The Genetic Epistemologist  Volume 29, Number 3


Some Reflections On PostFormal Thought 


Helena Marchand[1]


Thirty years after the most important conceptualizations of postformal thought, there still remain various questions about the nature of such thought. The aims of this article are (1) to succinctly describe the emergence of these conceptualizations and the most important characteristics of this level of thought, (2) to put forth some considerations regarding these characteristics and (3) to analyze whether it is now possible to speak of a fifth stage of development, beyond formal operations.


Of all the phases of the life cycle, adult life is the longest and, until very recently, the most unknown. For decades the terms human development and psychological development were seen as related to childhood and adolescence, that is, to the first twenty years of life. Traditionally experts in developmental psychology analyzed the growth of the child and of the adolescent, holding that development ends before adult life begins.


One of the authors who defended this position was Piaget, when he wrote, referring to the stage of formal operations, "this general form of equilibrium should be understood as final, both in the sense that it will not change further during the rest of the lifetime, even if it is integrated into broader systems (multivalent logical systems), and in the sense that it unites into a single system groupings which until now were without operational connections among them" ( Inhelder & Piaget, 1955, pp. 294_295). He again expressed this view twenty-five years later, when he wrote, "(formal thought) constitutes a complex but coherent system, relatively different from the logic of the child: it constitutes the essence of the logic of educated adults, as well as the basis of the elementary forms of scientific thought" ( Piaget, 1970/72, p. 6). These comments, widely criticized, brought a group of authors to raise the hypothesis that there could be a stage (or stages) beyond the formal, which would better represent adult cognition.


With the objective of expanding the Piagetian view of formal thought, various theories arose (cf. Arlin, 1975; Basseches, 1980; Commons, Richards & Armon, 1984; Commons, Sinnott, Richards & Armon, 1989; Kramer, 1983, 1990; Pascual-Leone, 1984; Riegel, 1973; Sinnott 1981, 1984, 1989, among others) which were based on the assumption that the distinctive characteristic of adult thought was the acceptance and integration of various, and at times incompatible, truths which are highly dependent upon context and upon the way in which the subject perceives them without the subject needing, as the adolescent does, to look for and to find a single truth. Such theories provoked great enthusiasm in the scientific community. According to Sinnott (1993), we were in the presence of a "new area" of development, called "postformal".


Although the main criticism made of Piaget was directed at his affirmation that the stage of formal operations constituted the last stage of psychogenesis, the postformal thought theorists furthermore questioned (1) the lack of parsimony and of empirical adequacy of the Piagetian tasks employed in the evaluation of adult subjects; (2) the separation of thought from the processes of the Self, of context, and of history; (3) the excessive value given, in the Piagetian conceptualization, to the structural dimension, to the detriment of the dialectical dimensions; and (4) the model of formal operations, which appealed excessively to the logic of the truth tables.


To overcome such limitations, specific tasks were proposed to evaluate adult thought; descriptions of adult thought were made in which diverse dimensions (cognitive, subjective, intuitive, imaginative, interpersonal) ( Labouvie-Vief, 1992) were integrated; and alternate models of formal thought, different from the Piagetian one, were used. In the opinion of various authors, models existed which, better than the model of the logic of binary operations, could portray the complex, and at times contradictory, forms of thought which develop at the end of adolescence and during adult life: the dialectical model (cf. Basseches, 1984; Kramer, 1983; Riegel, 1973); the relativistic model (cf. Sinnott, 1984, 1991); moral philosophy (cf. Armon, 1984); the general theory of systems and Buddhism (cf. Koplowitz, 1984, 1990).


