Comments on “A bridge to meta-rationality vs. civilizational collapse”


Approaching Foucault

David Howell's picture

Can you recommend a good on-ramp for understanding Foucault? My background is basically all math/science/software, with some philosophy reading for fun. I tried to read vol. 1 of the History of Sexuality last year, but found it damn near impenetrable. Are there some prerequisites to following Foucault that I might be missing?

My experience

I don’t know if this fits the model, but here is the story of how I might have gotten (close?) to Stage 5.

I’ve always liked science, and I went on to get a BSc in Mechanical Engineering. At some point, I thought I had a complete view of the world. Consciousness seemed like a gap there, but I handwaved it away by saying ‘complexity’.

At some point, I began reading philosophy, and asking ‘Why’ to several assumptions I had been making. This ended up with me thinking that nothing was justified, and that every assertion was false. (e.g. ‘The Higgs Boson exists’ really says ‘Some guys say they did an experiment and said that it exists with 5sigma certainty, etc).

For the same reason positivism fail, this attitude ended up failing too. I came to read about foundationalism and about how conceptual analysis fails (e.g. you cannot even define ‘table’ with a definition such that every plausible table fits it). This crisis didn’t happen with pain, depression, and anguish, but perhaps just because I’m not the kind of person that has negative feelings in general.

Along the way, I developed some heuristics to be right (how to read papers, who to trust, how to pick experts ,etc), and end up seeing a bit childish the insistance in some corners of the net (e.g. Less Wrong) that there has to be one single step by step method to acquire knowledge about any knowledge field.

I still want such a method to exist, but right now I don’t think there can be.

Does this count as getting to Stage 5, or is there something missing?

Magical community

Dan's picture

To the extent that I understand either (not well), I get the impression that some magical orders may already support the 4->5 transition. I’ll have to do some research!

(Non-)formalizability and computability theory

A possible component to a 4-5 bridge for STEM people might go through computability theory (one could also call it formalizability theory). What you learn there is that essentially every formal system is limited and has blind spots. A general method of producing knowledge is impossible. Formal system cannot have a complete self-reference and they cannot describe their own evolution. They are a-historical. On the other hand, human beings seem to be creative. They can move from one formalism to another. You can see here what creativity is (essentially the ability to compute non-computable functions). A quasi-formal (mathematical) argument of how such a creativity is possible is the notion of productive functions as developed by E. Post in 1944. Here one can see how one can extend every formalism but that it is impossible to integrate this extension process into the formalism without getting a limited formalism again. From within mathematics, you get a model for creative processes here that cannot be completely formalized. From here, one can get the insight that the project of AI and cognitive science to find the laws or cognition and develop a formal model of human cognition is infeasible in principle. There are no general laws of cognition. Human cognition is informal in this (quite exact and rational, non-woo) sense. Every formal model of humans is incomplete and hence any formal description of human culture is only partial. Humans are historical as are their cultures. You have to always operate with a multitude of formal models wich have to be viewed as partial, limited tools only. There is a trade-off between exactness and generality: any exact description is special, any general description is vague. There is no general and exact theory. If any formal description of humans (and their activities, like, e.g. science) is only partial, then any ethical system must also be partial and here as well, in the realm of values and ethics, we have to operate with partial, patchy systems. There is no Absolute. Reality, physical, cultural, mental and social, always has more properties than can be derived in any of our formal systems. A possible point of departure into such a direction is the insight that this incompleteness of all formalisms (systems, algorithms, procedural systems in institutions etc.) can be mathematically proven (and quite simply, with a simple diagonalization proof). That makes it palatable for STEM-people (like myself, I have a computer science/linguistics background - however I am currently studying history and philosophy as a hobby and I don’t find the department I am studying in so dominated by postmodernists and I am not sure the humanities are like you describe everywhere. Maybe here in Germany the situation is different from the US).

Aesthetics as a tool

One thing that migt also help is through reflection of music and art (especially abstract art). I think the experience of beauty develops out of a mixture of pattern (order) and disorder, that the experience of beauty arrises from successfully discovering order. If there is too much order, this is no longer possible after a short time, the work of art or music is boring. If there is too much disorder, it is also not possible, the work is confusing. Between these two extremes there is a state of flow where we can discover new order repeatedly. The quality of a work here arises from the impossibility of describing it easily in terms of a single system of order, although some (limited) order can be found. Perceiving and practicing art or music and reflecting upon it can in this way lead to the insight that any fixed system is limited and that quality arises from a situation where order is present but not total. Where you have total order, you get kitsch (just like there seems to be a close connection between ideology and kitsch, both consist in a restriction of cognition (thinking or perception) to simple fixed patterns, reducing the fullnes of possibilities.


Dan's picture

So David, how did you get to stage 5? Was it your Heideggerian AI research, Shambhala, Aro, some combination? Apologies if you’ve already written about that and I missed/forgot it.


Wow, thank you all for the great comments!

My timing was bad—I posted this just before a busy period. So I may not get to reply to all comments for several days. I’ll get started now, but some may take longer for a response.

Foucault resources

David Howell — An excellent question. I don’t necessarily have a good answer.

Can anyone else make recommendations of a good secondary source/overview?

I found Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics helpful when I read Foucault 25 years ago. However, my recollection is that it’s still not an easy read, and that it was trying to relate Foucault to issues in intellectual history that were hot then but may not be so meaningful now.

Foucault’s work develops out of Nietzsche’s and Heidegger’s. Ideally you’d have a basic understanding of both before approaching him. (Although probably many people do read Foucault successfully without.) Nietzsche is fun and easy to read. Heidegger, unfortunately, isn’t.

math ed

Jonah's picture

I wonder (along with Andreas) if the standard undergrad STEM glossing of Godel and the “crisis of foundations” (frequently, I guess, mystified) might often be a kick onto that (unbuilt) bridge. “Mathematics and the Roots of Postmoderism” by Vladimir Tasic (… ) was a pretty lucid drawing of that link, I think. And out of the same stream: have you ever read Whitehead? His course from the Principia to Process&Reality might be the clearest one-man bridging that’s out there. “Modes of Thought”, I think, is a good place to start.

Resources and comments on 4.5>5

Many thanks David. This is a very lucid summary of thinking that’s been more vaguely rolling over in my mind for a while. There’s something very powerful in Kegan’s work when allied with a systems friendly worldview.

A formal approach that I’ve found useful in perhaps seeing the pathway is the Kegan derived work that Otto Laske has done in a) providing an overview of the movements in cognition that, to him (and I find it plausible), underpin stage transitions and b) providing a pseudo-handbook of, in his terms, dialectical thinking in which groupings of questions guide thought beyond what your Buddhist training sometimes refers to as the “is-is not” worldview which is typical of Kegan 4 (and 2 and 3, of course).

Andreas’ comments seem useful though I think he underplays the force of the realisation that, despite this ambiguity, incompleteness and slop in theories and models, stuff works. :-) We can work in and with the world despite not having a firmly and unshakeably correct grasp on it in all its detail.

To the extent that I’ve stumbled into a 5-ish worldview it’s been a combination of STEM training and work (coding designing and sys progging), Buddhism (w/meditation) and psychotherapy.

Really getting the implications of how/why therapy works and how to do therapy in ways which are both humanly and neuro-physiologically friendly is a powerful moon-pointing finger.

Nebulosity and my ignorance

There’s a general point I should make that’s relevant in replying to several of your comments (thanks again for them!). I know Kegan’s work only from his two books, the latter of which was published in 1994; and I haven’t read much other adult developmental psychology. So I don’t know the state of the field. I obviously should, and have some work to do!

In particular, I don’t know how much more clearly defined stage 5 has become since 1994. In the books I’ve read, it seems somewhat nebulous, which has allowed me to supplement my understanding with other influences (from Buddhism and from various threads of the Western intellectual tradition). If more recent empirical research has brought the stage into clearer focus, this is illegitimate.

Another way of putting this is that I don’t know to what extent “stage 5” is a clear-cut thing-out-there, and to what extent it is a conceptual construct pragmatically useful for categorizing some phenomena but n0t necessarily concretely existing. Or, to what extent is it something whose nature we discover through empirical research, and to what extent is it something whose nature we can create through collaborative improvisation? Inasmuch as it has social and cultural dimensions that have mostly not yet manifested, it would seem to be at least partly the latter.

(Does anyone reading this know the answers to these questions? Or can you suggest what I should read? Thank you; it’s great that people who know the field better than me are reading and commenting here.)

Quite recently there has been published a psychometric tool for stage assessment. I haven’t taken it, or read that book, so I can’t say that I definitely “am in” stage 5. Kegan’s description of stage 5 seems to mostly fit my experience of myself, but self-assessment is likely to be unreliable.

Stage assessment

So, to reply to Dan, out of order: I can’t be sure that I have reached stage 5. However, it seems that for everyone it’s a long process (probably a decade) that involves many factors; there’s no crash course available, or probably possible. Because the stages affect every aspect of one’s being, you have to work out the implications in many different domains of life using different sorts of tools. There’s a change in the way you think about mathematics and a change in the way you relate to your spouse, and they are in some sense the same change; but there’s not currently any bridging context that would address both!

Relatedly, replying to Artir: I’m not qualified to say what stage anyone is at. However, several of the points you describe seem very much to involve going beyond the systems worldview, and so beyond stage 4. (I’m not sure I’m hearing a consolidated meta-systematic vision in what you wrote.) I’m really glad you haven’t found the collapse of confidence in systems to be depressing!

Artir, thank you also for the Very Short Introduction recommendation! That series is often good.

Got to run; more replies later!

Artir's question

Artir asks if there’s something missing in his current state that would be present in stage 5. I’ll suggest a short answer but ask that it be borne in mind that stage 5 is indeed a construct whose concepts and relations are still in conversational development, perhaps partially through this very conversation and I’m not claiming defining rights.

So, one thing that might be missing is the active understanding that, as David points out elsewhere, the question that is asked itself conditions the domain in which an answer will be found. So: any “right” answer has to specify the domain (concepts, purposes, practice-community, …) in which it is “right”. There is a dynamic interplay between the question(ers) and the nature of the answers which are seen to “work”. As Michael Basseches points out in Dialectical Thinking and Adult Development, 19th century physics found the Newtonian f = ma entirely accurate and reliable. The requirements put on 20th century physics by newer data made f = ma a “right” answer only in domains in which Einsteinian effects were negligible. In plane geometry the internal angles of a triangle must sum to 180 degrees; in spherical geometry that is no longer true.

So: stage 5 includes an active awareness of the participation of the questioner in conditioning the answers that will become available and the reciprocal/re-entrant influence of those answers on the questioner, potentially leading to an evolving almost organic system of question<>questioner<>answer.


Magical communities

Dan (re support from magical communities)—interesting! I’ve speculated elsewhere about the possibility of Vajrayana Buddhism being adapted for this purpose.

Anders—Thank you for this! Your subreddit looks very interesting; I have it open in a tab to read more when I get a chance.

Beyond formalism, and art, and Whitehead

Andreas (and Jonah)—Thank you for the detailed thoughts! I agree completely that understanding the limits of formal systems, and the foundational crisis in mathematics, is an important route forward from stage 4 for many STEM people.

In fact, I have suspected that it was historically important in the general “crisis of modernity” in the mid-20th-century, which eventually led to postmodernity. This page of the book is supposed to discuss that (when it’s actually written). Thank you, Jonah, for the reference to the Tasic book; it seems to argue exactly this point, which I didn’t yet have good historical sources for.

Understanding the limits to formal methods probably can only get you to stage 4.5. Andreas, your points about aesthetics seem valuable here as a way toward a positive stage 5 vision, recognizing the inseparability of nebulosity and pattern. (Also, what you say about ideology and kitsch is important!)

