Interview with Professor Georg Oesterdiekhoff

By: Lipton Matthews

Georg Oesterdiekhoff has taught sociology at the universities of Aachen, Erlangen-Nuremberg and at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá. He has written or edited 30 books and has published about 100 journal articles. His work has been covered in leading journals, such as the American Journal of Psychology, Journal of Social Sciences, Anthropos: International Review of Anthropology and Linguistics, Physics International, Human Evolution and other reputable publications. He has developed the so-called “structural-genetic theory programme” that aims to use developmental psychology to explain history generally, and accordingly, the history of culture, society, law, morals, politics, arts, and religion.

  1. Jean Piaget is frequently discussed in your articles, so why is he so important?

Jean Piaget has shown that human development from childhood to adulthood goes through four major psychological stages, transforming basic mental processes, personality structures, experiences of people, and the understanding of logic, nature, social affairs, law, politics, morals, and religion. He has already shown that pre-modern peoples usually do not develop the fourth stage of human development and often neither the third stage. The second stage of human development – the preoperational stage – is the stage that describes the mental world of ancient or pre-modern peoples best. However, Piaget did not work out a systematic and coherent theory to describe all the phenomena involved. Others such as C. Hallpike, L. Ibarra, Rolando Garcia, C. Radding, and S. Gablik have devoted complete monographs to describe the similarities between ancient adults and modern children more comprehensively, using Piaget´s research. My task is to develop a theory that explains and tackles all the problems originating in that comparison between ontogeny and history. Moreover, I have shown that the parallels between children and ancient adults concern every single aspect. There is not one phenomenon that characterizes the psyche of a child that does not also describe the main characteristics of ancient adult humans. They may differ in experience and knowledge but not in those structures coming from the psychological stage.

  1. Can you explain the differences between ancient adults and children in more detail?

Children and ancient humans, from whichever world culture, region, and time period, share the same patterns in logic, the same animistic understanding of movements and physics, the same belief in magic and ghosts, the same categories concerning causality, chance, and probability, the same view on myths and dreams, and the same understanding of law and religion. You will not find one detail to describe the psychology of a child that is not being described as a main feature of the psyche of ancient humans, described in ethnological or historical books. For example, both groups of humans do not understand syllogisms and both groups also believe that desire and ritual can turn rocks to humans or birds to horses (belief in metamorphosis). Similarly, like children pre-modern adults attribute humanlike abilities to animals, plants, and objects.

  1. Why could ancient humans not develop beyond these stages?

Piagetian Cross-Cultural Psychology found that exposure to modern schooling is decisive to attain the adolescent stage of formal operations. Pre-modern societies, with their lack of quality education could not stimulate further development. This shows that a dialectical interrelationship between material culture on the one side and psychological advancements on the other side is the motor behind the progress of civilization. Without socialization in modern culture people do not develop beyond childhood´s stages.

  1. A signature theme of your work is the difference between pre-modern societies and contemporary societies, but how did the former differ from the latter?


Societies are made by people and not by social structures as sociologists do believe. People staying on the preoperational stage make societies that are different from modern societies created by people staying on higher psychological stages. Pre-modern societies are characterized by simple technologies, lack of sciences, huge role of religion and magic, superstitions and rituals, punitive laws, and brutal social affairs such as maltreatment of women, slavery, or even cannibalism. Modern societies could only emerge as result of that interplay between culture and human development that I have mentioned above. Modern society is characterized by science, industrial growth, enlightenment, humanism, and liberty. The adolescent stage of formal operations, that emerged in Europe during the 17th and 18th century, created science and the age of enlightenment, and gave birth to the rise of the modern, industrial society.

  1. Why were ancient societies like Rome unable to transition to modernity?

The Romans could not preserve the achievements of the Hellenistic culture and sciences – they really destroyed that culture in consequence of their conquest of the Eastern Mediterranean B. C. The Romans were not good at sciences as the Greeks had been. They obviously could not establish a culture able to promote the evolution of formal operations, as the ancient Chinese, Japanese, and Indians couldn´t, too. I have no complete answer why the Europeans of the 17th and 18th century were successful, and why the other civilizations weren´t. Gutenberg´s invention may be part of the answer or may contribute to the explanation needed. The general theoretical model (interrelationship between socialization and psychological development) is apparent, the single factors crucial in history are still opaque.

  1. Can the cognitive developmental approach explain the rise of the Physical Sciences?

Piaget and Garcia published in 1983 a book dedicated to that subject. The preoperational stage is incapable to develop scientific thinking. The intellectual prerequisites of scientific thinking are given when the adolescent stage of formal operations arises. This stage emerges in modern adolescents between their 12th and their 18th year, with the 15th year as a decisive year. Then adolescents can understand theories and think systematically, coherently, experimentally and empirically. They replace the magical-animistic worldview of the child with the rational and scientific worldview. The same transformation took place in Europe during the 17th century, whereas Asia endured in preserving the worldview of the child, being therefore incapable to develop the physical sciences. As currently the whole world advances, at least more or less, with backbenchers and forerunners, sciences have disseminated on a worldwide scale.

  1. You submit that the cognitive developmental approach explains the rise of modern society, but what’s its relation to the European miracle?

The rise of modern, industrial society is the European miracle. Historians and sociologists have tried to explain the rise of modern society by reference to colonial exploitation of the South (Wallerstein), by exploitation of the working class (Marx), by struggle of classes (Moore), by Protestant ethics (Weber), by liberal markets (Hayek) or by Property Rights (North, Thomas). These theories are either superficial or even wrong. The emergence of the modern world originates in education and human development, that is, in the adolescent stage of formal operations. This stage explains the rise of the science and technology, the establishment of civilized political systems, the evolution of music and arts, and the emergence of humanism in human relations and pedagogics.

  1. Did pre-modern people have a different approach to law?

Children and ancient people did not distinguish physical and moral (legal) laws. For pre-modern humans and children, the behavior of physical objects originates in their obedience to the moral laws, rather than the laws of mechanical causality, unknown in premodern nations till Europe’s 17th century, and initially unknown among modern children, because of the same cognitive immaturity both groups share. Physical laws were considered norms imposed by God that physical entities followed by will and obedience, whereas moral norms, also imposed by God, were regarded as holy and unchangeable. This confusion of physical and legal laws is typical for the child´s understanding of law and nature, as Piaget has already found out in 1932. Piagetian Cross-Cultural Psychology evidenced that ancient people have the same understanding. Therefore, they deny democracy and the change of laws and customs (misoneism). Secondly, children and ancient humans embrace the phenomenon called objective responsibility (Erfolgshaftung in history).

The implication of this is that people bear consequences of actions they are not responsible for. Collective punishments, bloodshed, and judicial prosecution of animals belong to this subject. Thirdly, both groups of humans resort to combats, oaths or ordeals to solve conflicts. The ordeal of hot iron, fire or boiling water to decide judicial questions originated in the mentality of the child. Fourthly, young children support severe punishments even when socialized in modern households. Likewise ancient humankind demanded severe punishments. That explains the brutal-sadistic punishment systems of the ancient word.

  1. Is the cognitive developmental a tool to understand the precipitous decline in violence observed by people like Steven Pinker?

Ancient humans staying on the child´s stages tend to be more emotional and passionate, aggressive, and violent. This observation stood in the centre of Elias´ theory of civilization which Steven Pinker follows in his relevant book on the history of violence. Of course, the decline of violence during history is also explainable in terms of existence/lack of institutional forces (police; justice). However, it is obvious that more rational and civilized people deny violence while people staying on the child´s stages resort to violence more easily. You only have to read a report on the culture of duels and bloodshed in former times to gain the data you need to understand that point.

  1. Intelligence is indeed influenced by genetics; however, your work argues that the success of industrial societies is primarily a result of modernization pressure, please discuss your findings?

Psychologists and biologists say that hereditary factors affect the individual intelligence, some maintain that this observation should be extended to the acknowledgment of racial differences. I have no idea how to combine these contentions with those won by Piagetian Cross-Cultural Psychology. What we see is that every race can stay either on the preoperational stage or on the formal operational stage in mere dependence of culture and socialization. White people stood on the preoperational stage some centuries ago, and they were the first to advance. However, nowadays people from all over the world follow this path due to modernization and globalization. Therefore, I see not much room for hereditary factors to play a crucial part. By the way, “intelligence” refers to mental abilities only, “psychological stage” describes phenomena more profound. When people can develop from preoperational to formal operational stage within two following generations then it is to assume that culture affects psyche much more than genes do.

  1. What is the status you ascribe to your theory?

I regard the discovery that pre-modern humans stood on preoperational or concrete-operational stages but not on the adolescent stage of formal operations as the greatest discovery ever made in the whole history of social sciences and humanities. Provided that there is and will be progress in sciences then I estimate that in 200 years this discovery will be appreciated as the greatest discovery on a worldwide scale. It matches the discovery of evolution in biology fully. You must appreciate stage theory in order to be able to explain the world history of law, politics, morals, economy, religion, and arts. Moreover, there are no foundations that lie deeper than the stage structures because the development from suckling over child to adult is the deepest layer of psychological phenomena to discover. Even the reduction to neurological phenomena would bring nothing because it is necessary to describe the phenomena in psychological terms. That means that now social sciences and humanities have found true foundations of historical trajectories for the first time.

The current ignorance in relation to this discovery is part of the advancement and progress from Middle Ages to Modernity: It is one thing to develop, and it is another thing to understand that this development has really taken place. Therefore, modern social scientists, in consequence of the stage they have elaborated, cannot understand animism, worship of ancestors, magical rituals, judicial procedures against animals, etc. as manifestations of different psychological stages but try to interpret them by insufficient means. In the future when scientists have reached higher stages then they will easily see the huge gap between the ancient and the modern world.

  1. For our interested audience, which of your publications would you recommend as a first step of studying your research?

For example, the article “Different developmental stages and developmental ages of humans in history. Culture and socialization, open and closed developmental windows, and promoted and arrested developments.”, published in the American Journal of Psychology in 2021.

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