturity and humility. And the crazy thing is, doing this is usually better for us and everyone involved.


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