# Primacy of Being

What do we mean by the primacy of being?

# Full Definition

# Defining Being

First, “being” is shorthand for “way of being” and is also being used as shorthand both for individual and collective ways of being.

Individual “being” is our psychological and cognitive habits and processes, and, more than that, our way of “being in the world”, the way we see the world, the way it “occurs” to us (our ontological-phenomenological nature).

Collective being is “culture”: the automatic habits of individual and collective thought in the group, the stated and unstated beliefs and values, the rituals and practices.


Individual and collective being inter-depend: individual being comes from collective being and vice-versa. For example, collective beliefs become individual beliefs – from the highest level e.g. “GDP growth is important” or “material success is valued” to the lowest level such as the fundamental attribution error “when people trip it is because they are clumsy”. Conversely, the collective is made up of individuals and their cognitive and emotional make-up has a large influence on the nature of the group.)

# Defining Primacy

Next, “primacy”. Primacy implies comparison: primacy compared to what? So what does “being” have priority over? And in what context?

Being has priority over structure or technology. And it does so in the context of sourcing and explaining transformation (change) in (the most) important personal and social areas: well-being, economic productivity, key individual and societal attitudes “universalism” and human rights (which relates to eliminating slavery, racism, sexism etc), tackling global warming etc.

Put, simply we could say:

“Spirit takes priority over matter.” (The primacy of spirit over matter)

NB: importantly primacy implies priority not total superiority. Matter still matters. Structure and technology are important – but they are secondary to being (and sometimes very secondary).

A final, important context is when i.e. where we are in the planet’s history. That context is “now”: late modernity (or even post-modernity). A world in which material sufficiency if not abundance has become the norm in many countries around the world and which in almost all the world famine and serious want is becoming a thing of the past. Increasingly a majority of the world has the essentials such as food, shelter clothing, and in many cases much more e.g. basic education, healthcare etc.


There is an analogy here with McGilchrist’s the “primacy of the right hemisphere” in the Master and His Emissary. In his work, the right hemisphere needs and depends on the left hemisphere – in fact they inter-depend (with each influencing and forming the other and working together to form an overall picture of the world). Nevertheless the right has primacy: it is the master and the left hemisphere is the emissary. So institutions and technology are the emissaries and culture is the “master”. They interdepend in complex ways, yet still it is culture that is the key determinant, that which comes first in the long-run.

# Illustrations

# Well-being, aka The Buddhist is better-off than the Billionaire (Banker)

In the context of well-being, primacy of being is the claim that advancing “being” (aka psycho-spiritual development) is more important for being well and happy than getting more money, or other material possessions.

Put simply, most zen masters are well and happy, whilst many billionaires aren’t.

cf Money can’t buy you love – or happiness. The queen of versailles (documentary). Obesity. …

Aside: Of course, we assume some basic material basis – if you are starving then food is essential. Though even here, at least in the less dramatic case of simply being poor, “advanced being” may be more important to your well-being than material increase: both in terms of how you deal with having little and in your ability to get wealthier (tough self-control issues may be the biggest issues for the poor cf Duflo, Bannerjee, Mullainathan).

Consider two competing hypotheses: “Money will make you happy” vs “Meditation will make you happy”. Or, put in more detail:

A. Material success both in terms of its direct material benefits and its indirect status benefits (I’m richer than my neighbor) (is the biggest factor)[1] in bringing long-term happiness and well-being

B. A deep spiritual practice irrespective of its status rewards (so even if you are unknown or in a hut in the forest) (is the biggest factor) will bring long-term happiness and well-being

The first hypothesis is a “material” (non-being) hypothesis. It says that some material factor “outside of ourselves” (money, physical resources) is the biggest factor in determining our well-being.

The second hypothesis is a “being” hypothesis: it says that a practice that shapes and transforms our “being” – our spirito-psychological processes, our occuring of the world – is the biggest factor in bringing long-term happinness and well-being.

Primacy of being in this context means that a being hypothesis such as B would trump a non-being (materialist) hypothesis like A.

[By well-being we mean contentment and resilience, joy and peace of mind. It is not lobotomized happiness, but the ability to deal with life’s slings and arrows powerfully and with good humour, the ability to mourn when we should mourn but not to be overtaken by grief, and to truly savour the extraordinary miracle of being alive in the here and now.]


Psycho-spiritual practices are more important than material or structural advances in impacting well-being in the future.

# Marxist-Communism

Marxist communism assumes that a major structural change in the form of communal ownership of the means of production will bring about utopian liberation at the individual and collective levels – we’ll all be happy, they’ll be no more wars (we are all proletarian brothers – and sisters – now), no more groups fighting each other, no more crime (that’s a bourgeois disease), no more exploitation etc.

This is a “structural, materialist” argument in that it argues that instituational / structural change will bring about (more) structural and material change that will then impact well-being and culture.

This is a primacy of structure argument.

By contrast, primacy of being would say these kind of structural changes e.g. communal ownership of the means of production, would be (utterly) insufficient to bring about a utopia. Greed (craving) and conflict are rooted deep in our being and structural changes will have only relatively superficial effects – and worse, that deficiencies in our being combined with a structuralist focus may lead to serious harm in the form of authoritarianism, a willingness to sacrifice means to ends etc (to make an omelette you have to break a few eggs, to make a communist utopia to have to kill a few million!).

