Growth Potential

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September 20, 1983

Growth Potential

A Review of Robert Kegan’s The Evolving Self

By Alfie Kohn

Most people would be surprised, and more than a little amused, to learn how faddish intellec­tual currents are in the academy. When I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, Lawrence Kohlberg’s theory of moral development was out and Clifford Geertz’s application of hermeneutics to the social sciences was in. Never mind how arcane these ideas may be: the way they go in and out of vogue reminds one of roller disco and double-breasted jackets.

An awareness of academic trendiness can be salutary, but it’s also an invitation to cynicism. While it becomes particularly important to enter­tain the possibility that a given idea may actually be enduring — or at least deserve to endure — this attitude can be difficult to maintain for the sophisticated (not to say sophistic) scholar. Such are the reflections that occupy one reader of Robert Kegan’s remarkable theory of personality, as set forth in The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Harvard University Press). Kegan thinks he’s on to something big, which is the rule among authors, but he just may be correct in his assumption, which is the exception.

The Evolving Self is an attempt to develop a framework that accounts for human development by integrating and improving on several existing theories. Briefly, the book is a synthesis of Piagetian structuralism and psy­choanalytic object-relations theory. Moreover, it is a synthesis that radically changes the perspective of its parts by offering an existential reformulation of personality theory itself. The subject of Kegan’s model is the subject — not one more phenomenon-to-be-studied but the human as he chooses and grows and lives.

Jean Piaget, the Swiss psychologist who was fascinated with how our thinking develops, constructed a model based on cognitive stages that he be­lieved were invariant and hierarchical: Stage 3 always follows Stage 2, and the later stage always includes everything in the earlier one and then some. Thus, we can’t perform abstract mental operations until we understand that objects exist independent of ourselves. All thinking, in fact, is an interaction between self and world, as we “assimilate” reality into our mental structures and “accommodate” those structures to the world out there.

Object-relations theorists, meanwhile, follow Freud in seeing thought processes as much less important than the realms of affect (feeling) and need. Our adjust­ment to the world is predicated on what happens in the first two years of life, the key issues being separation (from the mother) and development of a distinct identity, with special attention paid to the formation of boundaries between self and not-self. Again as with Freud, one’s adult life is a recapitulation of earlier experiences; here, though, the focus is on the so-called pre-Oedipal years.

These are theories that have inspired countless avenues of research into how we grow and the ways in which a particular adult is like and yet unlike what he was as a child. Piaget in particular demonstrated how children, no matter how bright or precocious, remain constitutionally incapable of cer­tain operations. The object-relations school has shown what it is for an infant to be born psychologically, to discover itself as a self. Both movements have systematized and enriched our intuitive sense of what it means to develop.

Kegan not only synthesizes these two perspectives — he seeks to transcend them. In place of an argument for cognition over affect or vice versa, he offers a rejection of the whole dichotomy. More precisely, Kegan proposes to explore the underlying issue that defines human life: the project of making meaning or making sense of ourselves and the world around us. The “person,” in fact, might even be defined as “the zone of mediation where mean­ing is made.” From the epistemological concern with how we come to know, he moves naturally to the ontological issue of what and who we are. Our growth can be understood as a process of reconstru­ing our relationship to the world, and that reconstruction amounts to an in­creasing “emergence from embedded­ness,” a process of distinguishing ourselves from what is outside us that ultimately permits us to interact with the world more fully. (As Martin Buber put it, “One cannot stand in relation to some­thing that is not perceived as contrasted and existing for itself.”) When we move to a new stage, we don’t give up our old concerns so much as we reappropriate them; they are reconstituted in terms of a fresh mode of being-in-the-world (Heidegger’s term, not Kegan’s).

Whereas Piaget gives us a theory of the evolution of cognitive powers, Kegan gives us an account of growth from the inside, a phenomenological portrait. Whereas the psychoanalysts describe the struggle with differentiation and in­clusion (wanting to be independent and wanting to be connected) as a mani­festation of the infant years, Kegan sees this struggle — including its first ap­pearance during infancy — as a process of evolution that defines all of human life. In his view, most if not all of life’s turmoil can be understood in terms of growing out of one mode of self-world relation and awkwardly struggling to acquire a new balance, which means reaching the next stage. Like Piaget and most other developmental psychologists, Kegan believes we can identify distinct stages, each representing a temporarily stable personality organization, which follow one another in predictable fashion.

