Rethinking Identity: How the Myth of the Individual Provides Essential Evidence for Cultural Maturity’s Needed “Growing Up” As a Species (and the Critical Importance of a More Complete Picture of Identity Going Forward)

There are few more important human questions than that of identity—just what it means to be a person. We can easily assume that its answer is obvious—I look in the mirror and there I am. But in fact the answer is nuanced, complex, and often paradoxical-seeming in its implications. We also easily assume that its answer is timeless—that identity is identity. In fact, as we are only now beginning to fully appreciate, the answer differs markedly depending on when in history we look. Today, how we understand identity continues to change, and in dramatic ways. Just how it does has essential implications for making sense of our times and the tasks ahead.

People who recognize that important identity-related changes are happening today tend to emphasize one of three kinds of observations. They may focus on ways the information revolution alters our sense of who we are—from how social media are making us more “connected” to how artificial intelligence challenges what it means to be thinking beings. For other people it is changes in how we think about gender identity—gender roles and gender itself—that most stand out. Academics, linking identity-related changes to new “postmodern” realities, have tended to emphasize today’s loss of once-and-for-all cultural guideposts and how identity is becoming more fluid and also more multifaceted and diverse in its manifestations.

Creative Systems Theory and the concept of Cultural Maturity propose that more fundamental changes than any of these are at work. Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reordering alters not just how we think about identity, but identity itself—what in fact it means to be a person. These changes provide context for the three more particular observations that I just noted. They also highlight how larger perspective is needed if these more specific changes are to ultimately serve us. At the end of this post I will return for a look at how the ways we tend to think about each of them stops short of grasping what is really going on. I will also address how each, if understood simplistically, has the potential to undermine the more fundamental kind of change needed to effectively take us forward.

This post’s look at these more fundamental changes brings together a handful of CST topics touched on briefly in previous posts. These include the Myth of the Individual, Integrative Meta-perspective, the fact of multiple intelligences, the “bridging” of past polarized assumptions, our time’s Crisis of Purpose, the Dilemma of Trajectory, and the phenomenon of Transitional Absurdity. My hope is that these reflections, along with expanding the listener’s sense of what it means to be a person in our time, will also support understanding how these various topics fit together and inform what we see.

The Myth of the Individual

To understand how our thinking about identity—and identity itself—is changing, it helps to look at the last time history witnessed this kind of fundamental shift. Starting some five hundred years ago, Europe’s new “Modern Age” gave us our now familiar concept of the individual. With the art of the Renaissance, for the first time figures depicted were not just symbols, but mortals, and works of art were signed, marked as the achievements of particular people. Later, in the world of love, the advent of the modern romantic ideal meant that the bonds between men and women became newly the province of individual inclinations. Over time, a more individualistic picture of identity transformed institutions of all sorts, giving us the Reformation’s newly personal relationship to God, institutional democracy (with determination now a product of the votes of individuals), capitalist economic systems (based on competition between individuals), and modern higher eduction (increasingly a vehicle to prepare people for this degree of individual choice). These changes could not have been more significant.

But there is no reason to assume that the Modern Age’s picture of identity—in which we have taken appropriate pride—represents some last word. Creative Systems Theory makes clear that it can’t be. The concept of Cultural Maturity describes how further chapters in identity’s evolutionary story predictably lie ahead. It also makes clear that if our thinking about identity stops with where we are today, major problems lie ahead. A radical observation both supports these conclusions and points toward what more is needed. The modern age concept of the individual was in fact not about individuality at all. Modern age changes brought greater autonomy, certainly. But they left us short of individual identity in any complete sense. CST calls this misconception the modern Myth of the Individual.

I introduced the Myth of the Individual in earlier posts that examined the future of love and of leadership. With both romantic love and modern age concepts of leadership we celebrated a new realization of the individual. In each instance, it was reasonable that we might. A world in which love’s determinations were made by family or a matchmaker, along with more authoritarian forms of leadership, gave way to experiencing choice as being increasingly ours to make. Key to what made each of these new realities different was a greater role for individual initiative.

But with both love and leadership, the belief that we had somehow now fully become individuals was illusionary—or at least partial. In each case relationship was based on idealized projections, with love that of the “brave knight “ or “fair maiden” sort, with leadership, projections of our own authority. Each reflected what CST calls “two-halves-make-a-whole” relationship. With both romantic love and modern age concepts of leadership, each person represents half of a larger systemic entirety. Being half of a systemic whole is not yet about being an individual, certainly not in any fully realized sense.

Today both love and leadership are requiring that we relate in more complete, more “Whole-Person/Whole-System” ways. The critical implication when it comes to identity is that Whole-Person relationship is just as much about a new, more complete kind of relationship with ourselves. It requires that we reincorporate projections, step back and more fully engage all of who we are. With Cultural Maturity’s changes, being an individual takes on a fundamentally different meaning. Individual identity becomes about consciously holding the whole of our human complexity.

It is important that we have ways to recognize Whole-Person identity. Shortly, I will turn more specifically to what becomes different internally, to how Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes fundamentally alter experience. But the ability to step beyond projecting parts of ourselves implied in what I have described provides an immediate kind of feedback. With Cultural Maturity, attributing parts of ourselves to others stops providing the same sense of meaning and completion. This is so when we project idealized parts of ourselves as with romantic love and mythologized concepts of leadership. It is similarly the case where in the past we’ve projected less savory parts of ourselves—as with racism, the need for political enemies, and how we have found shared identity in dividing humanity as a whole into “chosen people” and “evil-others.”

What might at first seem a contradiction provides both evidence for Whole-Person identity’s newness and further feedback for recognizing its achievement. Whole-Person “individuality” makes us more fully different and thus more authentically individual. And at the same time, it makes us more capable of deep and authentic relationship. A closer look is warranted. As far as difference, with Whole-Person relationship we leave behind our past mythologized—and thus dependent—relationship with the other. In doing so, for the first time we are able to stand fully separate. We also engage ourselves in more complete ways. When we do, we more deeply embrace all that makes us uniquely who we are. With Whole-Person relationship—and identity—we step beyond an illusionary separateness and experience in its place our authentic difference.

And at the same time, we witness a deepened capacity for connectedness. Whole-Person love offers the possibility of more complete and enduring love. Whole-Person/Whole-System leadership in a similar way offers deeper and more authentic engagement between leaders and those the leader represents. Most immediately, this deeper connectedness is a product of the simple fact that we now bring the whole of ourselves to the task of relating and are thus capable of engaging in fuller ways. Near the end of this piece I will describe a further factor that follows from just what the whole of ourselves includes. Cultural Maturity makes it possible for us to draw more consciously on parts of ourselves that appreciate that to live is to be connected—and not just to particular individuals, but also in community, with nature, and with existence more generally.

Since the Myth of the Individual can seem startling on first encounter, I will quickly summarize it and its implications: In times past, we’ve imagined ourselves to be distinct while more accurately we were identifying with half of larger systemic wholes. In this sense, we were in fact not really separate. Whole-Person identity allows us to stand truly separate—for the first time. In doing so, we become capable of a new depth of connectedness to ourselves and a fuller appreciation for what makes who we are particular. At the same time, because Whole-Person identity makes it possible to engage others from the whole of who we are, we become capable of a depth of relationship that has not before been an option. And because the cognitive changes needed for such relating help us more deeply draw on aspects of ourselves that support connectedness, the possibility of deep and complex bonds is further enhanced.

The Myth of the Individual is pertinent not just to how we think about personal identity and one-on-one relationships. It also has more big-picture implications. For example, in the pos on leadership I described how it has major consequences for the future of government. We tend to think of modern representative government as a culminating ideal. Part of the argument for this conclusion is that modern institutional democracy is “government by the people.” By this we mean government as an expression of individual choice. But while modern age democracy does involve greater choice than the governmental forms of any earlier cultural stage, if what I’ve described is accurate, democracy in the sense of whole people taking full responsibility for their choices is something we have not yet witnessed. This would require a further step in our evolution as choice-making beings. We have not yet seen “government by the people” in the mature systemic sense that the concept of Cultural Maturity proposes is now becoming necessary. But if what I have described is accurate, such a next step is critical—and now becoming possible.

Integrative Meta-perspective and the Multi-Dimensionality of Identity

A look to the cognitive reordering that produces culturally mature understanding—and with it Whole-Person identity—helps fill out these introductory observations. In an earlier post, I described how culturally mature perspective involves more fully stepping back from, and at once, more deeply engaging, our human complexity (see Integrative Meta-perspective). One consequence is a new ability to systemically own the parts of ourselves that before were idealized and projected—as with modern romantic love and mythologized notions of leadership. Another is a beginning ability to systemically own the darker aspects of ourselves that have been projected with the “evil other” denigrations of war and racism.

To fully understand the significance of these changes, it helps to contrast them with the cognitive reordering that took us beyond the mystical assumptions of medieval belief and gave us modern age perspective. We can think of it in terms of two related change processes. First, rationality split off from intelligence as a whole and became truth’s new arbiter. The implications for identity were monumental. Descartes summarized identity’s new picture as it related to intelligence: “I think therefor I am.” The second change process allied conscious awareness with this newly split off and idealized rationality. The implications when it came to identity were just as dramatic. Conscious awareness gained both a new ascendency and a new authority. We came to more specifically identify with conscious awareness. And we came to regard it as causal, captain to the cellular ship.

The consequences were at once philosophical and practical. Conceptually, the morally-defined polarities of medieval times (that in various ways set good and conformity against darkness and chaos) gave way to a new kind of ordering juxtaposition: objective set in contrast to subjective. More practically, the result was a felt sense of liberation. Rather than identity being defined in relation to a good or wrathful king, or dependent wholly on the authority of a similarly good or wrathful God, suddenly we were conscious, rational beings.

Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes are arguably even more significant. Similarly they reorder the functioning both of intelligence and of conscious awareness. With regard to intelligence, Integrative Meta-perspective involves again stepping back, but now from the whole of our cognitive complexity—including the rational. We also more deeply engage it. All of intelligence’s multiple aspects become more consciously acknowledged and in a whole new sense available to work together. With regard to conscious awareness, awareness takes on a new, at once more humble, and ultimately more powerful role. No longer is it in charge as the ultimate determiner. But in exchange, it gets to take part as catalyst and commentator in a radically more complete and overtly creative kind of engagement with the world.

The consequences are again at once philosophical and practical. More conceptually, objective set in contrast to subjective gives way to a more dynamic and systemic picture of reality’s workings. CST uses the metaphor of a box of crayons with its diverse, creatively related hues. In this more complete picture, polarity is understood to follow from how we think, not from how things actually are. More practically, the result is liberation of a more authentic sort. Identity becomes a reflection of the whole of our human complexity. Being a person challenges us to take on a new, more encompassing kind of responsibility, not just for our actions but for being in the world in this more complete way.

The approach I’ve referred to as Parts Work provides a complementary, more “hands on” way to understand identity in Cultural Maturity’s more systemic—more complete—sense. I’ve described Parts Work as the most direct tool I know for generating culturally mature perspective. In doing Parts Work, a person visualizes his or her multiple aspects as if they are characters in a play, placing them in chairs around the room. Through conversation, the person establishes a relationship with each part. The person also delineates an array of new boundaries. Parts not longer get to engage with the world (what before produced two-haves-makes-a-whole relationships) or with each other (what before produced the polarized assumptions of conventional thought). Whole-person identity—and along with it all the new capacities that come with Cultural Maturity’s changes—follow naturally from committed engagement with this simple process.

“Bridging” Personal Identity’s Historically Polar Assumptions

The historical role of polarity provides a further way to recognize and make sense of Cultural Maturity’s more systemic picture of identity. Modern age thought framed truths of all sorts in polar terms—matter versus energy, actions versus reactions, science versus religion. Certainly this was the case when it came to truths about ourselves. Some of the most important such more explicitly human polarities include conscious versus unconscious, mind versus body, and free will versus determinism.

Integrative Meta-perspective, in helping us at once more fully step back from and more deeply engage understanding’s complexity, replaces such this-versus-that assumptions with a more encompassing picture of what makes us who we are. To have a simple concept, I sometimes speak of “bridging” polarities. We need to be careful with this kind of language as what culturally mature perspective produces is fundamentally different than just some “union of opposites.” It challenges to hold the larger systemic reality that produces the experience of polar difference. But once this is understood, the concept provides a useful shorthand.

Taking a moment with how culturally mature perspective “bridges” each of the three human polarities just noted provides further insight into what becomes different with culturally mature identity. Modern psychiatry’s challenge to the before-clear separation of conscious and unconscious—a radical “bridging—set in motion some of the most important conceptual advances of the last century. Over time, we came to recognize that what we experience consciously is not only not the whole of truth, it represents the much smaller part of how we understand. CST offers a more detailed picture. It describes a dynamic reality in which intelligence has multiple aspects, some more conscious some less, that interplay in different ways at different times to make us who we are.

Note that this more multi-faceted picture of the relationship of conscious and unconscious similarly challenges the traditional polarity of objective and subjective. The objective stops being truth’s last word. We appreciate that certain questions are best addressed with a wholly objectivist approach—any concern that can be reduced to an engineering problem is of this sort. But we also recognize that the number of such questions is less than we might imagine. This is particularly the case with questions that concern ourselves. And it is always so where questions require that we be not just intelligent (in a technical sense), but also wise—as is the case with more and more questions today.

We see a related kind of “bridging” with the before clear separation of mind and body. In the modern age picture, mind was seen as active and determining. The body was treated as purely physical and reflexive. Fully separating mind and body was critical both to the advent of modern age thought and to modern age advances, such as the realization of scientific medicine.

Today this picture too is changing, and in similarly dramatic ways. The best of thinking in psychology and psychiatry increasingly appreciates that even the most mundane of everyday thoughts is at some level “psychophysical.” Similarly, the best of bio-medical thinking recognizes that the mind is much more actively involved in shaping the life of the bodily than before we’ve assumed. It turns out that the conceptual moat that before separated mind and body is in fact traversed by a complex array of neural pathways and communications molecules.

The last of the three polarities I noted gives us one of philosophy’s most defining quandaries—the experience of free will in what might seem only a deterministic universe. We see hints of a more systemic interpretation with my observations that culturally mature perspective gives conscious awareness an at once more humble and ultimately more powerful role. In a previous post, I use Integrative Meta-perspective’s more dynamic picture of awareness’s workings to challenge an attempt by Stephen Hawking to resolve the free will/determinism quandary within the assumptions of traditional science. Creative Systems Theory’s offers a more creative picture in which free will is not quite so free as we tend to assume, nor actions quite so predeterminable. In the process it proposes that identity, too, is more expressly creative than it has before now been possible to grasp (see “Come On Stephen Hawking:” The Quandary of Free Will In What Seems a Deterministic Universe).

Let me add one more polarity that ties in particularly important ways to the question of identity. Psychology has tended historically to divide experience into more “inner” and “outer” aspects. In the end, this polarity ties directly to questions that affect all of us—for example, if it is possible to reconcile the assumptions of science and religion.

In my most recent book, Cultural Maturity: A guidebook for the Future, I describe how psychology’s history can be thought of as an ongoing war between camps that make more inner or more outer aspects primary—something we also see with philosophy. With psychology, practitioners of a more behavioral or biological sort made it all about outer experience—about what we do—with more inner/subjective aspects viewed as secondary at best (or worse, dismissed as mere epiphenomena). More humanistic and transpersonal sorts made inner experience the “real” or “true” self. Integrative Meta-perspective challenges both conclusions.

A couple observations make this further challenge more concrete. One turns again to Parts Work. In doing such work, one of the most critical recognitions is that inner and outer parts are just that—parts. Neither gets to sit in the Whole-Person chair. This is equally the case whether the more inner part is emotional, esthetic, or spiritual. And just as much it is the case whether the outer part is more practical, materialistic, or scientific.

The second observation turns to CST’s framework for understanding temperament differences. The Creative Systems Personality Typology delineates how some personalty styles live most from more inner parts of experience, others from more outer aspects of experience. It also makes clear that while the result is very different ways of seeing the world, each personality style, in the end, makes an equally important contribution (see

Separateness and Connectedness

Earlier I made reference to an apparent contradiction that comes with culturally mature identity—how Cultural Maturity’s changes make us at once more capable of real separateness and real relationship. A look at the way culturally mature perspective draws a circle around our experience of difference and connectedness not just personally, but more socially, helps further fill out today’s new picture of identity. We can think of it as a further kind of “bridging.” The result could not be more important.

We encountered a good example with what a culturally mature transcendence of bigotry asks of us as social beings. Bigotry is a statement about difference. But this is difference based on projection—and thus ultimately on two-halves-make-a-whole relationships with its lack of authentic difference. Getting beyond bigotry involves better recognizing our commonality. But that is just a start if our interest is not just liberal niceness, but seeing things in ways that in fact increase possibility. Culturally mature relationship also involves appreciating ways that we may authentically differ.

This kind of result pertains to systemic relationships even at the largest of social scales. Nationalistic identification has made us feel distinct. But historically this sense of distinction was again based on two-halves-make-a-whole bonds—here of the “chosen-people/evil-other” sort. We depended on our enemies for our sense of separateness and identity. Today we see the possibility of a more global sense of connectedness. We also find the beginnings of a new appreciation for the local, for our own very particular social identities. Importantly, this sense of shared identity is of a wholly new sort, based now on Whole-System rather than two-halves-make-a-whole bonds. At this most encompassing of social scales, we are similarly becoming more capable both of authentic difference and of true connectedness.

Interestingly, we see something related in our connection with the natural world. Modern age belief set us separate from nature with appropriate dominion over her. With Cultural Maturity’s changes, we become capable of a more conscious and deeply appreciative relationship with nature. At the same time we better appreciate the particular responsibilities that come with being human. In an even more encompassing sense, we become at once more connected and also more authentically particular.

I’ve promised to reflect further on how Cultural Maturity’s cognitive reordering gives us fresh access to parts of ourselves needed for deep connectedness. Just how it does helps cement the role of Cultural Maturity in these changes. In a previous post I described what CST calls the Dilemma of Trajectory. CST delineates how each stage in any human formative process is marked by greater distance between polar opposites. The Dilemma of Trajectory confronts us with how continuing on as we have threatens to separate us from essential aspects of who we are. Some of those aspects include those that generate our sense of connectedness—in our bodies, in nature, and more generally. None of the Cultural Maturity-related changes in how we experience identity that I’ve described can happen without Integrative Meta-perspective’s deepened engagement with these essential aspects of our complexity.

Common Traps In Contemporary Thinking About Identity

One of the most important arguments for the concept of Cultural Maturity is implied in these various identity-related observations. The new picture I’ve put forward is not just something nice we might prefer. Increasingly it is essential to our well-being, and perhaps to our survival. And it cannot happen without Cultural Maturity’s changes.

I promised to return for a closer look at the three most common ways people today recognize identity-related changes. We can use them to add further substance to our understanding of what is needed and its importance. Earlier, I suggest that each requires culturally mature perspective if it is to be adequately understood. Each also requires Cultural Maturity’s larger changes if it is to manifest in ways that will ultimately serve us.

The identity-related changes that come with new information technologies reflect important possibilities, but they can’t be enough by themselves. The digital revolution has brought innovation that can dramatically increase our individual creative capacities and make possible new connections with people from all over the world. However, all too often what we see today in fact undermines identity in the sense the future requires (see Techno-utopian Delusions). In previous podcasts I’ve described how a major portion of that which claims to be creative and informative with new digital technologies is more accurately artificial stimulation masquerading as meaning. And much of what promotes itself as “connectedness” proves instead to be a superficial substitute for, and ultimately an obstacle to, real relationship. The digital revolution will require Cultural Maturity’s more complete grasp of identity, meaning, and relationship if it is to ultimately serve us.

Changes in how we think about gender roles—and gender itself—present some of the most inescapable indicators that how we experience identity is expanding. But if we lack the depth of bodily engagement that comes with stepping solidly into culturally mature territory, we necessarily stop short. We are likely to see even more exaggerated forms of two results that we commonly encounter today. People can confuse leaving behind gender stereotypes with a unisex ideal—in effect the celebrating of a disembodied and desexualized identity. We also see a result that might appear the opposite but that in the end is just as disembodied (and even more dangerously so), the all-on-the-surface, hyper-sexual imagery that too often permeates media today and is used to sell products of most every sort. Neither the gender revolution nor the sexual revolution can ultimately serve us without Cultural Maturity’s more complete picture of identity.

We see something similar where an understanding of identity’s changes is limited to a postmodern interpretation. In a previous post I made clear that the postmodern picture put forward by academia by itself cannot be enough (see Post-Modern Pseudo-significance). The limitations I observed are directly pertinent to identity. Letting go of past cultural guiding stories by itself only leaves us wandering aimlessly—this at a time when deeply felt purpose could not be more important. And a more relativistic morality, while it offers new freedoms, by itself similarly leaves us short—this particularly in a time when all the most important questions have become moral, questions of value. For postmodernism’s challenge to identity as we have known it to work, we must add to it the further steps that generate Cultural Maturity’s more systemic and complete picture of what makes us who we are

Our future well-being as a species depends not just on what we think and what we may invent, but even more fundamentally on who we are. Appreciating what lies beyond our modern age concept of the individual gets us a long ways toward understanding the needed new ways of being in ourselves and being in the world. Legitimate hope for the future lies ultimately in learning to hold the complex whole of ourselves in newly consciousness, responsible, and courageous ways.


Fill out the form below to receive monthly articles and updates from Charles Johnston, M.D.