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Margaret Donaldson: Human Minds:
an exploration
(Allen Lane: 1992)


“Many suggestions have been made about the qualities that mark us out as a species. Among the candidates have been the ability to use language, skill in opposing thumb and forefinger for the highly controlled use of a tool, knowledge of good and evil - and so on, in some variety, so that there is clearly no point in trying to find the one. But...one of the most striking things about us is that we are highly prolific ‘intention generators’. We set goals for ourselves of the most diverse kinds.... However, this diversity does not mean that we have no goals in common. There are some kinds of general purpose that are extremely pervasive among us - universal indeed, except in certain pathological conditions - such as the goal of understanding or making sense of things, and the goal of communicating with one another. Also, of course, we share with the other animals certain physiological urges.... However, it is characteristic of us that we are capable of transcending these urges, though not easily. We may set ourselves some new goal, which requires that we deny them. We may go on a hunger strike or take lifelong vows of chastity.... [For] we possess also the ability to pursue our goals with great tenacity. This tenacity has a number of sources, but prominent among them is the fact that our purposes are apt to be accompanied by very powerful feelings.... The devising of novel purposes comes readily to us because we have brains that are good at thinking of possible future states - at considering not merely what is, but what might be. We exist in a world of ‘hard fact’, but we can imagine it as changed; and from a very early age we know that, within certain limits, we are able to change it. It matters very much to us to find out how these limits are set.... Human thought deals with how things are, or at least with how they seem to us to be, but it does this in ways that typically entail some sense of how they are not - or, not yet.”
(Donaldson, pp.7-9)

It remains one of the most profound weaknesses of our understandings that we seem extraordinarily reluctant to come to grips with developmental understandings of ourselves. The Freudian mythos, properly understood, was in fact nothing of the sort - relying as it did on profoundly undevelopmental ‘hydraulic’ notions of mental activity - which, to the cynics amongst us, helps explain its extraordinary grip on the popular imagination. In developmental science proper, however, there are two main strands which attempt to come to grips w/what it means to be human, albeit they are (thankfully) basically complementary rather than competing. The more recent, that following Vygotsky, concentrates particularly upon our inextricably social natures, and upon language in all its varieties, and has been adequately introduced through previous reviews in this series. The elder tradition, following Piaget, however, has not...

Piaget’s particular focus was the development of the grounds of a rational understanding of the world and, whilst aspects of his theorizing have since proven incorrect - particularly his tendency to see learning as an unfolding largely independent of key social contacts - the tradition he founded remains crucial to any adequate self-understanding and, as Margaret Donaldson shows us here, also offers us the best scientific route towards understanding the most mysterious aspects of human nature...those usually described as ‘spiritual’.

For Donaldson is no wooly-minded “new age” type, content to recycle some religious platitudes dressed up in a little psychological jargon. On the contrary, she has been one of the leading developmental psychologists of her generation, a stern critic of inadequate work/ideas in a variety of disciplines (particularly linguistics)...and nobody’s fool, by any measure. In consequence, when - with the wisdom proper to an elder - she endeavours to seriously treat spiritual experience within developmental psychology, it is no wonder that the result is genuinely eye-opening. Firstly, however, we need to get to grips with the basic developmental framework Donaldson is using...


“In many ways, different minds develop differently. This is an obvious truth, and it is implied in much that has been said already about the generation of goals and the experience of choice. However, there is also commonality.... My account of the common framework entails the distinguishing of four main modes of mental functioning. These come in succession upon the scene as we get older, but they do not replace one another. None of them is ever lost, except in severe injury or illness. But, within each mode, change occurs over time. They are not static. For instance, the functioning of the first mode in infancy is a very different matter from the functioning of that same mode in adulthood. In defining the modes, two kinds of criterion are used. First, there is the locus of concern. What I mean here by ‘concern’ is best captured by saying that a mind’s concern at any given time is what its percepts, thoughts, emotions or actions are about. [For] if they were not about anything, there would be no concern.... We shall speak, then, of loci of concern. Four of these will be distinguished; and they will serve to specify the four main modes. The other kind of criterion, to which we shall come shortly, yields subdivisions of the four main categories.... In the first mode - the only one available to the young infant - the locus of concern is always the present moment, the directly apprehensible bit of space, the ‘here and now’. This mode is called the point mode. Later, other loci become possible. For example, the second mode, which is called the line mode, has a locus of concern that includes the personal past and the personal future...[although,] in due course, the scope is extended beyond the range of personal experience, but by definition concern is still with specific events, actual or conceivable. These two examples should already make it clear that ‘locus of concern’ is defined in terms of space-time. Notice, however, that locus of concern is not the same as focus of attention. [For] within the here and now - and still more obviously within the personal past and future - there is a wide range of things that the mind may pick out as worthy of special interest and consideration.”
(Donaldson, pp.10-12)