The newborn’s existence is not only unreflective, but undifferentiated from the breast or anything else around it. From this “incorporative” existence, it moves to the “impulsive” stage. Here, “the child is able to recognize objects separate from herself, but those objects are subject to the child’s perception of them.” Her tantrums reflect “a system overwhelmed by internal conflict be­cause there is no self yet which can serve as a context upon which the competing impulses can play themselves out; the impulses are the self, are themselves the context.” From there the child moves to the “imperial” balance, in which she develops a self-concept, a fairly consistent notion of “me,” and then to the “interpersonal” stage, in which reality is shared, but the person cannot “consult [herself] about that shared reality . . . because [she] is that shared reality.” At each stage, what formerly was subject can now be objectified; what was indis­tinguishable from the self can be dif­ferentiated so the self can work with it. When this happens during the inter­personal stage, the individual graduates to the “institutional” phase, and becomes capable of asserting her autonomy more fully. The final rebalancing act — one that few of us reach, Kegan implies — is the “interindividual,” a “commingling which guarantees distinct identities.”

This theory of stages successfully encompasses most of its peers. Kegan is at pains to juxtapose it with, and show how it retains the gist of, Piaget’s account of thought, Kohlberg’s ladder of moral sophistication, Erikson’s balance of iden­tity and intimacy, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and so on; he subsumes them all, showing how these various lines con­verge in a meaning-making self. The emphasis, though, is not on the stages themselves so much as on the process of moving from one to the next. Each stage offers an equilibrium, as Piaget emphasized, but the human is better described as a being in transition than as an organism seeking homeostasis, out simply to reduce tension.

The Evolving Self makes no more than passing reference to existential psycholo­gy. Unlike the work of Ludwig Binswanger or even Rollo May, this is not a self-conscious attempt to apply the themes of existentialism to an under­standing of human behavior. Kegan calls himself a “neo-Piagetian,” not a neo­-Heideggerian or neo-Buberian, and his model is destined to be classified as a refined version of structuralist de­velopmental psychology. Nonetheless, it is one of the purest realizations of existentialism I have ever seen. The dreadful exhilaration of change and choice (“Every transition involves to some extent the killing off of the old self”), the idea of projecting ourselves into the future, the emphasis on mean­ing, the phenomenological account of experience, the repudiation of the sub­ject/object dichotomy (which Binswanger called “the cancer of all psychology”) — it’s all here.

Most salient is the exploration of being-in-the-world, the notion that we both constitute what is outside us and are constituted by it, and that this reality is prior to the existence of the individual. (It is inac­curate, that is, to speak of an “I” over here and an “environment” over there and then say they interact. There is a sense in which the whole that includes them is more real than either by itself.) Kegan’s book is not an explication of these themes but a realization of them; he shows what they mean. Existentialism comes alive by being applied to real issues of development, and the reader comes to understand these themes more fully than he or she would from reading texts on existentialism per se.


Last year, Carol Gilligan, a colleague of Kegan’s at Harvard’s School of Educa­tion, wrote what was in effect a critique of Kohlberg’s theory of moral develop­ment. Although her book, In a Different Voice, was repetitive and intellectually sloppy, it made the important point that developmental theorists tend to con­struct models of maturity (moral or otherwise) that are implicitly male-oriented. In a Different Voice is “going great guns” in the bookstores, according to the publicity director of Harvard Press; cited in mass-market magazines, it’s clearly “the right book at the right time.” Kegan’s book, on the other hand, will never make Ellen Goodman’s column or go great guns at Barnes & Noble. This is unfortunate because it is not only brim­ming with relevance for therapists, parents, and others, but it is a master­piece of synthetic scholarship. Kegan’s grasp of other theories of human de­velopment is sure, but his respect for them doesn’t congeal into idolatry: He integrates them into a new formulation that seems to capture the best of each. His sources and examples, moreover, are impressively varied: He writes as a theorist, a therapist, a researcher, and a parent; he crosses disciplinary lines with gusto; he draws from case histories, from New Yorker cartoons, from Hassidic stories.

