What is Stage 5’s environment?

In Robert Kegan’s book, the fifth stage of cognitive, personal and social evolution is called  the Inter-Individual Stage. I find this to be the least useful of all the names for the stages.

According to his framework, one moves from “being” one’s current environment to “having” it as a tool. At stage 3, one “is” one’s relationships. One “is” a father, a son, a friend and performance in those relationships equals one’s success and sense of self.

In stage 4 one goes from being “embedded” in relationships to “having” relationships. One is now embedded in a “system” that governs those relationships, as well as everything else in life, from ethics to personal goals. One “is” one’s system, such that threats to one’s system (eg religion, political leaning, career title) are threats to the self.

In stage 5 one moves from being “embedded” in a system to “having” systems that can be used as tools. But the new “embedded” state does not have a strong name.

Stage 5 environment name

Kegan talks about how graduation from stage 4 might have no road-map in romantic relationships and it is generally equally rejected in workplace environments. His attempt to describe a marriage in stage 5 terms seems a little handwavey.

He went on to write a book for businesses about how to foster a good “holding einvironment” for employees and another book about the breakdown of support for stage 3-4 in society in general. Stage 5 is treated rarely.

Meaningness.com is currently doing a fascinating series of posts about moving from stage 4 to 5 and they are using the phrase “meta-systemic”. I think this is perfect for the STEM audience. Elsewhere in meaningness the relevant phrases are “complete stance” and “fluid mode”.

The “stances” are Chapman’s own creation (with due nods to all the inspirations for it) and I think the name can appeal to general readers and to people more inclined to social or spiritual vocabulary.

The identity politics social science types will, I think, resonate strongly with “fluid mode”. I blog elsewhere about bisexual politics and “fluid” is one of the common labels used as an alternative to “bisexual”.

All of these names are good. All are better than straining to make every stage begin with an “I” like Kegan does and therefore land on “inter-individual”. I think it is better if also interchanged freely with “inter-institutional”. NB in Latin “inter” means “between” and “among”.

Descriptions of stage 5

None the less all of these names seem to not quite capture the whole. I think this is not least because the whole is very hard to describe. Having said that, let’s take a wander over to David’s summary of stage 5. Go on, you can’t get away with not reading this forever.

The descriptions around systems are very lucid.

A favourite bit:

Fluid epistemology can relate systems to each other, in a way that the systematic mode cannot. Systems become objects of creative play rather than constitutive of self, other, and groups. Fluidity can hold contradictions between systems comfortably while respecting the specific functioning and justification-structure of each.11 All ideologies are relativized as tools rather than truths.

And for ethics:

It takes ethics to be a matter of collaborative practical improvisation that is responsive to specific situations.

The Meaningness project is not entirely Stage 5, or hardly anyone would understand it, but it involves many things that stage 5 also involves. I like Chapman’s phrases : “collaborative”, “playful interaction”, “nebulous yet patterned”.

What are we doing in stage 5?

To get to our embededness, which may be impossible, we need to think about what we are doing in stage 5. My own thoughts:

Having fun with “boundaries” and “rules”.

Deliberately drawing and re-drawing boundaries of objects or the self can be so fun! Deliberately re-aligning perception. Such as the game mentioned in this post of looking at a street from the point of view of an architect, then a homless person, then a street runner, then a geologist. How the landscape changes! How meanings and value shine and fade for each object! Yet the physical street remains the same.

Experimenting by using the rules of one game to play another. Smooshing categories together and pulling them back apart in an elastic, reflective manner.

So many things are suddenly less vitally important, and I mean vital in the sense that it supports or threatens life. Now that whole systems are not contiguous with one’s identity, it is possible to use them for play like never before. Experimental, reflective, elastic, play.

Conjuring with systems

Applying systems in appropriate situations. Trying a new system if one is not working. Formulating problems with greater sympathy and skill.  Using experience, experiment, abstractions to inform system-choosing. (Meaningness will cover all this much better than me).Smooshing systems together to make new ones. This feels like judging (without an ethical or moral dimension).


Now that boundaries are flexible and meanings fluid, collaboration becomes the time-bound and circumstance-bound moment to work within a framework for a while with other people. The framework can pre-exist, or be made up. This can work really well for achieving goals, as well as playing. This can happen with people with whom one previously had nothing in common, or even people one deliberately avoided or hated. When the game you’ve decided upon is complete, the meanings and rules can float away again. It is hard not to call this activity a “dance”, where people and meanings come together at a node point, then move away, over and over. The stage 5 version is so flexible because the node points can be anything, rather than rigid systems decided by majority and encrusted by tradition so as to be trustworthy.

A new name?

Does this leave us with a new name? My words have been: play, elastic, flexible, collaborate, judge, smoosh. I feel I want to say it is an ability to be both vague and distinct, both flexible and rigid. This reminds me of sexuality, how a word meaning both men and women just doesn’t cut it as a description for bisexual people.

In the end I think we will get no better than “fluid” for now, until we see some brave stage 6ers using “fluidity” as a tool for something else, embedded in something new entirely.

Which words are your favourite and why? Do you have any ideas for new words?


5 thoughts on “What is Stage 5’s environment?

  1. David Chapman

    This is great; I’m really glad you are writing about this topic, and with such clarity!

    Some of the points you made resonate with a book called Ritual and its Consequences, which I summarized at https://meaningness.wordpress.com/2015/04/04/ritual-vs-mentalism/ . The book is largely about *playing* with boundaries and rules.

    Somewhat relatedly, it’s been part of my plan for years to write about the nebulosity of the boundaries and roles involved in sex, gender, and romantic and sexual relationships, as aspects of “the complete stance” or “fluidity” or whatever. All of my writing projects, dissimilar as they appear superficially, are about the same thing; there are rough drafts for pages on this in the frameworks of each of them! (As an aspect of “Eating the Shadow” on Buddhism For Vampires, for instance, and as an aspect of “fluidity” on Meaningness, and as an aspect of tantric practice on one of the Buddhist sites.) But, obviously, I have never managed to complete any of those, so I’m very glad you are writing about it!

    Sex and gender are one of the most powerful factors that constitute one’s self. If they are taken-for-granted then one is blind to large aspects of being, and at the mercy of systems one doesn’t understand. So observing, and playing with, both the patterns and nebulosity of one’s own masculinity and/or femininity, and of sexual attraction, seem to be one of the best ways to understand those systems (stage 4) and to find freedom in becoming meta to them (stage 5). Robert Bly writes about this in his Little Book on the Human Shadow, which was a main source for my unfinished “Black Magic” series. Entering the Heart of the Sun and Moon, by Ngakpa Chogyam and Khandro Dechen, about a Vajrayana approach to romance, also has much relevant insight.

  2. nufdriew

    I like ‘dance’ and ‘play’ because the other, also dancing or playing (even if the other is context, or environment), is almost inherent in the word. Dancing and playing easily incorporate vagueness and distinctness, movement/flow and structure.
    Other words (‘fluid’ ‘flexible’) are more or less biased towards a more subjective agency, through or within or around the other. Some (‘smoosh’ ‘complete’) tend more to merging, sameness or Monism.

    1. Jessica Post author

      Love this. I like your idea that ‘play’ and ‘dance’ encompass two things in the same word and also imply bounded and unbounded. Otherwise we end up with pairs of words to convey our meaning and end up with the “both” problem.

  3. Pingback: Existing signs of fluidity | My So-Amazing Life

  4. Pingback: Existing signs of fluidity | My So-Amazing Life

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