Creative Systems Theory

Creative Systems Theory presents a comprehensive framework for understanding change and interrelationship in human systems with special pertinence to making sense of the times in which we live and the challenges before us. It is significant both for the practical usefulness of its ideas and for the fact that it represents the kind of conceptual perspective that the concept of Cultural argues will be increasingly essential.

We can understand the concept of Cultural Maturity as a stand alone general notion, but if we want to be detailed in our understanding, we need appreciate it as a formal notion within Creative Systems Theory. CST helps us think rigorously about Cultural Maturity’s mechanisms and implications. It also supports making the needed distinctions between Cultural Maturity and more limited views of the future that can get in the way of what the future requires.

In turn, the concept of Cultural Maturity highlights why frameworks like Creative Systems Theory have become newly critical.  It follows from the concept of Cultural Maturity that the future will require not just new more mature ideas, values, and ways of relating, but that we rethink understanding itself. We will need to think in ways that are more encompassingly systemic—that get beyond polarized beliefs that have relegate parts of ourselves to wholly separate worlds (ally and enemy, mind and body, political right and political left, or masculine and feminine). New ideas must also helps us think in ways that effectively address the fact that we are living systems—that take us beyond the mechanistic assumptions of our most recent chapter in culture’s evolving story. Creative Systems Theory provides a compact set of “pattern language” tools for thinking with the needed new systemic sophistication.

CST has both practical implications and broader implications in the history of ideas. With regard to practical implication, we can think of CST in terms of two related primary focuses. It is interested in how human systems of all sorts—individuals, relationships, families, communities, nations—change and interrelate. And it is about making sense of why human beings think and act in the very different and often odd and contradictory ways that we do at different times and places.  Within CST, the concept of Cultural Maturity describes a particular change point within culture as an evolving system and the kinds of thinking, acting an relating that change point requires and make possible.

With regard to the broader history of ideas, CST proposes a new fundamental organizing concept to replace Descartes’ notion that we can think of reality as a “great clockworks.” It puts forward the notion that we can better understand at least the reality of human experience (the only kind we can know) as “creative.” It describes how this recognition allows us to develop new kinds of ideas better able to address the challenges we now face. (It also describes how we an understand Descartes’ “clockworks” reality as a predicted stage within culture as a creative process.)

CST proposes that what ultimately most defines us as humans is our striking tool-making, meaning-making—creative—natures. For making sense of Cultural Maturity, the word creative at least provides useful metaphor, a way of describing how Cultural Maturity changes how our world looks and what it asks of us. Culturally mature understanding paints a more dynamic and generative—we could say simply “creative”—picture of life and human life. CST argues that argues that human understanding has always been creative, but that we are only now becoming capable of the maturity of perspective needed to recognize how this might be so.

More conceptually, CST goes considerably further.  It describe how human intelligence, with its different aspects, is structured specifically to support our audacious creative capacities.  And it goes on to describe how the more mature kind of perspective Cultural Maturity makes possible allows us in a new way to step back from the whole of this richly creative cognitive complexity. One result is a dynamic fullness of understanding not before been an option. This “Integrative Meta-perspective” makes it possible to think in ways that better honor that we are alive (and that we are the unique kind of life we are by virtue of conscious awareness). It also offers that we might think with the systemic nuance  and sophistication today’s new questions increasingly demand.

The ideas of Creative Systems Theory were introduced with Charles Johnston’s first book, The Creative Imperative: Human Growth and Planetary Evolution.  Pattern and Reality: A brief Introduction to Creative Systems Theory provides an overview of key concepts.  The recently released book Quick and Dirty Answers to the Biggest of Questions: Creative Systems Theory Explains What It is All About (Really), uses CST’s ability to help us address big-picture questions as a provocative way to introduce the theory.  An introductory summary of Creative Systems Theory can be found at Also the “theory” section of the Cultural Maturity Blog library includes short descriptions of Creative Systems Theory notions particularly pertinent to culturally mature understanding and advocacy.

The ideas of Creative Systems Theory will be most fully elaborated in an upcoming major work, Creative Systems Theory: A Comprehensive Theory of Purpose, Change and Interrelationship in Human Systems (four volumes and about 1200 pages).

the creative functionThe Creative Function