I happened to stumble upon recently on an excellent two series article by Mark Dombeck about the theories of Robert Kegan. The articles are really good and I strongly recommended that you go there and read the stuff in its entirety.
Robert Kegan is a developmental psychologist, based at Harvard, and inspired by Piaget’s stage theories, he has proposed his own stage theory as to how we become socially mature. Critical to understanding his theory are some concepts related to subject-object consciousness. Subject consciousness refers to self-concepts to which we are attached and thus cannot take an objective look. Object consciousness is also part of self, and was a subject consciousness in an earlier stage, but now we can detach ourselves from the underlying phenomenon and take an objective look at that part of self.
It is his thesis that as babies we feel everything as self and actually have no concept of self different from that of the world. Slowly as we develop, we start identifying with our bodily sensations, reflexes, movements, desires, needs etc and our sphere of objectivity grows bigger, while our sphere of subjectivity narrows and shrinks.
He also maintains that we pass through discrete developmental stages , wherein we take a leap from one stage to another, and while stuck in that developmental stage , are not passively dividing the world and self in subject and object consciousness, but it is a dynamic process, though in equilibrium. At each leap, what was earlier subjective, now becomes objective. another way to say the same is that what was concrete (my perspective and thus available to me) becomes abstract(another’s perspective and thus not available to me, but can only be imagined from abstraction)
More complex appreciations of the social world evolve into existence as a person becomes able to appreciate stuff abstractly that they used to appreciate only in concrete (obvious, tangible) forms. This is to say (using Kegan’s terms) that people are initially embedded in their own subjective perspective. They see things only from their own particular point of view and fundamentally cannot understand what it might be like to see themselves from another perspective other than their own. Being unable to understand what you look like to someone else is the essence and definition of what it means to be subjective about yourself, for example. Being able to appreciate things from many different perspectives is the essence of what it means to be relatively objective.
With this introduction, I’ll now like to introduce readers to the seven stages he has identified (he has missed the eighth stage in his analysis!)
Kegan is suggesting that as babies grow into adults, they develop progressively more objective and accurate appreciations of the social world they inhabit. They do this by progressing through five or more states or periods of development which he labeled as follows:
In their beginnings, babies are all subjective and have really no appreciation of anything objective at all, and therefore no real self-awareness. This is to say, at first, babies have little idea how to interpret anything, and the only perspective they have with which to interpret things is their own scarcely developed perspective. They can recognize parent’s faces and the like, but this sort of recognition should not be confused with babies being able to appreciate that parents are separate creatures with their own needs. This key recognition doesn’t occur for years.
Kegan describes this earliest period as Incorporative. The sense of self is not developed at this point in time. There is no self to speak of because there is no distinction occurring yet between self and other. To the baby, there is not any reason to ask the question, “who am I” because the baby’s mind is nothing more and nothing less than the experience of its senses as it moves about. In an important sense, the baby is embedded in its sensory experience and has no other awareness.
Babies practice using their senses and reflexes a lot and thus develop mental representations of those reflexes. At some point it occurs to the baby that it has reflexes that it can use and senses that it can experience. Reflex and sensation are thus the first mental objects; the first things that are understood to be distinct components of the self. The sense of self emerges from the knowledge that there are things in the world that aren’t self (like reflexes and senses); things that I am not. To quote Kegan, “Rather than literally being my reflexes, I now have them, and “I” am something other. “I” am that which coordinates or mediates the reflexes…”
Kegan correspondingly refers to this second period of social appreciation development as Impulsive, to suggest that the child is now embedded in impulses – which are those things that coordinate reflexes. The sense of self at this stage of life would be comfortable saying something like, “hungry”, or “sleepy”, being fully identified with these hungers. Though babies are now aware that they can take action to fulfill a need, they still are not clear that other people exist yet as independent creatures. From the perspective of the Impulsive mind, a parent is merely another reflex that can be brought to bear to satisfy impulses.
The objectification of what was previously subjective experience continues as development continues. Kegan’s next developmental leap is known as the Imperial self. The child as “little dictator” is born. In the prior impulsive self, the self literally is nothing more and nothing less than a set of needs. There isn’t anyone “there” having those needs yet. The needs alone are all that exists. As awareness continues to rise, the child now starts to become aware that “it” is the very thing that has the needs. Because the child is now aware that it has needs (rather than is needs), it also starts to become aware that it can consciously manipulate things to get its needs satisfied. The impulsive child was also manipulative, perhaps, but in a more unaware animal manner. The imperial child is not yet aware that other people have needs too. It only knows at this stage that it has needs, and it doesn’t hesitate to express them.
The Interpersonal period that follows next starts with the first moment when the child comes to understand that there are actually other people out there in the world whose needs need to be taken into account along side their own. The appreciation of the otherness of other people comes about, as always by a process of expanding perspectives. The child’s perspective in this case expands from its own only to later include both its own and those of other important people around it. It is the child’s increasingly sophisticated understanding of the idea that people have needs itself which cause the leap to occur. To quote Kegan again,”I” no longer am my needs (no longer the imperial I); rather I have them. In having them I can now coordinate, or integrate, one need system with another, and in so doing, I bring into being that need-mediating reality which we refer to when we speak of mutuality.”
In English then, the interpersonal child becomes aware that “not only do I have needs, other people do too!” This moment in time is where conscience is born and the potential for guilt and shame arises, as well as the potential for empathy. Prior to this moment, these important aspects of adult mental life don’t exist except as potentials.
The interpersonal child is aware that other people have needs which it needs to be taken into account if it is to best satisfy its own needs. There is no guiding principle that helps the interpersonal child to determine which set of needs is most important – its own, or those of the other people. Some children will conclude that their own needs are most important to satisfy, while others will conclude that other’s needs should be prioritized, and some children will move back and forth between the two positions like a crazy monkey.
As the child’s sense of self continues to develop, at some point it becomes aware that a guiding principle can be established which helps determine which set of needs should take precedence under particular circumstances. This is the first moment that the child can be said to have values, or commitments to ideas and beliefs and principles which are larger and more permanent than its own passing whims and fears. Kegan refers to this new realization of and commitment to values as the Institutional period, noting that in this period, the child’s idea of self becomes something which can be, for the first time, described in terms of institutionalized values, such as being honest. “I’m an honest person. I try to be fair. I strive to be brave.” are the sorts of things an institutional mind might say. Values, such as the Golden Rule (e.g., “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”), start to guide the child’s appreciation of how to be a member of the family and of society. The moral, ethical and legal foundations of society follow from this basic achievement of an Institutional self. Further, children (or adults) who achieve this level of social maturity understand the need for laws and for ethical codes that work to govern everyone’s behavior. Less socially mature individuals won’t grasp why these things are important and cannot and should not simply be disregarded when they are inconvenient.
For many people, social maturity seems to stop here at the Institutional stage. Kegan himself writes that this stage is the stage of conventional adult maturity; one that many (but not all) adults reach, and beyond which most do not progress. However, the potential for continued development continues onwards and upwards.
The next evolution of self understanding occurs when the child (by now probably an adult) starts to realize that there is more than one way of being “fair” or “honest” or “brave” in the world. Whereas before, in the interpersonal mindset, there is only one possible right way to interpret a social event (e.g., in accordance with one’s own value system), a newly developed InterIndivdiual mindset starts to recognize a diversity of ways that someone might act and still be acting in accordance with a coherent value system (though not necessarily one’s own value system).
For example, let’s consider how someone with an Institutional mindset and someone with an InterIndividual mindset might judge someone who has become a “draft dodger” so as to avoid military duty. There are precisely two ways that an Institutionally minded person might look at such an action. If he or she is of the mainstream institutional mindset, draft dodging is a non-religious sort of heresy and a crime which should be punishable. If, on the other hand, he or she is of a counter-cultural institutional mindset, then judgements are reversed and draft dodging is seen as a brave action which demonstrates individual courage in the face of massive peer pressure to conform. An institutionally minded person can hold one or the other of these perspectives but not both, because he or she is literally embedded in one or the other of those perspectives and cannot appreciate the other except as something alien and evil.
A person who has achieved InterIndividual social maturity is able to hold both mainstream and counter-cultural value systems in mind at the same time, and to see the problem of draft dodging from both perspectives. This sort of dual-vision will appear to be the worst kind of wishy-washiness and flip-floppery to someone stuck in a conventional Institutional mindset and maturity level. However, if you are following the progression of social maturity states, and how one states’ embedded subjective view becomes something which is seem objectively alongside other points of view as social maturity progresses, you will see that such dual-vision is indeed the logical next step; what a more socially mature sort of human being might look like.
Please note that though Mark only identifies five stages upfront, he mentions another one , which is inter-individualistic as the sixth stage. The reason he is reluctant is because most adults presumably never reach this stage. Also Kegan himself, in this interview talks about fifth-order of consciousness , which is equivalent to the seventh stage and defines it as a self-transforming stage:
WIE: So what about that tiny percent of people beyond self-authoring, or fourth order—what are the characteristics of the next, fifth order of consciousness?
RK: When you get to the edge of the fourth order, you start to see that all the ways that you had of making meaning or making sense out of your experience are, each in their own way, partial. They’re leaving certain things out. When people who have long had self-authoring consciousness come to the limits of self-authoring, they recognize the partiality of even their own internal system, even though like any good system, it does have the capacity to handle all the “data,” or make systematic, rational sense of our experience. In the Western world, we often call that “objectivity.” But just because you can handle everything, put it all together in some coherent system, obviously doesn’t make it a truthful apprehension—or truly objective. And this realization is what promotes the transformation from the fourth to the fifth order of consciousness, from the self-authoring self to what we call the self-transforming self. So, you start to build a way of constructing the world that is much more friendly to contradiction, to oppositeness, to being able to hold on to multiple systems of thinking. You begin to see that the life project is not about continuing to defend one formation of the self but about the ability to have the self literally be transformative. This means that the self is more about movement through different forms of consciousness than about the defending and identifying with any one form.
WIE: I think Don Beck would call your fifth order of consciousness a move to the Second Tier, which is an evolutionary transformation that takes us beyond survival mode to a more integral perspective on life.
RK: Yes. And it is also important to keep in mind that in this move from the fourth to the fifth order, from self-authoring to self-transforming, you have very important distinctions between those who are in the earlier process of that transition and those in the later stages—who have actually achieved the fifth order. So, there’s a critical distinction between on the one hand, a negative postmodernism that is all about trashing any ideological form, which is only deconstructive and is all about a fatigue with and critique of the ideological, and on the other, what I call a more reconstructive postmodernism that is not just about trashing. When you get to the other side of this four to five shift, and you’ve moved to this more reconstructive or transformative side, then there’s a whole capacity for reconnecting to these ideologies and recognizing that each of them is partial. You’re building relationships among them rather than holding on to one and projecting the other. It’s a much more positive spirit.
To clarify things a bit, in his later analysis , Kegan has replaced the stages of social maturity with orders of consciousness.
In In Over Our Heads, Kegan stops using the five stages described above in favor of the newer “orders of consciousness” scheme.
First order consciousness corresponds (roughly) to Incorporative and Impulsive stages and describes awareness which is fixed upon sensation and movement and impulse. It is awareness but it is not really yet a self.
Second order consciousness corresponds roughly to the Imperial self stage. It is awareness of self as a singular point of view without any real comprehension of others as independent selves in their own right.
Third order consciousness corresponds to Interpersonal and Institutional self stages, and describes a sense of self which is aware of both self and other as independent needful beings all of which are (or ought to be) guided by a consistent set of values.
A final fourth order of consciousness is also described which corresponds to the Interindividual self stage in which self-determination and tolerance and acceptance of formerly rejected aspects of self and society becomes possible.
The idea is that all people pass through these various stages as they develop, but not all people make it to the end of the line. Adolescence is typically characterized by the transition from second order to third order consciousness, but not all adolescents end up achieving third order consciousness by the time they become adults. Similarly, adulthood is typically characterized by the movement from third order consciousness into fourth order consciousness, but many adults do not make this transition either. Nevertheless, the institutions we live under (in America and in the West) tend to make demands on us as though we have all achieved fourth order consciousness.
Please note that in the interview Kegan clearly talks about a fifth order of consciousness and thus a seventh stage of social maturity.
To me the stages correspond neatly with the general eight-stage framework:
- The incorporative stage is all about the initial formation of a self concept that is different from world and the dawning of the subjective self or subjectivity.
- The impulsive stage is all about impulses that drive the self and with which one start identifying.
- The imperial stage is all about leveraging ones own interests vis-a-vis those of significant others. Here, there is awareness of others and interaction with them, but only as agents or obstacle- thus the persons are objectified and not treated as persons.
- The interpersonal stage is all about treating significant others as real people who can have as much desires, needs etc as one himself can. For the first time empathy comes into picture.
- The institutional stage is all about some values which one can abstract and make as guidelines for ones life. One realizes that people can have different values, but thinks that one’s own value system is the best/correct one.
- the inter-individual stage is all about appreciating that others can have different, yet equally valid value systems and for the first time one can be said to take the true perspective of another individual.
- the self-transforming stage is all about becoming aware that there are multiple value-systems suitable for different occasions and to become comfortable with contradictions in the value systems.
- The eighth stage I hypothesize would have to do with finding an integrity or integral perspective wherein one find that the value-systems one is using is holistic , despite contradictions and is able to resolve the apparent contradictions. One would see one as an object and there would be no subjectivity involved at all.
I’ll now briefly touch upon spiral dynamics, because in Kegan’s interview one of the spiral dynamics stages is equated with kegan’s stage/ order of consciousness.
Here again we find that there are eight stages , though unfortunately first six are grouped under tier I and the last 2 under tier II; while as per my framework only the flirts five should be in tier I and the last 3 in tier II.
They are :
From 100,000 BC on
“Express self to meet imperative physiological needs through instincts of Homo sapiens.”
Animistic-tribalistic magical-animistic Tribal order
From 50,000 BC on
“Sacrifice to the ways of the elders and customs as one subsumed in group.”
Egocentric-exploitive power gods/dominionist
From 7000 BC on
“Express self (impulsively) for what self desires without guilt and to avoid shame.”
Absolutistic-obedience mythic order—purposeful/authoritarian
From 3000 BC on
“Sacrifice self for reward to come through obedience to rightful authority in purposeful Way.”
(Amber is Ken Wilber’s current name for Blue)
From 1000 AD on (as early as 600 AD according to Graves and Calhoun)
“Express self (calculatedly) to reach goals and objectives without rousing the ire of important others.”
From 1850 AD on (surged in early 20th century)
“Sacrifice self interest now in order to gain acceptance and group harmony.”
From 1950s on
“Express self for what self desires, but to avoid harm to others so that all life, not just own life, will benefit.”
From 1970s on
A sacrifice self-interest system which is still forming
That should be enough for today!! Take the above spiral dynamics correlation with a pinch of salt, as Clare Graves on whose theory this work is build is explicit that these should not be confused with personality traits, though I am tempted to correlate this with the big eight and propose that when one gets stuck at lower level of development one has more of that trait in the negative direction.
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Stumbled upon your blog while searching for Robert Kegan. Nice synopsis. Thanks!