From “Developmental Theory” to a Dialogical and Dialectical Epistemology

By Otto Laske – In this text, I focus on the central relevance of interviewing skills for being able to lead a structured developmental dialog in the sense of the Constructive Developmental Framework (CDF), whether social-emotional or cognitive. I want to make it clear that the certification as a Master Developmental Consultant/Coach at the Interdevelopmental Institute (IDM) is not a certification in practicing “developmental theory”, but rather an independent discipline derived from it, namely, a dialogical and dialectical epistemology. Developmental theory per se is taught at IDM only in applied courses which serve as a basis for learning the CDF epistemology, and in this sense are mere teasers for learning to think and listen developmentally, dialogically, and dialectically. What matters is not the theory, but its applications in work with human resources (“human capital”). This has always been the focus of IDM teaching.

Abbreviations: CDF = Constructive Developmental Framework (Laske); DCR = Dialectical Critical Realism (Bhaskar); DSF = Dialectical Schema Framework (Basseches); DTF = Dialectical Thought Form Framework (Laske); IDM = Interdevelopmental Institute (Laske).


When I started writing my two books on Measuring Hidden Dimensions in 2005, it was clear to me that the most progressive part of Kegan’s and Basseches’ theories is found in the empirical interviewing methodology they grounded their theories in (and have remained entirely silent about ever since). Rather than engaging primarily with the abstract concepts these theorists put forward, what interested me primarily was how through an interviewing dialog evidence could be gathered about individuals’ and groups’ present way of meaning and sense making. This is because understanding individuals’ frame of reference (in NLP the “map”) is the crucial thing in human resources work. What I saw as the gold of developmental theory, namely the interviewing required to obtain developmental evidence by listening to individuals, laid buried until CDF came into being in the year 2000, and still remains buried for the majority of developmental practitioners after 15 years. This is because of the huge amounts of “theory” and ideology that have been heaped upon especially Kegan’s conceptual interpretations of interview-based empirical findings, without any clear reference to the empirical basis of his insights (even in his own later work). My prior training equipped me for focussing on interviewing in a unique way. My reading of both theorists (who were my teachers) derived from several different sources: being a composer 2 and musician; my schooling in dialectical philosophy in the 1960’s and in psychological protocol analysis (H. Simon) in the 1970’s, the organizational interviewing I practiced as member of a big US consulting firm (ADL) in the 1980’s, as well as my training as a clinical psychologist (Boston Medical Center) in the 1990’s. As a result of my training in these various modes of dialog with clients and patients, in my two books I moved, I would say today, from developmental theory to a new kind of epistemology (theory of knowledge), one that is based on dialog and thus has the potential of becoming a broader social practice, in contrast to argument-based dialectical epistemologies such as Adorno’s and Bhaskar’s which put themselves at risk of remaining elitist. In this short paper, I want to highlight some of the outstanding features of this transition from developmental theory to dialogical epistemology that occurred in CDF. Eventually, this transition allowed me to bring together the main tenets of the Kohlberg and the Frankfurt Schools, something nobody had either consciously attempted, or stumbled upon, before.


While others read especially Kegan’s, but also Basseches’, work for the sake of constructing either abstract or applied theories of adult development or bolster their notions of “human nature”, I was most impressed by the qualitative research on individuals they had done. They had wanted to explain how adult consciousness develops over the life span, knowing that knowledge about this development could be of momentous importance for working with people in a practical and emancipatory way. Through their empirical work on what I call social-emotional and cognitive development, respectively, they had indirectly also provided key insights into why it is that adult development has a huge impact on how people deliver work in the sense of E. Jaques. All three researchers shed much light on the vital issue of frame of reference as something that determines not only how one lives, but also how one delivers work. Their lessons still have not been understood in organizations in which people are still talking about “competences” as if they were not merely the tip of the iceberg of human work capability. In short, I found myself aiming for a new theory of work that would go beyond Marx, who never thought about the internal workplace from which work is delivered (Laske, 2009).


In focusing on interviewing and the scoring of recorded interviews (which I always saw as inseparable), I implicitly took to heart what is conveyed in the quote below by my teacher Adorno: 3 Social analysis can learn incomparably more from individual experience than Hegel conceded, while conversely the large historical categories, after all that has meanwhile been perpetrated with their help, are no longer above suspicion of fraud. …The individual has gained as much in richness, differentiation, and vigour as, on the other hand, the socialization of society has enfeebled and undermined him.In the period of his decay, the individual’s experience of himself and what he encounters contributes once more to knowledge, which he had merely obscured as long as he continued unshaken to construe himself positively as the dominant category. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia In this quote he basically says that rather than be guided by abstract concepts about development (such as “stages” and “phases”), one can gain deeper insight by delving into the frames of mind of individuals, as he himself did in “Authoritiarian Personality” (1950). Given my psychological training, I thought that the main issue in teaching CDF-interviewing as a dialog method would lie in making clear the separation between the focus on “how am I doing” (a psychological issue) and either “what should I do and for whom?” (the social-emotional issue) or “what can I know about my options in the world?” (the cognitive one). This triad of questions for me defines the mental space from within which individuals deliver work and lead their life, without ever quite knowing how to separate them in order to reach full self insight.


Serendipitously, I got to know Bhaskar’s work just at the right time, when I was in the midst of writing volume 1 of Measuring Hidden Dimensions and preparing for volume 2. Reading his “Dialectic: The Pulse of Freedom” (1993) challenged me to reflect on the DTF-dialectic I had been teaching, but also to reflect on its relationship to my teacher Adorno’s work. Although a declared enemy of ontology which he accused of sealing the oppressive status quo of capitalist society, Adorno had viewed social reality, as well as the human mind, as intrinsically dialectical. He demonstrated that view in the analysis of musical works, but also through philosophical text analysis in both of which he was a master. I noticed right away that Bhaskar’s MELD, the four moments of dialectic, were not only a step beyond Hegel and Adorno, but also equivalent to Basseches’ empirically derived and validated four classes of thought forms, and that Bhaskar’s ontology was only feebly developmental and epistemological, mainly in his theory of eras of cognition and types of epistemic fallacies. His main issue was to overcome nominalistic post-modernism which is a flat denial of any kind of ontologically real world, and do so for the sake of human freedom. In this endeavor, 4 epistemology – where the freedom was to be experienced — had only minimal chances to revolutionize itself. I began to see that, from Bhaskar’s vantage point, the CDF-based cognitive interviewer was centrally dealing with “epistemic fallacies” and “category errors” committed in society, and that the interviewer’s central task was therefore to “retroduce” these errors, that is, show them to be fallacies by interpreting arguments found in texts. Bhaskar was very aware of the stark consequences for society of these errors, which he saw as supporting oppression. As I did in CDF, he saw that category errors people make in society derive from their strictly logical thinking (analytical reasoning). These errors lead to gross distortions of the reality of the world people are dealing with in their work and life.


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Author: Otto Laske

I am the founder and director of IDM, the Interdevelopmental Institute. My background is in philosophy, psychology, consulting, and coaching based on developmental theory to which I have mightily contributed myself. See the blogs at