Intellectual Virtues

I can help you get smarter. Will you try it?

Many people feel insecure about how smart they are. This can even be the cause of anxiety when reading a difficult book or taking a test in school. This anxiety holds a lot of people back from the happiness they want. I know many religious people who don’t study their holy books or bright young men or women who are afraid to take college algebra. I think I can help you. You having nothing to lose by trying to improve your intelligence except for time spent playing on the Internet or watching television. 

To gain the virtue of prudence, you need to work on its parts. One of them is intelligence.

Intelligence is an interesting feature of the human mind and, really, of the body.

It can be damaged by head injuries, temporarily improved or impaired by ingesting drugs, and can apparently be bequeathed by good genetics.

Some folks, like Malcom Gladwell, Gary North, and Geoff Colvin, are super optimistic about the capacity of 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to make people great.

Others are skeptical about the possibility of anything other than a static intelligence, this would include folks like Charles Murray.

I think that everybody has a ceiling and that the ceiling is probably determined by genetics and early life environment.

But I do not think that everybody is at that ceiling. There is enough evidence that intelligence can be incrementally improved and even more evidence that skills in particular fields of effort can be dramatically improved that any particular person who puts their mind to it can become significantly greater than average intelligence in relationship to the pursuit of greatness in this or that field.

But, we need a working definition of intelligence to explain how to make that happen. I think that Arthur Whimbey did some of the best work on increasing intelligence and so we’ll use his definition:[1]

Intelligence or academic aptitude is “the ability to proceed through a sequence of analytical steps.”

In other words, your intelligence is your capacity to see a larger problem in terms of smaller problems that, if solved in sequence, will lead to a solution to the larger problem. In Aquinas’ schema, such an ability corresponds with understanding and science (but it greatly aided by memory and shrewdness). If such an ability is, indeed, a virtue (a good habit), then we can hypothesize that there is a way to improve at it.

It’s probably true that intelligence as a general skill largely seems to improve as an individual practices specific skills and gains more knowledge and practice at reasoning through the problems of that skill/field. But the fact is that the same sequential method, the same logic, and the same analysis all take place. What this means is that the reasoning process that could make a great mathematician could also make somebody a great coach or sculptor.

To improve at sequential reasoning and careful, intentional problem solving means that you must start using self-talk in your reasoning process. Many people suspect that “smart people” simply know answers. This leads them to conclude, “I don’t just know things therefore I’m not smart.”

The Method

I think that one of clearest and most general methods for improving intelligence can be found in Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method.[2] Many people find philosophers to be difficult to read. His explanation is in the footnote. I’ll summarize it here:

  1. Start with what you know.
    Ask these questions, “What do I know? What can I figure out? What is the problem I am facing? What facts are present? What knowledge do I have that is less certain?”
  2. Break it down.
    For example, when trying to solve a relationship problem find answers to questions like, “How do I feel? Is this feeling based on selfishness or a genuine offense? Do I need to apologize for anything? Who wronged me? What did they do?” In a mathematics problem break the problem down into smaller steps. If you’re reading a difficult book or essay ask questions about word definitions, thesis statements, topic sentences what is the conclusion of the book, truth/falsehood, why does the author think that, and so-on. 
  3. Then start solving the pieces.
    From the simplest and easiest steps to the hardest, start solving problems or answering questions. Just because you do not know the solution to a problem does not mean that it is not available. 
  4. Take notes.
    Write everything down, the human mind is fallible, forgetful, and is jogged quickly by lists, diagrams, and graphical representations. Write what you know, write the smaller problems, write the solutions to them and the steps, then finally bring it all to a conclusion. Eventually, you’ll find that this step is not necessary for problems that used to require painstaking work. I remember when I was a math teacher, I got to where I could do fairly difficult trigonometry and geometry proofs in my head. This was good, but I got out of the habit, so when I went back to school for engineering, differential equations became too hard for me because I got frustrated about my inability to simply keep up with it all in my mind.

The problem with  a method of thinking that it is so clear and simple is that we can forget to use it. But not only so, it all takes place internally. So two things should be noted:

  1. You should practice this method out loud when you’re doing homework or learning a new thing. 
  2. Though this will be time consuming, when you use it, you will experience the Kaizen effect. You improve incrementally, but the effect compounds. In the time it takes to learn college Algebra your freshman year, you can learn Calculus 3 your junior year (one semester). You’ll also learn to take pleasure in learning. The Bible talks about this in Proverbs Chapter 2.   

Frustratingly, this method is very difficult for teachers to teach. Read this horrible observation:[3] 

Jensen (an education researcher) claimed that, while properly conceived compensatory education programs have brought about IQ gains among educationally disadvantaged students, in many cases the gains tended to fade after two or three years of traditional schooling.

Teaching programs designed to improve actual student thinking (not just performance on tests) work until kids get back into normal school and unlearn all of their good habits. In general, school is not designed to help you to gain virtue, knowledge, or useful skills. It’s designed for you to graduate. Nobody will grade you on your thought process. You’ve got to learn to manage it yourself. In order to do that, you’ve got to follow a method like the one above. The fancy term for it is “metacognition” which means, “thinking about your thinking.” You can do it. In fact, in a world that offers endless distractions, humanities degrees with no logic classes, and classrooms so full that nobody could possibly have attempted to teach internal processes like this on a one-on-one basis, you’ve got to do it yourself.

Many people are concerned that setting a bar too high for this or that individual could disappoint them because their intelligence might not be up to the task. That’s their job. It’s the coach’s responsibility to protect athletes from failure or injury by only pushing them past certain limits. But it’s your responsibility as an athlete or student or person who wishes to become wiser and happier to believe that this or that goal is within your reach if you simply break it down into smaller easer chunks and then achieve it. Can you become more intelligent? Some scientists say, “No.” But what do you say? Can you become more intelligent? Will do take ownership of how you think?


[1] Arthur Whimbey, “Teaching Sequential Thought: The Cognitive-Skills Approach,” The Phi Delta Kappan 59, no. 4 (December 1, 1977): 255–259, 255

[2] Rene Descartes, Discourse on Method, (Electronic Edition), 2.7 “The first [rule] was never to accept anything for true which I did not clearly know to be such; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitancy and prejudice, and to comprise nothing more in my judgement than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly as to exclude all ground of doubt. The second, to divide each of the difficulties under examination into as many parts as possible, and as might be necessary for its adequate solution. The third, to conduct my thoughts in such order that, by commencing with objects the simplest and easiest to know, I might ascend by little and little, and, as it were, step by step, to the knowledge of the more complex; assigning in thought a certain order even to those objects which in their own nature do not stand in a relation of antecedence and sequence. And the last, in every case to make enumerations so complete, and reviews so general, that I might be assured that nothing was omitted.”

[3] Whimbey, 258.

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