Spirals of Becoming: The Search for a Dialectical Spiral in the Individual Life Cycle

“A specter is haunting western psychology, the specter of dialectics. The scaffold of the academic world is shaking. The time for its transformation is near…

Dialectical psychologists unite! You have nothing to lose but the respect of vulgar mechanisms and pretentious mentalists. You will win a world, a changing world created by ever-changing human beings”.

Klaus F. Riegel


We may or may not know it, but part of being a Marxist has involved learning to think in a dialectical manner. Whether through the study of the great books, or practically with internal political group struggles or external struggles with other groups, we have trained our minds to understand the world and sometimes even ourselves by thinking dialectically. But where is this way of thinking traced when we turn to the psychological research on adult development? Piaget’s famous stages end with formal operations and, according to Piaget, there are no more stages of development. But some scholars and academics have tried to suggest that dialectical thinking is not just for heretical Marxists, but for any adult working in a middle-class or upper middle-class work position. Is there such a stage, and if so, where is the research on it?

I was 20 years old in 1968. It was a good time historically to be 20 years old because the late teens and early 20s are supposed to be a time of exploration. The historical period in which I lived in my early twenties lent itself to far deeper exploration than would have been possible if I had been born, say, 20 years earlier.

Discovery of dialectics in social evolution

As a young social revolutionary, I made my way through a fair amount of the anarchist and Marxist literature and one of the descriptions that intrigued me most was Marx and Engels’ description of social evolution. They depicted it as a spiral. Rather than a linear or cyclic way of showing social movement, they presented it in the form of thesis-antithesis and synthesis. The thesis phase was within primitive egalitarian societies. Then there was a long antithesis in which social classes formed – slave societies, feudal societies and then capitalism. Out of this came a crisis which could result in a synthesis – first socialism, then communism. What I liked about the synthesis was that it was not just a compromise between thesis and antithesis. Rather, it twisted its way up to another dimension, a qualitative leap in which there is a partial return to the thesis but on a higher level. Synthetic communism was a return to primitive communism but on a higher level, an egalitarian level, but with abundant material conditions informed by the surplus created by capitalism.

Throughout the 1970s I also developed an abiding interest in psychology and wondered if the dialectical spiral could be applied to individual evolution, just as Marx and Engels applied it to social evolution. I was surprised that there was nothing to be found in the field of psychology on this.

An example of a dialectical spiral in individual life

I tried my hand at thinking dialectically – organizing the lives of my friends to see if I could work it into a dialectical spiral. For example, suppose a woman has grown up in the 1950’s with traditional Yankee values about marriages. One part of those values is being a homemaker, which includes cooking breakfast and dinner every day. This is the thesis phase. Then during the 1960s this woman begins to rebel against these expectations in conjunction with the women’s movement. Her marriage deteriorates and she leaves. While she is separated, she has a difficult time cooking for anyone again because cooking reminds her of her marriage. For the time being, this part of her personality must be suppressed in order for her to make a clean break with the old thesis world.

She is at an antithetical stage in relation to cooking because she is in a reactive mode, rejecting cooking although she is very good at it. The synthesis is a temporary solution to the tension between the old traditional role and her antithetical reaction to it. As she becomes involved in the women’s movement, she joins a vocational counseling support group. As a result of this group, the women discuss starting their own business, specifically starting up their own cooperative restaurant. As it gets off the ground, she uses her cooking skills on a higher level. It is higher qualitative leap because she is the co-owner of the coop so no one is bossing her around. She has to shop and cook at a greater volume and complexity than she did before. Lastly, she has a new political identity, as a socialist.

I tried organizing my own life events into a thesis, antithesis and synthesis and had some success with this, but I was disappointed by not being able to find anything like my depiction in the psychological literature. The models of lifespan development had no spiral shape. They were all linear, whether it was Erikson, Piaget, or Loevinger.

A Light in the tunnel

In the early 1980s, as I described in My Love Affair with Books, the economy had gotten bad enough that it became difficult to continue meet my expenses doing the kind of part time artist modeling I was doing.  With the encouragement of my partner, I decided to return to school to get a degree in psychology. One of the very first classes I took in school was on Life-Span Development. I had hoped that by studying adulthood more systematically, a dialectical model might turn up. No such luck.

