Dimensions of consciousness development: A preliminary framework

Thomas Jordan [1]

Version 1.0, January 2000


[This is a draft which I hope will be edited and complemented in due time. I have tried to write at least something about the issues I feel belong to the overall framework. However, some sections are very thin. Since I have had little time for editing and pruning, there are probably also some passages that would better be excluded, in order to focus on the essential. That will have to wait to a later version as well. The literature references are a bit erratic. In a later version I will insert references to my most important sources, which will expand the reference list considerably.]


Purpose and preliminaries
Realms of consciousness development

Development in the cognitive realm
Units of cognition (constructs)
Structures of reasoning
Epistemological attitude
Role-taking and coordination of perspectives
Moral reasoning
Scope of attention

Development in the imaginal realm

Development in the feeling realm
Differentiation of emotions
Differentiation of the feeling function

Development in the interactional realm

Development in the realms of self-embeddedness
Ego development
Collective identification
Meta-awareness and the witness self
Unitive experiences

The defensive ego
Dealing with fear
Escaping separateness

Independence and interdependence among the dimensions
Meta-awareness and cognitive development
Transcendence of the defensive ego and ego development
Unitive experiences and cognitive development
Transrational cognition
Other interrelationships
Contributions of the dimensions: an example

Concluding comments
Discourses about consciousness development
Final words






This essay was stimulated/provoked by Ken Wilber’s book Integral Psychology (Wilber, 1999), in particular chapter 9, ‘Some Important Developmental Streams.’ The text below should preferably be read in direct relation to Ken Wilber’s book, since I presuppose a more than superficial acquaintance with recent vintages of Wilber’s framework. The text started out as something like an alternative version of the ninth chapter of Integral Psychology, written as I would have written it, but grew gradually a bit too large to fit into that definition.


Purpose and preliminaries

My purpose is to give an outline of some of the most important dimensions of consciousness development (Wilber’s lines or streams of development). I will also make some preliminary comments on the interrelationships between different dimensions of consciousness development, for example the relationship of cognitive development to self-transcendence. Wilber has referred to a large number of different lines of development in his recent books (see eg. Eye of Spirit, p. 212, where 16 lines are mentioned), but has not yet spelled out the details of those lines. I found the approach taken in Integral Psychology stimulating, but not entirely satisfying on a number of points. In particular I had some question marks regarding Wilber’s discussion of the development of cognition in terms of gross, subtle, causal and non-dual cognition, and of the development of the self in terms of a gross, as subtle, a causal and a non-dual self. Rather than summarizing Wilber’s formulations and commenting on these, I here try to make an outline of my take on the lines/streams/dimensions, as I conceive them at the present moment. [2] The basis for my framework is extensive reading of and reflection on the literature on consciousness development and ego transcendence, my own self-inquiry, and to some extent empirical research. [3] This is mainly a compilation and systematization of others’ work, in particular Wilber’s, and I doubt that there are any new original ideas presented. However, I see a need for a more specific overview that links different dimensions of consciousness to each other. Wilber has started developing such a framework, but I’m a bit impatient :-). I’m really not qualified to do this kind of work, so I hope it will be read as a heuristic essay: a preliminary sketch that should serve to provoke further development by people who see my mistakes. I will make one more reservation before the start: I have no personal experiences that can be labelled religious/spiritual or "contact with the numinous." I am convinced of the reality and the great significance of such experiences, and they are certainly important for a consciousness development framework. Wilber talks about them in terms of the psychic, subtle and causal stages (I don’t include the non-dual in this category). I will be prudent, and try not to write more than necessary [;-)] about issues utterly beyond my competence, but I may have one or two side-comments to make about their place in a broader framework.


Realms of consciousness development

I find it important to differentiate the major dimensions of consciousness development as distinctly and stringently as possible. Having a reasonably precise idea of what dimensions there are and what characteristics they have is necessary if we want to explore how they relate to each other. I will therefore try to describe a number of important dimensions/streams of development as stringently as I can. When we have a clear formulation of different aspects of development we can start reflecting on how they relate to each other.

I make a broad and not entirely clear-cut distinction between ego processes (capabilities) on the one hand, and self-embeddedness on the other hand. The first category is made up of dimensions of development that may be regarded as abilities, tools or functions that a sentient being may make use of (such as reasoning abilities or empathy). Self-embeddedness, the second category, comprises those aspects of consciousness that characterize what the self is, the core of the self system, so to speak (such as self-sense and scope of identifications). [4] This distinction is important because the ego processes define certain constraints on consciousness, but tell us very little about how various ego processes are used. Sophisticated skills are no guarantee for wisdom. I will start by discussing the ego processes. These are again divided into different realms (with unclear boundaries): cognitive, imaginal, feeling-related and interactional. As will be reflected in the discussion below, theoretical development has been far more brisk in the various cognitive dimensions than in dimensions related to non-verbal imagination, feeling functions and interactive abilities. It is not surprising that thinking is better at grasping thinking than intuition, feeling and action, but it is certainly deplorable. We have to keep this basic bias in mind, and must hope that future research will make up somewhat for this deficiency.

A common basic pattern can be recognized across the different ego processes regarding the directions of development. Each ego process tends to become increasingly:

- Differentiated. This means that with each level of development, finer shades of meaning or feeling can be discerned and meaningfully used.

- Complex. This means that with each level of development, more complicated units of thinking, feeling, desiring and intuiting can be handled.

- Capable of abstraction. This means an expansion of the repertoir of concepts, feelings and desires from the physical-visible/palpable-concrete to the immaterial-intangible-abstract.

- Tolerant of contradiction. This means an increasing capacity for simultaneously handling contradictory and ambiguous ideas, feelings, desires and images.

- Integrated in the self. This means that the capability is increasingly available to the self to be used intentionally and reflexively (rather than as quasi-automatic functions operating without conscious guidance).


Development in the cognitive realm

In this context, I restrict the meaning of ‘cognitive’ to the part of consciousness that operates with concepts, i.e. the language-embedded mental processes. This is perhaps not entirely fortunate, [5] but I think it will be clear what I refer to. There are several more or less distinct dimensions of cognitive development, some of which can be represented as a distinct sequence of stages. I will present some of the most important dimensions of cognitive development quite comprehensively, because I believe that it is important to have a reasonably clear understanding of what kinds of developmental processes are involved. Without a more precise understanding of the details of cognitive development, it is not possible to meaningfully discuss the relation of cognitive development to other dimensions of consciousness evolution.


Units of cognition (constructs)

This dimension focusses on the units of conceptual symbols (constructs) used by the mind for interpreting and reasoning, what we usually call ‘thinking.’ The most distinct aspect of this dimension is increasing complexity. If we skip the beginnings of conceptual thinking (see the intriguing discussion in Arieti, 1967) in the preoperational stage, we can start with the most simple unit of concrete-operational thinking, the durable category (Kegan, 1982, 1994). [6] The durable category is a concept with durable and enumerable characteristics, which keeps its socially recognizable meaning. An individual can get far with durable categories: the world can be described, things can be recognized, meanings can be communicated, and stories can be told. The next stage in this sequence is the formation of mental representations of relations between objects. This is more than telling a story of what happened to certain particular durable categories. By constructing mental representations of the ways in which objects stand in relation to each other, more complex thinking is possible. By an understanding of a specific class of cause-and-effect relationships, one can imagine possible effects of certain actions even if one has no previous experience of this particular combination of objects and actions. Mental representations of relations are already quite abstract notions, since they are constructs representing a configuration or process rather than of isolated phenomena. In a further stage, one may develop the capacity to form mental representations of complex systems. This allows an understanding not only of simple cause-and-effect relationships, but also of the system of rules and dependencies that make up the framework or context for specific events. In an even more complex level, it is possible to form mental representations of systems of systems, or even systems of systems of systems (Richards & Common, 1984). [7] At this level of sophistication it is difficult to make up distinct definitions, but the basic idea is that in this particular dimension of cognitive development, the focus is on increasingly complex and sophisticated units of reasoning.

A closely related theme, but with a slightly different emphasis, is the gradual increase in the ability to meaningfully use abstract concepts. At early stages of development, most concepts are very concrete, they refer to visible objects or persons, obvious acts, and distinct emotions and sensations. Later, concepts evolve for broad classes of objects, and for phenomena that are less tangible. At mature adult stages of cognitive development, such abstract concepts as ‘legitimacy,’ ‘sublime,’ ‘authenticity,’ ‘gravitational field,’ ‘transcendence,’ and ‘alienation’ can be perceived as intensely meaningful.

Our supply of concepts permit us to construct composite representations of various realms of experience. Researchers have studied the range of complexity in how people at different stages of development construct such phenomena as physical objects, time, space, other persons, one’s own personality, interpersonal relationships, collectives, and much more. In each of these realms we can see a range from simple to more complex and sophisticated mental constructions, depending on the level of development in the basic units of reasoning a person has mastered. I will illustrate what this might mean by summarizing one particular framework, Robert Selman’s studies of how children, teenagers and adults construct a person (Selman, 1980). He found five stages:

1. Persons as physical entities. The individual does not clearly differentiate between concrete physical appearances and behaviour on the one hand, and the interior feelings and intentions of a person on the other. The physical aspect is primary, so that, for example, a girl is happy because she is laughing, rather than the other way round. One cannot make a clear difference between how people behave and what their feelings are, or between concrete behaviour and the intentions behind behaviour. When trying to figure out how people feel, only outer appearances count, and when reacting to what other people do, only the consequences count for how one feels about it, and no difference is made between intended and unintended consequences. Persons are described in concrete physical and visible categories.

2. Persons as intentional subjects. In this stage, the individual is aware that people have their own invisible interiors of feelings, thoughts and intentions that cause behaviour. Different persons can have different feelings about the same event. However, the image of the interior of another person is undifferentiated, there is no ability to perceive that a person may have ambivalent and conflicting thoughts, feelings and desires. The person is now not only described in terms of physical appearance, but also in terms of what they can do (abilities and skills).

3. Persons as introspective selves. Here it is realized that a person might have multiple feelings, thoughts and desires, but the categories for understanding these states are simple and atomistic. For example, a person may be somewhat afraid and pretty excited at the same time, but there is no conception of how these states are caused or how they relate to each other. States and traits are present or not, and they can have a varying intensity. It is understood that people may do things that have consequences they didn't intend, and that people may put on a visible appearance that is different from what they feel and think inside. Persons are described in terms of how they feel about things and of typical ways in which they behave.

4. Persons as stable personalities. In this stage persons are constructed as having systems of durable traits and values (personalities), rather than the randomly shifting assortments of states that were characteristic of the preceding level. It is recognized that a person may have ambivalent and contradictory feelings and thoughts in a specific situation, but not that some feelings and desires may be unconsciously active. A capacity for taking a third person perspective develops, which allows the individual to observe the self as a totality, and to reflect on how one's actions affect oneself.

5. Persons as complex self-systems. At this level an understanding of psychological causality develops, i.e. that thoughts, feelings, desires and actions are understood to be caused by underlying psychological mechanisms, and that persons are not always aware of these mechanisms. One develops the insights that there are complex processes going on in peoples' interiors that are not available for conscious reflection. This also opens the door to a dynamic conception of personalities: a personality is a complex system with a developmental history.

