Robert Kegan “The Evolving Self”

Who is Robert Kegan?

Robert Kegan is a psychologist who teaches, researches, writes, and consults about adult development, adult learning, and professional development. His work explores the possibility and necessity of ongoing psychological transformation in adulthood; the fit between adult capacities and the hidden demands of modern life; and the evolution of consciousness in adulthood and its implications for supporting adult learning, professional development, and adult education. In addition to his faculty appointment at HGSE, Kegan serves as educational chair of the Institute for Management and Leadership in Education; as codirector of a joint program with the Harvard Medical School to bring principles of adult learning to the reform of medical education; and as codirector of the Change Leadership Group, a program for the training of change leadership coaches for school and district leaders. Kegan, a licensed clinical psychologist and practicing therapist, lectures widely to professional and lay audiences, and consults in the area of professional development. ‘I have been told,’ he says, ‘t may help to know that I am also a husband and a father; influenced by Hasidism; an airplane pilot; a poker player; and the unheralded inventor of the ‘Base Average,’ a more comprehensive way of gauging a baseball player’s offensive contributions,’ (, 2016).”

((FYI – what follows is a ‘quick and dirty’ overview of Kegan’s Theory of Development in an attempt to prepare for the NCE licensure exam))

A “Constructive Developmental Theory”

“Kegan is a constructive-developmental psychologist….Constructivists believe that the world isn’t out there to be discovered, but that we create our world by our discovery of it…. Developmentalists believe that humans grow and change over time and enter qualitatively different phases as they grow….Constructive-developmentalists believe that the systems by which people make meaning grow and change over time (, n.d.).”

Inspired by Piaget…

Kegan’s theory of development is inspired by Piaget who described human development as a byproduct of our interaction with the world and desire to make “some sense” of it.  Piaget defines schemas as building block of knowledge that allow children to interact with their environment & exist as mental representations of our world.  As mature, we encounter information that challenges our previous understanding of things.  This cognitive disruption goads us forward to incorporate the new information through the processes of assimilation and accomodation.

Reality Construction

In his book,”The Evolving Self,” Kegan, (1983) describes unique insights from Piaget’s theory.  Piaget provides a window into how how humans make sense of their world by interacting continually with their environment and creating a new systems of meaning in their adaptation to it.  When we interact with our world as children, a unique relationship develops between oneself and the environment.  Our interactions with the social world define us as we in turn define it.  In other words, subject and object cannot exist independent of one another.  Instead, they interact in an ongoing “process of evolution as a meaning-constitutive activity, (Kegan, 1983, p. 42), the end result of which is a constructed reality, that reflects our schematic understanding.

“Piaget’s vision derives from a model of open-systems evolutionary biology.  Rather than locating the life force in the closed individual or environmental press, it locates a prior context which continually elaborates the distinction between the individual and the environment…primary not to…changes in an internal equiblirium, but to an equilibrium in the world between the progressively individuated self and the bigger life field…an interaction sculpted by and consitutive of reality itself, (Kegan, 1983, p. 43).” 

Developmental Stages

FIRSTLY, regarding Piaget’s developmental theory is very Hegelian in nature.  The word dialectice comes to mind as a key descriptor.  Growth comes by merging opposing ideas and new concepts into one’s thinking:

SECONDLY, regarding Piaget’s develomental theory reminds me of Thomas Kuhn’s book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.”

In this book, Kuhn, ( 2012) describes how academic fields tend to operate on an implicit set of beliefs and assumptions or “paradigm”.  These paradigms exist explanatory models of belief systems that guide the progression of knowledge within a scientific field.  Functioning much like a schema, new insights are utilized to expand the prevailing paradigmatic explanatory model – until something unique is encountered.  This anomaly produces a crisis – and eventually a new paradigm.  Likewise, when one’s current schema no longer fulfill developmental needs, new ones develop in their place.