Jonah, I have not read Whitehead. (I’ve read basic summaries in secondary sources.) I agree, he’s certainly one of the pioneers in moving beyond formalism (which he helped invent). Wittgenstein is another obvious example.

Last point: Andreas, it’s good to hear not all humanities departments have completely succumbed to postmodernism! This may be true also in the U.S.; I’m not sure just how prevalent the problem is.


Andreas, thank you for the pointer to your site! I’ve had time only for a quick look, but it seems very interesting, and I will read more later.

Simon, thank you for pointing me to Otto Laske! I wasn’t aware of his work. I’ve poked around his web site some, and will follow up more when I have time.

the realisation that, despite this ambiguity, incompleteness and slop in theories and models, *stuff works*. :-) We can work in and with the world despite not having a firmly and unshakeably correct grasp on it in all its detail.

Yes, this is important in early in moving from 4.5 to 5, I suspect. Put in my jargon, it is the recognition that nebulosity is not necessarily a problem, and that it is inseparable from pattern.

an active awareness of the participation of the questioner in conditioning the answers that will become available and the reciprocal/re-entrant influence of those answers on the questioner

Yes also to that!

Proposed Stage 6 & Impact on Stage 4-5 Transition

David I am grateful for your post and am hopeful it can generate broader interest, metrics and education around these developmental issues. My approach to this topic has mainly been the result of my own work regarding the relationship between identity and memory, correlating stages of moral development to qualities of consciousness, my own experiences with meditation over time, and transitions in my own cognitive process that seem necessitated by all-of-the-above. My conclusions so far are that a few specific features of consciousness that facilitate the 4-5 transition also open a window into an additional altitude of development - what I might propose as Stage 6. These qualities or characteristics can be summarized in this way:

1) The development and honoring of all input streams (rational, emotional, somatic, transrational, etc.)
2) Creating a “neutral holding field” of consciousness that promotes equal and multidimensional consideration of all input streams.
3) Exercising multidialectical deliberation and conditional conclusions in this context, which is inherently open to continuous revision.
4) Refining all of these characteristics through a lens (a cofactor, if you will) of love-consciousness as the guiding intentionality.
5) Operationalizing and assessing outputs via values-based functional intelligence.

I am still in the process of developing these ideas and the language used to describe them, but you can get a glimpse of that development here:

I hope you find this interesting. Regardless, however, I will look forward to where all of this takes you.

Stages 3.5, 4, 4.5 …

Jules Pitt's picture

I’m not especially qualified to make this judgement, but it does seem to me that proper teaching of Stage 4 systems necessarily includes their inherent limitations. Andrea’s mentioning computability theory, Math Ed’s speaking of Godel - these limits inform the use of the Stage 4 systems to such a degree that I’m not sure one can be said to have truly learned them at all without them.

My very speculative guess is that proper Stage 4 education with the limits taught, would severely reduce the amount of people hitting a Stage 4.5 wall.

STEM without a deep foundation of understanding is like Feynman’s comments on Brazilian STEM education. “After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant.” I can’t help but think that this is something like a Stage 3.5.

Teaching the limitations of systemic thinking

Yes, I agree strongly with that!

Now that you point this out, I think this is why I have sometimes reacted negatively to the organized rationalist movement. On the one hand, it’s great that (e.g.) LessWrong encourages the development of rationality. On the other, they do present it as The Answer To Everything, which is wrong and harmful.

As you say, if rationality were taught as a collection of useful methods with some inherent limitations, there wouldn’t be the awful let-down and nihilistic despair when one realizes it’s not The Answer.

Relating to Others

I’m finding this series of essays and chapters very interesting and challenging to read. I’m STEM educated and count myself quite lucky. As you know I’m still working through the process of logically deconstructing the Buddhist traditional approaches to two myths in particular: the Myth of the Just-World (i.e. karma) and the Myth of the Afterlife (i.e. rebirth).

I’m acutely aware that some of colleagues will find my conclusions quite objectionable. I say that there is no Just-World and there is no afterlife. Many Buddhists already want to cast me out of the Buddhist fraternity as an apostate and heretic. I get that. But the application of rationality to these matters (and I’m just talking rationality, not even science) is highly destructive for doctrines and dogmas. On the other hand, the lack of application is destructive for people.

At the same time I maintain good relations with my mother who was for many years a fundamentalist Christian and has now converted to Catholicism. We talk about her experiences and views and it’s been very instructional for me to decide not argue with her. I just listen and accept that she is expressing values that I can appreciate, even if the ideas she uses to do that are irrational. I learned to tolerate the fairly strong cognitive dissonance of talking about God and see beyond the words to the person I love. Life is just too short to fall out over this stuff.

The knowledge that there is no Just-World and no Afterlife might easily have sent me into despair I suppose, but I’m so familiar with depression and despair after decades of it, that maybe nowadays I’m more robust when it comes to ideas (relationships with people can easily throw me back into depression, but ideas I find relatively easy). Talking with my mother recently about this stuff I explained my beliefs, but it occurred to me that they do not make life meaningless, if anything the opposite is true. If there is no afterlife and life is not inherently fair, then it is up to us to step up and live well right now. It’s more important in the face of the collapse of traditional beliefs, I find, and more meaningful also.

One question I have is this. At what stage does the stage that one is in become unimportant? Ie. if I set out stages to someone, what stage do they have to get to, to stop seeing it as a competition and/or commentary on their value as a human being. This seems important, because I cannot imagine some people I know reading this material and seeing themselves positively in relation to it. I’m sure most people immediately begin over-estimating where they are on the path :-)

I suppose my other concern is that, since Kegan wrote, not only might the stages be better defined, but rationality has been virtually redefined. I’m again referring to that paper by Mercier and Sperber. Maybe this relates to the stages? It’s now fairly widely accepted that under test conditions, most humans do much worse than random guessing at solo reasoning tasks (we routinely fall into cognitive biases and logical fallacies, the lists of which are surprisingly long). To me this suggests that the very concept of “rationality” needs looking at. M&S argue that reason does not even begin to function until we are arguing against an idea. This would seem to have consequences for how Kegan’s model articulates what is happening in stage 4 and 5.

Learn logic and set theory up to Cohen forcing.

Stage 3 math: We learn how to perform algorithms and solve simple problems in arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. We are learning useful techniques and “true” “facts” about things that unquestionably exist, like shapes and numbers.

Stage 3.5 math: We learn how to prove things about numbers and shapes deductively, starting from axioms that are “self-evident”.

Stage 4 math: Axiomatic systems and rigor expand to cover the whole mathematical landscape. We learn how to make even calculus formal and rigorous. We know what the “dx” in the integral really means. We learn how to make proofs formal. Proofs are no longer deductive prose about math, they are syntactically formal objects like computer programs that can be checked for validity by a computer. We yearn for the One True System under which all mathematics can be formalized. We learn ZFC. We are happy.

Stage 4.5 math: We learn Godel’s theorem. Not ZFC, nor any other can be the One True System. We try to make sense of this. We tell ourselves it doesn’t really matter but we don’t believe it. We are despondent.

Stage 5 math: We learn of more systems. We learn of NBG, and of CoC, and of the large cardinal axioms, and of a spectrum of systems astronomically weaker than ZFC, yet sill capable of formalizing most “real” math. We learn how category theory and logic come together at Topos theory. We learn that intuitionism, which we formally regarded as crazy, is actually the best logic for some jobs. As we learn more systems, and how they relate to each other, we become more at ease with the idea that none of them are The One. We start to really believe that maybe there’s no truth of the matter of whether or not the Continuum Hypothesis is true. But we’re still confident that there is a truth to the matter of whether 7 is prime. This no longer feels like a contradiction. Most of the time, we see theorems as being capable of being formalized into a spectrum of systems, rather than being shorthand for a overly-verbose formalization in The System.

Just to stay connected

I’m only writing this to keep up to date with comments. Fascinating topic, though. Will write my own conclusions on how to get people to stage 5, which may not be as difficult as it seems if the community support Dave hints at is present, perhaps even in the form of a council of ‘wise’ elders: stage 4.5 is pretty rough though. I share Dave’s concerns regarding the collapse of society so what worries me most is whether it is possible for a large enough contingent of folks to get to 5 and then creatively re-imagine society from positions of power and influence and help guide the direction our species takes. We’re pretty short on time. I guess we’re screwed but hey, it’s worth having a go.

This explains a lot

Katherine's picture

Hello David,

I thought this deserved a fuller response than a couple tweets (@katherinetev).

I’ve always been a pretty extreme outlier. It takes a real weirdo to dedicate her whole youth to understanding reality, prioritizing it over relationships, sex, employment and even sometimes food! Nevertheless, I could still always find a few other cranks with whom I could meaningfully relate.

But since I recently overcame a long depression and illness and transitioned to a new way of understanding reality, it’s been impossible to find people I can relate to. It’s even difficult to describe this new way of understanding/being/thinking, but one of the most telling changes is that I’m always holding my tongue because I’m about to say something I know my rational-minded friends will interpret as woo. I don’t mean it that way.

The best explanation I’ve been able to come up with on my own is that I see the world from a level of abstraction that dissolves a lot of apparent contradictions, and what sounds like woo is simply the most efficient system available for referencing certain phenomena. My project of seeking is over, and my task now is to communicate what I’ve learned, which’ll be just as hard (but not as painful ;))

This essay provided a framework from which I can understand what’s happened to me and why I can’t connect to anyone. Basically, I’ve transitioned to Stage 5, completely on my own, with no help, and that’s NOT a good thing until I can tackle the monumental task of conveying my insights to others.

You say “It is probably still possible to reach stage 4 in some English departments, but you’d have to be smart, lucky, dedicated, and discreet—so I’ve made that a dotted box in the diagram. If you do reach it, the genuine pomo critique is still available; I’ve drawn it with a solid line. However, the critique leads only to ultra-relativistic nihilism. The logical next step, a positive non-eternalist stage 5 cultural and social vision, does not yet exist.”

So apparently I don’t exist, which would clearly explain why I’m not doing so well socially!

Seriously though…here’s how I reached it: I went to St. John’s, where non-geeks are systematically educated to Stage 4; I became fascinated with postmodernism; I went through nihilistic despair after encountering speculative realism and climate change realism; and then I simply spent such an ungodly amount of effort trying to read, think, and theorize my way out of my predicament that…I did. And then I saw I’d theorized my way out of society.

The very few others who understand the world similarly are of a slightly different cognitive phenotype and an extremely different social ingroup: mostly, as you say, STEM people. And you’re right, it’s extremely difficult to achieve this transition without help, but hey, if you’re a reasonably smart person and willing to ditch your life and forego basic needs for a few years, hey, it’s totally doable.

So I’m in a set that I’m sure has a couple other members but what’re the odds of meeting them? I’m very relieved to have encountered this, even though I’m not in STEM (well…did study neuroscience briefly), but I feel I have more chance to relate to STEM “post-rats” than to a stage 3 or 4 humanities major.

I’m not looking for help at this point, just to make some connections with others who understand this perspective, despite my different academic background. I see I’m not alone in finding this transition alienating, and hope we can connect more in the future :)

nuances on 4.5-5 shift

Katherine's picture

PS some more thoughts on the nuances of 4.5 to 5 transition: You’re correct, it’s more than an intellectual shift. There are degrees though…I doubt it’s possible to be solidly at 5 intellectually while remaining completely stuck in 4.5 emotionally and behaviorally; but one could develop asynchronously, certain parts of the transition could be less fully actualized, and that’s down to the lack of “bridges” to assist with the transition. In my case, I’m solidly at 5 existentially, yet I have catch-up work to do on communication skills, which accounts in part for my social issues. Again demonstrating the need for new social forms to accommodate this transition.