From among the models, which were alternatives to Piaget’s model of formal operations, the dialectical and the relativist models stand out, because of the influence they exerted on the bulk of the conceptualizations of postformal thought. Divulged by Klaus Riegel, Hegel’s dialectic philosophy had a great influence on the majority of the descriptions of postformal thought. Riegel (1973, 1975, 1976, 1978) was one of the first authors to criticize Inhelder and Piaget’s affirmation (1955) that formal operations constituted the level of final equilibrium. For Riegel, development consists of continuous and constant changes in which contradictions would be the motor of advances, there being --contrary to what Piaget postulated -- no stable levels of equilibrium. In his view, stability and equilibrium would occur if the task of development would one day be complete; but that never happens. According to Riegel (1973, 1975, 1976), the subject does not necessarily effect, such as was postulated by Piaget, an equilibration of conflicts. On the contrary, the dialectical thought, which characterizes maturity, consists in living with contradictions, accepting them as such. It is the dialectical interaction between equilibrium and disequilibrium that makes development possible. The influence which the dialectical model had on the majority of postformal authors is notorious (for example, Basseches and Kramer, who designate the last stage of development as the dialectical stage; among others.)


The relativistic model, based on axioms and properties of models from physics, exerted, just as the dialectical model did, a great influence on the majority of the conceptualizations of postformal thought. If Klaus Riegel was the great divulger of the dialectical model, Jan Sinnott (1981, 1984, 1989, 1993) is the author who most dedicated herself to the study of the properties of two models taken from physics (the pre-relativistic model, namely that of Newton, and the relativistic model of Einstein) and to the analysis of the repercussions that these models had in the diverse conceptualizations of human development in general, and of adult development, in particular. According to Sinnott, the concepts postulated in each of the two models reveal assumptions of differing natures regarding knowledge: absolutistic assumptions, in the case of Newton’s model; relativistic, in the case of the more recent models.


In the words of Sinnott (1993, p. 78), "one conclusion drawn from the new physics is that sometimes multiple contradictory views of truth are all 'true' simultaneously, although they appear contradictory at first, and that reality is therefore the view of truth to which we make a 'passionate commitment' (...)". This conclusion had a great impact on the diverse conceptualizations of adult cognition, in which it is postulated that different and incompatible truths are accepted and integrated by the subject without his feeling the need to seek and find a single truth. In her view, the Piagetian analysis of formal operational thought was inspired by the Newtonian perspective and, thus, would be insufficient to explain adult thought. For Sinnott (1984), the "soft", relativist model, by containing and coordinating the "strong" Newtonian logic in a broader system of relationships among elements, would be a more adequate model for representing postformal thought than the bivalent logic model of propositions.


Arlin defends a similar opinion (1984) when she affirms that the logical relativist model combines, or synthesizes, various INRC groups, and integrates hypothetico-deductive logic. This opinion is also supported by Labouvie-Vief (1984), who distinguishes a "hard" logic which, imposing limitations, shows itself insufficient to explain postformal thought, from a more "flexible" logic which, although containing the former, would be less restrictive and would better explain the complexity of adult thought. The "hard" logic, proper to formal thought, would be manifested in the exhaustive search for truth; in it reality is analyzed in terms of truths and logical falsities, the latter being rejected.


Consequently, subjects can perform well in abstract, well defined tasks, but fail, however, in tasks which are more complex and less structured, in which it becomes necessary to take into consideration different and, at times, conflicting points of view. For Labouvie-Vief (1984), the reference to the Self and to others in more ample systems is only manifested in the higher levels of development (the intersystemic and autonomous levels) in which the expansion of logical absolutism (i.e., of the logic of truth, or "hard logic") gives way to logical relativism (i.e., to "flexible logic").


Most descriptions of postformal thought are based on a dialectical epistemology and on an epistemology of relativity. Such descriptions look to these two epistemologies for notions such as dialectical operations, the study of the subject through the life cycle, problem finding, logical relativism, contextualism, self-reference, and acceptance of contradiction.