“The second kind of criterion, needed to define the subdivisions, is the manner in which the components of experience - perceiving, thinking, and so on - are linked or separated. In the earliest manifestations of the point mode, these are inextricably intertwined. Then, step by step, certain separations become possible; and these new possibilities bring with them dramatic change in what the mind can do. Development ranges outwards in two directions from the tight compactness of the first mode. In one direction there is extension in what is possible by way of locus of concern. In the other, there is separation of the different components of mental life, so that they can function with an increasing measure of independence. But, what are these components? In defining the modes, four are used: perception, thought (in the sense of knowing, understanding, solving problems), emotion, and action (that is, directed action).... It is at once evident that a different set of components could have been chosen. What about imagination, for instance, or memory, or language? I can only answer that my choice reflects my judgement about the most significant distinctions - those that yield the best insight into how the mind develops.”
(Donaldson, p.12)

“If we return now to a consideration of the nature of the modes, it will be evident that the two criteria (locus of concern and separation of components) are both implicated in the movement from the point mode to the line mode. [For] when the locus of concern shifts from the present moment into the past or the future, this shift entails the ‘separating out’ of perception and action from the other - still interwoven - functions, so that mental life in the second mode goes on without them. For we cannot directly perceive and act on what is not here and now.... Beyond the line mode, the major step that is taken consists in movements towards the impersonal. That is, the mind starts to be able to function in ways that achieve some independence from personal goals. For instance, it becomes possible to think about problems of some generality. This entails movement away from concern with specific events in specific lives. It also entails movement in the direction of increasing separation of mental functions, one from the other. Just as thoughts and emotions became detachable from perception and action with the advent of the second mode, so now thoughts and emotions become detachable from certain purposes, and to some extent from one another...though the movement may be powered by intense personal curiosity. The notion of thinking of this kind is familiar enough. But, what about emotion? Can we take steps toward impersonality in respect of our emotions also? And, if so, what kind of experience then ensues?”
(Donaldson, pp.15-16)

It should already be clear by this stage that this type of framework hardly conflicts with those we have seen which have emerged from Vygotsky’s work. However, it should also be clear that they are not identical. The framework which evidence suggests in each case is contingent upon exactly what questions you are asking...and, quite simply, Piaget and Vygotsky asked different questions. Still, it is noticeable that the landmark transitional dates tend to be be similar...suggesting that different capabilities develop largely in concert, rather than being neatly sequestered in the tight “modules” beloved of some overly tidy theorists?


“It seems likely that babies under eight months or so have, as yet, no memory of an extended, ordered past stretching behind them. Though past events can already strongly influence present experience, specific happenings are given no locus in remembered time.... To get some sense of what this early point-mode experience might feel like, think of listening to a concerto which is familiar, but not well known. When and where did you hear it before? You don’t know. You must have heard it somewhere, though, or your present experience would be quite different. At the start of the first movement you cannot anticipate the second movement at all; but, as the first movement closes, the opening bars of the next one arises in your mind. Much infant experience is probably like this, except that the question: ‘When did I hear that before?’ cannot be asked - and not just for lack of words, but for lack of an appropriate conception of structured time.... [However,] there is nothing intrinsically primitive or lowly about [the point mode’s] activities...[and] it should be recognized that, although direct concern with what is here and now is accompanied in early infancy by narrow temporal awareness, this does not have to be so.... So, when an adult concentrates on a skilled task, such as upholstering a chair, there is the absorption in the moment that is typical of the point mode, yet there is a great reliance on past experience and a well-formulated goal that is in some way ahead: the finished chair.”
(Donaldson, pp.42-5)

