Dialectical thinking at the 2016 ESRAD symposium

Next spring, in 23-25 May, we will arrange our fifth ESRAD symposium in den Haag in the Netherlands. For this symposium we have formulated four adult development research areas that are of particular interest, one being dialectical thinking. The other areas are wisdom, ego development and transformations in the adult life. To some degree these areas can be said to overlap, see the call for proposals for further details. We can gladly announce that prof. Michael Basseches has confirmed that he will give a keynote speech. Basseches is one of the pioneers of the research in dialectical thinking, DT, described in his book Dialectical thinking and adult development from 1984.

How do DT relate to other AD theories, e.g. stage theories such as the Model of Hierarchical Complexity and Robert Kegan’s subject object theory (both those theories contain references to DT)? As other AD theories, such as the previously mentioned, DT describes a type of post-formal thinking that transcends formal logical thinking as described by Piaget, although it can be traced back to the first process model of thesis-antithesis-synthesis according to Hegel.

A common distinction among stage theories is the one between cognition and meaning making. Cognition refers to cognitive capabilities or tools, such as the ability for complex reasoning and problem-solving demonstrated e.g. by the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, whereas meaning making in Kegan’s terms can be expressed as frames of references, subject-object balance or self-other coordination. Another proponent of DT, Otto Laske, refers to Kegan’s theory as one regarding socio-emotional development, which together with King and Kitchener’s reflective judgment model constitutes the person’s stance towards the world. Cognition, as in DT, is for Laske the person’s tools with which s/he uses to resolve problems such as social dilemma.

Both MHC and DT can be seen as measures of cognitive abilities or complex thinking, but how do they differ? MHC is a formal theory based on axioms that prescribe how higher order elements are created by means of a coordination of elements from a previously lower order. The orders of hierarchical complexity are ideal forms according to which behaviour can be evaluated and from which the person’s stage of hierarchical complexity can be assessed. The transition process of a person moving from one stage of hierarchical complexity to the next higher one can be seen as a dialectical one, which is described by e.g. Sara Ross. Typically, the person goes from arguing from a thesis at stage n, deconstructing the thesis, constructing an alternative antithesis, deconstructing that one too, on to relativism which is followed by process leading to a synthesis, which constitutes the thesis at the higher stage n+1.

From a MHC perspective, when DT is assimilated into MHC, DT is the nature of the thinking process and movement between the stable stages. Stage transitions can be characterised as the process of being able to coordinate seemingly opposite or paradoxical elements, a thesis and an antithesis, into a new and more complex synthesis. Thus, the dialectical process can be said to have as its goal more complex thinking. The transition process between the stages is considered to be a learning one and doesn’t necessarily reflect that the world would be dialectical in any sense. Rather, it is seen that we as thinkers perceive the world as being full of paradoxes, contradictions and processes as a consequence of us not being able to see it complexly enough. But when we reach the next stage the fog lifts, confusion resolves and we can see more clearly and complexly. Until the next paradox and contradiction arise, which will be resolved at the next stage, ad infinitum (?!)

In contrast, from a DT perspective the world is in itself considered to be full of movement, chaos and processes where things emerge from the void, flourish, transform and perish back from where it came. Including ourselves. DT marks a shift not only in perception and understanding of the world, but also entails a shift in attitude where one, in Basseches’ words, “trade off a degree of intellectual security for a freedom from intellectually imposing limitations on oneself or other people”. From a DT perspective, recognising paradoxes and contradictions are not signs of an incomplete synthesis, but rather normal conditions in a world that is fundamentally filled with paradoxes and contradictions. As Laske describes it in his recently released book Dialectical thinking for integral leaders – a primer:

“In other words, if you want to understand the “real” beehive, the beehive as it occurs in the real world, you’ll need to see it as a transformational entity that to describe you will need all four classes of thought forms provided by Table 1.1, certainly Ce [structure and stability of system], Pl [embeddedness in process], and Rl [patterns of interaction and influence], if not also Te [developmental movement]. If you are not prepared or able to use these, you can forget about understanding a beehive (or organizations in real world, for that matter).”

So what is DT, how does it work and what tools or models are there to help us see the transformative nature of the world? According to my understanding of dialectical thinking, which comes from Vurdelja, Laske and Basseches, as well as from Jordan and Andersson here in Sweden, dialectical thinking is not a coherent theory in the same sense as most AD theories or theories in general. Rather, it’s a collection of thought forms that can be used as mind openers, or as Laske puts it “somewhat mechanical logical tools for thinking beyond logic.” In integral terms, the concepts of “transcend and include” and “pre-trans fallacy” could be regarded as integral examples of thought forms as they describe evolutionary as well as epistemological patterns.

The thought forms are organised in three groups, process, context and relationship, according to Basseches. Laske adds a fourth group or quadrant, transformation, and places seven thought forms in each group. In a simplified version, presented in the recently released primer Dialectical thinking for integral leaders, Laske uses three thought forms per quadrant, i.e. twelve in total.

The aim of using the thought forms, separately or in a more developed way by combining different ones, is to be able to perceive and facilitate change and transformation in different domains. Basseches is more focused on the personal and relational domains whereas Laske and Vurdelja work mostly in business and organisational settings, although these domains should not be treated as separate:

“It will also have become clear to the reader of the Primer that what initially appears as a tool for boosting one’s own thinking is an even more powerful tool for transforming organizational, political, and educational cultures.”

An individual’s ability, or fluidity, in using and combining the thought forms can be assessed, which can give support for coaching and development. Besides fluidity, such an assessment gives a profile of the individual’s thinking style also in terms of predominately used quadrants. Perhaps this shift in attitude of DT makes this approach more suitable than the stage theories of the AD field for those who are more interested in activism and facilitation of change and transformational processes!?

For integrally interested readers, I think that a shift in focus from stage theories to DT can be compared to a similar shift in interest from Integral theory and AQAL to complex thought and Critical Realism according to Morin and Bhaskar, respectively. Obviously, stage theories such as MHC and DT should not be seen as contradictory, but rather as being complementary and even compatible to each other.

This is of course only some very brief introductory thoughts. To find out more, join us at the ESRAD symposium in den Haag next spring!

Some further reading for those interested in dialectical thinking:

Michael Basseches’ Dialectical thinking and adult development from 1984, his introductory article on DT in Integral review:


Otto Laske’s Measuring Hidden Dynamics of Human Systems (2009) and Dialectical thinking for integral leaders: A Primer (2015)

Iva Vurdelja’s doctoral dissertation (2011), How Leaders Think: Measuring Cognitive Complexity in Leading Organizational Change: https://etd.ohiolink.edu/ap/10?0::NO:10:P10_ACCESSION_NUM:antioch1309564744#abstract-files

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