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Clare W. Graves (December 21, 1914–January 3, 1986) was a professor of psychology and originator of a Level Theory of Human Development. He was born in New Richmond, Indiana.


Graves graduated from Union College in New York in 1940 and received his master's degree and a Ph. D in psychology from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.

In the mid-twentieth century, Clare W. Graves taught psychology at Union College in Schenectady, New York. There he developed an epistemological model of human psychology. Graves claimed that the inspiration for so doing came from undergraduate students in his introductory psychology course. He acknowledged that he was unable to answer the frequently asked question as to who from among many competing psychology theorists was ultimately "right" or "correct" with their model since there were elements of truth and error in all of them.

Development of theories[]

In an attempt to answer the students’ question and find a way to bridge the many apparently conflicting and contraditory viewpoints in psychology, Graves created an epistemological theory that he hoped would help to reconcile the various approaches to human nature and questions about psychological maturity. To obtain the data he needed to develop his hypothesis and test his theory, Graves collected pertinent data from his psychology students (who were a diverse group of people from all over the world) and others in the seven years from 1952 to 1959. He gathered conceptions of the mature personality and conducted batteries of psychological tests using recognized instruments. His analysis of this data became the basis for a theory that he called, among other titles, "The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory" (ECLET).

Graves theorized that in response to the interaction of external conditions with internal neuronal systems, humans develop new bio-psycho-social coping systems to solve existential problems and cope with their worlds. These coping systems are dependent on evolving human culture and individual development, and they are manifested at the individual, societal, and species levels. Graves believed that tangible, emergent, self-assembling dynamic neuronal systems evolved in the human brain in response to evolving existential and social problems. He theorized "man's nature is not a set thing, that it is ever emergent, that it is an open system, not a closed system." This open-endedness set his approach apart from many of his contemporaries who sought a final state, a nirvana, or perfectibility in human nature. His inclusion of the bio-, psycho-, social, and systems theory as vital co-elements also described an inclusive point of view that continues developing today.

Graves's work observes that the emergence within humans of new bio-psycho-social systems in response to the interplay of external conditions with neurology follows a hierarchy in several dimensions, though without guarantees as to time lines or even direction: both progression and regression are possibilities in his model. Furthermore, each level in the hierarchy alternates as the human is either trying to make the environment adapt to the self, or the human is adapting the self to the existential conditions. He called these 'express self' and 'deny self' systems, and the swing between them is the cyclic aspect of his theory. Graves saw this process of stable plateaus interspersed with change intervals as never ending, up to the limits of the brain of Homo sapiens, something he viewed as far greater than we have yet imagined.


A number of management theorists and others have been influenced by Graves' "Emergent Cyclic Levels of Existence Theory". Chris Cowan and Don Beck used it as the basis for their book Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change which in turn is referenced by Integral theorist, Ken Wilber. Dudley Lynch has used it as the basis for four books, including The Strategy of the Dolphin: Scoring a Win in a Chaotic World (with Paul L. Kordis). Many other writers and consultants find merit in the Gravesian perspective in domains ranging from personal coaching to executive assessment, from organization design to social policy.

To understand entrepreneurship and leadership, Dr Dave Robinson has integrated Beck & Cowan (Graves theories) with ethics models to create the 'Personal and Corporate Values Journey' diagram (1998). After several decades of research, he goes further in his phenomenological approach to tie this with several other cultural, business, and logical paradigms (mainly within entrepreneurial business environs) and suggests leadership tools for communication and growth of subordinates and self, linking heavily to Gravesian interpretations. His ethics 'Conflict Star' (2006) is accepted for publishing and other models are to be presented at the 2007 AGSE conference.[1].


A number of companies have created and market assessments (see links below). Graves himself, however, never built a test for his theory and doubted that a simple, valid instrument could be constructed to measure levels of psychological existence accurately. His objective was to understand how people think and not just to categorize the things they think about or value. Christopher Cowan, who has edited and published works by Graves and publishes believes that assessments tend to be momentary snapshots, whereas this theory is based on a wave-like moving picture with many uncertainties.

Typology vs. evolutionary stages[]

Graves work outlines emergent stages rather than personality types which can be present at any stage. Some theorists may confuse Graves 'vertical' emergent stages with personality traits that they may associate with a particular stages. Christopher Cowan believes that many students miss the underlying theory altogether and concentrate, instead, on its artifacts.


  • Graves, Clare W.: Levels of Existence: An Open System Theory of Values. In: Journal of Humanistic Psychology, November 1970
  • Graves, Clare W.: Human Nature Prepares for a Momentous Leap. In: The Futurist, April 1974
  • Lee, William R., Cowan, Christopher C., and Todorovic, Natasha (eds.) (2002) Graves: Levels of Human Existence. Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing. ISBN 0-9724742-0-X (Based on a transcription by Lee plus handouts from a Graves seminar in 1971)
  • Cowan, Christopher C. and Todorovic, Natasha (eds.) (2005) The Never Ending Quest: Dr. Clare W. Graves Explores Human Nature. Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing. ISBN 0-9724742-1-8 (Compiled from chapters of Dr. Graves's previously unpublished manuscript with reconstruction of missing pieces in his own words drawn from various papers and audio tapes.)

See also[]

External links[]

de:Clare W. Graves
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