On the General Cognitive Features
of the Ante-rational Mind

by Wim van den Dungen

Among classical scholars and Western philosophers alike, the emergence of rational, discursive, formal thought is historically linked with the "Greek miracle", i.e. the exceptional cultural form emerging rapidly in Ancient Greece between ca.600 BCE and the death of Alexander the Great (323 BCE). The latter initiated an enormous expansion of Greek culture all over the Mediterranean area and beyond, moving from Classical Greek to cosmopolitical humanism, from citizen to individual, from "theoria" to a practical "art of life". Hellenism, as this process is called, and its conceptual rationality are co-relative phenomena. In philosophy, the Greeks clearly defined the distinction between theory (ideality) and fact (reality). For all pre-Renaissance intellectuals, Greek and Hellenistic thought represented the way of science. Opposed to a dogmatic theology, this way inevitably seen by the Church as Pagan, heretical and atheist. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, this major influence of Greece came to a final close.

The "Greek miracle" did not eclipse the fact pre-Greek civilizations, of which Ancient Egypt was the grandest, had produced great thinkers, writers and men of science. Of all peoples of Antiquity, the Ancient Egyptians had been the most literary, reproducing huge quantities of hieroglyphs in their tombs and on the walls of their temples. From the Renaissance on, vain attempts at decipherment had entailed a process of explaining the esoteric, allegorical, metaphorical, analogical, hidden ("mystical") significance of these hieroglyphs. The greatest stumbling-block in the way of discovering the phonetics of hieroglyphs was the general confusion about the script at the end of its historical use (on the island of Philae in 394 CE). Authors like Diodorus Siculus, Chaeremon and Horapollo, an Egyptian of the fifth century CE, all affirmed hieroglyphs were not phonetical but allegorical. The Renaissance took this view for granted and failed to understand the language.

Only since recently has it become clear that a relatively large corpus of Ancient Egyptian literature exists and that some of it predates the oldest Greek works of literature with thousands of years. Only between 1960 and 1970 has the "standard" theory on Middle Egyptian emerged (a linguistic redefinition of the verbal forms by Polotsky). Large numbers of papyri are still stored away untranslated. The challenge today, is to accept the presence of a pre-Greek, ante-rational system of thought able to produce a lasting culture of excellence. To posit ante-rationality, begs the question of the modes of thought characterizing the genesis of the cognitive apparatus. This is the theme of this short text.

In my Dutch studies on epistemology and anthropology (
Prolegomena, Kennis, Stuurkunde), summarized in English as the Rules of the Game of "true" Knowledge, and recently expanded and situated in a neurophilosophical context, the Piagetian theory on cognition was explained and eclectically enlarged (by adding system-theory, cybernetics, neo-Freudianism, Kohlberg and Maslow). The worldwide findings of Piaget could be enlarged.

Remark :

The use of capitals in words as "Absolute", "God" or "Divine", points to a rational context (i.e. how these appear in a theology conducted in the rational mode of thought). Hence, when these words are used in the context of Ancient Egyptian ante-rational thought (which, as a cultural form, was mythical, pre-rational & proto-rational), this restriction is lifted. Hence, words such as "god", "the god", "gods", "goddesses", "pantheon" or "divine" are not capitalized.

In the present Studies on Ancient Egypt, certain features of the Egyptian language (and its genesis) were found to correlate with the earliest, ante-rational stages of cognitive growth ; the mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational modes of thought. From the Late Predynastic Period (ca. 3600 - 3000 BCE) onward, until the First Intermediate Period and the Middle Kingdom (ca. 1759 BCE, with the death of Pharaoh Nefru Sobek), when Egyptian became classical "Middle" Egyptian, the developmental stages of Egyptian are largely in accord with the features of the mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational modes of cognition. If this is so, then genetical epistemology offers a mindset to be able to better understand the mixtures and layers of ante-rational modes of cognition, so outstandingly evidenced by Ancient Egyptian literature.

