Is this the end of "The Age of Development," or what?
Or: Please wait a minute, Mr. Post-Man.

Michael J. Chandler
The University of British Columbia

Table of Contents

  1. Introductory Remarks
  2. Who Are These Post-Modernists & What Are They Saying About Us?
  3. A Listing Out of Post-Modernism's Targets of Choice
  4. Living With Post-Modernism: Is Co-Dependency Possible?
    1. Is Post-Modernism Somehow Self-Disenfranchising?
    2. Can one take instruction from post-modernism without necessarily "selling the pass" to relativism, sophistry and Neitzche?
    3. What does Post-modernism actually commit us to?
  5. References

A comment on this article, written by Wolfe Mays, appears in the Fall 95 issue of GE (Vol. 23, No. 4)

Press-ganged into service as part of an ad hoc committee charged with the task of planning for the Society's 1996 Symposium--a meeting, like several others, that will help celebrate the centennial of Piaget's birth--I have, of late, increasingly found myself in the unfamiliar position of needing to weigh up various parts of Piaget's legacy. In contrast to the differently festive tone and forward looking aspect appropriate to these forthcoming meetings, the present dead-of-winter commentary now before you ends up being more funereal and all about the wake of essentially "post-modern" criticism stirred up by Piaget's passing.

My limited intention in taking up arms against this sea of troubles is simply to deliver a quick wake up call. A brief reminder, aimed at anyone that wants or needs reminding, all to the effect that, in many circles, Piaget's death is now being marketed as somehow emblematic of a still broader passing--the beginning of what Kessen (1984, 1990) and others have taken to calling "The End of the Age of Development." In short, then, I mean to use this space to bring to your attention certain widespread rumors according to which the end of Piaget's life is held to have been accompanied by the companion death of the developmental sciences as a whole--rumors that I will be at some pains to suggest have been greatly exaggerated.

Reduced here to what can only be a set of program notes, the thesis that I wish to defend includes as elements the ideas: (a) that, for better or worse, the oft-repeated "post-modern" slander that the developmental sciences in general, and Piaget's theory in particular, are quintessentially "modern" is, in actuality, fair commentary; (b) that precisely the same bill of particulars spelled out on modernity's banner of authority (structure and hierarchy and directionality and just about everything else out of which theories of human development are customarily fashioned) are also the usual targets of choice for post-modernism's most scathing attacks; (c) that, if the harshest of such criticisms are right, then anyone caught out reading the likes of the Genetic Epistemologist is probably already guilty of having hitched their wagon to a falling star, and can be expected to be taken as a fool for having done so; and, rather more happily, (d) that, for reasons spelled out below, the most ground-leveling of such criticisms, if not frankly mistaken, at least have little force when aimed away from their original socio-political targets and toward our own altogether narrower ontogenetic enterprise.

Given all of the above, the three purposes, and so the three sections, of this essay include, then: (I.) a quick attempt to work out what is ordinarily meant by the notion of post-modernism, by inspecting the arsenal of accusations it commonly trains upon students of human development; (II.) to try to get clear about the actual force with which these criticisms legitimately fall upon (and consequently "problemitize") our own enterprise of developmental study; and, finally, (III.) to try to show that, while there may well be good reasons to question the existence of a universal trajectory in the course of cultural or intellectual history, this fact need not be understood as the same thing as an obligation to discount the prospects of there being more or less universal patterns in the course of individual development, or to fatalistically accept the inevitability of "the end of the age of development" as we know it. Working out why this might be so requires, as a starting point, first getting clear about what is ordinarily meant by the notion of post-modern thought, and why its practitioners keep on certifying as dead what I differently experience as the very live business of doing developmental science.

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I. Who Are These Post-Modernists & What Are They Saying About Us?

Whatever else might prove possible given world enough and time, presuming to even begin looking into these especially complicated matters in anything like the 5000 words allotted is almost certainly a doomed enterprise. This is true not only because of the sheer volume of things currently being written on the subject of post-modern thought (e.g., Books in Print now list some 1500 relevant titles in English alone), but also because, as Bernstein (1991) points out, anyone with even the most superficial acquaintance with the recent explosion of discourse between the modern and the postmodern "can scarcely avoid noticing that these terms are slippery, vague, and ambiguous,...[and]...have wildly different meanings, even within the same discipline" (p. 4).