The first references to the eventual existence of a stage beyond the formal were made by Bruner (1959). In Bruner’s opinion -- and, later, in the opinion of Gruber and Vonèche (1976) and of Commons & Richards (1984a, b) such a stage would not be universal, as only a few scientists would manifest such a level of thought. However, the majority of authors who postulate the existence of a fifth stage don’t hold to this view, and maintain that such a stage characterizes adult thought in general, and not just that of a small elite. Riegel (1973) was one of the first authors to postulate the existence of a fifth stage of development, characterized by dialectical operations. For him, dialectical operations, by their capacity to integrate contradictions into broader systems, can explain the creative dimension of adult thought. Following on Riegel, Arlin (1984), for one, proposes a fifth stage of development, that of problem finding, which is characterized by the progressive substitution of problem solving (the dominant activity, in his opinion, of adolescent thought) by the capacity for the discovery and formulation of questions about oneself and about life (an activity which is constant in, and distinctive to, adult thought). In the words of Arlin (1984), "the argument for a fifth stage is based on this definition of problem finding and on the observations that 'general questions' are uncommon in adolescent thought" (p. 265).


Labouvie-Vief (1984, 1992) holds the position that adult thought is characterized by logical relativism and by progressive reference to the Self. Kitchener et al. (cf. Kitchener & Brenner, 1990; Kitchener & King, 1981, 1990a,b) defend, in their reflective judgement model, that in the highest stages, knowledge is conceived of as relative, circumscribed, and resulting from a constant evolution, which is susceptible to being evaluated and reevaluated. For Kramer (1983) formal operational thought is dual and absolutist (i.e., it is very dependent upon a true/false logic), and it does not allow for mutually incompatible systems. Postformal thought, which is of a relativistic and dialectical nature, is more independent from bipolar logic (i.e., from the true/false dichotomy), allowing the subjects to become conscious of the existence of mutually incompatible systems arising from the subjective and arbitrary nature of knowledge ( Kramer, 1983, 1990). Commons and coworkers (cf. Commons, Richards & Kuhn, 1982; Richards & Commons, 1984, 1990) describe stages of development qualitatively distinct from and logically more complex than that of formal operations, which develop in sequence to this stage (the systematic stage, the metasystematic stage, the paradigmatic stage, the transparadigmatic stage). In these stages subjects become progressively capable of analyzing and of coordinating diverse systems, creating supersystems of a metatheoretical nature.


The great diversity of theories, and of methodologies (e.g., Basseches (1984), with the dialectical schemata interview; Commons and coworkers (1984a,b), with the four stories and, more recently (1995, 1998), with the balance beams task; Kitchener and King (1981, 1990a,b), with the reflective judgement interview; Kohlberg (Colby & Kohlberg, 1987), with the moral judgement interview; and Kramer (Kahlbaugh & Kramer, 1995), with the elaborated interview for the evaluation of the relativistic and dialectical levels of thought) presented by authors who postulate the existence of stages of development beyond the formal operations stage makes it difficult, if not impossible, to get a unified view of the characteristics of this level of thought. However, it is possible to identify in the diverse descriptions of postformal thought (cf. Kramer, 1983, 1989) some features which would be specific to this level: (1) the recognition and understanding of the relativistic, non-absolutist, nature of knowledge; (2) the acceptance of contradiction to the extent that it is part of reality; and (3) the integration of contradiction into comprehensive systems, i.e., into a dialectical whole ( Kramer, 1989).


The relativistic and non-absolutist nature of knowledge


Relativistic thought -- contrary to thought which is absolutistic and dichotomous is characterized by two features: first, by the acceptance of incompatible systems of knowledge ( Kramer, 1983; Labouvie-Vief, 1980; Riegel, 1973; Sinnott, 1984, 1993) and, second, by the recognition of the subjective and arbitrary nature of knowledge ( Kramer, 1983, 1990; Riegel, 1973; Sinnott, 1984, 1993). According to various authors (cf. Kramer, 1983, 1990; Labouvie-Vief, 1980), the relativistic conception of knowledge develops during adolescence and young adulthood, thanks to the growing expansion of social space which confronts subjects with (1) different points of view and different values ( Kramer, 1989); (2) with the assumption of roles which, at times, can be difficult to reconcile; and (3) with the choice of one direction among many possible ones ( Labouvie-Vief, 1980; Kramer, 1983).


