NL XIX: Two Senses of the Word “Society”

Executive summary (below) | Index to this series

After a break of half a year, I return to reading Collingwood’s New Leviathan. Being on holiday at an Aegean beach gives me the opportunity. While here, I may also return to Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad. Last winter I finished Part I of the New Leviathan, the part called “Man.” Here I continue with the first chapter of “Society.” I have reason to look at what Mary Midgley and Albert Einstein say about science. Collingwood’s investigation suggests a way of thinking about prejudice and discrimination.

Part II of the New Leviathan is “Society,” and the first two chapters of this, XIX and XX, concern the distinction between society proper and two more general notions. In Chapter XX, the more general notion will be community. In Chapter XIX, the more general notion has not got its own proper name, and so Collingwood denotes it by writing “society,” in quotation marks.

A “society” of chairs at the beach (Altınova 2017.08.31)

A “society” is a kind of whole. Being a whole, a “society” has parts. When the parts will, or will to, form a whole—when they constitute a whole as an act of will on their own part—then they form a society proper (19. 8). The proper sense of society is historically older than the more general sense (19. 1), as indeed it must be, since we must have a society if we are going to be talking in the first place about parts and wholes or indeed anything else.

Concerning “society,” Collingwood says,

19. 64. The English language has not chosen to provide for itself a word to fit this idea; why not? Never mind, suppose we decide to have one, and let it be ‘society’. All that the word ‘society’, thus used, implies is the fact which I call a suum cuique, that is, a one-one relation between sharers or participants and shares.

We shall come back to the Latin phrase. Meanwhile, I think we should mind if there is no proper name for what Collingwood calls “society.” Collingwood’s implicit suggestion is that the general notion of a “society” is a scholarly artefact, created by contemporary thinkers, especially Whitehead, in trying to distinguish a society from a class.

It would be convenient to say that a “society” is a whole with parts, while a class is a whole with members. However, according to Collingwood, all wholes have parts (19. 2), and member is only the Latin word for part, originally body part (19. 22). The distinction between a “society” and a class will be made not with the words part and member, but with the words participation and resemblance. Early on we are told:

19. 23. The distinguishing mark of a class is that it is a whole whose parts, its ‘members’, are mutually related by way of resemblance.

Later, in what seems to be only the second use of the word participation in the chapter (the first being in 19. 57), we learn:

19. 61. Whitehead is emphatic that a ‘society’ in this sense is not a class, and that it would be a blunder in logic to confuse the two things. The difference is that a class consists of members related by resemblance, a ‘society’ of one related by participation.

In the elliptical clause at the end, the pronominal one must be an error for ones, which would refer back to members. It seems to be important for Collingwood not to introduce the distinction between class and society without first talking about the meaning of society in Roman law. Let me then consider in order the implicit sections of the chapter.

  1. Society will have to be distinguished from “society.”

  2. A class is a whole whose parts or members resemble one another.

  3. Such a resemblance must be recognized by some person or persons; those persons constitute a society, at least insofar as they agree on the classification being discussed. This is the first suggestion in the chapter of what a society or “society” is, and Collingwood is explicit that the distinction between the two kinds of society will not be made till 19. 8, at the head of the eighth section of the chapter; he will nonetheless suggest the distinction in §5.

  4. The members of a society constitute a class, but only because they resemble one another in belonging to the society in the first place. Thus a society cannot be reduced to a class.

  5. In Roman law, societas is a relation between personae (19. 51). For us, the important point is that these personae are free agents; we have more or less jettisoned their restriction to adult male Roman citizens. Unfortunately though, even the requirement of free agency has been forgotten; this is when we are speaking of “society,” not society proper:

    19. 59. A quite different type of change in the meaning of the word, affecting not its inessentials but its essentials, began in the late seventeenth century where we find people beginning to write about ‘societies’ of plants, without believing or implying that plants are free agents …

    Whitehead even allows the electrons of an atom to constitute a “society” (19. 6).

  6. Members of a “society” share something, which is therefore divided among them. Thus somebody has to do the dividing (19. 65). It may be objected that not everything shared can be divided: a shared apple can be cut into pieces, but not a shared horse. True, but time spent riding a horse can be cut into pieces. Collingwood says a shared friend can similarly be cut into pieces, but the assertion seems more strained. As suggested earlier, Collingwood is keen to characterize a “society” as having what he calls a suum cuique, a principle of “to each its own,” a one-to-one relation between sharers and shares. Grammatically, the Latin phrase suum cuique appears to be the neuter nominative (or else the masculine accusative) of suus “his own,” together with the common or epicene dative of quisque “each,” this in turn being a combination of the interrogative pronoun quis “who” and the copulative enclitic -que seen in Senatus Populusque Romanus “Senate and People of Rome.” Ultimately, it seems to me, I am a member of a “society” because of what I get out of it; and what I get out of it is my share. However, Collingwood does not seem to mention that, while shares of an apple or a horse may exist, in a sense, without a society to share them out, my share in a society as such depends logically on the society.