All such impossibility arguments aside, however, the obvious place to start is with the notion of "modernity." Obvious for the straightforward reason that whatever post-modern thought might prove to be, it at least needs to be understood as somehow formed in opposition to other still earlier occurring views that are themselves held out as modern. Although the details here are also naturally in dispute, there is at least some consensus that the key planks forming the broad scaffold for modern thought need to be seen to include the themes of unity or continuity, hierarchy, directional change and rationality. That is, modernity, as it has come down to us from the past, has the reputation of privileging guided or directional, as opposed to only random or directionless, change; sameness and structure over the merely different and contingent; and being or identity in preference to continuous becoming or polysemy. By these lights, the searches by Piaget and other developmentalists for various deep structures or reoccurring patterns in human ontogenesis are regularly recognized as only our own localized instantiations of a wide variety of related modernist quests, including those counterpart searches for underlying essences in the world of art or architectural form, or for some "grand narrative," or some "just-so story" about supposedly progressive or guided dialectical change in the course of cultural or political evolution. Blinded by these lights, we modernists, it is argued, have traditionally groped our way toward such idealized goals or universal end-states, always at the cost of necessarily having left too many of life's rich particulars on the cutting-room floor. While ordinarily sensitive to these down-side possibilities, the developmental sciences have continued to predicate their efforts on the fond hope that searching for sameness beneath a surface structure of difference continues to be an honorable way of making a living.

Here, however, is the unexpected rub, the rude awakening that post-modernists have held in store for anyone who has ever lusted after some trans-historical this or trans-cultural that. What we native born modernists never really counted on--no, here I need to take more individual responsibility, what I, personally never counted on, would never in a million years have come to on my own--is that all such once easy talk about the trans-situational is now quite widely held up for ridicule as an embarrassing remnant left over from a shamefully modern colonialist past; a past that falls very far short of being the innocent, even benevolent, business it was once, perhaps naively, imagined to be. For many, this late-breaking announcement that developmental "progress" has now become a new dirty word, and that the search for the hidden outlines of human nature is itself a form of "terrorism" (Lyotard, 1979), is roughly akin to the flush of embarrassment that first accompanied the discovery that our much sung childhood favorite "How much is that doggy in the window, the one with the waggly tail?" is actually an old sea shanty about prostitutes (Broughton, 1981).

Given these rude surprises, what now needs to be somehow reckoned with, and perhaps even sympathetically understood, is just how it could have come to pass that most of modernity's comfortable old shoe assumptions--assumptions upon which the continued existence of developmental theory as a coherent enterprise would seem to necessarily rest--could have come to be broadly understood by your average post-modern thinker as not just coincidentally mistaken, but as profoundly and utterly and irreconcilably mistaken. We developmentalists badly need to understand this for the important reason that if post-modern thinkers are right about these matters, then we are all well on the way toward being out of a job.

The best way to begin sorting this all out, I think, is to try to first say something brief and quasi-definitional about post-modern thought, all before going on to focus attention upon at least some of the ways in which such views threaten to put developmentalists such as ourselves out of business. Unfortunately, imagining that there could be anything as straight forward as a clear and concise definition of post-modernism is just the sort of unacceptably modern misconception that post-modern thinkers have tended to set their caps against. Mercurial, then, by non-definition, the word post-modernity is still perhaps best understood as one of those loose, baggy, portmanteau sorts of terms that, having been stretched to cover too diverse an array of philosophical perspectives and cultural trends, now risks being reduced to no more than "yet another of those period descriptions that help you take a view of the past suitable to whatever it is you want to do" (Kermode, 1988, p. 62), or legitimize whatever unconventional idea you happen to already own.

However elusive and resistant to clear definition it may be, the term "post-modern" is, nevertheless, widely used to good effect as a way of marking certain broad tendencies at work within contemporary film, theater, dance, music, art and architecture, as well as in literature and criticism, in philosophy, theology, historiography and beyond. Taken in this especially broad sense, the usual pharmakon of ingredients ordinarily imagined to go into a standard elixir of post-modern thought would routinely include, on the negative side: "liberal" doses of antifoundationalism, and incredulity toward what Lyotard (1979) called "meta-" or "grand narratives;" a taste for multiple as opposed to numerical identities; a deligitimizing of anything general or trans-situational, anything structural or hierarchical; and an abhorrence of all unities, totalities, and continuities. On the more positive side, the usual list of things best loved by your rank-and-file post-modernist would need to include: an attraction to everything that is divided and pluralistic; a fear of depths overcome by a romance with the art of the surface, the whole Olympus of appearance; and, most to the present point, a constant readiness to give mere contingent change pride of place over anything that might ordinarily qualify as development. Under these sometimes grim and melancholic lights the post-modern listing of "what's hot and what's not" becomes clear: Leviathans appear to be out and Lilliputians in; abstract axioms are out, while concrete diversity is in; and all the while the permanent is (at least temporarily) out, while (for the moment) the transitive is in.

