I: Adult cognitive and moral development

From multiperspective to contextual integrative thinking in adulthood: considerations on theorisation of adult thinking and its place as a component of wisdom

Theoretical background: basic concepts

This chapter introduces the field of adult cognitive development by means of critical literature review. Major trends, schools, and traditions will be described and analysed to get a comprehensive, yet critically evaluative synthesis of the field.

Psychology as a discipline examines human action, behaviour, and experiences and the ways in which they change over time. In Anglo-American and “Western” cultures the root of many current terms can be traced back about 2000 years, to ancient civilizations of Near East and Southern Europe. Etymologically, the Greek term “psyklte’ refers to “the soul, mind, spirit; life, one’s life, the invisible animating principle or entity which occupies and directs the physical body; understanding, the mind (as the seat of thought), faculty of reason” (Psyche, 2019b). Oxford Lexico refers to the tenir “psyche” (Psyche, 2019a) as follows: “Mid-17th century via Latin from Greek psykhê ‘breath, life, soul’.” Cognition comes from the term cognicioun (Latin), “ability to comprehend, mental act or process of knowing” (Cognition, 2019b). Furthermore, the tenu “cognition” is defined as coming from “Late Middle English from Latin ‘cogni-tio’ (—), from ‘cognoscere’, ‘get to know’” (Cognition, 2019a).

In modem scientific research, cognition refers to all phenomena that are related to acquiring, assimilating, and processing knowledge, such as perception, attention, learning, memory, logical thinking, decision-making, creative thinking, sociocognitive skills, and intuition. In short, cognition refers to the mental functions that we use to acquire knowledge, or as Sternberg and Funke (2019) say, how people represent and process information. On the one hand, it is always intrapersonal but on the other hand, essentially also a social and collective phenomenon. In other words, cognition is about personal, internal, and experiential processing in an individual’s brain and mind, but at the same time shared and collective (Resnick, 1991). It is worth noting, however, that the concept of cognition in our rapidly changing world can be extended beyond our physical bodies and to technological fields, as integrations of human being with artificial intelligence, for example. Thus, the whole concept of cognition may soon need to be revised in some way.

Interestingly, the nowadays widely used term “development” appears to be a relatively recent term in English vocabulary; according to Oxford Lexico (Develop, 2019) the term “develop” traces back to “Mid-18th century (in the sense ‘unfold, unfurl’): from French ‘développer’, based on Latin dis- ‘un-’ + a second element of unknown origin”. On a general level, development as a scientific concept can be defined as a change that is predictable by nature and that emerges sequentially and consecutively. Adult development refers to consistent, qualitative changes in the outer and inner behaviour of mature individuals as a result of both internal and external interaction with the environment. These changes are partly based on hereditary, endogenous, and exogenous effects, the ability to adapt, and individual factors, such as goalsetting, will-power, agency as well as goal-oriented decisions (Hoare, 2011). The highly general rubric “adult cognition” refers to information processing theories, i.e., progress and decline of intelligence or memory in general (Schaie & Zanjani, 2006). More importantly for the present context, adult thinking can also be studied from a developmental psychological perspective, which is predominantly based on Piagetian theorisation, but also on some other major psychological theories as well (Kallio, 2015). In further discussion, I will focus especially on the “postformai” and “relativistic-dialectical” thinking models, and at some instances, also on some notions associated with these, especially on learning and wisdom.

Development in adulthood is twofold: it can include both progress and regress, going forward and backward (Hoare, 2011). The most significant differences in theories of this field are related to how this change is described. Different terms are used, such as stage, level, substage, and related transitional periods between these. The models often refer to general developmental progress which is more or less stable and structured. Change is typically, but not always necessarily, understood as something progressively hierarchical; advancing towards higher and higher stages, assuming the trend to be toward the better. This was the dominant idea at the end of the 20th century, but rivalling perceptions have been emerging since then. After the introduction of biological evolutionary theory, these hierarchical models and theories had their heydays, but they do have influence still today (Kohlberg, 1984; Piaget & Inhelder, 1969) with various neo-Kohlbergian and neo-Piagetian approaches (see articles in Part I in this book). (Note that as an alternative for “neo-Piagetian”, also the term “post-Piagetian” is used in this book; similarly to e.g., neo-Kohlbergian etc.). However, non-hierarchical development is also a possible assumption, i.e., non-normative consecutive periodicity as phases (Erikson, 1978; Freud, 1989).