FINALLY, with all this in mind, Kegan (1983) makes the following comment about Piaget’s developmental stage theory:

“[development]…is marked by periods of dynamic stability or balalnce followed by periods of instability…These periods fo dynamic balance amount to a kind of evolutionary trunce: furhter assimilation and accomodation will go on inthe context of the relationship struck between the organism and the world…Seen ‘psychologically,’ this process is about the development of ‘knowing’ but at the same time we experience this activity…the…tension between self preservation and self-transformation is descriptive of the very activity of hope itself…a dialectic of limit and possibility. (Kegan, 1983, p. 45)”

Subject & Object

If human development is an ongoing process of reality construction as Kegan’s theory asserts, then change is definitely a risky propositon.  It requires us to re-examine our own system of meaning and current perception of reality.  Albertson, (2014) notes: “change is a dangerous enterprise, for it entails balancing a tension between self-preservation and self-transformation..this process of psychological is…’messy’, (p. 76).”  This process of change, seems to entail a deconstruction of previous ways of knowing in order to develop an entirely new system of meaning.  Kegan (1983) utilizes a neo-Piagetian objections relations theory to describe how this change occurs:

“subject-object relations [is] not…[going] out i the “space” between a worldless person and a personless world…Subject-object relationsh emerge out of a lifelong process of development…a succession of qualitative differentiations of the self from the world, (Kegan, 1983, p. 77).”

With this in mind, the SUBJECT can be thought of as a “things…experienced as…simply a part of the self…things that are Subject to you can’t be seen because they are a part of you. Because they can’t be seen, they are taken for granted, taken as true—or not even taken at all. You generally can’t name things that are “Subject,” and you certainly can’t reflect upon them—that would require the ability to stand back and take a look at them. You don’t have something that’s Subject; something that’s Subject has you. Kegan (1994) describes Subject as ‘those elements of our knowing or organizing that we are identified with, tied to, fused with or embedded in’ (p. 32). (”  In contrast, OBJECTS include anything or anyone we encounter in the world on a daily basis.  “Things that are Object in our lives are ‘those elements of our knowing or organizing that we can reflect on, handle, look at, be responsible for, relate to each other, take control of, internalize, assimilate, or otherwise operate upon’ (Kegan, 1994, p. 32). (”

Stages of Social Maturity

In his NCE review CD’s, Rosenthal, (2005) describes Kegan’s constructive-developmental theory as a theory of social maturity. “More complex appreciations of the social world evolve into existence as a person becomes able to appreciate stuf abstractly that they used to appreciate only in concrete forms…as babies grow into adults, they develop progressively more objective and accurate apprecations of the social world….they do this by progressing throughf five…periods…(incorportive, impulsive, imperial, impersonal, institutional, interindividual), (Rosenthal, 2005)”

“If you want to understand another person in some fundamental way you must know where the person is in his or her evolution….a lifelong process….[this is because] the state of a person’s revolution defines the underlying logic of [their] meanings…what the experience means to him or her….what is the subject-object relationship the person has become in the world.  (Kegan, 1983, p. 113-114).”

Incorporative Stage (infancy – two years)

R/T Piaget’s Sensiorimotor Stage

R/T Maslow’s Physiological Survival Orientation


  1. FOCUS – the child is focused in sensorimotor information and reflexive action (i.e. sucking, etc).  No sense of self exists.
  2. CULTURE OF EMBEDDEDNESS – Primary Caretakers
  3. FUNCTION ONE “Holding on” – Maintaining close presence with caregiver for comfort & protection.
  4. FUNCTION TWO “Letting Go” –  Do not meet every need for child encouraging independence.
  5. FUNCTION THREE “Continuity” – Permit self to become a bigger part of family culture, allowing prolonged separation
  6. TRANSITIONAL OBJECTS – blankie & teddie, representing nurturing caretaker.

Impulsive Stage (5-7 years)

R/T Piaget’s Preoperational Stage

R/T Kohlberg’s Punishment & Obedience Orientation

R/T Maslow’s Physiological Satisfaction Orientation

R/T Erikson’s Initiative Vs. Guilt Stage


  1. FOCUS – the child focuses on perception and impulse. Objects begin to have meaning for the child
  2. CULTURE OF EMBEDDEDNESS – The immediate family.
  3. FUNCTION ONE “Holding on” – “acknowledges and cultures exercises of family, intense attachments & rivalries, (Kegan, 1983, p. 118).
  4. FUNCTION TWO “Letting Go” – Holding child responsible for feelings and behaviors ,promoting greater self-sufficiency.
  5. FUNCTION THREE “Continuity” – Permits child to be part of bigger culture outside family (i.e. school peers)
  6. TRANSITIONAL OBJECTS – imaginary friends