While it is possible to put a rather more attractive face on all of this nay-saying, doing so is no mean feat. Post-modern thinkers seem not to be an especially joyful lot, and, it might fairly be asked, why should they be? Largely conceived in the disillusioned aftermath of 1968, "troubled by living memories of barbaric totalitarianism, death camps and the ever-present danger of nuclear cataclysm" (Bernstein, 1991, p .2), their deep revulsion for everything that rationality has seemingly become is, after all, not so hard to grasp or share. Although not the sort of bleak, nihilistic sentiments that one ordinarily goes out of their way to actively cultivate, most practitioners of these gloomy prospects have actively chosen them in preference to the alternative modernist commitment to what Lyotard (1979) dubs "legitimating discourses" or "grand narratives"--stories that, while claiming to tell us how things are "naturally" meant to go, are easily unmasked and revealed to be no more than thinly disguised attempts to justify this or that political status quo. What needs to be seen, post-modernists are quick to point out, is that every time one of these grand-narratives is recommissioned and put into service, those already at the margin ended up being marginalized still further, and the bodies grow still thicker on the ground. Warned off by these bloody prospects, other cautionary tales, such as that being put out, for example, by William Kessen (1984, 1990)--tales that warn us of the high prices typically extracted in the name of someone else's crude Victorian notion of perfection, or some new "triumphalist" vision of inevitable progress--would seem deserve our serious attention.

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II. A Listing Out of Post-Modernism's Targets of Choice

However well founded, the common post-modern accusation that, as a group, we developmentalists have been unacceptably slow in seeing the potentially oppressive character of certain of our own most cherished convictions has at least worked to help focus the attention of the field on its own common cornerstones, including the beliefs: (a) that the course of development is necessarily lawful, progressive and directional, and so somehow different from aimless change; (b) that there is something afoot beneath our more evident diversity that needs to be counted as common to our shared human nature, something that development is a way of accomplishing; and (c) that there exist distinct, coherent, and continuous persons whose self-hood our science of development is meant to be about. Post-modern thought does not simply disagree with each and every one of these foundational assumptions, it is wholly inimical to them, it rails against them, damning their collective eyes, not just because they are assumed to be mistaken, but because they are seen as responsible for much that is shameful about our dubious pasts.

Taking up, then, in turn, the matters of directional change, universal structure, and persistent identity that post-modern thinkers especially love to hate, what is it exactly, you may well ask, that is so wrong about imagining that there might be some general (even universal and therefore a-historical) trajectory in the course of human development? The short post-modern answer here is that sedimented within any and all such accounts of progressive or guided or directional change are necessary conclusions about superiority and inferiority that are simply to costly in terms of human suffering to be sustained. However true all of this might be about developmental theories at large, it is regularly said (e.g., Gergen, 1982; Kvale, 1990; Kessen, 1984. 1990; & Morss, 1990) to be true in spades about Piagetian notions of genetic epistemology in general, and the notion of equilibration in particular, all of which are inconceivable without these suspect assumptions of progress and developmental change. Post-modern thought, by contrast, is said to be directly premised upon a collapse of all such beliefs in the "illusory" desirability of progress, which is typically judged to be necessarily logocentric and, at best, nothing more than a veiled attempt to translate into pseudo-scientific vocabulary the Christian notion of divine providence.

Were the debate over the existence or non existence of directional change to be won by the post-modernist, that is, if nothing important about the ordinary course of psychological development is in fact truly common, then, as numerous commentators have been quick to point out, neither can there be anything like human nature. Rather, all manifest attempts to "blueprint," or otherwise capture such supposed trans-situational truths about the human condition need to be re-read, according to post-modern thinkers, as no more than masked attempts at co-optation of "domination" (Haber, 1994). As Rorty (1982) put it, "what ties together Dewey and Foucault and presumably other post-modern thinkers is their "sense that there is nothing deep down inside us except what we have put here ourselves, no criterion that we have not crafted in the course of creating a practice, no standard of rationality that is not an appeal to such a criterion, no rigorous argumentation that is not obedience to our own conventions" (p. ii).

