Cognitive Development

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Background

The concept of cognitive development, involving qualitiative changes in cognition from one stage--such as childhood--into another--such as adolesence--has been present in culture around the world throughout history. Systematic scientific exploration of the concept began with Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget in the early 20th Century. Piaget dealt with cognition about the physical world. His work was extended into the realm of moral reasoning by Lawrence Kohlberg, and Robert Kegan applied it to therapy and adult development, while also developing a broad framework to integrate the work of diverse developmental approaches, including those of Erick Erikson, Abraham Maslow and others.

Kegan's Conceptual Model

Kegan developed a simple explanation for the underlying mechanism of developmental stages: what is subject at one stage (the unconscious elements of cognition that structure our awareness) become object (the conscious elements of cognition acted on by our awareness) at the next.

Most significantly for political purposes is the transition from his stage three to stage four. In stage three, social roles are subject. We cannot question our social surround because it is what structures our consciousness. The fit between this stage and social conservatism is self-evident.

In stage four, social roles become object. We become the authors of our social roles. This does not mean that we toss them out willy-nilly. But we do have choice, and the capacity to critique, alter, or augment them. Stage four has a strong fit with liberalism, with the emergence of personal autonomy supported by a growing framework of socially and politically recognized rights.

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