by Michael Mallows


We know the world through our senses. Without sensibility no object would be given to us, without understanding no object would be thought. Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind . . . the understanding can intuit nothing, the senses can think nothing. Only through their union can knowledge arise.

Critique of pure reason, Immanuel Kant

Wisdom is no accident . . .

Information is everybody’s. Knowledge is information we have made our own.  Intelligence is the ability to make sense of information and knowledge - and to  use it.  Intuition is knowledge and information instantaneously realised.

Although it may be born from happenstance and coincidence, wisdom is the consciously chosen, intelligent and appropriate use of information, intuition and knowledge combined. 


My own preferred definition is: appropriate behaviour here and now in the longer term context of  desired outcomes and relationships.

Aptitude, Discernment, Acumen, Sense, Reason, Understanding, might be useful synonyms. The shorter English Dictionary suggests Quickness of Mental Apprehension, Sagacity, Superior Understanding and more.  However, I don’t just mean dictionary definitions or similes, I am asking what quality or attribute does an individual possess that manifests as intelligence?

One popular, and regrettable, definition is the equation of intelligence with the storage and retrieval of information from the brain. There is a radio quiz in which contestants are required to recall information about obscure or obvious events and people. If somebody ‘guesses’ rather than knows the answer, they get a round of applause - which I’ve never quite understood. The overall winner each year gets the sobriquet ‘Brain of Britain’. This proves the old adage and the new nonsense  “I  remember therefore I’m smart”.


Many of our institutions, our examination systems, our measures of (intellectual) merit indicate little more than an ability to regurgitate facts and figures for the delectation or disapproval of those with the power to award  merit marks.

All too often, because such people can, like anyone else, confuse their own map with the territory, they award higher marks or greater reward to like minded people who think the way they do. This cloning results in a bland mediocrity, which is dull or, worse, can lead to xenophobia, racism, sexism, and other forms of bias and bigotry.

Many people with letters after their name do not function intelligently because they (appear to) lack the ability to adapt to diverse situations, alternative perspectives, novel ideas or different maps. If ‘old’ means lack of movement, many relatively young BAs are honorary OAPs in that they are suffering from psycho-sclerosis, i.e. a hardening of the attitudes.

Consider, for example, racism or sexism. How does an intelligent person cling fiercely to outmoded beliefs and attitudes which discount and diminish other people on the basis of pigmentation or genitalia? Certainly not, to my mind, by functioning intelligently or appropriately, unless it be appropriate to their impaired thinking processes.

Their ‘reasons’, if examined closely, will often reveal deep psychological insecurity and intellectual laziness, anxiety or neurosis, but they will seldom allow, or perhaps are no longer capable of engaging intelligently in a rational, logical, detached examination of their ultimately ridiculous, and often dangerous thinking. Only when the consequences of their limitations cause them, or those around them, enough distress might they seek help or guidance. 

Projection & prejudice

Well, we do not see the world the way it is but the way we are. Projection, as Gestalt therapists define it, is the process of seeing in others the feelings, fears and fantasies that we find it difficult to admit or examine in ourselves. When we believe or fantasize that others are afraid, aggressive, malicious or whatever, chances are that we are projecting uncomfortable or unresolved aspects of our own personality.

When I feel most pissed by those very attitudes and  behaviours in others, I am reminded of my capacity for unkind and unthinking prejudice (is that a tautology?), of narrow mindedness, vicious sparks and petty meanness. Being aware of it, and since I started taking responsibility for my internal state rather than blaming other people, I can act autonomously  and make new choices.   Choices that are consistent with the kind of person I would like to be. I don’t always make wise choices, but I make intelligent decisions more often than I used to.  Or do I . . . ? 

I cannot have knowledge of myself as I am, but merely as I appear to myself, said Immanuel Kant. 

That, coupled with projection, makes it hardly surprising that we behave as if we are more restricted and less creative than we might be.

In order to restrict the world to our personal map, to find (create) evidence (proof) that our map is the territory, we must build and maintain certain filters. To filter the world, to sort it into categories, is a necessary part of human functioning and  thinking processes. Some of our filters (beliefs, values, interpretations) however, do not serve us well, or we don’t serve them intelligently.

With what passionate tenacity we cling to Certainty!  When we are sure, absolutely sure, we often think, feel and behave as if we have knowledge and wisdom when in fact we may have little more than (mis)information.

One indication of intelligence is the ability to make intellectual comparisons. The ability to reason This is like That, is one marvelous human trait that has served us well over the centuries, enabling us to evolve into the magnificent creature you see represented in your mirror. 


The brain, making untold zillions of connections and comparisons moment by moment, adapts the organism for which it is responsible in the best way it can for survival, health and growth.  The brain is always intelligent. Even when the mind feeds it misinformation it will do the best it can, making the best choice in its perception and interpretation of the circumstances.

On an individual level, the mimetic infant learns to walk, talk, reason, moralise and philosophise by observing the world around them. Children need and want to adapt to the adult world. They must because survival, literally and metaphorically, depends on adaptation.

Many grown ups I meet, perhaps most, possibly all, act out archaic and redundant behaviours as if fighting for survival. On a psychological level, it must seem to them as if they are actually being threatened when, say, a women has authority and power, or when a black person moves into the neighbourhood, or somebody ‘flaunts’ their sexual orientation, or when differing views are expressed. 

From what deep insecurities do we seek to diminish other people’s sense of self? To dim the light of their reasoning? To shout them down, shut them up,  make ourselves Right so that they, or their ideas, will be left out of our map?

 I have long been aware of the problems ensuing from an inability to make suitable comparisons or metaphors. Many of my individual or corporate clients have created repetitive and predictable patterns and they are not easily going to allow new experiences or ideas to change their world view.

Some treat kindness or generosity as suspicious or threatening. Anger, for others, is fearsome (their own as well as other people’s). Affection or sympathy is seen as weak or dubious. They affirm their maps, rebuild the ramparts, over and over, as if they are always fighting the same war. In a way, of course, that is exactly what they are doing, just as the racist or the MCP, is constantly recreating a limiting world map from a limited perspective or imagination.

People without imagination often lack compassion.  Incapable of seeing the world from any perceptual position but their own, they are unable to empathise.  They fit the world into their map by excluding what doesn’t fit, by creating self fulfilling prophecies or negative hallucinations. This narrowing down of experience hampers their ability to metaphorise, to compare This with That, or to create space for future pacing differences in terms of life experiences and expectations. 

Heraclitus (536-470BC) said, We both step and do not step into the same rivers; we both are and are not.

A Gestalt admonition is: Don’t try to push the river. 


A valid indicator of intelligence is the ability to function appropriately in diverse circumstances. What is it that makes us do the same things over and over when it is so obvious that repetition serves neither our best intended outcomes nor our potential growth?

What is it? A combination of context and environment (I am constrained by this situation), of behavioural patterns (so I must do what I’ve always  done. . . ), our capabilities ( . . .  don’t expect me to learn new tricks), beliefs (I’ll get my needs met or avoid pain if . . .), and values (this is the way it ought to be done!), along with a (fragile? rigid?) sense of identity (this is the sort of person I am and you can’t  expect me to change), and relationships (I want people to accept me as I  am). 

In my work as a training consultant and as a therapist I convey the message that we have choice and capacity for change on all of these levels. We need to make those choices consciously, responsibly, flexibly and creatively if we are going to develop and grow as intelligent beings in life enhancing relationships. When we give in to the fight/flight promptings of the old brain, the hypothalamus, we decommission the neocortex and often diminish the quality of life and relationships. Is that wise?

It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig, is of a different opinion, it is because they only know their side of the question.

John Stuart Mill

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Michael Mallows is a Management Consultant, Group Worker, Therapist, Supervisor, Adoption Consultant, Coach and Mentor, also an Author, Lyricist, Public Speaker, Team Builder and Workshop Presenter.

[Click on any of the links to learn more about him and his activities]