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Mary Midgley on ‘Intelligence’ and its ‘Measurement’

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1050 words

Mary Midgley (1919-2018) is a philosopher perhaps most well-known for her writing on moral philosophy and rejoinders to Richard Dawkins after his publication of The Selfish Gene. Before her passing in October of 2018, she published What Is Philosophy For? on September 21st. In the book, she discusses ‘intelligence’ and its ‘measurement’ and comes to familiar conclusions.

‘Intelligence’ is not a ‘thing’ like, say, temperature and weight (though it is reified as one). Thermometers measure temperature, and this was verified without relying on the thermometer itself (see Hasok Chang, Inventing Temperature). Temperature can be measured in terms of units like kelvin, celsius, and Fahrenheit. The temperature is the available kinetic energy of heat; ‘thermo’ means heat while ‘meter’ means to measure, so heat is what is being measured with a thermometer.

Scales measure weight. If energy balance is stable, so too will weight be stable. Eat too much or too little, then weight gain or loss will occur. But animals seem to have a body set weight which has been experimentally demonstrated (Leibel, 2008). In any case, what a scale measures is the overall weight of an object which is done by measuring how much force exists between the weighed object and the earth.

The whole concept of ‘intelligence’ is hopelessly unreal.

Prophecies [like those of people who work on AI] treat intelligence as a quantifiable stuff, a standard, unvarying, substance like granulated sugar, a substance found in every kind of cake — a substance which, when poured on in larger quantities, always produces a standard improvement in performance. This mythical way of talking has nothing to do with the way in which cleverness — and thought generally — actually develops among human beings. This imagery is, in fact, about as reasonable as expecting children to grow up into steamrollers on the ground that they are already getting larger and can easily be trained to stamp down gravel on roads. In both cases, there simply is not the kind of continuity that would make any such progress conceivable. (Midgley, 2018: 98)

We recognize the divergence of interests all the time when we are trying to find suitable people for different situations. Thus Bob may be an excellent mathematician but is still a hopeless sailor, while Tim, that impressive navigator, cannot deal with advanced mathematics at all. which of them then should be considered the more intelligent? In real life, we don’t make the mistake of trying to add these people’s gifts up quantitatively to make a single composite genius and then hope to find him. We know that planners wanting to find a leader for their exploring expedition must either choose between these candidates or send both of them. Their peculiar capacities grow out of their special interests in topics, which is not a measurable talent but an integral part of their own character.

In fact, the word ‘intelligence’ does not name a single measurable property, like ‘temperature’ or ‘weight’. It is a general term like ‘usefulness’ or ‘rarity’. And general terms always need a context to give them any detailed application. It makes no more sense to ask whether Newton was more intelligent than Shakespeare than it does to ask if a hammer is more useful than a knife. There can’t be such a thing as an all-purpose intelligence, any more than an all-purpose tool. … Thus the idea of a single scale of cleverness, rising from the normal to beyond the highest known IQ, is simply a misleading myth.

It is unfortunate that we have got so used today to talk of IQs, which suggests that this sort of abstract cleverness does exist. This has happened because we have got used to ‘intelligence tests’ themselves, devices which sort people out into convenient categories for simple purposes, such as admission to schools and hospitals, in a way that seems to quantify their ability. This leads people to think that there is indeed a single quantifiable stuff called intelligence. But, for as long as these tests have been used, it has been clear that this language is too crude even for those simple cases. No sensible person would normally think of relying on it beyond those contexts. Far less can it be extended as a kind of brain-thermometer to use for measuring more complex kinds of ability. The idea of simply increasing intelligence in the abstract — rather than beginning to understand some particular kind of thing better — simply does not make sense. (Midgley, 2018: 100-101)

IQ researchers, though, take IQ to be a measure of a quantitative trait that can be measured in increments—like height, weight, and temperature. “So, in deciding that IQ is a quantitative trait, investigators are making big assumptions about its genetic and environmental background” (Richardson, 2000: 61). But there is no validity to the measure and hence no backing for the claim that it is a quantitative trait and measures what they suppose it does.

Just because we refer to something abstract does not mean that it has a referent in the real world; just because we call something ‘intelligence’ and say that it is tested—however crudely—by IQ tests does not mean that it exists and that the test is measuring it. Thermometers measure temperature; scales measure weight; IQ tests….don’t measure ‘intelligence’ (whatever that is), they measure acculturated knowledge and skills. Howe (1997: 6) writes that psychological test scores are “an indication of how well someone has performed at a number of questions that have been chosen for largely practical reasons” while Richardson (1998: 127) writes that “The most reasonable answer to the question “What is being measured?”, then, is ‘degree of cultural affiliation’: to the culture of test constructors, school teachers and school curricula.

