A Personal Update: Further Musings of a Reluctant Revolutionary

Six months have now passed since the release of the last volume in my new three-book series. Working on the series has taken the larger portion of my creative energy over the past fifteen years. Finishing up has provided time to step back and put these efforts into perspective—perspective in my personal life and also perspective with regard to the larger significance of the effort. Few insights have been wholly new. But some have been striking, and a number have struck home in a humbling (even a bit embarrassing), “why-didn’t-I-better-get-the-significance-of-that-before” way.

Much of this putting into perspective relates to a “good-news/bad-news” reality that I have referenced in previous posts: The concept of Cultural Maturity and the ideas of Creative Systems Theory could not be more important. And, at the same time, because they stretch our understanding in fundamental ways, communicating about them presents major challenges. This is not all bad news. Recognizing why culturally mature perspective might present the challenges that it does sheds essential light on what makes it important, both its practical significance and the often-revolutionary nature of its implications. But such recognition also highlights how what it asks is often not as easy as I might wish.

The fact that I keep learning new things with regard to this good-news/bad-news picture comes in part from how I arrived at these notions. I’ve described how they originated not from any desire on my part to have major effect on social/political events or to address great philosophical questions. Rather they came from following my curiosity with regard to some simple questions that I found intriguing (see Lessons from How Creative Systems Theory and the Concept of Cultural Maturity Came To Be). But it derives also from the next-cultural-chapter nature of the challenge that these notions address. Given that I, too, am turning only early pages in that new chapter, I will also be constantly learning new things. The fact that these ideas have the often-revolutionary significance they appear to have has only become apparent over time.

Most insights of the more obviously “good news” sort have built on previous observations about how culturally mature perspective serves us. I’ve written extensively about how we will need culturally mature capacities if we are to effectively address the important challenges ahead (see Cultural Maturity’s Defining Themes for an overview). I’ve also claimed that these notions have major importance in the history—and future—of ideas (see A Different Kind of Idea). Most ultimately significant, I’ve proposed that something like what these notions point to may be needed if we are to engage challenges ahead in ways that are at all healthy—and perhaps even survivable (see The Only Game in Town). More recent reflections have helped me refine my thinking with regard to all of these conclusions—as far as both their accuracy and their significance. I could not be more pleased. That my book’s and multiple websites now make it possible for people to examine the evidence in depth, increases the sense of satisfaction.

Insights of the more “bad news” sort have more often taken me by surprise—and often done so in humbling ways. It is impossible to escape the fact that culturally mature perspective asks a lot. I’ve argued that it ultimately reflects common sense (see Common Sense 2.0). But, like it or not, culturally mature perspective makes major new demands. It calls into question ideological beliefs of all sorts—including our favorites. And even if we can be okay with the general contours of the ideas that result, it requires that we think in ways that may not at first make sense, and that we may see no reason to consider.

Some of the most surprising (and humbling) of these “its not as easy as I might prefer” insights made their presence felt earlier—during the writing process itself. In the first years of working on the new book series, I sought to find a simple approach that I could use to communicate about Cultural Maturity to a general audience. I remember celebrating with a colleague over lunch that I had discovered a solution. I’d recognized earlier on that the same small handful of new capacities are needed whatever the specific new challenge we face. My solution: Write a short chapter about each of those new capacities. A concise, easily understandable book should be the result.

But I had missed an essential truth that follows directly from the kind of change that Cultural Maturity represents: Culturally mature capacities are needed if one is to fully grasp culturally mature capacities. I was in a “Catch-22“ that I didn’t fully appreciate until I took on the writing task. I remember later laughing at myself over lunch with that same colleague as I held the 450-page outcome of my effort to craft a simple 150-page work–an effort that still failed to create the clarity I had hoped for.

The experience of struggling in this effort helped me greatly to then approach my writing in ways that could be more successful. But I still look back with some amazement—and embarrassment—that I could have missed an obstacle that should have been obvious to me from what I was attempting to accomplish.

Over the last six months, four additional sorts of “its not as easy as I might prefer” recognitions have reinforced this good-news/bad-news picture and deepened my understanding of it. None was wholly new but, as with the “Catch-22” reality when it comes to culturally mature capacities, each in its own way has sometimes taken me by surprise. Each was driven by the fact that I was feeling more the Lone Ranger than I had expected to as I stepped back from writing and again engaged the larger world.

The first pertains to where we reside in relation to the change processes that produce culturally mature understanding. An image that I have found increasingly useful provides a map. Imagine a road that ends at the threshold of a doorway. The road represents Modern Age thought and its heroic/romantic assumptions; the threshold marks the point of transition between such thought and culturally mature perspective (that in-between place where we find sensibilities of a more postmodern sort—see The Evolution of Narrative). Then imagine five or six steps that represent progress into culturally mature territory.

Where should we place the larger number of people in this image? And how often do we see culturally mature capacities, at least of a beginning sort? The much greater number of people reside well short of that threshold. My estimate is that at best three to five percent of people—and this is in modern societies—have a toe over it. This percentage may seem disturbingly small, but it is not the problem we might think it to be. It has never taken a lot more than that to begin to bring about major cultural change. At the same time, given this estimate, it should not surprise me that I might feel a bit like a Lone Ranger in attempting to articulate insights that require culturally mature perspective. Not only should the great majority of people not readily grasp what I am attempting to articulate, I should not expect them to recognize any reason why the insights I am emphasizing might be significant and worthy of their attention.

The image helps clarify what I was missing in those years of trying to use needed new capacities to communicate the fact that a new chapter in our human narrative was being called for. I had mistakenly assumed that the capacities that I organized my writing around would be understandable to anyone who was relatively intelligent and aware—even people whose view of the world emanated from well short of Cultural Maturity’s threshold. Think of an arrow pointing to the mass of people just to the left side of the doorway. If this assumption were accurate, my task would be simply to write about those capacities clearly. In fact, that arrow should point to a spot at least a short distance beyond Cultural Maturity’s threshold. The more reasonable expectation then becomes that most people will not immediately appreciate why what I was writing about might matter. Short of Cultural Maturity’s threshold, there is no way to grasp what lies on the other side—indeed to really understand that there might be an other side.

To make full sense of culturally mature understanding’s challenge, we need to shift our attention from the threshold to the multiple steps beyond it. It turns out that deeply engaging new capacities requires not just initial insights, but several steps into culturally mature territory. I’ve described how culturally mature thought is a product of Integrative Meta-perspective (see Cultural Maturity’s Cognitive Changes). To effectively apply the kind of understanding it requires, we need the new, more conscious and deeply engaged connection with our cognitive complexities that comes only with some significant progress into Cultural Maturity’s new reality. Getting to Cultural Maturity’s threshold is sufficient for grasping the fact that new capacities may be needed. But any great ability to embody those capacities and make them manifest requires more.

Progressing additional steps into culturally mature territory becomes even more necessary if we wish to understand and apply specific culturally mature notions such as Creative Systems Theory’s various patterning concepts. In earlier posts, I’ve described how the deep engagement with our multiple intelligences that accompanies Integrative Meta-perspective is needed to effectively grasp both how cultural systems evolve and the workings of temperament diversity (see Multiple Intelligences). Of particular importance when it comes to the Lone Ranger implications of these notions, it takes more than initial insight to solidly recognize when assumptions we hold may miss the mark entirely. Progressing solidly beyond Cultural Maturity’s threshold is needed to effectively apply notions that help us separate the wheat from the chaff as we look to the future—notions such as those that describe various kinds of polar traps or that delineate how outdated narratives leave us shot of where we need to go (see Compare and Contrast).

Ideas more at the cutting edge of my own thinking require progressing even further—think five or six solid steps into culturally mature territory. For example, this is the case with many of the ideas I put forward in my book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions, such as those that address the nature of free will or those that attempt to make sense of how science and religions ultimately relate. In fact, the basic idea of a creative frame, the foundational insight of Creative Systems Theory, takes going this far to be deeply understood, and continues to regularly teach me new things (see The Power of a Creative Frame).

The second “it’s not as easy as I might prefer” recognition turns more specifically to the next-chapter nature of Cultural Maturity’s changes. With my first book thirty years ago, I emphasized how culturally mature perspective involves a fundamental “leap” in worldview—more than just taking a next step. Cultural Maturity’s “new common sense” requires not just turning a few further pages in culture’s story, however important those pages may be. It challenges us to engage a new developmental chapter, a new stage in what it means to understand—and ultimately to be human. Perhaps because the implications can sound audacious—even grandiose—I’ve often not let them fully sink in. I’ve also at times been hesitant to make them explicit.

We often hear the assertion that there are no really new ideas (which is itself not a new idea—remember Marcus Aurelius’s claim that “there is nothing new under the sun”). While we don’t question that inventions can be new, notions that claim to reflect fundamentally new ways of thinking tend to get met with suspicion. In fact, it is pretty obvious that we also often think in new ways. The rise of monotheism produced a wholly different kind of worldview than we saw with the polytheistic and animistic beliefs that preceded it. The ideas of Descartes and Newton were not just different than those of the Middle Age, they reflected a fundamentally different kind of understanding. And the thinking of Einstein presented an equally fundamental challenge to the assumptions of Modern Age thought.

Key to appreciating what culturally mature perspective asks of us is the recognition that every idea—or feeling or imagining—that succeeds at being culturally mature is fundamentally new in this next-chapter sense. Cultural Maturity’s threshold represents a breakpoint. Culturally mature perspective reflects a continuing story, but at the same time, it requires a leap—the engagement of a fundamental discontinuity.

This recognition has dramatic implications. Because Integrative Meta-perspective is wholly different from the Enlightenment perspective that gave us Modern Age belief, ideas that result are as radical in their implications as those of Descartes or Newton were in theirs. Arguably they are more so. They not only provide guidance for looking ahead, they help us understand why Descartes and Newton might have seen the world in the ways that they did. The ideas of Descartes and Newton provided a leap forward, but they failed to provide perspective that could help us usefully understand ideas that proceeded them. (I suspect that the reason we find claims that there are really no new ideas is that people in times past have always viewed understanding as a whole—including understandings from previous cultural stages—through the lens of their time’s particular way of knowing. This has remained true with our Modern Age “objective” lens.)

This second “it’s not as easy as I might prefer” recognition sheds further light on my embarrassing adventure trying to write about culturally mature capacities. It is not just that effectively grasping new capacities requires understanding in new ways; there is no way to get there by logical extension from what we already know. It also helps clarify why Creative Systems Theory’s ideas, notions that ultimately make understanding simpler, are rarely at first perceived to be simple even by those making a concerted effort to learn about them.

The observation that we are engaging a fundamentally new chapter in who we are and how we understand can be equally thought of as good news and bad. It is good news in that it reaffirms that times ahead may hold answers to quandaries that before might have seemed dead ends. But it also again confronts us with how culturally mature advocacy will often be more of a Lone Ranger pursuit than we might like it to be. And it means that claims easily come across as audacious or grandiose (to observe that an insight might be as important as those of Descartes or Einstein in their time can result not just in misunderstanding, but an eye roll).

The third “it’s not as easy as I might prefer” recognition is again related, but more specific in its implications: Culturally mature advocacy is in some way going to challenge the beliefs of almost everyone. I wrote extensively about how culturally mature advocacy requires a nuanced understanding of this essential limit in my book Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future. But while this fact is hardly new to me, I can still bump my head against it in ways that I don’t expect.

It is not hard to remember that culturally mature perspective is going to call into question any notion that is obviously ideological—whether the ideology is political or religious (or even scientific if the belief reflects a narrow scientism—Creative Systems Theory defines ideology as any belief that makes one part of systemic complexity the whole of truth). I more easily miss instances where the ideological assumptions follow more generally from Modern Age belief. (Making one part of systemic complexity the whole of truth includes not just the us-versus-them kinds of ideological beliefs that we find with conflicting political or religious affiliations, but also beliefs that reflect the assumptions of a particular cultural stage.)

For example, I can forget how this limit inescapably comes into play when presenting ideas in academic settings. Culturally mature perspective is as yet rare in academia. Given that academic thought is a product of Modern Age assumptions (including the assumption that all understanding can be brought into the light of pure reason) this should not come as a surprise (see The Future of Education). But this limit can still take me off guard as I attempt to stimulate broad conversation about topics that can require culturally mature perspective just to appreciate the important questions, much less answer them.

This more general kind of surprise can also intrude in more basic ways. It is not just that we have to step beyond old ways of thinking to move forward; the ability to address the future with any degree of encompassing perspective itself demands that we do so. Note that while we’ve all had classes on the past, very few of us have had classes on the future—even though the future is the time when we will live our lives and which we can effect. Note too that we rarely hear this curious circumstance questioned. The concept of Cultural Maturity provides an explanation: It takes Integrative Meta-perspective to engage the future in any sense beyond conjecturing about possible new technologies.

Accepting deep responsibility for the future requires Cultural Maturity’s “growing up.” This fact contributes directly to the challenge of advocating for culturally mature perspective. I continue to be startled by how rarely we find categories in our bookstores and libraries for books about the future (other than science fiction) much less for big-picture cultural understanding. And what we call news rarely gets beyond events that are “old news” in a few weeks. I alert readers of this blog that “material will be included only if it will likely be as or more significant five, ten, or even twenty years from now as it is today.”

I addressed the fourth “its not as easy as I might prefer” recognition—what Creative Systems Theory calls Transitional Absurdity—in a recent post: It turns out that at the same time that Cultural Maturity’s threshold is making new possibility visible, we also predictably encounter phenomena that are ludicrous—and often dangerously so (see Transitional Absurdity). If we are not careful, such phenomena can cause us to lose hope. At the least, they can distract us from the important work our time needs to be about.

The obstacles that these various “it’s not as easy as I might prefer” recognitions highlight can be formidable—and frustrating. But while the “good news” insights I’ve noted more obviously affirm the importance of continued commitment to Cultural Maturity’s task, it is important to appreciate how recognitions that highlight difficulties in their own ways do something similar. I found the experience of trying to write about needed new capacities difficult and humbling. But I now think of it most in terms of how it confirmed the accuracy and significance of the concept of Cultural Maturity. If Cultural Maturity’s “growing up” indeed reflects change of a new-chapter sort—if it describes a historical inflection point that fundamentally reorders how we understand (and ultimately what it means to be human)—then what I encountered is exactly what one would predict with initial attempts to articulate its characteristics. Like it or not, this is a revolutionary—and often heretical—pursuit. It is also a pursuit that could not be more important.

A couple of realties provide some solace while taking on the inherent difficulties of advocating for a more culturally mature world. First is simply that being a heretic today has more benign consequences than in times past. Rather than being burned at the stake, advocates of ideas that are ahead of their time are more likely simply to be met with silence. Silence may present an even greater obstacle to successful advocacy. But at least one lives to fight another day.

A person can also take solace in the fact that while it may be difficult now to bring needed attention to culturally mature insights, if the notion of a necessary next chapter in how we understand and act is basically correct, it is only a matter of time. The kind of changes these notions point toward are developmental—their potential is built into what makes us human. We may not see these changes widely appreciated soon. We will perhaps not see wide acknowledgement in my lifetime. But if the human species prevails, the need for this kind of “growing up” should, with time, come to seem obvious.