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The purpose of this page is to rexamine the major stages of development -- infancy, early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence -- and rethink their character and connections. The rexamination is informed by the cultural psychology theoretical framework, and also by the ontological considerations discussed on other pages in this site.

It might be said that in general terms what we need to do is pursue a strategy of trying to historize and culturally pluralize developmental phenomena and developmental milestones that have hitherto been assumed to be universal. 

We will draw especially from Kieran Egan's book "The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape Our Understanding" (1997, University of Chicago Press). In many ways Egan's book is on the cutting edge of cultural-historical thinking about development. Egan surely takes a step in the right direction by exploring how each developmental stage involves a new "intellectual tool"--oral language, written language, etc. If criticisms of Egan's argument and the scope of his effort emerge later in this page, this shouldn't be interpreted as any kind of denial of the value of his efforts. It's because his work is so valuable that it is taken as a leaping-off point here.

If Kieran Egan wears the white hat, the black hat is worn here by Jean Piaget. Developmental psychology currently lacks, in my opinion, any theory as comprehensive as Piaget's. Piaget's cognitive developmentalism, his genetic epistemology, thus still defines what a theory of development must aspire to, as well as providing a very large target at which to shoot criticisms and off which bounce alternatives.

An important note (disclaimer? boast?): The discussion here is speculative, exploratory, sometimes perhaps outrageous. This is deliberate--the search is for a new way of understanding and interpreting human development. Lots of the suggestions here will be wrong, but if just a few are right, or provoke new work, the effort will have been worthwhile. And, thanks are due to the students in my Theories of Development course....

Stage 1: Infancy

"Infancy has long held a special place in theories of human development: the emerging blend of biology and psychology is rapid and salient, the roots of the psyche are formed, the nearly certain potential of the small and vulnerable creature is awesome, and babies are cute"
Super, C. (1981). Behavioral development in infancy. In R. Munroe, R. Munroe, & B. Whiting, (Eds.). Handbook of cross-cultural development. New York: Garland STPM Press, p. 181.

In several respects infancy is the developmental stage most important and yet most difficult to understand. It is the most distant from the adult researcher, and so the hardest to reconstruct and imaginatively project oneself into. Yet, as the first stage, the starting point, the way we think about infancy has implications for the way we consider each subsequent stage of human development.

Piaget’s two books on infancy explore infancy from two complementary perspectives.

The Origins of Intelligence considers in sequence the structures of each of the sensorimotor substages. The Construction of Reality attempts to grasp what is going on from the infant’s point of view, presenting the changing world of the infant.

The first structure is that of the reflex. From this a series of “circular reactions” develop. Primary circular reactions deal with events on or near the infant’s body, while secondary circular reactions move into the surrounding space. These are the basis for coordinated secondary circular reactions, while tertiary reactions are systematically varied--the first sign, for Piaget, of a creative intelligence.

The first point to be made about Piaget’s analysis is that each of these structures is a structure of interaction between organism and the environment: they do not belong to the infant alone. Even the reflex is a response to environmental stimulation. Piaget uses the term “scheme” for each of these structures (and those that follow in the more advanced developmental stages; the term comes from Immanuel Kant (though I’d like to check the German & Swiss terms). A schema was, for Kant, a structure not of mind per se, but of the relation between mind and world (cf. Cassirer on this.) It is an intentional notion. So when Piaget speaks of reflexes as the first schemas he’s highlighting the fact that the reflex is already a way of responding to a stimulus. One imagines that, post-behaviorism, reflexes were understood more as organismic.

It’s worth pursuing this connection with Kant. Given Piaget’s emphasis on epistemology it’s no accident that there are echoes of Kant in his infancy work. When Piaget turns to the “construction of reality” we find echos of Kant again, for the dimensions of reality that Piaget deals with, one at a time, are space, time, causality, and object--and these are precisely Kant’s “transcendental categories.” These categories we considered by Kant to be innate, a priori, conditions for the possibility of all and any experience. We can’t have an experience without it being organized in terms of spatiality, temporality, causality, and object. These did not arise from experience (as British empiricist David Hume had suggested, thus “rousing [Kant] from his dogmatic slumber”); they were given in advance of all experience.

