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Problems in describing adult cognitive development: philosophical reflections

Adult thinking as development from absolutism to relativistic thinking

The discussion about adult cognitive development in psychology typically refers to Perry’s longitudinal study (1970) in which white male university students were interviewed about their conceptions of knowledge and how it is attained. In the study, the researchers monitored the change in students’ conceptions of knowledge (and ethics) (Perry, 1970). The central result was that while young students had rather unreserved confidence in the truth of what they learned in class, when they matured they came to think that perhaps all that was taught was not true and started to trust their own abilities to critically evaluate the results, theories and models that they learned. On the basis of the findings, Perry proposed nine distinct levels of knowledge formation, and important notions used to describe them include the following: dualism, multiplicity, and commitment to relativism (see also Chapter 3).

These findings have often been taken to support the claim that when the students learned more and got older, they became epistemological relativists. Another formulation is that first the students believed that there is only one truth and later became relativists about the truth. The mature way of thinking that the students allegedly reached is also often described as being dialectical. The term has various uses in the philosophical tradition, but in the context of developmental psychology it means the students’ ability to create a synthesis of contradictory theses and antitheses, which also amounts to the ability to create a stable identity in the midst of multiple perspectives and views. Thus, it is claimed that, in the final phase, contradictions are overcome and mature adults use what is called “dialectical logic” in the context (e.g., Basseches, 1984).

Perry’s research is a study within the developmental psychological branch of epistemology which, despite the similarity of its name, is distinct from philosophical epistemology. Other models similar to Perry’s have also been proposed, and some general characteristics of them synthesised (e.g., Kramer, 1983) (see Chapter 3 and 4 on different models). Kramer’s formulations bear a terminological resemblance to descriptions of relativism in philosophical epistemology and, as mentioned, the term, “dialectic” that is often used in the psychological studies has many technical uses in philosophy. Therefore, it is necessary to analyse what exactly is meant by the notions used in the discussion.

In the following, we will first focus on the concept of relativism as it is formulated in Kramer’s analysis. It will be argued that a notion of relativism that resembles philosophical epistemological relativism is too vague to capture the core of the studied phenomenon, adult cognitive development. In section 2.3, a similar argument is made about logical contradiction as it appears in the descriptions of dialectical thinking in developmental psychology. In section 2.5, we argue that a philosophically more accurate description with more clearly defined terms can be given in tenus of integration. As a whole, section 2 concentrates on arguing why a philosophical analysis of the central notions of psychological studies in the cognitive development of adults is vital for understanding the nature of this debated phenomenon.7

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