Adult Developmental Theory

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An overview of the field anno 2023, by Brendan Graham Dempsey:

"Beginning in the early 20th century, researchers started to empirically map the spectrum of human psychological development. The work of developmental theorists like James Mark Baldwin, Jean Piaget, Clare Graves, Jane Loevinger, Robert Kegan, Susanne Cook-Greuter, and others all converged towards a general outline of how human minds progress towards maturity through a sequence of developmental stages. While different researchers focused on different aspects of this developmental trajectory (from cognitive capacity to ego formation to moral sensitivity, etc.), the general pattern of this sequence has been made evident. The is, it is now clear, a general developmental field through which the complexifying mind progresses. Different stage models, when viewed synoptically, side-by-side, clearly map the same territory, and reveal the process of psychological complexification that continues the epic of evolution into the psycho-cultural domain. (To the best of my knowledge, it was the insight of Ken Wilber to explicitly link the complexification narrative revealed by the new science to developmental psychology, thus bridging the cosmic and biological evolutionary story with the complexification of the human mind/culture.)

The Dimensional Model of psycho-cultural evolution presented here arose out of a need to find a simple, common nomenclature for the different structures of consciousness that have been identified by these numerous researchers and (meta)theorists. Right now, metamodern thinkers contend with a hodgepodge of different terms whenever they try to discuss this schema of cultural paradigms/structures of consciousness. This includes not only the different terms that individual developmental researchers used within their specific models (e.g., Graves’s “D-Q,” Cook-Greuter’s “Conformist,” and Kegan’s “Interpersonal” all refer to what is essentially the same structure), but also the broader “metatheoretical” models that try to synthesize the individual models (such as those of Wilber and Hanzi Freinacht). We are awash in terms all basically referring to the same structures (albeit from different theoretical perspectives). The Dimensional Model offers a simple nomenclature that can speak across these divides and provide us an easy way to refer to the structures of consciousness in a general way.

The idea of “dimensions” offers a theory-neutral term that encompasses structures variously understood as “mutations” (such as in the work of Jean Gebser, which are explicitly non-developmental) as well as “stages” (which are developmentally-theorized). Indeed, the concept of dimensions has been explicitly employed by the non-developmental Gebser and the developmental Hanzi in articulating their different models.

For those who do approach these structures through a developmental lens, the dimensional framing of stages is very helpful, since “higher dimensions” mathematically entail greater complexity. A square is objectively more complex than a line, even if it’s not inherently “better” or “worse” than one, simply by virtue of having more parts in relation to one another. Indeed, dimensions are holarchically ordered. That is, the higher dimensions necessary “transcend and include” the previous ones. A 3D cube includes 2D squares, which includes 1D lines, etc. The lower dimensions become integrated into the higher ones, just as developmental theory argues. The model mimics the process.

Moreover, those who might wish to speculate about higher and higher stages (a point of debate in metamodern circles) are not constrained from doing so in this model; the numerical ordering is, like the number line itself, theoretically infinite. New colors or spectra do not need to be invented to accommodate such perspectives, but can be debated within a shared unit system. The advantage to this approach, of course, is that it allows a shared framework in which different models might engage more clearly and constructively.

Aside from offering it as a unique intervention into the evolutionary debate, a dimensional framing of stage-structures is not really my innovation but has already been hinted at or suggested by more than one theorist of consciousness evolution. As I was working out the model, and satisfactorily paired the different dimensions to the different psycho-cultural structures, I recalled that Hanzi had suggested something very similar in a footnote somewhere.

I perused my copy of The Listening Society, and found the note in question (note 100 on pages 388 to 389), in which he writes:

- "The point is that the earlier stages cannot see what the later stages see; they see only caricature, flattened versions of what’s going on. …In more than one way, the stages discussed correspond to seeing additional dimensions of the world. It is not purely metaphorical to claim that:

  • stage 9 Concrete thinking corresponds to a line;
  • stage 10 Abstract to a square;
  • stage 11 Formal to a cube;
  • stage 12 Systematic to a 4-dimensional hypercube; and
  • stage 13 Metasystematic to a 5-dimensional hypercube.

