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Postformal and relativistic-dialectical thinking in adulthood

We can distinguish between three major lines of research into adult cognitive development. So-called derivative models originate from Perry’s (1999) model and focus on the study of epistemological assumptions; they do not link their theorisation to formal thinking as such (see Chapters 3 and 4; Moshman, 2013). Another school has evolved around context-free complexity models, which are designed as to be applicable to any domain. The third trend, which emerged in the 1980s and is perhaps most significantly present in this chapter as well, assumes a new stage called postfor-nial or relativistic-dialectical or dialectical thinking.

Regarding the second tradition, some scholars, like Kurt Fischer (Wozniak & Fischer, 1993) and Michael Commons (Commons & Kjorlien, 2016), have created context-free and domain-independent constructs (as alternatives to Piaget). These models are described here only briefly. A unifying principle in the respective models by Commons and Fischer is that development to higher levels is indicated by increasing complexity of tasks and performance in them. The Mathematical model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC) presented by Michael Commons is gaining ground in scientific research. Currently there are altogether 15, even 16, different stages in this model. It is a model where understanding of task complexity is used to define the individual developmental stage of the problem-solver (Commons & Kjorlien, 2016). Kurt Fischer’s Dynamic Skill Theory (DST), in turn, assesses the increasing complexity of skills (Wozniak & Fischer, 1993). The model starts from the organisation of action towards higher stages, up to stage 13. Both models are intended to serve as a comprehensive model which could be used to define any action meeting certain criteria of a developmental stage. In lower stages, a child is only capable of coordinating certain factors, but in the more developed stages it is possible to connect different structures that already have internally linked components. Both models for complex actions are hierarchical: each developmental stage requires and Is always built on top of the previous one.

As mentioned, the third school or trend is the most important one in our context. Despite the fact that empirical results on the mastery of formal thinking did not support Piaget’s original idea of this being a universal stage attainable to everybody, researchers began to speculate whether there could be an entirely new developmental stage after it. Most of these scholars detached themselves from the research on pure causal thinking, and included notions of relativism and evaluative cognitive components in their models. Most importantly, they also included other cognitive factors into their models. Thus, cognitive development is integrated into the development of other contexts. Therefore, thinking cannot be studied distinct from other processes and domains, such as those comprising emotion (Labouvie-Vief 2015), autonomy of self (Edelstein & Noam, 1982), socio-cultural (Kincheloe & Steinberg, 1993), system theory (Sinnott, 1998), or even religious and spiritual elements or higher states of consciousness (e.g., Alexander & Langer, 1990; Kamp-pinen & Jakonen, 2015; Perttula & Kallio, 1996; Wilber, 2001). By the same token, another important field of study deals with dialectical thinking, understood as the ability to reconcile contradictory viewpoints to reach a synthesis (Basseches, 1984).

Conceptually, the presented models of postformai or relativistic-dialectical thinking include similar characteristics as noted by various scholars (Gurba, 2005; Kallio, 1998; Kramer, 1983; Marchand, 2001). Postformai thinking Is supposed to overcome the limitations of formal logic with multiple logics, and widen the boundaries of thinking to a more sophisticated and nuanced direction. Marchand (2001) distinguishes between “hard logic” vs. “flexible logic”, the first referring to dualistic true/false logic, and the latter to subjective, open, arbitrary, and contextual logic. Thus, flexible logic includes affective, systemic, and holistic understanding, instead of just linear-causal knowledge. For example, Labouvie-Vief (2015) traces her model back to Carl Jung (1991) and his idea of the integration of rational vs. irrational spheres of psyche, as in the individuation process in adulthood.

According to Kramer (1983), these models follow more or less the progression from absolutism to relativism and dialectical thinking (even if the models have more than three stages or levels). The first of these is considered a stage of development taking place in youth, and the latter ones in adulthood. The lowest level, absolutists thinking is understood as parallel to formal thinking. Thus, absolutistic thinking ends up with true-untrue statements in closed systems. In contrast, the following notions about knowledge are typical of relativistic-dialectical thinking: realising the non-absolute nature of knowledge (relativism); accepting that there are contradictions in knowledge; and integrating contradiction into a totality (dialectical thinking). However, mature thinkers also recognise that any resolution or established conception will be challenged by new data, results, and theoretical analyses; i.e., knowing is an open and constant process (Kramer, 1983). Thinking becomes thus flexible, complex, contextualised, and integrated in adulthood. The diverse, relative reality calls for an autonomous pluralistic synthesis (Kallio, 2001).

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