When I develop a culture for my world, I often will take a step back and consider the philosophies that may develop within that culture. The environment in which the culture develops will play a factor since it is integrally linked to how the culture survives and how it passes on its survival techniques to the youth. These survival techniques can, over time, develop into myths and stories that showcase the morals of that society. As time goes on, these myths can develop into religions and into various philosophical thoughts. So when developing the philosophical ideas of your made-up culture, consider the impact of the environment. Also, be sure to examine language as well since it is a reflection of how the culture perceives and understands its world.
For example, in several native Alaskan tribes, they have numerous words for snow because of the environment in which they live often has blizzards, heavy amounts of snow, and cold weather fairly often throughout the year. When you examine a lot of the myths their culture holds, blizzards and snow often feature heavily within them, and these myths help to teach the people of their tribe the beliefs, survival tips, and philosophy of their elders. Myths and parables develop naturally as ways for people within a culture to share morals, religious beliefs, and/or philosophical ideas, because it breaks down the ideas into an easy to digest form: storytelling.
While I was doing research for this post, I noticed that in western philosophy humanity is often characterized in twos. Introversion and Extroversion. Anima and Animus. Restorative force and destructive force. Male and Female. However, this is not the only way you can envision your world’s culture and its dominant philosophies. Even though it is simpler to view the world in a black and white lens, where everything is in twos, it fails to represent the true diversity that is our universe and our reality. You can create a culture that is devoted to this black and white view of the world, but you also can break that mold and create a culture that isn’t devoted to this idea of twos.
Try exploring cultures that break the binary — such as in India where there is three genders: male, female, hijra. There are dozens upon dozens of cultures around the world who have three genders or more. This view of gender can create new mythology, where the characters in the myths come in a variety of genders, and the philosophy hidden within the myths may differ from a society that has only a binary view of gender. For example, in some Native American tribes, where a third gender exists, this third gender was often seen as holy — as if touched by the gods. This belief system creates a different sort of atmosphere, where the culture is more accepting of behavior that falls outside the usual gender stereotypes, and these differences are even revered. While in a culture that sees gender only as a binary, people who fall outside the gender roles may be harshly punished rather than revered or accepted. These are ways your philosophy and cultural views could manifest and influence the characters in your tale.
When examining philosophies around our world, be sure to examine ones outside your norm. For example, I live in a country that is dominated by Western Philosophy, and so I take an active role in learning more about Eastern Philosophy. Even those terms are a bit simplistic, because within both categories there is a plethora of diversity within philosophical thought. Understanding that such diversity exists can also help in constructing philosophies for the worlds you build in your stories. Even then, the dominant philosophy within your society may not be the philosophy held by your protagonist or antagonist. Those differences can cause conflict and alter the shape of your story as much as other types of conflict. Recognizing that aspect to your tales can help you develop a richer and fuller story, especially for longer works.
It can also help you develop the theme of your story. Remember, even if a culture has a dominant philosophy or belief system, they are not a monolithic culture — there will be a diverse set of views and interpretations of the culture’s belief system and philosophies. There could be a group of people within your culture that develop a philosophy that is wholly against the dominant cultural norms; this creates tension in the culture and provides a great source for stories and interesting conflicts.
As a parting thought, think about what ideas your created world wants to instil in its youth. How does this differ from the ideas your culture instilled in you and how did it shape your views of the world? Now take one of your characters and answer that question with the character’s culture in mind. Try to focus on ways the character’s culture differs from your own and how that may shape or influence your character’s behaviors.
These are just thoughts and ideas to help get you started.