In genetical epistemology, the cognitive process is analyzed in terms of coordination of movements, interiorization and permanency :

  • the formation of new cognitive forms is triggered by the repeated confrontation with an unexpected, novel, original, eccentric action, a set of events & happenings, radically undermining the tenacity with which acquired ideas shaped a particular, limited view of the world (universe, cosmos), a framework or architecture of habit and expectation, security & stability, dramatically challenged by the significant confrontation with this novel action - no conceptualization occurs, for objects and beings are equated with their motoric coordinations (mythical thought) ;

  • action-reflection or the interiorization of this novel action by means of semiotic factors ; this is the first level of permanency or pre-concepts which have no decontextualized use (pre-rational thought) ;

  • anticipation & retro-action using these pre-concepts, valid insofar as they symbolize the original action but always with reference to context : the concrete concept (proto-rational thought) ;

  • final level of permanency : formal concepts, valid independent of the original action and context & the formation of permanent cognitive (mental) operators : the abstract concept (rational thought).

In this way, Piaget defined four fundamental layers of cognitive growth :

  • sensori-motoric cognition, between birth and 2 years of age ;

  • pre-operational cognition, between 2 and 6 ;

  • concrete operatoric cognition, between 7 and 10 ;

  • formal-operatoric cognition, between 10 & 13.

Mental operators (part of consciousness) identify (symbolize) actions in sets of conscious (semantics), informational (syntax) & material (pragmatics) activity. Auto-regulation is the result of interactions between the system and its environment. Hence, (inter)subjectivity is essential in the construction of new and stronger cognitive structures. This implies cognitive processes not only appear as resulting from organic auto-regulation (of which they reflect the essential mechanisms) but also emerge as differentiated organs of this regulation in the arena of the interactions of the system with the environment. Cognition being the most differentiated biological organ of survival human beings have.

Seven different types of schemata emerge. The first four can be called "foundational" or "elemental", and are mainly exterior (the adaptations between coordinations of movement and reality), while the top three mostly invite the first person perspective (interiority) :

  • sensori-motoric, mythical thought : aduality implies only one relationship, namely with immediate physicality ; object & subject reflect perfectly ; earliest schemata are restricted to the internal structure of the actions (the coordination) as they exist in the actual moment and differentiate between the actions connecting the subjects and the actions connecting the objects. The action-scheme can not be manipulated by thought and is triggered when it practically materializes ;

  • pre-operatoric, pre-rational thought : at last object and subject are differentiated and interiorized ; the subject is liberated from its entanglement with the actual situation of the actions ; early psychomorph causality. The subjective is projected upon the objective and the objective is viewed as the mirror of the subjective. The emergence of pre-concepts and pre-conceptual schemata does not allow for permanency and logical control. The beginning of decentration occurs and eventually objectification ensues ... ;

  • concrete-operatoric, proto-rational thought : conceptual structures emerge which provide insight in the essential moments of the operational mental construction : 
    (a) constructive generalization ; 
    (b) the ability to understand each step and hence the total system, and 
    (c) autoregulation enabling one to run through the system in two ways, causing conservation. The conceptual schemata are "concrete" because they only function in contexts and not yet in formal, abstract mental spaces ;

  • formal-operatoric, rational thought : abstract conceptual structures positioned in mental spaces which are independent of the concrete, local environment. Liberated from the contextual approach but nevertheless rooting the conditions of knowledge outside the cognitive apparatus itself ;

  • transcendental or critical thought : abstract ideas explaining how knowledge and its growth are possible, rooted in the "I think", the transcendental unity of apperception (or transcendental Self). This is the Kantian project ;

  • creative thought : unique, abstract ideas of the ontic Self, constituting a creative, microcosmic reality of Self-manifestation (cf. intuition) ;

  • unitive nondual thought : the unveiling of being to being-there (cf. phenomenology, philosophy of mysticism, mystical experience, prehension).





1 Mythical
libidinal ego


2 Pre-rational
tribal ego


3 Proto-rational
imitative ego
barrier between instinct and reason




4 Rational
formal ego


5 Critical
formal self
barrier between reason and intuition








nondual selfless (transparant) self

For further information click here.


The cognitive development of children happens in stages. Three major stages of cognition can be defined, and within each substages are at work. Ancient Egyptian thought covers the first stage of cognition, the pre-nominal stage. Three tools of thought are simultaneously operational : the notion, the pre-concept and the concept.


the notion

First substage :

  1. adualism and only a virtual consciousness of identity ;

  2. primitive action testifying a quasi complete indifferentiation between the subjective and the objective side of cognition ;

  3. actions are quasi uncoordinated, i.e. random movements are frequent.