This overview can serve as an example of the kind of transformations that occur with increasing sophistication in the construction of mental representations. Similar developmental hierarchies in the construction of mental representations can be made (and have been made) for such important notions as interpersonal relations, groups/collectives, values, etc.

The dimension ‘units of cognition’ is very closely related to, but not identical with, the next dimension, which deals with the structures of reasoning.


Structures of reasoning

This aspect of consciousness development has been extensively studied, in particular by the piagetians. It focuses on the structure of reasoning about causality. Piaget identified three major stages of development, preoperational, concrete-operational and formal-operational reasoning. In the last few decades significant research has been made in the field of "postformal reasoning" (eg. Richards & Commons, 1984, Basseches, 1984). A simplified overview of the major directions of development are given below. [8]

Preoperational reasoning is the type of reasoning resulting from a mental world where objects have not yet become firmly concrete and durable. This means that the individual (usually a pre-school child) cannot rely on observed experience or ordinary rationality. It cannot sort out what kind of events are possible or not. Objects could magically transform to other things or beings, insentient objects are not clearly differentiated from intentional subjects, and objective constraints are not understood. The individual is therefore living in an enchanted world where any event is possible, and where one cannot realize why one cannot have one’s own way immediately.

Concrete-operational reasoning becomes possible with the emergence of durable categories (see above). This kind of reasoning about causality is restricted by an inability to construct abstract characteristics, and consequently a preoccupation with observable appearances. Causality is at this stage understood in terms of previous concrete experiences and observable realities. The individual seldom does not think in terms of principles of causality, but takes certain regularities for granted. In the absence of a clear conception of principles, causality is mostly represented in narrative form, as stories telling about a sequence of concrete events that followed on each other. There is no consistent capacity to imagine possibilities and test propositions in the imagination. Hypothetical reasoning on the basis of theoretical assumptions are therefore not available.

The first stage of formal-operational reasoning is linear rationality. This kind of rationality relies on the ability to construct mental representations of abstract relations between objects. Causality tends to be constructed in terms of one-way cause-and-effect relationships. A person who reasons in the linear rationality mode expects that events can be explained by analysing what factors were involved in causing a certain effect. Linear rationality can build quite complex models of causation, involving a number of cause-and-effect relationships that contribute in various proportions to cause certain phenomena.

Between linear rationality and systematical reasoning several transitional types of reasoning can be identified, such as variants of dialectical and relativistic conceptions of causation. However, systematical reasoning is a qualitatively distinct and recognizable type of reasoning about causality. In this stage, causation is constructed in terms of systems and contexts, where the rules and structures of the system provides a specific environment that determines what kind of cause-and-effect relationships are possible. Consequently, a systematical thinker does not only look for concrete cause-and-effect chains, but also looks for the principles that govern the system in which certain events occur.

A meta-systematical thinker goes one step further, and considers how different types of systems can interact in causing a specific outcome. While the systematical thinker uses one kind of discourse about how systems function, the meta-systematical thinker is likely to consider how causation can be better understood by drawing on several different discourses. For example, a criminal act can be explained through a complex analysis that integrates reasoning based on such discourses as rational choice theory, psychodynamic models, social-constructive analysis of the norms and values systems of specific subcultures and biochemical theories about brain functioning. That some of these discourses may contain elements of reasoning that are irreconcilable with each other does not present an unsurmountable problem for the metasystematical thinker, as it is recognized that our understanding is limited and that discourses are based on different assumptions.

Wilber uses the concept "vision-logic" for cognitive development beyond linear rationality (i.e. relativistic, systematic, and meta-systematic reasoning). Vision-logic also comprises higher levels of development of intuition. This may be useful in general discussions, but there is also the drawback that various aspects of higher cognitive development are lumped together. It is not at all certain that the various dimensions of vision-logic are closely interrelated, so that they always appear together. We might need a conceptual apparatus that allows us to differentiate between these different dimensions, so that we can explore their interrelationships. I guess Wilber would agree to this.

There has been some speculation, e.g. by Koplowitz (1984), about a possible unitary stage of reasoning about causality. Koplowitz suggests a perspective that allows for causality that is not restricted by a materialistic interpretation of time and space. This seems, however, not really to be a further stage in a sequence of increasingly complex forms of reasoning about causality. A nondual experience, as described in the spiritual traditions, seem to have a considerable potential for offering a different view of causality altogether, since the non-dual realization dissolves the subject-object duality that is fundamental to all conventional forms of reasoning about causality. It is too early, however, to try to describe what a nondual perspective on causality might concretely mean. It seems likely that a nondual understanding of causality would not primarily offer a more sophisticated understanding of causality from an instrumental point of view (i.e. in terms of task resolution), but it could offer a less conditioned way of considering causation.

As in the case of ‘units of cognition,’ the different structures of reasoning can be more or less employed in different realms. It seems that a certain competence of comprehending causality in one realm is not necessarily transferred to another realm. Cognitive-developmentalists sometimes talk about three broad realms of cognition: the physical world of objects, the intersubjective world of intentional subjects, and the intrasubjective world of inner experience. A capability to grasp and reason according to a systems perspective in the objective realm (e.g. about ecology or the financial system) is no guarantee for a capability to understand the operation of complex systems in the intersubjective world (e.g. a dysfunctional family or an Amazonian Indian norm system regulating gender roles), or in the intrasubjective world (complex psychological causation, e.g. an inferiority complex).

Another important caveat when considering cognitive development is that there is a large difference between the ability to intellectually understand a certain type of reasoning (for example, a systems analysis of international politics, or a meta-systematical comparison of hermeneutics and structuralism) and the ability to use these forms of reasoning independently. An example of this might be all those who understand Ken Wilber's integral perspective, for example how the quadrants can be used to relate different types of discourses to each other. If there is no genuine meta-systematical ability, Wilber's model will itself be handled as a discourse that is learned and applied in a rather mechanistic way. The actual work of grasping whole discourses and integrating them with each other is a task of a different magnitude. I mention this partly because one may easily overestimate one’s own level of development. Because one is able to understand the principles behind higher levels of cognition, for example, one believes one has also mastered these levels. This is not necessarily true.

Epistemological attitude

Epistemology deals with our perspective on what knowledge is, and how one can gain valid knowledge. I will just make some brief points about milestones in the development of epistemological attitudes. At early stages of cognitive development the question of what is valid knowledge is not asked actively, or if it is asked, it is answered by consultation of absolute authorities (such as the Bible for fundamentalist Christians, or a strong leader). There is no awareness that appearances may deceive. People at these earlier stages will make rapid interpretations of events, believing the first plausible explanation that presents itself to their minds. Moreover, they will have a very low propensity to ask themselves if their conclusions and beliefs are really valid, and they will not feel any need for mentally or practically testing if the conclusions seem tenable. This can take the form of a mythic-rational mentality, where the individual or a group insists on the validity of certain basic beliefs, using logical arguments for supporting them, and using deductive reasoning to make conclusions based on these beliefs, but never allowing a critical examination of the validity of the basic tenets. For example, if a person adopts the belief that the Bible is literally true, that the Communist Party is infallible, or that UFO’s exist, no sincere examination of these basic beliefs is allowed, but linear logic may be used to prop up the belief system and elaborate on it.

With the full development of formal-operational reasoning, the individual will have a high propensity to reflect on the validity of knowledge, and examine various arguments for and against certain conclusions. This process is almost automatic, a spontaneous mental process in the formal-operational mind. However, before development of meta-systematical reasoning, the individual has no instruments with which to critically examine the validity of the basic concepts used for reasoning, nor to examine the validity of the rules the discourse specifies for arriving at valid knowledge. One is therefore embedded in a perspective without being able to review the nature of the perspective. Without an ability to make the perspective as a whole an object of reflection, it is very difficult to transform the perspective itself. This is reflected in Kuhn’s analysis of the nature of scientific revolutions, where paradigms tend to be very resilient to challenges. This resilience stems from a lack of questioning of the very building blocks of the paradigm: the basic assumptions, the conceptual apparatus and the prevailing norms for what is considered valid knowledge. It should be noted that this is not only a concern in science, but for all kinds of interpretive systems. For example, a Zen Buddhist may be socialized into thinking and experiencing in terms of certain concepts and methods. Even though the Zen Buddhist is encouraged not to believe blindly in certain literal beliefs, the experiences the individual makes are consistently interpreted in terms of the conceptual apparatus offered by Buddhism. The practitioner is, however, not encouraged to explore if the very concepts used to make sense of, for example, meditative experiences may be biased in certain ways.

When a person is embedded in a paradigm, there is no other domicile for awareness than inside a perspective. Either you are at home in one perspective, or in another. You only have to figure out which perspective you want to live in. Because of this ontology, the individual tends to believe that collisions of perspectives is an inevitable and eternal element of human existence. There is simply no possibility of constructing a point of view that is situated outside of all perspectives.

The meta-paradigmatical thinker is able to reflect on the characteristics of the discourse within which knowledge claims have been formulated. This implies an ability to critically reflect on basic assumptions, the conceptual apparatus, and the discursive rules that determine how systems can be conceptualized. Because of this capability, the meta-paradigmatical thinker can compare different types of paradigms, and related them to each other. The limits of certain theoretical frameworks can be analyzed and this analysis can be used for gaining further insights. The meta-paradigmatical thinker is acutely aware that the observations and the conclusions are intimately dependent on where the observer is standing in relation to what is observed. Meta-paradigmatical reasoning allows a person to spot the nature of the kind of reasoning used to arrive at valid knowledge. One may then to some extent be able to recognize how the spectrum of valid knowledge that accumulates in a particular field of inquiry is biased by the types of concepts and by the rule set used for reasoning. One understands that it is indeed possible to take a perspective on all perspectives, that one can construct a point of view that can embrace many different perspectives and discourses, and review their (sometimes contradictory and paradoxical) interrelationships.

An important turning point in development comes when a person starts to understand that the structure of the perspective he or she is using to interpret the world actually contributes to define the issues, the lines of reasoning, and the conclusions. When this insight dawns, one cannot but recognize that other people may use perspectives that are structured in different ways, and that this means that the terms of one's own perspective cannot be ultimate criteria for deciding who is right and who is wrong.


Role-taking and coordination of perspectives

Role-taking and coordination of perspectives are two closely related, but also distinct ego processes. Both are very important for interpersonal relations. The basic role-taking ability is to put oneself in another’s position, and consider what the world looks like from that position. Put simply, the dimension of "role-taking" asks what ability a person has to predict how someone else will react, i.e. what the other will think, feel and do in a particular situation.The dimension "coordination of perspectives," on the other hand, asks what ability a person has to cognitively handle two or more different perspectives, for example two different ways of interpreting an event. Put simply, this dimension asks how a person handles the encounter with a different perspective than the own.

The development of role-taking is highly dependent on the kind of constructions of persons an individual can make. Drawing on the work of Selman (1980), [9] we can identify some of the major milestones in the development of role-taking:

Concrete. At this level, one doesn’t understand that others have their own, and different, inner life, and thus might experience a situation in a different way. Role-taking is therefore rudimentary, and limited to acknowledging that the other person may not be physically in a position to see, hear, etc. the same as oneself. Generally, the other’s point of view is not taken into consideration at all when acting. The regulation of social interaction is therefore full of collisions between desires and actions, and the stronger one has his/her way.