For instance, stage 11 Formal operations are required to understand Newtonian physics in 3D space, and stage 12 Systematic operations are required to be able to break away from that imagined space and understand that it is just a perspective among others.”

Reading this, I felt delightfully validated, as this was exactly the relationship I had drawn between the dimensional shapes and their respective psycho-cultural structures. Hanzi of course doesn’t label his metamemes according to this logic the way I have chosen to. Instead, he opts for Archaic, Animistic, Faustian, Post-Faustian, Modern, Postmodern, and Metamodern. On the whole, these are certainly valid terms (with the exception, in my view, of “Faustian” and “Post-Faustian,” for which I use the more obvious “Imperial” and “Traditional”), though they might seem too affiliated with specific historical epochs to allow for much fruitful comparison or abstraction in certain contexts. When talking about the rise of rational thinking in ancient Athens, for instance, does it not sound anachronistic to call it “modern” thought? Or, considering some controversies stirred up by the Graeber and Wengrow book, The Dawn of Everything, which puts the rational thinking of indigenous people on full display, do we say that they, too, were engaged in “modern” thought? (A less charitable reader would make accusations of modernity continuing to “colonize” indigenous bodies and minds if so.) Would it not work much better to say that “3D” thinking was being engaged by both? Arguably, we could avoid much confusion by doing so. In any event, the fact that Hanzi himself points to the dimensional relationships of the stages suggests one might just as well apply the framework and still be in total agreement with the metamodern paradigm.

In thinking about all this, I also recalled the importance Jean Gebser assigns to dimensions in his non-developmental integral framework of “mutations.” In The Ever-Present Origin, Gebser is emphatic that we not conceptualize the “unfolding of consciousness” as one of progress or development. “We must recognize,” he writes, “that the attempt to set forth the temporal course commonly referred to as the ‘evolution of mankind’ is merely an attempt to structure events for convenient accessibility. Consequently, we must exclude from our discussion as far as possible such misleading notions as ‘development’ and ‘progress’” (p. 37). That said, Gebser does see a meaningful gradation in the structures of consciousness, whose sequence he labels Archaic, Magic, Mythic, Mental, and Integral. Specifically, “with the unfolding of each new consciousness mutation, consciousness increases in intensity… The unfolding, then, is an enrichment tied, as we shall observe, to a gain in dimensionality” (p. 41; emphasis mine).

Or, as he puts it later:

- “We are now able to see how every mutation of consciousness that constituted a new structure of consciousness was accompanied by the appearance and effectuality of a new dimension… for each unfolding of consciousness there is a corresponding unfolding of dimensions” (p. 117).

Gebser then maps his sequence to the dimensions in a manner quite similar to the way I and Hanzi do.


A clarifying note on this table is required, however, since Gebser’s way of numbering the first couple of dimensions is unusual when it comes to “zero-dimensional” and “one-dimensional.”

As the following passage shows, Gebser confused “zero-dimensional” and “one-dimensional” in the Magic consciousness, which he notes as being truly represented by the point:

- “magic man…is distinguishable above all by his transition from a zero-dimensional structure of identity to one-dimensional unity. And we shall see that the representative symbol for one-dimensionality, the point, the basic element of the line, is as such of paramount significance as an attribute for magic man. On the one hand, the point is suggestive of the initial emergent centering in man (which leads later to an Ego) and is, on the other, an expression of the spaceless and timeless one-dimensionality of magic man’s world” (p. 46)

Gebser, too, then, relates the Magic structure to the point, which is technically zero-dimensional and not one-dimensional. This would leave a gap in Gebser’s model, however (Archaic = Nondimensional, Magic = 0D, [???] = 1D, Mythic = 2D, etc.). Intriguingly, Gebser lacks a structure that is found in the models of Graves, Kegan, and Hanzi that inhabits the space between Magic and Mythic: the “Egocentric,” “Imperial,” or “Faustian” structure, which corresponds in my and Hanzi’s model to the 1D line. If this is a fair reading, then all models are actually in sync.

Here is a comparison chart linking the various developmental models to their associated dimension:

see graphic at [1]