Logical contradiction, contrary opposites, and epistemological relativism: critical philosophical reflections on the psychological models of adult cognitive development


In recent decades, there has been a dominant tendency within psychological research to explain adult cognitive development by reference to some general notions and distinctions that are also central in philosophy such as epistemological relativism, deonto-logical ethics, determinism and indeterminism, logical contradiction, and two-valued as opposed to many-valued logic. Although developmental models based on a strict division of distinct stages and phases are not unanimously accepted, youthful immature cognition is often distinguished from adult, mature cognition (Hoare, 2011; Kallio, 2001, 2011, 2015). More recently, this tendency has also, to some extent, given way to discussions about wisdom as a mature psychological achievement (Baltes & Staudin-ger, 2000; Curnow, 1999; Edmondson, 2015; Trowbridge, 2011; Trowbridge & Ferrari, 2011).

In this contribution, we shall first argue that the notions of epistemological relativism and tolerance to logical contradiction, even acceptance of many-valued logic, are not successful in explaining mature adult cognition, as viewed from a philosophical point of view. Rather, mature adult cognition should be characterised as the capacity to integrate distinct and diverse elements into one’s own cognitive, emotional, and action systems or perspectives (Kallio, 2011, 2016; see also Cavanaugh & Blanchard-Fields, 2014, p. 203 “integrated relativistic-dialectical thinking”). This, as we shall argue, does not mean simple acceptance of everyone’s beliefs as true but refers rather to understanding the other person’s point of view, emotional state, and the background from which his/her beliefs have been formed. Finally, when such an integrative outlook is cultivated into the capacity of understanding views that are rather different from one’s own, with the capacity to form one’s own view based on such integration, such an outlook on the world starts to resemble (but is not identical with) what today is described as the cognitive component of wisdom (Grossmann, 2017).

Below we shall first consider the more distinctly cognitive elements in mature adult thinking through a philosophical critique of the central notions of developmental psychology. Then we shall argue that philosophical critique of some core notions of the earlier theories and models leads to a more accurate description of adult cognition as integration."

Our aim is to clarify how the philosophical analysis of logic, knowledge, and beliefs differs from the one of developmental psychology. In a nutshell, while developmental psychology mainly focuses on empirical descriptions of the ways of in which people think and how their thinking develops, philosophical logic pertains to analysing the logical validity of inferences and arguments. If people have contradictory beliefs or make erroneous inferences, this does not have direct consequences for philosophical logic. Similarly, philosophical epistemology in its current standard form3 focuses on the analysis of the concept of knowledge, its necessary and sufficient conditions, and this is typically quite far from the ways in which the notion of knowledge is used in ordinary language. This means that often the subject matters of philosophical analysis diff er from that of developmental psychology: philosophical logic is concerned with logical validity while developmental psychology studies thinking in empirical subjects. However, even when the subject matter is partly the same — philosophers can of course be concerned with thinking as well — the approaches differ. To simplify, for developmental psychologists it is vital to find out how subjects use certain terms and how they think, and thinking is understood very broadly as referring to mental operations on a wide spectrum from sensations and perceptions to emotions, dreaming, and the use of concepts. Philosophers, by contrast, are focused more on the ways in which the notions should be used to preserve clarity and consistency and what kind of different mental operations should be distinguished and on what grounds.

We shall argue that, from the philosophical perspective, two central features of adult mature cognition can be traced: (i) the cognitive ability to see beyond simplified dichotomies,4 and (ii) an attitude towards one’s own beliefs that recognises the evidence and justification for them while allowing that a better, more detailed and accurate view is possible.5 Such an attitude also recognises that we do not necessarily know how things are without falling into cynical skepticism or “anything goes” sort of relativism. With respect to point (i), youthful cognition can to an extent be characterised by a tendency to see stark oppositions and exhaustive dichotomies, while mature adult cognition means an ability to see that such dichotomies are not necessarily exhaustive. We shall also suggest that often this means a simple distinction, introduced by Aristotle (trans. 1984),6 between contrary and contradictory opposites, in which contrary opposites (such as good and bad) do not exhaust the logical domain (something can be neutral), while contradictory opposites (good and not good) do so. A youthful attitude towards one’s own beliefs or the beliefs taught by some authority (ii) can be described as certainty and dogmatism, whereas mature adults rather understand that it is possible to see matters differently, be mistaken in one’s conceptions, or that authorities are not necessarily right or omniscient.

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