Last week I republished a sequence of posts looking at Dabrowski’s Theory of Personal Disintegration (TPD). Because this sequence picks up on those themes from the perspective of a different writer, I thought it worthwhile republishing these as well so that all the related posts have been reblogged close together. There are four posts in this sequence. The first came out on Tuesday and the second yesterday. The last will be published tomorrow.
The two previous posts have given a brief overview of Jenny Wade’s thesis and looked at her treatment of near-death experiences and lateralisation. At last we have reached the core theme of her brilliant book, Changes of Mind.
Transitions between Levels
This theme relates strongly to one of my most recent preoccupations: Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration. He speaks of five levels of personality development (see diagram above from my earlier post on the subject). To oversimplify for present purposes, we move from an overly conformist self-gratifying level through conflict to increasingly autonomous levels where we strive to enact our ideals rather than indulge our desires. Authenticity and empathy become increasingly influential states of mind. He is though more concerned with creativity than mysticism and, as far as I can tell, he has little or nothing to say about transcendence.
From Wade’s point of view he joins the many others whose theory of development stops too soon, probably at her Authentic level (see next post).
The two theories begin at different points. Dabrowski, in the treatments I have so far read of his theory, does not include prenatal and infantile stages. He seems to be concerned with adult functioning and his Level One conflates Wade’s Achievement and Conformist levels. Also, whereas she tracks in detail subsequent developments towards the autonomy he sees as becoming increasingly evident through his Levels Two to Four, he seems to leave it as simply something that occurs if the challenges of inner conflict are met, without specifying what kinds of challenges might be typical of various developmental levels.
I think, therefore, Wade complements his thinking in an important way and would like to spend some time outlining some of the details in her model to illustrate this.
The Driver of Dissonance
Wade contributes, thanks to her close examination of many thinkers including Piaget, Kohlberg, and Wilber amongst others, a crucial conceptual clarification at each stage. Whereas it seems to me from the secondary sources that Dabrowski contents himself with using words like ‘suffering’ and ‘conflict’ to give a catchall description of what in general goes on, Wade is far more precise. Even in childhood states of consciousness, whether they have persisted into adulthood or not, she detects specific conflicts that trigger development. Take for example her description of the move upwards from Naïve to Egocentric Consciousness (page 94):
The essentials – corroborated by anthropological research and theory – are that the individual’s needs fail to be met consistently enough by the environment, creating a conflict that simultaneously gives birth to the self-encapsulated ego and the fear that it can be destroyed. In both children and adults, this seems to occur through exposure to information that cannot be assimilated at their present level of functioning.
In Naïve Consciousness the individual feels safely embodied in their context. When they feel exposed to danger by a separation from that context, the dissonance begins to operate that will drive them to a different level of understanding.
She is clear though that this same basic principle applies across many stages of development (ibid.):
In essence, cognitive conflict results from repeated exchanges that cannot be resolved using resources and solutions available to the present developmental level. The problem does not go away, the motivation to solve it remains strong, and yet the individual’s resources are not competent to resolve the dilemma.
She uses Kuhn’s terminology in saying ‘the limits of a paradigm [have been] reached.’
Where Dissonance Might Be Elusive
Dissonance at the Egocentric level is harder to come by (page 106):
Cleckly and Smith point out that lots of people function primarily at the Egocentric level in modern society, many of them rather successfully.
How, then, is a desire for a transition to the conformist level created? One possibility is particularly intriguing (page 117):
[Many researchers converge on the belief] that socialisation results from the certainty, as opposed to the possibility, of one’s own death.
Clearly, such a fear would seem to be enough to derail all but the most intransigent of narcissists. Conformist awareness (ibid.) ‘is thought to represent the mainstream consciousness in civilised cultures, and it is tellingly labelled institutional, conventional, traditional, and conformist – the designation used here.’
Not surprisingly, dissonance at this level is even harder to come by than at the Egocentric level (page 130):
Transition from the Conformist stage is usually very difficult, because the individual is in a fairly stable equilibrium with his social environment and will tend to rationalise away information that does not align with his worldview or self image. When sufficient cognitive dissonance arises, however, change to the next stage no longer follows the invariant pattern of most developmental theories: instead, two paths are available.
A Fork in the Path
In effect, the path forks between Achievement and Affiliative Consciousness. There is no clear consensus about exactly what triggers the shift towards either of these higher levels. There is a sense that the exact direction may be partly determined by gender (page 132), women moving towards the Affiliative option and men the Achievement one.
This is one choice point at which I feel Dabrowski may be the more illuminating of the two about the possible trigger. He is clear that a conflict between what a person feels ought to be the case and what they see is the case precipitates a shift from conformity towards autonomy. Wade (page 148) quotes the view that a transition ‘occurs when a dramatic life event destroys faith in established authority.” She amplifies on this later (page 156-157):
When forced to acknowledge that the rules do not work, evolving Conformists will choose either the Achievement solution, “get it while you can” or the Affiliative solution, “love conquers all,” depending upon predisposition and compelling environmental factors.
Dabrowski is also clear that this sense of ‘what is’ conflicting with ‘what ought to be’ may be relatively rare, something with which Wade clearly agrees (page 133):
Researchers have observed that, comparatively, very few adults even in industrialised societies function consistently above the Conformist level.
She accepts that this may be in part because developmentalists do not have the tools to study this level and/or the database may be too poor to contain such information. My own sense is that such states of mind, in terms of stepping up to either Affiliative or Achievement levels, while they may not constitute a majority in any population, in advanced Western societies will not be all that rare. People going beyond these next two levels, however, will be much thinner on the ground. It is more likely to be absence of evidence rather than evidence of absence that is at work concerning the frequency with which people pass beyond conformism. A closer look at what might follow must wait until next time.
. It is perhaps worth mentioning that these are not the only theories that focus on levels of personality development. Ken Wilber refers to several in his book (page 5) – A Theory of Everything. He includes the well-known, such as Abraham Maslow, but also others who are less famous such as Clare Graves. He feels their theories are not contradictory and are rooted in good evidence for the most part.