Imperial Stage (Adolescence)

R/T Piaget’s Concrete Stage

R/T Kohlberg’s Instrumental Orientation

R/T Maslow’s Safety Orientation

R/T Erikson’s Industry vs. Inferiority Stage


  1. FOCUS – Period of self-centeredness in which children act on an emerging sense of self as little more than a set of needs.
  2. CULTURE OF EMBEDDEDNESS – One’s immediate disposition of needs, wants, and desires.
  3. FUNCTION ONE “Holding on” – Exercises display of “self-sufficiency, competency, and role differentiation, (Kegan, 1983, p. 119).”
  4. FUNCTION TWO “Letting Go” – Attempts taken to contextualize one’s own needs, demanding a give and take in relationships.
  5. FUNCTION THREE “Continuity” – “Family & school…become secondary to relationships of shared internal experiences, (Kegan, 1983, p. 119).”

Impersonal Stage

R/T Piaget’s Early Formal Operational Stage

R/T Kohlberg’s Interpersonal Concordance Orientation

R/T Maslow’s Love & Belonging Orientation

R/T Erikson’s Affiliation vs. Abandonment Stage


  1. FOCUS – The ability to take on others’ perspectives through development of empathy, compassion, understanding.
  2. CULTURE OF EMBEDDEDNESS – Mutuality of interpersonal relationships.
  3. FUNCTION ONE “Holding on” – Works on developing ability to act in collaborative manner and make sacrifices for a relationship
  4. FUNCTION TWO “Letting Go” – Seek association with others, while not becoming fused with them, demands personal responsibility of oneself and others.
  5. FUNCTION THREE “Continuity” – Interpersonal relationships placed in context of one’s “ideology and psychological self-definition, (Kegan, 1983, p. 119).
  6. TRANSITIONAL OBJECTS – Moving away to college, getting new job, etc…

Institutional Stage

R/T Piaget’s Full Formal Operational Stage

R/T Kohlberg’s Societal Orientation

R/T Maslow’s Self-Esteem Orientation

R/T Erikson’s Identity vs. Role Confusion.


  1. FOCUS – The individual is commited to personal values and acts autonously according to this ethical standard.
  2. CULTURE OF EMBEDDEDNESS – Personal autonomy and identity.
  3. FUNCTION ONE “Holding on” – develops independence and acts on personal values
  4. FUNCTION TWO “Letting Go” – Seek association with others, while not becoming fused with them, demands personal responsibility of oneself and others.
  5. FUNCTION THREE “Continuity” – Interpersonal relationships placed in context of one’s “ideology and psychological self-definition, (Kegan, 1983, p. 119).
  6. TRANSITIONAL OBJECTS – Ideological surrender via politics, religion, etc.

Interindividual Stage

R/T Piaget’s Post-Formal (dialectical) (Kegan, 1983).

R/T Kohlberg’s Principled Orientation.

R/T Maslow’s Self-Actualization.


  1. FOCUS – The individual learns to accept others’ values.  Tolerance for diversity develops alongside one’s own autonomous value system.
  2. CULTURE OF EMBEDDEDNESS – culture of intimacy
  3. FUNCTION ONE “Holding on” – “Acknowledges and cultures capacity for interdependence for self-surrender and intmacy, for interdepentent self-definition, (Keegan, 1983, p. 120).”


Albertson, S. (2014). Deconstruction toward reconstruction: A constructive-developmental consideration of deconstructive necessities in transitions. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 19(4), 76-83. (2016). Robert Kegan. Retrieved from:
Kegan, R. (1983). The Evolving Self : Problem and Process in Human Development. Cambridge, US: Harvard University Press. Retrieved from
Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.
Rosenthal, H. (2005). Vital Information and Review Questions for the NCE and State Counseling Exams. Routledge. (n.d.) “A Change Theory: Key Concepts for Understanding the Work of Robert Kegan” Retrieved from:

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