On this logic, all suggestions that there could be anything like a fixed human nature, some authoritative or foundational set of permanent principles of human functioning, are likewise seen as a kind of apology for cultural imperialism, and a threat to the very possibility of freedom. This threat, post-modern theorists argue, arises for the reason that any such imagined universal patterns of organization, were they to be countenanced, would work to annul or repress or otherwise de-legitimize the significance of all those real differences presumably bridged by such hypothesized structures (Kurtzman, 1987). As such, all conceptions of structure are understood by post-modern thinkers as terroristic (Lyotard, 1979) for the reason that, by imposing artificial limits upon radical pluralities, such views work to silence and discipline other voices of potential opposition. Viewed in this light, the ambitions of the developmental sciences are understood to be a pernicious form of "totalization," a scheme for locating growing persons within some repressive system of supposedly timeless archetypes. As such, all constructivistic theories of psychological life, such as that promoted by Piaget, are judged to belong in the same dustbin as every other form of modernist oppression.

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III. Living With Post-Modernism: Is Co-Dependency Possible?

While it is my ambition to list out, in the space remaining, certain important faults of post-modernism, I have in mind no root and branch condemnation, no last minute attempt at driving a stake through its heart. Even if that felt like the right thing to do here, which it doesn't, the chances for success would still be slim since the strategy of attempting to entomb unwanted cultural forces by simply putting the lid on tightly rarely seems to work. Rather, the choices at our disposal would seem to be either: (a) to simply give in to the more nihilistic and paralyzing aspects of post-modernity before moving on to some different line of work; or (b) to work to salvage from such views whatever insights can be salvaged without somehow giving away the farm in the process.

On the positive side, it seems clear enough that post-modern thought has worked powerfully to lend new, perhaps even unnatural strength to the arm of those already committed to elevating the importance of culture or context; has helped us to reveal some of the treacheries associated with facile appeals to wrongly imagined developmental universals; and, through a tour de force in radical pluralizations, has succeeded in opening up new prospects for those whose caps are firmly set upon finding non-mainstream alternatives to more usual notions of structure and identity.

What has to occupy us more here, however, is that unless appropriate prophylactics can be found, then the chances are "good" that the nihilism and sophistry with which many critics believe post-modernism to be infected could easily become epidemic. Consequently, in the few paragraphs that remain I mean to try listing out certain of post-modernity's alleged flaws or shortcomings, all in the hope that doing so will allow us to be only influenced, but not otherwise taken over, by such views. The three end-game questions around which these closing remarks are organized are: 1) Just how generalizeable, and so applicable to our own situation, are post-modernism's harshest criticisms? 2) Just how followable is the advice these critics are offering up? and 3) Exactly where could we expect to end up if we were to really take post-modernism to heart?

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1.) Is Post-Modernism Somehow Self-Disenfranchising?

Among the most important things that need to be understood about post-modern thought is just how far the concerns and criticisms by which it has distinguished itself can or should be generalized beyond the socio-political context for which they were originally outfitted. This query, which is about actual domains of application, is in fact a sub-species of a still broader question regarding whether the notions important to post-modern thought can be coherently generalized in any sense whatsoever. That is, given the standard post-modern pitch that all legitimate business is necessarily "retail" business, it remains an open but dubious matter as to whether one can actually succeed in "wholesaling" out such ideas. This would seem to follow for at least two different sorts of reasons.

The first of these negative possibilities is brought out by the serious prospect that, somehow carried off by the bubble of its own ambition, post-modernism thought may have succeeded in getting caught up in the wires of what Habermas and Apel call a "performative contradiction." That is, by seemingly attempting to universalize or accept as an absolute, its own supposed "law of difference," proponents of post-modern views may be guilty of smuggling back in their very own "grand narrative," thereby breaking the all important first commandment about never forgetting that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

