Language, Worldview and Culture

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Individual consciousness/awareness –> comprehension of complexity –> increased potential for effective development and action

Consciousness is a term related to awareness. Awareness of what? Awareness of ourselves and others, those things we can observe and those that we cannot. Those we can measure and those we intuit. Victor Havel wrote, “Consciousness precedes being, and not the other way around. For this reason, the salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and in human responsibility. Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better…and the catastrophe toward which this world is headed—be it ecological, social, demographic or a general breakdown of civilization—will be unavoidable.” (Havel 1997)

“Havel implies a second critical point: the potential for movement into a different level of thinking is inevitably influenced (constrained and limited) by the thoughts, feelings, language, metaphors, models, maps and frames through which we reference and make sense of the world.” (Post and Neimark 2008)

Individually, our consciousness is a product of our capacities and capabilities in relation to our life conditions, those elements that impact how we comprehend ourselves, others and the contexts that shape our understanding. Collectively, we help to shape each individual consciousness and to bring that consciousness into a set of understandings, values, aspiration and intentions that we call culture.

individual consciousness (worldview, aspirations, etc.) = culture

As with many words in English, the term culture means different things to different people. For example, it is often used to refer to a set of shared worldviews and values held by a group of people in a family, a village, an organization, or a nation.

Alternatively, I like to think of culture as the constellation of values, beliefs, worldviews, aspirations and intentions in a human system, whether that system is tribal, regional or national. If we take this approach we can be aware of not only what is shared, but also what is not. This, in turn, provides us with a richer fabric to understand what we observe in human systems.

An approach such as this supports our comprehending the complexity of what we are working with, individually and collectively, whether we are trying to manage or lead a change in agricultural practices, the drying of the Peruvian-Amazon rainforest, the degradation of water systems by the poisons used in mining, a shift to the use of renewable resources for energy production, or any of a myriad of other changes that support generativity in our world. We recognize that sustainability can be essentially a conservative concept in our meaning making, as others at this conference have pointed out. It urges us to protect and preserve life. In addition we know that we need to build on that idea so that future generations can thrive. We keep in mind that generativity is essential for the evolution and sustenance of the human race, much less all of the other non-human beings in the world. It is about how we evolve a world that thrives. Yet it is also about the deaths that must occur in the evolution of our lives, our cultures and our planet. It is the Siva process: destruction and creativity.

The path to building our individual capabilities lies through life long learning. It is commonplace today to see this notion urged upon us. It is a pathway for letting go of what no longer supports generativity. We experience along this pathway little deaths, as old mental models and beliefs are replaced by new. We find that we must maintain what we can, while letting go of what no longer serves us our communities and our world. We experience stagnation, not only as we age, but as we make choices that reduce our use of aspects of our being. The challenge is for us to learn new skills and competencies to meet the changing requirements of the contexts in which we live and work, as well as developing and using practices that support such learning. It is also about learning about ourselves as sense and meaning making beings.

“…reconciling lifelong generativity and stagnation involves the elder in a review of his or her own years of active responsibility for nurturing the next generations, and also in an integration of earlier-life experiences of caring and of self-concern in relation to previous generations.” -Erik H. Erickson

With the pace of change and challenges to our very existence, it is no longer just the elders who need to review, but each of us, frequently. For this supports our learning. This supports our attending to the dynamics of evolution and change, of anomie and development.

Dr. George Valliant observed, “Winter comes to every one of us sooner or later. And every spring, just like clockwork, the garden is reborn. By the time we die, the real question is, ‘What have we done to leave our garden better prepared for spring – someone else’s spring?'” Others comment: “In essence, generativity is the act of preparing another’s garden for spring. It’s power in the service of love. It’s an act of giving that enables another person to manifest his or her own strengths and gifts through love… Generativity protects our mental and physical health across an entire lifespan. When we nurture others, we nurture ourselves.”

We live in concert with our values, whether they manifest in harmony or dissonance at any given moment. Individually, we comprehend and apply our values in contexts. Changing contexts, changing life conditions, changing how we take action, how we use our values to make choices.

But, while many of us can resonate with these ideas, there are many who do not. If we are committed and passionate about generativity, then we also need to learn to engage with others who carry their own understanding, pace of learning, and life conditions that shape their worldviews and their actions. This suggests a wide variety of stakeholders in our endeavors, multi-faceted cultures, multi-layered worldviews and values.

This complex variety exists not only out there in the worlds of villages, businesses, governments and the like. It exists right here and now. It exists in those contexts seeking to bring knowledge and experience to address the challenges facing us. I imagine that the number of academic disciplines, organizational affiliations and formal positions within those organizations, not to mention the various nationalities present today includes many different perspectives on what is important, why it is important, and how to engage with sustainability and generativity – politically, socially, culturally, systemically and ecologically. Universities, with their range of academic disciplines, are models of such diversity and variability. Even within disciplines varieties of perspectives vie for influence and relevance. We need look no further than institutions of higher education for the challenges, responses and learning in efforts to bridge differences.

Our worldviews are related closely to the language that we use. Not just particular terms, but the entire structure of language. A core behavior is about how we communicate and the monological and dialogical dynamics of sense and meaning making. Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University in California has gained a lot of media attention for her work on languages. (Boroditsky 2010) While I do not have the time to go deeply into that, note this comment: “We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.”

Our languages are manifest in behaviors in relation to others. And they also influence how we make sense and meaning of ourselves and our world. How we think influences what we do – and vice versa. Thus, individual behaviors, while influenced by many factors are linked to how we language our world of intentions and worldviews.

Read other posts by Russ Volckmann

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