But the word ‘intelligence’ refers to what? The attempt to measure ‘intelligence’ is a failure as such tests cannot be divorced from their cultural contexts. This won’t stop IQ-ists, though, from claiming that we can rank one’s mind as ‘better’ than another on the basis of IQ test scores—even if they can’t define ‘intelligence’. Midgley’s chapter, while short, gets straight to the point. ‘Intelligence’ is not a ‘thing’ like height, weight, or temperature. Height can be measured by a ruler; weight can be measured by a scale; temperature can be measured by a thermometer. Intelligence? Can’t be measured by an IQ test.



  1. mikemikev says:

    Pretty dumb post.


  2. Romello says:

    I don’t get this website. Why not just say the black/white IQ gap is real and significant and we don’t know yet what causes it but it seems hard to change. How does being to the left of people like Flynn and Turkheimer help your case, eg attacks on IQ testing, twin studies, etc?


  3. mikemikev says:

    For your next post you can dismiss race differences in intelligence by asking people to prove they’re not in a computer simulation.


  4. Romello Delomand says:

    “IQ researchers, though, take IQ to be a measure of a quantitative trait that can be measured in increments—like height, weight, and temperature. ”

    This is incorrect. An IQ score is a ranking. A person with a 105 IQ is smarter than a person with 100. That doesn’t mean he is 5% smarter.


  5. King meLo says:

    This entire post is just filled with inaccuracies.

    Intelligence is “real” I’ve pointed to multiple mechanisms that mimic a general problem solving system. Furthermore you argument against that seems to stem from a severe conceptual misunderstanding. IQ is just as real as a thermometer.
    Intelligence as a concept is not necessarily coextensive with the idea of innate potential. And no those quotes you provided me were not relevant to the matter.


    • RaceRealist says:

      How were they “not relevant to the matter”? Howe’s critique regarding a test for “vanity” is definitely relevant. Is “measuring IQ” like measuring length with a ruler? What such tests measure is one’s ability to complete questions chosen for “purely practical”—not theoretical—reasons. IQ is “real” in that a score arises from a test but it’s not measuring anything “real”—not in the way like we measure temperature or weight.

      The concept of “innateness” is a folk concept—I know you’ve read some of the literature there. Intelligence isn’t a “thing”—it’s a reified abstraction.


    • King meLo says:

      “How were they “not relevant to the matter”?”

      Because they weren’t. They said nothing on whether Intelligence is coextensive with genetic determinism. Neither you or the quotes can back the assertion up. You seem to be forgetting that WE are the ones who make definitions and concepts.

      “What such tests measure is one’s ability to complete questions chosen for “purely practical”—not theoretical—reasons. IQ is “real” in that a score arises from a test but it’s not measuring anything “real”—not in the way like we measure temperature or weight.”

      That’s just a bunch of incoherent blathering, and there is quite a lot of it to unpack.

      1. They are not based on “purely practical reasons” I’ve supplied you multiple citations that propose theories explaining g from a biological perspective. I’m not doing it again, I’m tired of the pseudo intellectualism.

      Nevermind the fact that theory isn’t needed to justify something as “real”.

      1. MOST IQ tests measure your problem solving ability in reference to a particular culture/social class. Is that not “real”? What do you think “real” means? Because I think it’s clear that you’ve bastardized the definition to fit your argument. I mean I changed the definition of intelligence, but that was based on the current literature of how we know the brain works. Your change doesn’t even make sense. Is it “real” in the same way that socially constructed races are “real”? Because if so then IQ is most certainly measuring something “real”. In actuality, for a measurement to capture something “real” it simply needs to coincide with physical mechanisms. IQ does this, whether that be through neural structures and properties or simply the physical actions and behavior we witness in other people.


    • RaceRealist says:

      It is coextensive with it in hereditarian theory.

      How are they not based on “purely practical reasons”? You are aware that test construction hasn’t changed since Binet, right? Theory is needed to justify “intelligence” (what IQ tests supposedly test). Though, as Richardson argues, what is being tested are social class proxies, not “intelligence.” Again, IQ tests measure culturally acquired knowledge. IQ tests are knowledge tests. What “physical mechanisms” does IQ “capture”? Thermometers measure temperature, scales measure weight, rulers measure length. We have validated these things. Not so for “intelligence tests.”

