Notes from Kegan’s ‘The Evolving Self’ 1: preface and prologue

I enjoyed Silver V’s writing at Rival Voices and was sad when s/he stopped blogging. David @meaningness Chapman had some good conversations with Silver V in the comments section of Rival Voices. One of them was about Robert Kegan’s work in developmental psychology. Unfortunately I can’t find it to link to. He (@meaningness) recommended Kegan’s 1980s tome, “The Evolving Self – problem and process in human development.” Because I’m selves-interested, I got it:

It was more expensive then than it is now and it left a hole in my pocket. But it was worth it. It gave me insight into why people are like they are, and how different aspects of my selves relate to various stages in my own social development. It’s not a practical manual, but it did help me figure out how to respond helpfully to people with different social expectations.

David recently posted a summary of Kegan’s work relating his developmental stages to ethical stances in Buddhism. I made a ton of random notes when I was reading The Evolving Self, so here they are. If you are thinking of getting the book, the notes will give a flavor of its tone and style. They’re not a summary, but they might provide some background detail if you want to understand Kegan’s stages and themes with their conceptual/psychological lineage in more depth. I’ll post a chapter or two per page, otherwise this could end up being ridiculously long. Here are my notes from the Preface and the Prologue:


“..”             direct quote from book, with page no.

*             my own thought, idea or opinion

No code = summary or paraphrase of content


The book sets a framework for personal development, which he will refer to as “the evolution of meaning.”

There are two lineages of personal development that he will draw on:

  • one through Erikson (“capacity to unify…experience and action in an adaptive manner”) – ie ego development, with Freud at the tradition source.
  • Another through Piaget, who was also an adapter within that tradition. Kegan is highly influenced by Piaget and by the social cognitivists, particularly Kohlberg & his framework of moral development.

K was writing at a time of dichotomy and debate between psychoanalytic and cognitive-structural frameworks for personal development (early 1980s). “In this book all these questions get reconstructed by moving from the dichotomous choice to the dialectical context which brings the poles into being in the first place.” pg. ix

That context is the evolution of meaning making.

*Example of his generous, insightful but quite humble style throughout the book: he ends the Preface: “In providing us with ‘data’ (literally, ‘that which is given’), [the people whose life experiences find their way into this book] make us gifted; in revealing their courage, they encourage us.” pg. ix

Prologue – Construction and Development

This is an overview of the dichotomous field of sociology and personal psychology within which he was writing at the time. He traces the then conflicting fields of Constructionism vs. Developmentalism.

“The zone of mediation where meaning is made is variously called by personality psychologists the “ego,” the “self,” the “person.” Pg. 3

His unit of analysis is ‘the person as a meaning-maker.’

Neo-psychoanalytic tradition:

  • Anna Freud 1936
  • Hartmann, 1939
  • Erikson, 1950
  • Kris, 1975

Object-relations theory tradition (also neo-psychoanalytic):

  • Fairbairn, 1952
  • Jacobsen, 1964
  • Winnicott, 1965
  • Mahler, 1968
  • Guntrip 1971

Existential-phenomenological tradition:

  • Lecky, 1945
  • Maslow, 1954
  • May, 1958
  • Binswanger, 1963
  • Angyal, 1965
  • Carl Rogers, 1951

He recognizes crucial contribution from each of the traditions, yet all of them were in some way in difficulty at the time of writing.

Names his own syncretistic approach ‘Constructive-developmental’. “It attends to the development of the activity of meaning-constructing.” Pg.4

Meaning-making tradition:

  • James Mark Baldwin, 1906
  • John Dewey, 1938
  • George Herbert Mead, 1934
  • Jean Piaget, 1936 (central figure)

This tradition had almost no influence on the then current practice of counselling and clinical psychology. Calls his approach ‘neo-Piagetian.’

On Rogers and the existential approach:

“At the heart of the lens we associate with Rogers is an existential approach to the metaphors of twentieth-century evolutionary biology. In contradistinction to earlier mechanistic and homeostatic conceptions, Rogers attends to what he regards as intrinsic processes of adaptation and growth.” Pg. 4

A first principle of the existential approach is the ‘actualizing tendency’ of the organism to develop in self-maintaining ways – an expansions of effectiveness.

On psychoanalytically oriented ego psychology and object relations theorists:

This approach is highly developed since Freud. Its central conviction is that personality development occurs in the context of interactions between the organism and the environment, rather than through the internal processes of maturation alone. Pg. 7

“The subject of this book is the person, where ‘person’ is understood to refer as much to an activity as to a thing–an ever progressive motion engaged in giving itself a new form…it remains that we are greatly tempted–and seduced–by our language into experiencing ourselves and the world as things that move…This book is about human being as an activity. It is not about the doing which a human does; it is about the doing which a human is.” pg 7-8

Two big ideas which influenced nearly every aspect of intellectual life over last 100 years:

  • Constructivism – that persons or systems constitute or construct reality
  • Developmentalism – that organic systems evolve through eras according to regular principles of stability and change.
  • But both hold a process of form creation – of forms ‘coming into being.’

Section on history of Constructivism, pg 9 – 13 (includes the famous pictures eg: is it an old woman/young woman?)