Second substage :

  1. first decentration of actions with regard to their material origin (i.e. the physical body) ;

  2. first objectification by a subject experiencing itself for the first time as the source of actions ;

  3. objectification of actions and the experience of spatiality ;

  4. objects are linked because of the growing coordination of actual actions ;

  5. links between actions in means/goals schemes, allowing the subject to experience itself as the source of action (initiative), moving beyond the dependence between the external object and the acting body ;

  6. spatial & temporal permanency and causal relationships are observed ;

  7. differentiation (between object and subject) leads to logico-mathematical structures, whereas the distinction between actions related to the subject and those related to the external objects becomes the startingpoint of causal relationships ;

  8. the putting together of schematics derived from external objects or from the forms of actions which have been applied to external objects.

Comments :

The earliest stage of mythical thought is adual and non-verbal. The only "symbols" and "forms" are the material events themselves in all their immediacy and wholeness. It is this non-verbal core, making the mythopoetic mind as analogical as the artistic. In mythical thought, everything is immediate and the immediate is all. Ergo, myth goes against the differentiation feeding the complexification of thought & cognition.

Before the rise of language, mythical cognition is imbedded in action and allows for the distinction between an object & a subject of experience by being conscious of the material, exteriorized schematics connecting both in the immediate context of their emergence (cf. the myth of water & the sacred feminine in Ancient Egyptian Predynastic Gerzean ware-design, the petroglyphs of the Eastern Desert).

The first differentiation occurs when, on the level of material, actual, immediate actions, the object is placed before the subject of experience. This emergence of subjectivity implies the decentration of the movements of the physical executive agent (the body), unveiling the subject as source of action. This prepares the interiorizations of pre-rational thought. By the foundational difference between the body and the empirical subject, consciousness can be attributed to a focus of identity (ego). 

Mythical thought is non-verbal. Nevertheless, actions are triggered by a subject conscious of a whole network of practical and material actualizations, although without any conceptual knowledge but only through immediate, exteriorized material schemes (cf. the rise of the outer rule of Pharaoh, who, with his "transcendent element", brings the Two Lands of creation under unity).

In terms of cognitive texture, mythical thought is the "irrational" foundation of ante-rationality. Indeed, the earliest layer of human cognitive activity is devoid of logical necessity, although patterns & schemes are present, but their flexibility and plasticity are a function of the direct environment and what happens there. Action and source of action are distinguished, but coordinations which suggest any reflection on the action itself (or on the actor) are absent. Hence, idiotic schemes are obsessively repeated. The "irrationality" being the total absence of means to communicate meaning, except in immediate physical terms (offering something, going away, kicking the other etc.). Nevertheless, the subject is conscious of being a source of action. There is a non-verbal sense of identity (I-am-ness) and a mythical verbalization of it.

Predynastic Egypt (ca. 4000 - 3000 BCE) thought & spoke in myths, but wrote nothing down, except in the odd schemata.


the pre-concept

  1. because of the introduction of semiotical factors (symbolical play, language, and the formation of mental images), the coordination of movements is no longer exclusively triggered by their practical and material actualizations without any knowledge of their existence as forms, i.e. the first layer of thought occurs : the difference between subject & object is a signal which gives rise to the symbol ;

  2. upon the simple action, a new type of interiorized action is erected which is not conceptual because the interiorization itself is nothing more than a copy of the development of the actions using signs and imagination ;

  3. no object of thought is realized but only an internal structure of the actions in a pre-concept formed by imagination and language ;

  4. pre-verbal intelligence and interiorization of imitation in imaginal representations ;

  5. psychomorph view on causality : no distinction between objects and the actions of the subjects ;

  6. objects are living beings with qualities attributed to them as a result of interactions ;

  7. at first, no logical distinction is made between "all" and "few" and comparisons are comprehended in an absolute way, i.e. A < B is possible, but A < B < C is not ; 

  8. finally, the difference between class and individual is grasped, but transitivity and reversibility are not mastered ;

  9. the pre-concepts & pre-relations are dependent on the variations existing between the relational characteristics of objects & can not be reversed, making them rather impermanent and difficult to maintain. They stand between action-schema and concept.

