Perry studied college students for all four years of undergraduate school, asking them questions designed to elicit their views on knowledge. What he determined is that they gradually changed their views over time in a somewhat predictable pattern. Of course, not all students were at the same stage when they entered university, so the early stages had fewer examples, but there were still some. Generally, he found that students began in an dualist stage, where they believe that things are either true or false, and have little patience for ambiguity or what Perry calls relativism.* In this stage they believe that knowledge is gained from authorities (ie. professors)—or, if they reject the authority, as sometimes happens, they do so without the skills of the later stages and still tend to view things as black and white. As the stages progress, they start to recognize that different professors want different answers and that there are good arguments for mutually exclusive positions. By the fifth stage, they adopt Perry’s relativism: knowledge is something for which one makes arguments, and authorities might know more than you but they’re just as fallible, and there’s no real sure answer for anything anywhere. After this stage, they start to realize they can make commitments within relativism, up until the ninth stage, where they have made those commitments within a relativist framework. Not all students (or people) progress through all of the stages, however; each stage contains tensions (both internally and against the world/classroom) which can only be resolved in the next stage, but the unpleasant experience of these tensions might cause a student to retreat into a previous stage and get stuck there. Furthermore, with the exception of the first stage, there are always two ways to do a stage: one is in adherence to the authority (or the perceived authority), and the other is in rebellion against it.** It’s all quite complicated and interesting.
The 50s, 60s, and 70s show clearly in Perry, both in his writing style, his sense of psychology, and his understanding of the final stage as still being within a relativist frame. His theory foundered for a while but was picked up Hofer and Pintrich in the early 2000s. They, and other researchers, have revised the stages according to more robust research among more demographics. Their results are fairly well corroborated by multiple empirical studies.
According to contemporary developmental models of personal epistemology, people progress through the following stages:
This link leads to a decent summary I found (with Calvin & Hobbes strips to illustrate!), but note that whoever made this slideshow has kept Perry’s Commitments as a stage after evaluism (which they called multiplism), which isn’t conventional. As with Perry’s model, there are more ways not to proceed that there are to proceed. Often people retreat from the next stage because it requires new skills from them and introduces them to new tensions and uncertainties; it feels safer in a previous stage. Something that’s been discovered more recently is that people have different epistemic beliefs for different knowledge domains: someone can hold an evaluist position in politics, a relativist position in religion, and a dualist position in science, for instance.
Or maybe not. It reminds me of David Deutsch’s Popper-inspired epistemology in The Beginning of Infinity, but it also reminds me literary interpretation as I’m used to practicing it, and so I can see a lot of people rallying under its banner and saying it’s theirs. That doesn’t mean it is theirs, but it often might be, and what I suspect is that evaluism might be a pretty broad tent. It was an exciting discovery for me, but for the last few months I’ve started to consider that it’s at best a genus, and I’m still looking for a species.
But this leads to a particular question: which comes first, philosophy or psychology? Brains, of course, come before both, but I’ve always been inclined to say that philosophy comes first. When, in high school, I first learned of Kohlberg’s moral development scheme, I reacted with something between indignation and horror: I was distressed at the idea that people would—that I would—inexorably change from real morality, which relies on adherence to laws, to something that seemed at the time like relativism. Just because people tended to develop in a particular way did not mean they should. What I told myself was that adults did not become more correct about morality but rather became better at rationalizing their misdeeds using fancy (but incorrect) relativistic logic. Of course I was likely right about that, but still I grew up just as Kohlberg predicted. However, I still believed that questions of how we tended to think about morality were different questions from how we should think about morality.
**Perry writes about a strange irony in the fairly relativistic (or seemingly relativistic) university today.
Here’s the quotation:
In a modern liberal arts college, […] The majority of the faculty has gone beyond differences of absolutist opinion into teachings which are deliberately founded in a relativistic epistemology […]. In this current situation, if a student revolts against “the Establishment” before he has familiarized himself with the analytical and integrative skills of relativistic thinking, the only place he can take his stand is in a simplistic absolutism. He revolts, then, not against a homogeneous lower-level orthodoxy but against heterogeneity. In doing so he not only narrows the range of his materials, he rejects the second-level tools of his critical analysis, reflection, and comparative thinking—the tools through which the successful rebel of a previous generation moved forward to productive dissent.