Cognitive Semantics

This post originally appeared on Facebook on May 23rd, 2009

Because it’s come up in a couple of conversations recently, and because I’ve been thinking about it, I thought I’d share some of my thoughts on some stuff. Specifically, the lines I draw between the concepts of being “Wise”, “Intelligent”, “Intellectual” and “Smart”.

Wisdom is first on this list because it is probably the most easily-defined of these concepts. When I say someone is “wise” or their judgment exhibits a quality of wisdom, I am refering to their perceptive grasp of the relationships between entities. Conventionally, wisdom is a result of having a rich life experience; that is to say, a person who has lived through a lot is more wise than someone who has not. I think that experience is one method by which wisdom can be gained, but it is not the only one. Wisdom is knowing how different things (people, events, forces) interact with each other, and what kind of result one can expect to see from a given set of circumstances. As an example, a wise person knows that putting their hand on a stove will result in pain. They may know that from personal experience, or from a deeper grasp of the underlying concepts of the interplay between hot objects and body parts, and what is likely to happen when those come together. To use a different example, a wise person may know that marrying a person with a fundamentally different value system is probably not a great idea; not because he/she has experienced it before (or indeed, had friends who did), but because he/she understands something about human relationships and what makes them work well.

Intelligence is a concept that dovetails with Wisdom, but is a separate entity. Intelligence is a quality of intuitive grasp and adaptability. An intelligent person solves problems in novel situations because he/she has the ability to see things from a number of angles, and to create innovative solutions that are not guided by any previous experience. In a recent debate with a friend, she suggested to me that if a person from North America was dropped in an African jungle, his/her intelligence would be useless to them. I argued that their knowledge would not help them survive, but if they were particularly intelligent, they would be able to adapt and solve problems, without the need for specific instruction. Like Wisdom, the application of Intelligence requires an underlying grasp of the relationships between things, but Intelligence itself is not tied to any observed phenomenon. One cannot learn to be intelligent, though one can, conceivably, be tutored in skills to apply the intelligence he/she does have.

Intellectual refers to a concept I learned in a social psychology course I took back in Waterloo called “need for cognition”. This is the willingness (or tendency) of a person to spend time thinking about things. Some people have a propensity to look at things in dry, rational terms, or engage in pursuits that have a purely cognitive element to them. Others prefer to experiment in the real world, or to look at the way things happen in a pragmatic sense rather than distilling them to their constituent parts. As an example, two people attend a concert (for the sake of argument, we’ll say it’s me and Joel, although this is not really a very accurate abstraction). Both of us like the music the band is playing. Joel likes it because he likes it. His practical experience of the music is a positive one. I, on the other hand, am impressed by the innovative chord structures, the use of harmony, how it departs from other music I have heard, and other more empirical measures of quality. While we both arrived at the same conclusion – the music was good – but my appreciation was influenced by intellectual appraisal, whereas Joel just likes what he likes.

The final concept is that of being Smart. I judge Smartness by the quality of decisions a person makes. Given a set of circumstances, a person has a number of options on how to proceed. A Smart person makes choices that have the greatest long-term utility (or, if you disagree with that, fill in your own definition of what a smart decision is). Smart is the most difficult of these ideas to really put a solid definition around, because it overlaps a lot with the idea of “Taste”. I may think that driving 2 hours so you can enter a 30-minute running event is not a very smart use of time, but that’s because I’m really lazy and don’t like running. However, someone putting a value on experience and community running and racing and variety may think it is completely worth going to a new place.

It is important to differentiate these concepts, because while they are often used interchangably, they are not the same thing. I know many people who are very wise, but when confronted with a new situation where they cannot draw on their experience or grasp, they struggle. I know a number of very intelligent people who don’t think about things before doing them, trying out new solutions all the time like a person trying to assemble a hang-glider after falling off a cliff.

For me, a smart person makes decisions that are guided by the above three qualities. He/she looks at prospective options and evaluate whether he/she knows how the elements will interact, and what the long-term repercussions will be. If the situation is a novel one (i.e., no experience of how it’s solved), he/she uses his/her intelligence to intuit some novel approaches, and then intellectually tests what is likely to happen if he/she follows each option. This brings me to the antonym, stupid. A stupid person blindly makes decisions without considering the outcome beforehand. Stupid decisions are made out of a lack of wisdom (not knowing what will happen if X meets Y), a lack of intelligence (not being able to guess how X might affect Y in light of a lack of prior experience), and/or a lack of intellect (not spending the time to imagine how differences in X, like the presence of Z, might change Y).

A stupid person is a person who makes stupid decisions. It does not necessarily mean a lack of any of the above qualities, but it does mean the lack of the use of at least one. I don’t think stupid should be considered as a perjorative term; that is to say, stupidity isn’t inherently negative, it just tends to lead to negative results. It is my opinion that we should all try to exercise each of the three underlying concepts to accomplish the fourth.

The above are all, of course, simply my thoughts, opinions, and semantics. A big chunk of the inspiration for this (aside from the fact that it’s come up in conversation a few times over the past couple of weeks) came from reading “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig. It’s a good ‘un if you haven’t read it already.


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