Even more ironically, the ability to live and work collectively, and to do so efficiently, is not easy. Humans have egos and are far from pure altruists. Even if they are also not purely selfish, one must at least have an effective system for dealing with “bad apples” (“defectors” in game theory terminology).

Our unhappiness and disatisfaction clearly have only a partial relation to material well-being, or even inequality (as should have been evident even to Marx from looking at the lives and behaviour of the aristocracy and plutocrats of his time.)

Conflict arises both from our predispositions (e.g. tendency in young males to aggression) and our attachment to our “I”, to our “ego” and hence attachment to our views (I’m right, you’re wrong and our tendency to experience disagreement as threat), quite apart from our reaction to actual physical threat to our being.

“The fault dear Brutus, lies not in our stars but in ourselves” (Cassius to Brutus in Julius Ceasar)

# Blockchain

Techno-solutionism (mixed with structural) solutionism on a grand scale.

# Northern Italy vs Southern Italy

Here we have a perfect example of the primacy of “being”, in this case collective being as culture, over structure (institutions and rules of governance):

The new institutions of the unified nation-state, far from homogenizing traditional patterns of politics, were themselves pulled ineluctably into conformity with those contrasting traditions, just as the regional governments after 1970 would be remolded by these same social and cultural contexts: [putnam-ea-1993-making-democracy-work:p.145]

See https://rufuspollock.com/2019/04/21/the-primacy-of-collective-being-or-culture-beats-institutions-the-example-of-italy/ (opens new window)

# Political change

Politics should incorporate ontology and ontogeny (a theory both of being and how it comes about)

# Climate change

Techno-solutionism = new energy technologies.

Being-solutions = attitudes to nature, attitudes to political action, wisdom for collaboration (non-attachment to views).


Cultural change and selecting (activist) groups with right culture and need for political structures to constrain the rest.

# Research from Cognitive Science, the Influence of Buddhism

Key points

  • How much we know about ontology and ontogeny and how resonant this is with ancient wisdom traditions such as zen buddhism
  • How much runs on “automatic pilot” (sub-conscious) processing
  • How much of our automatic processing is determinable (or at least influencable) – by our education, upbringing etc.
    • How deep this goes even to epigenetics
    • Examples from Trauma

Also cogsci and phenomenlogy and buddhism: how much our concepts create the world (but there is still an “out there”). cf mcgilchrist.

# Subtleties

  • Rationality and reason vs the power of culture.
  • You don’t do your meditation 😉 => we need a group around us.
  • Primacy of being also implies primacy of processes that support development of (wise) being => community etc.

# Misc

Hierarchy of cause:

Being (Culture) => Process (Structure) => Technology

i.e. being is important (deep) than process and that is more important than tech

Example: productivity in teams. conflict resolution in teams.

Being (and culture) e.g. open-mindedness, rigour, authenticity etc etc are more important than a given process (even stuff like NVC) and that is in turn more important than a technology (e.g. an online tool for discussing things e.g. loomio)

# Diminishing returns to material, increasing returns to being

                                             X Being / Spirit
      Benefit     +                      XXX
                  |                      X
                  |           XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX    Material
                  |        XXXX     XXXX
                  |     XXXX    XXXXX
                  |   XXX    XXX
                  | XX


# Connection with Economics (and Buddhist Economics post)

cf Economics with its tri-partite of:

  • Preferences
  • Endowments
  • Technology

(Institutions i.e. structures are not usually considered except in the most high level sense of, say, the social planner vs the market. I suppose re-allocating endowments could be seen as a structural act but it is a one-time act if done at all.)

In most economics, the focus is on technology, or, if technology is also fixed, on exchange. Crucially, preferences are usually taken as given.

Primacy of being, overturns this. Preferences become central in determining well-being. In addition, and perhaps more importantly for economic theory, “culture” moves to centre stage. It shapes (or makes possible) not only institutions e.g. why do functioning markets with their associated exist, but also the path and possibilities of technology: the development of science and technology are predicated on a rich set of cultural norms and practices. Most obviously of all, technology is often a public or club good, the funding of which requires trust, mutual support and public-spiriteness.

Even basic capital accumulation or population growth relate to key beliefs that must develop and sustain.

Put crudely, the key drivers of economic growth such as market-based co-opetition, saving and investment, and technological progress rest on breakthroughts in collective action and attitudes that tie back to culture.

Just as Buffet (?) reports the founder of Quaker Oats (?) as saying given a choice between brand and all of the factories he’d take the brand without a second thought; so, given the choice between all the endowments, technology and (even) institutions in the world and a “good” culture (e.g. one that valued education, effort, entrepreneurship and mutual support cf… Jews, Chinese), I’d choose the culture.


  • Darwin’s Cathedral for role of Christianity in population growth and collective action problems
  • Weber and Protestant Ethic
  • Trust and Social Capital see Putnam
  • Albion’s seed etc

# Implications for coliving and politics

Coliving: governance rules are (much) less important than culture

Politics: culture will determine performance and well-being far more than institutions …

  1. strictly, these are not competing hypotheses. It is not either/or. Both could contribute to your well-being. However, they are competing in terms of their priority. (It also means rather than saying “is the biggest factor” we could say is “more important than the other option”). ↩︎