It wasn’t until I was in graduate school in 1985 that I met my real guide, Noele Krenkel. Noele was my teacher in a social psychology class and I could tell from her vocabulary that she was a Marxist, so I popped the question to her. Where are the Marxian models of psychology? The first door she opened for me was to tell me about the work of Lev Vygotsky. I was lucky enough to live at a time when the Communist Party still had a bookstore in San Francisco – The Book Center. They were the only bookstore in the Bay Area that got their books directly from Progress Publishers who ordered their books from Moscow. This meant I was not only able to get books about Vygotsky, but also books by other soviet psychology authors that I hadn’t even heard about, like Luria and Leontiev. Even with all that, there was still no model, even coming out of the Soviet Union, about dialectical development over the lifespan.

The next person Noele turned me on to was Klaus Riegel. Riegel was the first developmental psychologist that really added the dimension of history to his description of the individual life cycle. Furthermore, he and his cohorts were very critical of Piaget’s formal operational thinking theory and Riegel argued for the existence of “dialectical operation” as a fifth stage of cognitive development. The problem was that this was speculation. Riegel didn’t have research in studying the lives of adults to back his claim up for a dialectical operational stage.

Then the same year I attended a conference on mysticism and physics, and I met a guy who turned me on to a book called The Evolving Self, by Robert Kegan.  Kegan’s book actually had a dialectical spiral as a model. It was not the thesis-antithesis-synthesis model, but it had its own dialectical spiral features.


Robert Kegan’s work in The Evolving Self he describes six stages in the lifespan:

  1. Incorporative (birth to two).
  2. Impulsive (2-6, – preschool).
  3. Imperial (7-13 – late childhood).
  4. Interpersonal (teenage years to early adulthood) – marriage, children,
  5. Institutional (middle adulthood) differentiation at work,
  6. Interindividual (meaningful work in the public sphere. Public recognition outside of work setting).

For Kegan each stage is an evolutionary truce, a way-station in how meaning is made in a given period of time. The life-long struggle is on one hand to be differentiated from society and on the other hand to be integrated into it. Each stage on the spiral had an emphasis – either on the side of differentiation or integration. But differentiation past a certain point creates a crisis which is corrected by some new involvement in a higher community (integration). Conversely, integration past a certain point invites a new, deeper differentiation of an individual’s skills. Over-differentiation leads to the feeling of isolation or fragmentation. Over-integration means to be enmeshed, smothered or swallowed up by a community.

Underlying this movement up the spiral is a development which means:

  • The higher stages include an increase in power over the environment,
  • Increasing refinement of individuality,
  • An expansion of community,
  • Increasing self-reflectiveness,
  • An increasing accumulation of consequences.

There are cultures of embeddedness that are specific to each level. These holding environments expand with maturity from mother to mother and father, to teachers and peer groups, to romantic relations, to work associations, to marriage partner and children. Each culture of embeddedness provides three dialectical functions:

  1. Confirmation – meaning a sympathy and respect for the new ground that has been achieved. At their best, they are holding without constraining.
  2. Contradictions – promoting and provoking the opposite tendencies of the stage. For example, promoting independence if an individual is in the integrative stage; promoting community if the individual is in one of the differentiated stages.
  3. Continuity – the culture of embeddedness stays in place and reminds the individual of their history of overcoming crisis in the past as they negotiate the current crisis.

The cultures of embeddedness can do at least two things wrong. One is to be overly-involved where they refuse to let go, a refusal to make room for the new culture of embeddedness. This can lead to a confusion in the individual between inclusion and being smothered. The other problem is when a culture of embeddedness is under-involved. This means providing no consistent holding environment and a lack of dialogical contact with the individual. The result of this can lead to a confusion on the part of the individual between differentiating and dissociation or abandonment. The first five stages correspond to Piaget’s stages. Formal operations cover stages 4 and 5.

