Book | The Evolving Self by Robert Kegan

Evernote Camera Roll 20140222 142314Kegan, Robert. The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982.

The Author – Robert Kegan

My Thoughts


I read the Prologue to this book today. I have already read In Over Our Heads and Immunity to Change, so I am familiar with Kegan’s theory. Mary Hess suggested that I read this book, and include it in my bibliography, since it is the foundation to his theory.

Reading the prologue, in this context, reminds me again why I so resonate with Kegan. I believe his theories are the psychological language of relational ontology and demonstrate the image of the Trinity in human being.

I intentionally said “human being” in the previous sentence as opposed to the expected “the human being.” To be human is not to be a single “being,” existing as an isolated, autonomous being that does things. Human being is the activity of meaning-making which is the dynamic, dialectical interpenetration of physical, social, and cognitive action. This is, in my opinion, relational ontology.

Quotes from the Prologue

“The subject of this book is the person, where ‘person’ is understood to refer as much to an activity as to a thing–an ever progressive motion engaged in giving itself a new form.” (7-8)

“The so-called thing (a fist) can be made to ‘disappear’ because it is not only a thing; disguised as a noun, it is as much a process (the act of closing the hand).” (8)

“If the reader is genuinely to try on the way of seeing that constructive-developmental personality theory suggests, he or she must practice thinking a bit more like the Chinese [more dialectic, less dichotomous]. While it may be possible for us to accept in isolation an axiom like Hegel’s, or Whitehead’s (1929), that what is most fundamental about life is that it is motion (rather than merely something in motion), it remains that we are greatly tempted–and seduced–by our language into experiencing ourselves and the world as things that move. Even the action nouns (gerunds) which we use to refer to ourselves have lost their active dimension and get constituted as things. A writer has to strain to make the reader recover the process in the words “human being”; we talk about “a being” and “beings.” This book is about human being as an activity. It is not about the doing which a human does; it is about the doing which a human is.” (8)

“Before long the reader will find the expression ‘meaning-making organism’ redundant; what an organism does, as William Perry says, is organize; and what a human organism organizes is meaning. Thus it is not that a person makes meaning, as much as that the activity of being a person is the activity of meaning-making. There is thus no feeling, no experience, no thought, no perception, independent of a meaning-making context in which it becomes a feeling, an experience, a thought, a perception, because we are the meaning-making context. ‘Percept without concept is blind,’ Kant said. ‘Experience is not what happens to you,’ Aldous Huxley said, ‘it’s what you do with what happens to you’. And the most fundamental thing we do with what happens to us is organize it. We literally make sense. Human being is the composing of meaning, including, or course, the occasional inability to compose meaning, which we often experience as the loss of our own composure.” (11)

“Thus just as the object-grasping infant is doing something which, in another form, he will try to do all his life (grasp things), so the attention-recruiting infant is doing something he will try to do all his life (recognize and be recognized)–and at bottom it is the same thing: the activity of meaning. Meaning is, in its origins, a physical activity (grasping, seeing), a social activity (it requires another), a survival activity (in doing it, we live). Meaning, understood in this way, is the primary human motion, irreducible. It cannot be divorced from the body, from social experience, or from the very survival of the organism. Meaning depends on someone who recognizes you. Not meaning, by definition, is utterly lonely. Well-fed, warm, and free of disease, you may still perish if you cannot ‘mean.'” (19)

“Who come into a person’s life may be the single greatest factor of influence to what that life becomes.” (19)