Needed: A Revolution in Thinking
People can deal with such unique events by action. The baseball player at the plate faces that unique and never-to-be repeated pitch and by making a never-to-be-repeated swing at it may be able to hit the ball over the fence for a home run. This is an example of how individuals, by action, can deal successfully with the unique events that make up the living experience of humankind.
But people also try to deal with the continuous stream of unique events which make up their lives by other methods besides action. They try to think about them and to communicate with others about them. To do this, they classify unique events into general classes or categories and they attach names or labels to such categories.
This process of classification and labeling ignores the qualities which make events unique and considers only those qualities which events are believed to share or to have in common. In this process, each society (and each person in that society) classifies its experiences and events into categories and then gives labels to these categories and puts a relative value on them -- regarding some of them as good or desirable and others as less good and less desirable.
Each society has such a system of categories and of valuations of categories. This is known as the society's "cognitive system." It is the most important thing we can know about any society and the most difficult to learn. When individuals speak of the "inscrutable Chinese" or the "mysterious East," they are really saying these remote peoples have cognitive systems that are different from theirs and are therefore more or less incomprehensible to them.
Getting to know the cognitive system of any people (or even of other persons in our own society, since no two persons have exactly the same cognitive system) is difficult because it is not easy even to take the first step to recognize that we ourselves have a cognitive system, a distinctive way of looking at the world that is not the way the world actually is but is simply the way our group conventionally looks at our world.
The best way to recognize that one's own group has a distinctive way of looking at things and that our own way is not the way things necessarily are is to deal with groups who have cognitive systems different from ours and who are just as certain that their way of seeing things is the way things actually are.
Such an experience, called "cultural shock," may lead to cognitive sophistication -- the recognition that all cognitive systems are subjective; that each is misleading to those who have it; and that although each enables those who have it to function within their own group, it handicaps them in dealing with persons from other groups. Moreover, even within a single society or group, cognitive sophistication is necessary whenever the experiences of that society are changing so rapidly that the old ways of looking at actuality handicap rather than help in dealing with the society's problems.
When people or groups with different cognitive systems interact, frictions and clashes occur, in many cases, without anyone's being able to see why. This happens even where there may be a maximum of goodwill on both sides. The difficulty occurs because individuals are unaware that they have a cognitive system of their own and, while seeing fully what other people do that irritates them, they cannot see why anything they are doing should irritate anyone else.
Cognitive sophistication makes it possible to know both one's own cognitive system and that of the different group with which one works so that one may be able to translate both talk and actions from one such system into the other, while recognizing the conventional and arbitrary nature of both.
Cognitive sophistication is so rare and so difficult to acquire that interaction across cultural barriers is a frequent cause of conflict. This applies to all relationships across cultural barriers -- not only to those with other nations and major cultures but also to those within a culture, such as relationships between suburbanites and slum dwellers or between races or social classes.
The cause of such cognitive conflicts may arise in large part from the different ways in which peoples look at time. Time is undivided duration, but in order to think or talk about it, each culture must divide it.
Our culture divides time into two parts, the past and the future, which meet at the present moment -- an instant without duration. This is reflected in European languages, which have tenses in the past, present, and future. But some peoples, such as the Bantu of Africa, do not have time classes of this sort in their language or social outlook. Many Bantu tongues divide verbs into those concerned with completed and uncompleted actions. They have no future tense because they categorize the future and the present together into a single form concerned with unfinished actions. (Similarly, in English we sometimes say, "I am going to school tomorrow," using the present tense for a future action.)
In the usual Bantu cognitive system, time is quite different from what it is to middle-class Americans, since it consists of a present of long duration and great importance; a past of less importance and moderate duration, such as can be held in personal memory; and almost no future distinguishable from the present.
Among some of these people, the future is not conceivable beyond the next few days and certainly has no meaning in terms of years. These people live in and value the present with all its problems, pleasures, and human relationships. Such people, even if they are given birth-control devices, are unlikely to use them, simply because they have no training in subjecting present relations to a hypothetical event nine months in the future.
Such cognitive differences are of great significance, especially when value systems are different. The African values the present, whereas many middle-class Americans put all emphasis on the importance of the future and are ready to make almost any sacrifice in the present for the sake of some hypothetical future benefit. In contrast to both, the aristocrat of today, like the ancient Greek, usually puts highest valuation on the past.