“Whenever we consciously entertain two or more impulses, and wonder: ‘Shall I do this, or that?’ we have a sight into the realm of possibility. And, whenever the impulses are such that the realization of one would preclude the realization of the other, we encounter the hard truth that impossibility is a feature of the universe. We are forced to choose.... Thus the world opposes itself to the child, by virtue of constraints inherent in the very nature of space and time.... [And] a sense of options, whether compatible or incompatible with one another, implies some ability to contemplate that which is not yet - that which only may be. Since, by definition, that which is not yet presents no stimulus to the senses, it can only be contemplated by a mind capable of calling it up.... The issues are complex and difficult, as always with questions of pre-verbal awareness. However, there is reason to think that memory changes dramatically about three quarters through the first year.... In its earliest form, the line mode consists in having thoughts and emotions and plans and purposes about one’s own life. It looks forward as well as back; and, even when looking backward, it entails much more than conscious recollection. However, without conscious recollection, it would be impossible.... As we grow older, a widening of the line mode normally occurs, and this makes possible behaviour of the kind we call ethical...[but,] to the extent that people...are concerned about what has happened, or about what may happen, they are still functioning in the line mode.... It is a matter of great significance that the line mode begins so early in life. Strong emotions seem to be there from the beginning; purposes begin to be entertained not long after; thoughts with a considerable capacity for ranging over the personal life are certainly present before the first few years have passed. Thus both the pleasure and the pain that go with functioning in the line mode are an inescapable part of the experience of being a child.... Line-mode experience is, of course, essential to us, The gain from being able to survey the course of life backward and forward is immense. The problem arises from the link with emotion - emotion that may be joyful but may also be overwhelmingly painful.”
(Donaldson, pp.51-63)

In the tradition following Piaget, as I noted earlier, the centres of interest are the grounds of rationality, which tends to lead to the stress we see here upon abstract categories...as opposed to the relational centre of Vygotsky and his heirs. Arguably, both approaches highlight aspects of human development that the other tend to occlude...for, whilst no man is an island, neither - to extend the metaphor - are cultures continents. Our selves are complex creations, bootstrapped upon a variety of developments...some primarily social, some - particularly later - experienced primarily as isolate/unique & personal, and it is simply not possible to separate these out neatly, or to accord one the status of “reality” and dismiss the other as a mere epiphenomenon. Moreover, as Donaldson conclusively demonstrates, the best way to understand our “irrational” side - scare quotes ironic - is via a framework developed to explicate the development of rationality...


“We have seen that the line mode achieves movement away from the the present by shifting the locus of concern into the personal past and the personal future. But there is another kind of movement we become able to make - a movement away from specific happenings towards a general concern with how things are.... Instead of here/now or there/then, the mind will next begin to concern itself with a locus conceived as somewhere/sometime, or anywhere/anytime.... This is a momentous development. However, when it first begins to happen, and for some time thereafter, until the fourth mode appears on the scene, the mind still cannot function without a context of some familiar kind. The needed context is, by definition, no longer provided by the perception of specific events, by the memory of them, or by the anticipation of them. So, it has to be supplied by a deliberate constructive act of imagination. For this reason, the third mode is called the construct mode.... In some construct-mode activities, the intention is to think unemotionally or dispassionately. But in other cases there is no such purpose...[and] we shall speak of the core construct mode. The earliest versions of the point mode and the line mode - that is, the ones we have been mainly concerned with so far - may also be called core modes in the same sense, and are to be distinguished from other subcategories that develop later. For instance, there exists a type of point-mode functioning, critically important for science, where the aim is to observe present happenings in a manner we call ‘objective’. In the case of the construct mode, there are two subcategories, apart from the core one, which will need to be considered in some detail. These are called the intellectual construct mode, and the value-sensing construct mode.... [However,] those ways of functioning in which thought and emotion are closely interwoven tend to reassert themselves as soon as we take a rest.... It is is rather like driving a car which ‘prefers’ certain gears, and slips back into them at the first opportunity..... It seems likely that, at the very origin of this mode, lies the first appearance of a reflective notion of the self...[which] seems to have its origin at around the age of eighteen months.... Those senses of the self that are present during the early point-mode and line-mode activities need not depend on much understanding of how the self relates to the rest of the world. However, it is a different matter when the construction of a reflective self-concept is undertaken. For this is precisely a task through which we aim to know our place in the scheme of things - and our worth as part of that scheme. Thus it is unavoidably both conceptual and value-laden, cognitive and emotive.
(Donaldson, pp.80-4)

