Frequently Asked Questions

This FAQ summary briefly addresses questions often asked by people new to the concept of Cultural Maturity. Some are questions people who have never heard of the concept may ask. Others are questions that commonly come up once people have started working with the notion.

What is Cultural Maturity?

The concept of Cultural Maturity describes changes reordering today’s world and further changes that will be necessary if we are to have a healthy and rewarding human future. The concept helps us make sense of why these changes are important, what they ask of us, and how these additional changes might be more in the cards than we might imagine. Cultural Maturity is a specific concept within Creative Systems Theory’s more overarching picture of how human systems grow and change.

Can you briefly summarize the concept’s thesis?

The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that our times challenge us to a critical next stage in our collective human development—put most simply, to an essential, and now newly possible, “growing up” as a species. This growing up takes us beyond what has always before been a parent/child relationship between culture and the individual. Cultural Maturity’s changes involve leaving behind the protective cultural absolutes of times past and assuming a new level of responsibility in all parts of our lives. They also involve engaging the more demanding and complex—but ultimately more rich and full—kinds of understanding and relating that doing so begins to make possible.

Why do we need such a notion?

Most immediately, the concept of Cultural Maturity provides perspective for making sense of our easily confusing times. It offers a compelling picture of human possibility. It also provides guidance for making good decisions in all parts of our personal and collective lives. It helps us delineate the new characteristics that effective thinking, relating, and acting in times ahead must have. In addition, it helps us separate the wheat from the chaff in our ideas about the future and what times ahead will require of us.

What evidence do we have that the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct?

Several different kinds. Some is empirical. List the most critical challenges ahead for the species and we find that effectively addressing them—or even just adequately understanding them—most often requires the greater maturity of perspective the concept of Cultural Maturity describes. There is also the way many of the most defining advances of the last century have reflected at least first steps toward the new kinds of thinking and relating that the concept of Cultural Maturity predicts.

Additional kinds of evidence are more conceptual and “developmental.”  We find that the societal challenges the concept of Cultural Maturity describes have direct parallels in the tasks that define second-half-of-life developmental changes in our individual lives. Creative Systems Theory goes further to describe how these changes are consistent with those that reorder experience with the second half of any human formative process. Creative Systems Theory also describes how we can understand the new capacities that come with Cultural Maturity in terms of developmentally predicted changes in how human cognition functions.

Some of the most important evidence concerns inescapable realities.  Something at least similar to what the concept describes is essential to moving forward for reasons deeper than just the need to effectively address new challenges. There are fundamental structural reasons why continuing forward on history’s past trajectory is not an option. Cultural Maturity or something related becomes, in effect, the only game in town.

You speak of Cultural Maturity as a simple notion, but it doesn’t sound simple to me? Is it or isn’t it?

There are ways it is simple. It is a single brushstroke notion that we can apply to very different questions. Also, Cultural Maturity’s changes, like with all developmental processes, are—at least as potential—built into who we are. Because if this, when such changes are timely, we can experience them as straightforward. Consistent with this, many of Cultural Maturity’s underlying characteristics are familiar to our experience. We can know a lot about them from the mature stages of other human developmental processes.

But simple does not mean easy. Cultural Maturity requires us to hold experience with a mature fullness not possible in times past. It requires us to get our arms around and learn to tolerate a less certain and more complex kind of reality. At the very least, culturally mature perspective requires surrendering assumptions (often favorite ones) and stepping into new territories of experience. It also requires stretching how we think so that we can tolerate the more nuanced and multifaceted world that culturally mature perspective reveals. Without that stretch, not only does Cultural Maturity’s more sophisticated vantage not make sense, it is hard to appreciate why it might be needed.

The notion that our times bring into question past culturally-specific beliefs sounds a lot like what we hear with postmodern arguments. Is Cultural Maturity just different language for the same kind of conclusion? 