  7. As in §4, a “society” cannot be reduced to a class. It was allowed there that the members of a class constitute a “society.” However, a class as such is not a “society,” because the resemblance to one another of the members of a class is not an instance of participation or sharing. Plato may seem to suggest on the contrary that members of a class do thereby “participate” in something.

    19. 74. It is a fact, however, that Plato nowhere writes like a man setting out to expound that theory, though he does in several of his earlier dialogues write like a man accepting it. In one dialogue at least (the Parmenides) he writes like a man setting out to criticize it, and criticizing it, in fact, conclusively.

    19. 75. His criticisms are based on the recognition that since sharing implies division, and since resemblance implies the undivided unity of that with regard to which there is resemblance, resemblance cannot either be or involve sharing …

    It seems to me too that members of a class, as such, are indistinguishable from one another. Members of a society are not thereby indistinguishable, but each is distinguished by his or her share in that society. Discrimination is an evil for ignoring this and treating a society or “society” as a class in the strict sense being discussed here. Membership in a class means automatically that one has a certain characteristic, but this is only the characteristic that determines membership in the class. Membership in a society means only that one participates, in one’s own way; invidious assumptions ought not to be made about this way.

  8. “In a society proper,” as opposed to a “society” merely, “the establishment and maintenance of the suum cuique is effected by [the members’] joint activity as free agents” (19. 8). It is thus theoretically possible to believe in “societies,” but not societies.

  9. “Karl Marx was such a person” (19. 83), and he tells us so by saying, as Collingwood quotes (19. 9),

    It is not men’s consciousness that determines their existence; on the contrary, it is their social existence that determines their consciousness.

    This contradicts the meaning of society in Latin, which necessarily involves free will and thus, apparently, the possibility of determining one’s own consciousness; but the German word Gesellschaft, translated as society, makes no reference to free will. It may be recalled that Collingwood intends, by his writing, to support the war effort against Germany; in An Autobiography though, he was resentful of a prejudice at Oxford against German philosophy for not being English.

In An Essay on Philosophical Method, a key theme is the so-called overlap of classes. In philosophy at least, concepts cannot be arranged in a strict hierarchy, so that a class that is not simply disjoint from another class must either include the other or be included by it. For example, as Collingwood discussed in Part I of New Leviathan, and as I summarized at the head of my article on “Desire,” there are three possible reasons for what we do, namely utility, rightness, and duty; but this does not mean that each of our actions can be unambiguously classified as being exactly one of useful, right, and obligatory.

A reason for doing something might be called a motive, and Mary Midgley discusses the motives of natural science in Evolution as a Religion (revised edition, London: Routledge, 2002). In very general terms, Midgley is engaged in the same kind of project as Collingwood’s: to call out thinkers who deny the existence of what they cannot or do not want to understand, thus reducing everything to what they can or like to understand. Midgley quotes Jacques Monod as saying that if man [sic] accepts the “message” of science, he “must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation”; for Midgley, this is

just adopting one imaginative stance among many possible ones. Other good scientists, very differently, have used the continuity of our species with the rest of the physical world to reprove human arrogance and to call for practical recognition of kinship with other creatures … Others have talked in a more predatory way about the joys of the chase and the triumph of catching facts. Both motives, and many others, are evidently so habitual in science that they are only not mentioned because they are taken for granted.

It seems often to be assumed that they are therefore irrelevant, that Science itself is something so pure and impersonal that it ought to be thought of in complete abstraction from all the motives that might lead people to practise it. This, unfortunately, cannot work because of the importance of world-pictures. Facts are not gathered in a vacuum, but to fill gaps in a world-picture which already exists. And the shape of this world-picture—determining the matters allowed for it, the principles of selection, the possible range of emphases—depends deeply on the motives for forming it in the first place.

I think this is right. In my last article, “Ahtamar Island,” I wrote of the psychological challenges of being among crowds of people at a mathematics conference. I mentioned the specific challenge of not having a strong common language. Another challenge is that, for many conference participants, as I imagine, the motive for doing mathematics is almost entirely mercenary. One needs a job, and a university position is secure and respected. Mathematics is also an opportunity for competition: as G. H. Hardy wrote in A Mathematician’s Apology, and I quoted in “Confessions,”

I thought of mathematics in terms of examinations and scholarships: I wanted to beat other boys, and this seemed to be the way in which I could do so most decisively.