Relativism is the dimension of postformal thought which is most dependent upon context. In relativistic thought knowledge derives from context, and is understood in relation to this context. Given that context is constantly changing, usually in a disordered way, it becomes difficult to anticipate either what changes will take place, or what directions these changes will take. In relativistic thought knowledge depends on each one’s point of view. Given the diversity of points of view, the subject assumes that contradiction constitutes an inherent property of knowledge and of reality. In a relativistic view of the world, contradictory and incompatible phenomena or systems can coexist, since their meaning depends upon context and upon separate points of view, unrelated to each other ( Kramer, 1989). Thus, relativistic thought can, if contradiction is not integrated into comprehensive systems, lead ultimately to immobility, and even to chaos (cf. Kitchener & King, 1981; Kramer, 1990).


Acceptance of contradiction and its integration into overarching systems


Acceptance and integration of contradiction are, for most authors (cf. Arlin, 1984; Basseches, 1984; Kramer, 1983; Labouvie-Vief, 1980; Sinnott, 1984; Riegel, 1973), the most distinctive and salient features of adult thought, features which develop mostly in middle-aged, though there are great individual differences.


Although the postformal theorists might speak in an undifferentiated manner about contradiction, Kramer (1989) distinguishes contradiction, which is postulated according to a relativistic conceptualization (based, as has already been said, upon contextualistic assumptions) from contradiction postulated according to a dialectical conceptualization (deriving from organismic assumptions). Organismic assumptions, contrary to contextualistic assumptions, defend that change occurs in a systematic (and non random) manner, results from the resolution of conflicts (and not from their coexistence), and leads to greater unity and coherence (and not to extreme multiplicity). Thus, to avoid falling into immobility, to which extreme relativism can lead, it becomes necessary to integrate contradiction into more inclusive systems constituted by two or more formal systems. Integration of contradiction is found in the highest levels by Kitchener and King (1981), in the autonomous level by Labouvie-Vief (l980; l984; 1990), and in the metaformal schemata of Basseches (1984; 1989), to mention a few authors.


Some considerations regarding the characteristics of postformal thought


Now that the principle features of postformal thought have been described (namely, comprehension of the relativistic nature of knowledge, the acceptance of contradiction, and the integration of contradiction into inclusive systems) they can be analyzed critically, beginning with the notion of relativistic thought.


As mentioned above, various authors, based on Einstein’s theory of relativity, contrast absolutistic thought with relativistic thought, the latter generally seen as being characterized by the acceptance of incompatible systems of knowledge, and by the recognition of the subjective and arbitrary nature of knowledge and of its dependence upon context. This characterization of relativistic thought raises various questions, the first of which is whether such a characterization reflects what Einstein meant by relativism. Various authors (cf. Holton, 1998) question both the legitimacy of applying scientific concepts to domains, which are beyond the limits of the science in which they arose, and the reliability of the interpretations of these same concepts. According to Holton, the application of the notion of relativism to nonscientific domains is generally based on analogies, which are not very convincing. The theory of relativity doesn’t reach the conclusion that truth depends upon the observer’s point of view. On the contrary, the laws of physics are reformulated such that they are valid for all observers, independently of the way in which the observer is moving or of where he is located. According to this theory, the most important truths of science are independent of varying points of view. This being the case, it doesn’t seem legitimate to invoke Einstein to confirm that knowledge depends upon diverse systems of reference, upon different points of view, or upon different contexts. Relativity in physics, on the contrary, teaches us that we can extract from different systems of reference all the laws of physics, these being invariant. In Holton's words (op. cit., p.154), "it is for this reason that, in contrast with classical physics, modern relativity is simple, universal, and, we can even say, 'absolute'. The cliché in fashion is, erroneously, "everything is relative", when the important point is that, out of the vast flux of all events, we can extract exactly the opposite: some things are consistent.[1]


Holton’s interpretation of Einstein’s theory of relativity reminds us more of Piaget than of certain postformal thought theorists.[2] It is true that some "postformal" theorists identify different levels of relativism, the first levels being of a more radical character, while in the higher levels, besides the assumption of idiosyncratic and contextual variables, more valid epistemological justifications are sought. However, considering that these higher levels, in which contradiction is integrated into more inclusive frameworks, are not universal (i.e., few adults display them), it can be said that adult thought could manifest an immobilizing and, eventually, chaotic relativism, which has little or nothing to do with Einsteinian relativism.