While Piaget, like Kant, viewed these categories as necessary conditions for knowledge of the world, he considered them not to be innate, but constructed. It is in infancy that the infant undertakes and completes the dramatic epistemological enterprise of constructing space, time, causation, and object.
Properly understood, these are not concepts, for...

The infancy books, then, are not about the development of “concepts” (this would be a simple idealism), but truly about the development of “reality.” The infant doesn’t construct the concept of an object; the infant constructs a world in which objects can exist.

That adult intelligence presupposes, takes for granted, such a world of preexisting objects shouldn’t allow us to become naive realists about it. Much of the recent neo-Piagetian research on infancy makes just this mistake. It is assumed that objects exist, simpliciter, and researchers then seek to show that infants ‘know’ this at birth, or at least much earlier than Piaget believed. This, if true, would be return to something simpler than Kant’s position.
[check trans of “object concept”--and german for category]

But this locates Piaget’s work with respect to “representational” theories of human being. Kant was part of a leap at the end of C18 from a metaphysics of representation, a theory of representation, to the task of showing how things can be given to representation; in what conditions, upon what ground. With Kant, “the limits of knowledge provide a positive foundation for the possibility of knowing.” (Dreyfus & Rabinow).

Piaget is a structuralist (more on this later), but his concept of structure has an organic basis. When Piaget insisted that he was a “genetic epistemologist,” not a psychologist, he meant he was interested in the genesis of the capacity for knowledge, especially logical reasoning. How does a biological organism (the human infant) become a rational subject, capable of logical thought? How does the capacity for knowing develop?

And the two infancy books make evident Piaget’s notions about the connection between structure and function. The schemes are the products of a process of adaptation to the demands of the environment, an adaptation that seeks equilibrium between the twin functions of assimilation and accomodation. ...
Historical connections can be drawn between Kant’s transcendental analysis and structuralism. Both undertook a search for structures that are the necessary conditions for some phenomenon. Structuralism (and hermeneutics too) are “extreme methodological reactions to phenomenology, both of which inherit but seek to transcend the Kantian subject/object division. Both these approaches try to eliminate the Husserlian conception of a meaning-giving transcendental subject” (Dreyfus & Rabinow, 1982, p. xv). Structuralism, like Kant’s critique, seeks the conditions for the possibility of knowledge, but eliminates the constituting--the “unified and unifying”--subject.
Piaget’s work is an important contribution to the structuralist project, because he aimed to show how knowledge grows not from the activity of mind, but from activity that is biological in character. It is not until the end of infancy that we can begin to speak of mental activity, Piaget insists. Mind is a product of the human organism’s activity (and so too is object), not a prerequisite to that activity. And Piaget too wants to do without the subject. This seems strange to most psychologists, but Piaget is clear on the matter.
What the infant learns during the first two years or so of life, is a practical understanding of the ?world?.


1. Practical Intelligence

Central to most, if not all, accounts of infancy is the notion that it is a stage of practical intelligence. Piaget's concept of sensorimotor intelligence has much to recommend it.

Yet this concept needs to be reworked in several ways.

The term itself--"sensori-motor"--misdirects our attention to processes Piaget believed happen within the child. The connection between sensation and action is read as the connection between input (the 'sensori') and output (the 'motor'), with the organism mediating this connection. Consider, for example, the schemes Piaget describes characterizing the 1st and 2nd substages of infancy. First are reflexes (autonomic responses to sensory stimulation), next are simple learned reactions ("primary circular reactions" in which [quote]) .

What would happen if we rewrote "sensori-motor" intelligence as "action-consequence" intelligence? Here the hyphenated connection is external to the organism, and this leaves us room to recognize that typically other people (and through them the larger social order) play a part in the connections the infant comes to recognize and reproduce.

For example, when the infant yawns (a reflex response), adults understand this action in ways influenced by circumstances and custom, and offer consequences to the infant. 

The phenomena of "primary intersubjectivity," explored by Colwyn Trevarthen and others, are of just this type. We need, I would propose, to see development, even during infancy (especially during infancy), as not something individual (let alone something going on within the individual) but as happening to the social system of which the child is part, one participating member.

Michael Cole has offered a socio-cultural account of the development of sleeping practices that has just this form...