In our society, the latter viewpoint is now generally ignored, but the conflict between the "future preference" of the American middle-class suburbanite and the "present preference" of the lower-class slum dweller leads the former to regard the latter as shiftless, irresponsible, and lacking in self-discipline, while slum dwellers may regard the suburbanites' constant present sacrifice for future benefit as making them dehumanized and inhibited. In my opinion, the collapse, over the past two decades, of middle-class efforts to export our "self-enterprise" economic system to "underdeveloped countries" or to abolish ignorance and poverty in our own cities has been caused primarily by the existence of cognitive barriers -- specially the one associated with time.
But there is much more to the problem than this. People can deal with their experiences consciously only if they have a cognitive system. This is why individuals cannot remember the events of the first year or two of their own lives, before they had acquired a cognitive system by learning to talk and rationalize. The events of that period of "infantile amnesia" are incorporated in people's neurological and metabolic systems, as can be shown by getting individuals to relive an early experience under hypnosis, but they cannot consciously recall and verbalize the experience until they have categorized it, something they could not do when it occurred.
The cognitive system of any people is of major importance because it includes all those unconscious classifications, judgments, and values which trigger most of an adult's initial responses to events. Every culture, including our own, has a cognitive system at its very foundation, and this is what really keeps it functioning, because it enables large numbers of people to live in the same society without constant clashes and conflicts. A few examples will serve to show this.
We divide the whole range of colors, as found in the rainbow, into six colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet. With our European background, we think a view is beautiful if it consists of alternating horizontal bands of green and blue, as in a landscape consisting of a foreground strip of green shore, a blue lake beyond, a farther shore of green trees and hills, and a blue sky beyond that.
But to a Bantu of dry Africa, such a view is a rather boring panorama of a single color, for many natives of that language group place green and blue in a single category with one name, although they divide the lower red-orange-yellow portion of the spectrum into a larger number of basic colors with different names. That is why what impresses us as a beautiful view of shore, lake, and sky strikes them as a rather monotonous field of one color, whereas, conversely, an African landscape, which to us seems to be a dull expanse of semi-parched soil with dry grasses, may seem to them to be an exciting scene of many different colors.
(As Americans of European background have become familiar with the African-like views of Arizona and New Mexico, many have come to feel that these semi-desert views are preferable to the more "conventional beauties" of New England, Wisconsin, or upper Michigan. And the Navaho or other natives of our Southwest show their preference for the red-orange-yellow portion of the spectrum by their extensive use of these colors and their scanty use of green, blue, or violet in their arts.)
A somewhat similar example exists in respect to distinguishing and naming the various states of H2O. In our culture, we divide that range into no more than five or six categories, such as ice, snow, slush, water, and steam. But some Eskimo groups who are vitally concerned with how a dogsled moves on snow divide snow alone into 50 or more different categories, each with a distinct name. Today, in our own culture, as the sport of skiing grows more popular, we are developing numerous names for snow conditions on ski slopes to describe different skiing conditions.
Another significant example of any culture's cognitive view of experience may be seen in the way it divides the life span, especially the preference it places on these divisions.
Many native societies of Africa, for example, are formally divided into six or seven rigid stages, and the transitions from one to another are marked by formal, often painful, "crisis ceremonies.” Frequently, there is little contact between different age classes. Thus, youths of seven to 11 years may live together in bands with almost no contact with parents, while the age group 18 to 28 may be almost totally devoted to war or hunting and forbidden to marry until they move, as a group, into the next age range, say from 28 to 45.
By contrast, in the medieval period, Christian Europe divided a person's life into only two stages, childhood and adulthood, separated at about age seven by First Communion. There was a slight tendency, arising from the Jewish Bar Mitzvah, to make another division at about age 13, marked by the sacrament of Confirmation, but generally, anyone over seven was spoken to and treated as an adult.
Over the last five centuries or more, however, our Western culture has changed its cognitive view of this matter to become more like the African, until today we have at least six or more age classifications: infants, children, teens or adolescents, the college crowd, the young marrieds, middle-aged people, and retired persons. There is increasing segregation of these -- in education, in living quarters, in reading and entertainment, and in commercial markets (as in a department store).
The generation gap has become a familiar problem, and communication across age-group barriers has become a major issue. Moreover, female preference for the adolescent period has given us hordes of 40-year-old women trying to look like adolescents. The influence of such cognitive changes on all aspects of life is evident.
The power and affluence of Western civilization do not result from our technology, our political structure, or even our economic organization but from our cognitive system, on which they are based. That system began to develop before 500 B.C. with the introduction of the idea, in Palestine and Persia, of one God -- omnipotent, omniscient, and perfect -- and with the growth of two-valued logic in Persia and Greece.
Although our cognitive system has made our civilization the richest and mightiest in the world, its continued use without cognitive sophistication is leading us to disaster. Lynn White, Jr., pointed this out in his article, "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis," in Science for March 10, 1967.
Professor White's thesis is that when the Judeo-Christian faith established the view that there is no spirit in nature other than the human, the world was reduced to a created object to be exploited by humans, and the way was thus opened to the destruction of nature and to the total pollution of the world -- a consequence that may have become inevitable with the rejection, in the latter thirteenth century, of the message of St. Francis to treat all nature as sacred.
The cognitive techniques derived from our underlying outlook have included ( a) using analysis rather than synthesis in seeking answers to problems; (b) isolating problems and studying them in a vacuum instead of using an ecological approach; ( c) using techniques based on quantification rather than on qualification study done in a contextual situation; (d) proceeding on the assumption of single-factor causation rather than pluralistic, ecological causation; and (e) basing decisions and actions on needs of the individual rather than needs of the group.
In our society, if we want to know how something functions, we take it apart, cut it up, isolate it from its context; we analyze its factors and assume that only one is an independent variable. We then quantify the changes this independent variable makes in all the other variables that are assumed to be dependent on it. Then we make the independent variable one link in a chain of such independent variables, each surrounded by its system of dependent variables, the whole forming a chain going back to some original cause in the past or extending forward in a similar chain to some ultimate goal in the future.
From such reasoning, given to us from the Greeks through Aristotle, we got the "final" causes ( or goals) and the "Unmoved Mover" (that which is the first cause of all movement and does not itself move) of Aristotelian metaphysics, and, today, we still use this way of thinking, even though we no longer believe in Aristotle's metaphysics.
The now obsolescent mode of thought and cognition just described might be contrasted with a newer method which is, incidentally, closer to the thinking processes of southern and eastern Asia, which were never much influenced by transcendental Hebrew monotheism or by Greek two-valued logic.
This newer (or older) way of looking at experience tries to find how anything functions by seeing its relationships to a larger system and, ultimately, to the whole cosmos. To do so, it uses an ecological and qualitative approach, seeking to grasp the whole contextual situation of innumerable factors, all of which are changing at once, not only by quantitative changes within a fixed identity (such as Western logic can handle) but with constant shifts of identity and quality.
This more intuitive and less logical point of view is now sweeping the West as is evidenced by the fact that our traditional Western categories and cognitive assumptions were rejected not only by youthful hippies but also by those hardheaded, analytical people on whom the survival of the West depends.
The stumbling block, of course, is that our whole institutional setup is based on the old method of thought. For example, our educational system is based on the methods of categorization, specialization, and quantification, which must be replaced. This old method of thought is seen on the lower levels, where objective tests assume such things as two-valued logic (True, False), the principle of contradiction (Yes, No), and the principle of retained identity, just as, on the highest levels, the great increase in the use of computers assumes the possibility of objective analysis and quantification of life experiences.
It is difficult to reform our old methods of thinking no matter how bankrupt they may be. Standing in the way of change are the pressures exerted by institutionalized establishments, the profits of powerful groups producing equipment based on old ways of thinking, and the need which the large bureaucratized organizations have for persons with narrow technical training in the older cognitive patterns.
On the other hand, if we do not make such reforms, we may well be destroyed by problems that cannot be handled by the established methods of specialization, isolation, and quantification. These problems are already swallowing us up in the crises of environmental destruction, urban blight, social and racial tensions, poor mental health, and international conflicts that threaten to lead to nuclear annihilation.