“William James once made a famous remark to the effect that a polyp, if ever it should say: ‘Hello! Thingumabob again!’ would thereby be a conceptual thinker. But this won’t quite do. Conceptual thinking entails a good deal more. At the very least, it entails the recognition of points of likeness and at the same time of points of unlikeness - the simultaneous grasp of ways in which things resemble one another and of the ways in which they differ...[and] this is a very different thing from mere generalization.... Choice, then, is not just a choice of what to do. It is a choice of what to think, and how to conceptualize the world.... The new skill is an essential prerequisite for the functioning of the third mode, which is called the construct mode.... However, the ability to make-believe seems initially to serve other purposes. Some of the purposes are no doubt concerned with the extension of control. Just as the young baby sets about learning how to manipulate the physical world, so now the older child turns to the business of handling the mind.... [And] why not use it as a defense against unpleasant experience - as a way of making reality more bearable? However, if the skills of make-believe are to be used effectively to this end, one thing has to change. As Leslie correctly says, when a child pretends that a banana is a telephone, she knows quite well that it is nothing of the kind.... The difference between what is real and what is pretended is maintained. This difference is exactly what must be sacrificed if the consciousness-changing defense mechanisms are to work.... The conclusion to which the argument leads is that, before children are two years old, they have the capacity to start establishing defenses of kinds that entail changing their own consciousness. It would be hard to exaggerate the significance of this fact for an understanding of the human condition.”
(Donaldson, pp.69-72)

“At the heart of rationality lies the ability to make deductive inferences; and at the source of this lies the understanding of incompatibility - the recognition that one happening may preclude another. It is because we have this understanding that we can conceive of excluding possibilities.... This awareness can arise only in beings who are able to reflect on happenings as possibilities realized. So long as one thinks only about things as they are, one perceives no incompatibility. The world, directly observed, reveals none. Coexisting things are necessarily compatible...[and] there is no more to say, so long as we deal with a static world, seen in a cross-section of time. Incompatibility pertains to a world of process...[and] the realization comes particularly when we are forced to recognize that impulses to action conflict with one another, so that ‘we can’t have it both ways’.... But this, of course, is only the beginning, the precondition. Before the emerging grasp of incompatibility can be used in the service of reasoning...it is necessary to go on to recognize that, while conflicting happenings cannot coexist, conflicting thoughts in no way preclude one another as thoughts. The mind can freely ‘entertain’ them, though the conflict may be experienced as demanding resolution. Only when this is apprehended - implicitly at first, no doubt - can there be a start to the business of putting ideas together, combining propositions and drawing conclusions. The ability to combine propositions and draw conclusions is a prerequisite for the third mode. But, when does it begin to appear? One difficulty immediately encountered is that reasoning of this kind cannot be recognized - even if it could occur - until it can find expression in language. And linguistic skills adequate to such a task take some time to develop - though less time than might be supposed. Here is an example that we owe to a child called Sarah, aged two years ten months. Sarah was very naughty, and her father spanked her. She reproached him indignantly, as follows:

‘You no spank Sarah!
Sarah a lady.
You no spank ladies!’

This is an explicit syllogism.... The incompatibility that Sarah perceives (or at any rate chooses to invoke) is between the notion of being spanked, and the notion of being a lady. Sarah is able to hold both in mind, and use the incompatibility to draw and support a conclusion.... So, this little girl, not yet three years old, demonstrates that she is equipped with what we have to call rationality.”
(Donaldson, pp.77-9)

As is usually the case w/these reviews, I have had to scant some of the most insightful aspects of this book, in order to adequately present its core arguments. However, at this point in the proceedings, I think it only fair to note just how useful the framework Donaldson is working with is in explaining how we should understand apparent paradoxes in the development of language capabilities, and that this is hardly the only example of such scattered insights.

For the real acid tests of any theory, to my mind, are consilience (in the broad sense) and generativity of such insights...the latter being the criterion which demonstrates the importance (rather than the truth) of a theory. For there are many approaches, true in their own limited way, which simply do not illuminate much at all of interest about human beings...and so, have very little place in the Humanities, properly conceived. Post-Saussurean cultural theory is one such...whereas the tradition of enquiry initiated by Piaget has proven to be fruitful in a surprising number of areas.


“In general, [linguistic] production has been been studied by the collection and analysis of samples of spontaneous speech; whereas comprehension, whenever the subjects have been old enough to make the technique workable, has been studied by the use of contrived tasks. This means that the language studied in research on production has often been in the point or line modes; whereas comprehension has mainly been studied in the intellectual construct mode. That paradoxes have appeared when results are compared is then hardly surprising.”
(Donaldson, p.114)

