Meta-theory 1: the what and why of meta-theory?

An excerpt from: Stein, Z. (in press). Beyond nature and humanity: reflections on the emergence and purposes of metatheories. In Bhaskar, Esbjorn-Hargens, Hedlund-de Witt & Hartwig (Eds.) Metatheory for the 21st century: critical realism and integral theory in dialogue. New York: Routledge. [pdf]

Meta-theory as humanity’s vocabulary of self-transformation

[With] self-consciousness comes the possibility of transforming ourselves by adopting new vocabularies, redescribing, and so reconstructing our selves and discursive institutions. While all of us are in some sense consumers of such new vocabularies, it is the special calling of some to produce them. And among those producers some take the construction of unique, potentially transformative vocabularies as the project by commitment to which they understand and define themselves. Among that group, some seek to produce those new vocabularies precisely by trying to understated the phenomena of sapience, normativity, conceptuality, reason, freedom, expression, self-consciousness, self-constitution, and historical transformation by subversive, empowering vocabularies. Those are the philosophers. They are charged neither with simply understanding human nature (human history), nor with simply changing it, but with changing it by understanding it.

—Robert B. Brandom (2009, p. 150)


We humans are a self-interpreting species for whom the practice of recollecting and redescribing ourselves is a crucial necessity. For us the reconstruction of identity is a continuous process wherein the past is selectively crafted into a history. It is a creative and self-constitutive exercise. We come to know each other and ourselves not by exchanging resumes (mere inventories of events), but by telling our stories. And our stories change as we do; they reflect what actually happened and what we think is worth remembering, they reflect who we were, who we are, and who we would like to become. Neglecting this retrospective task results in identity confusion, leaving us fragmented, meandering, and directionless. Some argue that the species as a whole faces an impending identity crisis as the unchecked proliferation of informational and biological technologies create abrupt discontinuities in the intergenerational fabric of the lifeworld, catapulting us out of history and into forms of life that are incongruent and incomprehensible (Habermas, 2003; Fukuyama, 2002). These concerns about possible futures appear realistic when they are seen in the context of the obvious identity confusions that already characterize large swaths of the academy, especially in the humanities and social sciences (Kagan, 2009; Menand, 2010). The disciplines traditionally responsible for the self-interpretation of the species do not have a coherent interpretation of themselves.

This paper expresses a certain understanding of the origins and purposes of meta-theories. Remembering (recollecting and redescribing) who we are as metatheorists should go a long way toward bringing order to the disorder and fragmentation of the academy. The proliferation of robust meta-theories should in turn foster the emergence of more substantive and coherent voices in the public sphere, which is otherwise becoming increasingly irrational, inarticulate, and superficial. What follows is a certain type of scholarly intervention. It involves an historical reconstruction of core intellectual themes that have shaped a given field, addressing this reconstruction to participants in that field, and thus affecting how they understand their efforts. Both Brandom (2002; 2009) and Habermas (1971) have executed projects of this type—in philosophy and critical theory respectively—and both have discussed the unique methodological issues involved. The reconstruction of a cumulative trajectory or tradition is both a discovery and a creation. It is also both descriptive and prescriptive. We remember what we think is worth remembering, which depends in part on who we want to become, yet who we want to become is a reflection of who we think we have been all along. This kind of complex hermeneutic exercise is indispensable for assuring the continuity of intellectual traditions. Retrospective reconstructive work sets the necessary staging for concerted constructive efforts.

Importantly, these kinds of reconstructions are always partial. The story I tell here is but one story (and a regrettably brief and unelaborated one at that). There are other stories worth telling. And I encourage the reconstruction of different stories. In one sense this paper can be read as having a merely expressive intent, as opposed to its being read as if it were crafted to persuade or convince. This does not mean what follows is arbitrary or irrelevant, or that it cannot be persuasive. The long tradition of expressive philosophical projects—from Schelling, Nietzsche, and Emerson through Derrida, Rorty, West, and Brandom—would suggest quite the opposite. Many have been influential while yet only claiming to express themselves, especially regarding issues too deep to really argue about. So while I am adopting a somewhat unconventional argumentative strategy, it is not an unreasonable one.

I have adopted this argumentative strategy mainly in response to the state of the discourse surrounding the term meta-theory, which has been so variously characterized (e.g., Edwards, 2008; Fiske & Shweder, 1986; Overton, 2007; Ritzer, 1991; 1992). At first pass the term can simply be understood as referring to a type of super-theory built from overarching constructs that organize and subsume more local, discipline-specific theories and concepts. Roughly: whereas a theory within a discipline typically takes the world as data, meta-theory typically takes other theories as data. Beyond this first pass, however, the discourse about meta-theory gets very complex very fast (see: Rizter, 1992). A highly abstract, ornate, and self-referential academic niche has emerged. And as a result there has been a flowering of interesting intellectual work concerning meta-theory. This is not a situation unique to the discourse about meta-theory. Nor do I write this intending a criticism of the field. This is how things stand in most fields, even those with seemingly straightforward subjects, such as human memory (see: Hacking, 1995).

But things get even more complex and contested if philosophy is not partitioned off from meta-theory (a move I have never seen justified) and if the whole discourse about interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity is also thrown into the mix (e.g., Gibbons, Limoges, Nowontny, Schwartzman, Scott, & Trow, 1994; Klein, 2005, Stein, 2007). When the net is cast broadly what comes into view is an expansive and unprecedented proliferation of reflective activity about knowledge production processes in post-industrial socio-cultural contexts. The task of cataloging the various genus and species that populate this intellectual landscape is a daunting one. And the idea of offering some new theoretical creature that might survive seems misguided, as the diversity on the current scene suggests probable redundancy. So my strategy has been to look back to a time before the Cambrian Explosion, as it were—a time before the contemporary cacophony—to find the key progenitors in hopes that this approach might allow for clarity about the core properties that characterize meta-theoretical endeavors.

What results, I think, is a compelling account wherein meta-theory is understood as a unique extension of more traditional modes of philosophy. First emerging the later half of the 19th century, meta-theory grew up as a response to advances in psychology that would transform epistemology, and to socio-economic transformations affecting the institutionalization of knowledge production (e.g., the birth of the complex departmentalized research university). It emerged to serve a normative function as a result of cognitive, disciplinary, and discursive necessities, ultimately positioning itself as a locus of responsibility for setting the trajectory of high-level discourses and reflective cultural practices. Of course, today meta-theorists claim to be doing all kinds of things, such as serving descriptive, deconstructive, or even decorative functions. I am aware of the various ways we meta-theorists might understand ourselves, but I choose to offer a vision that emphasizes the distinctly normative core of meta-theoretical endeavoring. Others are welcome to tell stories that construe meta-theory differently, perhaps as a more recent and poly-focal form of academic activity. I personally prefer to see meta-theory as the continuation by new means of classic philosophical efforts, where highly reflective individuals take responsibility for discursively constructing conceptual innovations aimed at bringing coherence to the state of knowledge for the sake of shaping human history.[2]

Below I trace the origins of meta-theory to Kant and Hegel, who gave it to Emerson and a host of Young Hegelians on both sides of the Atlantic. Then I profile the meta-theoretical projects of Charles S. Peirce, James Mark Baldwin, Jean Piaget, and Jurgen Habermas, who I characterize as key progenitors of contemporary meta-theory. They all self-consciously appropriated and transformed the philosophical traditions they inherited in order to address the rapidly changing contexts of knowledge production they faced. The results are best understood as meta-theoretical endeavors that are explicitly related to a specific philosophical tradition concerned with the function, role, and purpose of humanity in an evolving universe. A look at Ken Wilber and Roy Bhaskar brings the narrative up to date. This historical reconstruction is intended to remind contemporary meta-theorist of a set of related issues and themes, which I will quickly foreshadow.

The meta-theorists discussed below all address the place of humanity in an evolving universe, each seeking to articulate a way of preserving human reason and morality in a thoroughgoing evolutionary context—including both natural and cultural evolution. This relates to each theory’s focus on and the distinctly normative nature humanity; that is, they were each out to show that we are the makers and followers of rules, values, and ideals, not just passive nodes in causal systems; we reflectively strive to create what ought to be from what is. This common focus on the function of the normative in nature appears as one of the ways that meta-theories have kept alive more traditional philosophical and religious themes, including such problems as free will, post-conventional morality, and the possibility of creating radically new and more humane cultural and social conditions. The tie between meta-theory and religious or spiritual visions of humanity seems to be intrinsic. Not only do all the theorist discussed below display long standing interests in religious questions and investigations, their theories were shaped by these concerns as much as others. Moreover, because these theories are so broad and because they take humanity as their focus their content will tend toward areas traditionally the subject of philosophical or religious discourse. So even while meta-theories may not directly address these existential issues, many are intrinsically relevant and are often raised despite the intention of authors to keep them off the table.[3]

However, as abstract and complex as these theories are they are not “views for nowhere” (Nagel, 1993). All the meta-theorist discussed below offer theories that can account for themselves—they eat their own tails—because they are tied into traditions in psychology and human development that can explain the emergence of meta-theoretical capabilities, in both the individual mind-brain and in communities of inquiry and practice. Beginning with Peirce and Baldwin, meta-theoretical constructs have been reflectively wielded as the most advanced ideas around, coming into use only ‘beyond formal operations” (in what Baldwin called the “super-logical” levels of cognitive development). Since then these kind of constructs have been called: post-formal (Piaget), post-conventional (Kohlberg; Habermas), dialectal (Basseches), 2nd tiered vision-logic (WIlber), meta-systemic (Commons), and single principled (Dawson; Fischer).     Developmental psychologists agree that these high-level constructs have particular properties and potentials, two of which strongly characterize all the theories discussed here. Meta-theoretical constructs serve a discourse-regulative function—they emerge from a kind of discursive mastery, which gives way to an ability to reflect on the norms of discourses and pursue new languages for norming the norms—this is a basic characteristic of a post-conventional discourse-interventions. Once these constructs emerge they can be re-tooled to serve a general discourse-regulative function: within a single discourse (e.g., discourse-specific meta-theory, like meta-psychology); between discourses (e.g., interdisciplinary meta-theory, like systems theory); or across indefinite discourses, including public and non-academic (e.g., philosophical meta-theory, like Critical Realism or Integral Theory). Post-formal constructs serve as epistemic adjudicators within and between disciplines (this is the meta-critical aspect of meta-theory; or simply meta-critique), but they also mediate between the sciences and the everyday communication of the lifeworld—giving humanity new languages with which to understand itself (this is the meta-narrative function of meta-theory; or simply meta-narrative).

Meta-theoretical languages articulate norms beyond those set by existing social conditions, including current scientific understandings of nature and the meaning of the evolutionary emergence of humanity. Meta-theorists traffic in constructs that lead beyond both nature and humanity; they provide languages designed to recreate humanity’s understanding of itself. This is discussed below as the normative function of meta-theoretical endeavors. Meta-theory has inherited from philosophy the function of providing for humanity’s languages of self-transformation—which is the task of leading humanity beyond itself by re-articulating a shared vision of human nature and the nature of the universe.


[2] It may be that I am merely reconstructing part of the lineage of a certain type of meta-theory. Perhaps the type of meta-theory I am reconstructing here is better understood as a species of philosophical meta-theory, which can be set apart from scientific meta-theory (Ritzer, 1991). Or perhaps it should be called, integral meta-theory (Edwards, 2007; Esbjörn-Hargens & Zimmerman, 2009; Hamilton, 2008; Lazlo, 2004; McIntosh, 2007; Mascolo, & Fischer, in press; Wilber, 1995; 1999). I have no objections to the idea that what follows is merely a reconstruction of a certain type of meta-theory. It may be that what I have in mind is not even meta-theory, but a kind of philosophy. Call it what you will in the long run, I call it meta-theory here for rhetorical purposes. I return to this issue in the conclusion.

[3] This is not a problem for the meta-theorists discussed here. But it is for some self-declared reductive meta-theoretical positions, such as eliminative materialism (Churchland); systems theory (Luhmann; Wolfram), and the various bio-centric evolutionary syntheses (Wilson). The breadth of these meta-theories results in questions and visions of religious scope and significance, which the authors deal with either awkwardly or dismissively.