I imagine I ultimately went into mathematics for a different reason. At first I avoided mathematics, precisely because it had been presented in high school, at least some of the time, as an arena for combat. However, in a particular field of activity, there can be no motive of making a living or of competitive success, unless the field has come into existence in the first place; and this must happen without any external motivation at all. This is a message of The Principles of Art, at least concerning the field of art. First Collingwood alludes to the overlap of classes:

We have already seen in the last chapter that there may be a combination of, for example, art with religion, of such a kind that the artistic motive, though genuinely present, is subordinated to the religious. To call the result of such a combination art, tout court, would be to invite the reply, ‘it is not art but religion’; that is, the accusation that what is simply religion is being mistaken for art. But such a mistake could never in fact be made. What happens is that a combination of art and religion is elliptically called art, and then characteristics which it possesses not as art but as religion are mistakenly supposed to belong to it as art.

I am not sure Collingwood is right that religious art would never be denied its status as art (if that is quite what he is saying, and perhaps it is not). In any case, he goes on to observe that there has to be art before it can be put to religious or other use:

So here. These various kinds of pseudo-art are in reality various kinds of use to which art may be put. In order that any of these purposes may be realized, there must first be art, and then a subordination of art to some utilitarian end. Unless a man can write, he cannot write propaganda. Unless he can draw, he cannot become a comic draughtsman or an advertisement artist. These activities have in every case developed through a process having two phases. First, there is writing or drawing or whatever it may be, pursued as an art for its own sake, going its own way and developing its own proper nature, caring for none of these things. Then this independent and self-sufficient art is broken, as it were, to the plough, forced aside from its own original nature and enslaved to the service of an end not its own. Here lies the peculiar tragedy of the artist’s position in the modern world …

I am not sure the tragedy is peculiar to art. The possibility of doing any science has to arise spontaneously, as it were, before the science can be put to use, be it in measuring land, or curing disease, or building bombs, or simply displaying one’s intellectual prowess. I think this is the point of Einstein, in a speech for Max Planck’s 60th birthday, a speech quoted by Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcyle Maintenance, and so referred to by me in the last section, §17, of the article “One and Many” about that book. Einstein begins:

In the temple of science are many mansions, and various indeed are they that dwell therein and the motives that have led them thither. Many take to science out of a joyful sense of superior intellectual power; science is their own special sport to which they look for vivid experience and the satisfaction of ambition; many others are to be found in the temple who have offered the products of their brains on this altar for purely utilitarian purposes. Were an angel of the Lord to come and drive all the people belonging to these two categories out of the temple, the assemblage would be seriously depleted, but there would still be some men, of both present and past times, left inside. Our Planck is one of them, and that is why we love him.

I am quite aware that we have just now light-heartedly expelled in imagination many excellent men who are largely, perhaps chiefly, responsible for the building of the temple of science; and in many cases our angel would find it a pretty ticklish job to decide. But of one thing I feel sure: if the types we have just expelled were the only types there were, the temple would never have come to be, any more than a forest can grow which consists of nothing but creepers …

Nobody can be entirely mercenary, or competitive, or free of the taint of these tendencies: this is an example of the overlap of classes. I think Einstein himself goes on to make the point that became Midgley’s, more or less:

Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do, each in his own fashion. Each makes this cosmos and its construction the pivot of his emotional life, in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.

I admire Midgley as I do Collingwood; but as with others who comment on Collingwood, so with Midgley, I think she does not quite read him right. Her words suggest this when she says, a bit later in the cited book,

There is considerable resistance still to changing the seductive notion of ‘modernity’ which ruled early in this [20th] century and still does rule in many areas—a notion of a single dark past, described vaguely as ‘medieval’, due to be destroyed and give way once and for all to a ‘modern’ present which will be final and never need changing. Modern architecture is one dismal case of this strange delusion; successive modern scientific world-pictures have provided another. In theory, dogmatic propagandists for any one of such pictures are resigned to being overtaken one day by the next Nobel prize-winner who will change it. But they expect this to be a local operation, the supplying of new facts. What they naturally cannot envisage is the defect in their own general background thinking which will make a new approach necessary.

