Three Meanings Behind Intelligent

The word intelligent is used in three basic ways. It makes sense because these things are related, but it also causes some problems because they aren't the same. By understanding the different ways intelligent is used we might be able to understand some oddities, like intelligent people doing dumb things.


The first way that intelligent (or smart) is used is to mean fluid IQ. Fluid IQ is how good you are at recognizing patterns. That's why some IQ tests show pictures with various patterns and you are asked to complete the pattern. It's your ability to learn in the present.

The second way that intelligent is used is to mean concrete IQ. Concrete IQ is how you have used your pattern recognition abilities over your lifetime to identify different patterns in the world. It's the amount of knowledge you've accumulated. Essentially, this is every test you have ever taken. These IQ tests look like your college, university, or graduate school entrance exams. It's what you have learned in the past and your ability to pull it up in the present.

The third way that intelligent is used is to mean good judgment. Good judgment means that you have acted in such a way that you were able to predict the expected outcomes of events and achieve values in that situation. This is essentially a pragmatic definition, we are looking at results here. The test for good judgment is life itself. We can look at specific situations as small tests, and multiple decisions across time as a longer test. It's what you've learned in the past and your ability to pull it up in the present, plus your ability to learn in the present, plus your ability to apply that in the present situation to reach desirable outcomes. This is the type of intelligence that people really value, because it's the one that matters.

You can see that it's possible to have a high fluid IQ, or a high concrete IQ, and still exercise poor judgment in a given situation, or in many situations across a lifetime. That's why some people seem both intelligent and dumb at the same time. (I'm not going to dive into the discussion about intelligence in different areas of life, but it's obvious that intelligence across all three definitions is highly contextual.)

The words dumb, stupid, or idiotic are often meant as the opposite of intelligent or smart. (All of these words have long etymologies, meaning histories. I'm not going into that. I'm talking about how people generally use them now.)

Reversing our points above gives us the three meanings here. You can have bad pattern recognition, a low amount of accumulated knowledge, and/or bad judgment.

Since good judgment is so much more complex than just accumulating a limited set of knowledge, it's common for there to be a disconnect between either type of IQ and good judgment.

The equivocation fallacy is when two people are saying the same word but they mean something different than the other person, or when the same person uses the same word or phrase in a different way at different times. Because we don't have clearly designated words for these different areas concerning what we mean by intelligent it's impossible to avoid. It stops communication and leads to bad outcomes. Hopefully, by being more aware of this potential hazard we will be able to clarify exactly which type of intelligent we're talking about in a conversation and that will lead to more clearly defined communication.

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You can find more of what I'm doing at http://www.JeffreyAlexanderMartin.com

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