What a reader confronted with a new theory must ask is whether it provides a better lens through which to look at familiar phenomena. Kegan is eager to test out his model, using it to describe and reinterpret the Oedipal crisis, school phobia, homosexual panic, and other problems. In one paragraph, he uses the idea of losing the imperial self and moving to the interpersonal stage as a tool for understanding the usual defense mechanisms, along with psychotic de­lusions, reality testing, and Piaget’s “assimilation.” In the last chapter, he brings his understanding of development to bear on nondirective therapy (following the client’s lead and facilitating his or her natural healing process), describing far more incisively than Carl Rogers ever did how empathy and the absence of direction feel to the client.

The chance to see familiar ideas and events in a new way can be positively exciting for a reader, and it can happen only because Kegan is that rarest of creatures: a researcher who takes theory seriously. Most models of development are rarely synthetic for the same reason that they don’t connect knowing to being — because their designers lack grounding in the underlying issues, the philosophical underpinnings. Rogers once wrote, “In these days, most psychologists regard it as an insult if they are accused of thinking philosophical thoughts.” Kegan is a happy exception to this depressingly accurate assessment.

This is not to say that his theory or the presentation of his theory cannot be criticized. After awhile, Kegan seems to take the applicability and superior explanatory power of his model for granted. Some of the instances of neurosis in his subjects may not lend themselves to the stage theory as well as he asserts they do; it’s unclear whether his theory is necessary to understand what is happening with these people, let alone sufficient.

Kegan’s final stage is the most interesting because its implication is that intimacy is more developmentally advanced than autonomy — or, rather, than the simple assertion of the highly differentiated self. The cognitive style in this stage, furthermore, is supposed to be characterized by a resolution of incongruities and an appreciation of paradox. (He terms this “postformal” thinking, stepping beyond Piaget.) Yet this is also supposed to coincide with Kohlberg’s “postconventional” ethical stages, which seem tenuously related to postformal thinking and antithetical to the dimension of intimacy (which Kohlberg would see as Stage 3; that was Gilligan’s complaint). Kegan is uncharacteristically vague at the pinnacle of his evo­lutionary summit.

The idea of these stages as a given, an “essence” in human life, also is insufficiently elucidated. Are there some in­dividuals who cannot advance even if their environment fulfills its obligations? To say that growth is a reciprocal process involving self and world does not adequately address the hoary (but critical) nature/nurture ques­tion. How responsible are we for our behavior, and what are the sources of limitations on that responsibility? (“Don’t expect me to commit myself to intimacy with you — I’m only at Stage 4!”)

Finally, and most intriguing, is the issue of value judgment. After launching a cogent and well-deserved assault on the ethical relativism of many psychologists, Kegan himself falls victim to this while discussing the merits of differentiation and integration: “There should be no question of one emphasis being any ‘better’ than another … each is a part of the reality of being alive.” The flabbiness of this statement is underlined by the subtle but unmistakable religiosity that runs through the book. Kegan en­dorses a posture of metaphysical acceptance at one point and refers without substantiation to the “trustworthiness of life itself.”

But even if we were certain that these stages occur invariantly just as he claims (and such empirical demonstration is a long way off), why would a later stage be better than an earlier one? In an essay entitled “From Is to Ought,” Kohlberg went into contortions to prove that prescriptive statements can be deduced from descriptive ones, but this, I would ­argue, is a doomed enterprise from the start. For his part, Kegan faults those who devise norms of mental health, saying that their ethical goals “are finally quite arbitrary and vulnerable to the partialities of a given class, sex, sexual preference, age, culture, and so on.” This is a criticism to be taken quite seriously, but Kegan seems to think his idea of mental health circumvents the problem. Here he is at his weak­est.

Because the later stages in his model increasingly guarantee “the world’s distinct integrity and thereby [create] a more integrated relationship” between self and world, these stages enjoy “a greater truth value,” we are told. His book ends with a few more assurances that his approach con­tains no “arbitrary biases” by virtue of its privileged truth status. For someone so perceptive with respect to the specious claims of other theories, Kegan here becomes myopic. However much we may agree that a more integrated relationship to the world is desirable, in affirming such a judgment we are on the same precarious ground as any­one who ventures into the nor­mative realm. No sleight of hand, no invocation of “truth” can render Kegan’s value system im­mune from the perils to which all valuers are heir. If Stage 5 is better than Stage 4, it is only because we decide this is so.

These criticisms are not merely incidental, of course, but neither should they distract one from the brilliance of this book. If the reader is irritated when Kegan fails to follow through, it is only because one holds him to the standard of excellence that he has established and generally met. The Evolving Self deserves both a huge readership and a place alongside the classic works on personality theory.

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