Existential Intelligence: The Last of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences

Howard Gardner, with his model of multiple intelligences, started a revolution. Today, we want to talk about one of the most controversial, and also ignored of his intelligences - existential intelligence.
Existential Intelligence: The Last of Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences
María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez

Written and verified by the psychologist María Alejandra Castro Arbeláez.

Last update: 21 December, 2022

Have you ever heard about existential intelligence? As a matter of fact, it’s one of the great unknowns. That’s because, historically, definitions of intelligence didn’t include it.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, intelligence is “the ability to learn, understand, and think in a logical way about things”. However, for psychology to establish a definition of this construct, it’s been a rather more complex matter.

In this sense, depending on the historical context and the author, the notion of intelligence has acquired different nuances, to the point that, today, there are a variety of definitions. Next, we’ll take a look at one of the perspectives: that of Howard Gardner.

“It’s not how smart you are that matters, what really counts is how you are.”

-Howard Gardner-

From single intelligence to multiple intelligences

For many years, intelligence was viewed as unifactorial. To measure it, a reductionist indicator, the intelligence quotient, became extremely popular. Although it was considered that this version of intelligence could be obtained by following different paths, most of the measuring methods were reductionist or biased in their weight toward what were considered to be logical abilities.

Eventually, certain authors opted for a richer and more inclusive concept of intelligence. Some examples were:

  • Daniel Goleman. He made the term emotional intelligence famous. It involves the ability we have to recognize and manage our emotions and those of others.
  • Robert Sternberg. He spoke of three types of intelligence: analytical, contextual, and experiential.
  • Howard Gardner. He developed the theory of multiple intelligences. He claims there are different kinds of intelligence or specific capacities. These are related to each other, and according to our specific skills, we might be more or less intelligent.

Howard Gardner

Howard Gardner is a renowned psychologist who’s worked for years at Harvard University (USA). His work has given rise to different models of intelligence. In fact, he’s changed the way of seeing this construct, influencing the educational, social, and psychological fields.

Gardner argues that a person’s intelligence can’t be represented by a number, no matter how standardized the measuring instruments may be. He originally divided this construct into eight types of intelligence, namely: linguistic-verbal, logical-mathematical, visual-spatial, musical- rhythmic and harmonic, bodily-kinesthetic, intrapersonal, interpersonal, and naturalistic.

However, where did existential intelligence fit into the equation?

Existential intelligence

After the boom and the great recognition given to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences that grouped eight intelligences together, many forgot that the theory continued to evolve. Nevertheless, he continued to investigate and eventually included one more intelligence: existential.

Existential intelligence refers to the cognitive capacity we have to pose and reflect on major human questions, such as:

  • Love.
  • Life and death.
  • Good and evil.
  • Human nature.
  • The quality of existence.

These are existential questions that most of us ponder at some point, some more, some less. As with the other intelligences, some of us develop it more than others.

Characteristics of existential intelligence

To better understand this type of intelligence, here are its main characteristics:

  • It assumes a high level of development in other cognitive domains. For example, abstract and deep reasoning.
  • There’s an interest in deep topics, such as the origin of life and the purpose of our existence.
  • It involves the ability to observe ourselves and others from a deep perspective.
  • There’s a disinterest in worldly social practices.
  • It transcends the physical and unites all the elements of the universe.
  • It advocates universal values, such as peace, love, wisdom, kindness, and truth.
  • There’s an interest in spiritual knowledge and practices.
  • There’s a desire to help and serve others.
  • It involves repeated self-care practices. Furthermore, it considers the body as a receptacle for the soul.


This type of intelligence can be evidenced in everyday life by the following actions:

  • Acting firmly and clearly, but without violence, in the face of any personal attack.
  • In the face of conflict, delving into the facts and their possible solutions from a constructive perspective.
  • Solidarity. Carrying out respectful, and peaceful actions to guarantee the good of the group.
  • Maintaining deep respect for any living being, as we’re all part of a unit.

Existential intelligence approach

As we mentioned earlier, Gardner only raised the possibility that this intelligence existed, as he wasn’t sure that there was a neurological correlation. In fact, he remains doubtful. However, he claims that he receives messages from various authors confirming its existence and linking it with spiritual intelligence.

In his book, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century, he argues that the definition of intelligence should be broadened, and gives practical advice on its pedagogical application.

In fact, on his blog, Howard Gardner (2020), alludes to the Covid-19 pandemic. He mentions that our routines were interrupted and the need arose to protect ourselves and others. This has given us more time to think and question ourselves about life.

These dynamics that originated after Covid-19 aren’t exclusive to the history of humanity, but they did make Howard Gardner recover the importance of existential intelligence. Indeed, he began to see it evident in his own life and that of the people close to him.

Strategies to develop existential intelligence

You don’t have to be a philosopher, theologian, or academic to develop existential intelligence, since we can all acquire it. Here are some ways to do it:

  • Practice contemplation and meditation to access a deeper knowledge of things and yourself.
  • Establish self-care habits. For instance, healthy eating, physical exercise, and leisure activities. They’ll help keep your body healthy, thus, stronger in spirit.
  • Establish deep dialogues with your social circle. Discuss and debate different topics, such as the meaning of life and death. To support your views, you can read some philosophers’ opinions on the subject and find a view you agree with.
  • Carry out acts of solidarity in your community. Try and promote peace and unity among the people around you.
  • Develop open-mindedness. This means you can integrate other postures and realities into your belief system.

Finally, this type of intelligence can help you feel more connected, both with yourself and others. This will undoubtedly increase your well-being. So what are you waiting for? Start developing it today.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.