Intelligence : Oded Zipory

Artist / Title
Nicola Samorì / La Massa

Intelligence : Oded Zipory

A common discussion of the concept of intelligence is taking place in the discourse of psychology, which considers the most effective and reliable ways to measure this concept.1 This discussion also deals with the tension between the biological and the social foundations of intelligence, and mainly through an elaboration upon this tension, the context in which the concept of intelligence is rooted—the very context of inequality—comes to light. This context not only kindles the interest of psychologists, but also that of the critical sociologists, who generally perceive intelligence testing as a mechanism of exclusion and discrimination.

Here I will argue that both psychology and sociology find it difficult to escape this context of inequality, and thus offer nothing but a deterministic conceptualization of the intellectual differences between individuals and groups. In opposition to the study of intelligence in sociological and psychological disciplines, the French philosopher Jacques Rancière presents the idea of “equality of intelligence”; following his lead, I will attempt to extricate the concept of intelligence from its context of inequality. It is indeed possible, I will argue, to propose an intelligence that is not based on inequality: however, separating intelligence from the social order, where it is defined and measured, is impossible, since the relation to the social order is the very uniqueness of the concept.

I. Intelligence as a practice of social exclusion according to intellectual abilities

At the beginning of the article we will ask, following the work of Pierre Bourdieu: What does intelligence represent? What are the social, political, and scientific conditions from which the concept emerged? And how does it function in the social field? Examining intelligence apart and away from the psychological discourse, we are drawn to see it as an invented and arbitrary criterion for filtering, sorting, and ultimately discriminating individuals and groups. Bourdieu goes as far as calling these manifestations of discrimination “the racism of intelligence.”2

In a lecture carrying this title, Bourdieu stated, in what later became a kind of slogan, “intelligence is what intelligence tests measure, that is what the education system measures.”3 He argues that through intelligence testing the educational system seeks to fashion and strengthen the legitimacy of the ruling classes. These classes that in the past relied on titles of nobility, congenital origin or property, had to establish, with the change in historical circumstances and in the political paradigm, a legitimacy of a different kind, and to constitute a clear difference between them and the governed.

Once the blatant racism, where ethnic origin was taken as carrying with it fundamental mental features, was censored, the legitimacy of the control of the elite over the masses, and the resulting discrimination, had to change its ideological basis and ascribe to itself the authority of a scientific discourse, and specifically a psychological discourse. And yet, we must ask again: what exactly does the intelligence test measure? A decent psychometric examiner will say, rightly, that he can only try to estimate as accurately as possible the examinee’s chances of success in school (or in other institutions). Intelligence tests usually succeed in this task of prediction; otherwise they would have ceased to exist. The typical psychological answer is that the test can ultimately measure the quantity of an individual’s mental entity called intelligence, despite the fact that the very answer to the question “What is intelligence?” is yet to be determined.

If, following Bourdieu, we assume that intelligence is indeed “what intelligence tests measure,” then we cannot regard intelligence as a natural entity preceding the exam, and therefore, success or failure in school cannot be explained by its quantity. According to Bourdieu, the explanation for the idea of intelligence lies in identifying the real objects examined. These are not only the result of learning, but also, and even mainly, a part of the conditions that enable the process of learning itself. Bourdieu claims that what the examiners are really after are the measures of early social training, the very ones required by given schools. That is to say, what is tested here is cultural capital and the willingness to accept the learning framework and its directives.4 Accordingly, an intelligence test justifies in advance the outcome of the student’s learning, which in turn, confirms the test as having reliable predictive ability.

Following Bourdieu, we must ask: why is the social regulation practiced specifically through fabricated measurement of intellectual abilities? In order to answer this question I will briefly describe the emergence of intelligence as a scientific object and the rise in popularity of the exams based on hierarchic differentiation.

1. A longer version of this article was published in Hebrew in Mafte’akh – Lexical Review of Political Thought (Winter 2011), 21-51.

2. Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question (London: Sage Publications, 1993), 177-180.

3. Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question, 178.

4. Pierre Bourdieu, Sociology in Question, 179.

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