Anthony Wilden, in "System and Structure" (1972), argues that Piaget confused psychological subject with biological organism... [quote]

2. Space, Time, Causality and Object

What is the infant learning during infancy? Piaget takes from Immanuel Kant the notion that our experience of the world is structured ("constructed") by mental "categories" of space, time, causality and object. Kant considered these categories to be a priori properties of mind. Piaget sees them not as innate, but as constructed by the sensorimotor child over the course of infancy. (The infancy books make no explicit reference to Kant, so far as I can tell, though "The Moral Judgement of the Child" contains references to Kant's "Metaphysics of Morals.")

But Kant's categories were part of an epistemological justification for the Newtonian conception of the universe--where an external observer is able to extend regular axes of space and time through a coherent universe, and track the trajectories of persisting and independent objects.

But even physical space isn't structured like this, it has become clear. The Newtonian model of the universe has been abandoned (or is taken as a practical approximation for everyday nevigation), and so its justification by Kant becomes useless. And neither is social space....

Piaget feared that space would lose its coherence if displacements were not reversible [quote in Wilden]....

All this is to prepare some ground work upon which to suggest that perhaps the infant is indeed learning, on the level of action, about the structures of space, time, causality and object--but that these structures are social and cultural structures. They are conventional, contingent and in historical flux rather than being necessary, universal and timeless. But of course this would upset the Piagetian applecart, so to speak, because on the basis of what is learned during infancy Piaget wants to build the intellectual capacity for logic. And Piaget did not view logic as conventional and contingent! More on this later.

On the other hand, there is a valuable aspect to Piaget's account of infancy that is, I believe, often misunderstood and misrecognized. It is often assumed that the acquisition of object permanence, for example, is a matter of the child constructing varieties of concept of the object. But strictly speaking (and it is important to speak strictly about these matters, for they are both subtle and important) this cannot be the case. The child does not until the very end of infancy have the capacity for representation, and a concept is surely some kind of representation. What Piaget describes during infancy is not construction of knowledge of a spatio-temporal world of permanent objects, but the construction of that world.


Of course Piaget is a genetic epistemologist, but here at least there is an ontological element to his analysis. This is not to say that it is an ontology that is problem free. It draws, again, from Kant, who saw the "schema" (Austrian? French?) as linking subject and object.

3. The Semiotic Function

In a significant respect, Piaget's work on infancy is all about understanding how humans have the capacity for representation. Given the nature of Piaget’s reworking of Kant’s attempt to show the ground of knowledge, and of representation, it comes as no surprise that the grand achievement that marks the end of infancy, the accomplishment that Piaget celebrates, is the “appearance of the semiotic function.” The ability to form and use representations constitutes the completion of infancy and sensorimotor intelligence, and the start of mental action.

This is a huge topic. To deal with it adequately would require careful examination of Play, Dreams and Imitation, the book dealing with the semiotic function, as well as the infancy books. It would require considering the debate between Piaget and Vygotsky on the relationship between thinking and speech. It would require exploring Wilden’s criticism that Piaget.

Representation is, to Piaget, the culimination of everything the infant has been learning. Representation is what makes it possible for the infant to remember absent obejcts, and to understand their existence outside perception. That's to say, the semiotic function is the basis for "object permenance."

More importantly, of course, Piaget sees representation as the basis for a new kind of intelligence, involving mental action, action not on objects but on signs and symbols. 

But there are reasons for asking some serious questions about Piaget's "semiotic function." For one thing, it seems to be one among a collection of theories that place our relation to the world as entirely reresentational: that is to say, as premissed on an essential division between mind and world.


Stage 2: Early Childhood

Stage 3: Middle Childhood

Stage 4: Adolescence

G. Stanley Hall considered adolescence "a new birth, for the higher and more completely human traits are now born" (Hall, 1904, p. xiii).

Adolescence is often considered to begin with puberty: the biological changes that mark the young person's new capacity for biological reproduction.  Adult size is now obtained (at least height; weight may continue to change!), secondary sexual characteristics (body hair, growth of breasts in girls, voice change in boys) appear. 

Yet in many cultures puberty marks not the start of adolescence, but the conferring of adult status. Societies differ in the extent to which they define and recognize a distinct developmental stage between puberty and adulthood. Such a stage seems to be the way a society delays child-bearing while the young person receives advanced training in skills needed for adult responsibilities and tasks. Sometimes boys receive such training but not girls. Sometimes only a social elite receive it. 

Whatever the details, it is evident that adolescence is defined not by biology, and not by the researcher, but by the social arrangements in which development is occurring.  We see most clearly here the role of culture in development (cf. Cole, 1992). 

Adolescence and gender

In postindustrial Western societies, adolescence is a time of changing social relationships, as the two sexes come together under the influence of growing mutual sexual attraction, while still meeting within institutions that place limits on their contact. Research paints a picture of gender segregation continuing during early adolescence, and mixed-sex groups providing a preliminary context for exploration of potential romantic partners. But it must be added that the class and ethnicity of the adolescents who are studied is generally not stated; this pattern probably varies greatly across cultures and sub-cultures, and surely it has changed even in recent history.  

A number of writers have suggested that the transition to adolescence is much for difficult for girls than for boys. Like early childhood for young boys, for girls adolescence is a time not just of finding a new identity, but often of losing identity.

Adolescence and Identity,

It has become something of a cliche that the adolescent searches for identity. 

This is Erikson's fifth "age of man," the age of "identity vs. role confusion." Erikson (1950/1963) wrote that:

"in puberty and adolescence all sameness and continuities relied on earlier are more or less questioned again, because of the rapidity of body growth which equals that of early childhood and because of the new addition of genital maturity. The growing and developing youths, faced with this physiological revolution within them, and with tangible adult tasks ahead of them are now primarily concerned with what they appear to be in the eyes of others as compared with what they feel they are, and the question of how to connect the roles and skills cultivated earlier with the occupational prototypes of the day. In their search for a new sense of continuity and sameness, adolescents have to refight many of the battles of earlier years, even though to do so they must artificially appoint perfectly well-meaning people to play the roles of adversaries; and they are ever ready to install lasting idols and ideals as guardians of a final identity" (261).

This is a time, in Erikson's view, of "moratorium" between childhood and adulthood, but it is "the age of the final establishment of a dominant positive ego identity" (306). The adolescent's is an "ideological mind," of overidentification with "the heros of cliques and crowds," (262) of clannishness, of "falling in love" (his quotes). Delinquency and "outright psychotic incidents" may be the result. And in an industrialized world that has lost group identities, the adolescent's task is harder.

If this seems a bit harsh or stereotyped, consider Anna Freud (1937), whom Erikson cites. For her this age brings "complete unruliness..., voracity..., criminal behavior... pleasure in dirt and disorder..., exhibitionist tendencies, brutality and cruelty to animals"!  But A. Freud herself saw in all of this nothing new, just a reprise of early infantile sexuality!

Generalizations aside, Erikson addresses the role of culture in adolescence, in his own detailed analysis of adolescence in the United States, at least for a boy from an "Anglo-Saxon, mildly Protestant, of the white middle-class" family. XXXX

The Intellectual Tools of Adolescence

The fourth stage of intellectual development described by Kieran Egan is that of "Philosophic understanding." This mode of thought requires, he proposes, not just sophisticated language and literacy but, more clearly perhaps than the earlier stages, a particular kind of communication, supported by particular types of community and institution.

This is "systematic theoretical thinking," in the style begun by Plato and Aristotle, but which came into its own in the Enlightenment. It is abstract, generalized, theoretical thinking, with universal ambitions: the identification of Truth with a capital T. It builds on the Romantic distinction between appearance and reality, but is now able to do more than chart the extremes of the realm of the real. Now reality is explored through systematic reasoning. 

Such reasoning is rationalized, calculative, originally taking geometry as its model (and a particular type of geometry, one might add; cf. Lachterman). When it is oral discourse, it is oral discourse about written texts. This reasoning seeks a general truth beyond the particulars of a given case. (Egan cites Thucydides' histories, written in a search for a theory of history, not just a narrative of particular events.) 

Egan asserts that this careful, dispassionate inquiry into an underlying order, seeking to discern its laws and rules, is what we commonly call scientific thought. It involves a distinctive theoretical discourse that seeks to undermine appeals to authority and replace them with rational consideration of individuals' interests. It involves raising "second order questions," questions about inquiry, method, foundations. It has, he grants, political and religious aims too, and he mentions the law courts in passing, but he pursues this aspect no further. Such thinking, he also notes, provides "useful" understanding, but at the same time it "occludes" significant features of the world. But, again, this is an aspect not further pursued.

So Egan draws parallels between thinking in late adolescence and a historical mode of thought. For example, he considers vocabulary at the age of adolescence, fifteen years and up, to resemble shifts in language in "early modern Europe," when "portmanteau" concepts began to appear, general concepts like "society" that named objects in a new theoretical realm.

And so, according to Egan, adolescent thinking deals not with the "bright bits and pieces" of the Romantic understanding of middle childhood, but with "wholes, systems, and processes" (121) of which the adolescent now realizes she herself is part. Connections among things now become the focus. Egan quotes Inhelder and Piaget (1958) approvingly when he characterizes formal operational thinking as a reversal of the relationship between reality and possibility. The actual situation is now viewed as just the actualization of one of a series of possibilities.  "Formal thought begins with a theoretical synthesis implying that certain relations are necessary and thus proceeds in the opposite direction" (p. 251). 

It may be helpful to recall that:

"The theory of formal operations treats adolescent thought as characterized by the following: (1) The theory consists of a new category of mental transformations, fornal operations, (2) which operate upon more abstractly structured content units, propositions. (3) These operations are organized into a powerful and flexible structure characterized in terms of two organizing principles borrowed from outside psychology proper: the lattice of 16 propositional combinations and the INRC (Identity, Negation, Recipocal, Correlative) group of transformations, both of which are so named to indicate their similarity to mathematical structures having group and lattice properties. Finally, (4) this higher level of thinking, while described as qualitatively different from the level of concrete operations which preceded it, is nevertheless derived from the antecendent level through the operation of the universal process of adaptation which, in turn, is characterized by equilibration of the functional invarients of assimilation and accomodation. Whereas during earlier developmental stages the course of adaptation proceeded largely through direct interaction with the environment, at the formal level the process of interaction increasingly assumes a more symbolic form, reflexive abstraction" (Neimark, 1982, 486-7).

Logical necessity, rather than correspondence with reality, is the focus of formal operational thought. "The cognitive feature to be sought is sufficient detachment from context to proceed from the possible to the actual, rather than, as in concrete operations, in the reverse direction" (Neimark, 487). 

To Egan, such thinking has strengths and weaknesses. The lure of certainty, the conviction that truth is attainable, leads to over-confidence, to an intellectual arrogance, and to a confusion of subjective ("my favorite") with objective ("the best") criteria.

And this kind of thinking lends an earnestness to adolescents' dealings, as they move from the Romantic sense of self as a "transcendental player" to a sense of self as social agent, "born with a past." This can, moreover, slip into narcissism.

The adolescent's concern with general schemes and their consistency introduces a vulnerability to anomaly, a "fearful insecurity," and attendent emotional crises: depression, drug use, and so on.  

But the flexibility of adolescent thought can offer a charming novelty, as they move beyond the constraints of "our more common ways of thinking."

Philosophic understanding critiqued

Saying that Philosophic understanding "occludes" some things is about as far as Egan goes with a critique of this mode of reasoning. He grants that it calls for a split of mind and body, of cognition and emotion, and that taking it up involves a Faustian bargain; it is "what Faust sold his soul for" (136).

But at the same time he seems solidly in favor of this species of understanding. He "recommend[s] Philosophic understanding as a necessary acquisition in the process of human education" (117). But why "recommend" it if it is "necessary"? Does "necessary" here mean 'determined,' 'inevitable,' or does it mean 'needed,' 'required'?  Webster's Dictionary offers two definitions for 'necessary.' One is "of an inevitable nature: inescapable." The Other is "an item needed to maintain a reasonable or accustomed standard of living." Egan fudges the distinction between these two. (On the next page (118) he uses "necessarily" contrastively with "contingently.")

In similar vein he writes "My general argument is that a proper education today requires that individuals accumulate and recapitulate the intellectual capacities represented by each of these kinds of understanding..." (116-7). But what "requires" students to "recapitulate"?  Especially since elsewhere in his book Egan takes pains to argue that his is not a recapitulation theory 

"Kinds of understanding are just the way the mind works when using particular tools" (176).  Egan takes a step in the right direction, but his is only a first step. His account is surely an improvement over one like Piaget's, where kinds of understanding are said to arise with logical inevitability from the nature of mind, or more accurately from the character of the intelligent and adaptive organism, itself. Egan introduces cultural considerations insofar as his tools are cultural tools. But what he leaves out is equally important. It's not just a matter of "mind" "just" "using particular tools": people use tools, in particular relationships, in particular social arrangements.  

And a troublesome progressivism vies with an attempt at pluralism. Egan writes that each kind of understanding "in fact forms a foundation" for the next (117). Yet he also proposes that there are "an indeterminate set of possible implications of language and literacy development" (105). What kind of foundation is it that leaves "indeterminate" what follows? What is going on if Philosophic thinking is "not something that happens routinely as a result of maturation" (118, original emphasis)?

Egan doesn't entertain the possibility that this mode of thinking has any kind of necessary connection with gender, let alone class. Raising the question of whether this might be a "masculine form of thinking" he dismisses the suggestion; any gender associations "must be largely a product of women's lack of access to the communities that formed and supported such thinking," but in his view this exclusion was purely contingent, accidental. He doesn't pause to ask what purpose might have been served by such an exclusion, or whose interests it might have served, because beyond a passing mention that Philosophic understanding "has proven to have its uses" (105), Egan doesn't wonder for whom it has proved useful. (On the contrary; he continues " some of them [these uses][are] spectacular, and in educating today we will want to make best use of these." Who is the "we" here?)

So Egan ignores all the criticisms of "scientistic" thinking as being gender biased, class biased, the source of ecological damage, or as rooted in capitalist economic arrangements. (He cites Weber as seeing merely that this mode "developed as a tool for analyzing the successors [[CHECK]] of these early developments in capitalist economic activity, bourgeois law, and bureaucratic authority" [p. 107, emphasis added], rather than as underlying these developments.)

And Egan doesn't ask why so few adolescents, or adults, do in fact come to employ the Philosophic mode of understanding.

Nor does his formulation "just the way the mind works when using particular tools" do justice to his own statement that Philosophic understanding requires supportive community and institutions.
...and his focus is still purely epistemological: on thinking.

Speculating about Adolescence

Perhaps what's going on here is this. In adolescence, young people find they are in a limbo, a social (not psychoogical) moratorium.  They are not-yet-adults, struggling to become independent of their parents and move into the larger world, with all its contradictions and uncertainties. Who are they?

The search for identity could be seen as having its roots in the peculiar social status of this stage. And perhaps the mode of understanding of (some) adolescents can too. Susan Bordo has interpreted the entire Cartesian mode of detached rationality as a "flight to objectivity"--as a coping strategy, dealing with the anxiety that comes from separation. Let's read her psychosocial theory back into psychology: adolescents have a intolerance of inconsistency, not just an ability to reason abstractly but an obsessive need to do so. Again, might the root of this be an anxiety that stems from separation from parental figures (and the status of ‘child’) without a clearly defined place to go to?

It is important to keep in mind that not all adolescents show formal operations. One imagines that formal operational thinking has class and gender links. This is of course not to suggest that there exist gender and class differences in ability, but rather to note that formal operations is a tool, with uses and relevance only to certain groups of people. And that in addition some of  those who might have a use for this tool may not have an opportunity to try it out.

Cole, M. (1992). Culture in development. In M. H. Bornstein & M. E. Lamb (Eds.), Developmental psychology: An advanced textbook, (pp. 731-789). Hillsdale, New Jersey: Erlbaum.

Freud, A. (1966/1937). The ego and the mechanisms of defense. New York: International Universities Press.

Erikson, E. H. (1950/1963). Childhood and society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking. (Anne Parsons & Stanley Milgram, Trans.). New York: Basic Books.

Neimark, E. D. (1982). Adolescent thought: Transition to formal operations. In B. B. Wolman (Ed.), Handbook of developmental psychology, (pp. 486-502). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Karplus, R. (1981). Education and formal thought: a modest proposal. In I. Siegal, D. Brodzinsky, & R. Golinkoff (Eds.), Piagetian theory and research: New directions and applications, . Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum.

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