As to acceptance of contradiction, and its integration into inclusive systems, it is important to see whether these two behaviors aren’t ever manifested in the highest level (level B) of formal operations. Let us take, for example, the INRC group (cf. Inhelder & Piaget, 1955), the structure, which is subjacent to formal thought. Upon resolving problems, which presuppose the coordination of an initial operation with its inverse, its reciprocal, and its correlative, subjects not only are confronted with contradictory situations, but also will integrate this contradiction. If it must be admitted that at the beginning of formal operations such coordination is seen to be difficult, it is legitimate to suppose that at the consolidated level (level B) of formal operations this coordination is accomplished, is generalized, and is applied in an increasingly greater number of possible instances. The following statement of Inhelder and Piaget (1955) clarifies this: ". . .the beauty of the new (INRC) system, which is now established and which demonstrates the character of synthesis or of consolidation (waiting, naturally, to be integrated into more encompassing systems), is that there is not simply juxtaposition of inversions and of reciprocities, but operatory fusion into a unified whole, in the sense in which each operation will be from now on simultaneously the inverse of another and the reciprocal of a third, this last being at the same time the correlative (. . .) of the first" ( Piaget & Inhelder, 1971, p.110). This being the case, these two characteristics considered to be distinctive of postformal thought can already be manifest at the level of formal operations. The failure of certain postformal theorists to consider the levels of development (from genesis to consolidation) within the formal operations stage constitutes a significant lacuna, which can lead to the undervaluing of the potentialities of this level of thought. Consequently, it is not clear or empirically confirmed that formal operations are insufficient for coordinating the different references, nor that the eventual coordination of various types of reference represents a structural development beyond formal operations. By way of conclusion, it does seem curious that Kramer, herself a defender of postformal thought, should affirm (1983, p.99) that "it is (...) not clear that the formal operational and postformal uses of contradiction are all that different, at least empirically".


Is it now possible to speak of a fifth stage of development, beyond formal operations?


What is the nature of postformal thought?


The primary objective of the different descriptions of postformal thought was, as has been said, to expand the Piagetian conception of formal operations. Not accepting that the stage of formal operations constitutes the level of final equilibrium, theorists have postulated the existence of a fifth stage which, better than formal operations, would explain adult thought.


If it is evident that everything leads us to believe that there can be development during adult life, then it is important to know whether the fifth stage of development which the bulk of theorists propose as being beyond the formal, actually reveals a structural change of a level above that of formal operations, or whether it is not more than a group of competencies, of a practical and contextual nature, relating to specific realms (cf. Labouvie-Vief, 1992).