The concept of Cultural Maturity begins with some related observations. But in the end it fundamentally challenges—or at least fundamentally extends—the postmodern thesis. Cultural Maturity and postmodern thought similarly bring attention to how our times require us to step beyond culturally-defined beliefs. But postmodern perspective does not adequately answer why we should see this challenging of past cultural truths. It also fails to provide much of anything to replace what it quite accurately takes away. The concept of Cultural Maturity specifically addresses why we should see the changes we do. And it argues that the challenge ultimately is not just the surrendering of past sureties, but the ability to think, relate, and act in some fundamentally new—at once more demanding and more possibility-filled—ways.

You argue that culturally mature perspective requires us to think about social questions more systemically. But you also emphasize that we need to be wary of conceptual traps when using systems language. Could you clarify a bit?

The kind of systems thinking we are most used to is the kind good engineers draw on. But human questions are not just engineering questions—we are not machines. Culturally mature perspective invites us to think in ways that directly reflect that we are alive—and more than just this, that we are alive in the particular sense that makes us human. Ignore these essential new steps—or misinterpret their implications—and we end up with misleading and unhelpful conclusions.

Is Cultural Maturity just another way of talking about the transformations of the Information Age?

There are links. But Cultural Maturity’s picture is more encompassing and warns us that thinking in Information Age terms alone can’t get us where we need to go. Cultural Maturity argues that very few of the important concerns before us can be resolved solely by technological means. It also challenges the common assumption that invention is the ultimate driver of cultural change. It argues that just as much culture shapes what we are able to invent and how we use what we invent. And while much in the information revolution supports Cultural Maturity’s changes, much also has the potential to fundamentally undermine culturally mature possibility. Miss these differences and we can end up pursuing ends that we ultimately would not at all want.

Is Cultural Maturity what people are referring to when they speak of “new paradigm” understanding?

That depends on how a person uses the phrase “new paradigm.” The phrase can describe the best of new understanding. But it is also often used to refer to simplistic spiritual, humanistic/romantic, or philosophically idealist beliefs masquerading as culturally mature systemic perspective. Such beliefs are not really new. And they tend to advocate for outcomes that would not be possible to achieve, and more pointedly, that we would not ultimately want to achieve.1

You propose that we can think of Cultural Maturity in terms of changes in how human cognition functions. Could you say more about this?

Culturally mature understanding is a product of changes not just in what we think, but how we think. Historical perspective helps clarify. The Renaissance insights that ushered in our Modern Age in a similar way involved not just new ideas, but whole new ways of thinking, indeed a reordering of how our cognitive processes work. The as-if-from-the-balcony kind of objectivity that defines Modern Age thought was the result. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes are related. But they produce a more encompassing—objective in a more fully systemic sense—kind of perspective.

A good way to understand this result is to consider what culturally mature understanding requires that we draw on in ourselves. Today’s new more systemic questions demand that we bring more aspects of intelligence—more of our own systemic complexity—to bear if we are to successfully address them. Rarely can the intellect alone get us there.

We see this need to draw on more aspects of who we are in the way most all of today’s new questions are questions of value. For example, we have to better appreciate how having amazing new technologies and knowing how to use them wisely are not at all the same things. The intellect alone is great for questions that require only knowledge. Wise engagement with questions of value requires a more complex kind of engagement.

This appreciation for the importance of bringing more of ourselves to bear helps get at the difference between the kind of systemic thinking culturally mature perspective makes possible and the more mechanical, gears-and-pulleys systems thinking of good engineering. Rationality alone is quite adequate for describing systems understanding of the mechanical sort. But if we wish to apply the new, more dynamic kind of systemic understanding future questions will increasing require, we need the whole of intelligence applied in a newly conscious and integrated way.

Culturally mature systemic perspective makes possible whole new kinds of concepts that in the future will prove increasingly important. As one-size-fits-all cultural guideposts lose their past usefulness, we need concepts that help us understand what matters in more complete ways. We also need concepts that help us better address the multifaceted complexity of today’s challenges. The evolutionary kind of thinking that underlies the concept of Cultural Maturity is one example. Such evolutionary thinking will have growing importance as our global world requires good communication between cultures at different stages in their development. Equally important are concepts that help us make more here-and-now systemic distinctions. Such concepts will be key to helping us understand the very different ways different people see their worlds—whether it be people with conflicting ideologies, people with differing personality styles, or people who ascribe to the common assumptions of differing academic disciplines or kinds of work.

You emphasize the importance of better appreciating limits. Yet at the same time you say Cultural Maturity is about thinking more expansively. This seems like a contradiction.

Cultural Maturity is very much about a new relationship to limits—of all sorts. It is about better appreciating our planet’s limits. It is about new respect for limits inherent to the workings of relationship—whether between lovers or between nations. It is also about appreciating ultimate limits to what we as humans can know and control.

At the same time, culturally mature perspective makes clear that a maturely conceived relationship to limits actually expands possibility. With environmental limits, for example, while culturally mature perspective affirms that a new ethic of sustainability will be essential, it also makes clear that a mature understanding of sustainability is not (and cannot be) about doing with less. It must be about an ultimately fuller—and more fulfilling—understanding of “more.”

The concept seems more psychological than most ways of thinking about cultural tasks. I guess that makes sense seeing that you are a psychiatrist. But I wonder whether that helps or hinders?

I suppose it could do either. Ultimately the concept of Cultural Maturity concerns the “psyche of culture”—who we are collectively and the particular challenges that today confront us. But there is also a more personal psychological aspect. Cultural Maturity is not just about various ways of looking at the future, but also about how the diverse ways we hold experience affect how we see the future (and also the present and the past).2

Culturally mature perspective is obviously pertinent to understanding human systems. What about the non-human, to understanding the inanimate, and nature?

It can help us in more limited ways. For example, Creative Systems Theory’s culturally mature formulations help us understand why we have understood the inanimate and nature in the odd and often contradictory ways we have through history. Culturally mature perspective also invited intriguing conjecture about the best ways to understand how we and the non-human are related and also how we are different.3 But the concept of Cultural Maturity has less to do with how the world around us works, than with how we think, and, most particularly, how, today, we can think most effectively.

Do I need to understand Creative Systems Theory to make use of the concept of Cultural Maturity?

No. As simple metaphor or analogy, the concept of Cultural Maturity works fine as a stand-alone concept. While the concept of Cultural Maturity is a formal Creative Systems Theory notion, there is no need to either understand or agree with the theory’s ideas to make powerful use of it.

Creative Systems Theory does, howeer, add to the more basic concept. It helps us understand why Cultural Maturity’s challenges and changes should be what we see and exactly what those changes ask of us. And while all the more nuanced aspects of Cultural Maturity’s changes—and very often the devil is in the details—follow directly from Cultural Maturity as a concept, Creative Systems Theory (though not required) provides simple language for making many of the important distinctions. Creative Systems Theory can also help us think about systems at a level of detail that the concept of Cultural Maturity by itself does not provide.

Creative Systems Theory is particularly significant with regard to Cultural Maturity because it models one successful effort at Culturally Mature conception. It also represents an approach that can be applied in highly sophisticated ways to a wide variety of questions. But the concept of Cultural Maturity, when understood deeply, requires no support from Creative Systems Theory.

Could you say more about how the concept of Cultural Maturity provides hope for the future?

Most immediately, the concept of Cultural Maturity supports hope by articulating a practical and compelling story for the future,. It makes clear that there is very much reason to go on. It also provides specific guidance for going forward—helps us understand the challenges before us and the capacities needed to effectively engage them. In addition, the concept of Cultural Maturity supports that success with the tasks before us is not just some idealized fantasy, or something only of our far off future. It describes how the potential for the kind of thinking, relating, and acting the future requires is inherent to who we are. (Cultural Maturity is a developmental notion.) And the fact that many of the most defining advances of the last hundred years reflect the beginnings of culturally mature sensibility supports the conclusion that we are already a good distance on our way—even if we have not had overarching perspective for understanding just what we have been up to.

1       In Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future, I examine the similarities and differences between the concept of Cultural Maturity and other ways of thinking about the future in detail. I include postmodern, Information Age, and “new paradigm” ideas (among others)  in this “compare and contrast” analysis.

2           See Chapter Eight in Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future or the book The Power of Diversity: An Introduction to the Creative Systems Personality Typology for a look at how Creative Systems Theory makes some of these distinctions.

3           See Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions.