"Extraordinary Minds" by Howard Gardner: Notes for Chapters 1-3

Below the fold are notes from the first three chapters of Extraordinary Minds by Howard Gardner.


This professor who leads this seminar also taught Human Cognition & Instruction, so I am looking forward to his insights.

4 Varieties of Extraordinary Minds (xi-xii)
1. Master – over existing domains – Mozart (11)
2. Maker – over new domains – Freud (12)
3. Introspector – over self – Woolf (12)
4. Influencer – over others (12)

1. Other types of extraordinary minds exist, in ch 8 (12)
2. Some are extraordinary over one thing, (12-13)
3. other classification schemes exist


pathographies — negatively revisionist biographies (3)

“… within cognitive science — the field of study that focuses particularly on the mind — there has been a strong bias toward assuming that all individual make use of the same basic mental process” (3-4)

Structure of the book (5-6)
1. Explain individuals who are truly exceptional
2. Search for factors that relate the ordinary to the extraordinary
3. Look at lives of extraordinary individuals for specific insights of how others may be more productive and satisfied

Another way of looking at it (14-15)
1. Look at children
1.a ordinary children in ch2
1.b extradinary development in ch3
2. case studies of Mozart, Freud, Woolf, Gandhi, etc (ch 4-7)
— but are these cases politically correct? reasonable/
3. other forms of extraordinariness (ch 8)
4. look for lessons (conclusion)
4.1 “extraordinary individuals stand out in the context to which they reflect… on the events of their lives”
4.2 raw powers less impressive than ability to identify own strengths
4.3 failure is often and dramatic, but convert defeats into victories

The Bases of the Science of the Extraordinary
1. Careful study of extraordinary individuals
2. Case studies across domains (6-7)

According to Csikszentmihalyi‘s “system view” of extra-ordinariness… it is misleading to ask whether specific individuals are creative or extraordinary…. rather…. look to
1. the individual himself
2. the domain or discipline
3. the field – those who judge the individual in the domain (6-7)
(a trinary relationship — similar to viewer-medium-art trifecta)

idiographic: the study of the individual, specific, instantiated
nomothetic: general scientific laws, general, abstracted (7)

“students of extraordinaries lack strong models that can be crisply tested” (8)

3 Building Blocks and 1 Set of Processes
1. persons – “entities that exist in the natural world”
2. non-human physical objects
3. symbolic entities – words, gestures, pictures, numbers, associated with domains
4. development processes -“constant and dynamic interaction between an organism, with its internal programs, and the environment” (9-10)
is the entity-process distinction meaningful?


Three Types of Relations
1. Person-Domains
2. Person-Self
3. Person-Others

why not person-process?

Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development does not account for single-domain prodigies (15), so calls his entire system into question

a five year old is a fully symbol-using creature (22)

cognitive milestones (23)

  • 18 months – capable of pretense
  • 2-3 y: empathy
  • 4 representational – understand that minds can hold a false belief
  • 5 yo mind complex (25-26)
    • well developed capacity for symbolic manipulation
    • “the symbolic products created by young children are typically more flavorful, suggestive, and original than those fashioned by children just a few years older”
    • “Much of education consists of efforts to deconstruct these erroneous conceptions; cognitive scientists have shown how difficult it is to “school” the “unschooled mind.”

apprenticeships are the most widespread learning arrangements (26-27)
– can be self-apprenticed (Woolf, Mozart)

“Acquisition of Expertise” includes (27)
1. skills
2. beliefs
3. practices
– why so many trifectas?

According to information-processing theorists, acquisition of expertise correlates to practice.

Cognitivists argue… only practice separates the ordinary from the extraordinary (28)

The main purpose of schools is to train individuals to employ the major symbolic notations of their culture (28)
.. it is “deliberately decontextualized” to further symbolic manipulation, while apprentices learn skills in which symbols are secondary

Hurdles serve as a proxy for achievement
19th century: two or more classical languages
20th century: higher math, modern foreign language, standardized test

In apprenticeships the main bond is with the master, while in school the main bond is with peers (30)

personal differences visible and important in preschool, if not earlier (32)


Gardner is the author of “multiple intelligences” theory, so spends some time criticizing single-intelligence thoughts (34-35)

His multiple intelligences, at the time of this writing, are (35-36)
1. linguistic
2. logical
3. spatial
4. musical
5. bodily kinesthetic
6. interpersonal
7. intrapersonal
8. naturalism

Typically Bright v. Exceptionally Bright

Typically bright included in Lewis Terman’s study of high-IQ California children
1. healthy
2. reasonably wealthy & accomplished
3. content (men more than women)
4. very few creative artists, writers, no Nobel winners, etc
(the most successful subjects are psychologists!)

Exceptional bright (IQs above 180) studied
1. unhappy, except with other exceptionally bright students (Hollingworth – 39)
2. “rage to learn” (Winner – 39)

intelligence seems be to controlled more strongly by genetics than environment

was “IQ test was perfected in France and Great Britain a century ago as a means of selecting individuals who could function as adequate mid-level bureaucrats dispatched to a remote colonial post”? (41)

General Intelligence v. Multiple Intelligences (41)
GI supported by omnibus / globally gifted individuals equally adept with ease at many things
MI supported by idiot savants, individuals with selective learning disorders

“blatant are the differences between the relatively chaotic Western nursery class and the extremely well regulated Asian counterpart” (43)
BUT: I remember watching a documentary showing a bedlam Japanese 1st grade classroom, which explained that discipline comes later (but stricter) in that country

Description of Suzuki violent method (43)
– form of apprenticeship that utilizes family and peers?

“I think, for example, of the many American youngsters who achieve virtually an expert’s knowledge of dinosaurs… wit little need of prompting or reward from adults” (44)

“in [many] domains… skilled practitioners differ from one another chiefly in the number of hours of “deliberate practice” in which they have repeatedly engaget… [but] .. skeptics… point out that only those with talent are likely to practice for thousands of hours… and that sheer practice is less likely to be effective in highly cognitive domains such as mathematics, chess, and musical competition” (44)
– music, etc is ultimately a technical, not creative, task so should be heavily influenced by vertical practice

Traditional Precocity Domains (with 5 yo domain experts) (45)
1. Chess
2. Musical Performance
3. Mathematics
– these domains “are relatively circumscribed, each with its own set of symbols and governing rules”

“most parents report that the child seem to be ‘possessed’ by his interest, so much so that he wants to spend hours each day involved with chess moves, multiplication problems, or practicing (often with variations) a particular song on his instrument” (45) .. yet heavily dependent on family support (46)

Interesting facts
– each require little existing knowledge, which is why few early experts of literature, politics, etc
– spatial reasoning in chess, abstract reasoning in math, physical reasoning in music

Open Question
How does this reading compare with this list of the educational background of great military leaders?

John Boyd —————————>Fighter pilot, engineer
Stonewall Jackson ——————>Physics, Artillery
Albert Wohlstetter——————>Mathematician
Napoleon Bonaparte—————->Artillery, mathematics
Peter the Great———————–> Artillery, shipbuilding,
Alexander the Great—————–>Philosophy, medicine, science
Herman Kahn————————->Physics and mathematics

Does the fact that these generally are precocious domains, that rely less on existing knowledge, give these leaders a creativity advantage when they horizontally apply their knowledge to the vertical domain of military arts?

6 thoughts on “"Extraordinary Minds" by Howard Gardner: Notes for Chapters 1-3”

  1. Hi Dan,

    Several points I am too rushed to neatly connect:

    Gardner's Maker-Master concepts were far more developed-and I think arguable as a taxonomy – than the Introspector -Influencer. Of the last two, the latter was more coherently argued than the first though common sense puts in for the validity of influencer. Those parts were weak.

    Dr. Von has some reviews of Gardner's ideas in his archives – I know he uses them with his summer students at Northwestern, Evanston and Project Excite ( not sure if he simply advises administration there or does the staff training)

    We should not be too quick to assume tabula rasa in terms of cognitive abilities with infants 0-1 year. We need more MRI research.

    Ask what your prof thinks about the prevalence of nonverbal/spatial/mathematical thinkers being predisposed to strategic thinking. Due to handling complexity ? Multiple variables in relation to three dimensional space over time ? Analytical-logical reasoning coupled with intuitively probalistic estimation ? None of these ? What ?

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for the tip. I'll look up this stuff over at Von's blog [1].

    Maker and Master correspond to Barnett's Leviathan and SysAdmin categories — what I called Panzer and Soldat in my analysis of early Christianity. [2] The Maker is the first-half genius who creates a new discipline, tying together different threads in a loose network. The Maker's work can be done in just a few articles, or speeches, or presentations. However, Mastery takes a lifetime.

    So Leviathan/Panzer/Maker encompasses Penetration and Isolation in Boyd's PISRR taxonomy, and SysAdmin/Soldat/Master takes up Reorientation and Reharmonization. “Influencer” really looks like Subverter… which, if we throw out Introspector, tells us exactly what the replacement should be.

    Replace “Introspector” with “Enforcer,” and you can have four varieties of extraordinary minds that form a “PISRR cross”

    ———– Penetrate/Isolate———

    Replacing “Introspector” with “Enforcer” also makes the picture of great leaders like Attilla the Hun. They Made new styles of war with innovations, Mastered existing techniques, Influenced their followed, and Enforced their will against their enemies.

    It also makes more sense form a logical view. “Self” is really just a special case of “Person,” so the empathy needed for Subversion, when directed on oneself, becomes Gardner's “Introspection.”

    Gardner attacks the tabula rasa model, “Neither a blank slate nor William James' 'blooming, buzzing confusion,' the mind of the infant is already a quite detailed and articulated mental apparatus,” (19), so I apologize for misrepresenting Gardner's belief.

    I'll ask him the strategic thinking question. Today's class should be fun. 🙂

    [1] http://vonscience.blogspot.com/
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/07/14/every-man-a-panzer-every-woman-a-soldat.html

  3. Short answer: “I can't think of what the correlation would be.”

    Long answer (rephrasing generously): “First, it may be a mistake to think that politics is any less complex or systems-oriented than military strategy. However, politics may be more verbal. There may be no real advantage for mathematical thinkers in strategy, but the high verbal requirement in politics may be just another hoop to go through.

    Also, Gardner thinks of all fields are symbolic processing. So one may be able to find a correlation by determining what sort of symbolic processing is required to do well at math, and what is required to do strategy. Strategy may just be the “translation” of mathematics, except instead of x and y you have tanks and soldiers.”

  4. “I can't think of what the correlation would be.”

    LOL ! Well said. That's what I'm trying to figure out, if any ( though I strongly suspect there is – simply an intuitive leap on my part).

    “First, it may be a mistake to think that politics is any less complex or systems-oriented than military strategy.”

    I didn't per se though I agree nonetheless. The two fields are interrrelated to a significant degree (Clausewitz) On the other hand, the consequences of exceeding the margin of error for military strategy are more serious.

    “However, politics may be more verbal.”

    Yes, I'd agree with that – though some of the most potent symbolic political statements that evoke visceral reactions are non-verbal.

    ” So one may be able to find a correlation by determining what sort of symbolic processing is required to do well at math, and what is required to do strategy.”

    Have to think about this one a while. Not sure if Gardner's premise is correct.

  5. Maybe nonverbal/spatial/mathematical thinkers simply have a freer mind. If you're looking for a number and have no preconceived idea what that number will be, you are able to go in any direction the figures take you. Kind of like figures don't lie, but liars figure. In this case you would be lying to yourself. If your mind has a set of controls built in, it is hard to obtain total freedom. If you are looking for a strategy that is the best and not one that simply conforms to your controls, it would be best to start mathematically from the first equation or sentence and not from the known end result.

  6. Jumping back into a conversation 7 months later…


    After my experience failing to find a link between subjective identity and creativity [1], the introduction to the massive modularity thesis [2], and strong genetic correlations to certain beliefs generally [3], I wonder if a focus on symbolic processing ability is just too murky to make progress. Or even, “symbolic” processing ability within a domain may be a result of constructed rationality within that domain outside of any larger Piagetian development. Hmm…


    Perhaps a freer mind is a result of an emptier mind? I'm thinking of the weak memorization ability of children as a possible reason why children learn language earlier — they have less neurological connections (rulesets-in-flesh?) to confuse that learning. (Then again, that may just be the result of purposeful practice, or the natural development of a mental language module, or…)

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/06/07/coming-anarchy-3-identity.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/06/16/the-evolution-away-from-modularity.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2005/11/03/the-dna-of-politics.html
    [4] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2006/08/23/boydian-orientation-as-a-political-science-paradigm.html

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *