This essay is inspired by the brilliant work of Hanzi Freinacht. Following the legacy of Piaget, Beck & Cowan, Carol Gilligan, Ken Wilber and others, Hanzi puts forth a fascinating developmental framework. In this essay, I describe his model and its implications for humanity.
I highly recommend Hanzi’s first book, The Listening Society, available here.
Thank you, Hanzi.
A Brief definition of Metamodernism
Metamodernism reconciles Modernism and Postmodernism while admitting its own impermanence. With deep irony and arrogant, well-earned sincerity, it obsoletes old epochs by matching the complexity of our chaotic world. It is thus able to dialogue with it and profoundly alter its course. I will describe Metamodernism, and the philosophical engine driving it, in a later post.
Intro — A New Model of Development
Of all the theorists I’ve read, Hanzi is the most unique. He distinguishes between types of development unlike anyone else. In this essay, we’ll take a look at his four quadrants and their relation to one another. They are state, depth, stage and code. I’ll define them briefly.
State is the quality of your inner experience right now. Depth is the integration of the states you’ve experienced. Stage is the complexity of your thought and behavior. Code is your level of symbolic development — language, knowledge, art, narratives, etc.
To guide our journey, I’ve created a model for reference. I’ll clarify details as we go along.
“You can’t spur development in the three other fields by forcibly driving the development in one field, but not the others.” — Hanzi Freinacht
State is the quality of your inner experience right now. It’s unavoidable: you’re always in one state or another. But how many of us have bothered to rank our subjective states? I certainly hadn't. Here’s the tier list from The Listening Society.
2.) Horrific (reality breaks down)
5.) Very Uneasy
6.) Uneasy, Uncomfortable
7.) Somewhat Uneasy, “okay”, full of small faults (most common)
8.) Satisfied, well
9.) Good, lively
10.) Joyous, full of light, invigorated
11.) Vast, grand, open
12.) Blissful, saintly
13.) Enlightened, spiritual unity
Every moment of your life, including right now, you’re in one of these states. They’re not the same as emotions, although they’re related.
We can’t abandon emotions— even unpleasant ones — as they drive our passions and endow our hearts with living color. State transcends and includes emotions, taking them into the fullness of being. We’re always trying to enhance our state, whether consciously or not.
The average person hovers around #7, feeling alright with an added dash of unease. Others live with profound unease and even torment. A precious few live in higher states of lively invigoration, at times ascending to bliss and unity with being.
We can enhance our state individually and collectively. Personal changes include physical exercise, meditation, walking in nature, pursuing meaningful work, bonding with family, forging strong friendships, and falling in love. Collective improvements involve national safety nets, like affordable healthcare, homeless programs, and good schools.
Why State is Important
Once countries become rich, an underlying trend rears its head: Income and wellbeing have a logarithmic relationship. If you make $100,000 and you want to meaningfully increase your wellbeing, you’ll need to double your income. This gets worse with higher earners.
For countries in this predicament, it’s more efficient to increase wellbeing through social services that help those in need early on, instead of imprisoning them later at quadruple the cost. These changes make for a kinder society. There’s less guilt for those at the top, and less stress for those at the bottom. The effect of raising the subjective state of all people by one tier — from somewhat uneasy to satisfied — is enormous.
Transcend and exclude?
While stages of complexity transcend and include lower stages, subjective states are the opposite. Your current state transcends and excludes all the other states you might otherwise be in. Changing your state is a massive transformation, “tearing down hypotheticals and asserting itself as the full reality of now” (Freinacht, 263).
Depth is your integrated understanding of the different states you’ve experienced. It’s the quality of your relation to reality.
Depth breaks down into two categories: light depth and dark depth. Light depth integrates higher states — imagine Ken Wilber or Ram Daas — while dark depth assimilates lower states — think Victor Frankl, or Friedrich Nietzsche.
To contrast state and depth, let’s imagine a young child who’s goldfish just died — her first experience of death. This causes a low state: strong unease. Because of her naiveté, she can’t integrate the experience into her personality. That work happens when she’s old enough to get a better grip on death and strengthen her character in response. Such depth increases with age — a kind of existential wisdom.
Depth has distinct levels: each tier shows an uptick in wisdom.
1.) Relating to the fulfillment of base desires; status, sex, or vanity.
2.) Relating to local morality; being good to your family, being a reliable employee, etc.
3.) Serving love and preventing suffering in general.
4.) “Manifesting divinity in the world, finding radical acceptance, serve the becoming of unity and multiplicity, surrender fully to existence, and recognizing the emptiness of ultimate significance” (Freinacht, 284).
Stage is the complexity of your thought and behavior. It’s measured with the Model of Hierarchical Complexity, or MHC. This model calculates the complexity of different behaviors and ranks them on a scale. Unsurprisingly, different tasks require different orders of complexity — reacting to stimuli at the low end, and inventing Quantum Physics on the high end.
There are 16 stages, from 0 to 15. Stage zero includes the impulses of molecules and computers reading 0's and 1's. Smart birds display behavior as high as stage 6, learning simple sentences like a 2 or 3-year-old human. As complexity builds, more variables are coordinated, both physical and abstract.
Clarification: Language isn’t the only complex behavior that exists at each level; it’s just the easiest example to use. We’ll do a quick run through of stages 7–15. For more information on these stages, check this PDF out.
Stage 7: Pre-operational stage — Makes deductions and follows sequences (Dogs, humans aged 3–5 years)
Stage 8: Primary Stage — Deduces with empirical rules, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing. Counts acts and relates them to separate actors. (Chimpanzees, humans aged 5–7 years)
Stage 9: Concrete Stage — Follows complex social rules, takes on roles and coordinates self with others, creates meaningful, concrete stories about events. (Bonobos testing various designed tools, humans aged 7–11 years)
Stage 10: Abstract Stage —Forms abstract ideas and thoughts, uses categories and “types of events” to improve understanding. (Humans 11 and older, no other animals from here on)
Stage 11: Formal Stage — Identifies relations between abstract variables and figures out how to test them, Algebra with one unknown (humans 14 and older, usually)
Stage 12: Systematic Stage — Solves algebra equations with several unknowns, discusses legal systems, social structures, ecosystems, economic systems, etc. (age 14–18)
Stage 13: Metasystematic Stage —Compares several systems with differing logical assumptions, puts together meta-systems and conclusions that hold true across different systems, understands why change in one system can’t necessarily be applied to another system. (early 20’s and above)
Stage 14: Paradigmatic Stage — Deals with several abstract metasystems to create new ways of thinking about the world, new paradigms, new sciences, new branches within sciences, Has a fractal way of thinking where universal principles apply to many different levels of analysis. (age 25 and above)
Stage 15: Crossparadigmatic Stage — Deals with several paradigms to create new fields from scratch, like Newton’s physics, Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s theory of relativity, the invention of quantum physics, the invention of computing. (Found in adults with privileged circumstances, usually showing up around age 30, impossible to test for this stage)
There are many reasons why people don’t naturally ascend to Stage 15. Let’s list them:
1.) Living a decent life doesn’t require super high-stage thinking
2.) Nobody treats cognitive complexity as an explicit educational goal. Instead, we maximize cognitive efficiency with standardized tests at MHC 12. Mid-level horizontal efficiency is useless in a world with computers, and this issue is becoming evermore apparent…
3.) People are held back by poor nutrition, bad parenting, bad home life, unlucky genetics, epigenetic issues (stress alters the expression of nearly 1,000 genes), bad education, brainwashing, lack of discipline, deadening jobs, lack of motivation, mental health problems, financial poverty, time poverty, social media addiction, etc.
It’s as if the modern world conspires against high-stage thinking. This has to change.
Code is the symbolic development of a culture. It’s the words and frameworks we use to relate to the world. Code uses language, art, narratives, and memes to form the software of your mind. This software runs on cognitive hardware, MHC. The better your hardware, the better you’ll install state-of-the-art code.
Your level of code determines how you see the world and act in it. Code mainly runs on language, and these historical eras categorize its evolution:
Archaic: Earliest humans and their Neanderthal relatives.
Animistic: The magical ritualistic thinking of tribal society.
Faustian: The mythical thinking of agricultural warrior society.
Post-faustian: The mythic-rational, transcendental thinking of traditional religious society.
Modern: The rational, scientific thinking of the developed world today.
Post-Modern: Post-rational, systematic critique of modern life and society.
Metamodern: A developmental synthesis of modernity and post-modernity into a new era of art, self, and society.
Each version of code tells a different story about reality: thousands of propositions and assumptions lock into a universe of symbols: the building blocks of our cultural narratives. The latest code helps you understand the world more accurately: one of the great privileges of modernity.
*Proviso: the level of code you’re born into doesn’t dictate how smart you are. Though Plato or Aristotle didn’t have modern code, they were still able to manifest high state, stage, and depth.
Conversely, just because you were born in the 2000’s doesn’t mean you’re automatically sophisticated enough to run postmodern code in its entirety. If your MHC is less than 12, you’ll be using a simplified version. Think of the average Vietnam protestor in the 1960’s. They weren’t protesting against Cold War geopolitics. They just didn’t want to fight, and used flattened versions of postmodern language to make this point.
But we can say this — the higher your complexity, the more likely you are to install the latest code available. That’s handy, because each level-up requires a one-step increase in complexity.
Stage 10 Abstract thinkers prefer traditional religious code and simple nationalist politics.
Stage 11 Formal thinkers prefer modernism and liberalism.
Stage 12 thinkers prefer Postmodern critical thinking and counterculture.
Stage 13 Metasystemic thinkers (and above) want the latest and most comprehensive code available.
Through logical development, each new code shreds the symbolic universe of the former one by accounting for more information and resolving old contradictions. No code is perfect, but there is a method to the updates we make to better interact with reality.
Modern advances in nutrition, information, and medicine have plucked all our low-hanging cognitive fruit.
While increasing your cognitive stage takes herculean time and effort — if it’s even possible —it’s less difficult to update your code. But it’s still an uphill slog, demanding you let go of boomer assumptions that don’t correspond to reality. Updating your code requires mental and emotional grit. That’s why so few people ever emerge from the code they were born into. As a consequence, only a single digit percentage of people are equipped to understand how the modern world actually works.
Even now, hundreds of years after the scientific revolution, billions of clueless people still run pre-modern code.
Using that software to understand today’s world is cognitively suicidal, and the versions beyond aren’t automatically downloadable. There are huge prerequisites for installing better code: You have to be smart enough, you need enough psychological flexibility, you need to have a cultural environment that doesn’t get in your way too much, you need to have the time, money, willingness, courage, and freedom to make that happen. As a consequence, about 98% of humans are not in a position to upgrade to Metamodern code. If you are in a position to do so, consider yourself extremely lucky, and take advantage of this rare opportunity.
Due to these roadblocks, very few people will be able to fully operate new code successfully. Like postmodernism and modernism before it, many people will end up using a flattened version of its code. As such, one person can out-code another by using a newer version, or a more complete version.
How to Write New Code
New code versions require whole civilizations to construct them, so small contributions are a big deal. For instance, Edward Bernays invented the field of public relations, helping companies and governments manage our perceptions in plain sight. Consequently, people became obsessed with themselves, and ignored the complexity and corruption of the real world. Powerful stuff. Society changed forever, and it all came from a new phrase and theories borrowed from Sigmund Freud.
Contributions like this led to the postmodern mileu, where reality depends on perception, and our “facts” are social constructs derived from an anglo-western way of looking at the world. This led us to our present situation: a post-political world. A world where none of our leaders are interested in change, but rather, with risk management. This is the world Metamodernism seeks to turn on its head.
A developmental imbalance is a mismatch between your levels of state, stage, depth, and code. Significant imbalances between these can threaten the integrity of systems and people alike.
The greatest imbalance is between our complex world, and the simplicity of the people managing it. Because of this imbalance, our world functions in a retarded way. Our ways of sensing, discerning, and acting don’t correspond to the complexity of the world, and we are lagging behind.
To address this imbalance, we must address our failure points to become more effective agents. By addressing our own imbalances first, our actions that follow will logically re-balance the whole system bit by bit.
What do our imbalances look like, both between people and within ourselves?Here are some examples.
1.) You can out-complex someone, or be out-complexed by them.
2.) You can out-code someone, or be out-coded by them.
3.) You can out-state someone, or be out-stated by them.
4.) You can out-depth someone or be out-depthed by them.
1.) You can out-complex your code, and require a linguistic upgrade.
2.) You can out-code your complexity, and use a flattened version of that code (See Vietnam protesters).
3.) If you out-state and out-depth your culture, you can break social convention and ascend to higher complexity and code (reading challenging books like a weirdo instead of going to bars every weekend like normies.)
4.) You can out-state and out-depth your complexity and code, causing vague magic beliefs to fill in the gaps of your understanding. See astrology, psychic readings, karma, prayer, fate, synchronicity, souls, UFO’s, spirits, gods, etc. This magic residual can occur at any level of intelligence. All that’s required is more state/depth than complexity/code.
5.) You can out-complex and out-code your state and depth, leading to reductionism and instrumentation of the intellect. The world is too dead, meaningless and mechanical for you to care about it. You’re aggressive toward existence. “You gain a sense of satisfaction, a faint feeling of revenge, from exposing reality for the meaningless, dead piece of indifferent shit that it really is” (Freinacht, 343). You’re living an empty life without deep principles to justify your existence.
Addressing developmental imbalance is never complete, because we’re never done developing! We’re always leveling up and balancing out, then reaching higher still. In fact, achieving “perfect balance” means you’re not developing enough. The goal is to continue realizing how stupid and lopsided you used to be.
State, depth, stage and code productively guide our path without getting us stuck in magical thinking or other forms of bullshit. This is a conversation opener: how to we distill these ideas further? Can this frame be taken into psychology to achieve greater therapeutic results? Can we bring it into education so children have a more balanced approach to being in the world?
It’s time to steal back our development from narrow-minded academics and the fickle whims of the market. Let’s co-create reality in a more sophisticated way.