      Midgley’s critique is fine.


    • dealwithit says:

      melo is one of peepee’s multiple personalities.

      melo and peepee believe that if the word for shit was “gold” everyone would be a billionaire.


    • King meLo says:

      The irony is that you and dipshit over there don’t know the difference between words and things and that’s why you don’t understand rudimentary concepts.

      But go ahead keep sucking each others cocks. You like RR because he has short hair and doesn’t wear make up. Just come out already. Your rep can’t possibly get any worse.


    • dealwithit says:

      how many dildos do you own peepee?


    • King meLo says:

      This dumbass really thinks I’m Pumpkin.

      If I ever need any dildos mugabe I’ll make sure to borrow them from you.


    • dealwithit says:

      where did i claim that i merely thought you were peepee?

      i KNOW you are peepee.

      just like i know rr is NOT italian.


    • King meLo says:


      Just like you “know” that “Jewsdidit”

      Just like you “know” that Russiagates a myth

      Just like you “know” that climate change is a conspiracy.


      If there is one thing you’re right about it’s that stupid people don’t KNOW they’re stupid and you’re the perfect example of this.


    • dealwithit says:


      someone is really pissed off that i know she’s peepee.

      you need to listen to more and stop being a fag.


    • King meLo says:

      No I’m actually just shocked at how retarded you are.

      Poe’s law.

      You need to listen to more rap music and then maybe you’d actually develop a good since of aesthetics.

      Short hair on women is for faggots like you in denial.


    • dealwithit says:

      repeat after me peepee…

      my rectum is not a vagina.

      my anus is not a vulva.

      my rectum is not a vagina…

      —silvia poggioli, rome





    • dealwithit says:

      try harder meine herren.

      that was the wrong porno music.

      this is what i meant to post:


    • dealwithit says:

      someone still won’t say she isn’t peepee.

      jewtube now reuires one signin to watch the gabriel’s oboe scene because jews.

      jews ikpprt retards like peepee by the millions to avoid the next shoah…

      which will sink…

      we’ll all live to see it. good times.

      shit happens.


    • King meLo says:

      I’m not Pumpkin you fucking idiot.

      We don’t even have the same style of writing or tone. Why the fuck would I argue with myself for fucking hours? Only schizo retards like you do that shit.

      More irony, the guy with a dozen fake accounts accuses everyone else that disagrees with him of being sock puppets

      I’d make fun of your lack of self awareness, but again stupid people don’t know they’re stupid, so how could I expect anything more from you?

      Take the cock out of your mouth and replace it with the pills you’re supposed to be taking.


    • dealwithit says:

      it would be really sad if you weren’t peepee because you have zero personality.

      you’d have to have had a lobotomy to be so vacuous, or…

      you’d have to be a shitholer who can’t speak english.

      either way…


      Only schizo retards like peepee (aka you) do that shit.


    • King meLo says:

      Says the Italian wannabe spamming the same played out jokes and other stupidity 24/7.

      Have you ever seen a therapist?


  6. dealwithit says:

    but “intelligence” within a given context isn’t meaningless.

    so all she and rr are saying is that g doesn’t exist or depends on the population and battery and therefore is not a thing.

    dumb brown midgets like peepee and melo think that if the word for shit was “gold” then everyone would be a billionaire.



  7. King meLo says:

    “so all she and rr are saying is that g doesn’t exist or depends on the population and battery and therefore is not a thing.”

    If only that statement made sense.


  8. dealwithit says:

    criteria for g being a real thing for rr:

    rr puts negroes and italians in various situations…(like that show a long time ago which posed teams of pro athletes from the major sports vs one another…the baseball players always won.)
    rr finds that no matter what situations he can up with the italians keep beating the negroes.

    this is g.

    rr must conclude that italians are more intelligent than negroes…but he must still be agnostic as to whether this superiority is innate or acquired.

    bottom line is rr is still conflating innate ability with ability…

    reality is: IQ tests are useful and nothing fake and gay is useful but this doesn’t mean afro-albanian trans male bodybuilders are innately stupid.


  9. dealwithit says:

    rr has been an hereditist and has ovecome the nature vs nurture false dichotomy.

    he has made an aufhebung in his diaper.

    he has summitted a peak he thinks the highest.

    then he surveys the world beneath from this summit and…


    but rr can only dream of being gordo cooper.


