Charlie El Awbery

Notes on The Evolving Self
2: Chapters 1 and 2


Nov. 2, 2019 |  Categories:   learning   Kegan  

These notes are from the first two chapters of Robert Kegan’s book The Evolving Self.

Part One: Evolutionary Truces: 1 – The unrecognized Genius of Jean Piaget

This chapter considers meaning-making in the context of biological construction – the development of human psychology from birth to adulthood.

Jean_Piaget connected a constructivist theme from philosophy with a developmental theme from biology. Psychology is implicit in his work and Kegan sees himself as drawing it out and elaborating it. Piaget called himself a ‘genetic epistemologist’ rather than a psychologist. (Pg. 26.)

There is a funny anecdote of his (Kegan's) daughter loving the show ‘Mr. Rogers’ when she was four. He said at the end of each program, “You are special–I like you.” When she was seven she said, with contempt, “Y’know, he’s saying that to everyone!” (Pg. 27.)

Pg. 28 – he introduces the idea of the evolutionary truce. The series of subject-object balances are platforms of psychological stability along a developmental path. Evolutionary truces establish a balance between subject and object. They constitute a period of personal stability in which a particular meaning-making system is dominant. Each truce has a logic and a consistency of its own.

“For the preoperational child, it is never just one’s perceptions that change; rather, the world itself, as a consequence, changes…Distinguishing between how something appears and how something is is just what one cannot do when one is subject to the perceptions.” (Pg. 29.)

Piaget's stages:

Years 1-2 constitute a gradual construction of the “permanence of the object.” This leads to the first truce, the construing of a world “independent of my experience of it.” The child moves from being subject to its reflexes, movements and sensations, to having reflexes, movements and sensations. “Like the evolution from an exoskeletal species to an endoskeletal one, the child is able to interiorize or internalize sensations and movements which before could only go on outside. The notion of development as a sequence of internalizations, a favorite conception of psychodynamic thinking, is quite consistent with the Piagetian concept of growth.” (Pg. 31.)

“…something cannot be internalized until we emerge from our embeddedness in it, for it is our embeddedness, our subjectivity, that leads us to project it onto the world in our constitution of reality. When the child is able to have his reflexes rather than be them, he stops thinking he causes the world to go dark when he closes his eyes.”

“Growth always involves a process of differentiation, of emergence from embeddedness (Schachtel, 1959.) (Pg. 31.)

Decentration and recentration are Piaget’s terms, denoting loss of an old center, recovery of a new one.

Chapter 2: The Evolution of Moral Meaning-Making

This chapter considers meaning-making as a sociomoral construction.

He starts the chapter with a story about 7th grade children that he taught, having a strong reaction to the story of a new kid who got pushed around, then did the same to the next new kid. They were adamant it was fair:

“It was more than okay; it was the right thing to do…It was the only thing to do…Look, we were sixth graders last year, right? – the oldest in the school. We pushed the little kids around. Now we’re the little kids and we’re getting pushed around. Wait till we’re seniors! Fair is fair!” (Pg. 47.)

This is staunchly, explicitly a moral formulation. The children's analyses of the new boy story had a “ring of reciprocity” to them. “…even if they strike us as an odd, or logically circular, sort of reciprocity. It is a kind of reciprocity that seems to let slip away just the different pieces that need to be held together.” (Pg. 48.) This is conceptualized as a refusal to let yourself be the context in which the two sides are joined.

It is, as an evolutionary stance, both sophisticated and immature. The students revealed an understanding of how the new boy felt, and of the later new boy also having similar feelings: “he felt awful when picked on too; but he’d have his chance.” But they could not consider simultaneously how each felt, oriented to the other.

Even the ability for simple reciprocity, the ability to “take the role” of a single other person, “is the result of long years of meaning.” (Pg. 50.)

Kohlberg’s study of the development of moral reasoning has represented the single most significant extension of the Piagetian framework.

Kohlberg’s moral stages:

Level 1, preconventional:

Level 2, conventional:

Level 3, Post conventional or principled:

This is an irreversible order of development. “If children develop and change their notion of what is fair, it is always in the direction from this instrumentality (stage 2) to interpersonal concordance (stage 3), never the reverse. Children who reason at stage 2 will prefer a stage 3 solution to a given conflict if they can be made to understand it, but children at stage 3 already understand the stage 2 solution and never prefer it.” (Pg. 56.)

They know better – it is not that they have been taught to behave differently. There is a relational shift from cooperation to collaboration.

But this is still a stage in object relations: “there is no one who runs the interpersonal; rather than ‘having’ the interpersonal, one is the interpersonal. “A person’s social meaning-making at this point…is highly vulnerable to the influence of the social environment. A white teenager living in a liberal northern suburb may espouse values of racial egalitarianism if that is the prevailing peer ethic, only to become a holder of racist views among racist friends if her family relocates to a school and neighborhood in the South…The prevailing wisdom here will be that the teenager has changed as a result of new friends and new influences; it would be as true to say, however, that the teenager’s way of making meaning has remained the same.” (Pg. 57.)

