NL XX: Society and Community

Index to this series

Executive summary (added September 9, 2018): Henceforth we are concerned with communities, namely “societies” of human beings (or beings with at least the potential for free agency). Indeed, the whole of Part II is “an inquiry into communities” (1. 15). A society, also called a partnership, is a community formed by common agreement among its members, each with each, for some purpose: this relaxes the original, more specific requirements of Roman law. Members of any community share something; members of a society share a social consciousness. Any community is established and maintained by rule: immanent rule if the community is a society, otherwise transeunt rule. Practically speaking, the ruler of others must also rule him- or herself. Rule of a non-social community is by force: this is moral force, an irresistable emotion within the person being ruled, excited by somebody who is mentally stronger in any of various ways.

A society is 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 economic interest as Roman lawyers (apparently) did.

In the previous chapter, we distinguished societies (as acts of will) within a larger class of wholes, namely the wholes (called “societies” in quotation marks) formed by participation as opposed to resemblance. Participation refers to the presence of what Collingwood calls a suum cuique, a principle of allotting “to each its own”: a sharing of shares.

Now we distinguish societies within the class of communities. These would seem to be “societies” whose members are human beings. Collingwood does not say this in so many words, but only declares at the beginning (20. 1, 11) that he is no longer interested in “societies” as such, which may be constituted by stars, electrons, books, or bees; but he is interested in men [sic] and human relations.

In the intended sense, a human being would seem to be not necessarily a member of the species Homo sapiens, but only a being capable of self-liberation: of becoming free in the sense of Chapter XIII, “Choice.” Collingwood will observe later that a child can understand a cat or even a doll as a free agent (21. 16); and one might consider pets as belonging to the kind of community called a family (22. 67).


The first example of a community is a community of children who come together to share some apples. It is not required that this sharing be the result of deliberation by the children themselves; possibly some grown-up divides the apples among the children. The end of Collingwood’s description is especially interesting.

20. 16. Let there be children and apples; and let the apples be divided somehow among the children. The children are a community; in particular, a community of apple-eaters. They do not plan their lives so as to make them include, from time to time, whatever seems to them especially important; on the contrary, they mostly do whatever they especially want to do, unless there is anything against which they are specially warned by someone whose warnings they take seriously.

I would add that children may take a warning seriously in the sense of desiring what they are warned against. This is the story of the Garden of Eden and of adolescence.


Members of a community share something, and it might be apples; however, “what the members of a society share is social consciousness” (20. 2). Later in the chapter (at 20. 66), it will be observed that two persons might form a society to take a walk or play chess. One might say that what is being shared then is not a so-called social consciousness, but a walk or a game. However, the walk may entail an obligation to defend one another from some unnamed mortal threat (perhaps a bear attack or a fall down a mountain slope); the game entails an obligation not to cheat or be a sore loser. The real walk or game should thus be understood as a kind of consciousness (as of rights and responsibilities), and not (or not just) a physical occurrence that can be caught on camera.

Not only are members of a society free, but they know that each of themselves is free (20. 23).


When a community is established and maintained, this is called ruling (20. 35). There is no allusion that I detect to Chapter XVI, “Right,” where right action is defined as action conforming to a rule, but rightness is found to be an inadequate explanation for why an action is performed.

A society is ruled by itself; a non-social community, by something else (20. 36). In technical language, rule of a society is immanent; of a non-social community, transeunt. (Perhaps Collingwood avoids saying emanent for transeunt, because of the potential for confusion with immanent.)


Not theoretically (20. 4), but practically (20. 41), a transeunt ruler must also be an immanent ruler. You cannot rule others without first ruling yourself. The others that you rule are your dependents (20. 44).

Collingwood’s explicit examples of societies do not (so far) include modern countries or even the Greek polis; but we have to consider how at least the former kind of society is ruled, where direct democracy is impractical. A proper society rules itself, but may give authority to some of its members do perform the various tasks of ruling (20. 45). In Collingwood’s example, a surgeon and a patient form a society that gives authority to the surgeon to remove the patient’s appendix (20. 47). In particular, the patient alone does not give authority to the surgeon, but having the appendix out is a joint decision of the patient and surgeon.

Thus it would seem that a society cannot give authority to somebody who is not a member of itself. There may however seem to be contrary cases. The city of Alexandria, Virginia, where I grew up, had a city manager: an outsider hired by the city council to manage the city’s business. When I was young, the family of a new city manager happened to move in next door to us. I think they had come from Illinois; thus in particular they had not been part of the society of the city. In principle, I suppose, they could have continued to live outside the city limits. According to Collingwood, “any community must have a home or place in which corporately it lives” (20. 18). Still, in a sense, wherever he lived, Mr Anderson would have had to become enough of a member of the society of Alexandria to be able to do his job.

It might be of interest that the office of city manager seems to have been an American innovation of the twentieth century. While Collingwood is interested in the legal system of the Roman Empire, I do not recall that he will not have anything to say about the British Empire as such.

Again in the example that Collingwood does give, it is possible for a surgeon and a parent to form a society that authorizes the surgeon to remove the appendix of a child (20. 49). As far as the child is concerned, the surgery is an act of force.


As he is wont, Collingwood observes that the key word force does not mean what one might naïvely think it meant.

20. 5. The word ‘force’ in political contexts never means ‘physical force’, as when a stronger man ‘forces’ open a weaker man’s fingers and ‘makes’ him let go what he is holding. It always means ‘moral force’ or mental strength.

20. 51. Moreover it is a relative term. It signifies not mental strength as such but one man’s superiority in mental strength to another. When A is said to exercise force upon B, what is meant is that A is strong relatively to B, and uses this superiority to make B do what he wants.

In human affairs, the kind of force at play is not the kind that holds the moon in orbit about the earth. The surgeon may put this kind of force on her scalpel in performing an appendectomy; but forcing the child to go under the knife is a completely different kind of thing.

How is it different? Being subject to moral force, or mental strength, involves having a morality, or a mind. As Collingwood puts it,

20. 59. When a man suffers force the origin of the force is always something within himself, some irresistible emotion which makes him do something he does not intend to do; either intending something else but having his intention swept away by the force of the emotion, or having no intention whatever. If B suffers force at the hands of A, it is A who excites in B this irresistible emotion; perhaps intentionally, perhaps unintentionally; perhaps only because he too suffers an irresistible emotion of the same kind.

Strapping a load to the bed of a truck requires physical force. When I was to have a tonsillectomy at the age of five, physical force was required to hold me down to a hospital bed, so that a nurse could administer a suppository. From my point of view though, what I did was submit, after a struggle, to the superior strength of my mother and the nurse. I could have gone on struggling, or made an argument, or asked to do the insertion myself.

The word force is used in physics by analogy with its use in human affairs; not the other way around. Physics today may no longer look for any kind of moral force at work in the universe; but moral force is still part of the subject. This force is what causes the acceptance of some arguments, about physics or anything else, while others are rejected. It is what causes some scholarly articles to be identified as plagiarism (as happened in Ankara while I was working there).

There are several ways that A can be mentally stronger than B.

  1. A may be at a more advanced stage of development, “by the scale of mental development sketched in Part I of this work” (20. 52), where the progression is appetite → passion → desire → choice (or freedom).
  2. A may be at the same stage as B, but somehow more strongly: more passionate, more strongly willed, and so on, as the case may be (20. 53).
  3. A may even be at a lower stage than B, since, by what Collingwood calls the Law of Quiescence, passing to a higher stage usually requires the calming-down of the “lower-level activities” (20. 55).

In an example of quiescence, though a person may have the willpower to control their own fear, they may not have enough power when “infected” by the less-quiescent fear felt by somebody with no force of will (20. 58). Collingwood makes no suggestion of what such a person might be afraid of; in the United States today, it might be Muslims.


As was said at the beginning, the Roman notion of society has to be refined, or rather broadened. A synonym now for society is partnership. In Rome, only personae could form partnerships; now it is persons (20. 61). A person may be female, though she should be of a certain age. A woman must consent to a marriage, for it to be valid, while a young boy need not consent to being sent to school (20. 62).

In the previous article, we did not discuss how, in Roman law, a social contract (19. 53) had

  • three indispensible elements (19. 54):
    1. reciprocal agreement,
    2. common interest, and
    3. intention to form a contract; and
  • three obligations (19. 55):
    1. to contribute to expenses,
    2. to promote the interests of the partnership as one’s own, and
    3. to share profit and loss.

We shall say now that a society is created not by a social contract in the Roman sense, but merely by a decision to create it, provided this decision is

  1. made individually by everybody involved and
  2. made clear to everybody (20. 63).

In brief, these are a decision and its expression, and they replace the three formerly indispensible elements (20. 64).

In place of the three former obligations, there is only the obligation to pursue the common aim of the society (20. 65). Again, as in the examples of going for a walk and playing chess, the obligation could involve facing dangers, or keeping one’s temper; “and keeping your temper is harder for most men than risking your life” (20. 66).


In the examples of going for a walk and playing chess,

20. 72. I take a society of two because it is the simplest type in which all the features of social activity are present: free will on the part of all members and a joint enterprise freely engaged in by each and recognized by each as freely engaged in by the other.

Again, if we are going consider how we actually live today, we shall have to consider groups of persons having size not two, but two raised to the power of twenty and more: groups that strain the notion of a joint enterprise.


A society need involve no lucrum or damnum (20. 8). I suppose this is an allusion to lucrum cessans “ceasing gain” and damnum datumactual loss.


In sum,

20. 93. The social consciousness is the consciousness of myself together with certain others all deciding to do a particular thing, to divide that thing into various parts, and to distribute these parts, which together make up the enterprise, among the persons who together make up the society.


  1. Posted September 5, 2017 at 12:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

    “we impose on a society no such further requirement of economic interest as Roman lawyers (apparently) did.”. My understanding of Roman Law is a bit rusty: as a child, I read, out of boredom, some standard Russian textbook of Roman Law, and was struck by the great attention given by Romans to issues of property. It was remarkable that Roman Law remained the basis of the Soviet law system: it was because the property relations were the corenrstone of two very different societies. I have to admit, I do not understand something here. Re example of children and apples: Piraha people of Amazon is an extreme example of absolute unconditional sharing: “I store my food in the stomach of my brother”. By the time Western children sart sharing apples, they have the concept of property pretty well interiorised, absorbed from the society around them.

    • Posted September 7, 2017 at 11:49 am | Permalink | Reply

      Hi Sasha, I guess you are wondering why Collingwood denies that a community or society need involve economic relations, even as his primitive example still involves the sharing of a possession, albeit a consumable one. The examples of sharing a walk or a game of chess are somewhat different though. Still, Collingwood does emphasize that each participant has his or her own special share of something. Is this too individualistic to describe Piraha society?

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