The “interindividual” sixth stage does not have so much to do with the socio-cultural expectations which are age-related. Rather, it is more the new way in which these problems are looked at, acted up and lived through via a new differentiation/integration characteristic of Piaget. This inter-individual stage corresponds to Kohlberg’s “principled orientation” in morality and Loevinger’s “autonomous” individual. Kegan also suggests that there must be a fifth stage of cognitive advancement. He does not provide that epistemology, though he describes its features. He “sets the table” for the work of Michael Basseches. Basseches lays the groundwork for a fifth stage of cognitive development as I’ll get to shortly.


Atomistic vs organic relations between society and the individual

Kegan’s Evolving Self takes us a good way towards conceiving a dialectical model for individual development. However, his way of formulating the cultures of embeddedness is an atomistic way of looking at social life. He proceeds from micro to the macro. The cultures of embeddedness are not rooted in the larger, socio-economic, historical settings into which the individual is born. All the social connections he identified as defining cultures of embeddedness are microscopic, local, sensuous and personal. Kegan describes the socialization process atomistically, mechanistically proceeding from the local and expanding outward from the part to the whole.

I am proposing a social-organic movement from the global to the local to a new global. From the whole (current socio-historical matrix) to the parts (local cultures of embeddedness) which co-create a new whole (as emergent socio-historical arena). In the socio-historical orientation, human society is a self-developing whole from which all ontogenesis is born. Our existence as socio-historical beings is the ground from which our development as individuals proceeds. In all bourgeois psychology the stages are just there as products of psychobiology. Rarely is it entertained that:

  • Existing ontogenetic stages might once have not existed, that they are historical products.
  • Future historical changes may create unprecedented developmental stages.

In developmental psychology to acknowledge that cultural, social or historical factors influence the development of an individual over the life-span seems a self-evident truism. “Of course, they do”, psychologists might say, but only as a derivative, as something that comes after the more important psycho-biological process of maturation. A deeper question is how exactly is the relationship between society, history and the individual conceived? The two models are the atomistic and organic nature of the relationship between society, history and the individual. I placed Kegan’s work on both sides of Table A as a transition between atomistic to organic.

Bourgeois developmental psychology in the West is riddled with atomism in its attitude towards human society. The individual is explicitly or implicitly implied to be prior to their socio-historical situation. Over the course of a lifetime, the individual more or less voluntarily engages in a nexus of social activities which may influence or affect the formation of their personality, but which never determines or defines it.  Either the individual life cycle is assumed to be a psychobiological maturation process (Piaget) or as a psychological-atomistic social process (Erikson) or a psycho-spiritual process as in humanistic or transpersonal psychology.

The nature of our socio-historical identity

The human means of survival as a biological species is to qualitatively transform our social environment. This is accomplished by creating a social organization, a distinctly socio-ecological envelope that overlays the biosphere. This
super-organic membrane has gradually covered the earth. As societies have grown more complex, the crust which separates us from the organic world becomes thicker while social relations increasingly supersede the biological world as our predominate habitat. At least initially, human society arose out of our collective effort to better satisfy our biological needs.

One of the first humanizing activities was our use and recreation of tools, our technology. Unlike other animals, we engage our environment not primarily with our inherited anatomy, but by means external to our bodies. The invention of tools was the first of a number of necessary humanizing mediations between us and the rest of nature. By the use of technology, we extract from nature raw material for the purpose of satisfying our human requirements.

The improvisation of an economy and political organizations is the manner in which the goods and services created by our technology are produced and circulated by us. This includes the decision-making process as to what is produced, how much, for what purposes and for whom. Also, how are these products circulated and consumed? Both the shaping of tools, collectivity circulating the finished products (economy) and deciding who gets what, when and how (politics) all take effort. Labor is the totality of collective human energy expended upon the production and expanded reproduction of our social world; what Marx called “human species activity”.

Thus far, this definition of society has been limited to structural concerns. But how does society change over time? We call the motion of society over time, “history” or the story, or motion picture of the accumulating impact and consequences that social organizational activity have upon all of nature, including ourselves. Human practice is the name we give to overall accumulating and irreversible process of affecting and being affected by our socio-ecological membrane. The individual psychological dimension is born amidst the interface of mutually co-creating processes – the biosphere and the socio-sphere. There is no pre-existing psychological realm. It is a secondary derivative.

