(In press, Somatics Magazine-Journal)

Culture, Somas, and Human Development

by Arthur Warmoth, Ph.D.
Sonoma State University
Skaggs Island Foundation

Copyright © 1997, 2001

The evolution of a postmodern multicultural society places a premium on increased understanding of issues surrounding culture and ethnic identity. Anthropology has traditionally defined culture as the sum total of artifacts (language, customs, tools/technology, institutions, etc.) that make up a human society. From a psychological perspective, it is useful to focus on the processes of symbolic communication that sanction the coherence of human societies and enable them to evolve such a variety of artifacts.

The psychology of multiple intelligences offers a perspective on the variety of symbolic forms that underwrite human cultures. A developmental perspective permits us to view the process of acculturation in psychodynamic terms, particularly in relation to Erik Erikson's and Jean Piaget's models of developmental stages. This analysis in turn suggests that the cultural evolution of modernity has moved away from presentational and toward discursive symbols (Langer, 1957) as the basis for its foundational organizing principle. However presentational symbols (which mediate emotions, attitudes, and aesthetic values) remain important in the development of both personal and ethnic identity. Therefore postmodern politics require a new, more sophisticated and integrated psychology of cognition and identity, including an understanding of the importance of the somatic dimension.

Culture & Human Development

It has been suggested that we are witnessing the emergence of a multicultural (or polycultural) world, a world sometimes called "postmodern." In attempting to understand the implications of this transition, including the problems and stresses that accompany it, we must consider what culture is and how it has evolved through history. It is generally accepted that humans are a uniquely cultural species. Interesting precursors of human communication, social organization, and tool use have been found in other species. But humans are the only species that has developed the capacity for complex symbolic communication about the world, as well as the capacity to create tools and institutions based on that complex symbolic understanding. According to Clifford Geertz (1973), the culminating phase of human biological evolution was intimately intertwined with the development of language and other basic forms of culture:

The Pleistocene period, with its rapid and radical variations in climate, land formations, and vegetation, has long been recognized to be a period in which conditions were ideal for the speedy and efficient evolutionary development of man; now it seems also to have been a period in which a cultural environment increasingly supplemented the natural environment in the selection process so as to further accelerate the rate of hominid evolution to an unprecedented speed. The Ice Age appears not to have been merely a time of receding brow ridges and shrinking jaws, but a time in which were forged early all those characteristics of man's existence which are most graphically human: his thoroughly encephelated nervous system, his incest-taboo-based social structure, and his capacity to create and use symbols. The fact that these distinctive features of humanity emerged together in complex interaction with one another rather than serially as so long supposed is of exceptional importance in the interpretation of human mentality, because it suggests that man's nervous system does not merely enable him to acquire culture, it positively demands that he do so if it is going to function at all. . . .A cultureless human being would probably turn out to be not an intrinsically talented though unfulfilled ape, but a wholly mindless and consequently unworkable monstrosity. (pp. 67-68)

Culture as a symbolic medium of communication is neither static nor homogeneous. But it is shared, that is to say, it is intersubjective in character (Ortega y Gasset, 1957). And this intersubjectivity must be understood from two perspectives: the anthropological and the psychological. From an anthropological perspective, culture is the sum total of society's symbolic operating systems and the basis for its ecological adaptation to the environment. This includes both the social institutions that are responsible for its emotional and aesthetic quality of life, and its technological tools and institutions for solving ecological problems. From a developmental psychological point of view, culture begins with the deep programming of the psyche in preverbal somatic, imaginal, and emotional awareness (forms of programming that we share, more or less, with other social species) and with the childhood programming of language, and of assumptions and expectations about the structure and dynamics of human relationships. These include assumptions about nature and about the self and others, moral and aesthetic values, and iconographic allegiances.

Much of this early programming is in terms of the types of symbols that Suzanne Langer (1957) calls "presentational symbols" (in contrast to the arbitrary and abstract "discursive" symbols of language and mathematics). The development of the capacity for presentational symbolic communication has its roots in the somatic, imaginal, and emotional consciousness mentioned above. It continues to develop as our shared, intersubjective matrix of symbolic systems, of which we become increasingly self-aware and capable of manipulating with maturation and education. The discursive symbolic systems of mature adult communication may be very complex and abstract. However, if they do not remain grounded in a somatic and imaginal sense of personal identity, they are experienced as alienating and devoid of human meaning.

Culture and Human Intelligence

Looked at from the perspective of the psychology of knowledge (cognitive psychology), culture is the shared ability of specific human groups to communicate, organize, and develop useful information about the world and its inhabitants, including information about individual and collective selves. (Communication is intentionally placed first here because it is the usefulness of symbolic processes in the communication of information, both within and between psyches, that leads to their further elaboration into ever more complex conceptual and social systems.)

From this point of view, culture is the collective embodiment and expression of human intelligence. It is the actualization of the ability of human groups to use signs and symbols to effectively communicate and use information about the world. Individual intelligence is the ability to effectively manipulate particular subsets of this symbolic universe. But the full human meaning of individual intelligence can only be understood when it is applied in social settings for the purpose of solving human problems and creating the social forms that are so essential to the human species.

Recent studies of human intelligence suggest that the human ability to organize and manipulate information about the world is not a unitary psychological phenomenon. (The search for an underlying "g factor" by the first generation of intelligence testers proved fruitless.) Recent investigators have conclude that there are certain "clusters" of information management skills that "hang together" for logical, and ultimately for underlying neurophysiological and genetic, reasons. Howard Gardner's (1983) "theory of multiple intelligences" proposes five types of intelligence (the last one being indeterminately plural): linguistic intelligence, musical intelligence, logico-mathematical intelligence, spatial intelligence, bodilykinesthetic intelligence, and the personal intelligences. Daniel Goleman (1995) has recently made the case for "emotional intelligence." C. G. Jung's (1971) theory of psychological types is also a theory about the different conceptualizing strategies people use to organize information about the world. Based on patterns observed in the process of psychotherapy, Jung's types have proven particularly useful in classifying strategies for organizing information about the social world. Jung's system identifies sixteen types based on the individual's classification in terms of four bipolar variables: introversion-extroversion, sensation-intuition, thinking-feeling, and perceiving-judging. Sensation and feeling keep life grounded in bodies, while intution and thinking allow us to project oursleves into infinite realms of possibilities.

Another approach to understanding the varieties of human intelligence are the cortical function models, which have correlated various types of human knowing with specific areas of brain activity. The generic method of these studies is to correlate controlled phenomenological reports of what the subject is "thinking" with neurophysiological activity (or lack thereof), generally based on electrical measurements and/or known lesions. These methods have pinpointed the neurological centers of a wide variety of types of mental activity, but the most global of these models is the "left-brain/right-brain" model, based on the work of Sperry and Gazzaniga and their colleagues and synthesized at a more popular level by Robert Ornstein (1972). This model has obvious similarities with Susanne Langer's (1957) model of "discursive" and "presentational" symbols, mentioned above, which was grounded on a "philosophy of symbolic forms" developed by Ernst Cassirer and Alfred North Whitehead.

Langer characterizes two types of symbols: presentational and discursive. All symbols are representations. A symbol represents or points to something else--a sensation, a feeling, a material object, an action, or another symbol (an "idea"). With discursive symbols, the form of the symbols is completely arbitrary, as with letters, words, and mathematical symbols. Different languages can represent the world with different words and even different alphabets which carry essentially the same meanings (although the Gestalt properties of languages can vary considerably). Mathematical symbols use arbitrary conventions to represent very complex entities and relationships, some of which, like imaginary numbers, are impossible to visualize. With presentational symbols, on the other hand, there is always a formal relationship which can be said to "present," in some analogous fashion, a significant aspect the symbolic referent. Representative art is perhaps the most "naturalistic" form or presentational symbolism. But the symbolic forms of gesture, metaphor and narrative are also meaningful dynamic presentations of the natural and social worlds. According to Langer, a fundamental value of all of the arts, including music, is that they offer us representations of human feeling and emotion for the purpose of reflection and self-reflection. The same holds true for the symbolic forms of myth, ritual, and religion.

In the model being proposed here, therefore, the "culture" of any particular "society" can be understood as the sum total of its abilities to communicate and develop useful information in any of its multitude of possible forms. The most basic element of any particular culture, the element that differentiates one culture from another, is the complex of basic ideas, insights and intuitions that form the worldview that holds the culture together. If there is a common thread among the spiritual traditions of the world's diverse cultures, it is certainly their function as a symbolic integration of all of the diversity of possible ways of knowing. According to Geertz (1973):

Sacred symbols function to synthesize a people's ethos--the tone, character, and quality of their life, its moral and aesthetic style and mood--their world view--the picture they have of the way things in sheer actuality actually are, their most comprehensive ideas of order. In religious belief and practice a group's ethos is rendered intellectually reasonable by being shown to represent a way of life ideally suited to the actual state of affairs the world view describes, while the world view is rendered emotionally convincing by being presented as an image of an actual state of affairs peculiarly well arranged to accommodate such a way of life. (pp. 89-90).

This view of spirituality as the ultimate "act" (in Brentano's sense) of cultural synthesis tends to validate Durkheim's view of religion as the group's worship of itself, as well as Freud's intuition of the relationship between religion and infantile (or early childhood) consciousness. However, rather than accepting the rationalist inference of these classic writers that religion is an illusion, I would offer the alternative position (probably closer to that of Gregory Bateson) that spiritual consciousness represents an ultimate act of cognitive synthesis that necessarily dissolves at the limit into mystery. From this point of view, the concrete achievement of any spiritual tradition can be illuminated by reflecting on its history. But its prophetic claims to truth value are always limited by what James B. Klee (1960) has described as the uncertainty of "facing forward in-time."

The point of all of this is not to provide a definitive delineation of the parameters of human culture, but only to suggest its richness and complexity.

Culture, Somas, and Human Development

The sharing of a particular worldview is what enables groups of people to function collectively as a society that adapts to the natural world and creates social reality. In other words, it is culture that is the fundamental enabler and expression of distinctly human life. And this process begins with somatic development. Of course, the shared worldview need not be identical for all of the members of a society. Individual worldviews need only be sufficiently coordinated to permit coordinated social action.

The cultural worldview of any particular society must be learned by its members. In order to become a functioning member of a particular society, a child must learn something about all or most of the dimensions of this richness and complexity within a remarkably short period of time. This process begins with somatic and emotional development, and for the sake of the psychological health of a society and its members, the symbolism of identity must remain grounded in somatic, emotional, and imaginal awareness. The gestural and postural languages of a culture are as important an aspect of its shared sense of identity as are its shared langauge, art, and ideologies.

The cultural worldview of any particular society must be learned by its members. In order to become a functioning member of a particular society, a child must learn something about all or most of the dimensions of this richness and complexity within a remarkably short period of time. The developmental challenge of the individual is to learn to participate in and master a reasonable repertoire of these forms. A rough stage developmental model of how this works can be correlated with Erik H. Erikson's (1963) model of psychosocial stages, as presented in Figure 1. Thus the arc of the human life span represents an

Erikson's Stages

Cultural Development Stages

1. Trust vs. Basic Mistrust
2. Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt

Stage 1
(Preoedipal & oedipal stages)
Learns language (discursive) and basic repertoire of presentational symbolic forms

3. Initiative vs. Guilt
4. Industry vs Inferiority

Stage 2
Consolidation of symbolic skills & worldview

5. Identity vs. Role Diffusion
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation

Stage 3
Initiation into adult roles & sexuality; Piagaet's "formal operations"

7. Generativity vs. Stagnation
8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair

Stage 4
Consolidation, modification. & transformation of the cultural repertoire

Figure 1. Erikson's Stages & the Development of Cultural Identity

initiation into and an assimilation of repertoire of cultural "ways of knowing" that eventually leads to levels of competence that permit the individual--to varying degrees, based on social role, individual ability, chance, and opportunity--to participate in the developmental modification of the social repertoire as that repertoire accomodates to changing evolutionary circumstances. (See Jean Piaget's concepts of "assimilation" and "accommodation.")

Even in a relatively homogeneous culture, it is important to note the qualitative (phenomenological) differences in the experience of participants at different levels of psychosocial development. At the earliest level, the individual learns a spoken language (which Chomsky and others have shown to be an incredibly complex task). But s/he also learns nonverbal "languages" that include at least body image, imaginal (iconic), emotional, and attitudinal (action tendency) patterns. (See E. Schachtel, 1959, on "infantile amnesia.")

From the point of view expressed here, learning another culture is analogous to learning a second language, though perhaps even more complicated. The "depth" of one's understanding is a function of the age at which one's learning occurs. Early learning favors learning in-depth, while later study favors learning complexity. But in moving beyond the horizon of a single self-contained culture or ethnic identity, there is always an inevitable dynamic tension between the presentational-emotional-somatic dimension of depth and other dimensions of cognitive complexity.

Modern Culture and Society

The historical development of "modern civilization" (the worldview that has been evolving in the industrialized world since the Renaissance) has been characterized by a steady underlying trend to shift the fundamental systemic base of social organization from presentational to discursive symbolic forms. This has been based on the substitution of the discursive symbolic forms of economics and "social contracts" for the presentational intuitions (mythology, religion) that were the basis of all previous societies. This trend has taken a quantum leap forward with the development of communication and information processing technology. Thus technology has permitted the integration of the world's national economies into one integrated, transnational economic trading system. But it is also making us inescapably aware of the need for more fully developed ecological awareness, and of the diversity of cultural identities and worldviews that exist in different societies around the globe. As a result, there has been a process of differentiation of the social systems of ethnicity (culture as a shared identity) and of society (culture as a strategy for large-scale social integration).

This cultural system of modernity was created by the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. Modern industrial culture has been based on the elaboration of scientific, technological, economic, and legal-managerial symbolic forms, which have in turn led to relative mastery of these systemic aspects of the world. The intelligence represented by these forms of mastery is leading to the global integration of the economic systems of manufacturing, trade, and finance, as well as to the global integration of all forms of electronic communication. But this global integration is in turn leading to the emergence of a "postmodern" global society in which the failures of the "Enlightenment complex" (of technology, economics, and law) to master the realities of culture (ethnicity), ecology, and the human spirit are becoming increasingly evident. These failures are leading to the emergence of local and international conversations about how to manage these areas of problematic concern.

The invention of a new communication technology, the printing press, which made the Reformation possible, was a critical to laying the foundation for modernity. As a critique of the moral decay of the established hierarchy, the "reform movement" is a symbolic form that has occurred in many times and places. But the Reformation's specific approach to spiritual authority could only succeed because the new invention made possible the widespread distribution of standardized scriptural texts. The approach to spiritual authority which Luther and other leaders of the Reformation advocated was based on two principles: 1) reference to the original text, rather than the church's hierarchical, iconographic, and narrative interpretations, as the fundamental cultural authority, and 2) the conscience of the individual believer as the final authority as to the meaning of the scriptural text.

Although the intent of these reforms was to achieve a purer and more authentic understanding of Christianity, the ultimate effects were rather different. As secular approaches to the creation of knowledge became increasingly widespread (aided by the efficiency of the printing press), a variety of types of text took on their own versions of authority. At the same time, while the original reformers probably believed that the widespread availability of a standardized text would lead to a broad consensus of interpretation, the actual result was the balkanization of Christianity into a kaleidoscope of conflicting sects that challenged the credibility of any authoritative reading whatever. The upshot of this was two centuries of religious wars both between Catholics and Protestants and among different Protestant groups. This situation lasted until the princes of Europe were able to agree upon rational political bases for defining their territorial rights and authority. It culminated in the agnostic principle of religious freedom embodied in the U.S. Bill of Rights, which can be seen as a sophisticated begging of the spiritual question. But if the cultural significance of the Reformation represented a lessening of the role of spiritual authority as the primary binding force of cultures, the Enlightenment (as the basis of nineteenth century philosophy and political economy) took the process another step forward by proposing very different authoritative foundations for social order.

Whether in the scientific-technological, political-legal, or economic spheres, the new bases of authority and order shared the common characteristic of viewing spiritual knowledge and practice as an illusion or epiphenomenon. The liberal synthesis, as formulated by the French philosophes and the British Empiricists, never adequately resolved the spiritual question at the level of society as a whole. But it did permit the political revolutions of the United States and France, as well as the technological Industrial Revolution, and the economic successes of the "Age of Empire," of which Great Britain was the outstanding example. These successes can be attributed to a series of social institutions that the philosophy of the Enlightenment made possible:

1. Organized, discipline-based science and its application in technology

2. Political order based on constitutions and laws as an alternative to the personal authority of feudal hierarchies

3. Bureaucratic administration and management based on policy (an analog to law, but generally on a more detailed level of institutional scale) in both the public and private (corporate) sectors

4. Monetary economics, including accounting systems at various levels of scale (from macro to micro) and usually, though not always, capitalist mechanisms of capital accumulation and investment

It is the sum total of these institutional creations that is making possible the global integration of the market economy and the mass communication media, sparked by a quantum leap in the human capacity for data processing as a result of the development of electronic information processing technology. The invention of electronic communication and information processing technology adds up to a communications revolution more profound than the invention of the printing press.

At the same time, the successes of these technologies and the existential realities of global integration are drawing our attention to the philosophical and practical limits of these institutional forms in dealing with the realities of spiritual meaning, cultural and somatic differences, and ecosystem integrity and complexity. Transpersonal psychology, including the emergent variant known as ecopsychology (Roszak, Kanner & Comes, 1995), can be seen as the effort by one particular subculture to deal with this complex of thorny issues. The essential argument of this essay is that a higher level of cultural self-awareness is an important tool in this effort.

Mainstream Culture in the United States

The mainstream English-speaking culture in the United States has been labeled "White Anglo-Saxon Protestant" (WASP) or sometimes simply "Anglo." This culture tends to have a limited sense of cultural self-awareness, partly because of certain ideological characteristics of the culture itself. These characteristics include a tendency to see itself in ahistorical and universalizing terms, as well as a tendency to use racial categories to describe essentially cultural phenomena. These characteristics, along with a particular genius for the manipulation of technological and economic systems, have led to its being labeled the "dominant culture" by groups who experience themselves as excluded from its economic and political benefits. This "dominant culture," however, appears to resist labeling itself has a culture and to see itself as simply an expression of the way right-thinking people see the world.

The dominant culture is not a homogeneous cultural system. It embraces a range of political and social values often characterized as on a continuum from liberal to conservative. It embraces a crazy quilt of spiritual and religious world views that range from fundamentalism to secular humanism. Although its dominant strain of individualism has deep roots in Protestant Christianity, it also reflects the perspectives of Catholicism and Judaism. Its rationalism and pragmatism have always been leavened by the yeast of Romanticism.

In spite of the diversity and complexity of this modern American culture, it has participated in the underlying modern cultural tendency to shift its fundamental systemic base of social organization from presentational to discursive symbolic forms. Although "systems thinking" (Capra, 1996) is fully capable of interpreting the structural relationships involved, confronting their complexity may require a higher order of intellectual sophistication than has heretofore been required of the average citizen. This is a dilemma that is explored by Robert Kegan in In Over Our Heads (1994). However, at the same time that the functional structuring of society has shifted from a presentational to a discursive base, the mass media have developed a high degree of skill in using presentational forms to create a mass culture that effectively diverts popular attention from serious reflection on the underlying discursive structuring principles. This situation combines with two previously mentioned characteristics of the culture, its lack of cultural self-awareness and its tendency to confuse race (genetics) with cultural strategies and identities, to create a very confusing and potentially dangerous social chemistry.

In this situation, it is not particularly surprising that African-Americans, who have been excluded from membership in the dominant culture or at best offered assimilation only on terms of second-class citizenship, have maintained a significant degree of cultural autonomy. Nor is it particularly surprising that Mexican-Americans and other Latinos, who come from a culture that is rich in historical depth and cultural self-awareness, often advocate for bilingual education and other social forms that support their cultural identity.

The only humane and productive way forward that I can see is to acknowledge, first of all, that culture is a social construction and not a divine revelation. At the same time, we know that it is a construction process that is collective and multigenerational, not the act of isolated individuals. And it is a collective and multigenerational process that gives the individual indispensable tools for the construction of a coherent and healthy individual self, within the developmental life cycle described by Erik Erikson. It is only by acknowledging these systemic realities and then reflecting on the complex historical processes that have put us in our current existential dilemma that democracy has any hope of thinking its way through to a just and accepting society.


One of the implications of this cognitive developmental view of culture is that the evolution of the symbolic forms creating modern civilization have moved ever further from the basic somatic, emotional and aesthetic categories of the basic programming of the psyche. Postmodern society relies on complex discursive symbolism to get its work done, while presentational symbols, as advertising and entertainment, are chiefly used to persuade the average citizen to act as a politically docile, passive consumer. In extreme circumstances--when anxiety gets out of control--creative exploration of the emotional realm is encouraged, but only in the isolation and privacy of the psychotherapist's office.

But a paradox remains. Although discursive symbols are extraordinarily useful getting things done, they are much less satisfactory in leading us to meaning. Meaning, understood as the phenomenological dimension of "depth of meaning," is the intersubjective web of human and ecological relationships that are mediated by presentational symbols freighted with emotional and aesthetic content. Thus an adequate accounting of the human world requires an acquaintance with the messy, emotionally charged realms of narrative and iconic symbols. It therefore requires a recognition of the centrality of the disciplines traditionally associated with the humanities--art, literature, and philosophy--as we move ever more in the direction of the conscious self-creation of human organizations or systems. It calls for a reconciliation of the two cultures of science and the humanities called for by C. P. Snow (1961) in the late 1950s.

Since the conscious creation of human systems goes by the name of politics, it also requires a democratic politics that respects the different psychological identities and value systems that are a result of different cultural as well as individual developmental histories. Global integration today is being propelled by the economic institutions of capitalism and by technological innovation (particularly in the communications media), sometimes tempered and sometimes propelled by the political forces and institutions of democracy. Although the content of the media is often iconic, the design of their technological systems is driven by the mastery of the highly abstract discursive symbols of science and engineering. Economic systems are dependent on the discursive mathematics of economics and accounting. However, in politics the discursive meets the presentational in often highly charged discourse in which economics and technology wrestle with competing identities, values, and worldviews in the hope of creating new, more effective and satisfying law-based institutional arrangements. The intriguing question is whether politics can democratize capitalism before economics capitalizes democracy, devouring the natural and human resources of the planet in the process. In other words, can democracy produce sustainability and social justice in time?




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Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

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Kegan, R. (1994). In over our heads. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Klee, J. B. (1960). Religion as facing forward in-time. Existential Inquiries, 1(2), 19-32.

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