Hope and the Future includes as an appendix a Frequently Asked Questions summary of the book’s argument. It is included here to help give a basic feel for the concept of Cultural Maturity and its importance:
What is Cultural Maturity?
The concept of Cultural Maturity describes changes that are 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 further changes are more likely than we might imagine.
Can you briefly summarize the concept’s thesis?
The concept of Cultural Maturity proposes that our times challenge us to engage a critical next stage in our collective human development—put most simply, to engage 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 real 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 is the evidence that the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct?
Several different kinds of evidence support the concept. Some evidence is empirical. If we list the most critical challenges ahead for the species, we find that effectively addressing them—or even just adequately understanding them—most often requires the greater maturity of perspective that the concept of Cultural Maturity describes. We find further evidence in the way in which 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 “developmental.” We find that the challenges described by the concept of Cultural Maturity have direct parallels in the tasks that define second-half-of-life developmental changes in our individual lives (and ultimately in the mature stages of any human change process). We can understand Cultural Maturity as a developmentally predicted set of new capacities and realizations.
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. It turns out that continuing forward on history’s past trajectory is really not an option. Doing so would distance us irretrievably from essential aspects of who we are. Cultural Maturity—or something that can provide a related kind of result—becomes, in effect, the only viable way to proceed.
The concept seems more psychological than most thinking about the future. I guess that makes sense, since you are a psychiatrist. But that seems unusual.
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 specifically psychological aspect. Cultural Maturity is not just about various ways of looking at the future, but also about how the particular ways we understand and hold experience affect how we see the future (and also the present and the past). Cultural Maturity involves changes not just in what we think, but how we think—developmentally predicted cognitive changes.
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 if anything to replace what it quite accurately takes away. The concept of Cultural Maturity specifically addresses why we see the changes we do, and it proposes that the challenge ultimately is not just to surrender past sureties, but 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 that 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. If we ignore these needed new steps in our thinking—or misinterpret their implications—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. Culturally mature perspective makes clear 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 culture, just as much, 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. If we miss these differences, 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 liberal/romantic, spiritual, 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 to the point, that we would not ultimately want to achieve.
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 in which it is simple. It is a single brushstroke notion that we can apply to very different questions. Also, many of Cultural Maturity’s underlying characteristics are, in fact, familiar to our experience. We can know a lot about them from the mature stages of other human developmental processes. When such changes at a cultural scale are developmentally timely, we can experience them as surprisingly straightforward. But simple does not mean easy. Cultural Maturity requires us to hold experience with a mature fullness not possible in times past. At the very least, culturally mature perspective requires us to surrender assumptions (often favorite ones) and step into new territories of experience.
Cultural Maturity is a specific concept within Creative Systems Theory’s more overarching picture of how human systems grow and change. Do I need to understand Creative Systems Theory to make use of the concept of Cultural Maturity?
No. As a 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 effective use of it.
Creative Systems Theory does, however, add to the more basic concept. It helps us understand why Cultural Maturity’s challenges are to be expected and exactly what its changes ask of us. And while all the more nuanced aspects of Cultural Maturity’s demands follow directly from Cultural Maturity as a concept, very often the devil is in the details. 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—it helps us understand the challenges before us and the capacities needed to effectively engage them. In addition, the concept of Cultural Maturity supports the conclusion that success with the tasks before us is not just some idealized fantasy, or something only in our far-off future. It describes how the potential for the kind of thinking, relating, and acting that the future requires is inherent in who we are. And the fact that many of the most defining advances of the past 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.