Comments :

A tremendous leap forwards ensues. The formation of a subjective focus (at the end of the mythical phase of thought) is necessary to allow for the next step : interiorization, imagination and the actual articulation of pre-concepts, leading up to pre-relations between objects, although the latter remain psychomorph. This implies that confusions between pre-relations and pre-concepts are not dealt with. These are, as it were, put on top of each other, causing conflictual (antinomic) layers to exist side by side. Subjective qualities are projected upon objects and subjective states are treated as if they were objective realities.

The reality of objects is always personalized or made subjective. Natural phenomena, stones, trees and animals "speak" just as do human subjects. Important objects are those with the strongest positive (attractive) subjective potential : family, teachers, ancestors, divine kings, prophets, angels, deities, etc. "mediating" when pre-rationality fails to bridge the gap between what is stable (the architecture) and what constantly moves (the process).

In Ancient Egyptian history, evidence of such interiorization is found in the Old Kingdom, with its consolidation of kingship and the advent of the theologies of Re & Osiris. It also explains the tremendous development of Egyptian, from the rudimentary, archaic cartoon-like style of the Early Dynastic Period, to the record-style of the Old Kingdom and its Old Egyptian.

Early Dynastic Egypt (ca. 3000 - 2.600 BCE) and the Old Kingdom (ca. 2600 - 2200 BCE) provide us with examples of mythical and pre-rational thought. Incredible motoric skills and organizational abilities were the building blocks of the Pharaonic Old Kingdom State. The link between linguistic abilities and cognitive structure is however pertinent and fundamental.


the concept

  1. for the first time stable concepts and relations emerge and the interiorized actions receive the status of "operations", allowing for transformations. The latter make it possible to change the variable factors while keeping others invariant ;

  2. the increase of coordinations forms coordinating systems & structures which are capable of becoming closed systems by virtue of a play of anticipative and retrospective constructions of thought (imaginal thought-forms) ;

  3. these mental operations, instead of introducing corrections when the actions are finished, exist by the pre-correction of errors and this thanks to the double play of anticipation and retroaction or "perfect regulation" ;

  4. transitivity is mastered which causes the enclosedness of the formal system ;

  5. necessity is grasped ;

  6. constructive abstraction, new, unifying coordinations which allow for the emergence of a total system and auto-regulation (or the equilbration caused by perfect regulation) ;

  7. transitivity, conservation and reversibility are given ;

  8. the mental operations are "concrete", not "formal", implying that they (a) exclusively appear in immediate contexts and (b) deal with objects only (i.e. are not reflective) ;

  9. the concrete operatoric structures are not established through a system of combinations, but one step at a time ; 

  10. this stage is paradoxal : a balanced development of logico-mathematical operations versus the limitations imposed upon the concrete operations. This conflict triggers the next, final stage, which covers the formal operations.

Comments :

Thanks to transitivity, a system of concrete concepts arises. It is not combinatoric (but sequential) and not formal (abstract concept are not present). Concrete thoughts manipulate objects without reflecting upon the manipulation. The manipulation is stored as a function of its direct use, not in any overall, categorial, librarian or antiquarian fashion, although within a given manipulation a series can be present. The contextuality, pragmatism and use of the concrete concept is its stability.

Proto-rationality is thus always limited by a given context. Moreover, there is no reflection upon the conditions of subjectivity (just as in the pre-rational stage objects remained psychomorph). This contextualization leaves in place uncoordinated actions and concepts which are the expression of many serious (fundamental) contradictions.

The absence of an abstact, conceptual theory means an author has to describe his subject in every new work. In Ancient Egyptian, the artistic eye, visual semantics and the rich storehouse of images are presupposed, making it harder on readers today to understand the underlying message. The contextualization of the text is the most reliable hermeneutical technique left. 

In some case, like the inscription on the Shabaka Stone, several hermeneutical strands emerge, for the inscription (of the Late Period) proves to be the copy in stone of a late New Kingdom worm-eaten copy of an older text (on papyrus), as thematical and linguistic elements make likely. In each stage of the redaction of this text (from its lost original, to the older text and finally to the extant inscription), new layers were as it were put on top of the older, the result being a difficult blend of ancient and more recent material. Because Pharaoh Shabaka (ca. 712 - 698 BCE) belonged to a Late Period Dynasty in love with archaism, it becomes even more difficult to determine which layer was more original than the other. Moreover, instead of eliminating an older layer, the Egyptians used to leave it untouched (for it too was considered sacred) and so they wrote their "new" thoughts side by side the outdated conception ...

