Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future


Capacitance is the second of Creative Systems Theory primary Whole System patterning concepts (the first being the Questions of Referent). It refers to a person’s overall capacity to take in, tolerate, and engage life. Think of a balloon. Capacitance describes the size of the balloon, the “volume” of life a system can handle before things become too much. The concept could not be more important, both for its practical usefulness and for its theoretical implications.

We can usefully understand this second Whole System patterning concept in relationship to the first. The Question of Referent, or simply “aliveness” if our interest lies less with the question than where we look to find the question’s answer, concerns the basic question of where truth is to be found once over Cultural Maturity’s threshold. Capacitance is more specifically quantitative. It concerns how much truth—how much “aliveness”—we can handle.

Attention to Capacitance helps greatly in living our personal lives in healthy and sustainable ways. It is rare in my work as a therapist that I don’t at sometime talk about Capacitance with clients. For some people I work with, learning to live consciously within their Capacitance becomes therapy’s most defining theme.

The ability to make subtle Capacitance discernments is also increasingly essential to culturally mature decision-making at a societal level. Particularly with decisions at a global scale, effective policy hinges on our ability to understand what is possible and what is not and the crafting of approaches that are thus most likely to be helpful.

The concept of Capacitance also helps us fill out other important theoretical recognitions For example, Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reorganization requires not just stage-specific changes, but, also, as with any new cultural chapter, a more general increase in capacity. Capacity as here I have used the word, refers not to particular abilities, but to Capacitance, to overall systemic capacity. We can think of development proceeding like a snake that must periodically shed its skin. The snake’s skin represents stage-specific beliefs and developmental tasks. The snake’s expanding girth represents growing Capacitance. Capacitance is the one thing that increases in a consistent way over the entire course of formative process (irrespective of leaps and changes in trajectory). In the Creative Function, Capacitance is represented by the volume within the circles.

The concept of Capacitance if personality style distinctions are to prove ultimately helpful. Temperament distinctions can be highly misleading unless they are accompanies by Capacitance-related observations. A person may have the requisite sensibility for a certain kind of contribution, but totally lack what is needed to effectively carry that contribution’s tasks out or to function effectively in the relationships it requires.

Including Capacitance in our personality style distinctions stretches us in ways that may not at first be celebrated. Capacitance brings the topic of limits directly into the temperament equation. Temperament is in one sense a very “non-judgmental” way to think about difference. (The liberal/humanist in us will like that.) Certainly it helps us see beyond our bigotries. But human diversity also involves Capacitance differences, and Capacitance is arguably as “judgmental” a kind of discernment as there could be. It is not just about people having different strengths, but about being “better and worse” and the inescapable consequences that follow. This is “better and worse” in a different more quantitative, “what is possible” sense, rather than the morally condemning sense in which we might have used the words in times past. But such “better and worse” discrimination become essential if we are to make good people choices in a culturally mature world and most effectively apply an appreciation for temperament differences. The concept of Capacitance offers that we might rethink what we mean by judgment, engage judgment’s task in a more systemic and creative way. But including Capacitance in the temperament equation requires that we acknowledge limits and judge accordingly.

Cultural Maturity itself is a Capacitance-specific notion. This is no more the case with Cultural Maturity than with any other developmentally-related cultural change point. But being conscious of how this is so becomes newly pertinent if we are to successfully support culturally mature change.

It is important that we recognize that without sufficient Capacitance, culturally mature perspective is not really possible. Otherwise we will make errors in our support of such perspective. Cultural Maturity’s changes require that we are able to engage a certain magnitude, or “volume,” of experience. If there is not adequate Capacitance, Cultural Maturity’s challenge can only overwhelm. And when systems get overwhelmed, they polarize—that is a natural way they protect themselves.

It is just as important that we recognize how the opposite is also the case: At a certain Capacitance, Cultural Maturity’s conclusions become almost self-evident. Culturally mature perspective is impossible without sufficient Capacitance. But it is also true that we don’t have to advocate culturally mature conclusions one by one. Rich dialogue helps. But in the end, we need only support the need growth in Capacitance.

We can apply the concept of Capacitance to the most recent past American presidential administration. Many people described George W. Bush as not very intelligent. That was not the problem. The issue was limited Capacitance. Dick Cheney was more functionally intelligent—indeed extremely intelligent—but just as limited with regard to Capacitance. The combination made him even more of a concern. It produced not only dangerously simple-minded policy, but also an absolutely boggling capacity for denial.

That may seem like harsh judgment, but it represents a simple observation—one I and colleagues made well prior to the election of the Bush/Cheney team. And it is an observation with predictable consequences—consequences that came to pass. Those who know me recognize that this is not a judgment based on ideology. I can name many political conservatives whom I deeply respect for their high Capacitance. There are high and low Capacitance conservatives and there are high and low Capacitance liberals.

Capacitance adds useful conceptual refinement to Question of Referent observations. The bare-boned truth task of addressing moral questions without traditional guideposts requires that we more directly discern choices that are most “life-affirming.” The concept of Capacitance offers a more embodied way to think about it. Acts that support the Capacitance of a system become moral; acts that undermine the Capacitance of a system become immoral. Of course things aren’t quite that simple—systems are always multiple and overlapping—but the general principle holds.

Capacitance similarly sheds additional light on the more collective bare-boned truth task of redefining progress (and the collective bare-boned truth task more generally). Increasing overall Capacitance is what ultimately defines growth. The problem with our old definition of progress is not that it is wrong, but that it has lost its connection with Capacitance. We need ways of thinking about growth that successfully reflect what, in our time, makes us personally and collectively “more”—what, in fact, produces actual and necessary growth in Capacitance.

The concept of Capacitance also brings attention to a unique danger we face in times ahead. Systems challenged to more than their available Capacitance polarize. It is right that they do—polarization provides protection by keeping challenges to the system’s Capacitance at a safe arm’s length. In times past, when this happened at a major social system level it really didn’t change things that much. It only increased polarization that was already part of consensus reality. The result might be a war. But it was likely a familiar kind of war.

Today, as polarization directly undermines the needed maturity of perspective, this sort of response becomes newly problematical. One of the great dangers we face today is that newly God-like challenges—along with the more encompassing task of Cultural Maturity—will stretch Capacitance beyond what we can tolerate. The resulting polarization and projection could distance us from the needed maturity of perspective just as such maturity has become imperative.