Clare Graves - existence theory

Clare Graves developed a comprehensive epistemology model of human development rooted in general system’s theory; his objective was to understand how people think. He created an epistemological theory that he hoped would reconcile the various approaches to human nature and questions about psychological maturity as well as practical applications for it. His theory is based on a wave-like moving picture with many uncertainties. How to develop a phenomenological approach to explore and explain human nature as it is and could be, based on empirical dates to tie it to several epistemological paradigms? Graves found remarkable patterns by bringing compartmentalized and competing disciplines together within an integrative systems frame. An important reason reconstructing his model on a system dynamic manner.

Graves gathered conceptions of the mature personality and collected empirical data by using batteries of psychological tests. Both became the basis for a theory that he called ‘the emergent cyclical levels of existence theory’. Graves theorized that in response to the interaction of external conditions with internal neuronal systems, humans develop new bio-psycho-social coping systems and new mind capacities to solve existential problems. He supposed that tangible, emergent, self-assembling dynamic neuronal systems evolved in the human brain in response to evolving existential and social problems. Consequently man’s nature is not a set thing, on the contrary it is ever emergent, not a closed but an open system. His unique approach of this open-endedness you can find later in the theory of the auto-poietic (self-organizing/self-creating) systems of Maturana and Varela.

The inclusion of the bio-, psycho-, mental and social systems as vital co-elements needs a system dynamic approach who wanted to develop an integral point of view. A system dynamic approach bridges multiple knowledge models and disciplines to pull many ways of knowing together. How to model Graves´ observations that the emergence within humans of new bio-psycho-mental systems in response to the congruent interplay of external life conditions with internal neurobiological facilities follows a hierarchy in several dimensions?

A hierarchy of memes without guarantees as to time lines or even direction, both progression and regression are possibilities in this model. Every meme creates a level of bio-psycho-mental and social existence with a unique worldview and valuing system. No meme is better or worse than the other. Each level of existence is a hidden, complex interaction between nature and nurture in a both/and proposition, no more either/or. So we chose the diagram (space related) and not the dynagram (time related) to modulate the eight dimensions of Graves´model. The positions in a diagram allows thinking about the important differentiated aspects of those memes. A meme is an element of a system of behaviour that may be considered to be passed from one individual, or whole, to another by no genetic means. As the building blocks of a culture, memes influence every aspect of human bio-psycho-mental and social behaviour. Each meme is a holon and is encapsulated within each subsequently emerging level.

Each level in the hierarchy of memes alternates as the human is either trying to make the environment adapt to the self, or the human is adapting the self to the existential conditions. Graves called these ‘express self’ and ‘deny self’ systems and the swing between them is the cyclic and periodic aspect of his theory. He saw this process of stable memes interspersed with change intervals as never ending, up to the limits of the brain of Homo sapiens. Do not confuse Graves’s vertical emergent stages with personality types and traits which can be present at any stage or level. He describes not types of people but ways of thinking about a thing. Graves saw the mature human being as an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiralling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behaviour systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change.

Graves’s model of value systems is one of the cornerstones of our work about conflicting values between persons within organizations. For example we need to be aware that different parts of an organisation are operating out of different memes. His model shows different patterns, determining the functioning of persons and organizations, to elucidate several motives lying behind. His model outlines 8 emergent stages or memes. Each meme has its own unique characteristics; as a human being you have naturally access to it and a personal deal with the primary preferences regarding motives.

In the following you can find a brief description of the eight human developmental memes (levels or stages) that have been defined so far. You will see some characteristics about the memes in personal growth, organizational development, cultural and political change. No meme should be seen better as or worse than any other meme, at most you can only say that one form of being is more or less congruent (functional) with the reality of that meme. Mostly people operate from the meme where they expect the best solutions for existential problems. People only move from one level to another if they cease to get answers to life’s problems at that existing level. A crisis with tension and stress may cause people to regress to an earlier meme. Each meme incorporates and enfolds the characteristics of that meme and it is very difficult to see and appreciate the values in any level beyond the one you are currently at. However Graves suggest that for the overall welfare of total man’s existence in the world it is better to promote the progress of human development to more sophisticated memes.

Don Beck and Chris Cowan introduce for each meme a colour, but these colours have no significance, so we do not use them in the diagram. Furthermore the diagram is based on the elements with their specific dynamics and related colours: Fire / autonomous discentric / red; air / discentric heteronomous / yellow; water / heteronomous concentric / blue; earth / concentric autonomous / green (ref. Max Lüscher: „The 4-Color Person"). How these elements are compatible with the memes of Graves´ model is the subject of system dynamic research. First of all we try to reconstruct the model of Graves, because it is not easy to deduce the key notions out of his theory. Apart from that, there are so many attempts by so many adopters with so many different concepts and images, that a reconstruction in a system dynamic model is hardly possible. What you see above is a hypothetical attempt of the main notions, trying to bring the related notions in a possible logical class. We distillate, for so far four classes, each with 8 terms: One with the characteristics, one with the nature of existence, one with the motives and one with the structures.

It is possible to explain the 32 terms of this diagram, but we think it is more creative when the reader if necessary start to explore on Google what they mean. It is also possible to study the theory of Clare Graves himself or other authors who wanted to practise it in concrete organisations or situations. First of all you can begin to realize an attempt to understand what could be the uniqueness of what Graves wanted to show us. We wish you a pleasant voyage with inspirational discoveries.