"... the coexistence of different correlation of problems and phenomena presents no difficulties. It is in the concrete imagery of the Egyptian texts and designs that they become disturbing to us ; there lies the main source of the inconsistencies which have baffled and exasperated modern students of Egyptian religion. (...) Here then we find an abrupt juxtaposition of views which we should consider mutually exclusive. This is what I have called a multiplicity of approaches : the avenue of preoccupation with life and death leads to one imaginative conception, that with the origin of the existing world to another. Each image, each concept was valid within its own context. (...) And yet such quasi-conflicting images, whether encountered in paintings or in texts, should not be dismissed in the usual derogatory manner. They display a meaningful inconsistency, and not poverty but superabundance of imagination. (...) This discussion of the multiplicity of approaches to a single cosmic god requires a complement ; we must consider the converse situation in which one single problem is correlated with several natural phenomena. We might call it a 'multiplicity of answers'."
Frankfort, 1961, pp.16-20.

With the advent of the "classical" Middle Kingdom (ca. 1940 BCE), cognitive (literary) and motoric (architecture, art) attained a proto-rational equilibrium.

The first expressions of this mode of thought are to be found as early as the Late Old Kingdom (cf. some sections of the Pyramid Texts and the Maxims of Ptahhotep - cf. Heka), although it was realized as a cultural form in the Classical Period (the Middle Kingdom). Only then did proto-rationality become a generalized mode of thought, accepting the individual and his family as origin of moral justification and allowing every justified Egyptian to exist with Osiris in the netherworld (cf. the so-called "demotization" of religion).

of thought
in Egyptian literature
major stages of growth in the formation of Middle Egyptian
Gerzean ware design schemata, petroglyphs, early palettes

individual hieroglyps, no texts, no grammar, cartoon-like style

Relief of Snefru, Biography of Methen, Sinai Inscriptions, Testamentary Enactment, Pyramid Texts

individual words with archaic sentences, a very rudimentary grammar to simple sentences in the "record" style of the Old Kingdom

concrete operations
Maxims of Ptahhotep, Coffin Texts, Sapiental literature, ... Great Hymn to the Aten ... Memphis Theology

from simple sentences to the classical form of a literary language capable of further change

The distinctions of genetical epistemology are empirico-formal statements of fact. The evolutive structure discovered by Piaget has been validated independently and cross-culturally. The mythical, pre-rational and proto-rational layers of "early" cognition contain the root-concepts of reason, the fundamental ontological discourse which is the summary of the cultural evolution of humankind, and its genuine approach of the Question of Being. As soon as a writing system was developed, and records were made (to be found and consulted later), a continuity was made possible. Moreover, the different steps of the cognitive process can then be linked with historical evidence.

The mode of cognition given in the Pyramid Texts or the Maxims of Ptahhotep (early proto-rationality) belonged to exceptional individuals, such as Pharaoh or his most trusted viziers. But when proto-rationality got fully established, everybody had a "soul" (cf. Ba) and became a potential "Osiris NN" (Middle Kingdom). The importance of a balanced mind was then deemed essential for every deceased (cf. the judgement scene and the importance of being "true of voice"). The pre-rational tensions between Re and Osiris were bridged (Osiris is Re at night) and the first attempt to unify the pantheon was made (cf. Middle Kingdom Amun theology, where Amun was both king and judge).

To close, let us compare the fundamental characteristics of African philosophy & religion (Zahan, 1963 & 1970) with Ancient Egyptian culture, a truly African phenomenon.

African Tradition Ancient Egyptian culture

The African is basically & universally religious and in constant relation with nature, the gods, the spirits, the ancestors. He or she entertains religious relations with other living beings.

It is not a coincidence that the Greeks saw Egypt as the "land of the gods". The Ancient Egyptians were truly religious, worshipping the deities for more than three millennia.

The center of the world is not the deities or the spirits but living man himself

The center of the world is Pharaoh, the living god.

A religion of matter : earth, sky and matter are basic

The materiality & concreteness of Egyptian religion are obvious.

The person is himself by virtue of his relations with other persons : ancestors & clan.

As early biographies show : the person is defined by his role in the Pharaonic state.