Kuhn called this background thinking a paradigm. This term has proved useful but tantalizing; there has been much dispute about how to fix its limits. This is not surprising. The term is essentially open-ended. What it covers ranges far outside the strict limits of science, covering everything that Collingwood so usefully called ‘presuppositions’. And since there are not, as Collingwood supposed, any ‘absolute presuppositions’—since everything involves something else—this takes us an indefinite distance into the realms of the motives and imagination. The example of the dramas linked to the idea of evolution surely makes this clear. If we are not prepared to criticize these imaginative frameworks directly in their own suitable terms, we do not stand a chance of getting the facts straight.

In An Essay on Metaphysics, Collingwood is quite clear that his so-called absolute presuppositions are not absolute in the sense of being universal or eternal and unchanging. They are specific to a person or a people, and to a time; they are the presuppositions that the person or the people do not in fact question—or have not, until now. When a presupposition is identified, it may be questioned. One might say then that it ceases to be absolute. This could be Midgley’s point, but I do not think it is in conflict with Collingwood’s point. When Midgley criticizes the “dogmatic propagandists” who cannot envisage a defect in their own general background thinking, I think she is talking about those persons’ absolute presuppositions.

In the chapter of New Leviathan under review, Collingwood is at pains to make distinctions that he thinks others overlook. There are three different classes: of societies, “societies,” and classes. Greek thinkers known to Plato tried to classify classes as societies. More recent thinkers tried to do the reverse. Whitehead saw the problem, but failed to recognize that not all “societies” were societies. Somebody who knows Whitehead may object here, as I have objected to Midgley’s dismissal of Collingwood’s notion of an absolute presupposition. Still, Collingwood seems a bit more discreet:

19. 44. I have here followed Whitehead in attacking a widespread error of modern logic. What leads to a certain lack of clearness in his attack is that he concerns himself with two terms only when in fact there are three: he is anxious to show that neither a society nor a ‘society’ can be reduced to a class of its own members, but not in the relation between a society and a ‘society’. It is as if he were anxious to conceal one confusion while recovering another.

In any case, Collingwood would seem to be correct that there is a threefold distinction that we ought to pay attention to. Unlike a class, a “society” is not a collection of indistinguishable individuals, but each individual can be distinguished by its share in the “society.” Moreover, the very fact of our making the present inquiry opens up the possibility, not just of a “society,” but of a society of persons who freely agree to pursue the inquiry.

Executive summary (added September 9, 2018): A whole is something that has members or parts (these two terms can be used indiscriminately). A class is a whole whose parts resemble one another. The resemblance must be recognized; those persons who do recognize it constitute an example of the kind of whole that will be called a “society,” in quotation marks. The members of a “society” share in something. Thus a principle is observed of suum cuique, “to each his (or her) own.” If the members observe this as an act of free will, they constitute a society proper (without quotation marks). Like the phrase suum cuique, the notion of a society comes from Roman law. The German translation of society, Gesellschaft, lacks the suggestion of coming together by free will. Marx does not think such coming together happens; thus, for him, there are no societies proper, only “societies.”

7 Trackbacks

  1. By On Chapman’s Homer’s Iliad, Book IV « Polytropy on September 2, 2017 at 10:35 am

    […] « NL XIX: Two Senses of the Word “Society” […]

  2. By NL XXV: The Three Laws of Politics « Polytropy on September 28, 2017 at 10:49 am

    […] laws described by Einstein in the same birthday address for Planck that I quoted as I took up Chapter XIX, the first of Part II, […]

  3. By NL VII: “Appetite” « Polytropy on October 17, 2017 at 3:30 pm

    […] I recall the latter (or perhaps it was Midgley’s Evolution as a Religion—see article on Chapter XIX) to suggest various ways in which what we “see” in animals, such as a constant struggle for […]

  4. By NL XX: Society and Community « Polytropy on September 9, 2018 at 11:04 am

    […] an act of will: it emerges and persists because its members will that it do so. We said this in the previous chapter; we say it now in more detail. In particular, we impose on a society no such further requirement of […]

  5. […] have been such persons since Roman times, at least in the countries that fell under Roman rule. In Chapter XIX, Collingwood mentions names like “ ‘the Co-operative Wholesale Society’, […]

  6. […] communities of human beings in Part II, […]

  7. By Re-enactment « Polytropy on August 15, 2020 at 6:19 am

    […] (Example added August 13, 2020.) In Evolution as a Religion, Mary Midgley says, “there are not, as Collingwood supposed, any ‘absolute presuppositions’.” This seems to be a misinterpretation of Collingwood’s use of the adjective absolute. See NL XIX: Two Senses of the Word “Society.” […]

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