Fascinating story of a New York state assemblyman who voted against legislation for abortion reform year after year. As his children came of age, they were pro-abortion and confronted him. They discovered that he was personally in favor of the reform legislation but voted against it because of a sense of obligation to represent the majority opinion of his constituency, or at least, the strong opinion of his county committee.

The son said “Dad, for God’s sake, don’t let your vote be the vote that defeats this bill.” He took it to heart.

He had been secretly offered a new, lucrative and status-enhancing appointment by the opposing party, to buy out his seat – which he had accepted. The leaders of the bill felt it would come down to a dead tie. They knew about this secret bribe, so they urged him to vote pro the bill, now that he no longer needed the support of his committee. This reasoning couldn’t attract him – he was stuck in “what would the committee think of me” versus “what will my children think of me?”

He thought that so long as he didn’t have to cast a deciding vote, his vote against the bill was inconsequential – he would be at peace with his children and with his committee. Then gradually, throughout the hearing, some of those expected to vote against the bill defected. “…our subject began behaving in a way he can report only because so many people told him he did in fact act that way; he himself has no recollection of it. He began literally bobbing up and down in his seat. Eventually he went to the third suspected defector and strenuously and continuously implored–begged– this man not to switch his vote. With this behavior he seems to have been saying: Please don’t create a situation which brings me finally and unavoidably to the limits of my capacity to know; don’t drive me out of my mind.” (Pg. 60.)

But the defector didn’t listen to his plea, it did reach a dead tie and his was the casting vote.

“I think at this point I just about cracked. I didn’t know what to do. I – didn’t – know – what – to – do. And my options were fading fast because there wasn’t too much time left, and I – the chamber was just jammed with people…men that I know. And I didn’t know what to do. …It was like a wild dream…There I was, saying things that, uh, just off the top of my head…I remember saying, “Mr. Speaker, I once read a book called ‘Profiles in Courage’. I don’t know why I said that. I think what I was intending to say was that up until this point I was showing far more profile than courage.” (Pg. 61.)

There is a long word for word recording of what he did say…he was physically panicked by the moral dilemma, eventually changing his negative vote to an affirmative one.

“There was more changing here than a vote, more being passed than a bill. After this speech the man slumped in his chair, put his head in his hands, wept, and said, over and over again “What have I done?” We heard at one moment a justification from the perspective of his family’s expectations; at the next moment, from that of the rights of the group. Transition often sounds like this.” (Pg. 62.)

Life/conducive context is required to provoke transition, particularly at this stage. It doesn’t happen automatically like an inevitable adaptation.

When he was interviewed a year later, he was described as being in Kohlberg’s stage 4, which subordinates the claims of interpersonal affiliations to the needs of the group. “Moments before his experience he had been begging a man to prevent [his having to make the decision]; now it seems to him, despite the fact that it did cut him off completely from political life, to be “the summit of my life.” (Pg. 62.)

Transition, crisis, is danger and opportunity. From the approach to transition, sometimes all that can be seen is the danger.

“With the evolution that accounts for Kohlberg’s stage 4, persons begin unselfconsciously to engage a problem which has recruited the interest of political philosophers for hundreds of years: how are the claims of the individual and the claims of the state to be reconciled?” (Pg. 62.)

Kohlberg’s stages 4, 4.5 and 5 best address this question, empirically.

“Each new evolutionary truce guarantees the world a more distinct identity, and at Kohlberg’s stage 4, social objects of the world (people) are not guaranteed their distinctness apart from their identification with the social order.” (Pg. 63.)

Kohlberg's Stage 4 is effectively the “psychological birth of ideology,” a factional meaning system. It is truth for a group.

“Such a construction of the sociomoral has no way to separate manners from morals, custom and tradition from ethics. In its more benign or amusing forms this can translate into a moral investment in manners of dress and address. In its more lethal forms it amounts to nothing less than the inability to protect a person against arbitrary abuses and exclusions simply because he or she seems to be against the interests of the group.” (Pg. 63.)

This doesn’t make us “cowardly conformists” in constructing the Kohlberg stage 4 balance. “We do not so much submit to a system as create it.” (Pg. 64.)

Cultural and ethical relativism is the hallmark of Kohlberg’s stage 4.5.

It’s the conviction that there is no non-arbitrary basis for judging anything.

It confuses the idea that all persons are entitled to their own beliefs with the idea that there is no basis on which to compare these beliefs. But the recognition that value systems are self-constructed does not have to lead to the conclusion that there is no way to compare value systems.

Some view Kohlberg’s final stage as a highly abstracted, disaffiliated position. “Lone contemplator who ignores human particulars on behalf of some disembodied generalization.” (Gilligan and Murphy, 1979.)

Kegan sees the shift to stage 5 as a consequence of meaning-making “which is not a matter of increasing differentiation alone, but of increasing relationship to the world. These increases are qualitative and they involve, first of all, a better recognition of what is separate from me so that I can be related to it, rather than fused with it.” (Pg. 68.)