Egocentric. It is understood that each person can have different interpretations, feelings and desires. However, there is no differentiation of outer appearance and hidden inner life, which means that one believes that a person’s feelings and thoughts can be inferred from their facial expressions and what they say and do. But generally, someone at this stage expects that others will react, and that the reactions may be unexpected, but they have very limited means (except previous experience of a similar case) to figure out what kind of reaction will come. Here one starts to try to figure out how to avoid undesirableand evoke desirable reactions, but there is often no real interest in the other’s perspective for other than self-serving purposes.

Reciprocal. Here the individual can see that the other person can have conflicting feelings, thoughts and desires. One can imagine possible reactions someone else may have in a rather simple cause-and-effect hypothetical thinking. This allows the simplest kind of genuine role-taking, i.e. imagining how the other might feel about one’s own actions, or in a specific situation. This kind of role-taking is not necessarily self-centric, but can be the basis for feeling concern about someone else’s predicament.

Systematic. By developing a systems-based understanding of persons, one may take roles in a way that considers the way a whole personality system functions, yielding a more sophisticated ability to imagine complex responses of other people. One can reflect on how a person’s value system or general personality traits contribute to form likely interpretations and feelings about events.

Metasystematic. The possibility of imagining many possibilities of a person’s experience in a very complex way is opened up by the ability to construct a person as an aggregate of several subsystems, e.g. in terms of identification with one or several social roles, of unconscious motivation, of a set of significant experiences in the biography, of current life situation, and of cultural conditioning. It is understood that these subsystems may be contradictory and ambiguous. In general, this capability is also accompanied with an acute awareness of the difficulties in accurately understanding someone else’s perspective, since it is determined by so many variables.

In order to be able to discuss the role of this dimension in relation to other dimensions, we might make a more simple distinction between 1st order and 2nd order role-taking. 1st order role-taking means that I am able to imagine what I would think and feel if I was in someone else’s shoes. 2nd order (hermeneutical) role-taking means an ability to imagine what another person thinks and feels, considering this person’s own specific frame. 2nd order role-taking takes into consideration that the other person may have idiosyncratic ways of interpreting and feeling that are very different from one’s own.

The incentive to develop role-taking abilities comes from practical social interactions. One simply makes the experience that being able to predict and adapt to other people’s reactions is often very useful, because it allows more effective communication, it gives higher likelihood of needs satisfaction, it makes it easier to avoid frustration and conflicts, and it is interesting.

"Coordination of perspectives" is another sub-field in the study of cognitive development, often known as ‘integrative complexity’ (Schroder et al.,1967). The question asked here is, as mentioned above, how a person deals with tensions or differences between two or more perspectives. The literature identifies four distinct developmental stages.

In the stage of low integrative complexity information is interpreted according to fixed rules. No alternative interpretations are considered. Information that does not fit into the preferred perspective is ignored or rejected. The tolerance for ambiguity and paradox is low. If others offer perspectives that are different from one’s own, one concludes that they must be wrong.

At the stage of moderately low integrative complexity, the individual can recognize the existence of different perspectives, opening up the possibility of different interpretations of the same information. However, the alternative interpretations cannot be integrated, but are used in an either-or fashion. The individual tries to decide which of the perspectives is most appropriate in a given case, and then sticks to the chosen one. The recognition of alternative possibilities, but the inability to integrate them in a joint analysis leads often to a kind of probabilistic reasoning: one tries to assess the chances that one or the other perspective will prevail. Faced with conflict, the moderately low level can perceive that there might be legitimate reasons for both positions, but they are still seen as irreconcilable.

The third stage is called moderately high integrative complexity. At this stage, a person acquires the ability to consider the implications of other perspectives even if one particular is preferred. Different perspectives can be combined in complex interpretations. There is also the ability to shift roles between perspectives, so that the effects of one perspective can be assessed from the point of view of another perspective, and vice versa, allowing for a more complex and processual understanding.

At the fourth stage, high integrative complexity, different perspectives can be integrated by constructing higher-order holistic frameworks that can explain how the perspectives relate to each other. These frameworks can then be used to generate new perspectives and insights. The paradoxes of apparently irreconcilable perspectives are not avoided, but are seen as natural and interesting.

This dimension is very close to the dimension of the structure of reasoning, in particular at the higher levels, but nevertheless provides a specific point of view not quite captured by the emphasis on increasingly sophisticated forms of reasoning about causality.


Moral reasoning

The development of morality is seemingly a very complex process. It may be important to make a distinction between the purely cognitive aspects of morality, and the motivational aspects. Lawrence Kohlberg’s research on moral reasoning focussed on the capacity to solve moral dilemmas through reasoning about justice. He identified 5-7 stages of justice reasoning (the last two were theoretically derived rather than empirically validated, and Kohlberg was ambivalent about their status in the theory).

Kohlberg identified three major phases in the development of moral reasoning, preconventional, conventional and postconventional. Each of these phases are divided into two distinct stages.

In the preconventional phase, moral reasoning focuses on concrete events and consequences, rather than om underlying intentions and principles.

Stage 1: The punishment and obedience orientation. Morality is perceived as identical to the dictates of an immediate authority. Obedience is right and disobedience is wrong. The individual has no internal moral principles to rely on, but strives to avoid getting caught. Right and wrong are not felt to be related to the intentions of actors involved in an event, but only to the physical consequences of actions.

Stage 2: The instrumental relativist orientation. Right action is that which satisfies ones own needs, and sometimes others'. There is an awareness that other people have their own perspectives and needs, which can be different from one's own. Right and wrong are felt to be related to concrete gratification of desires. If it doesn't hurt anyone else it is OK.

In the conventional phase, the individual strives to live up to conventional norms and others' expectations.

Stage 3: The good boy/good girl orientation. Right action is that which others approve of, and that which others appreciate. The individual tries to live up to stereotypical images of majority norms. Actions are not only judged by the type of consequences they have, but also in relation to the intentions the acting person had, "good"/altruistic or "bad"/selfish.

Stage 4: The "law and order" orientation. In this stage the individual is aware that the society has a general social order on which all citizens are dependent. Each individual should do his/her duty, show respect for authorities, and maintain the given social order for its own sake. This is the classical conformist stage, that stresses conventional norms and condemns all forms of deviances. An action that violates a rule and leads to foreseeable damage for others is always wrong, irrespective of the intentions behind the action.

In the postconventional phase the individual strives for live according to principled values, rights and duties. These values are perceived as more fundamental than the formal rule system, and enables the individual to take a critical attitude to conventional norms.

Stage 5: The social-contract egalistic orientation. In this stage social norms are seen as created in order to make a social order possible, rather than as parts of an eternal order. Rules should be followed because the agreed order serves a higher purpose, but the rules can be changed if they are perceived as ill suited to fulfill their purpose. One strives to avoid restricting other persons' rights and aspirations, and to respect the will of the majority. Circumstances and good intentions can justify violations of rules in some cases, but in principle it is considered wrong to deviate from social norms.

Stage 6: The universal ethical principle orientation. In this stage universal moral and logical principles are regarded as primary, even in relation to norms decided by a majority. The conscience is the most important instance, and the individual assigns a lot of value to mutual respect and mutual trust as a basis for social relations.

We can clearly see how moral reasoning makes use of increasingly abstract constructs and increasingly complex reasoning and role-taking. It is well known that Kohlberg’s conception was challenged as partial by Carol Gilligan, who proposed that "justice" is just one kind of principle for dealing with moral dilemmas. Gilligan pointed out that such dilemmas can also be handled by the principle of "care." Drawing on empirical research, Gilligan found that care also developes from preconventional, through conventional, to postconventional stages. Whereas Kohlberg’s framework is firmly located in the realm of thinking, the principle of caring is closer to the feeling realm. It is probably possible to use care as a particular type of rationality that is used to logically resolve moral dilemmas. However, in practice the morality of care seems to draw more on interpersonal sensibilities (empathy, identification with others) than to rest on pure reasoning.

In any case, what is important to point out is that capacity for a certain level of moral reasoning has an undefined relationship to a person’s actual behaviour in morally loaded situations. [10] The level of moral reasoning as measured by Kohlberg’s test reflects the individual’s cognitive capability to use rational principles to solve a problem and/or to construct a justification that the individual deems is socially and logically acceptable. Empirical research has shown that people (presumably at conventional levels of ego development) tend to act in ways that maximize their own outcomes if they can justify doing so (Diekmann et al., 1997). I think we all know that the human imagination is very versatile when it comes to making up neat-looking justifications for self-serving actions. Kohlberg’s research indicates that the structures of such justifications will transform with increasing cognitive competence, making for increasingly sophisticated justifications. But Kohlberg’s model does not address the important issue of how and when individuals come to feel committed to the moral principles they cognitively are able to formulate. Scattered evidence suggest that people at postconventional levels of ego development tend to align their behaviour with reversible conceptions of justice (i.e. principles that would be regarded as fair also by others). [11]


Scope of attention

One more way of looking at cognitive development is to focus on the scope of the sfield of vision. How large is the span of concerns a person regards as relevant and interesting? This dimension is closely related to the nature of the time horizon and constructions of space of an individual. This can be looked at from different points of view. One striking framework is that of Bill Torbert, who has studied the function of management in organizations from a developmental point of view. His research is based on Loevinger’s ego development model. Torbert found that the scope of attention develops from a preoccupation with immediate concerns and short-term gains, through managing the concrete expectations of colleagues, bosses and subordinates; getting their handicraft to work efficiently; attain medium-term overall objectives (such as profitability); adapting the organization to changes in the social and economical environment in a long-term perspective; to concern with existential issues on a societal and historical scale. This is just one of many possibilities, showing a sequence of broader scope and increasing time horizon.



Worldviews are ontologies, i.e. assumptions and expectations about how the outside world functions. The worldview is a summary of a person’s or a culture’s ideas about how the society is structured, what values are important in a social context, what is virtuous, how socio-political interactions should be regulated, how and why things happen, and where the world is heading. A person’s worldview serves the very important function of offering a system of meaning-making that give the individual as sense of orientation and predictability (see also the section on the defensive ego below). Because of this stabilizing function, the worldview will often be defended fervently against challenges to their basic validity.

In the magical worldview, the objective (physical), intersubjective (social) and subjective (psychological) worlds are not differentiated from one another. Anything can have intentions, and managing intentions by means of magic and ritual is a central preoccupation.

In the mythical worldview, it is realized that there is a certain orderliness to the objective world, which means that ordinary human beings cannot magically affect objects and persons. However, there is a strong belief in a purposeful world order, which defines what is good and what is bad. Beliefs are concrete and literal.