There are several puzzling questions regarding the concept of development. The main antinomies in human development include, nature vs. nurture, mind vs. body, maturation vs. experience (or innate vs. acquired), continuity vs. discontinuity, stability vs. instability, constancy vs. change, quantitative vs. qualitative change, and individual vs. context (Lerner, 2018, p. 136). There are also several different assumptions regarding the direction and nature of development. For instance, we can ponder whether development is uni- or multilinear and whether it is proceeding along a particular route or various routes, and whether there is telos or not. In addition, what one person regards as development, may well be regression to another. Besides normative development, individual variation may be an important factor in producing unpredictable development. Universal development is a tempting model of explanation for many theorists. In summary, the concept of development is complex and the above-mentioned questions are constantly discussed by various scholars (Lerner, 2018; Lerner & Overton, 2008; Overton, 2006, 2010).

According to Lerner (2018), development is not an absolute observation-based concept. If it was, all researchers would agree when they observe the change of human behaviour over time, always defining it as development. The same phenomenon, however, can also be defined as learning or some other kind of change in the already existing structure without the emergence of something qualitatively new, depending on the conceptual background of the researcher who observes the phenomenon (Lerner, 2018). Any interpretative claims of reality should thus always be contextualised with our world-view and its mode of reasoning (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1993). It is also worth reminding that our knowledge and implicit assumptions are Eurocentric and Anglo-American, based on the paradigmatic scientific shift which emerged first in the Scientific Revolution (Kuhn, 1962). According to Hans-George Gadamer (2008) and his idea of hermeneutical pre-understanding, an observer is ontologically tied in fundamental pre-existing conditions in perception - here “philosophical ontology” refers to “a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being” (Ontology, 2019). In their interpretations and meaning-making the observers are never free from their conditioned minds and they understand objects and things according to their pre-existing thinking patterns.

Learning as a concept also includes an idea that something new emerges. As a term it can be traced back to medieval times: “Old English leornung ‘study, action of acquiring knowledge,’ verbal noun from leornian ... Meaning ‘knowledge acquired by systematic study, extensive literary and scientific culture’ is from the mid-14th century” (Learning, 2019). According to Hoare (2011), adult learning refers to the change in behaviour and action, acquiring new knowledge or skills, as well as to change in earlier knowledge structures. Learning outcomes and results are usually ranked as a hierarchy from lower to higher levels according to socially predetermined criteria and values. This implies analogical developmental stages or levels, even if there are less strict claims of intrinsic structure of normative transformations. Learning is also expansive in the sense that something learned earlier can be transferred to new settings. On the other hand, the concept also includes the possibility of unlearning (Becker, 2005). Both learning and development have to do with the concept of change, which will be addressed later.

Illeris (2009) argues that there is no established, consistent definition for learning. On the contrary, new models of learning are constantly introduced - which applies to adult developmental models as well. Illeris states that the research of learning is no longer focused on skills and knowledge, while the research field has expanded to encompass the meaning of emotions as well as the social and societal dimensions. This means that learning is viewed in relation to the context. The definition of learning presented by Illeris (2009, p. 3), however, comes close to the one suggested by Hoare (2011): learning refers to any process where there is a permanent change in the skills (capacity) of a living organism; change that is not a result of biological factors or age. In developmental psychology, however, age with related physiological changes, especially in childhood, is regarded as an essential factor (Piaget & Inhelder, 1969).

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