To study this question presupposes an analysis of what the authors understand by stage. To be able to speak, in a Piagetian perspective, of structural changes, it is necessary to keep in mind the various criteria postulated by this author ( Piaget & Inhelder, 1971, p.121), namely, (l) each stage is characterized by a structure in reference to which the principle individual reactions can be explained; (2) the order of succession of the stages is constant; (3) the structures are integrative: each new structure results from the preceding one, integrating it as a subordinate structure, and prepares the next new one by integrating itself into it; and (4) any one stage has a level of preparation and a level of attainment. The passage from an inferior, less general, structure to a superior, more general, structure presupposes, according to the Piagetian conception, an increase in abstraction. This generalizing abstraction obeys the laws of equilibration, i.e., it reconstructs the operations of the inferior structure into a system that is more balanced, more mobile, and more encompassing. The majority of authors who postulate levels of thought beyond the formal are not explicit about what they mean by stage, or about what the criteria are which the hypothetical fifth stage obeys (see Moniker & Wells, 1980). Some of them have very restricted conceptualizations. For example, Arlin (1984) characterizes the fifth stage of development by the change in the way formal operations are used, which would be manifested as the progressive substitution of "problem solving" by "problem finding".[3] Others, like Kitchener and King (1990) defend a statistical conception of stage, and base their theories on psychometric methods, yet never following "a clearly delineated a priori logic of stages"( Commons et al., 1998, p. 245). Commons and his coworkers are among those authors of the postformal movement who have done the most to analyze questions regarding both the nature of stages and the way in which to evaluate them. In a first phase of their work (Commons, Richards & Kuhn, 1982) they justified the existence of a new stage beyond the formal by the elevated levels of abstraction which, in their opinion, were not manifested in formal thought. For Commons et al., in the systematic, metasystematic, paradigmatic and transparadigmatic levels (contrary to the level of formal operations, in which subjects were seen to be incapable of coordinating complex logical systems, and of evaluating them from a point of view exterior to the system itself), subjects became capable of analyzing and coordinating complex logical systems with each other, creating supersystems of a metatheoretical nature. In theoretical terms, all this suggests that we are in the presence of a conception of abstraction similar to that postulated by Piaget (i.e., reconstruction of the operations of the previous system into a more balanced, more mobile, and more encompassing system). The results obtained by Commons, Richards & Kuhn (1982) confirm such reconstructions in that which relates to the systematic, metasystematic, and paradigmatic stages (They did not find such results at the transparadigmatic level). However, these results were not confirmed in studies carried out by various researchers who studied the relationships among formal thought and systematic and metasystematic thought (Demetriou, 1990; Kallio, 1995; Kallio & Helkema, 1991; Kohlberg, 1990). For these authors, systematic thought would be identical to that designated by Piaget as "consolidated formal operations" (i.e., Formal B) and, thus, could not be considered postformal.


More recently, in an appreciable effort to clarify the central question of what is meant by a stage, Commons, Trudeau, Stein, Richards and Krause (1998) defend a notion of stage based on the hierarchical complexity of tasks and on the performance of subjects as they carry out these tasks. In the authors’ words, " the resultant definition of stage is that it is the highest order of hierarchical complexity on which there is successful task performance"(p.238). Such a notion of stage does not presuppose, in the opinion of Commons et al. (1998), the abrupt emergence of the new performance and disappearance of the previous performance; but it does presuppose the organization and transformation of the actions of the previous level, these organizations being characterized both by being new (in the sense in which they cannot be carried out by lower-level actions) and by being carried out in a non-arbitrary manner. According to these authors, the results, when evaluated for tasks, which are proper to a specific notional domain and are presented according to a hierarchical order of complexity (cf. Commons et al., 1995) -- and not for tasks corresponding to diverse notional domains --confirm the sequence, which they had postulated and already verified previously.


Clearly, the recent conceptualization and methodology of evaluation proposed by Commons et al. (1998) constitutes a conceptual clarification and a rigorous methodological approach, so that what is of interest now is to develop studies which empirically validate this new vision of stages and which clarify the question of its sequence. For example, it still remains to be clarified whether the tasks pertaining to the systematic level which were successfully accomplished represent the first stage of postformal thought, or whether they are no more than the expression of the consolidated formal operations level; and, also, whether the metasystematic, paradigmatic and transparadigmatic levels represent structural reorganizations of formal thought, or whether they do not simply expand this same type of thought. Expand, here, could mean merely the integration of formal operations into more extensive systems, a hypothesis considered by Inhelder and Piaget (1955, p.121), when they state, ". . . this general form of equilibrium can be conceived as final to the extent to which it does not change during the life of an individual (although it can be integrated into more extensive systems)". The reorganization of formal operations into higher structural levels presupposes the reconstruction of the operations of the previous structure (and not just of one operation, evaluated by means of one task, and presented with various levels of complexity, such as is proposed by Commons et al. [1998] ) into a more balanced, more mobile, and more encompassing system. Both Commons and coworkers’ conceptualization -- of all of them the most logical and, in this author’s opinion, of all of them the most "postformal" to the extent that it fits, better than any of the others, into a Piagetian framework both in theoretical terms and in methodological terms -- and their results suggest expansion more than reorganization. Be that as it may, further study is necessary, both of a longitudinal (above all) and of a transversal nature, to shed light on this question. Only the results of such studies will allow, or not, for the attribution of a truly structural and "hard stage" (cf. Kohlberg & Armon, 1984) status to postformal thought, as it is conceptualized by Commons and coworkers.


