Cognitive line of development.

For context a quick reminder that the cognitive line of development proceeds in all humans, cross-culturally, from sensory motor, to phantasmal-emotional, to representational mind, to concrete operational, to formal operational (or mature Reason) to Vision Logic and then on to the more transpersonal cognitions (psychic, subtle, causal and nondual). This happens in any individual lifetime, albeit a more spiral dynamic affair than a linier hierarchy. The general progression serves us well enough for this dialogue. It is also the general progression detected by most developmental anthropologists as the successive development of cognitive ability seen in each major epoch of historical development for humanity as a whole. There are many degrees of important distinction within each major level here. For a more detailed account of them please see the end notes and definitions.

Thoreau describes cognitive development in the average man, using his dialogues with the Canadian woodchopper that frequented the pine forest near him for a few seasons. After one conversation he noted: “…hearing Plato’s definition of a man, a biped without feathers, – and that one exhibited a cock plucked and called it Plato’s man, he [the Canadian] thought it was an important difference that the knees bent the wrong way.”

He concludes after illustrating many attempts to engage the man in intellectual or spiritual dialogue: “Yet never, by any manoeuvring , could I get him to take the spiritual view of things; the highest that he appeared to conceive of was a simple expediency, such as you might expect an animal to appreciate; and this, practically, is true of all men.”

This man was functional, responsible, gainfully employed, literate in two languages, carried and almanac and another practical work from which he regularity read.

What Thoreau here describes is the Concrete Operation level of cognition which dominated his generation as it does ours. It is a stage of development that legitimises coming to rest at its own stage with notions that thinking about thinking is dangerous – or that it is the special domain of the genius philosopher, the priest, the saint or the sage.

Not thinking about thinking is extolled as a virtue at this level. Industriousness and expediency are the virtue of the Concrete Operational levels. It does allow for some education though, but just enough to allow participation in the industrial, political, or religious activities of the era with efficiency. There is no consciousness introduced through the educational institutions of this phase.

It is the level that is so compatible with the dominant economic and political drivers: that we will find ourselves fulfilled through more; more of the same. It is a level of development that can be exploited by the machinations of those who do develop to higher cognitions but trail in the moral line of development or deliberately exclude it from their efforts. The sophistication of the economic and political system seems above analysis to the Concrete Operators, and it is considered humility to leave it to the more gifted in these matters.

“But the intellectual [thinking about thinking or Formal Operational] and what is called spiritual [contemplative] man in him were slumbering as an infant. He had been instructed only in that innocent and ineffectual way in which the Catholic priests teach the aborigines, by which the pupil is never educated to the degree of consciousness, but only to the degree of trust and reverence, [Concrete Operational] and a child is not made a man, but kept a child.” [Brackets mine]

Thoreau is alluding poetically to some important points here. One, that cognition is influenced through formal and informal education. Two that certain cultures do not emphasise cognitive development passed Concrete Operational, as the challenges of environmental, economic and geo-political factors do not necessitate it for legitimisation. He also implies the dominator hierarchies ( in this case the church and the imperialists), being aware of such an opportunity, and employing it in their education systems, are thus grooming a servant class and holding them there, immoral by almost all standards. Not immoral, however, cross- culturally, seen from the level of Magic, Magic- Mythic, Mythic membership, to Mythic Rational stages of development in worldview and the egocentrism and ethnocentrism that dominates them. All civilisations, without exception, across all continents, and all cultures had slavery at this stage of development. It is a stage of cognitive, worldview and moral development common to every epoch prior to the Modern, Rational one, which all allowed slavery and exploitation of weaker or ‘lower’ classes and cultural expressions in one form or another. Only with Rational worldcentric compassion was an end brought to slavery.

So the release form slavery comes with the cognitive development and the accompanying moral reflection available with Formal Operational thinking.

Freedom from our enslavement to consumption and finding ourselves fulfilled through more, similarly, has its liberation at higher stages of cognition and the correlated moral development and worldviews that slumber as potentials just above most of us.

Our ecological crisis is a crisis of arrested development. Education, transcendent education, not education in our employability and efficiency in the very system of politics and business that threatens us, is the solution we are avoiding. We are avoiding it through cultural taboos, false humility, religious shallowness, and the illusions of liberation through casting a democratic vote. We are denied it in public schools and the ‘best’ universities that now pride themselves on career specific courses, sponsored, of course, by the machinery of the dominator hierarchies. ‘Career specific’ by another name is ‘narrow’ and without context – Functional courses, with functional fit as their aim, that will make you efficient and unquestioning of the greater context of your life. This context only comes into view through a study of the great thinkers, mystics and explorers of human potential through the ages. All positioned as unnecessary encumbrances to a good education today (a concrete foundation) that will really serve your development and progress through the great modern hierarchy of moneyed men and power politics.

It is a hierarchy of more of the same. That is why we see no matter who runs the political scene for a term or two, more of the same. And Concrete Operational is not big on questions about the status quo. It does not reflect on things as they might be. It thinks about how to make what is more efficient. That is why there is so much emphasis even in the ‘green’ movement on efficiency. Not systemic change – just a more efficient version of what is. This ‘Concrete’ can understand and get behind

So our education now is focussed on being even more efficient that before. What could be wrong with that? Plenty! More of the same produced more efficiently, faster, cheaper… more consumption with the electric car and the cheap disposable car, so everyone can have one… Every one can’t have one! Our roads don’t need more cars, more fumes, more waste, more accidents, more oil, more components, more rubber, and more plastic. We don’t need more, more efficiently. We don’t need more delivered with cleaner energy. We need a system that delivers less. Everyone on earth today can’t even have a beer – because there is not enough hops and barley to make it. We need a system that delivers more through less. More height and less span. More depth and less span. More thinking and less mindless doing.

We need more depth in each person not more consumption by everyone.


Bjorn Heyerdahl

Blue Genes – the DNA of Our Transformation to Peace and Sustainability