Organisms Organize

I like this paragraph from page 29 of Robert Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life:

By now it should be clear that when I refer to ‘mind’ or ‘mental’ of ‘knowing’ I am not referring to thinking processes alone. I am referring to the person’s meaning-constructive or meaning-organizational capacities. I am referring to the selective, interpretive, executive, construing capacities that psychologists have historically associated with the ‘ego’ or the ‘self.’ I look at people as the active organizers of their experience. ‘Organisms organize,’ the developmental psychologist William Perry once said; ‘and human organisms organize meaning.’ This kind of ‘knowing,’ this work of the mind, is not about ‘cognition’ alone, if what we mean by cognition is thinking divorced from feeling and social relating. It is about the organizing principle we bring to our thinking and our feelings and our relating to others and our relating to parts of ourselves.

A little earlier in the book Kegan claims that “how” we know is more important in terms of development than “what” we know. He gives an example of a 16-year-old boy named Matty who disobeys his curfew. Matty knows that he’s expected to follow the rules. That is, he can memorize the rule and recite it back to you. He might remember the rule and recite it silently (like there is a little angel cartoon on his shoulder) while he’s making his decision. Certainly Matty knows that his parents will be upset, disappointed and worried. That’s pretty high-level cognition: the ability to conjure up the perspectives of others. It’s better than most 5-year-olds. Therefore, we presume that Matty should know better. He’s smart enough to know, but not smart enough to do. This isn’t just a failure of action. It isn’t just a moral failing. It’s a failure of cognitive development, which, in the scheme of things, might actually be out of his control. Better yet, it might be over his head.

You see, Matty knows the right answer, and he knows what’s in the minds of others (namely, his parents) but his concept of self is too small to take in the wider context, a context which includes other people, society’s expectations, universal values…basically anything beyond the limited construction of his self, a construction which displays a name-tag “Matty” and a list of motivations that revolve around his wants, needs, the avoidance of punishment, the seeking of pleasure, the creation and reinforcement of identity features and actions consistent with his conception of the world, a conception which mostly revolves around Matty. He is Matty who has parents. He is also Matty who has parents who have their own thoughts. He can see that; he just can’t be that. He is Matty, family member, not Matty, family. Matty is not operating within a “trans-categorical” construction of self where the concreteness of his point of view is seen as one player in a wider circle of values and relationships. He is Matty. He can’t be Matty seeing Matty as Matty really exists, which is in coordination with an entire ecosystem of relationships. To be the real Matty, Matty must cease being just Matty. Right now, at 16, Matty is bumping up against the threat of this future.

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