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Understanding the Self Through the Five Orders of Consciousness

This article was based on the video, “Kegan’s 5 Orders of Consciousness,” by Steve Thomason


Thketch of Kegan’s 5 Orders


Lines of Development

In his book, In Over Our Heads, Robert Kegan talks about five orders of consciousness in terms of human development. In each of these five orders, Kegan references three different lines of development. The first is the cognitive line which is how we process things. The second line of development represents the interpersonal lines.  The third line is the intrapersonal line, and this is how we deal with our self.


First Order of Consciousness

The first order of consciousness happens in children between 2 years old and 6 years old. When you are a small child, there is really no separation between imagination and reality. In the first order of consciousness, there are just perceptions. We are not distinguishing things, we are just perceiving them. We don’t distinguish our self as a self. We have social perceptions where we know there are people around us but they blur with our fantasy. At the first order of consciousness, everything is built around impulses.


Five Orders of Consciousness 1


Second Order of Consciousness

Each order of consciousness folds around the others, so the first order of consciousness is inside the mind of the character. Then there is a second character that is separate from the first. The subject is now looking at the object, but the object has within it the first order of consciousness. This is the second order of consciousness, where the subject is able to distinguish durable categories. We have concrete cognition, we have a point of view in the interpersonal, and we have enduring dispositions, needs, and preferences within our self. This second order of consciousness happens between the ages of 6 and 10. It’s an important phase where kids can repeat facts, but the world is very concrete.


Five Orders of Consciousness 2


Third Order of Consciousness

We now have the second order which has the first order in it and then it goes into the mind of the new character which is getting bigger. The subject is now in adolescence, and the other object is a female subject. There is now a distinction between male and female. The subject and object are observing and understanding each other.  They can communicate with one another and deal in the realm of abstraction. In the third order of consciousness, we have mutuality and interpersonalism. We have inner states, subjectivity, and self-consciousness. The third level of consciousness is cross-categorical and trans-categorical. In the third level, people see themselves in a role in society, but society itself is not obvious to the subject.

Five Orders of Consciousness 3

Fourth Order of Consciousness

In the fourth order of consciousness, we start realising that our own society is just a society among other societies and there are spaces between these societies. The fourth order character is getting a little older; this is a middle-aged person. Notice that this person is the subject and is outside the objects that are observing. This is modernism which is the idea that there is such a thing as objective knowing where we can see abstract systems and understand institution and relationship regulating forms with an awareness of our self. It’s about self-authorship, self-regulation, and self-formation.  In order for adults to survive in the modern era, they have to develop fourth order consciousness to see systems as objects outside of themselves and how they fit together.


Five Orders of Consciousness 4


Fifth Order of Consciousness

Today, in post-modernism, we are faced with a new challenge. People are living longer, and there is wisdom that comes with age. There is a realisation that the modern era of the subject being an objective observer is false. In the fifth order of consciousness that only comes with maturity, we start seeing that there is an interconnectedness between subject-object and subject-subject. It is no longer that one person is a complete autonomous self and they choose to come into a relationship with one another. What fifth order starts to see that it is only in the relationship between the subjects that the true fullness of the subject comes into being. The subjects become connected in a way that goes beyond the detached observation of the other. By their interconnection with each other, they bring out a difference in each other, and they become more of who they are through their connection.  At the same time, there is a connection between systems. All of reality is shaped by these relationships. The fifth order of consciousness is a dialectical cognition with inter-institutional relationships between forms and a transformational interpenetration of selves.


Five Orders of Consciousness 5


Putting It All Together

To help us understand how these orders work, Kegan uses a metaphor from geometry. First, you have a single point representing the first order. Then you have a line made up of several points to represent the second order. The third order is a plane which is made up of lines. Several planes make up a three-dimensional space called a cube, which is representing the fourth order of consciousness. The fifth order is a tesseract which goes beyond three dimensions to a place where objects are interwoven and penetrating into each other.


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