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Epistemology, Fourth Order Consciousness, and the Subject-Object Relationship

or... How the Self Evolves with Robert Kegan
by Elizabeth Debold


Robert Kegan

Have you ever thought of yourself as an epistemologist? Epistemology: the study of the nature and limits of knowledge. Yikes, what a mouthful—one of those too-long words bandied about in philosophy classes. But how about taking a different tack: Have you ever shared the thrill of triumph with an infant taking her first steps? Or been amazed by the experience of all of the pieces coming together in an epiphany of a new and different perspective? Or even wondered how you and another could seem to speak the same language, use the same words, and not really understand each other? In other words, have you ever been struck by how absolutely remarkable, complex, and sometimes frustrating is the human capacity for learning and understanding? Then maybe you are a bit of an epistemologist. This is epistemology, Robert Kegan style, taken out of the philosophy classroom into the trials and triumphs of the struggle to make meaning—to know and understand—through the course of our lives. Kegan, a noted Harvard developmental psychologist, has charted the evolving upward movement of consciousness across the life span, revealing how the self transforms through the subject-object relationship.

Right—the subject-object relationship. Now, don't turn the page! Yes, it does sound abstract and perhaps a bit boring, but, frankly, as Kegan makes clear, this is the crux of the transformation of consciousness. Think about it: When the great philosopher and teacher J. Krishnamurti calls us to observe and join him in inquiry, asking, "Now why is there this division in me? The 'me' and the 'not me,' " he is pointing to the relationship between subject (me) and object (not me). As Kegan explains, this reality-making relationship—what we identify with as subject and what we consider to be object—ultimately determines the difference between a baby and a buddha. And most of us fall somewhere in between. The transformation of the subject-object relationship, enabling us to become truly objective and see what is true, is actually a goal of much spiritual practice. Maybe all of us are closet epistemologists.

But it wasn't just Kegan's approach to epistemology that made us so interested in speaking with him. Kegan is a humanitarian in the deepest possible sense. He bears witness to the "astonishingly intimate activity—the activity of making sense" that defines our struggle for dignity in the face of the overwhelming immensity of the universe and the fragile finitude of our lives. To listen to Kegan is to join him in marveling at the miracle of transformation that unfolds in the myriad creative moments that constitute our constant quest for understanding and knowledge. His motivation for studying the transformations of consciousness in adulthood arises in response to the question: What order of consciousness will allow human beings to respond positively to the demands of a pluralistic postmodern culture? To answer that question, Kegan doesn't just stand above the fray. As a parent, therapist, consultant, and the first William and Miriam Meehan Professor of Adult Learning and Professional Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, he is in the trenches, working directly to help others to transform and evolve. In the following interview, Kegan shares with us the actual mechanisms and often syncopated rhythms of human transformation, and expresses the urgent need for us to evolve in orderto meet the demands of our rapidly accelerating world.


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This article is from
Our Transformation Issue


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