Other aspects of stages

To Katherine: “relationships, sex, employment and even sometimes food” are NOT (aspects of) reality? Uh oh! I’m in trouble! ;-)

To Jayarava: [paraphrased] When does one stop caring about what stage one is at? My guess is about the same point at which one stops caring about enlightenment. Which isn’t an answer—>

The discussion here has been focussed very much on the cognitive aspects of our supposed stages. Katherine’s last point about not being able to be fully 5-ish while still emotionally pre-5-ish is exactly on the mark in the Laskean/Bassechean schema (Kegan doesn’t explicitly differentiate cognitive and socio-emotional dimensions).

The cognitive insights of 5-ishness (no RIGHT answers but that doesn’t matter) lead one into the corollary understanding that my view, however useful, is not privileged and I have to give up a reliance (self validation) on being right. To be more right (?LessWrong?) I must consult and cooperate with others to get their perspective so we can build a shared concept of the world (the mosaic of STEM knowledge which is the work of many minds). Socio-emotionally (?spiritually?) I must value others and their values, opinions, quirks as I do my own (as with Jayarava’s appreciation of his mother’s humanity) regardless of the cognitive and conceptual gulfs between us.

In partial answer to Jayarava’s question, I see that reduced reliance of my self-appreciation or self-validation as at least a necessary precursor of not caring at what stage I am. In typing that sentence I typo-ed “what sage I am” which seems symptomatic. :-D

Thanks to Jayarava for pointing out Mercier and Sperber’s work in his blog a while back. That work is typical of the research (cf Dan Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Antonio Damasio, Alan Schore, Joseph LeDoux, …) that is pointing out the utter contingency (buddhist emptiness) of the substrate of our embodied emotional/cognitive selves.

Strayed back into cognition again - it like a magnet with language as its field. The emotional orientation of 4 might be tolerance; that of 5 might be an increasingly inclusive compassionate engagement.

My responses my be delayed...

It’s wonderful that this post is attracting so many thoughtful comments!

I will be busy again for the next 2-3 days, so I may not have a chance to respond for some time. I’ll answer as I can! But please do continue the conversation, and I’ll catch up in a bit.

Metamagical mates (1): Druids and doppelgangers

Dan's picture

(Apologies for a ridiculously long comment. Maybe I should start a blog.) I’m sort of flying blind here as I don’t really understand what Stage 5 is supposed to look like. Nonetheless, some promising leads from the world of Western magic:

In an alternate timeline, you got into Druidry and ceremonial magic instead of Buddhism and started calling yourself John Michael Greer. You went on to write a series of blog posts about Consensus Paganism, developed a version of kabbalah with monism as one of the Big Three klippot, and are now explaining Druid philosophy in a series of horror novels. It’s weird. You two should probably team up somehow.

There are at least two Greer-world analogues of the current post. His framework is similar enough to yours to be relevant, and different enough to be interesting.

Producing Democracy is about the decline of “dialectic” (≈ systematic thinking) in America, what that means for democratic institutions (SPOILER: bad things), and how to go about fixing it.

The Clenched Fist of Reason is about going beyond Stage 4, especially the bit starting around “As the charisma of Greek rationalism faded…”

Attempted summary: These problems are actually not new, and most civilizations have gone through a similar cycle. First, the educated elite gets really into some form of “rationalism” (related to your “systematic mode” and “rationalist eternalism”), and casts aside all sorts of useful and important things as too “irrational”. Eventually they discover the problems and limitations of their particular rationalism and start wringing their hands about how everything is meaningless. Finally, they figure out how to work with both systematic rationality and irrationality (maybe related to Stage 5, I’m not sure). Civilization normally collapses anyway. But in the best-case scenario, it handles its decline gracefully and/or plants the seeds for future interesting civilizations.

Elsewhere, he mentions an exercise from the Druid tradition called “ternary thinking”, which is about noticing and challenging false dichotomies. Seems probably related in that (1) it’s a way of breaking out of a specific kind of patterned thinking without defaulting to nihilism and (2) your whole blook is structured around ternaries.

Greer has written a book about running a magical order which I’m hoping has some things to say about the community support angle. He also has an order of his own, The Druidical Order of the Golden Dawn, which I don’t know much about yet.


Katherine's picture

David, thanks for stopping by, I do find this a fascinating discussion!

Simon: Aargh! Haha, of course…eh…uh…careers and sex? Part of reality? But, this actually raises an interesting point: to a pre-5 worldview, stuff like careers, relationships, whatever do tend to appear different from “Reality.” When I set out on my search, I saw the two as separate. Hence the Zen mountain climbers, the Hindu sannyasins, and people like me all stop our worldly lives thinking we will find truth that way. And maybe we do, but with a catch.

It almost seems that, at least without our hypothetical Stage 4.5-5 bridges, there’s a necessary delay between cognitive and social arrival at Stage 5, as this illusion that truth and everyday life are separate does tend to delay truth-seekers’ development in social aspects of life. So when they come down from the mountain, it’s oops…I forgot how to do this.

The discussion here has been pretty universalized. But we all know that STEM folks have a bit more trouble on average with social and communication skills, and that can exacerbate the tendency of asynchronous development across stages. In my case as well, despite my humanities education I’m nowhere near neurotypical, so it can be quite a challenge to bring social/communication skills in line with cognitive and existential understanding. And I’d go even further to suggest social and emotional development are also modular. One could be, for example, full of the compassion Simon describes, but clueless trying to express it :P

Stage 5 Training

If you go to the right school and are intellectually curious, an Economics PhD can be a good bridge to both Stage 4 rationality and Stage 5 meta-rationality. First you learn, in great detail, a system of thought that is accepted as truth. You master it, make it part of your identity, and learn to use it. Many economists never get beyond this, but with experience and good mentoring, you learn that all models are wrong but some models are useful. You see that different economic theories and systems are better in different situations, and learn to move between them. The best economists, like Tyler Cowen, are clearly Stage 5 thinkers, and their blogs are good guides to this thought.

I suspect that the better law schools also enable a 3 to 4 to 5 transition. Lawyers learn the legal system very well, and learn that, while essential for society’s functioning, it is an evolved happenstance rather than an ultimate truth. I am fairly sure that most of our competent technocratic politicians are Stage 5 thinkers, and most of them are lawyers.

Successfully managing a large organization will also require a Stage 5 mind, and raising through management ranks, dealing with all of the different and often contradictory systems required to make an organization run, may also enable this transition.

Stage 3 people will distrust Stage 5 people for the same reasons they distrust Stage 4 people, although Stage 5 people tend to be much better than Stage 4 people at controlling and manipulating the Stage 3s. As you have described, Stage 4 people also distrust and misunderstand the Stage 5s, interpreting their system-switching as devious duplicity, scientific incompetence, and/or Stage 3 thinking.

As Kegan described, Stage 5 thinkers are pretty rare. Mastering this stage makes one quite powerful, when combined with practical, technical, and/or leadership skills. And as you mentioned, Stage 5 people absolutely essential to prevent civilization from collapsing.

However, power corrupts. When you combine the corrupting influence of power with the inability of Stage 3 and 4 people to fully understand or communicate with them, much less monitor and control their activities, you have a world where the few Stage 5s in positions of power barely manage to keep civilization functioning, usually in spite of considerable opposition the 3s and 4s, while extracting most of the value they generate in doing so.

The only solution to this is to train a lot more Stage 5s, to make them less scarce and therefore less valuable and powerful.

I worry MIRI is stuck at stage 4 or 4.5 in their approach

They seem to have an unhealthy obsession with formal logic , Godel, Lob’s theorem, Cox’s theorem, and now apparently type theory.

All of which are awesome, but I don’t think any of those things are at the crux of the AI value-alignemnt problem.

Iit sure looks to me like they’re still trying to find a way around Godel. Like if they could just find the right approach formal logic then the value alignment problem would somehow be easy. Like somehow incorporating probability into logic will defeat the incompleteness theorem. Like swallowing whole E T Jayne’s “probability is the logic of science” in it’s most indefensibly strong and literal form.

It’s possible I misunderstand their research agenda but it looks suspiciously like stage 4.5, “make the incompleteness theorem didn’t happen” wishful thinking to me.

Stage 5 through employment

Great post! I see some potential parallels between the communities being built to support the growing freelance/cloud worker community and what an employment-based path to stage 5 could look like. Unfortunately, at least for now, it seems this bridge will also mostly be accessible to STEM people…

Appreciating people wherever they are

We talk about her experiences and views and it’s been very instructional for me to decide not argue with her. I just listen and accept that she is expressing values that I can appreciate, even if the ideas she uses to do that are irrational. I learned to tolerate the fairly strong cognitive dissonance of talking about God and see beyond the words to the person I love.

Yes, I think that’s important. Similarly, I have family members and sangha friends who believe things I think are obviously wrong and harmful, but arguing would not be helpful. Their intentions are good and I’m not in a place to change their minds (and often it’s not clear it would be right to change their minds even if I could).

it occurred to me that they do not make life meaningless, if anything the opposite is true. If there is no afterlife and life is not inherently fair, then it is up to us to step up and live well right now. It’s more important in the face of the collapse of traditional beliefs, I find, and more meaningful also.

Yes, I agree very much.

what stage do they have to get to, to stop seeing it as a competition and/or commentary on their value as a human being?

This could be asked as an empirical question, or as a structural one. As I noted above, I am not sure how good the empirical data on stage 5 are; Kegan summarizes a lot of research rather vaguely, and I haven’t gone back to the primary literature to dig into the quality of evidence. And there’s been 20 years of subsequent work in the field that I’m mostly ignorant of.

Kegan’s own writing demonstrates profound appreciation and concern for individuals wherever they are at. His interest—not just intellectual, but human—is in the overall process of development. I find this very appealing and right. What developmental stage one is in has no implication for one’s human worth. (In Over Our Heads was mainly concerned with the needs of those in stage 3, and those making the 3-to-4 transition, and practically dismisses stage 5 as irrelevant to most people.)

Taking this view, which is meta to the entire process of meaning-making and development, is taken as itself an advanced state of development in related work by other theorists. This is one thing that Ken Wilber (of whom I’m not generally a fan) gets importantly right in his Spiral Dynamics work. His “second-tier memes” (advanced developmental stages) are ones that “honor” all the previous stages, and incorporate the accurate aspects of their ways of understanding. The meta-to-systems nature of Kegan’s stage 5 also enables that view, at least. I don’t recall his saying that it implies it (but I haven’t re-read carefully to check).

Several theorists have posited stages beyond 5. In terms of the structural logic, a stage 6 would take “meaning-making” as the object (because that is the subject in stage 5). So perhaps this view, of honoring all stages, and acting to support the development of everyone at whatever stage, is characteristic of stage 6.

Because the evidential base for even a fifth stage was somewhat sketchy in 1994, Kegan collapsed all post-4.5 stages into one (“stage 5”). It’s probably too early to say whether that can be usefully differentiated.

In any case, I think your question is an important one, and I agree with your implicit answer. It would not be helpful or moral to make developmental stages badges of personal worth.

the very concept of “rationality” needs looking at

Yes… Work like Mercier & Sperber’s is valuable in pointing out yet more ways in which “rationality” doesn’t work the way rationalist-eternalists like to imagine. We’ve got a century worth of accumulated reasons the rationalist-eternalist worldview is wrong, now.

In terms of a social-cultural program, if institutions took a stage 5 view, they could teach both rationality’s value and its limitations. That might make the 3-to-4 transition easier, and might lessen the harsh self-righteous certainty of stage 4 rationalism, and might make the 4-to-5 transition easier too.

The inseparable nebulosity and pattern of mathematics

Lawrence—Thank you, yes, very nicely done! I particularly liked this:

As we learn more systems, and how they relate to each other, we become more at ease with the idea that none of them are The One. We start to really believe that maybe there’s no truth of the matter of whether or not the Continuum Hypothesis is true. But we’re still confident that there is a truth to the matter of whether 7 is prime.