Meaning-making: atomistic and organic, socio-historical

We are now in a position to contrast how social atomistic and social organic scenarios differ in concrete developmental situations and we can begin with meaning-making. Developmental psychologists seem to agree that between an event and our response to it there is a kind of magical workshop in which we organize and create meaning from these events. Piaget, for example is exquisite in his rich delineation of how meaning-making selves evolve through a hierarchy of developmental stages by striking a balance between assimilation and accommodating the environment. The problem here is that meaning-making takes place outside one’s existence as a socio-historical being. Creating meaning is confined to revolutionizing epistemology for how we know things. The social world is implied to be passive, a prop or backdrop for a psychobiological drama staged in the body and minds of individuals.

In socio-historical meaning, the first mediating influences are society-history and these set the table for any psycho-biological epistemological shifts. Meaning making for individuals must be rooted in socioeconomic and sociopolitical struggles. The dominant trend in developmental psychology implies that these socio-historical realms are either:

  1. beyond the power of individual to affect,
  2. the processes are too random or complex to understand and incorporate into an individual’s life in a meaningful way.

On the contrary, both the individual’s material and cognitive development are determined by the macro socio-historical relationships the individual is born into.

They are super-sensuous and macroscopic in range and impersonal in form. They create the local cultures of embeddedness. For example, just to consume a bottle of milk involves the infant in an indirect relationship with all those people who milk the cows, process the milk, make the bottles to pour the milk, truck drivers who deliver the milk and those at the market who unload the trucks. These networks antedate all cultures of embeddedness to come, including that with the mother. The world’s working-class are people whom the infant will probably never know, and with whom they have no sensuous connection. The infant, even if unconsciously, is affected by the state of supply-chains around the world and this impacts meaning-making. Please see Table A for a summary.


Piaget as a developmentalist

Piaget has a rich appreciation of the profound reciprocity which exists between organism and environment. For him there are no qualitative changes in the life of the child or adolescence without a corresponding change in the epistemological understanding of that reality. The development of an individual moves reciprocally from adapting to an environment to the co-creation of a new object within that environment.  This invites a new subjectivity to with which to encounter it. When I emerge from my embeddedness in an object, the object ceases to be the ground of my being. It becomes relative and a figure for the new stage. It becomes content for a new structure. What is immediate gets mediated by a new immediacy. For example, when an infant shifts from a sensorimotor to a preoperational stage, they no longer are his reflexes and sensations. They are no longer embedded in them. They have them. They are relative, not absolute. From the very structure of their organization, their reflections and sensations have become the content for a new organization, their perceptions. Perception is the organization of his reflexes and sensation. They are now both mediated and coordinated.

From the point of view of the human subject, both they and their environment become increasingly differentiated and integrated. On the one hand, their subjectivity undergoes a series of qualitative differentiations from the world. The objects which they experience on the other hand, became more multi-facetted, more integrated and more extended in their relations to those objects. By extended I mean, they perceive an ever-widening community which they experience as part of themselves.

How can it be there is no cognitive development in adulthood?

How could it be that this magnificent process ceases when we become adults? Is adult life so pat and predictable that we stop developing cognitively, at least in Piaget’s sense? How can it be that there is adult development with no corresponding cognitive stage? It is astounding to me that developmental psychologists would not identify this as a crucial problem within the field. Why is there no corresponding fifth stage of cognitive development.? We will touch on this shortly.

Piaget fails to incorporate history into his ontogenetic stages

Piaget beautifully describes how babies, young and older children have different senses of space, time and causality as they develop. He says individuals conceive of these categories differently as they go through sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. But Piaget:

  1. Treats his stages as universal and unfolding regardless of historic, economic and political turbulence and innovation within the window of a specific period.
  2. He treats the categories themselves as unchanging so that the same space, time and cause will be available for every child regardless of the type of society or the time in history they are born into.

But qualitatively distinct societies – hunter-gatherers, agricultural states, industrial capitalist societies – have radically different worldviews when it comes to notions of space, time and cause. Contrary to Piaget, how space, time and causality change over from childhood, adolescence and adulthood is not just a matter of psychological evolution in cognition. Whole societies have different notions of space, time and cause. Even an infant’s mother, whom we might suspect to be immune to socio-historical infusion is no exception. She is not primarily a psycho-biological organism, but a microcosm of a particular social formation, its first representative. She immediately and unconsciously begins orienting the infant into the dominant social notions of the nature of space, time and cause. As for the stages themselves, I have argued in my book Lucifer’s Labyrinth that Piaget’s Formal Operations is not likely to have existed before the scientific revolution and the emergence of capitalism in the 17th century.

Formal operations strengths and weaknesses

When the adolescent/young adult becomes capable of thinking in a formal operational way, they become cognitively powerful in many ways. They are able to compare ratios between permanent objects, but they are also capable of comparing ideas with each other, independently of sense data. They can organize their thoughts deductively and are able to reason from hypothesis. They can apply this new way of reasoning not only to everyday living, but they also possess the rudimentary tools for traditional scientific inquiry.

A question we might ask is what kind of abstract reasoning is that individual capable of? What kind of logic is used in formal operations? What we find is that formal operational thinking is deeply wedded to formal logic. The three main assumptions (at least of Aristotelian version) are:

  • The axiom of identity. A thing is always equal to itself. Everything is what it is.
  • The axiom of contradiction. A thing cannot be both itself and something else.
  • The axiom of the excluded middle. Each thing must be one of the above mutually exclusive things. We proceed by eliminating that which does not fit exclusively into either one.

These axioms have significant overlap with three of the assumptions which characterize formal operations (Herb Koplowitz, A General System Stage and a Unitary Stage):

  • The presence of permanent objects,
  • The existence of an external world separated from thought,
  • The existence of independent variables.

Most adult “common sense”, at least in western industrialized societies among the middle and upper-middle classes, is the unsystematic and unconscious use of formal logic. The axioms mentioned above hold relatively true in most of our local and immediate encounters with our surroundings.  For example, I’m following the law of identity when I assume that the cup I’m drinking my coffee from will remain a cup and not slowly disintegrate in my hand. It remains “essentially what it is” relative to ontogenetic time frames.

Formal logic also has an important place in traditional scientific methodology. The necessity of formal relevant theoretical constructs, together the categorization of phenomena into taxonomies, are both based on a need of finding identity among diverse phenomena. Darwin first had to recognize the identity of all creatures before their vast varieties would make any sense.

As beneficial as formal logic can be, it does not hold up across the board, either in scientific thought or in the world of everyday life. When we introduce one variable, the edifice of formal logic begins to tremble and crack. That variable is change.

Formal logic conceptualizes the world as a collection of permanent, discrete substances rather than a continuum of interpenetrating processes. The implications of perpetual change not only affect formal logic but also the three mighty assumptions listed above. Formal logic contradicts what physicists Max Born and David Bohm have said about the nature of permanent objects. The entrenchment of the notion of permanent objects is not limited to the natural world. People mistakenly see society as static institutions. Individuals often treat each other as things. Men treat women as sexual objects. He reifies her making her into a permanent object. When we do this, we rob people of their developmental stature over time. We refuse to consider that historical events can change individuals. This is like claiming we have captured the essence of a horse race by taking a string of snapshots along the way. The snapshots are not the race. Formal operations have nothing to say about the process of reification.


1985 was a big year for me intellectually. The last leg of my exploration came from a book I had discovered as a result of studying Kegan’s work. It was called Dialectical Thinking in Adult Development. The basis for a proposal for dialectics as a fifth stage of cognitive development came from two research projects. One was an interview which measures the extent to which subjects spontaneously used elements of dialectical thinking in discussions about certain subject matter. A second study was done in which it was attempted to measure the extent to which subjects comprehend dialectical thinking in the arguments of others.

In the first study, subjects were asked seven questions about the nature of education. The participants were college students and professors of a highly selective liberal arts college with a reputation for high academic standards and a strong emphasis on intellectual development. The environment was chosen because it was assumed that if dialectical thinking were to be present, it would most likely be actuated under conditions of intentional cognitive stimulation. The topic for the interview was chosen because it seemed to be relevant to all the subjects’ experience. It was also thought to be more representative of the range of problems which mature thought confronts (unlike the closed system of Piaget’s formal operations).

The sample consisted of eight male freshman and three female freshman 18 – 20 years old.  Also included were eight male faculty members and one female with an age range of 30 – 48. The interview lasted for two hours. The purpose of the interview was to evoke a verbalization at a level of depth to which dialectical thinking could be perceived. The recorded and transcribed tapes were then analyzed relative to the following dialectical schemata which should be familiar to Marxists.

A – Motion orientated schemata

  • Thesis-antithesis-synthesis movement of thought
  • Affirmation of the primacy of motion
  • Recognition and description of thesis-antithesis-synthesis movement
  • Recognition of correlativity of a thing and its other
  • Recognition of ongoing interaction as a source of movement
  • Affirmation of the practical or active character of knowledge
  • Avoidance or exposure of objectification, hypostatization and reification
  • Understanding events or situations as moments of development of a process

B – Form oriented schemata

  • Location of an element of phenomenon within a whole of which it is a part
  • Description of a whole (system form) in structural, functional and dis- equilibration terms
  • Assumption of contextual relativism

C – Relationship oriented schemata

  • Assertion of the existence of relation, the limits of separation of the value of relatedness
  • Criticism of multiplicity, subjectivism and pluralism
  • Description of a two-way reciprocal relationship
  • Assertion of internal relations

D – Meta-formal schemata

  • Location (or description) of the process of emergence, of contradictions or sources of disequilibrium within a system (form) and external forces or elements which are antithetical to the systems’ (form) structure
  • Understanding the resolution of disequilibrium or contradiction in terms of a notion of transformation in developmental direction
  • Relating a value to a) movement in a developmental direction, and/or b) stability through developmental movement
  • Evaluative comparison of forms (systems)
  • Attention to problems of coordination of systems (forms) in relation
  • Description of open, self-transforming systems
  • Description of qualitative change as a result of quantitative change within a form
  • Criticism of formalism based on the interdependence of form and content
  • Multiplication of perspectives as a concreteness-preserving approach to inclusiveness.

Table B. Summarizes some of the differences between formal and dialectical operations.


To my knowledge there have been no further follow-up studies in dialectics as a fifth stage of cognitive development. There has been work by Errol Harris which compares formal logic, transcendental and dialectical thinking. There is also the work of Roy Bhaskar in his book Dialectic, the Pulse of Freedom. However, both of these are not attempts to link dialectics as a developmental stage through the life-span. There is also the work of Otto Laske who studied with Kegan and Basseches and claims to have advanced their work. But this seems to have been done in work settings through organizations rather than as a stage of individual development through the life-span. I will expand on developments over the last 35 years in a future article. Please see Table B for a summary.


About Bruce Lerro

Bruce Lerro has taught for 25 years as an adjunct college professor of psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to his five books: "From Earth-Spirits to Sky-Gods: the Socio-ecological Origins of Monotheism, Individualism and Hyper-Abstract Reasoning", "Power in Eden: The Emergence of Gender Hierarchies in the Ancient World" (co-authored with Christopher Chase-Dunn), "Social Change: Globalization from the Stone Age to the Present", "Lucifer's Labyrinth: Individualism, Hyper-Abstract Thinking and the Process of Becoming Civilized", and "The Magickal Enchantment of Materialism: Why Marxists Need Neopaganism". He is also a representational artist specializing in pen-and-ink drawings. Bruce is a libertarian communist and lives in Olympia, WA.

View all posts by Bruce Lerro →

2 Comments on “Spirals of Becoming: The Search for a Dialectical Spiral in the Individual Life Cycle”

  1. just a note that I have since 2000 worked on strenghtening the use and teaching of dialectic, having studied with Th.W, Adorno from 1956 to 1966. In 2008, I wrote three books on dialectic not available in a second edition through Springer’s book group entitled “Advanced Systems Level Problem Solving”.
    I studied with Basseches and through him know Riegel; I extended their work. I am now working on showing that my DTF, the Dialectical Thought Form Framework, withstands Gilbert Simondon’s critique of dialectic. DTF leads to a ‘transductive’ approach to the social and physical world.
    Best wishes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *