Summary of Kegan Stage 5 Principles

In order to compile my list of possible fluid mode institutions, I relied on a series of distilled principles about what Kegan Stage 5 is, or does. I have distilled this from my own reading, from sources I found particularly useful to me. At the bottom I will link to other bloggers who have found things that seem to be in the same space but from sources that resonate with them. If academic things turn you off, try those links instead for a different flavour of instruction.


My sources were The Evolving Self by Robert Kegan, and a summary of it here. A further body of research was carried out by Kegan’s student,Susanne R. Cook-Greuter, and the paper of the research done by her can be found here.

I also relied on Meaningness’ comments about resolving the nihilism of stage 4.5, which they call the complete stance and fluid mode. Meaningness is inspired by several strands of philosophy and Buddhism as well as personal development.

Summary Principles

Accepting contradictions

Stage 5 people see that conflict between structures is inevitable, but unthreatening, since each structure has its own set of founding axioms, which may directly contradict another structure’s set of founding axioms. This contradiction is obvious but untroubling because the stage 5 person no longer identifies their own self with their one true structure.

This becomes a general awareness that contradiction or lack of internal coherence in anything is fine, even interesting and funny.


Structures As Object

In stage 5, systematic structures, including personal structures such as ethical systems (eg consequentialism) have moved from subject to object. Your personal structures used to be who you are, now they are something you have. In Stage 5, a person can theoretically pick up and put down structures with more ease. For example Alice might say “the Republicans have the best political foundations to their structure to work out a good response for this issue” or Bob might say “often,  someone’s intentions are important in ethics, but consequentialism is the best ethical system to use here because the outcome is what really mattered in this case”.

There is less urgency about whether one structure is true and another false, rather they are simply more or less useful. As well as picking and choosing, a stage 5 person can use several systems at the same time.

As an example of this, judges in the criminal justice system can take into account many factors when it comes to sentencing. They use many systems of ethics e.g. deontology (did you break the rules), consequentialism (were victims seriously hurt, or was it a victimless crime) and virtue ethics (did you mean to do it?) Even though virtue ethics seems like a weak system, one that children appeal to (I didn’t mean to), it is embedded in criminal justice in the form of murder vs manslaughter. Other circumstances get included too, such as pleading guilty or not guilty, attempts at reparation to the victims before the case came to trial and many other things. In this way multiple systems are used by them to deliver a sentence, which can have a huge range: from ‘time served’ to ‘life in prison’.

On top of all this system juggling, a stage 5 person can also take a few rules from one system, a few principles from another and build their own systems.

Rejecting Values

Stage 5 persons build new structures along different lines than already-existing ones. A Stage 4 structure is often built along systems of values or coherent principles, and one must believe and accept the entire structure and all its parts as completely true.

In stage 5, this is not necessary. Structures are often built for a specific purpose and so are often aligned by the goal, rather than the values of the founder of the structure. A stage 5 structure doesn’t care if there are differing values among the participants, it doesn’t require true belief in every part of the structure, it doesn’t require itself to always be rational (ie have reasons for its setup), it doesn’t require all of its internal parts to be without conflict or contradiction and it doesn’t require true belief. It only needs to be a useful framework for getting the job done. If it’s not, it can be tweaked or canned.

Rejecting Eternalism

A stage 5 person no longer has the need for one structure, system, or set of values to explain everything, or even everything inside its own remit. Structures are useful, but will never be complete.

When making a structure, stage 5 knows that it will only be useful under certain circumstances, for a limited period of time. So dissolving the structure, or abandoning its use is an obvious part of the process that causes little pain.

Building a structure from parts of other structures, using it happily for a while and then dissolving it again is structure-foo.

Structure-foo example

A made up example: Alice holds an office meeting and creates the agenda items by using the 12 steps from the 12 step program, however decides to only use six of the twelve steps. She re-writes the steps to sound/be more in line with principles found in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. Halfway through the meeting someone points out that the real issue lies outside of the 6 steps on the agenda, so she abandons it in favour of free-form discussion of the topic. In the next meeting, she uses the best 4 steps from the previous meeting and has a chairperson for the discussion.

A stage 5 societal institution might show signs of using more than one (apparently contradictory) structure, it might mix structures together, its structures are not dependent on aligning people with similar values, rather they are goal oriented. These structures are not taken too seriously and are eventually abandoned entirely over time.

Context is King

When struggling with the realisation that all systems are in some sense equal, or at least equally arbitrary, many people get stuck in the trap of thinking that nothing means anything and that it is impossible to make moral (or any) judgements.

Meaningness provides the answer by pointing out that the context can always point the way to an answer. Abstract principles are never complete, but when applied to the specific context, with all its rich detail, a “more right” answer can pretty much always be found.

Should you trust a doctor’s advice more than your friend? A doctor has trained in a system, while your friend has trained in another. If systems are arbitrary, neither of them is able to be trusted more or less than the other. But if the context is about a strong pain in your foot, then it’s pretty obvious that you would trust the doctor. But if it’s an emotional pain in your marriage, the friend is better. We make these judgements all the time quite easily.

Luckily, life is always embedded in context. It can never not be embedded in it. So it’s not very troubling that there is no ‘definitive’ answer to an abstract thought-problem because any time something like it comes up, there will be plenty of circumstance with which to judge what it is best to do.

I personally find this “everything-is-always-embedded-in-context” thing very comforting. It somehow makes the world feel whole and complete, and it’s now hard for me to believe that I used to think that things could be so separated.

More merging and other stage 3 stuff


In Kegan’s framework, the stages represent changes to the formulation of boundaries between self and the world. The stages alternate between harder boundaries between the self and other, and then softer/absent boundaries between self and other.  In stage 3 the self is dissolved in the shared puddle of a group or a partner while Stage 4 is a hardening of boundaries around the individual, a creation of a contained self that can subordinate and arbitrate between personal relationships. Stage 5 represents a swing back to more diffuse boundaries again, but with all the knowledge of the previous stages.

A stage 5 person is more open again to new structures or ideas because old ones are no longer seen as absolute. A stage 5 person holds opinions or structures less tightly and fervently than before. Disagreement between two viewpoints now feels engaging or interesting rather than threatening.

Formerly denied impulses in stage 3 can be reincorporated into stage 5, such as comfort with losing control, temporarily merging with others, such as in a crowd, or suspending the sense of self. A stage 5 person can choose whether to be drawn in to a merge, or whether to remain separate, which is an advance on stage 3, who just became merged as a permanent way of being.

A stage 5 societal institution might choose to temporarily merge with another one, or allow an unprecedented softening of boundaries between itself and the world.

Other stage 3 stuff

To continue along the line of re-incorporating stage 3 things, a stage 5 person can enjoy and even find new value in ‘merging’ activities that were rejected in stage 4. My interpretation of these is up for debate but I include in this category things like ritual, magic, crowd activities, tribal tubthumping, ecstatic experience.

The benefits of these activities seem obvious, such as emotional release and altered brain states. While the stage 4 instinct is to reject these practices as irrational or nonsensical, a stage 5 person no longer has these qualms. A stage 5 person doesn’t mind if magic or ritual is inconsistent or irrational, to expect them to be so is missing the point. A stage 5 person can also enjoy the ritual because they know they don’t have to be a die-hard True Believer to participate. They also know, though that the more they suspend their disbelief, the more effective the activity will be. Again, the person now has a choice between how merged or how boundaried they want to be.

Rejected structures

A stage 5 person can now examine all of the previously rejected stage 4 structures. For example, a person who accepted Western medicine might have necessarily rejected homeopathy or eastern ‘whole person’ approaches to medicine. In stage 5 these structures become open again for scrutiny and use.

Lots of funny

Re-appreciating rejected structures from stage 4 and practices from stage 3, plus allowing merging of things and ideas, allowing contradictions and being unbothered by irrational things leads to quite a few novel thoughts and activities.

Quite a lot of these new thoughts and activities are funny. Sometimes it’s wistful, sometimes gently amusing, sometimes belly laugh absurd. The knots other people get tied into are also funny.  Stage 5 just seems to involve a lot of finding things funny.


Here is the list of bullet points again:

• Contradiction and incoherence are fun, and funny.
• use of multiple structures at once
• structural alignment with goals, not values
• abandoning eternalism
• abandoning need for coherence or rationalism
• light-hearted structure-foo
• contextual judgements
• softer boundaries, able to merge or separate
• re-appreciate ritual, merging and magic
• re-evaluate previously rejected structures
• finding lots of things funny


Highly recommend this article for a less dry explanation of the Kegan stages:

Natali Morad ‘How To Be An Adult’


2 responses to “Summary of Kegan Stage 5 Principles”

  1. Kaj Sotala says:

    Nice post!

    This bit made me wonder about something:

    > To continue along the line of re-incorporating stage 3 things, a stage 5 person can enjoy and even find new value in ‘merging’ activities that were rejected in stage 4. My interpretation of these is up for debate but I include in this category things like ritual, magic, crowd activities, tribal tubthumping, ecstatic experience.

    > The benefits of these activities seem obvious, such as emotional release and altered brain states. While the stage 4 instinct is to reject these practices as irrational or nonsensical, a stage 5 person no longer has these qualms.

    This seems to assume that the system which the Stage 4 person has adopted is some kind of materialist/reductionist/sciencey one which rejects mysticism as irrational, but does the S4 system need to be of such a nature? Couldn’t the opposite happen as well – someone runs across a very well-developed mystical system, adopts it during their S4 phase, and then when they make the transition to S5, learns to see the value in materialist/reductionist/sciencey thinking again? In that case, they would never have abandoned stuff like ritual etc. in the first place.

    • Jessica says:

      Thanks for the comments Kaj! I have covered a very large topic in just two short paragraphs here and while I might have conflated a few different things, I think what I’ve written stands up to scrutiny.

      This section is focussed on stage 3 merging of boundaries more than systems, which I treat earlier, so I’m implying that it is the stage 3 version of the things on the list that I’m talking about.

      It might be useful to note that I am using the term ‘irrational’ in the same way that David C and Kegan use it to mean simply ‘without reason’. I am not using it in the sense of philosophical Rationality, rejecting something because it does not conform to Materialist Logic. Hopefully that distinction will help.

      When I use ‘irrational’ I’m thinking of things like supporting a football team. There is no systemic reason to support one team over another. Rather you support the team of your local area, or the team your father supported and his father before him, it is an unthinking loyalty, irrational in that to ask for a reason why you support that team makes no sense, because it is a stage 3 loyalty and the only answer can be ‘because I am loyal to my tribe’. I think most stadium and large-group activities are like this. From music festivals, to football, to political rallies, to Mega Churches.

      The two things on the list that are included in your objection appear to be magic and ritual, usually associated with religion and perceived as against ‘science’. Well I think religion is interesting because it very successfully spans both stage 3 and stage 4 (and here we might be causing more confusion than clarity by using the stages). At any rate there is a distinction between engaging in magic and ritual in a stage 3 way, again irrational in the sense that there is no system of justifications behind it, it is more to do with community loyalty, and engaging in a stage 4 way where there is a system of reasons for the *why* one does a *specific* set of rituals. In that case a stage 4 person rejects *all the other kinds of ritual* and in stage 5 will become more happy with the idea that any ritual, from any religious or magical system is in some way valid. That, for me, was covered when I mentioned re-evaluating rejected systems.

      What I’m trying to talk about here is more of a mindless, choiceless merging with others in a community.

      So yes I think its perfectly possible for someone to learn S4 mystical systems, and perhaps re-evaluate sciencey ones later, and my own bias here has meant I haven’t given any ‘religious’ or ‘mystical’ examples when talking about systems, but that’s not really what I’m talking about here.