Understanding the limitations of formal systems on their own terms (the foundational crisis in mathematics) is important. In addition, there’s an important parallel track of development in one’s understanding of the relationship between formal systems and reality. That is, there’s always a process of active, embodied, non-formal interpretation that comes between a formal model and the world. There’s much to learn about how that works (and how it can be done better and worse).

The social problem of a new worldview

Katherine—Yes; any new worldview (especially if it is rare) is likely to be isolating, because it won’t be shared by one’s existing social group. Stage 5 is rare, and its existence is not widely recognized.

I guess, as with any other worldview change, the best one can do is look for like-minded people in likely places!

The Archdruid

Dan—Thanks for the pointers! I’ve read posts on The Archdruid Report before, and found them interesting. I have the ones you recommended open in tabs for reading when I get a chance.

MIRI; and deliberately developmental organizations

Lawrence, I agree about MIRI. I don’t think what they are doing is going to go anywhere.

Relevant to points made by Jayarava, Alleged, and Gary: Jonathan Glick has just pointed out to me that Kegan has a new book out, as of a month ago, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization. It is about how to create institutions that support the entire developmental process. From the blurb:

In most organizations nearly everyone is doing a second job no one is paying them for—namely, covering their weaknesses, trying to look their best, and managing other people’s impressions of them. There may be no greater waste of a company’s resources. The ultimate cost: neither the organization nor its people are able to realize their full potential.

What if a company did everything in its power to create a culture in which everyone—not just select “high potentials”—could overcome their own internal barriers to change and use errors and vulnerabilities as prime opportunities for personal and company growth?

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey (and their collaborators) have found and studied such companies—Deliberately Developmental Organizations. A DDO is organized around the simple but radical conviction that organizations will best prosper when they are more deeply aligned with people’s strongest motive, which is to grow. This means going beyond consigning “people development” to high-potential programs, executive coaching, or once-a-year off-sites. It means fashioning an organizational culture in which support of people’s development is woven into the daily fabric of working life and the company’s regular operations, daily routines, and conversations.

The language here is business-management-hype-ese, which is tiresome, but I hope the substance is substantial! (I haven’t read it, and can’t specifically recommend it until I have.)


@Howell: I found the Foucault Reader good. Read Foucault’s commentary on Kant’s “Was ist Aufklarung?”. You need to set Kant side by side with Foucault. Foucault is replying to Kant. Whilst Kant was trying to delimit the use and rationale of reason, Foucault insists on opposing it - reason as from the Aufklarung not only failed to liberate humanity, it became a primary instrument of domination.

He furthers this by assuming everything is contingent. Reason depends on necessity. The burden on proof lies on those claiming absolutes. Foucault historicises supposed absolutes as human episodes.

(Also, I humbly suggest “Against Method” by Feyerabend. It is the same as but with added history)

Awww, I wanted to be the

Duckland's picture

Awww, I wanted to be the smartypants to recommend Feyerabend. I’ll take sloppy recommendational seconds then. I’ll say that I take his work to include much more than that Going Down article.

It seems to me that people who clearly see the limitations of S4 will have developed S5 ways of being, at least in some respects. Then, even though as you say we don’t have a clear positive S5 vision, we might be able to piece together a sense of it from the lives and work of the S4 critics. Indeed, all the recommendations in this comment thread seem to be pointing in this direction.

As Whitehead was mentioned I’ll add another ‘current’ that’s similar,
Whitehead -> Korzbski -> Robert Anton Wilson -> Discordians/Chaos Magick

With a nod to Andreas comment above I’d add the Dadas and Surrealists.

Let’s compile a plausible S5 reading list. This commend thread is a start

Problems of skimming stage 4

Kris's picture

Gen Y is primed to develop a unique problem - blazing through stage 3 to 5 while only barely skimming stage 4. I propose there will be soon(or there currently are) stage 5 individuals who acknowledge the inherent limitation of systems, but aren’t formally educated enough to properly apply enough systems with enough power to reap the benefits of stage 5 thinking.

Though maybe this will be an exciting new perspective, with some potential benefits:

  1. Their most practised system being one they chose specifically for its strength in stage 5 implementation, requires access to higher education or extreme self discipline.
  2. Jack-of-all-trades approach to lower-level problems proving more useful than ham-fisted single-system approach to lower level problems. Having a lot of tools you don’t know how to use very well(but you can google that), compared to having a pretty sweet hammer.
  3. Ad-hoc systemisation from formal atoms, slapping together parts of different systems into ugly, brutally functional machines either out of necessity for survival, thrills, or both, like mad max cars. Prone to violent explosion without expertise.


@ Duckland - second is good enough. I haven’t read Feyerabend beyond. AM. AM reflects the attitude of “going down on the phenomenon” or vice-versa. I’m confident Feyerabend’s work is not resumed to that, and am interested in knowing what else you like from him.

Feyerabend & skimming

I think I had read Feyerabend before writing “Going Down,” so there may be some direct influence. Not sure.

Kris, what you say seems right to me. It seems consistent with what I’m calling “atomization,” which is the “native mode of relating to meaning” for Millennials.

An example came up in Twitter discussion yesterday. Software development used to be a matter of complete understanding of how a programming system worked, and assembling a program mainly from scratch almost as a logical deduction from requirements and the programming system. Contemporary software development is mainly a matter of gluing together vast, buggy, ill-defined (nebulous?) libraries that no one full understands. You can do this without any coherent mental model of program execution or language semantics; and neither you, nor anyone else, is expected to understand in detail how what you produce works.

(I don’t approve of this, but I have to admit it sorta-works.)

Lodges are systematic

Dan's picture

I’ve now skimmed Greer’s Inside a Magical Lodge and unfortunately it doesn’t talk about anything obviously 5-ish. He does, however, say quite a bit about lodges as a Stage 4 institution (“leadership is a function of office, not of personality”) and how the ritual trappings help support that.

Really enjoying this

Really enjoying this conversation :-).

Kris, I think there are already people like that, and they are people in the New Age movement who have those obtuse woo-woo sounding organizations. They produce very complex text that sounds like word salad to outsiders. However, I think that in at least some cases, these are Stage 5 thinkers who just happen to not share any discursive traditions with us, so they had to reinvent a few wheels.

Kegan’s own writing demonstrates profound appreciation and concern for individuals wherever they are at. His interest—not just intellectual, but human—is in the overall process of development. I find this very appealing and right. What developmental stage one is in has no implication for one’s human worth. (In Over Our Heads was mainly concerned with the needs of those in stage 3, and those making the 3-to-4 transition, and practically dismisses stage 5 as irrelevant to most people.)

David, I have worked very hard in my own theorizing to flatten this illuminati hierarchy and make it compatible with poststructuralism. One way I speak of this is as a map of “cognitive-development pathways” between “loci of subjectivity”. The routes/pathways between nodes could be composed of “media trails” in a shared curricular space, such as a website designed for this, so people could trade and rate their favorite paths, and paths would be ranked, discovered, and developed like ant trails. This allows people to start with fragments and gradually discover bigger and better currents of media (e.g., going from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to The Perennial Philosophy by Huxley). It also creates a non-authoritarian peer structure of media and wisdom distribution which nevertheless allow non-authoritarian “wisdom hierarchies” to develop naturally based on the empirically valid observation of hierarchic developmental stages.

Dan, that book on magical orders looks interesting, thank you. Dan and David, I happen to part of of a peer-to-peer meta-organization called the Transliminal Earth Alliance Metanarrative, or TEAM. Our primary focus is producing a set of sociolinguistic protocols which allows travel and/or mutual understanding between the five stages discussed in this article. In other words, the TEAM is an open-source secret society which will appear to you in the form most suited to communicate with you, and help to bring you into communication with others at other levels (dialectical thinking).

There are about 18 of us in our cluster, and we just bumped into a stigmergic sister cluster called Ceptr that is a bit further along and more focused on implementing the software needed to move beyond Facebook and centralized currencies. You are welcome to come join us in our Lobby; joining the “inner circle” chat requires filling out a brief application about your purpose in life and your favorite books/media.

Sorry to proselytize, but we have a lot of ideological and curricular tech already under development that we’d love to share :-). And we’d love to hang out with you guys.

Negative Volume

Cyhhr's picture

Enjoying reading the comments and especially the ongoing writing here. Seeing your background in STEM and the yet to be written humanities 5 stage, it would be very interesting sketching it out here (together with a few other commenters). I agree with you’re view on the difficulty getting past post-modernism within current educational system or with proposed historical arrow alone.

I watched several people sidetrack the barrier via phenomenology and post-colonial writing (which I find invaluable to read, yet a dead-end to follow) and simultaneous immersion in entry & mid-level mathematics and programming. Noted, on own initiative and over several years after the humanities studies.

Both phenomenology and pc writing might be useful tools with their demand of very nuanced (re-)thinking of the body and its orientation. And out of which they develop a concept of history open to interaction, sidetracking the (3,5?) 4.5 wall.

I do wonder though how increased mobility might affect different paths to reach these levels.

However, I think that in at least some cases, these are Stage 5 thinkers who just happen to not share any discursive traditions with us, so they had to reinvent a few wheels.

This is very likely a huge blind spot to us here, being limited by background, geography and language.

Great post

Tim's picture


Thanks for this post. It’s inspired me to re-read in more depth many of the other posts here.

I was a systems thinker before going to law school (which didn’t hurt, and now I’m studying math). Richard Rorty, Venkat Rao, and Yuval Harari have all pushed me past stage 4, and intellectually stage 5 makes sense to me.

Emotionally though, stage 4.5 resonates with me. If all meaning is ultimately a necessary fiction, it’s a little hard to get emotional traction on any proposed source of meaning!

On your page on the pitfalls of nihilism, you suggest that a sort of nihilistic depression results from denying one’s natural feelings in response to the presence of meaning, out of fear that it will all break down again, or anger at past breakdowns.

In this telling, recovering the drive of meaning is as easy as letting yourself respond naturally. Do I read you correctly here? I look forward to any other thoughts you eventually publish on pushing forward to stage 5 (the first step is recognizing there’s a problem…).

Overcoming nihilism

Tim, I’m glad you liked this!

recovering the drive of meaning is as easy as letting yourself respond naturally?

Well, yes, as easy as—but this may not be easy at all! Only somewhat tangentially, “letting yourself respond naturally,” lhündrüp in Tibetan, is taken as the definition of enlightenment in Dzogchen. Lhündrüp is pretty much what I call the complete stance or fluid mode.

Meaning is not fictional, I think. That’s one of the key things to understand.

Particularly for people who have reasoned themselves into nihilism, it’s important to see why the seemingly-rational arguments for it are wrong. In sum, they amount to “meaning does not have property X, which was attributed to it by eternalist theories, therefore it does not exist.” But this doesn’t follow; meaning doesn’t have property X, but does exist. (“X” might be “objective” or “eternal” or “ultimate,” for instance.)

There’s the beginnings of an explanation here and here.

William Gillis against nihilism

Oh, I forgot to mention. This essay on what’s wrong with nihilism, posted by William Gillis yesterday, is very good. It’s not quite the same analysis I’ll make, and the language is quite different, but there’s substantial overlap.


Tim's picture

Thanks for the reply and the William Gillis essay - both are helpful.

“Meaning is not fictional, I think.” This, and number 26 on this page), is pretty spot on to where I am (to my surprise!).

Yuval Harari, for instance, has this fun swashbuckling account of history in Sapiens , and he emphasizes that modern civilization is held together by intersubjective fiction, by collectively-constructed myths: human rights, corporations, and so on. On a personal level, our life-stories are similarly constructed. But if constructed, then somewhat arbitrary, and so fictional.

This leaves us building the best stories we can, at personal and societal levels, so as to successfully suspend our disbelief. That is a little hard to sustain.

New Atheist types tend to answer the challenge with “but reality is magical - Science!” or “I am a decent person and also find meaning in living.” Which are all right answers but pretty limited.

You and Gillis seem to be saying that the non-eternalist (the one who gives up belief in superhuman sources of meaning, whether that’s divine agency or some Kantian grounding) can have richer, not poorer, accounts of meaning, than eternalists. Which sort of makes sense: why shouldn’t a more accurate worldview open life up, not close it down?

I’ll keep thinking about the ontology of it all. Meaning can’t be completely humanly constructed, else it’s basically a fiction, yet it’s just us humans walking around the world, so we aren’t talking about a Platonic source of meaning, in its many guises.

Any odds, it is kind of hopeful to now have this idea of meaning actually out there (pattern), yet tougher to grasp than most philosophies get (nebulosity).

Also cats

it’s just us humans walking around the world

Also cats, as I mentioned in the hardcore-vs-lite nihilism page. Cats are not known for their fictional imaginations, but it’s reasonably clear that things are meaningful to them.

Further, meanings are constrained by endless features of non-human reality. As Lakoff points out, as a highly abstract instance, the up-down axis imposed by gravity shapes most human meanings. Pathogens are evolutionarily responsible for our feelings of disgust, which underlie much of morality. On any specific concrete occasion, features of the physical environment are typically involved in the meaningfulness of an event.

Meanings probably require brains, but they also depend on endless “external” facts. Meanings aren’t internal or external; they aren’t located, but involve many spatially distributed factors in interaction.


Tim's picture

I’ve found this really quite helpful. I stayed up till the wee hours the other night working through all this. Your description of the confused stances that can happen in stage 4.5 was such a good fit that I realized I’ve been stuck there for several years, without knowing it.

As a result, without falling into one of the “this is the answer for real
this time” cycles of the past few years, I find myself energized, ready for action, in a way I’ve not allowed myself to be since I got all nihilistically discouraged.

You’ve really helped me build on what I learned from Rorty, and I’m very pleased to have gotten this much closer to a complete stance.

I’ve read through this website and most of your other materials on Buddhism, and I’ll probably use much of it as I practice building meanings skillfully.

Thanks very much indeed.

Avoiding answers

Great, I’m glad this was helpful!

I think you are wise to avoid the “this is the answer for real
this time” cycle—which I certainly recognize! Any insight is always be nebulous to some extent, so trying to solidify it into The Answer won’t work. That applies to any insights that might be found in this book :-)

Level 5 Systems Theory

Shaun Bartone's picture

“The logical next step, a positive non-eternalist stage 5 cultural and social vision, does not yet exist. (I do plan to try to sketch one in Meaningness and Time—but that’s not what this post is about.)”
Yes it does exist. It’s contemporary systems theory, which was first developed in the “hard” sciences: physics, mathematics, chemistry; and the life sciences: biology, evolution and ecology. It is now combining with the social sciences (but NOT post-modernism, which is all but dead in soc-sci). New systems theory is beyond level 4 rationality; it is a Level 5 meta science that is logical, dynamic and yes, relativistic, yet it still describes functional systems and networks. It includes chaos theory, but describes how chaos creates structure (and how structure allows chaos). There are many more conceptual components that I can’t get into in a blog comment. But it is the basis of my Ph.D. thesis in sociology. And it most definitely is the conceptual model that is being deployed to confront our most catastrophic problems: climate disruption, environmental degradation of all kinds, global economic collapse and the end of the nation-state.

Shaun, could you add some

Mirol's picture

Shaun, could you add some references or links pointing to what you describe as ‘contemporary systems theory’?
Interested to read more, thank you.

Haack and Peirce

Dan's picture

Is anyone here familiar with Susan Haack? She has several books out aiming squarely at this problem, especially Defending Science—within Reason: Between Scientism And Cynicism (blurb: ‘Haack takes readers beyond the “Science Wars” to a balanced understanding of the value, and the limitations, of the scientific enterprise’) and Evidence and Inquiry: A Pragmatist Reconstruction of Epistemology. Some lightly-abridged quotes:

Even as I was dutifully ploughing through the literature of analytic epistemology, a startling new hostility to the whole epistemological enterprise was on the rise. Postmodernists of every stripe were announcing, with barely-concealed satisfaction, that talk of better and worse evidence, of well- and poorly-conducted inquiry, even of truth itself, was nothing but a rhetorical smokescreen disguising the operation of the interests of the powerful.

Though mainstream epistemologists seemed largely oblivious to the rise of this New Cynicism, I found it impossible to ignore; for I saw questions about what makes evidence stronger or weaker, about what makes inquiry better or worse conducted, about disinterestedness and partiality, etc., not as merely academic concerns, but as questions of real, daily and sometimes (e.g., in the justice system, in medicine, in military intelligence) life-and-death consequence.

Science has a distinguished epistemic status, but not a privileged one. By our standard of empirical evidence it has been a pretty successful cognitive endeavour. But it is fallible, revisable, incomplete, imperfect; and in judging where it has succeeded and where failed we appeal to standards which are not simply internal to science.

Oh, and also:

I wasn’t greatly surprised that some mainstream epistemologists thought I was just wilfully blind to the epistemological power of Bayes’ Theorem.


Apparently both she and Fernando Zalamea (mentioned in the “Robots That Dance” comments) are building on “Peircean pragmatism”, which I’ve never heard of—sorry, not very philosophically literate!


I had heard of Haack, but knew nothing about her. The Wikipedia article is quite informative.

Pragmatism” is a late-1800s/early-20th-century American philosophical school, more-or-less founded by Charles Sanders Pierce, that I find much to like in.

Funny quote about Bayesianism! Those cultists are everywhere.

Hi David,

Hi David,

I just discovered your site. A lot of what you write rings true to me. I agree with your critique of rationalism, and I find very enticing your call for building a bridge to the land of post-rationality - if only because it’s easiest to agree about something that’s still largely beyond the horizon :)

I’m not sure, though, that I fully understand what you (and Kegan) mean by saying that in the humanities, the bridge between 3 and 4 has been destroyed. Was it there to begin with? What were the bricks it was built of, can we reuse them now? The old - pre-postmodernist - humanities were complex, rigid, and authoritarian, but that doesn’t mean they were very rational. What was it that we used to teach young people to guide them from 3 to 4 but don’t teach anymore - Aristotelian logic? Classical Latin? Ancient history according to late antiquity authors and Renaissance compendiums? I don’t think it was such a big loss to shed all this; we have much better replacements for these bricks now (mathematical logic, modern linguistics, modern evidence-based history, etc.). I think that bridge withered and crumbled under its own weight, even if many people cheered its crumbling.

As for me, I am quietly building my own bridge into the future - it is a (still unfinished) book called Everday: It is poetical and fictional more than philosophical, but I hope you may find it interesting - and I would very much appreciate your comments.

Reply to Kai Teorn

Nadia R.'s picture

Kai, you ask what the bridge in the humanities was made of. Have you read any modern-era philosophy? Perhaps Hume, or maybe Mill? The old humanities tradition taught thinking clearly, which might seem more wishy-washy than logic is fundamentally the same thing. Plato and Aristotle are considered great philosophers because they carefully separating thoughts that would otherwise run together, avoid logical leaps, and carefully point out what evidence needs to be supported.

From what I know (too little) of mathematical logic, logic doesn’t directly apply to most real-world sentences. The real skill one needs to learn isn’t the rules of logic but how to turn ordinary thoughts into logical statements. Hume’s famous claim that you can’t make an “ought” from an “is” isn’t a derivation of logic, because “ought” statements aren’t logical propositions (logic only covers “is”). (Please correct me if I’m wrong about logic; I don’t have a STEM background.) It turns out that this skill can be taught (though maybe more slowly) without actually translating to formal logic, but just to more-careful English.

Pre-pomo humanities education

(Replying to both Kai and Nadia—thank you both for comments!):

Kai—Glad you liked the post! I’ll take a look at your site.

I don’t know how much (if any) experience you have had of the pre-pomo humanities. It’s hard to say anything useful about that in the space of a blog comment; as hard as explaining mathematical logic to someone who had no knowledge of it.

Nadia did at least as good a job as I could have, in a couple of paragraphs, I think!

Formal rationality can be enormously powerful in certain restricted domains. The problem is that reality is nebulous, and therefore very unlike mathematics. There’s always a gap between the two. (I wrote about this in “How To Think Real Good.”) If you can find an area in which you can force reality to more-or-less conform to some bit of mathematics, it’s the right approach. Mostly, that’s impossible.

So we need ways of thinking clearly when math doesn’t help, and the classical and modern (pre-postmodern) traditions have resources for that.

This post is stuck in my head

lk's picture

(This was going to be an email until I realised you don’t publish an email address, so it’s a little unfocussed. Which is probably exactly why you don’t publish an email address, but well, I’ve written it now.)

I just wanted to say that I’ve been reading your writing over your various sites a lot lately and getting a lot out of it. I originally got here via Slate Star Codex and the people of rationalist-adjacent Tumblr, which I’ve been hanging around the edge of. This post in particular has got severely stuck in my head, and I keep rereading it.

I have to admit that I’m not convinced on the ‘civilisational collapse’ framing. For example, I’d definitely like more context for your claim that ‘major institutions seem increasingly willing to abandon systemic logic: rationality, rule of law, and procedural justice’ - are there any concrete examples you’re thinking of here? But I find the broad outline of the stages and the paths between them really inspiring, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where you go with it.

I’m particularly fixated on that figure you drew with ‘past, current, and potential future ways beyond stage 3’… it makes a lot of sense to me. Just as a bit of context, here’s a description of my own paths through that diagram.

My parents studied languages at university in the sixties, back before pomo got its claws into the curriculum, and ended up with something very like your ‘Stage 4 via humanities education’. I never got much of an arts education at all outside of music, but what I do have is mostly from reading their books, and so I think I have some understanding of what this is. The bit I picked up was heavy on analytic philosophy and the New Critics - up-to-the-minute stuff like Bertrand Russell, A.J. Ayer, I. A. Richards, William Empson, T.S. Eliot, L. Susan Stebbing. And I got a lot out of it - there’s a lot that’s plain wrong (logical positivism! the objective correlative!), but they all wrote so clearly that at least you can tell where they’re wrong. I’m still in love with their writing style. And I don’t know, I’m really grateful to the New Critics for giving me some framework for enjoying literature, even if it’s a limited one and my tastes are still more shaped by it that they maybe should be.

So that’s my experience of the top line of your diagram. For the bottom line, I did get a really decent science education - my science and maths teachers were great at school, I did a maths degree and then a physics phd. I’ve definitely managed ‘Stage 4 via STEM education’. And then also as a student I read a shit-ton of pop science, Pinker and Dennett and Penrose so on, and drank in plenty of the New-Atheism-and-laughing-at-homeopathy atmosphere that the internet was filled with ten years ago.

All this is kind of a long-winded way of saying that I really went to town on Stage 4. And was insufferable about it to exactly the level you’d expect - pomo was obvious nonsense, Sokal had shown them all up as charlatans, religion was a pointless source of woo, all the usual. It’s probably good that I didn’t get a modern arts education because I’d just have been obnoxious and argued all the time.

Obviously by now I’d like to move on. I guess I have been for at least the last five years or so, but not in a very organised way. I haven’t managed any full-blown nihilist STEM depression (don’t really have the temperament for it) but I did have a good line in aimless confusion for a while. I probably do have just enough of a background for the ‘genuine pomo critique’, and actually I’ve been vaguely intrigued by postmodernism and earlier continental philosophy for a while, but I never really know where to make inroads - Foucault sounds interesting and some of the suggestions above are excellent. Whitehead sounds like a particularly good path for me, but one I’d never thought of myself. And a native STEM bridge beyond stage 4 would be wonderful - I’m definitely up for tagging along on that project!

Anyway thanks very much for writing it all!

oops, just realised you have a new post

lk's picture

And as soon as I posted this, I realised you have a new post on politics which may help with my request for concrete examples. I don’t have time to read it now, but I will do tomorrow and see if it makes things a little clearer.

A native STEM bridge beyond stage 4

Thank you very much for an interesting comment!

I prefer to reply to site comments rather than emails, on the theory that the dialog may be useful to others as well.

I’m not convinced on the ‘civilisational collapse’ framing.

Well, this certainly may be alarmist. I don’t think it’s likely—but I do think it’s possible.

It explains why I think the topic matters. A bridge to stage 5 is not just an esoteric intellectual plaything for the amusement of a tiny cognitive elite. (That might be a valid characterization of pomo.) A STEM bridge might be critically important to everyone (even though very few will be able to actually step onto it).

What worries me is that most major institutions are now in the hands of humanities-educated Baby Boomers. Those were the last generation who grew up in a systematic worldview. For Gens X and Y, that had already collapsed, so personal systematicity was much harder to achieve. Especially for the humanities-educated, who generally wind up in charge of things.

So the Boomers are keeping the machinery of systematic society running—with increasing difficulty. But who is going to take over when they retire? Pomo-educated Gen Xers probably mostly can’t think coherently enough to make systems work. Unless institutions get taken over mainly by the STEM-educated, they are going to be a mess.

‘major institutions seem increasingly willing to abandon systemic logic: rationality, rule of law, and procedural justice’ - are there any concrete examples you’re thinking of here?

Well, first, it’s important acknowledge that, while I think the quality of governance in developed countries has dropped significantly over the past few decades, it’s still dramatically better than in (say) the 1930s-50s. So the sky isn’t falling.

Two examples, however. In late 2008/early 2009, many of the actions of central banks and government financial authorities were clearly illegal, or in violation of important regulations. They were justified as “necessary emergency measures” at the time. Some were legalized retroactively, and the rest were overlooked rather than punished. I think that was wrong: partly on principle of rule of law, and partly pragmatically, because I think the consequences of following the existing laws and regulations would have been better than the ill-c0nsidered (hasty, more-or-less random, and extreme) illegal actions that were taken. (The latter is a counterfactual that one can’t have strong confidence in, of course.) Another obvious example concerns surveillance. Many of the actions of the intelligence agencies were unambiguously illegal. Some were legalized retroactively. Some were (or are) conducted in covert, or even open, defiance of legislatures, but generally have gone unpunished.

a native STEM bridge beyond stage 4 would be wonderful


I’ve sketched a first step in “Judging whether a system applies.” Much more to be written!

Robert Kegan, Kieran Egan

lk's picture

Thank you very much for your response (and sorry about the duplicate - that was a silly mistake on my part, getting confused with too many tabs open.) The concrete examples you gave here help me understand your view much better, though I’ll have to think a bit more about it, and then I may have some more questions.

I did read your ‘Judging whether a system applies’ post (and just reread it), it’s a very nice first step. Most of it seemed pretty obvious, so I’m either already a little beyond what it’s trying to point out, or missing something major. Looking forward to seeing where you go with it all!

While I remember, though, I wanted to mention one more thing. A couple of years ago I read a book called The Educated Mind, by Kieran Egan - I think Bret Victor mentioned it in one of the talks he’s put online, and I was curious. I have to say that I didn’t get a whole lot out of this book, but it has a very similar set of five stages, and the last three (Romantic, Philosophic, Ironic) match up quite nicely with Kegan’s ones (e.g. see the short descriptions on the Wikipedia page.)

I’d never heard of Kegan before and have no knowledge of the field, so I have no idea what the connection between them is - maybe one influenced the other, or they share a common influence? (“K. Egan” and “Kegan” are also confusingly similar, so I thought it was the same person for a bit.) Anyway I can’t see him mentioned in the comments so far, so just throwing this out as another interesting reference.

to: Nadia and David

Thank you for your responses. I certainly never denied that clear thinkers existed in all ages, and that some things they were saying sound amazingly prescient and modern - mostly by being plain right. Yes, Hume, Mill; yes, the traditions of classical liberalism and scepticism; of course Darwin (an amazing example of a 19th-century thinker who seems to have written nothing, or at least very little, that would sound silly today). Note however that most of these people that we admire today, and build upon, and search for quality epigraphs and quotations, were not notable for adhering to the traditions of humanities as they then existed. On the contrary, most of them date from after the scientific revolution and are notable for applying science methods and insights to the study of man and society. They were not philosophers but natural philosophers - a very different thing.

As for Plato and Aristotle? Not so much. They may have taught people of their ages to think, but it would be torture to do the same to kids of this age. Yes, they are profound and prescient in places, but that is buried in way too much wishful thinking, arbitrary errors, and just plain baloney. Knowing what they taught won’t help you if you want understand how the world works - only if you’re interested in the history of how people were trying to figure that out.

And yes, mathematical logic is not the magical key to all doors, no one ever claimed that. But at least it fully covers what was called “logic” in the humanities - Aristotelian logic - and presents it all (and much more) in a much more flexible, consistent, and easy to understand fashion. Thank heavens we no longer have to learn by heart the 24 syllogism forms - our Venn diagrams are so much easier!

I think I can understand whence the impression of a “broken bridge” may be coming. Postmodernist philosophy of the “continental” variety has long ceased to be exciting but only got more muddled and pretentious with age. But it’s not the only game in town; if you need philosophy, analytic philosophy (the British/American tradition) is alive and well. If you are more directly interested in applying modern science’s insights to human affairs, in the tradition of 18th and 19th centuries’ natural philosophers, then we do have modern thinkers of this kind too who write deeply, clearly, and engagingly (Steven Pinker comes to mind).

Thinkers recent & not so recent


Most of it seemed pretty obvious

Yes… I described it somewhere else as “stage 4.1,” i.e. a minimal step. Inevitably, in trying to write for a “general audience,” some readers won’t be able to understand it at all, and others will find it trivial.

either already a little beyond what it’s trying to point out, or missing something major.

Based on other things you’ve written, I’m pretty sure it’s the former.

Thanks for the Kieran Egan reference. I vaguely remember having come across this before, and also noted the similar to Kegan’s scheme.


Yes, I’m not too enthusiastic about Plato and Aristotle either. By and large, I’m also not impressed with analytic philosophy, however.

There used to be a lot of useful teaching of how-to-think in the humanities outside of philosophy. In a pre-pomo English course, there were questions with right and wrong answers. Is this foot a trochee or a spondee? Why did the poet use the word “honeyed” there? That might have many clearly-wrong answers, and several plausible ones—but you’d be expected to give coherent arguments to support your claim. Something like “because oppression” would not have been considered even wrong, just completely out lunch.

David: I think I share your

David: I think I share your scepticism about analytical philosophy, and I think its biggest problems are the same as in the rationalism movement of the lesswrong variety. Basically, these are the people that have one very good tool in their hands, and they love it and perfect its use to no end, without noticing that there are whole worlds around that are inaccessible to this tool - or, worse, denying there’s anything of value outside their tool’s domain. And yet - oh irony - I would any day prefer these rationalists and analytical philosophers to the modern continental philosophers who also have a kind of a “tool” they’re perfecting but whose work bears much less semblance to an intelligent activity at all.

Still, I disagree that the old humanities succeeded in teaching thinking in some fundamentally more successful way than the modern humanities. Every age teaches what it considers important; a century ago it was important to learn by heart, to classify, to discern and distinguish, to remember the correct terms, to deduce specifics from generics, to quote in Latin - and teaching was built around these skills. Nowadays we consider it more healthy to be creative, to think outside the box, to see generics behind specifics, to spot analogies and deep-lying causes, to explain things in plain and engaging language - and that is what we’re trying to teach. Whether the old skillset is genuinely better than the new I don’t know; at the very least that is debatable.

And of course each of these paradigms produces its own dogmas that, with time, become idols and obstacles. Your example - “because oppression” - actually started as a fresh and valuable insight, and only with time it turned into a tyranny; same with the continental philosophy that started as an inspired poetry-like activity that greatly stimulated thinking in its age, but devolved into pretentious status-supporting gibberish. But then, don’t you think that the age of old humanities had plenty of tyrannical dogmas of their own - religious, philosophical, social? Wasn’t it against these dogmas that the great intellectual rebellion of the first half of 20th century arose? We now really have no idea of how stuffy, rigid, and unforgiving the atmosphere was back then.

Insight always gets routinized into mediocrity

Your example - “because oppression” -
actually started as a fresh and valuable insight, and only with time it
turned into a tyranny; same with the continental philosophy that started as
an inspired poetry-like activity that greatly stimulated thinking in its age,
but devolved into pretentious status-supporting gibberish.

Yes, I agree strongly with both parts of that.

Insight always gets routinized into mediocrity. (That’s why it’s often important to go back to read the founding documents of a school of thought.)

But then, don’t you think that the age of old humanities had plenty of tyrannical dogmas of their own - religious, philosophical, social? Wasn’t it against these dogmas that the great intellectual rebellion of the first half of 20th century arose? We now really have no idea of how stuffy, rigid, and unforgiving the atmosphere was back then.

Well… I don’t know that much about what was taught in that period. I expect it varied a lot from school to school, country to country, professor to professor.

I had in mind the state of the humanities just before pomo hit, which may have been less rigid than in the early 20th Century. I took English classes at Harvard in 1980 (plus or minus a year or two). Harvard is (or was) an outstanding school, its English department was maybe the best in the world, and my professor (William Alfred) was famous as an educator. So I was lucky.

On the other hand, if you read about the Bloomsbury Group at Cambridge around the beginning of the 20th Century, they were hardly stuffy either! Bunch of proto-hippies.

So, I’d be reluctant to generalize. In any era, you can find stultifying nonsense and liberating insight. (Although some eras are certainly more productive than others.)

Insight always gets

Insight always gets routinized into mediocrity.

Exactly. Entropy eats out every living system unless it learns to die and get reborn - that’s another science fact that needs to be recognized as universal. Being right is no protection from becoming pompous, irrelevant, and outright harmful with time.

That’s why Everday (the world of my book) is so obsessed with rejuvenation, artificial forgetting, unlearning, rediscovery. There’s still no magic bullet but Everday is more entropy-proof than we have ever been. It’s one of the major topics of the book.

And to return a little to the main topic of your post, that of building a bridge to a post-rational (more-than-rational?) worldview, let me propose that a major tool for this task can be poetry. In my experience, those who inhabit what you call “stage 5” are usually those who can recognize and enjoy top quality poetry - the correlation is so high that it might as well be causation. Of all arts, poetry is the most “hardcore” in that it has the least amount of loopholes that allow people to enjoy a piece of art without expending much intellectual energy: it is the least rational and much less predictable than music, visual, or narrative arts. Quoting Everday, poetry is the “summity of language - which is the summity of mind”; in that world, poetry plays a different and larger role than in our society.

Employment route to Stage 4

lk's picture

I’ve been thinking a little bit recently about the employment route to Stage 4. I’ve had a few low-level admin temp jobs in the bowels of various bureaucracies - data collection for the NHS, sorting post for a big law firm - and some of these are really good exposure to the systematic mode. They barely pay over the minimum wage, but when you’re confronted with the details of, for example, how hospitals order their equipment and keep track of their stock, you realise how much has to be done to keep a complex economy running. So I actually learnt something important from doing this type of job, which is that all this stuff only happens because someone works on it! Which is blindingly obvious really, but somehow easy to miss if you never have to do it yourself.

(Some of these jobs are getting automated, but I think many will stick around for a while for the reasons Venkatesh Rao outlines here: they often involve lots of annoying little bits of data cleaning and one-off special cases that are awkward to automate. I like the description ‘intestinal fauna in the body of technology’, that’s exactly what it felt like.)

On the other hand, there are a lot of much better-paid jobs that either don’t give you that exposure or actively pit you against it. As a rule, ‘jobs that might appear in a children’s book’ - teacher, doctor, builder, baker - are focussed on actually doing a job whose basic purpose is clearly visible to anyone, and have little patience for all the administrative nonsense that piles up around the sides. (For good reason, most of the time! My family is full of teachers, and I’ve heard endless rants about the latest misguided government education schemes.) This exposes them to the worst of Stage 4 and can probably put you off it for life.

I’m working at a software consultancy now that also does a lot of work in the depths of various complicated infrastructure-y things, so I’m seeing interesting examples of that same tension there, too. But this comment is long enough already!

Anyway thanks again for writing this - I hope you don’t mind all these long-winded comments. I’ve now read the whole Meaningness metablog and the book as it currently stands, and it seems to have triggered a lot of thinking for me. I may write more on my blog when I allow myself back to Tumblr in August.

Stage 2-3 Gap nihilism

Shitpakanapada's picture

Unfortunately my mother decided to have me socially exiled by the fundamentalist Christian church and wider community for differences in sexual taste at age 4. Socially maladapted bla bla. Then a teacher tried to get me executed for a promotion after I reported psychic harassment and told me to read Richard Dawkins. Peers sensing stigma dumped me at stage 2 and I was tortured in exile.

After receiving my 1st BSc in Mathematics from an Edinburgh slaughtegouse, still in solitary confinement at stage 2 I was ejected to Oslo to study under strict confinement.

A magic alien prostitute busted me out of jail for social democracy and some stage 3 socialization under strict lobotomy conditions.

I was quickly regressed to stage 1 again upon returning home to Scotland by a member of Whores of the Northern Buddhist Order.

I am tortured now at stage 2 with full mind body dismemberment no earthly contacts feeling nihilism quite much.

How do you transition?

From out of the mists

Michael Taylor's picture

Forgive the length of this comment. These are a few scattered notes, some related to your meaningness.wordpress site. I’ll try to start with those most related to those posts and move out from there. Feel free to skip points three and four if you’re pressed for time or just find me boring.

1) I come from the dread humanities but I definitely think I got through the 4-4.5-4.7? or something stage through my experience in college. I grew up Mormon, I was a good student, I was in a very hierarchical structure within Mormonism (that made me hate myself and everything about my brain and body.) I eventually found the anti-Gay stuff and racist stuff unacceptable and left it, then fell into a hardcore nihilistic spiral partly on the back of a deep reading of King Lear. This continued for a while but some of my English and philosophy classes taught me to analyze texts and arguments very, very systematically. I don’t know if these things made me FUNCTIONAL on a stage 4 level but they’ve definitely made it easier for me to engage with certain things in the world. Reading Chogyam Trungpa helped too.

2) I’m going into public school teaching in Oakland and I’m in grad school right now studying education. You might actually be surprised at the rigorousness of much of what we study. We do read some critical theory deconstructing the patriarchal, capitalist, racist power structures at work. Some of this stuff is laughably badly written and argued but some of it contains reasonably illuminating and coherent. From there, though, we have to look at how to help our students navigate a world built with these systems without being consumed by rage and hopelessness. As a for instance: Many of our students come in disinclined to learn how to speak “proper/standard/white”, whatever you want to call it, English. The starting point for dealing with that is acknowledging that their way of speaking is valid and should be cherished. We can study the evolution of their language development through their genealogy, through the media they intake, through study of where they’ve lived, so they can understand and take pride in their way of speaking. This analysis should be very academically rigorous. From there, though, we have to reinforce the cultural cachet and force that learning and understanding how to speak standard vernacular English opens up. If they want access to this power, they do have to learn how to manipulate it, and so we’ll have to study its structure and manifestations in-depth.

From a STEM perspective, Math talks , where different students show different ways they can mentally solve math problems and share those different ways with the class, give students a chance to show off their uniqueness and add to the community’s cognitive tool kit. This way, they don’t have to see any one approach to solving a problem as wrong and can get more comfortable switching from one approach to another when necessary. And we can talk about how they use math day-to-day, maybe without even noticing it, and how we as their teachers use math to navigate our world. This dispels some of the sterility surrounding the multiplication tables (which certainly need to be learned.)

I had feared that my time in grad school was going to be totally rigor-less nonsense, and again, there is trash thrown our way from time to time. But maybe because this particular field of study is directly attached to a demanding profession, I’ve been very pleasantly surprised more often than not, and this in a program very skewed left ideologically. Virtue signaling is not really encouraged by our professors–if we have the “right” political opinion but don’t know how we would teach our students to read, write, or calculate, we will get chewed out.

I don’t know what all this has to do with the humanities as a whole though–i.e. whether the shift from deconstruction to rigorous practical applications of multiple systems is taking root in other humanities departments. Still, interesting I think.

  1. I think the stage three thinking is about as pervasive on the right as it is on the left in this country. You seem fairly wary of making broad political pronouncements (not a criticism), but especially when we’re looking at the alt-right type communities, MRAs, neo-reactionaries, GamerGate/whatever, these things are all coming out of a place of wounded feelings and wanting to lash out. The world has stopped being rational or fair to them, so they are relieved of the obligation to be fair or rational back to it. I hadn’t thought that this type of thing was overtaking the entire movement… but then this election cycle started. At this point I think it’s hard to argue that this thing is as much of an influence on the left as on the right (though you may be distinguishing liberals from leftists, in which case I guess I’d agree.)

4) I live in Oakland, I have engaged with and do engage with leftist politics, and the stage 3 thing is definitely fairly pervasive (though there are honestly plenty of exceptions.) However, probably the most tiresome, frustrating, and dictatorial organization I’ve investigated was thoroughly Stage 4–The International Socialist Organization. EVERYTHING has been figured out, and all you need to do to find out what the real deal is is to
a. Read Capital (ideally all three volumes).
b. Study the Russian Revolution and admit that it is the highest point in the history of human struggle (whatever that means.)
c. Never vote for a Democrat, no matter how dire would be the consequences of the Republican running against them getting elected! They placate the left, and we need to heighten the contradictions comrade!
d. Submit to a Leninist centralist structure and accept the results of any up-down vote as your new opinion henceforward.
e. Accept that Trotsky figured everything out a hundred years ago and the entire subsequent history of mainstream economics has been a long Bourgeois fart (even guys like Piketty who largely agree with your analysis).
f. Spend all your free time selling newspapers to people even though the format became obsolete a decade ago. Hey, it worked in the 20s, why shouldn’t it work now?

Pretty systematic! You won’t lack for dumb answers to your questions.

P.S. I really like your writing, thanks for doing it and for the introduction to Aro.

Mists of Oakland

Hi Michael,

Nice to hear from you! Not sure what sort of response you wanted for points 1 & 2. Everything you said there made sense. Also in 3 & 4!

I agree that 3/4 does not line up with left/right at all. Elsewhere, I wrote:

The communal mode tends to mistake the logic of stage 4 for rightish ideologies, particularly capitalism. However, stage 4 is not inherently rightist or anti-leftist. Marxism is a systematic, technical, rational critique of capitalism—and therefore a stage 4 ideology. John Rawls’ Theory of Justice is an elegant stage 4 systematic justification for leftism. Conversely, stage 3 rightism is common; that is the appeal of simplistic calls to “protect our traditional communities.”

A sort of analogy of mine:

Armot's picture

A sort of analogy of mine: stage 4 requires proving your point from first principles, from the axis of the frame of reference, or from the axioms. Stage 5 allows you to use the iterative method: starting from an arbitrary point, and knowing some pattern, you can get a reasonable good solution to the problem.

So, on daily life, stage 5 wisdom allows you to know how to react to whatever circumstance you end up standing by noticing the most important patterns.

I-Ching for Stage-5

I’m rather late to the party here. This piece is my introduction to Kegan’s 5 stages. I need to study more about it.

But mean time, the fact that this concept is accessible to me happens to correlate to me seriously looking into Taoism lately. I think there’s a strong connection there.

You see, I’m Chinese-educated. Ever since ancient-time, there’s a recommended (but not strict) sequence of adult education: study Confucianism first until your 30’s, Taoism in your 40’s, I-Ching in 50’s. I-Ching happens to be the root of all Chinese philosophies, including Taoism.

What I find interesting is Stage-5 and I-Ching both emphasize the this (to my shallow understanding): both opposites are true, both sides are one and the same, the struggle of yin/yang is the natural order.

Taoism attempts to embrace this quality. While recognizing truly evil people do exist, it foregoes the simplistic concept of good and evil.

Sounds like stage 5 to me. Perhaps the East has something worthy here.


Thanks, that’s interesting!

I don’t know much about it, but what I’ve read of Taoism does seem similar and helpful. I wrote a little about an aspect of that here.

Taoism and nebulosity

Yeah western rendition of Taoism tends to focus on wuwei, which is really a demonstration of the yin of non-doing to the yang of doing, both are true. So I understand if it’s hugely inaccessible in English. I-Ching is even worse.

But together I think they have more to say about nebulosity than what Buddhism has to offer.

There’s a Chinese-saying (isn’t there always one?): use Confucianism when dealing with people, Taosism when dealing with matter/truth, Buddhism with oneself.

So in the pursuit of truth, I think it’d resonate very much with you.

In fact, the very first line of Lao Tzu is humble enough to have this disclaimer: “The Tao exist, but if I can tell you what is it, it’s not Tao”.

other references

Pat's picture

I can’t tell if you’re alluding to Susanne Cook-Greuter or not, but her Nine Levels (pdf) paper is pretty good.

On the plus side, she at least mentions the sampling bias that plagues the more business-oriented side of the field. For example, Torbert has focused entirely on business development and business leaders and so his statistics of development levels are derived from CEOs. Keegan’s got a fair amount of this too, I think, although as you say, he tends to roll his ideas up to a vaguer level that obscures any empirical work. Cook-Greuter says she’s surveyed a wider swath of the population, although I suspect it comprises Ivy League undergrads and those able and willing to pay the arbitrary-sounding amount of $1000 for the test.

On the negative side, she uncritically cites Wilber.

Is "fluid" the same thing as "integral"?

On the negative side, she uncritically cites Wilber.

As I’ve written in at least one other comment on this blog (although I may have spelt his name wrong, oops! ;), there are multiple Wilber’s (at least 3). I think the Wilber of ‘Brief History …’ and ‘Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality’ has at least some value, both as a popularizer of some otherwise obscure ideas from a range of sources, and for synthesizing them into a framework on which to hang the sorts of developmental ideas Keegan proposes, as presented here by David. Wilber’s model may be wrong (like all models) but I’d argue it’s still elegant and useful.

So much of what David wrote in this piece reminded me of ‘A Brief History of Everything’. What David calls the “fluid mode” seems very similar to the “integral worldview” proposed by Wilber and others. As David notes, the two of them come to very different conclusions about how a fluid/integral mindset can be stabilized, but they agree that it is neither wholly rational, nor pre-rational. I value what I read of Wilber, warts and all, for being the first writer that helped me crystallize that insight.

Another reference for vertical development

Christine B's picture

Hi David,
I’ve just re-discovered your site (my last visit was before you started posting on meta-rationality). It’s a delight to find more writing about vertical development and how to utilize some of the concepts beyond rational/systems thinking. I hope to comment on other posts as I finish getting through them, but I wanted to share something I haven’t see here yet. There is another great source on vertical development which I haven’t seen you mention (I’ve only skimmed your posts on this topic so I may have missed it). I’ve found it to be more insightful than Kegan in some ways:….
Her work seems to be the most recent, and she explores higher stages of development beyond stage 5. While I can’t really grasp the higher stages, they provide some perspective on the entire development arc.