Time is cyclic.

Time is based on the cycles of Sun & Moon.

Union of man & woman is symbolic of the union of sky & earth, the balance of the world.

All Enneads are balanced, and the mother of the royal heir was his official consort.

The child is the object of tenderness and love.

Amarna art shows incredible tender scenes.

No real theology or religious doubt. Belief in efficiency of rituals is beyond contestation.

Brief & isolated accounts of doubt occur but even in distress magic works.

Creation is the creation of a distance, pre-condition of communication.

Without Shu, the first division does not happen and no creation would not be possible.

The distance between man and the world of the spirit is source of peace and the condition of possible immortality.

Humans hide, only Pharaoh flies to the sky. In their temples, the deities are hidden from the eyes of the commoners.

Aspiration to union with the spirit-world by bringing it down to Earth.

While the essence of the deities remained in the sky, their Kas & Bas may dwell on Earth.

Religion is related to the four elements.

The quaters played a major role.

Sacrifice is the basic religious act.

Only by feeding the Ka was the Ba gratified.

The main theme of meditation is life & death.

Everlasting existence was the main theme.

The ideal is the reincarnation of past in future.

The ideal is the First Time recreated again and again.

Knowledge is acquired by transformation through initiation (creating a strong human).

The Egyptian mysteries implied stages of growth guarded by crisis & observation.

The African behaved as a reorganizer of the physical world, its master & rejuvenator.

Pharaoh brings order, truth & justice and together with Re rejuvenates daily forever.

Let us keep in mind that the level of thought in African environments does not seem to overcome concrete operational thinking, i.e. the African cultural form does not yet reach the level of abstract propositional operations (Bovet & Othenin-Girard, 1970).


The work of Piaget, the findings of neo-Freudian theory (Lemay), Kohlberg's research on moral development & some major theories on post-formal cognitive growth (Maslow, Tart, Wilber) yield a genetico-cognitive model which integrates the three main perspectives on the living human being, namely the cognitive (Piaget, Kohlberg), the socio-affective (Freud and his school) and the moral (Maslow and transpersonal psychology). These explain the stability, continuity and architecture of a system of cognitive relationships, structures & operators.

This part of the model is "vertical", in the sense that it explains how cognitive structures stand erect. Complementary to this is the approach of Prigogine, who investigated the horizontal, dynamical features, found to be irreversible (cf. infra).

Each phase is characterized by
matter (pragmatics) and the complexification of its biological operations, by information (syntax) or the synthetical symbolizations of these operations, and by consciousness (semantics) summarizing the meanings & intentions which occur as a result of the activities of a living substance (casu quo the body). See also my metaphysics.

These findings can be expanded in three ways. Firstly, the Piagetian model did not only prove valid in the psycho-cognitive realm, but can also be used as a tool to understand the evolution of cultural forms and the crisis undergone by societies & civilizations (understood as living systems). Secondly, the stages encountered in the cognitive growth of individuals correspond with the development of cognition in the human species as a whole (from mythical to rational thought and beyond - cf. Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, 1976). Thirdly, stages beyond the formal stage of cognitive growth (i.e. intuition or intellectual perception) can and will not be a priori excluded.

The historico-psychological paradigm used in my hermeneutical studies is a synthesis of Piaget's genetical epistemology and the historical approach of civilization, seeking the general mental form or forms underscoring the economical, socio-political, scientific, artistic, spiritual and symbolical (codified, written) expressions of a given civilization in general and its overall, common cognitive structure (or cultural form) in particular.

Its main principles are :

  1. thought originates from action, i.e. coordinated movements. This coordination is a "form" which is : (a) executed by the biological organism at hand, i.e. its matter, (b) explained through the interactions with its environment or information and (c) given meaning by the unique identity or consciousness typical for each member of a species ;

  2. thought is based on an indirect, functional contact with the physical world, i.e. thought is always mediated, by a third term (whereas physiological processes are direct) ;

  3. thought is a finite process which is an integrated part of a particular living organism but simultaneously thought is also the extension with which consciousness may touch the universal, unconditional, infinite & absolute ; 

  4. the development of thought depends on the successive improvements of the variety of its abstract forms of equilibration, which is a historical process ;

  5. the construction of more stable cognitive forms becomes necessary to resolve the contradictions which characterize the previous stage, and so they are regulations of  regulations, etc.

  6. to explain the historical development of these equilibrations both individual as social factors are to be taken into consideration. Society is a system of activities based on actions which influence each other reciprocally ;

  7. the rise and development of a cultural form, especially its cognitive features, is understood as a collective, historical equilibration on a higher, more stable level of civilization which allows for the construction of new inner operators (actional, affective, cognitive, intuitional) and novel outer behavior (as families, societies, cultures & civilizations), eliminating those tensions which disrupted the development of civilization in an earlier stage of its cultural development.

To complete this model, we need to consider non-equilibrium dynamics or the notion of irreversible process as developed by Prigogine in the context of his study of complex, open, communicative & energy-consuming wholes, i.e. dissipative systems or organizations. 

In his famous book, La Nouvelle Alliance (1979), Prigogine poses the question how highly intelligent systems escape the constant chaotic movements which surrounds them ? Indeed, Piaget (psychology) focused on the forms of equilibrium which characterize the relative stability of a given stage of cognitive development. These forms represent order, structure or architecture (stability, conservation, repetition). Prigogine (physics), aware of the entropic qualities of physical systems with complex trajectories (initial position + dynamical process), emphasized the chaotic dynamics of the environment and is therefore impressed by the architecture of order evidenced by complex systems. The fact that crisis (decentration) is necessary to trigger re-equilibration, as well as the observation that crisis is initiated by interacting with the environment, were put into evidence by Piaget and are confirmed by the analysis of complex trajectories by Prigogine (cf.
Chaos, 1996).

Both positions are complementary, and focus on a different functional horizon of complex systems. Prigogine studies the horizontal, dynamical characteristics of a system, the fact that they constantly reorganize to survive the entropic decay around them. Piaget investigates the vertical, static architecture of a system, the fact that it has a strong backbone which is the result of many years of evolution and uncountable trials & errors.  

Both acknowledge systems go through crisis and define auto-regulation (Piaget) and auto-structuration (Prigogine) as explicative for the continuous reorganization (permanent reformation) to which highly intelligent systems submit themselves, especially when the number of interaction with the environment is large (increasing the arrival of new input). Because fluctuations rise, more interactions increase the chance of crisis and trigger crisis (decentration). 

Only crisis will increase the survival-needs of a system and trigger auto-structuration which can be measured as :

  • a decrease of entropy or negative entropy (i.e. negentropy in a galacy largely composed out of entropic matter). Complex life is a refutation of the "black box"-model, the "closed systems"-theories and the "stimulus-reflex"-thinking ;

  • a more comprehensive database which allows for more information to be stored, assimilated and made to work to solve problems ;

  • a more coherent field of consciousness, able to attribute meaning to the objects which are part of it.

"Le calcul montre que plus un système est complexe, plus sont élevées les chances que, pour tout état, certaines fluctuations soient dangereuses. (...) Il est probable que dans les systèmes très complexes, où les espèces ou les individus interagissent de manière très diversifiée, la diffusion, la communication entre tous les points du système est également très rapide. (...) Ainsi, ce serait la rapidité de communication que déterminerait la complexité maximale que peut atteindre l'organisation d'un système sans devenir trop instable." - Prigogine, I. & Stengers, I. : La Nouvelle Alliance, Gallimard - Paris, 1979, p.178, my italics.

A swift communication indeed increases fluctuations, but the latter do not destroy the system because a critical balance has been realized.

"La taille critique est donc déterminée par une compétition entre le 'pouvoir d'intégration' du système et les méchanismes chimique qui amplifient la fluctuation à l'intérieur de la sousrégion fluctuante." - Prigogine, I. & Stengers, I. : Ibidem, p.178.

Hence, auto-regulation through the dynamics of conflict, implies both external (environment) and internal (power of integration) changes. The latter, vertical aspect of a system, defies entropy as long as it can and this with an exemplary tenacity. But if no power of integration is operative or if it is not strong enough compared with the fluctuations at hand, then an increase of chaos is the most likely outcome. This reduces the existing heterogeneity and variety to a more standardized and uniform format. It makes the system withdraw and collapse. For this reduced system avoids communication and hence fossilizes out of the lack of new input and the absence of auto-regulation.


initiated : 2003 - last update : 07 I 2015

© Wim van den Dungen