In the mythic-rational worldview, the growing capabilities to reason rationally leads to a number of insights. It is no longer satisfying to the mind to blindly accept rigid beliefs, if these seem logically untenable. The worldview therefore comes to be elaborated with rational arguments. Characteristic of the mythic-rational worldview is, however, that there are basic assumptions that are not called into question. The mythic-rational mind cannot reflect on the very fundaments on which the worldview is built, therefore it is forced to simply believe in the basic tenets of the cultural canon it is embedded in. There is still a belief in a basic moral structure of the cosmos, which is specified in the form of religious or ideological beliefs. In other words, the realm of the Good is not fully differentiated from the realm of the True.

An important aspect of all mythical thinking is that it has a narrative character. There is a kind of master story, defining who we are, where we come from, what our situation in the world is, and where we are going. It also tells what injustices have been committed against us by others, and it carries along and reproduces the traumas and emotions that are linked to the collective identity. The narrative points out who is good and who is evil, and what must be done in order to guarantee freedom, justice and prosperity. Because there is no clear differentiation of principled values and the concrete elements of the narrative, the "We" is taken as intrinsically good, whereas "Them" are intrinsically untrustworthy and evil. Rather than being oriented towards certain values, the main instrument of orientation is the boundary between the inside and the outside. Political action is primarily focussed on the problem of how to control or eliminate the morally corrupt forces in the world. This kind of mythic-rational thinking has been characteristic of fundamentalist and activist groups in many contexts, for example the national socialists of Hitler Germany, the far left movements in the Western societies, nationalists in Serbia or elsewhere, and even mainstream politicians like Ronald Reagan.

The rational worldview is built on the premise that there must be supporting evidence for all beliefs. The inquiring mind is allowed to examine whatever it wants, but it is still badly equipped to examine its own ways of examining. A common feature of worldviews built on linear (pre-systematic) reasoning is that it is taken for granted that the causes of negative social phenomena are to be found in the actions and intentions of some kind of social subject. Causation cannot be located in complex systems, because systems are not part of the mental representations used to reason about political causality. The tendency of mythic thinking to divide the world into good and evil actors is therefore carried over to the early rational worldviews. The thinking is not primarily narrative here, but tends to interpret events according to simple cause-and-effect chains. If there is an observable effect, there must also be a cause that can be located somewhere. Socio-political consequences are correctly located in the intersubjective sphere (rather than as parts of a divinely ordained order, or as results of the actions of evil spirits), but since there is no systems thinking, nor form of causation is left but linear reasoning: someone must be to blame.

The relativistic-pluralistic worldview recognizes that there may be many legitimate perspectives. This worldview is critical of worldview hegemonies, and vigorously defends the right of existence of various points of view. The recognition of the legitimacy of many different perspectives dismantles the righteousness that is often characteristic of earlier worldviews. By relativating one’s own perspective one more or less automatically comes to a basic respect of all human beings in their capacity of being humans. At earlier levels, only members of the same cultural sphere were really considered to be relevant subjects. The relativistic-pluralistic worldview is therefore likely to take a global outlook, and to stress the basic similarities between human beings. A genuine interest in how different individuals and cultures perceive the world can develop.

A most important aspect of this beginning disembedding from a particular perspective is the increase in curiosity and openness to learning from others. When one recognizes that all perspectives have their own limitations, one must also recognizing the limits to one’s own understanding. This leads to an active search for new information and for other people’s point of view. The worldview becomes increasingly self-transforming.

The integral worldview can construct a perspective that can hold different perspectives and integrate them. Full recognition of the different nature of peoples’ frames allow the emergence of a strong commitment to certain universal principles and values, combined with a respect for the structures of meaning-making available to different people and groups.


Development in the imaginal realm

The imaginal realm comprises those ego processes that make use of images and non-conceptual symbols. I count intuition to this realm, although it is not clear that intuition always works by means of imaginations. I conceive of intuition as a function that makes use of a broad range of inputs, such as subliminal perceptions, feelings, thoughts, memories and symbols to create gestalts. It makes heavy use of non-verbal information, and often produces results in the form of images or other non-verbal media. I am not familiar with any theoretical framework specifying distinct waves of development for the function of intuition, but I think one can safely assume that intuition develops along the same general principles as other dimensions of consciousness. That means that there is a developmental sequence that leads to an increasing ability of intuition to use differentiated, complex and abstract images, and an increasing ability to employ intuitive faculties intentionally. The function itself is, unlike thinking, not available to scrutiny by one’s awareness as it operates, but one can learn to open up awareness to allow for a more integrated functioning of intuition.

Development in the feeling realm

Differentiation of emotions

It is notoriously difficult to capture the repertoire of emotions and its development in verbal concepts. The development of the emotional repertoire is still poorly understood by academic scholars, even though artists, novelists, choreographers, playwrights, and film makers have explored this domain for millenia. It might be more fruitful to use film or dance to represent emotions than conceptual frameworks. Be that as it may. It is unlikely that development in this realm has a distinct stage-like character. However, like in the cognitive dimension, the general direction of development is from a small number of simple, global and undifferentiated emotions to a broad repertoire of complex, subtle and richly differentiated emotions. At early stages, the emotions tend to be apprehended as body states or in extremely undifferentiated terms: one feels sick, wild, hot, bad or nice. Next comes concrete emotional states, such as angry, nervous, shy, shame. At the early conventional stage, more abstract feelings are added, like love, sympathy, excited, confident, hurt, disappointed. Higher stages are characterized by an ability to embrace several differently shaded, even contradictory emotions at the same time, without feeling any discomfort at this "emotional dissonance."


Differentiation of the feeling function

The feeling function in the Jungian sense is not feelings, affect, intuition, sensing, or Eros, but a mode of relating to the world and to oneself using feeling as an instrument. The Jungian conception of the feeling function emphasizes the assignment of value judgments. James Hillman characterized the feeling function in the following way (1986, p. 110): "In making judgments the feeling function balances values, compares tones and qualities, weighs importance and decides upon the values it discovers. The feeling function on a more primitive level is mainly a reaction of yes and no, like and dislike, acceptance and rejection. As it develops, there forms in us a subtle appreciation of values, and even of value systems, and our judgments of feeling then rest more and more on a rational hierarchy, whether it be in the realm of aesthetic taste, ethical goods, or social forms and human relationships." The Jungians call the feeling function for rational but not logical, meaning that feeling judgments are highly consistent and ordered, but are not based on conceptual propositions.

It is far more difficult to identify stages in the development of the feeling function than in cognitive development, but for the sake of the argument I have tried to formulate some crude stages:

Stage 1: Feeling is extremely undifferentiated and dominated by body states: pleasure and displeasure, i.e. absolute and one-sided valuations. The assignment of feeling values is bound to the immediate present, and has little consistency over time. The feeling function is body-bound, and largely unadapted to the social environment. There is no, or only little, ability to operate with feelings or emotions, i.e. control them and use them intentionally in order to influence the environment. The feelings have the person rather than the other way round.

Stage 2: The feeling function is gradually differentiated by the development of personal dispositions with some permanence over time: sympathies and antipathies. There is a beginning ability to use one’s own feelings to influence situations and relationships. Feelings towards persons, objects or events are still not based on an accurate experiencing of the complex features of the objects. One-sided feeling qualities are attributed to the objects by projection of wish-fulfilling qualities or fear or other negative psychic elements. The low differentiation of the feeling function makes the person susceptible to others’ feelings and emotions.

Stage 3: The feeling function now starts to differentiate in two important ways: (a) more nuances of feeling can be held simultaneously towards various aspects of the same object, leading to a more complex and perhaps ambiguous evaluation; (b) the values become increasingly differentiated, and the individual starts becoming more aware of personally held values. Increasing ability to sort out what aspects of persons, objects or events one likes and dislikes, without having to make sweeping decisions. More complex and enduring feelings develop, such as love.

Stage 4: Highly differentiated values and finely discriminating feelings. Great skill in using the feeling function intentionally, e.g. as a sense of appropriate timing (or ‘tact,’ Hillman, 1986, p. 173) in dealing with various situations and different kinds of people. An intimate sense of one’s own spectrum of values allows the development of a balanced and stable adaptation of the self in relation to the norms and convention of the society (Hillman talks about ‘style,’ p. 172). This implies a firm sense of individuality while adapting to the expectations of the environment. An agility in the realm of feelings develop, giving the person a great deal of freedom. One may, for example, choose to ignore one’s own negative feelings toward a person, and instead emphasize the agreeable aspects in order to create a viable working relationship. Hillman (p. 112): "The feeling answer to ‘Do you like him?’ is ‘It depends.’ It depends: on the situation, on what I mean by ‘like,’ on what aspects of him I am asked about, and so on. The feeling function sorts all this out […]." One no longer falls victim to one’s own value judgments or feelings. A crucial achievement is the ability to contain one’s own negative and contradictory feelings and emotions without having to repress or ban them, nor to act them out.



Empathy is the ability to tune in to what another person (or a group, for that matter) is feeling. It is not the same as role-taking, which is a cognitive operation, nor it is the same as compassion, which has to do with feeling benevolent in relation to someone (and hence is an attitude or a trait, but not an instrument of perceiving the world). True empathy is a way of apprehending with your feeling the feeling tone of others. Empathy is poorly researched, and we have little evidence on which to construct any ideas on how empathy evolves. Early empathy is probably highly self-centered, as when a baby starts crying when hearing another baby cry. Feeling the distressing emotions of other people may be highly unpleasant, and these feelings may fill up awareness and crowd out any concern for the other. In this early stage, empathy is of a very physical nature. Later the empathic participation becomes more differentiated and accurate, enabling a person to pick up less obvious emotions and moods in another. Fully developed empathy rests on a capability of bracketing one’s own emotional reactions and needs, in order to make space for an uncontaminated experience of what the other is feeling. Of particular importance in the development of empathy is the integration of empathic abilities in awareness, making it possible to use empathic abilities intentionally for conscious purposes.

One often talks about empathy as feeling compassion for people who are suffering, even if they are not physically present. This is not empathy in the sense I am using the word here, but it is closely related. Compassion probably develops along the same general principles as role-taking, for example through an increasing propensity to feel compassion for people and other feeling beings that are not physically present. Hearing about victims of an earthquake in a distant country may evoke images of what kind of experiences people are having there, leading to feelings of concern and compassion.


Development in the interactional realm

I have for a longtime felt that consciousness development theory is biased by a focus on the individual’s interior. I believe that we need to develop our understanding of consciousness development in the realm of interpersonal action, for example. However, I don’t know how such concerns should be conceptualized in terms of a consciousness development theory. It seems unsatisfying to reduce the interactional realm to an aspect of cognitive, feeling and imaginative development. On the other hand, interactional capabilities are often applications of other dimensions of consciousness development. I will have to state the issue in this brief way, in the hope of more fully exploring these dimensions at a later stage.

It is also possible that it might make sense to integrate a consideration of physical action in a consciousness development framework. A lot of our functioning is not results of cognitive, emotional or intuitive processes, but of behavioural schemata we have acquired through imitation and/or trial-and-error behaviour. This mode of learning is dominant in childhood, when children imitate, exercise and play, often with innumerable repetitions of the same events at constant levels of engagement and excitement. Our sensorimotorical skills may develop, but the dimension is by its nature outside of consciousness, even if we can become more aware of the behavioural patterns and habits we have developed. Through this growing awareness we can notice behaviour that was previously unconscious, and we can start making conscious efforts to refine or change these patterns. However this is more akin to development of meta-awareness than a line of development of the sensorimotor schemata themselves.


Development in the realms of self-embeddedness

I find that there is still a considerable amount of confusion about how the self and its developmental stages can be meaningfully conceptualized. The two most established theories focussing on ego development are Jane Loevinger’s ego development theory and Robert Kegan’s subject-object framework. These two theoretical models are difficult to compare and integrate, because they are of different kinds. Loevinger’s model is to a great extent descriptive. Its stage descriptions have been derived by systematical and very stringent inductive empirical research on tens or hundreds of thousands of sentence completions. The stage descriptions are compliations of a large number of empirical observations, and whereas the method for assigning different qualities to specific ego development stages have been elaborate and stringent, there is no coherent general theory of the principles regulating the patterns that can be observed. Therefore, the stage descriptions are conglomerates of characteristics belonging to several different dimensions of consciousness development, without any clear theory of how or why they fit together. [12]

Kegan’s framework, on the other hand, is based on a clearly formulated theoretical backbone, the core of which is the units of cognition (see above). One problem with Kegan’s theory is that it doesn’t specify the relationship of cognitive development on the one hand and emotional or self development on the other. Kegan proposes that the development of cognitive capacity in terms of units of cognition translates into a stepwise reconstruction of the self. However, it seems to me that an ability to reflect on various aspects of the self does not necessarily transform the emotional or motivational dynamic. A specific problem is that at the 5th order of consciousness, Kegan postulates that an ability to take systems (in particular one’s own personality) as objects of attention leads to a disidentification with a static ego, and a redefinition of the self as a self-in-transformation. I do believe, though, that a disidentification with a self-as-static-form and emergence of a more fluid self-sense is possible without developing the advanced cognitive capability of representing the self as a complex system.

My view is that the formulation of consciousness development theory is not yet at a point where we can tease out which aspects of the ego development frameworks are distinct and relatively independent lines of development, and which aspects reflect ego development proper.

Grappling with the concept of ego stages, I like to think of an ego structure in terms of what happens to attention. Each sentient individual is equipped with attention, but few are able to experience attention in its pure form, i.e. turning attention to the nature of attention itself. Attention gets absorbed in various elements of the consciousness system. As an obvious example, intense pain can crowd out everything else, so that only pain is experienced. Usually attention is channeled through various procedures in order to make sense of sensorical experience (sensations and emotions). These procedures are, for example, conceptual thinking, intuition, sensorimotor schemata or feeling (Jung’s feeling function). The self is the result of attention making use of ego processes in certain characteristic ways, without being aware of the distinction between awareness itself and the processes awareness utilizes to make sense of experience. Over time, the sense of self is also propped up by increasingly sophisticated self-representations (see the sections on cognitive development above, and on the defensive ego below).

The self gets, so to speak, lost in experiences and in self-representations. It is pulled into a torrent of emotions, thoughts, desires, and sensorimotor action, and it does not have any distinct sense of existence apart from these contents of awareness. The self is in a way its emotions, thoughts and desires. Ego development can be thought of as a whole spectrum of ways to get lost in the processes of consciousness. Emotions, thoughts, and desires can be less or more differentiated, which constitutes frames for the kind of ego processes and ego representations available to a person.


Ego development

Bearing the foregoing considerations in mind, I will make a brief summary of the salient characteristics of the 7+2 stages in Loevinger's ego development theory. The last two stages have been defined on the basis of extensive empirical research by Susanne Cook-Greuter, whose formulations have also influenced the other stage descriptions.

Impulsive. The ego is embedded in immediate impulses, desires, perceptions and emotions. Impulse gratification is experienced as the most significant concern, and there are no higher-order self-defined goals that can motivate the individual to postpone or curb short-term impulse gratification. Antisocial impulses are restricted by simple inhibition due to fear of concrete sanction from actors in the social environment. Experience is formulated in concepts mainly in the form of concrete narratives of observable phenomena. Value judgments and perception of emotions are formulated in terms of simple and stereotypical dichotomies, like good-bad, nice-mean. The interpersonal orientation is egocentric, the individual sees other people as potential sources of gratification or frustration.

Self-protective. The ego is embedded in preferences and self-centered needs. The individual can control his/her impulses if there is a short-term self-serving advantage to do so. It is understood that one has to calculate with other peoples' interests in order to satisfy one's own wants, often leading to a manipulate attitude towards others. The foremost concern is to have a good time, get nice things, protect oneself and avoid trouble and work.

Conformist. The ego is embedded in conventional conceptions of how one should be and what is a socially acceptable way of living. The self-sense is linked to living up to the expectations of the social environment. Winning the approval and avoiding disapproval of others is a central concern. There is one right way, other ways are wrong, and the same set or rules apply to everyone always. Emotional states are perceived in banal forms: sad, happy, angry, understanding, love.

Self-aware. The ego is embedded in somewhat individualized preferences and aspirations. The self-aware person recognizes him- or herself as a person who is in some ways unique. Being a person with personal aspirations and interests is a growing concern. The time horizon is widened to allow for goals and purposes for the near future. Feelings are still conceptualized in vague terms, but there are increasing references to feelings of being an individual: feeling lonesome, embarrassed, self-conscious.

Conscientious. The ego is embedded in a set of values and interpretations, and is identified with a self-representation as a complex personality with durable traits. The individual has self-defined values and long-term goals. He/she gets orientation in life through principled and independently adopted norms, rather than through concrete conventional rules and expectations. Concepts such as different social roles, justice, accountability, rights and privileges are meaningful and define a context for a person's outlook and behaviour. Personal achievement, efficiency and enfoldment and improvement of one's own personality are important concerns. There is a well-developed sense of personal agency, an ability and duty to choose one's own path in life.

Individualistic. The ego is embedded in a multi-layered experience of the self. There is an awareness of the relativity of perspectives or outlooks, that meaning depends on the interpretations of the observer. However, there is a limited ability to construct a unifying framework for integrating different subsystems of the personality (e.g. feelings and ideals), or different worldviews. The individual cultivates his/her individuality and subjective experiencing. Psychological causality is understood, which leads to a recognition of unconscious motivation. Interpersonal relations are seen in a long-term and developing perspective, and are usually important to the Individualistic person.

Autonomous. The ego is embedded as an open, dynamic and complex system. The self-sense is linked to the overall system rather than being identified in a one-sided way with the mind or with a static self-representation. The multilayered nature of the self is not perceived as problematic, but is regarded as natural. The self is not compartmentalized, but feelings, impulses, thoughts are allowed to flow through awareness even if they are in some ways contradictory. An important concern is creating a meaningful life through self-realization and self-transformation. Being authentic in relation to one's own interior and in relation to others is highly valued. It is recognized that values and beliefs are culturally conditioned, and therefore relative, but this does not lead to disorientation.

Ego-aware. The self starts to disembed from the ego processes and the self-representations. There is a growing capability to observe the limitations of thought patterns, leading to a playful relationship to the mind and its products. The individual knows that the ego is a construct, but has not yet found a new locus outside the ego in which the self-sense can settle down. There can be some frustration about being captured within the characteristic forms of the ego processes. Making sense of experience through ever more complex conceptual interpretations is a salient concern.

Unitive. The self-sense is located in the witness position. The individual is not restricted by a need to maintain a specific interpretive system, and doesn't feel a need to grasp and explain the world or the self. He/she is able to accept experience as it presents itself from moment to moment. Awareness is free to roam over near and far, concrete and abstract, inner and outer, personal and public. Being is enjoyed the way it unfolds.

Evidently ego development is highly dependent on various aspects of cognitive development, in the sense that the level of sophistication of units of cognition, reasoning, role-taking abilities, etc. are necessary conditions for ego stage. However, the range of variation within a specific ego stage, due to uneven development in the various ego processes is so far poorly understood.

As I hinted at above, this conception of ego stages is derived from a very comprehensive empirical material. This strength means that Loevinger’s model is a kind of reference point for various theoretical considerations. However, we would need a clearer differentiation of the core of ego development than offered by this framework.



The most fundamental motivational factors are usually called needs. Ken Wilber makes a very useful distinction between basic needs and self-needs. The basic needs arise out of the fundamental constitution of the human being as a biological, mental and spiritual being. Examples of such basic needs are physical security, food, sexual gratification, love, communication and meaning. These needs may vary enormously (from person to person, and from culture to culture, for example) in how they are felt, expressed and handled, and in the preferences regarding what is perceived as adequate gratifications of the needs, but the needs themselves are constants. Self-needs are needs that arise as consequences of the structure of the self. They emerge when a specific ego stage is developed, and they recede into the background when this ego stage is abandoned in favour of the next stage. Examples of self-needs are immediate impulse gratification, social approval, social status, personal achievement, and self-transformation. The self-needs are, obviously, intimately dependent on the ego structures. The extent to which the self-needs are felt as compelling is also highly related to the strength of the defensive ego, which will be discussed in a later section. An interesting observation is that "neediness," i.e. the grip desires and self-needs have for shaping a person’s orientation in daily life, seems to decrease in higher ego stages. This can have several sources, but the issue deserves deeper investigation.

However, motivation is an extremely complex phenomenon, intimately related to a range of other dimensions of consciousness development, such as the complexity of the units of cognition (more complex notions may be relevant for desires, for example), constructions of values and ideals, scope of awareness (time horizon), role-taking abilities, structure of moral reasoning, dominating fears, collective identifications, [13] and emotional complexity.

As one example, we can consider the role of moral reasoning in motivation. A key aspect of the transition to the conventional phase is that the individual starts to feel obliged to adhere to the norms of the community of which he/she is a member (the self-need of approval by others). There is a need to be able to justify one’s actions in terms of some kind of legitimate norms or reasoning. However, this justification is largely experienced as external to the individual, which means that usually there is a very wide range of actions that can be justified through some kind of moral reasoning. The individual’s motivation is bound by needs to belong to a community, hence conformism. But egoistic desires are pursued within the bounds of actions that can somehow be justified. If egoistic desires can be pursued in a hidden way, the individual may not have many qualms about going ahead. A person will go for selfish outcome maximization rather than general fairness if the former can be justified, or if one can expect that others will never find out. This means that in the conventional level, moral reasoning installs some bounds on self-serving actions, but is effective only to a limited extent. An individual will stay away from actions that can under no circumstances be justified.

At preconventional levels, there is no commitment to adhere to norms as norms. Preconventional individuals fear reprisal, and will refrain from actions that risk provoking punishment or other discomfortable consequences. But there is no need for a justification.

At postconventional levels, the individual has internalized the norms derived from moral principles, and will follow them because of a personal self-need to be morally coherent and authentic, rather than because of a need to appear moral in the community.


Collective identification

Collective identifications can simplest be understood as the boundaries the indivudals feel are relevant for dividing a fundamental sense of "we" from "the others." Phenomenologically the "we" is experienced as a kind of "community of fate." This "we" is the collective unit with which one shares a historical fate. For example, if the "we" is defined as all citizens of the same country, it is not regarded as possible to save one’s own skin by letting a foreign enemy annect a part of the country. If there is a serious conflict, one stands or falls together. The actual forms taken by the collective identities are in a very general sense determined by the level of ego development. At the lowest levels, only persons with whom one has a direct relationship are included in the "we." At the early conventional levels, common kinship or ethnic belongingness are bases for the "we." At later conventional stages, the "we" can be constructed as all believers in the same fate, as subjects of the same ruler, or as citizens in the same state. At the postconventional stages, the "we" includes all human beings as persons. At the transpersonal stages, the notion of "we" loses its conventional meaning, since there is no longer an inside and an outside whether in relation to other people or to the cosmos at large.

Habermas (1976) pointed out that the collective identity must not necessarily be defined by contrast with "the others." A basic phenomenological aspect of collective identities is that only the members of the same "we" are really regarded as significant and relevant subjects. Those outside the "we" simply have no reality value as fellow human beings. This is more of a feeling experience than a mental conception, because one can make the rational conclusion that all human beings have the same basic rights and needs without in practice ever expressing any interest or concern for the fate of those who are perceived as outside of the "we."

Collective identifications are generally multilayered, and which kind of collective is felt to be the most significant unit of identification depends on the actual context. For example, a suddenly erupting conflict can make a dormant ethnic identity important, even though it did not play a significant role for a long time.


Meta-awareness and the witness self

The dimension of meta-awareness focuses on the development of awareness of and differentiation from the contents of awareness. Robert Kegan uses the formulation that in each stage of development what has been subject becomes objects of consciousness, and therefore becomes available for reflection and a conscious relationship. This formula is particularly fitting for meta-awareness (even if Kegan himself does not explicitly analyze this dimension). Meta-awareness means awareness of the sensorimotor schematas, emotions, desires and thoughts that tumble through our being. Instead of being had by one’s habitual behavioural patterns, emotions, desires and thoughts, meta-awareness means that there is a locus of witnessing in consciousness that can make the behaviours, emotions, desires and thoughts objects of attention. Before the emergence of a meta-aware position, the attention is fully absorbed by the continuous stream of the contents of consciousness. The five senses, the body and the mind produces percepts, emotions and thoughts. These evoke swift processes of evaluation by the feeling function and the mind, which in turn elicit judgments, feelings, desires, and action impulses. The attention is so bound up with these processes that all that is perceived is the result of the processes. There is no free attention available for reflecting on the processes themselves, and therefore no possibility to actively relate to what is happening. The self is lost in the ego processes, and cannot take a perspective on them. It may be helpful to think of this predicament as a situation where one is simply so occupied with experiencing that one doesn’t get the idea to ask such questions as: Why do I feel this way now? Do I want to feel like this? What made me draw that conclusion? Do I want to react in this way? Etc.

Development of meta-awareness can be conceived as a stage-like process. The first phase is to notice that emotional, volitional and cognitive processes are going on in one’s consciousness. By patient and careful attention to these processes, one starts to develop an increasingly distinct and differentiated perception of the characteristics of the contents of awareness, and of the processes involved. [14] Parallel to the development of skill and steadiness in observing these intrasubjective experiences, the witness-self is strengthened. The witness self is essentially attention that is not embedded in the contents of awareness, but free from the pressing forces of emotions, desires, impusles and mental interpretations. When this witness-self has been established, and has acquired some firmness, the process of disembedding from emotions, desires and thoughts can start in earnest. The second phase of the development of meta-awareness is when there is a witness self that can start to relate actively to the coming and going of emotions, desires and thoughts. This is a self that can recognize that a certain emotion has been evoked, but is free to make decisions about what to do with the emotion. Should the impulses that the emotion triggers be given free rein? Is the emotion an archaic reaction that one better lets go when it has run out of steam? Is it a subtle and desirable emotion that should be given attention and nurturance? Likewise with desires and thought patterns.The third phase is entered when the self-sense stably relocates from embeddedness in the ego processes to the witness self position. This is possible through a strong ability to relate to the contents of awareness without being had by them, i.e. well developed non-attachment.

Meta-awareness is in a sense a very advanced form of cognition, or perhaps more accurately meta-cognition. There is probably a seamless line of development from the cognition of the own self in its aspect as physical appearance, through a collection of concrete traits, a personality, a complex system of various processes, to metawareness of thoughts, feelings and desires. Meta-awareness requires a very focused, trained, and steady awareness. It can embrace a wide variety of contents without being lost in them. I find that the word "presence" conveys part of what is involved.

Notice that there are two different aspects of development in this dimension: meta-awareness and the emergence and consolidation of the witness self. The former is an ability, which can be more or less acute, and more or less precise. A person may be able to make very exact observations of what is going on in the interior experience, and may be able to process these observations through sophisticated reasoning abilities, which enables the person to interpret and report on the interior processes. The emergence of the witness self means a shift of the self-sense and the construction of and identification with a new platform for awareness, outside of the busy ego processes. These two aspects may be more or less pronounced. A person can have a strong witness self while not having a very sophisticated ability to observe interior processes with precision. Such a person would not be attached to thoughts, emotions and desires, but would not be very acutely conscious of the exact nature of what is going on in the mind and the body. I would hypothesize that a person who has a strongly developed feeling function (in the Jungian sense), but a more weakly developed thinking function might realize the witness self in this way.

Now, meta-awareness proper offers an unprecedented freedom to the self. Attention is not bound up in the ego processes and self-needs. However, what is actually done with this freedom is a matter of what kind of meaning-making the individual has access to. This means that even a person with a strongly developed meta-awareness is conditioned by cultural value systems, biographical background, training in particular discourses, moral structure, and many other specific circumstances. A very important practical consequence of the development of the second phase of meta-awareness is that when one has started to relate actively to one’s own interior processes, then all kinds of life events are perceived as occasions for self-inquiry. For example, an ordinary person who finds herself in a workplace infested with a serious conflict she is powerless to do something about, and that seriously impairs her ability to do a satisfying job, will be absorbed in feeling frustration, in the wish to escape, judgments of others, and possibly a desires to hit back at the troublesome colleagues. A person with some measure of meta-awareness will notice all these feelings, and ask herself: "How do I deal with frustration? What kinds of emotional processes are triggered in me?" She will perhaps think: "How interesting, I am not as patient as I thought"; or "So this is how it feels to be powerless and angry, good to know."

Meta-awareness is something completely different from spontaneous unitive experiences (see below).


Unitive experiences

What role do unitive experiences have in the development of consciousness? With "unitive experience" I mean experiences of dissolution of the sense of separateness of the self, and a feeling of at-oneness with something. This "something" can be a lover, nature, humanity, the planet Earth, an archetype (e.g. the Great Goddess), the Cosmos, Christ, Godhead, Spirit, etc. Unitive experiences can be brief peak experiences, they can be extended over a limited time period (e.g. during a retreat), or be more or less a permanent state, always available as an experience for an individual. It seems that it is possible to develop a capability to induce unitive experiences at will, through long training in meditative practices. A stable adaptation to the unitive experience means a very fundamental shift in "outlook" (I can’t find a better expression). Since the self-sense is not encapsulated within the boundaries of a separate human individual, the meanings of death, aspirations, directionality, time, suffering, etc., etc. are transformed accordingly. It is hard to express this shift in outlook in a language that is intelligible to persons who have not had the experience themselves. [15]

I think it is important to recognize the difference between unitive experiences and meta-awareness, as described above. Unitive experiences involve the scope of the sense of being, and should rather be located in the realm of feelings than in the realm of cognition. Unitive experiences are expressions of our capacity for participation in something larger than the separate self, whereas meta-awareness is an expression of differentiation, a "cooler" mode of experience, more akin to cognition than to feeling. In unitive experiences the self includes more in the I-feeling, whereas meta-awareness means that the self excludes certain kinds of experiences from the I-feeling.Unitive experiences are often felt to be profoundly religious and/or numinous experiences, whereas the witness self is felt as very ordinary, something which was present all along, but only not realized as a consious experience. There is no contradiction between these two dimensions of consciousness, they are perfectly compatible with each other and probably often appear together. But there is also no necessary connection between them. Each can be experienced independently of the other.

I am not in a position to have a considered opinion about the status of the dimension of unitive experiences in a consciousness development theory. It is possible that unitive experiences can be meaningfully conceptualized in terms of a developmental sequence (Wilber’s psychic, subtle, causal, non-dual). However, unitive experiences seem to be more volatile, less structure-dependent than many other dimensions of consciousness development. This means that spontaneous peak experiences are possible at almost any stage of ego development.

I believe that this dimension is quite independent of other developmental dimensions, with the exception of strong ego defenses (see below), which lower the likelihood of unitive experiences considerably.


The defensive ego

I will now turn to a topic of crucial importance for consciousness development: the role of the defensive ego. It might be in place to point out, even before going into what the defensive ego is, that I don’t think that this phenomenon can be adequately understood merely in terms of linear development, i.e. as a function of the level of consciousness development The defensive ego is probably better seen as a very common way for individuals to handle an almost universal existential predicament: being encapsulated in a separate-self sense, and being scared by this. However, it seems the issue is a bit more complex.

John Heron (1992, ch. 4) suggests that there are three different sources for the emergence of the defensive ego (Heron talks about "illusory ego states"): acquisition of language, painful childhood experiences, and the existential tensions inherent in the human condition. I think this is a useful conception, in particular when the emergence of a separate-sense self is taken into consideration. When the child discovers that it is a separate person, and understands that this condition carries with it vulnerability and finiteness, anxiety is a natural reaction. Wilber has pointed out (in Up from Eden and The Atman Project) that a major strategy for dealing with the fear of vulnerability and death is to grasp for anything that promises durability and power. This dynamic provides additional impetus to the tendency to create a durable self-representation (a self-image), and to adopt an interpretive system that can provide a sense of orientation, order and predictability (a worldview). If this interpretive system furthermore suggests that the cosmos is built on a basic principle that means that good people will make it, while evil ones are damned, it appears all the more attractive. Painful experiences in early life may make the need for stability even stronger.

Language acquisition plays an important role because the ego structures between the impulsive stage and the ego-transcendent stages are constructed by means of linguistic structures. When one’s self-representations and ways of making sense of experience are built using language as building material, the self is captured in, and indistinguishable from fixed forms. Spontaneity and the unknown may be experienced as threats to the coherence of these structures, and hence there is a tendency to defend the existing forms against both internal (strong emotions or desires that are incompatible with the adopted self-representation, for example) and external (people who are ‘different,’ worldviews that seem incompatible with one’s own worldview, for example) threats.

With this background, we can conceive the defensive ego as a structure of self-representations and interpretive patterns that the self has identified with, and perceives as inextricable from the sense of existing. The defensive ego is a bulwark against the fear of death and impermanence. A number of defense mechanisms are used in order to maintain the ego structures intact. Some of the most important are diagnosing (rapid interpretations of causes of events and behaviours in order to maintain a sense of orientation), simplification (in order to keep the world intelligible), judgments (rapid assignment of good/bad values in order to retain the sense of orientation), self-concealment (hiding true feelings, aspirations and intentions for fear of being hurt or disadvantaged), hardening of standpoints (inflexibility in standpoints on preferred solutions because of fear of losing control of outcomes), and withdrawal (severing contact with anything that seems unfamiliar or threatening to one’s private order).

Following this conception, we can see that the defensive ego (with its defenses) is a construction in response to the fear evoked by being a separate self. The system has three important components: the sense of separateness, the fear and the ego defenses. This allows us to consider a number of different possibilities regarding the fate of the defensive ego in consciousness development: something can happen to the sense of separateness, something can happen to the fear, and something can happen to the defenses. I will start with the fear and the defenses.


Dealing with fear

Psychotherapists have found out, through practical experience, that one of the most resilient factors in therapy is the fear of fear. Buried childhood fears, or existential fears are denied (repressed, projected, etc.) because the mere unconscious inkling that there is such a fear beneath the surface evokes terror. In psychotherapy clients can learn to make friends with fear, by slowly acquainting themselves with repressed emotions in an environment that provides what is perceived as a safe container. This process does not necessarily lead to an elimination of fear (at least not the fear that has its sources in the existential human condition), but to a vastly increased ability to tolerate the presence of fear in one’s awareness. When this happens, the basic need behind the defense mechanisms disappears, and the ego defenses can be dismantled (which might require lots of time and effort, not least due to ingrained habits). Now I want to make an important point in relation to consciousness development theory: Dismantling of the ego defenses because of an increased tolerance for fear and other emotions does have important effects on a person, but is not necessarily associated with higher levels of ego development or ego transcendence. However, a person with minimal ego defenses often displays some qualities that are usually associated with spiritual realization: openness to experience life as it presents itself from moment to moment; nonjudgmental and accepting attitude; lack of defensiveness in relation to a fixed self-image; basic benevolence; tolerance of being ignorant; capacity to feel awe; and a sense of connectedness to the cosmos. Absence of ego defenses may be a favourable condition for development in several consciousness development dimensions. BUT, all the positive qualities enumerated above are possible for persons who are embedded in conventional structures of reasoning (e.g linear rationality, lack of ability to integrate perspectives, lack of ability to reflect on discourses); who has a rather undifferentiated emotional repertoir; and who has not developed any significant meta-awareness. However, it is likely that a far-reaching dismantling of the ego defenses leads to a more participative mode of being, akin to or identical with some unitive experiences.

Development of meta-awareness has similar effects as psychotherapy: by making the emotions (in this case mainly fear) objects of awareness, rather than parts of the self, the fear can be perceived as a temporary experience that has no ultimate reality. The fear can therefore be tolerated without allowing it to trigger defensive reactions.

As a final comment on the role of fear: the socio-political environment is of course very important for the strength of this factor. An individual who lives in a very safe and stable environment (e.g. a countryside village with an intact and homogeneous culture and stable social structures) may be less driven to erect strong ego defenses than someone living in a chaotic and violent neighbourhood (e.g. in Bosnia, where conflicts between ethnic groups are an integral part of most people’s identities). Creating a reasonably safe environment may therefore be a crucial precondition for dismantling the defensive ego.


Escaping separateness

Another route to defuse the fear is to do away with its source, the separate-self sense. A regressive way to do this is to give up (or never even embark on) individuation and to identify with a collective or a higher cause, like religious or political fundamentalists do. To them, their own persons have very little significance, they experience themselves as parts of something much larger, more powerful, and more durable. Experiencing oneself as a part of a larger collective may dissolve the fear of the separate-self sense, since the self-sense is linked to a larger unit. One drawback of this "solution" is that threats to the larger unit (e.g. conflicts with other collectives) tend to evoke the same fears and defenses, only on another scale.

In the normal course of development, it seems that at post-conventional stages of ego development the identification of the self-sense shifts from form to process. This is beautifully described in Robert Kegan’s books (Kegan, 1982; 1994). In his 5th order of consciousness (corresponding Loevinger’s Autonomous stage, and Wilber’s centaur), the self-sense is linked to a transformational process rather than to a fixed personality form. Here we probably encounter a dialectical relationship between ego defenses and ego development. A lowering of ego defenses are on the one hand a precondition for letting go of the identification with form in favour of identification with process. On the other hand a growing cognitive capacity to represent oneself as a dynamic process rather than as a static form lessens the need for maintaining the ego defenses.

A self-sense bound to a transforming self is, however, still a separate self, and therefore susceptible to the basic existential fear of finiteness. A more radical and lasting solution is the complete dismantling of separateness. This can happen through fully developed meta-awareness and/or through a permanent establishment of a unitive experience of some kind. Through such a disidentification with a separate self, the base of the fear disappears, and with it the need for maintaining the ego’s defense mechanisms.


Independence and interdependence among the dimensions

Having thus spelled out some of the more important dimensions of consciousness development, we have prepared the ground for a discussion of how these dimensions relate to each other. This theme has hitherto not been explored systematically whether by theoricians or empirical researchers, and I can only make some more or less speculative and preliminary suggestions. I will take a brief look at possible interdependencies and dependencies between some interesting combinations of developmental levels.


Meta-awareness and cognitive development

It is possible to develop advanced meta-awareness without having developed postconventional stages of cognitive development (e.g. systematical and meta-systematical reasoning). Such a person is able to unmask and disidentify from thought patterns, but is not able to use systematical and meta-systematical reasoning for making sense of the physical, social and interior worlds. Likewise, a person with advanced capability for meta-awareness may be unable to understand how another person’s perspective is structured if his or her capabilities of second-order role-taking and meta-paradigmatical reflection are limited. He or she may also be unable to construct a mental framework that can integrate his own interpretative system (e.g. Vajrayana Buddhism) with ideas from other discourses (e.g. Sufi mysticism).

A person with highly actualized meta-awareness may be free from a range of self-needs, and may feel motivated by a sense of universal compassion. However, the capability to connect with other people and convert the noble motivation into noble (and efficient) acts may be severely hampered by a poor understanding of how the social world functions and how other people construct their own needs and aspirations.

Ken Wilber has argued on several occasions that a basic competence of vision-logic is indispensable for higher development (meaning stable realization of transpersonal consciousness structures). He takes the example of the Bodhisattva vow, the vow to liberate all sentient beings, and says that taking this vow requires a basic ability to take the perspective of all beings, which he argues is a vision-logic capability (Wilber, 1999, p. 688f). With the differentiations made in this essay of various aspects of cognitive development, I believe that the issue can be sorted out one step further. Surely the meaning of the Bodhisattva vow can be constructed differently, depending on the level of cognitive sophistication of the individual meaning-maker. It is possible that at low levels of ego development, the Bodhisattva vow makes no sense at all. For example, the notion of "all sentient beings" is very abstract, and may not be experienced as meaningful by persons with a relatively unsophisticated repertoire of concepts. However, understanding the notion that one should be good to everyone does not require very much in terms of cognitive development, and certainly not postformal reasoning. I think the important question here is how the meaning assigned to the Bodhisattva vow shifts with increasing cognitive sophistication, in particular in terms of how profound a person’s competence to practice the vow is. In principle it is even possible to have a sophisticated theoretical understanding of the Bodhisattva vow, but still have so poor interpersonal capabilities that no compassionate connection to other people is possible. Reviewing the different stages of development of role-taking (see above), I think different ways of practising the Bodhisattva vow can be readily deduced.

Of course it is also possible to have an advanced level of cognitive development without having developed more than rudimentary meta-awareness. A person can be very skilled at reflecting about how different paradigms relate to each other, without being able to witness his own interior ego processes at work.


Transcendence of the defensive ego and ego development

A problem with current ego development theory is, as mentioned earlier, that it focusses on identifying a linear sequence of stages without discussing the relationship of some core element of ego development to other dimensions of consciousness development. I believe that this field is in need of some thorough empirical research to establish the interrelationships. One of the issues that should be given some attention is the role of the ego defenses in ego development. It seems that Loevinger’s model describes the normal path of ego development (in Western societies), followed by the great majority of all individuals. However, it also seems that psychotherapy and other practices can lead to far-reaching changes in how the individual deals with fears, with a great impact on the role of the ego defenses but with limited impact on the ego development stage. Ken Wilber might say that in this case therapy leads to a shift in translation, but not to transformation. However, it seems that even shifts in translation may have very significant consequences in terms of qualities we normally describe as "spiritual" (see above).

We might also consider the question if it is possible that the defensive ego survives into the highest ego development stages, as defined by Susanne Cook-Greuter. I would guess that this is possible to some extent, at least regarding the Ego-aware stage. However, ego defenses are, if dominant and pressing, probably a barrier to transformation into the highest of the ego stages. But it remains to be investigated if even the Unitive stage might be compatible by at least remnants of ego defenses.


Unitive experiences and cognitive development

As was hinted at above, I believe that unitive experiences and cognitive development are relatively loosely related to each other. Someone who has a stable self-sense that relates to a transcendent entity, such as the cosmos or an all-permeating Spirit, need not have developed meta-systematical reasoning, or second-order role-taking abilities. Through the unitive experience, the self-needs that are bound to the need to perpetuate a separate self are dismantled. This can free up attention for non-egoic concerns, and seems often to lead to a basically altruistic orientation, such as unconditional regard and general benevolence and compassion. There are, so to speak, no longer any compelling fears and drives that stand in the way of such broader concerns. However, even a person with no traces of self-serving motivations may be unskillful in understanding what another person’s experience is, and may therefore be very clumsy and inefficient when trying to put universal compassion to work in an interpersonal setting. A limited ability of taking a perspective on the discourse through which one interprets and (verbally) communicates one’s experience may also restrict the potential for reaching out in the phenomenal world with the inner experience.

I think that the issue of advanced unitive experiences in combination with an inconsistent development of moral reasoning and interpersonal capabilities has a considerable potential to yield interesting insights, if investigated more thorougly.


Transrational cognition

Ken Wilber has sometimes referred to stages of cognitive development beyond vision-logic. In one place he talks about "panenhenic vision" as the next stage of cognitive development beyond vision-logic. [16] In other places he has mentioned prajna, gnosis, savikalpa and nirvikalpa as forms of cognition beyond vision-logic. In the light of the characterization of the various dimensions of cognitive development above, I believe it is evident that whatever these forms of cognition mean, they should not be regarded as further rungs on the ladders of development of units of cognition or reasoning about causality. These transrational forms of cognition do not represent even more complex and sophisticated forms of reasoning, but more akin to meta-awareness. This means that a realization of some proficiency in these forms of cognition is no guarantee that one has mastered the highest forms of reasoning about causality, or integration of perspectives.

"Panenhenic vision" makes most sense to me as a very highly developed form of intuition, standing in an undefined relationship to the more "hard" forms of cognition. Being able to grasp complex interrelationships intuitively is no guarantee for an ability to capture the insights in the form of discursive reasoning.

The other transrational forms of cognition are probably useful for seeing through the subject-object split, but they are probably not very helpful for concrete problem-solving , such as how to regulate the debt crisis of the developing countries or construct a healthy house. They may contribute to the solution of such problems though, but more by enabling non-attachment to emotions, thought patterns, self-needs and desires, thereby freeing up attention from embeddedness in a lot of bias.


Other interrelationships

I believe that a further development of the kind of framework outlined here would permit an interesting discussion of many combinations and interrelationships among the dimensions. For example, it would be interesting to explore to what extent a person can reach a high level of ego development based on a highly differentiated feeling function or intuition rather than advanced cognitive capabilities.


Contributions of the dimensions: an example

One of the main points of this essay has been to prepare the grounds for a more detailed discussion of how various dimensions of consciousness development relate to each other. In order to illustrate what some of the most important dimensions contribute, I will take an example of a difficult and complex task. Imagine that the United Nations has found a person who has realized the higher potentials of all important dimensions of consciousness development, and has asked this person to be a facilitator in a critical series of peace negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis. Let’s call her Olga. What advantages would Olga derive from each of the more important dimensions of consciousness development?

Cognitive sophistication would allow Olga to consider the role and impact of many different aspects and levels of the conflict. She could see the importance of considering historical grievances, economical variables, cultural styles of communication, the personalities of the negotiators, power games in the camps, etc., etc. She would be able to construct complex mental representations of each of these systems, and she would be capable of asking sophisticated questions about how they interact with each other.

High integrative complexity would make it possible for Olga to see the respective perspectives of the parties as wholes, and to find ways of integrating conflicting interpretations and standpoints by constructing a higher-order framework.

Meta-paradigmatical reflection would mean that Olga has an acute awareness that her own interpretations may be based on a biased perspective, and she would therefore regard the negotiation process as a learning experience, where she expects that her own understanding will be transformed in the process.

Second-order role-taking would allow Olga to understand what concerns, pressures, emotions, and interpretations the negotiators are embedded in. She would be in a position to use this understanding to defuse sensitive procedural issues in advance, to use tact in introducing key issues, and she would be able to act as a translator, framing the position of one party in a language that the other party can understand and accept.

Advanced empathy would give Olga the gift of creating a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere. She would be able to read the moods and feelings of the participants in the moment, and to gently facilitate the expression of significant emotions in constructive forms.

Advanced intuition would mean that Olga would be open and sensitive to unexpected and spontaneous intuitions about significant signs, cues and openings. She would be attentive to images that emerge in her imaginations, and explore if they have something essential to convey about what is going on or if they carry a creative potential for solutions. She would actively seek for the right moment and forms of introducing symbolic events that transcend the thought patterns and transform the definition of the relationships.

Meta-awareness would mean that Olga has no attachment to her own pet ideas about interpretations, procedures or outcomes. She would not fall into the trap of using her role for enhancing her self-image as a skilled mediator. She would also be capable of living with stress and frustrations without losing her basic clarity.

A stable unitive experience would mean that Olga does not fall into the trap of starting to experience the participants as "other" even if they are stubborn and troublesome. The participants would intuitively feel that Olga does not have any personal stake in the process and the outcome, since her commitment does not refer to a separate-self sense, but to a transcendent identity. They would therefore be inclined to trust that her efforts serve the general interest rather than some hidden agendas.

My point is that each dimension contributes something significant. Even though the dimensions are not independent of each other, no dimension can be reduced to a pure side-effect of another dimension. I think it would be possible and important to explore more fully what a person is like when one dimension is highly developed, but others more weakly. However, the methodological instruments for empirically ascertaining levels of development in various dimensions are still poorly developed. Here is a vast potential for future meaningful research.


Concluding comments

Discourses about consciousness development

This essay attempts to describe various dimensions of consciousness and relate them to each other. All such attempts are inevitably formulated within some type of discourse. I believe it is too much to expect of any discourse that it should be able to integrate all other discourses about consciousness development to produce a superior framework. Discourses are inevitably handicapped by the inherent limitations of conceptual and symbolical forms, and by the very structure of the the discourse itself. I would like to point to some limitations of the kind of discourse used in this essay.

One danger with this kind of framework is that it is highly focussed on the individual. Sometimes the person is not the most relevant unit of analysis. For example, wisdom and morality are often situated in a specific social organization rather than in a single individual. The social dimension of consciousness development cannot be adequately handled by extrapolating from the individual, or by adding yeat another section. I believe that we need another kind of discourse for developing more understanding of this.

Another danger is that the framework focuses on identifying universal patterns in consciousness development. This is problematic if it seduces us to interpret certain empirical observations as expressions of universal patterns, where perhaps an alternative interpretation would make more sense, i.e. that the empirical data are better explained as products of a unique historical constellation, embedded in a certain type of society, a certain phase in cultural development, a certain discursive tradition, etc. This problem points to a fundamental difference in basic orientations found in various scientific disciplines. This difference can be talked about in terms of two types of sciences: nomothetic and idiographic . Nomothetic means "law-seeking," and denotes approaches that emphasize the search for knowledge about universal patterns (scientific laws). Idiographic means "self-writing" or "individual-writing," and denotes approaches that try to capture and understand the unique. Nomothetically oriented scientists say something like: the most important goal of science is to develop theories with as universal applicability as possible. In order to do this they find it appropriate to focus on that which is common to the particular cases, and disregard that which is peculiar to specific cases. This orientation generally means that the main focus of interest is theory-building, rather than the reality in all its diversity. Empirical data are interesting to the nomothetically oriented scientist mainly when hypotheses and theories need to be tested. Then the scientist makes a brief visit in the phenomenal world to take a sample, but afterwards he or she returns to the task of refining the theoretical system. Idiographically oriented scientists rather say something like: the most important goal of science is to make sense of what can be observed in the phenomenal world. These scientists place empirical phenomena at the center of attention, and regard theories and concepts as instruments that may be more or less helpful in making sense of the data. The idiographically oriented scientists are usually not very attached to their theories, but they are very keen on describing and understanding the particular phenomena that can be seen "out there." The archetypal examples of nomothetical sciences are physics, mainstream economics and behaviourist psychology, whereas archetypal examples of idiographic sciences are history and geography. The latter assert that an historical event or the nature of a region cannot meaningfully be understood without a careful analysis of all the unique circumstances that converge in a particular place in a particular time.

It is important to understand that the function of theories are very different in these two approaches. The nomothetical approach tries to build and refine a valid and universal theoretical system. The result is a striving for "Grand Theory," a hermetic theoretical system that gives a unified and coherent explanation of a field of knowledge. The idiographical approach looks for theoretical tools that may be helpful in explaining the particular. These scholars do not expect that reality can be meaningfully represented by an abstraction.

Consciousness development studies have been dominated by a nomothetical orientation, which is mirrored in the preference for general and universal stage models. There is a certain bias leading scholars to expect and look for "master patterns" into which all particular cases should be sorted. An idiographical approach to consciousness development studies would emphasize the development of a theoretical framework that enables us to describe, analyze and understand diversity, the unique combinations making up individuals and cultures. Ken Wilber’s recent writings have been going in this direction, but there is still a long way to go until we have a reasonably well differentiated theoretical framework that can satisfy the idiographically oriented scholar’s yearning for useful tools. We need more openended approaches, approaches that don’t start with a ready-made theoretical framework and apply them to reality, but approaches that have access to a sophisticated set of tools and take a close look at contemporary history to find out what is going on behind the appearances.


Final words

I think the actual trigger for writing this was my concern related to a perceived tendency of many people to regard only one or two dimensions of consciousness development as significant. In particular, I have been irked by people who take the position that disidentification from the separate-self sense is the only dimension that really counts. Such persons support their positions with a range of arguments, such as: "ego development is an illusion, there cannot be any development of the ego, because the ego is not real," "improvement of the ego is a distraction from the really important task of dismantling it," "development of cognitive abilities only serve to fortify the defenses of the ego," and "transcend the ego, and everything else that is important will follow spontaneously." I deeply believe that these arguments are, at best, partial, and I hope the foregoing discussion has demonstrated why.

But if this was the trigger, the resulting process acquired its own dynamic. I found that a lot of previously unintegrated material crystallized in my mind as I started. The reaction precipitated into this effort to formulate a kind of theoretical sketch of how different aspects of consciousness development relate to each other. I hope it will prove to be a kind of stepping stone for further development.


1. E-mail: Thomas.Jordan@av.gu.se

Website: http://www.perspectus.se/tjordan [back to text]

2. Experience shows that it is not a sound strategy to accuse Ken Wilber of leaving out any kind of dimension or consideration. It almost always turns out that he has somewhere mentioned what one had in mind, even if not in the specific context one was thinking of. What I write in this essay should consequently not be taken as implying that Wilber has not already covered this somewhere ;-). I have simply tried to summarize my own take on the topic. [back to text]

3. Over the years I have read and assimilated vast amounts of books and articles, and I can hardly keep track of what ideas I picked up where. Beside Ken Wilber and literature I refer to, Tibetan Buddhism has been an important source of inspiration. Recent triggers of insights (crystallization points more than sources) include Funk, 1994; Cook-Greuter, 1999, Heron, 1992. [back to text]

4. Later in the text this will be somewhat modified to speak of the forms the self takes when a person’s awareness gets entangled in various ego processes and self-representations. [back to text]

5. Less fortunate because cognition often refers to any way the mind uses to represent and process percepts, including imagery. [back to text]

6. Richards & Commons offer a more detailed framework. [back to text]

7. In order to give a flavour of what this is about, I quote a passage from Richards & Commons, 1984, p. 97f: "Cross-paradigmatic, or seventh order operations, relate families of systems. These families, or systems of systems, constitute fields. The beginning substage of cross-paradigmatic operations appears with the ability to generate collections of systems of systems. […] The next substage consists of the basic cross-paradigmatic operations that are constructed to relate fields that appear to be independent of one another. Fields are compared by detecting and describing relations between systems of systems. These are the operations of inter-field unification. At the highest substage, field relations are systematized and formed into a new unit." [back to text]

8. Richards & and Commons (1984) offer a more detailed framework. [back to text]

9. Selman treats construction of persons, constructions of relations, ability to imagine what another person experiences, and ability to imagine how different perspective interacts together. I have tried to separate these aspects to some extent, in the interest of clarity. I have renamed the stages to reflect this. [back to text]

10. See also the section on motivation further below. [back to text]

11. There is probably a lot of research about this that I am not familiar with. Please inform me. [back to text]

12. Susanne Cook-Greuter has gone some way towards formulating a more coherent theoretical basis for Loevinger’s stages, though (Cook-Greuter, 1999). [back to text]

13. Wilber mentions the notion of "moral span," which I think is closely related to the dimension of collective identifications discussed below. [back to text]

14. Many practices have been developed for this purpose. E.g. Tai Chi Chuan, which focuses on meta-awareness of sensorimotor schemata; The Rosen method of bodywork, which focuses on meta-awareness of emotions; Vipassana meditation, which focuses on meta-awareness of thought; Tonglen meditation, which, amongother things, fosters meta-awareness of desires. Some practices stay at the early levels of developing meta-awareness, i.e. they aim at increasing the awareness of what is going on in our field of experience. Other practices aim explicitly at facilitating the emergence of a witness self. [back to text]

15. I belong to those people myself, so I’m just speculating . . . [back to text]

16. In CW vol. 4 , p. 181 Wilber writes: "The psychic dimension operates by panoramic or panenhenic vision. While vision-logic must laboriously reason out holistic connections, vision sees the connections almost instantly." [back to text]



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