I have to admit I haven’t read anything by Ken Wilber yet, although he seems to have the most influence on other authors I’ve run across. There is a distinct lack of humility in his sector….

I also read a book some years ago about organizations at different levels. I think you may find the descriptions of those at level 5 (or whatever their color/number scheme) useful.

More developmental theory

Hi, thanks for this!

I’ve read Susanne Cook-Greuter’s work before. There’s important insights there. I’m somewhat skeptical about the details of her stage 6, but I think she’s pointing at something real.

I wrote about one of Ken Wilber’s books here.

There’s quite a few people currently applying adult developmental theory to organizations and leadership, including Kegan and Cook-Greuter. I summarized some of that work here, briefly. I hope to write more about it soon!

Thoughts on the actual blog post...

Christine B's picture

Thanks, I’ll read those references you linked to (I have a lot of catching up to do!).

I think one of the biggest differences is that Cook-Greuter seems to see the mid stages such as 3.5 and 4.5 as stable stages (although slightly less comfortable) than 4 and 5. I feel I’m somewhere in 4.5 myself, and I’m certainly not mired in nihilism -life feels rich and meaningful (mostly) where finding new perspectives is a source of ongoing delight and discovery. I can see that nihilism is a risk associated with the world view of “absolute relativism” in which you can’t make any judgements, but I’ve never found that point. Perhaps it’s more of an issue for those who jump into 4.5 in response to some major life change or tragedy?

Given your writing, I’m not surprised that you are skeptical of the descriptions of stage 6, as they many references which could be interpreted as monism. I suspect that’s a limitation of those writing about them, and in reality they are more of a state where individuals more readily experience the fluidity of boundaries between their sense of self and other. (But that’s purely speculation on my part!)

Back to your post… while I’m not a fan of deconstructive post-modernism, I tend to think Kegan over estimates the risk that it will cause systematic breakdown of society for a couple of reasons. One is these is that I see a clear tendency for those at a given development level to be harshly critical of the world view of each level directly below them. So those at 3.5 or 4 see the conformity of stage 3 as a great threat and insist everyone must learn to think for themselves. Those at 4.5 harshly criticize the systems and thinking of stage 4 as limiting and oppressive. And those at 5 clearly see the shortcomings of post-modernism. I actually use it as a marker to tell that a writer/speaker is firmly in stage 5! So I tend to believe that those at 5 will often over exaggerate the potential risks of 4.5 while downplaying similar “risks” associated with thinking at lower stages.

I’ve also come to believe that the concern seems to miss the mark of how people move out of stage 3 (and this is based mostly Cook-Greuter’s descriptions of 3.5). The focus there is thinking for yourself, developing individual beliefs, and moving beyond the values of your family/peers. I think we don’t realize how blind they are to the debates at stage 4 and above (and how meaningless post-modernism’s attack on systems and hierarchies is to them). A bit like telling a fish that there are too many limitations to living in water when the fish can barely conceive of water in the first place.

This became painfully clear to me last year. I shared a video with my son (recently turned 15) which was essentially a metaphor about choosing your own path in life over doing what is expected of you. His response: “I understand all the words he is using, but nothing he says makes any sense” - at which point he promptly tuned out. Wow! This from a smart and surprisingly responsible freshman in high school! I guess that’s what stage 3 really looks like.

Anyway, to wrap things up, I’m not happy about the current situation in education, and it could certainly do a much better job of helping people develop. However, I have a hard time believing it’s so severe as Kegan portrays.

Intermediate stages

one of the biggest differences is that Cook-Greuter seems to see the mid stages such as 3.5 and 4.5 as stable stages

Yes… I think this may be a distinction without much difference (but I’m not sure). It’s certainly the case that transition from one “full” stage to another takes several years, and you aren’t usually in continuous crisis for the whole time. On the other hand, the inbetween stages are less coherent, and tend to collapse temporarily toward one end or the other if you push on them. E.g. at 4.5, when stressed, one is likely to fall back toward 4; but if inspired, one may temporarily operate at 5.

I do think it’s valuable to understand the whole process of transition, and what the gradual way points on the path are. Kegan and his associates laid them out in their Guide to the Subject-Object Interview. I did an extended riff on that in The Cofounders, which explains the internal logics of 4.2, 4.4, 4.5, 4.6, and 4.8 (as well as 4 and 5).

If you find yourself reasonably happily somewhere between 4 and 5, you are probably not at 4.5, but at one of those other, more positive points. (The detailed enumeration of substages should not be taken too concretely, of course. But some of that discussion may have resonance for you.) 4.5 nihilism is a real thing, and afflicts many people I know personally. It’s common particularly in the tech industry, which simultaneously trains you in systematic thinking and rubs your face in the incoherent and often meaningless messiness of reality.

descriptions of stage 6 … which could be interpreted as monism.

Yes, exactly. Well spotted.

in reality they are more of a state where individuals more readily experience the fluidity of boundaries between their sense of self and other. (But that’s purely speculation on my part!)

I tend to think that’s roughly right, or part of the story, or something (but it’s purely speculation on my part!).

It’s an interesting theoretical exercise to consider what may be beyond 5. Several other developmental theorists (Kohlberg and Commons come to mind, for example) have also speculated about this. I do think there’s further possibilities for development, but so few people go there that investigating it empirically appears difficult. And speculating may not be productive… unless perhaps one already feels oneself moving forward from 5.

I tend to believe that those at 5 will often over exaggerate the potential risks of 4.5

That’s a very interesting point, which had not occurred to me! I will contemplate it further.

I actually use it as a marker to tell that a writer/speaker is firmly in stage 5!

If you don’t mind my asking, what is your work such that this is a question that comes up?

Following up

Christine B's picture

My “work” used to be technical (engineering, product development, project management etc), now I’ve turned a hobby into a business so I can spend more time pursuing my interests (happily outside corporate structures!)- although I have a vague dream of growing it into a “real” business with employees so I can try implementing a business structure based on higher development level world views. That would be deeply satisfying, but I don’t feel ready for it.

As for noticing the tendency of stage 5 to be hyper-critical of 4.5, it just sort of came to me. Possibly when I was watching many of Jordan Peterson’s lectures on personality, symbolism, and meaning. He has some fascinating insights from the psychology perspective - but the point is that he is passionately outspoken against post-modernism and speaks in stage 5 language and complexity. He makes statements like: “its self evident that any hierarchy is inherently oppressive” (I doubt that’s self evident to most of his students!) and go on to make some point on why hierarchy is critically important despite its flaws. He brings such a rich level of analysis to his subjects and clearly accepts and integrates the limitations of systems and hierarchies - so his fairly intense passion against the post-modernists (and his subsequent dive into political discussions) seems rather out of place. And then I read Kegan’ book and the similarity was hard to miss. And then I see it in your writing etc…..

Of course all of you have much more contact with the academic world while my experience is primarily in the business world where post-modernism effectively doesn’t exist (at least in the industries I worked in).

Taoism and Buddhism

James's picture

I wonder if Taoism and Buddhism are so similar-yet-different because they’re ways of getting to the same place from opposite sides of it. According to their origin stories, Buddhism was developed by a sheltered prince of a prosperous kingdom, while the Tao Te Ching was written for a society on the verge of collapse. Maybe Buddhism has armed itself more against eternalism, while philosophical Taoism has armed itself more against nihilism, but both try to get you beyond both.

(It also seems like while the Tao is in some sense an eternal ordering principle, it kind of refuses function as one.)

Tao as a metaphor for nebulousness


It also seems like while the Tao is in some sense an eternal ordering principle, it kind of refuses function as one

If you understand the Tao as the contact interactions of yin and yang, it’s a pretty good metaphor for nebulousness ;)

I read through most of

Aysja's picture

I read through most of Meaningness last summer and it did really help me on my way from 4.5 to 5, so thank you for that! I really appreciate these posts for helping me orient to a different way of thinking and being. At the very least they give me hope that there is something very real and tangible there if I work towards it.

My experience differs a bit from how you describe the path from 4-5. When I started college I had no real framework for understanding the world, and when I started studying math and cognitive science my conceptual frameworks were overwhelmed. The scientific worldview was so totalizing – it claimed authority over all the important questions and I made several major updates like, ‘I don’t have a soul’, ‘when I die I stop existing’, ‘morality is just game theory and everyone only acts based on their incentive landscape’, ‘there is no fundamental good, value is subjective’, etc. I became very depressed, anxious, and nihilistic, but it felt impossible to think any other way – it was so obviously correct.

Then, after completing degrees in cog sci and math, I went on to live in a rationalist house for three years and needless to say that didn’t help in opening up any fundamentally new ways of thinking :p In fact, it ended up making me more depressed because now I had an entire social structure supporting these beliefs.

Fast forward to a year and a half ago, I read Kuhn, Kegan, and Meaningness, I started meditating more seriously, and I left the community. I began to genuinely see that there was a possibility for a new way of being. I also had a very sharp reaction to thinking that the rationalists were so narrow and just plain wrong about a lot of things. I really was quite mad for a while about all of my experiences there. Recently, it has dialed back a bit and I can appreciate more of their strengths.

Anyways, this is all to say that for me the nihilism came about because I felt so constrained by a particular worldview which gave me unacceptable answers to major questions of meaning in my life, e.g., morality, goodness, etc. And when I finally saw that this might not actually be as True as I had previously thought, it was so freeing that my nihilism abated. My stage 4 was marked by depression and anxiety, but 4.5 was rather liberating.

In some ways it might seem like I was at 4.5 the whole time, but I really did believe in rationality. It seemed and felt fundamentally True, and the depression and nihilism was a result of really taking in what that meant. It certainly had a flavor of wanting a different alternative (while still believing this to be impossible), so perhaps you would still characterize it as 4.5. But I wouldn’t say that I had acknowledged its limitations in any way at that point.

I feel deeply grateful for

Taylor Horne's picture

I feel deeply grateful for you and your work. I found this website looking for a “way out of nihilism” a few days ago. I’ve been working my way through it and after reading this post I realize that I’ve been moving out of the 4.5 nihilistic depression gap and into fluidity, and your work is catalyzing that transition. I can’t thank you enough, finding this website has brought me so much clarity and I am beginning to understand the depression, anxiety, and increasingly sparse lapses into nihilism in a way that is helping me grow.

I am 20 years old. I was very into science and tech in high school. Throughout the last four years I’ve also been learning of the failures of civilization, culture, technology, etc., most acutely in the last two years. Interestingly (and with your insights here, predictably) the last year brought me into the deepest nihilistic depression of my life, even brought me to active suicidal contemplation. Luckily I didn’t carry out the act, found my way back to stability, and now I’m leisurely passing the rest of this summer until I go to college in the fall and get a degree. So intriguing how this whole thing unfolds.

You’re doing good work! May it reach all who are ready to hear it. I know for sure that those I recognize who may benefit from your work will be sent your way.

Your Blog Made my Day(s)

Ayema's picture

Thank you for creating the perfect blog to beat impostor syndrome and enjoy learning and all things life of the mind. So glad not to be the only undergrad reading this blog! I’m from a well-known public research university pursuing my passion for art and engineering research(specifically in a computer vision/physics/deep learning-focused lab).

I ran into your blog from a link to “Upgrade your cargo cult for the win” from Michael Nielsen on Twitter. Reading your posts as a study break helped me release and recover after a challenging adjustment to college, I began to appreciate how many varied interests in art, writing, engineering, research, philosophy, and cultural traditions have shaped my analytical mind. So instead of trying to fit in and get perfect grades like a typical engineering major, I’ve been able to explore a variety of fields through projects, most of which are still in progress.

I’m super excited to see how Meaningness will evolve in these complex and challenging times, and in the coming years.

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