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Tertiary Culture
The next phase in the Noosphere?

Sophie Cauvin, Transfiguration (2/3)


The idea of a "tertiary culture" is discussed in more detail in another article.

Human culture could be defined as the general principles which govern human interaction, communication, organization, the values in decision making and the elaboration of one's own life project. It is the organizational paradigm.

In the evolution of human culture, one can discern several phases, each governed by certain paradigms. Of course, it depends on the aspects one considers, but the way decisions are made seems to be a very central criterion, because it is linked to many other aspects, including the value one attributes to other persons, their needs and feelings.

In a primary culture there is practically no social organization. Each acts for oneself, taking only egotistic and short term consequences into account. The overall situation is chaotic, and many weaker individuals are the victims of the stronger and "fittest".

The view of reality is rather superficial and simplistic. The own interpretations are projected as intentions of other people and things. Mythic and anthropomorphic explanations are devised to explain the greater mechanisms.

In a secondary culture, a kind of organization progressively is imposed, either by rulers expecting more profit from a kind of organization, or by victims, trying to reverse the abuse of force. Chaos gradually is replaced by a kind of order. Rulers and/or victims use their strengths, their strategic superiority. Several motives lead to this kind of organization, but probably the intention to make everyone happier is not one of these. Motives leading to transition generally are the insight of the powerful, that order finally better serves their egotistic goals than chaos: economic productivity is better, taxes yield more, stability is greater which leads to their own safety and feeling of grandiosity. The secondary evolution in itself is a succession of little steps and subphases, with a pendular movement between individuals or groups which are quicker in setting up rules that are beneficial for them, and the other, less lucky individuals and groups that eventually resist and, by their number or their productive indispensibility, impose some limits on exploitation and manipulation. It's the "eternal" law of action and reaction, kings and rebellious cities, laws and privileges, capitalism and socialism, left and right, oppressor and oppressed. It yields a gradual transition from despotism towards democracy, a socialization. But however important that organization might be, it always is imposed by external factors: moral, financial and juridical coercion, started in education and continued by social control.

The view of reality is causal and scientific. Authority is progressively replaced by experimental evidence. The problem with experimental evidence is often that only one aspect, or short term effects, or measurable effects are taken into consideration. Decision making by individuals is gradually replaced by partcipation of larger groups and democracy, i.e. ruling by the majority. Rights protect individuals, minorities and vulnerable elements against abuse by the powerful. The right not to evolve as an individual is of paramount importance (the "right to be onself").

In a tertiary culture the organization comes from internal factors: consciousness, a motivation towards integration, communication and integration skills to elaborate the best ways of cooperation, and self-discipline to be able to perform one's part of the distributed tasks. The organization is driven by internal factors: consciousness, open communication, responsibility of individuals for the whole.

The view of reality is integrative and evolutionary: everything evolves, everything is important, every suggestion is valuable, and conflicts ought to be resolved by constructive and creative solutions leading to a satisfaction of all concerned parties. Self-realization is a universal requirement without which integration most often is impossible. To be oneself means: to develop oneself.

Those three styles of social organization succeed each other: roughly speaking there is a slow evolution from primary to secondary and, eventually, to tertiary sociaization structures. However, this continuous trend should not be expected to be simplistic or linear. Although the general trend is from primary via secondary towards tertiary structures, in practice this evolution moves onwards along rather compliclated ways, the progressions being alternated with temporary regressions.
(1) Some aspects socialize earlier than others: the rules for respecting life, material property and physical safety are earlier imposed than rules for psychological, cultural and emotional respect.
(2) Each person can belong to several groups with each their typical degree of socialization: confidence and moneylessness at home, a moderate but not unlimited mutual trust in the professional team, and an extreme caution and sometimes paranoid agression in public, anonymous situations.
(3) Within the same relationship and group we can observe regressions towards more primitive and more defensive styles during periods of tension and conflict.
(4) The general level is frequently disturbed by tentative progresses that come too early and are too vulnerable, and by backward struggles with conservative tendencies.

These aspects can be illustrated by a scheme of the transition socialization stages:


The tertiary culture, or tertiary paradigm, tertiary functioning and interaction style, is an integrative, non-conflictuous way of thinking, behaving and feeling, resulting into a common organization by internal factors, i.e. individual spontaneous and cooperative contributions, rather than by external coercion.

Determining factors

Tertiary culture is enabled and elicited by several factors:

- the progressively increasing quantity  of information about social and psychological functioning, its realities and its possibilities. It started with the art of printing in the Renaissance, but increased dramatically by general education, modern media and Internet.

- the development of sciences about evolving reality (evolution theories of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) and new possibilities (e.g. Peer to Peer interaction).

- the increasing number of people, conscious of this knowledge, and willing to feel responsible for the whole, and to develop their psychological level of functioning.

- the conviction of an increasing number of people that a synergetic model should be more durable and beneficial for everybody than the conflict model.

Although this cooperation style enables a high achievement, it presupposes as well technical (communication and mediatic devices) as personal (training in communicative, integrative and self-controlling skills) conditions. These requirements make it often vulnerable and sometimes impossible.


Terms linked to this concept of tertiary culture, but generally describing only some aspect(s) of it, include:

synergy: tertiary cooperation. Cooperation of course can occur at any evel, but is most often regulated by secondary (external, coercive) factors. Synergy has no rules, no hierarchy. Only a maximal communicativity, a generalized feeling of responsability for the whole, the tendency to make integrations, working with temporary agreements rather than with rules, and the self-discipline to act along the convened agreements and, if necessary, to develop oneself in order to enable this compliance.

integration: this is the general name for  the mutual fertilization of apparently divergent ideas and initiatives, rather than being mutually exclusive, leading to painful choices or conflicts. A tertiary culture is the concrete application of the integration paradigm.

peer to peer: this aspect refers to the fact that people functioning in a tertiary culture consider each other as fundamentally equal, competent and capable to participate to the integration process, and, in fact, as indispensable for this process, that outreaches individual possibilities. It also advocates free access and use of the intellectual insights and productions ("open sources").

direct democracy: a kind of cooperation where ons doesn't elect representatives, but directly partipates to the taking of decisions, by referenda. Direct democracy looks OK, but its weakness is that the majority generally doesn't aim to integration, but prefers decisions that don't imply pesonal developmental efforts.

postconventional: a term which labels secondary phenomena as "conventional", and hence considers tertiary culture as "postconventional". Vaguely synonymous with postmodern.

integral: another term for postconventional, indicating that more arguments are taken into account than with conventional reflections. A modern term for holistic, referring to Ken Wilber's approach.

new thinking: a term referring to the radical transition between secondary and tertiary thinking, considering the actual cultural period as a new Renaissance.


Let us try to describe this tertiary culture (T:), and to point to some major differences with secondary culture (S:).

Reality, including nature, technology, psychological and social phenomena, is fundamentally evolutionary. This implies:

A mistake / failure
(S:) An exceptional feature, deplorable, but considered as a result of a lack of respect for laws and rules.
(T:) An unavoidable consequence of the fact that most rules are too simplistic, and that not all possibilities and needs are integrated.

Explanation for a mistake / failure:
(S:)  It may reveal bad will and incompetence, or the impossibility to reach some goal.
(T:)  It is most often an opportunity to realize those omitted aspects, and to motivate for a stronger training. Mistakes are more frequent when one tries to do things better than formerly, and may reveal a constructive and responsible attitude. Progress inevitably leads to temporary mistakes, but those are necessary experiences to discover overlooked aspects.

The intellectual paradigm:
(S:) Aristotelic-Cartesian. A thesis is true or wrong (it can't be both at the same time), and everything can be explained by deduction form the underlying principles. Truth is achieved by excluding the wrong hypotheses.
(T:) Integrative-Constructive. Each theory is an approximation of  some truth yet unreached. Divergent visions most probably contain each some aspects of that truth. The greatest plausibility is achieved if one makes an integration of all hypotheses, however strange they look. Insight develops by induction from practical experience towards general processes. Integrations most often require a creative rewording of the contributing hypotheses. Factual integrations most often require creativity and personal growth.

The intellectual problem solving paradigm:
(S:) If two hypotheses are incompatible, most probably one is true and the other is wrong. The true one has to be selected by rational or democratic procedures. The truth of one hypothesis proves the wrongness of all other, incompatible hypotheses.
(T:) If two hypotheses seem to be incompatible, most probably each contains a part of the truth. The incompatibility most probably can be explained by honest but unfounded generalizations. "Retroducing" the formulation of each hypothesis / idea to its real dimensions enables a smooth combination ("integration") of the formerly incompatible hypotheses.

The definition of knowledge:
(S:) Knowledge is the intellectual result of processes of explanation and comprehension. Knowledge can be transmitted by intellectual information during education. Knowledge can be tested by interrogation. A diploma is delivered when knowledge is considered sufficient to properly function as a professional. The ability to reproduce 50 or 60% of the required knowledge proves such a sufficient level. Human intelligence evolves from general theoretical concepts towards practical applications. Education should follow this path.
(T:) Knowledge is the combination of intellectual, intuitive (experiential) and emotional abilities to cope with a kind of problem. Already the Gnostics pointed to this threefold condition. Only a part of this knowledge can be expressed in intellectual concepts. Most of the "coping ability" is subconscious. This practical experience (reinforced by emotional involvement) is necessary to underscore intellectual comprehension. Human intelligence evolves from practical experience towards theoretical concepts. Education should follow this path.

Organization in general:
(S:) Action has to be taken every time a problem emerges. As long as problems don't arise, everyone can continue what he is doing.
(T:) Action has to be taken every time an opprotunity emerges. If no opportunities emerge, one most probably overlooks them. Observing analogous systems and processes, or just varying what one is doing, most probably reveals hitherto unobserved opportunities.

Problem solving
(S:) Normally everything functions properly. If problems occur, external causes are responsible for that. Problems can only be treated if one tackles the causes. Once the causes are treated, normality is reinstated and is expected to last until new causes start disturbing normality. Generally speaking, problems are identifiable as negative situations that ought not to exist. Progress is achieved by fighting the negative.
(T:) As everything can always function better, complications of suboptimal functioning are to be expected. Coincidence will provoke such complications, that generally say more about the system than about the person experiencing them. Finally, the system is responsible for such statistically predictable errors. A constant improvement of functioning has to be performed, starting with but not limited to the greatest vulnerabilities. A safe strategy is to install alarm limits that announce possible complications. Most often, complications reveal suboptimal functioning. Generally speaking, problems are identifiable as the absence of positive situations. Progress is achieved by enhancing the positive.

Group organization
(S:) Group members tend to function badly, as long as external coercive structures are not installed . These include rulers, laws, sanctioning structures, hierarchical structures reporting problems bottom up and passing decisions top down. Intelligence, insight and responsibility increase according to hierarchical position. The one at the top can better overlook the whole than the ones beneath him. A group without leadership tends to decay into chaos. People are not supposed to think. The army / government / church thinks for them.
(T:) Once enough information is easily available, and integrative communication can be performed, secondary organization rather is a drag on development. Internal organization is more efficient and motivating than external. In fact, consciousness of how things really occur and what creative alternatives might be is more available close to real experience than at the top.

(S:) Responsibility is minimal: it is limited to the things that are instructed and includes particularly things that are forbidden. Even God's Ten Commandments in fact were Ten Interdictions, and man lost Eden because he neglected the ultimate Interdiction: trying to know the distinction between good and evil. Taking initiatives (and already expressing a creative idea) is offensive for the leaders, and in fact a kind of subversion. Because a simple member doesn't know everything, each initiative could be dangerous for the system.
(T:) Responsibility is maximal: it starts each time one has an idea for improvement, and extends to everybody who can, de facto, influence the situation. Moreover, it belongs to maximal responsibility that one actively looks for ideas for improvement, and tries to extend one's influence on the situation. This includes improving one's own personality.

Mental health
(S:) Normally a person functions without psychological problems. When problems occur, external causes, psycho-traumata, illnesses, are responsible for that. Treatment, psycho-therapy, consists in analysing (psycho-analysis) and fighting those causes. Once those causes are properly treated, normality reinstates itself automatically.
(T:) Spontaneously, most people function at a mean, modal level, not too bad, not too well. Although some organic mental illnesses do exist, most of psychological problems are due to a lack of optimal functioning in self-organization or communication skills. Although many people learn, at an early stage in life, to ignore and accept the consequences of suboptimal, modal functioning, some are more sensitive, and suffer from not realizing their intuitive expectancies. Others develop problems by functioning along a tertiary style in a secondary environment. The primary task of therapists (rather counsellors or trainers) is to support personal development towards self-realization, creativity, communication and synergetic skills.

(S:) The criteria are the principles that govern human rights and interaction. Even if the application of some principle leads to catastrophes (e.g. obedience to the loyal rulers in time of war, leading to millions of dead), the principle prevails. Furthermore, defining the application of ethical principles is the privilige of moral and political leaders, because they have the finest intuition of God's will, and subjects only think about their own comfort on short term. Reinforcing morality is mainly achieved by promulgating lists of prohibitions. Most forms of progress are bad, because things went very well without those inventions, and those inventions generally are intended to make life more effortless and less disciplined.
(T:) The only reliable criterion to evaluate actions is the effect of it, not only on short but also on long term, not only on the active person, but also for everyone concerned, not only for material aspects but also for psychological. Principles are not bad as such, but unreliable because (1) they are based on models of reality, not on reality itself, and (2) one never knows if all applicable principles are considered. Anyway, the only valid principle is the durable happiness of all concerned. This may imply a bit of personal development of those concerned, otherwise ethics coincide with the laziness of the majority... In fact, only integrations are morally justified. Morality is best improved by stimulating positive phenomena: an attitude of maximal responsibility, self-realization skills and particularly the art of integrating. Global and accessible media enhance people's consciousness. Technical progress is paramount for the development of higher human processes.


1. On personal development. Modern psychotherapy in fact aims to develop tertiary thinking in a person: self-confidence (the conviction that much more is possible than actual reality, on condition that one tries long enough and learns from experience), positive thinking (a failure doesn't indicate an impossibility ot ridiculize us, but rather is an indication that one makes progess, and inspires us to new insights), self-discipline (especially concerning the courage to start and to persevere with one's decisions), the art of integrating and the required attitudes for this (accept the value of diverging opinions, willingness to replace one's concrete desires by more suitable ones, enabling an integration without giving up one's underlying needs), the art of combining a positive evaluation of oneself (by looking to the progress rather than to the unfulfilled aspects) with an objective analysis of reality (seeing the details that could be better next time).

2. On relationship. Helping a relationship, marital therapy, in fact consists in learning both partners the art of communication, i.e. the art of integration with two, including as well verbal as experiential techniques. The fact that most relationships (more than 50%) in western culture fail after 5 to 10 years can easily be explained by the absence of communicative skills, that were completely superfluous at the moment of the choice of a partner, who most often presents a complementary personality. This leads to a strong (but temporary) feeling of amorousness but at the same time to a total unawareness that one lacks communication skills. When, after a few years, complementarity no longer exists, this lack of communcative skills hampers the relationship and partners most probably conclude that they are no longer fit for each other.

3. On groups. The group aspect of tertiary functioning is extensively discussed in an article on t-Groups.

Transition to a tertiary culture

The transition from relationships and groups with a secondary culture to a tertiary is critical, in the sense that both can't exist in contact with each other, because too much required attitudes and communication styles are opposite to each other: in a secondary culture one has to be cautious with information to preserve power and to prevent vulnerability, in a tertiary culture unlimited confidential communication is essential; in a secondary culture taking "unwanted" initiatives is offensive and dangerous, but a tertiary culture can succumb to a lack of maximal responibility.

Moreover, in a conflict between secondary and tertiary culture, the secondary always proves superior: stones are stronger than flowers. And many of the features of the tertiary culture are very threatening for a secondary organization: free communication, the elaboration of a consensus outside of, or divergent from the ruler's position. Quickly defensive reactions emerge, including restricting free communication (closing Internet, prohibiting meetings, censorship, enhancing divergencies --Caesar's Divide et impera), isolating the informal leaders, discourageing and condemning them for "offenses", "defamation" and "subversive activities".

Last but not least, a tertiary culture is vulnerable in itself. Temptation and a love of ease facilely elicit tertiary attitudes, which are less demanding and often more agreeable on the short run. This provokes defensive and preserving reactions from those with more maximal responsibilty, and those defensive reactions (e.g. forcing the "best" solution) are close to a regression towards a secondary, more stable system.

These probabilities suggest that a secondary culture, at least in this stage of cultural evolution, is most likely at the beginning of a relationship, a new group ("the pioneers' stage"). As a matter of fact, tertiary functioning is latent in each of us, because it is so agreeable and meets so many psychological needs. A positive frame of mind practically automatically elicits this latent "programme" in each of us. But without conscious vigilancy it is likely to regress in the course of years towards a more easy, stable secondary culture, like most relationships and groups in fact do.

The process of consciousness raising will prove essential in all tertiary relationships and groups, and also in individuals, and in all idealistic (utopic?) groups. The problem is that it will require the collaboration of media (a prohibition on one-sided information and inciting to secondary reactions, etc.), considered nowadays as "limiting the freedom of speech" or as "installing propaganda"). The inclusion in education of skills of integration and handling constructive criticism will probably be essential to allow a large scale transition to tertiary functioning. Anyway, the freedom of the Internet is perhaps one of the most important factors to realize tertiary culture.

Created 8/02