This essay is more of an observation, and is somewhat pedantic. It should not be mistaken for simply an argument for precise semantics, but rather as questioning our notion of intelligence and how we apply it to people and what we think of it.
We use the terms “smart”, “clever” and “intelligent” to describe people who exhibit various qualities. These qualities are extremely diverse though, to the point where it becomes difficult to see what they have in common that we describe as smart. People tend to think that intelligent people all share this one quality, simply that they are smarter than most people. What we think of as intelligence actually consists of many different qualities that a “smart” person can have some or many of.
- Good Memory
- Short term
- Long term
- General Knowledge
- Knowledge of Specific areas
- Sciences and Math
- Cognitive Skills
- Decision making
- Fast thinking
- Spacial Visualisation
- Spacial Manipulation
- Social Manipulation
- Planning: Thoroughness and attention to detail
Anyone who is able to do something impressively complicated that is not physical can be considered smart. Defeating someone in a chess game in a short amount of time, predicting the outcome of events, getting good scores in academics, or just coming up with a good idea are all examples that apply to only a few of the attributes listed above. Even something as simple as curiosity can be considered an indicator of intelligence, such as when a student asks a teacher a question about the deeper reasoning or implications of something they are being taught.
What that actually means is simply a curious mind or a question based on an arbitrary thought that has no reliable indication of being more intelligent than normal. Any of the qualities in that list can be assumed as signs of intelligence if they are displayed in a way that makes them seem superior to other people. This brings up the questions:
- Does having one of these qualities make someone intelligent? If so, then to what extent must one excel at that quality to be considered intelligent, and does it have to be related to the average person’s level of that quality?
- Instead, does someone have to have multiple of these qualities? If so, does it matter which ones they are?
- Does simply knowing a lot about a subject make someone intelligent? Since most people can eventually learn a given amount of information, does that mean anyone can be considered intelligent simply by learning a lot of facts?
- Does our definition of intelligence have to encompass all of these and other qualities? If so, does it have to have something in common with all of them, and what is that thing in common?
- Instead should our definition of intelligence be changed, or should we identify all of these qualities differently? Do some of them make you smart, while others simply make you a hard worker, and others simply make you good at one specific field? Do we need names for these things that isn’t simply “intelligence”?
If we were to simply use the dictionary definition, there is a clear distinction between “smart” and “intelligent”:
This distinguishes “smart” as quick, intelligent thinking, the ability to solve a mental problem in short notice, while “intelligence” is defined as the advanced capacity to learn and reason. While these definitions both require mental aptitude, they distinguish “smart” as the ability to do similar things in a specified amount of time. Does this make a “smart” person simply an intelligent person who can think faster, or does someone being intelligent more often refer to cognitive abilities, while someone being smart refer to being able to do simpler mental activities quickly?
Furthermore, “clever” seems to be somewhat in the middle, meaning that it is either ambiguous and can mean either, or that it means both.
We do need precise definitions, and we need to know them in order to accurately communicate our thoughts with each other. However, we should go beyond semantics and wonder if these precise definitions are meaningful. Should we be considering someone who can quickly make a witty rap or joke as intelligent as someone who has memorised a lot of history or science facts, or someone who can do advanced yet extremely mechanical calculations? I am not saying that these people are worse than someone who can write a moving story, someone who can give an inspiring speech or someone who can analyse and fix complex scientific or social systems. The issue I would like to point out is how we do not really think about what intelligence is, so we apply it to anyone with advanced mental skills or knowledge. Hard work and skill are clearly not the same thing, yet we call people who have either or both of those things smart.
Does it matter if someone is intelligent or smart? Yes, it does, because knowledge and mental skills help you in every choice you make. All the qualities that were mentioned in that list are important, some perhaps more than others especially in different situations. There has been a recent trend of anti-intellectualism, but as that movement is clearly irrational, we have to consider what exactly they are against. There is no disputing that anti-intellectualism is fueled by things like jealousy, inferiority and superiority complexes, dogma, and other mistaken beliefs, but if their definition of intelligence is broad enough to encompass all of the qualities described in the list above, then they might do even more harm to others and themselves, as opposed to if they had a more specific definition. Obviously we should fight anti intellectualism as a whole, but in order to do that we should at the very least distinguish clearly between the various qualities we promote as intelligent.
We should know why someone is smart, and thus what we mean when we think that someone is smart, so that we do not see someone as simply mentally superior, but instead as having that desirable quality.