“It may seem strange that it should be harder to imitate a sentence than to generate it. The provision of the model might be expected to help.... [However,] when an act is embedded in a matrix of ongoing thoughts and emotions there is a built-in guiding representation of the goal to be achieved - in the case of speech, a meaning to be conveyed. Without this, the child must deliberately construct the guiding representation, which turns out to be a much more difficult enterprise.... In embedded action, [conversely,] this model is formed in a manner experienced as effortless. The same is true of embedded speech. No matter what effort may follow before the goal is reached, the goal itself simply seems to emerge. It does not have to be consciously and deliberately constructed. One might suppose that an external model supplied by an adult, as when the imitation of speech is requested, would remove the need for deliberate construction by the child, but this is not the case. It is of the greatest importance to recognize that the work of construction of an inner model has still to be done. (Spontaneous imitation is, of course, another matter entirely.)”
(Donaldson, pp.110-11)

When we arrive at what Donaldson calls the “advanced modes” - which require explicit self-discipline and - usually - serious training, there are definite parallels between Donaldson’s approach and that of Kieran Egan, the educational theorist. However, Donaldson’s arguments substantially enrich rather than simply echo Egan’s, and it is noticeable that the latter’s account terminates with the single frame of what he terms “ironic understanding”, whereas Donaldson’s developmental division - predicated upon the study of rationality though it is - opens up a parallel track for emotional development which Egan does not allow for.  As always, theoretical pluralism offers us more, not merely more of the same...


“Construct-mode functioning of the intellectual kind is favoured in its early manifestations by certain circumstances. It helps greatly if the topic is not of any special personal interest to the child, so that it is unlikely to give rise to the kind of emotion that would have to be resisted. Where the thinking consists in trying to solve a problem set by another person it helps, too, if the child is not strongly interested in anything else at the time the question is asked, and if the questioner is known and trusted. And it matters that the effort of imagination involved in the provision of an embedding context should not be too great, for if this part of the task is too hard, the whole enterprise fails.... As we have seen, thought of this kind is distinguished by one special characteristic: it is - or at least aspires to be - dispassionate. To succeed in the aspiration, it must break free from entanglement with all goals other than those intrinsic to the thinking itself. That is, its only purpose must be to achieve some new insight, or clearer understanding.”
(Donaldson, pp.95-102)

“The prototypical activities of the intellectual transcendent mode are logic and mathematics. But, since we are concerned with concern, the question we have to ask is what, in the most general sense, are logic and mathematics about? Such answers as number, shape, syllogisms, propositions or the like will not do; for they are too limited and particular. The general answer has to be that logic and mathematics are about relationships: relationships of compatibility or incompatibility, of symmetry or asymmetry, of inclusion or exclusion, of equality or inequality, and so on. More than this, they entail the systematic study of patterns of relationship. And what we call ‘creative mathematics’ is the attempt to extend this study, so that its previous limits are surpassed. That is, a known pattern is extended, or new patterns are revealed. At this point, the objection may be raised that ‘relationships’ occur in space-time, just as much as ‘things’ or ‘happenings’. So, in a sense, they do. But, when concern shifts from ‘things-in-relation’ (or ‘events-in-relation’) to the relations themselves, this is a major shift, with major preconditions and major consequences. One critically important consequence is that the patterns, as distinct from their embodiments, are not bounded by the limits that space-time imposes. They can be extended into n dimensions, to infinity, or to eternity.”
(Donaldson, pp.126-7)

“At what age does the intellectual transcendent mode begin to appear? What are the earliest signs of its advent? My observations of children - mainly in Scotland, but also in the United States - lead me to suggest, for these cultures, an average age of around nine. But let me emphasize that I am talking about the first indications of this mode, not by any means about fully developed competence. One very telling sign of change is an increase in systematicity...[for] the recognition that a pattern can be extended - sometimes indefinitely - is of the essence of transcendent-mode thought.... [However,] in order to think effectively about patterns of relationship, it is necessary to manage one’s mind.... Much remains obscure about how the intellectual transcendent mode comes upon the scene...[but] I have tried to indicate some of the conditions that seem necessary.... These are: having a way of reducing the prominence of things, and increasing the prominence of relationships; having a firm sense of relevance, which means demarcating and holding to ‘this problem and no other’; developing an understanding of the value of proceeding systematically, together with some skill in doing so; and having available for use, with understanding of its function, a written notation well fitted to the particular pattern of relations that is to be explored. There may be other important conditions that I have left out. But one thing is already clear: few people, if any, would achieve much of this without a great deal of help. The help depends first of all on the existence of a cultural tradition. Beyond this...it is a matter of education.”
(Donaldson, pp.132-8)

“We have looked at the nature of the modes called ‘intellectual’, and we have seen that in them emotion is by no means without its role. Passionate curiosity empowers the intellect. Also, the achievement of new understanding is normally accompanied by delight. The intellectual modes are marked, nonetheless, by an experienced distinction between thought and emotion, and by a measure of control that makes possible the exclusion of certain kinds of emotion.... The question to which we now turn is whether human beings can achieve any analogous development of the emotions.... Let me first restate a central tenet: all emotion is evoked by the apprehension of importance. Where nothing matters, there is no emotion. So if there prove to be emotional modes which are analogous to the intellectual ones, then appropriate sources of importance must be entailed. And just as thinking in the intellectual modes is not concerned with line-mode happenings - specific events in specific lives - so emotion in the parallel modes (if they exist) must not derive from such happenings. It must not depend on the success or failure of line-mode purposes. it will have to be evoked in other ways. Beyond this...genuine analogues on the emotional side [will] have to be acognitive.”
(Donaldson, pp.141-3)

The first half of Donaldson’s book is an exemplary treatment of the type of framework which has emerged from the work of Piaget and his heirs. It is strongly argued, well-supported by a whole raft of scientific evidence, and uncontroversial in the main. The second half of the book is very different, albeit closely tied to the approach taken in the first, since it tackles spiritual experience upon its own ground, rather than attempting to “test” it “scientifically”. This, interestingly enough, is due to the insight provided by the developmental framework itself, which strongly suggests that what we are dealing with in such experience is complementary to the intellectual modes...and thus, unlikely to be usefully analyzed by such. But, it’s probably easier to let Donaldson do the explaining, since these are genuinely original insights, and the originator can best tackle such rocky terrain.


“A value-sensing construct mode would be one where the main component of experience was an apprehension of transpersonal importance, powerfully felt, but where the the functioning of the mode depended upon the support of the imagination. That is, the imagination would be needed to provide a context within which the mind could operate; and this imagined context would be built up from our ordinary experience of things and events in the world. However, explanation of these events would not be the main aim.  That is, emotion would have become (relatively) acognitive, as thought can become (relatively) dispassionate - and roughly to the same degree.... As in the intellectual case, genuine novelty would be entailed. Specifically it would be true by definition that what is perceived to matter must surpass the personal life.... Having considered, then, the main characteristics of the value-sensing construct mode, we can say that the value-sensing transcendental mode will share them, with the crucial exception that the need for a constructed context has gone, so that self-transcending values can now be experienced and responded to without the props provided by the workings of the imagination. These two modes - and especially the transcendent one - are certainly less familiar to us today than their intellectual analogues; and they are less easy to think about and write about. However, once their defining features have been recognized it is not hard to find evidence that they have indeed formed part of the repertoire of at least some minds.”
(Donaldson, pp.150-2)

“For the present argument, the question of whether God exists...is not one that must be tackled. What matters is whether there is evidence that human beings have experiences of the two distinctive kinds we have been considering. It seems that they do, but not by any means that they all do, especially with regard to the transcendent mode. But then, the same is true on the intellectual side. Those competent in logic and mathematics, or in any form of highly disembedded reasoning that does not rely heavily on imagery have always been few.... The core varieties of the point, line and construct modes seem to occur universally in some form or other, which is not to say that they develop without powerful social influence. However, once we come to the the intellectual and value-sensing modes, which from now on we shall call the advanced modes, then if a mode is not favoured and fostered in a given social group, most young people will not come to it, or at least not to a developed form of it, unaided. Groping towards it will largely fail, and be abandoned. This does not mean that human minds are passively formed.... And yet, it is within a society that we become what we are, and whatever we achieve is not achieved alone.”
(Donaldson, pp.157-60)

Running throughout Human Minds, there is a clear thread which seeks not only for understanding of the whole human condition, but also for remedies for our common ills. In this, Donaldson sets herself against the main trend in formal psychological study, which has tended to ignore such ills...unless they can be taken as severe enough to qualify for psychiatric concern. This is unfortunate, for in the near-absence of serious thought on such subjects, varieties of pop-psychology - many toxic - proliferate like weeds in the undergrowth...little tested, and poorly understood, even by their advocates, who are rarely possessed of wisdom themselves.  And, whilst Margaret Donaldson is not a particularly engaging writer, she is certainly a clear enough one for her wisdom to show...in particular, the type of wisdom which allows one to fruitfully re-frame knowledge and ideas, so that they may be integrated with better-established bodies of work:


“There are three distinct ways in which the human mind can develop. One is by adding a new mode to those already available, as when the line mode begins to appear towards the end of the first year of life. Let us call this ‘expansion of the repertoire’. Another is by achieving new kinds of competence within an established mode, as when one learns to cook, or to improve one’s understanding of the relationship between the earth and the sun. This we may call ‘within-mode learning’. The third is by becoming better able to determine the use one makes of one’s modal repertoire - to combine modes for a given purpose, or to shift from mode to mode at will. The last of these, which we shall call ‘control of the repertoire’, is the one that has received the least explicit attention, at any rate in Western cultures. There are certain kinds of voluntary shifting from mode to mode at which some of us are quite skilled...but the general question of how to control the repertoire is not often discussed. As a preliminary to a consideration of this topic, there are a few things to be said about involuntary switching from mode to mode. First, some kinds of moment-to-moment shifting are commonplace - indeed, continually happening - in everyday life. This, I think, is evident. We burn the toast because we start to be concerned with something we plan to do later in the day, or to worry in case we gave someone a ‘wrong impression’, or whatever. The...two modes into which most of us slide involuntarily with the greatest ease are the line mode, and the core construct mode. They seem to draw us.... However, it should also be noted that there are times when it is the point mode that suddenly and compellingly takes over.”
(Donaldson, pp.190-1)

“For many people in the world today, it is fairly uncommon to face immediate crisis. I do not forget the millions for whom external circumstance is perilous or painful in a moment-to-moment way, with very little respite. But very frequently, it is the activities of the line and core construct modes that bring human suffering. This is not new. The Buddha understood it well. Awareness of the troubles that these two modes bring should not obscure the fact that we could not lead human lives without them . We need them both. And it would be a gross distortion to neglect the happiness and enrichment they give us. But they also cause turbulence, conflict and suffering...[and] it is obvious that the line and core construct modes often work closely with one another. Together, they yield much uncomfortable knowledge, from which we are able to find some protection by the use of devices known as ‘defence mechanisms’. These are, in general, ways of deceiving ourselves. They start to operate while we are still young (probably during the second year of life) and while while we are neither aware of what we are doing, nor able to foresee the troubles that our primitive defenses may later bring. The upshot of all this is that much human suffering stems not from any present external circumstance, but from the ways in which we deal with that which has been, and that which may be - or with that which, like death, surely will be.”
(Donaldson, pp.192-4)

Donaldson surveys a variety of Western approaches to emotional regulation, but notes - rather disapprovingly - that the most developed forms of same, psychoanalysis and cognitive therapy, both essentially limit themselves to working within modes...in contrast both to Eastern and more ‘naive’ techniques, which stress getting out of the afflicted mode of being:


“All of us have at least some variety of the point mode to escape into. So it comes as no surprise that, when children first begin to consider it possible to take any action against distressing emotion, their proposed solution is to do something practical...[And,] to the extent that they can then keep their minds on the toy or the game, they will be functioning in the point mode.... In our culture, at least, the resort to point-mode activity remains at all ages the commonest means of escape...however, for some people the intellectual modes also provide a way out.... But there is a whole different human tradition in which sitting still is held to be an essential feature of the effort to control suffering, and thus to be a way in which many hours of a life can properly and profitably be spent.... [Moreover,] an initial concern for the reduction of suffering seems often to lead people beyond this relatively modest goal. There tends to develop, if the effort is serious and sustained, an exploration of the possibilities for human experience that can lead far from the starting-point. This is a matter of very great importance often not understood today.”
(Donaldson, pp.210-12)

“The Buddhist insistence on impermanence almost necessarily thrusts one in the direction of taking ‘here and now’ as a primary locus of concern.... This is assuredly a kind of point-mode activity. But equally clearly, it is not the kind recommended by Kipling and resorted to by boys in English boarding schools when the going is hard. So, what kind is it? It turns out to be much more like the special kind of objective, detached perceiving that has a crucial part to play in modern science. Indeed, considered simply as an activity, it is quite similar.... On the other hand, the two types of detached observing are distinguished from one another not just because one of them (the Buddhist kind) is restricted to a particular subject matter - one’s own experience - but because they have different purposes, and they form part of two vastly different enterprises.... Within the Buddhist traditions we have been considering, escape from the line mode and the core construct mode mainly entails movement into two other modes: a special detached or objective kind of point mode, and a version of the transcendent mode. Characteristically, the former is seen as leading on to the latter, which is the ultimate aim. Further parallels between scientific method and Buddhist practice thus become evident. Both systems depend on detached, uninvolved, direct observation, used in conjunction with some transcendent function.”
(Donaldson, pp.222-4)

“Science, as we now know it, is an activity in which the three modes combine. They are not fused, they are used in conjunction. Two of the three, the intellectual construct and the intellectual transcendent modes, are able to yield imaginative hypotheses, rigorous reasoning and quantification. But to them must be added, most importantly, that subdivision of the point mode which comes into play when we make precise observations of the kind we call ‘objective’. Such observation is a point-mode activity in that the locus of concern is, very strictly, what is happening here and now; but it is a variant in which the close unity of the four original components has been decisively breached. Perceiving and acting are dominant; emotion is, so far as possible, excluded; and even reasoning has, in the process of observation itself, a quite minor part to play. This at least is the aim.”
(Donaldson, pp.160-1)

At this point, we really need to take stock of what Donaldson is implying here, because it is not something you will encounter elsewhere. Because, rather than praising spiritual over intellectual experience - or vice versa - she is saying that science, conceived of in developmental terms, bears an uncanny resemblance to spiritual techniques found - independently - the world over...albeit the “resemblance” is more that of a complement (or counterpart) than it is a genuine similarity. Moreover, she then goes on to make an equally strong argument for its core technique as an explicit training in mode-shifting...something which we could make some very pragmatic arguments for in the future of mainstream education...


“Meditation has many different varieties, but all of them seem to have as their proximate aim the training and guiding of attention.... But what is the gain? Why do it? It is at once evident that meditation is a technique for fostering the ability to move into a desired mode at will. Often it is the point mode, as in many Buddhist and Hindu practices. But it need not be.... St. John of the Cross recommends meditation on ‘forms, figures and images, imagined and fashioned by [the] senses’, which is clearly a construct-mode activity. This, however, is for beginners, he says. Later comes the more difficult attempt at that movement into the value-sensing transcendent mode which John calls ‘contemplation’.... There can be no doubt that, among these three modes, the construct mode is the most controversial. Some have seen it as a help, some as a barrier to progress - something to be got rid of. But whatever view is taken of this, meditation is a technique for fostering by exercise the ability to regulate the locus of concern. It is a means of cultivating repertoire control.”
(Donaldson, pp.224-6)

Human Minds, by Margaret Donaldson, is a startling book, indeed, and a unique one...as far as I can gather. It both epitomizes the strengths and insights of the tradition following Piaget, and transcends that tradition - in an entirely sensible fashion - to properly incorporate “spiritual” experience within the scientific understanding of psychological development, for the very first time. And, by closely linking such experience w/more mundane needs - for mental/emotional flexibility and resilience - in a coherent fashion, she has also established a highly pragmatic set of reasons for re-evaluating how we understand, and train, such capabilities...

And, re-evaluate them I think we must...or otherwise face the consequences of neglecting to address our very real imbalance on this score. For, whilst our culture still follows archaic assumptions re the emotions - dismissing them as “irrational”, elevating them as fundamentally “uncontrollable”, or simply relegating them to the sidelines - contemporary neuroscientists such as the Damasios have conclusively demonstrated that they are an inextricable part of all thought and action...the veritable core of motivation and choice. So, if we are to - ever - make better choices, we need to start developing, and educating, our emotions...parallel to our intellects, so that we can find better purposes for ourselves. And this is, perhaps, our most difficult of tasks...


“I have argued that intellectual competence is not widely understood, or valued, for what it is; and that this is evident in attitudes to education. But the case is much worse when we turn to a consideration of the advanced value-sensing modes. Here, the lack of understanding is pervasive...[and] what so often goes wrong, I think, is that advanced-mode thought is compared with core-mode emotion.... Thus, there arises a regressive tendency, a desire to reject reason and all that was best in the Enlightenment, a yearning for some return to the mythic, the magical, the marvellous in old senses of these terms. This is very dangerous...[and,] on the other hand, experiences in the value-sensing modes [also] run the risk of being confused with madness. Where value-sensing experiences approach mysticism, as the states we have been considering certainly do, many people hearing about them tend to feel acute suspicion, which often expresses itself in ridicule and scorn.... When it was mathematics that had to be distinguished from magic, this was not easy...[yet] it was achieved. For our part, we shall have to achieve a similar distinguishing of experiences in the value-sensing modes from magic on the one hand, and madness on the other, if we are ever to correct the imbalance between intellectual and emotional development that exists today.... Neither of these is, or is ever likely to seem, banal or commonplace. Each has its element of mystery. Yet each is a normal, though generally ill-developed, power of the human mind.”
(Donaldson, pp.263-6)


John Henry Calvinist