  10. dealwithit says:

    the roman emperor meets arnold:

    hitler died a roman catholic.


  11. dealwithit says:

    peepee/melo is really knocking herself out in more ways than one.


    the lady doth protest too much, methinks.


  12. dealwithit says:

    it’s funny that peepee should take umbrage at my identifying her as peepee, because if she’s not peepee she’s an…




    • King meLo says:

      It’s hard to take you seriously knowing the retard shit you believe in.

      NPCs tend to repeat themselves after their dialogue tree has been exhausted. I take it yours was used up years ago.


  13. dealwithit says:

    (((wikipedia))) says of mary midegly:

    Midgley strongly opposed reductionism and scientism…Midgley argued that philosophy is like plumbing, something that nobody notices until it goes wrong. “Then suddenly we become aware of some bad smells, and we have to take up the floorboards and look at the concepts of even the most ordinary piece of thinking. The great philosophers … noticed how badly things were going wrong, and made suggestions about how they could be dealt with.”

    this is a great description of what’s gone wrong with the pseudoscience that is IQ.

    taleb said: psychology is astrology.

    but it takes an Iq above room temperature, unlike peepee’s, to unnuhstan dis yo.

    i’ do’ mattuh ha many time you repeat i’ to peepee. she cain’ unnuhustan i’ yo.

    btw, i assume rr has figured out by now that peepee is a morbidly obese black lesbian psychotic psychopath.


    • King meLo says:


      When are you going to have something interesting to say?


    • dealwithit says:

      one prediction of rr’s suicidal bug chasing homosexuality is that maine negros should score higher relative to maine whites than alabama negros score relative to alabama whites.

      do they?

      rr is too busy fapping to old issues of Muscle & Fitness to answer this question.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. dealwithit says:

    italian wannabe?

    where’d you get that idea?

    you’re thinking of rr, a negro from the mezzogiorno.

    rome has nothing to do with italy. italy is gay.


    • King meLo says:

      It’s obvious.

      RR is more Italian than you will ever be, and that bothers you.

      You’re basically Pedro.

      “Rome has nothing to do with Italy”

      Again, if only that statement made sense. Just more incoherent faggotry.


  15. dealwithit says:

    i found this article about rr.
    “Contracting AIDS as a means of committing suicide .” American Journal of Psychiatry, 142(5), pp. 656b–656


  16. dealwithit says:

    the moral theory of everything is far simpler than all the others.


    all the others depend on something philosophy professors call a “brute fact”.

    which denies the “principle of sufficient reason”.

    the ancients had a yuge advantage in their metaphysical thinking.

    they’s yet to be brainwashed by materialism, scientism, technism.

    it’s obvious when you think about it long enough.


  17. dealwithit says:

    P4. If a person is justified in believing a proposition that is true by accident or luck, then his justified true belief is not knowledge.

    P5. Jackson is justified in believing that someone in the room owns a Ford, which is true by accident or luck.

    these statements are either self-contradictory or meaningless.

    P5. If any believer holds a belief on the basis of a belief without justification, that believer does not reasonably hold the first belief.

    this is false. there is no beyond good and evil. these are ultimate reality.

    i am justified in believing that oprah is possessed by the devil, because i have seen her in person speaking old church slavonic and vomiting like this girl:


    • dealwithit says:

      today i walked my dog in the park and i saw saprophitic ferns.

      this statement is true and requires no justification. but whether this is real or an illusion is impossible to say as “real” is a meaningless intensifier like “fucking”.

      the same is true for all statements of natural science, as all of these ultimately come down to: follow this recipe and you will get the same result we did.

      try harder paisan.


  18. caffeine withdrawals says:

    “In fact, the word ‘intelligence’ does not name a single measurable property, like ‘temperature’ or ‘weight’. It is a general term like ‘usefulness’ or ‘rarity’. And general terms always need a context to give them any detailed application. It makes no more sense to ask whether Newton was more intelligent than Shakespeare than it does to ask if a hammer is more useful than a knife.”

    First half is spot-on, second half is silly. Why can’t the context be life itself? With this context you’d expect an intelligent person to generally make better and more correct decisions than an unintelligent person. And IQ seems to measure your capacity for this pretty well.


  19. caffeine withdrawals says:

    BTW your content is MUCH more interesting than peepee’s. I’m gonna read it regularly.


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