The second and somewhat more localized of these concerns is that, while a certain incredulity toward the grand political narratives of the past may well be justified, the same suspicions may actually not be appropriate when attention is re-focused on those smaller potato matters having to do with the separate psychological development of individual persons. That is, the convictions of certain 19th century "nature philosophers" aside, a belief in the guided or patterned course of human development is not a conviction of the same top lofty caliber as are beliefs in the ultimate perfectibility of humankind, nor must theories about developing children necessarily be seen to be made of the same grand stuff as are theories about developing nations. As a consequence of having seemingly lost these distinctions, many of post-modernism's hallmark questions concerning the essentially political consequences of modernity may actually be irrelevant to the job of deciding whether there is anything like human nature, or universal trajectories in the course of individual psychological development. Must giving up on the idea that "children carry in their very being the seeds of national splendor" (Kessen, 1990, p. 21) necessarily set in motion a train of other dismissals that, in the end, has each and every one of us necessarily rushing off in their own homemade direction? Not at least according to Hassan (1987), a recovering post-modernist. On his account, "the million and more years of hominid history, the structures of the human brain and urgencies of human desire, decreed that we must continually seek to make sense. Others--swamis of deconstruction, satraps of textualism, nabobs of postmodernism-- may obey the call of the `free play of the world...without truth, without origin,' and try to `pass beyond man and humanism,' but they do so only in comfort, when life makes on them moral demands, for the rest, they are as bound to make sense as the rest of us" (p. 194-95).

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2.) Can one take instruction from post-modernism without necessarily "selling the pass" to relativism, sophistry and Neitzche?

Not only is it currently the case that there appear to be no contemporary theories of human development that are genuine instantiations of post-modern sensibilities, it is also arguably true that things could not be otherwise. That is, from its first formulations in Greek thought, the very notion of "theorèo" has presupposed some critical distance between its own categories and those supposedly naturalized matters that theory aims to explain (Callinicos, 1989 p. 94). By debunking everything other than the local, and by insisting upon fragmentation and on an unwavering attention to mere surfaces, post-modern thought would appear to have self-consciously vacated exactly those premises in which theories customarily live. In short, it would appear that one may, if one chooses, pursue a course laid out in opposition to all reason or pattern or even sameness, but, I would argue, one may not do so and still hold out any hope for anything we now know as science.

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3.) What does Post-modernism actually commit us to?

By devoting as much energy as they do to unmasking the hidden interests of other perspectives, and by often portraying their own views as simple descriptions of historical fact, post-modern theorists have largely succeeded in pulling off what Haraway (1988) calls the "God trick," the accomplishment of somehow seeming to be nowhere while claiming to be everywhere equally. As that mask begins to slip, however, "there can't be any doubt about it any longer, the struggle against ideology" to quote Bertold Brecht, "is now revealed to have become a new ideology."

If this judgment is warranted, that is, if post-modernism is actually an ideology like any other, then it is of some importance to figure out exactly what buying into such a view would likely commit us to. At least some of the answers to this question may prove rather far removed from what was imagined by those drawn to post-modernism out of some fascination with what was merely imagined to be recherché and fashionable.

This follows because, despite all of its anti-idealistic protestations, post-modern thought has come to be judged, at least by some of its harshest critics (e.g., Callinicos, 1989; Habermas, 1983, 1987, 1989), to be committed to a subterranean form of ideology that is, at best, nostalgically neo-conservative, and, at worst, overtly fascist. While I leave it to others to pursue this rhetorical point, it should at least be clear, upon reflection, that, as Haber (1994) points out, "without some notion of structure (unity) and some allowance for a legitimate recognition of similarities between ourselves and others, there can be no subject, community, language, or culture" (p. 5). With all of that lost, recent experiences suggest that a falling back upon tribalism at its worst may be all that remains between us and the dark.

Stepping back from such apocalyptic prospects, and looking more locally for the predictable effects of post-modernism on immediate business of the developmental sciences, the prospects seem smaller, but no brighter. This follows for the reason that, with their atomist celebration of pluralism and their automatic rejection of structure or patterned change or anything at depth, post-modernists seem fated to end up merely reproducing the effects of classical behaviorism. That is, a developmental psychology true to post-modern principles, if such were possible, would need to "desubstantalize" both the material and the epistemic subject by committing itself to a program bent upon "out-sourcing" or moving "off-shore" all the important stuff inside stuff out of which developmental progress is otherwise thought to be made. Whether this demotion of the subject from constitutive to constituted status is somehow worth the price of a clear conscience about someone else's grand political narratives is a judgment call that I leave to your own tender mercies.

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Morss, J. R. (1992). Making Waves: Deconstruction and Developmental Psychology. Theory and Psychology, 2(4), 445-465.

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