“Human being is the composing of meaning, including, of course, the occasional inability to compose meaning which we often experience as the loss of our own composure…The idea that we are constitutive of our own experience crosses philosophy, theology, literary criticism, and psychology. In psychology it is an axiom of existential, phenomenological, Gestalt, Piagetian, perception theorist and Kelly-construct approaches.” Pg.11

The Piagetian (epistemological) framework embraces ‘the scientific apprehension of meaning-making’. Kohlberg took the abstract notion of personal construction and embedded it in cross-cultural constructive-developmental predictive universals. But this misses the ontological significance of human meaning-making: “from the point of view of the ‘self’ then, what is at stake in preserving any given balance is the ultimate question of whether the ‘self’ shall continue to be” pg. 12

So the Constructivist strands divide into non-reconciled reductionistic meaning-making on the one hand and “vague but richer conception of psychological activity on the other.” Pg. 12

History of Developmentalism, pg 13 – 15

Developmetalism embodies the idea that organic systems evolve through “qualitatively different eras according to regular principles of stability and change.” Pg. 13

Shift into Developmentalism involves refocusing from entity to process, it’s a static to dynamic shift.

“In just the last 150 years… nearly every social and natural science has made this transformation from a taxonomic, entity-oriented perception of the phenomena of investigation to a developmental, process-oriented perception…” pg. 13

  • Astronomy – La Place 1832
  • Geology – Lyell 1833
  • Logic – Hegel 1892 & Feuerbach 1846
  • History & political economy – Marx 1931
  • Biology – Darwin 1889

“Psychoanalytic theory now has very little life within academic psychology and yet it is the guiding source of practice in most hospitals and clinics.” Pg. 14

His aim for this book is to arrive at a metapsychology.

“A theory’s conception of equilibrium springs from its particular theory of biology, which in turn is related to its underlying epistemology. Any metapsychology [must be] more than psychological…” biological and philosophical as well. Pg. 14

This book “eventually suggests what the broader context might be. It articulates a framework for the study of that context, a framework which brings together the big ideas of construction and development. The constructive-developmental framework studies the phenomenon in nature I call the evolution of meaning. This book is an organized way of wondering what happens if the evolution of the activity of meaning is taken as the fundamental motion in personality.” Pg. 15

Touching anecdote of his 6 year old daughter making sense of conflicting desires. Pg . 16

“So many of the eliciting situations [that draw us to others] seem to harken back to the exigencies of this basic life motion, the activity of meaning and the threat of not meaning.” Pg. 19

“It is never forgotten by teenagers…that greater than the inequalities of social class or achievement test scores is the unequal capacity of students to interest others in them– a phenomenon not reducible to social class or intelligence, and which seems to be the more powerful determinant of future thriving.” Pg. 19

“Who comes into a person’s life may be the single greatest factor of influence to what that life becomes. Who comes into a person’s life is in part a matter of luck, in part a matter of one’s power to recruit others, but in large part a matter of other people’s ability to be recruited. People have as varying capacities to be recruited as they do to recruit others.” Pg. 19

He outlines Piaget’s eras of physical-cognitive development:

  • 1: age 0-2: era of sensorimotor intelligence
  • 2: age 2-5: symbolic, intuitive or prelogical thought
  • 3: age 6-10: concrete operational thought (with logical processes of including lower-order classes in higher-order classes and transitive seriation). Conservation of number, class membership etc under apparent change. Formation of stable categorical classes precedes formation of quantitative and numerical relations of invariance.
  • 4: age 11 to adult: formal operational thought

Subject-object balancing of Piaget’s stages involves subject as structure, object as content:

  • Sensorimotor stage – action-sensations & reflexes as subject – no object
  • Preoperational stage – perceptions as subject – action-sensations & reflexes as object
  • Concrete operational – ‘Reversibilities’ ie the ‘actual’ as subject – perceptions as object
  • Formal operational – ‘hypothetico-deduction’ ie the ‘possible’ as subject– reversibilities as object

*These are each meaning-making balances. Crises occur and precipitate transition (which can last for years) when context challenges the normative assumptions inherent in each balance. Contextual problems inform balances that ‘something is inherently wrong’ about the way one is viewing the world.

This leads to “a vacillation we will come to recognize as typical of transition”. Pg. 41 The vacillation is between accepting and questioning the supporting structures of the developmental stage.

“Eventually, preoperational children do evolve, constructing, as a result, a new organization of the physical world. And when they do, it is not because they have listened more carefully to tutoring grownups, or had it unfold within them like their developing physiologies, so much as it is because of their own activity in the world, evolutionary activity – an activity biologists speak of as the move toward the greater coherence of one’s organization. Robert White (1959) referred to it as ‘competence’ and I call it the evolution of meaning.” Pg 41

“No framework can hope to supply a theory of the developing person without some profound acknowledgement of our biological reality. Psychoanalysis provided one, and no framework since has offered an alternative vision with anything like comparable scope or plausibility.” Pg 42

In presenting such a framework he is, in part, seeking reconciliation between maturational and environmental interpretations of Piaget’s stages.

Activity of equilibration is central to Piagetian framework: “Piaget’s principal loyalty was to the ongoing conversation between the individuating organism and the world, a process of adaptation shaped by the tension between the assimilation of new experience to the old ‘grammar’ and the accommodation of the old grammar to new experience…this conversation is not one of continuous augmentation, but is marked by periods of dynamic stability or balance followed by periods of instability and qualitatively new balance.” Pg. 44

Seen ‘psychologically’ it’s about the development of knowing and experience. Each evolutionary truce strikes a subject-object balance. It becomes a way of knowing the world, but at the same time we experience this activity.

“Might we better understand others in their predicament if we could somehow know how their way of living reflects the state of their hoping at this depth? – not the hopes they have or the hoping they do, but the hopes and hoping they are?” pg. 45


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