As to the remaining conceptualizations which accent the contextual, self-referent, and pragmatic dimensions of postformal thought, and in which a more integrative view of adult thought is proposed in which the " (...) subjective and objective, individual and community, self and other, reason and emotion, mind and body all partake in genuine interaction"( Labouvie-Vief, 1992, p.223), these do not seem to constitute stages beyond the formal, but rather developments parallel to formal thought. According Gruber (1984), the web of interactions between the adult and the environment is so complex that generalization is difficult, making the existence of a general structure in postformal thought almost impossible. In the words of Labouvie-Vief (1992, p.221), herself an author of the postformal movement," the term postformal may not imply a progression in formal complexity. Instead, it could mean that for some individuals, formal thinking forms a base from which thought branches out into more nonformal domains". This hypothesis seems to have all the more basis when we look at studies which analyzed the relationship (1) between cognitive development and the development of personality, creativity, and reflective capacity (cf. Blasi & Hoeffel, 1974), and (2) between formal thought and identity formation (cf. Cauble, 1976; Leadbeater & Dionne, 1981; Rowe & Marcia, 1980; Wagner, 1987) in samples of adolescents, and which show that such dimensions develop in parallel with formal operations. Along this same line, Kohlberg & Armon (1984), after distinguishing "hard" stages (in which development occurs in an invariant and universal sequence, e.g., the Piagetian stages) from "soft" stages (in which development is conditioned by particular experiences arising from differences in personality, upbringing, social class, and age), conclude that "soft" stage would be the conceptualization most adequate to the particular features of adult development.


Given the heterogeneity of theories about thought beyond the formal level, and given the inconclusiveness of the research carried out so far, it is not possible, for now, to determine the true nature of the type of thought referred to as postformal. This being the case, and it being necessary to defend the requirement that any scientific and epistemological theory must be based on underlying presuppositions such as conceptual clarification, parsimony, and simplicity, it seems preferable to abandon the term "postformal" (except, possibly, in the case of the conceptualization put forth by Commons and coworkers) and to speak simply of adult cognition, or adult thought.




1.  It is notable that Einstein seemed to like the term "Invariantentheorie" better than "theory of relativity", the title first given to Einstein’s theory by Plank and Abraham in 1906.

2.  As a matter of fact, Piaget knew Einstein personally and sometimes referred to him in his books, as, for example, in A Child’s Conception of Time, in which, according to Piaget, he attempted to answer a series of questions raised by Einstein.

3.  It is not confirmed that "problem finding" is specific to a level of development superior to the formal, or that it might not be manifested in the formal stage. When Inhelder and Piaget (1955) speak of the capacity that youngsters come to have to formulate hypotheses, to construct theories and systems, or, further, to elaborate life plans, they show that in formal operations the subjects can display high levels of "problem discovery". According some authors ( Fakouri, 1976; Gruber & Vonèche, 1976; Monnier & Wells, 1980), "problem solving" and "problem discovery" constitute two dimensions of formal operational thought.




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[1] Faculty of Psychology and Education, University of Lisbon, Alameda da Universidade, 1649_013 Lisboa, Portugal.  E_mail: