NL XXI: Society as Joint Will

Index to this series

A society is an act of will. To form a society is to say, or rather to mean, that we, the intended members of the society, will do something, and not just that we shall do something.

We ask how it is possible to say, “We will.” We ask, as readers, either of Collingwood’s New Leviathan, or at least of what I am writing about this book. I ask, while on holiday at the beach with, for the last few days, my nephew and niece, ages eight and three respectively. When I was a little older than they, I was incensed to think, as an American, that Ronald Reagan might destroy us all in a nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Later I read the words of Christopher Hitchens, from an older generation, who could remember where he was when John F. Kennedy almost killed him—along with everybody else, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Such worries now return under an American President who seems to embody the worst ruler that Plato could imagine.

Writing in England the early 1940s, Collingwood contended with Fascism and Nazism. He tried to articulate why they must be fought, and what was worth defending. Though generals are accused of always fighting the last war, I read Collingwood with the notion that his thoughts, like Plato’s, are still of value.


For Collingwood, being able to say we will is the same as being able to say I will:

21. 19. No man has any idea of himself as a free agent, without an idea of free agents other than himself and of social relations between them. No man has an accurate idea of himself as a free agent without an accurate idea of free agents other than himself and of social relations between them.

The child first discovers that “free action is going on” (21. 15), without knowing whose freedom it is. The child may get the idea that there is free agency in “the cat, the rain, the dark, the doll, and so forth” (21. 16). If these things are indeed free, this means precisely that they can form a society with oneself. One is not mistaken to think that anything might be able to socialize with oneself. One can make a mistake in thinking that a society has actually been formed with, say, a cat.

When Collingwood speaks about cats, he must be talking about his own family cat: one that his children or perhaps he himself grew up with. I assume his theories of mental development have arisen from watching his own children grow up, as well as from remembering his own maturation.

Again though, Collingwood has admitted the possibility of mistaking a natural occurrence for a social act. Indeed, when the child thinks of itself as “free in some actual decision actually made, it misinterprets the behaviour of the cat and so forth as evidence that they too have had a hand in these decisions” (21. 18). I suppose then Collingwood himself (or any of us) might misinterpret the behavior of children as corroborating his (or our) theories.

I don’t know that living with children, as I currently am, corroborates any particular theory. Mainly it reminds me of my own childhood, and of what trouble I must have been to my elders.

On the beach, my niece assembled at my feet a putative meal, consisting of sand and strands of seaweed. She may have been emulating her father (my wife’s brother), whose cooking she had praised the night before. I have not observed the girl to gather dolls to form an imaginary society for sharing in an imaginary feast. Her brother has formed social relations with other boys at the playground next to the cottage.

From my own childhood, I can remember contemplating the sympathy that a stuffed animal could elicit. I understood that my own stuffed animal had been mass produced; how was it possible to care about that particular one?

Pirsig would now be my text on caring for inaminate objects: I wrote about this in (for example) “Books Hung Out With.” Collingwood does not seem to consider that the members of a society must care for one another. He will consider marriage as an example of a society, but only because it is an example of a specifically temporary society (21. 93). A marriage is to last only as long as either of the members shall live: this is the intention when the marriage is formed, and a society is constituted by the intention to form it. Collingwood will say that no society is perfect (21. 54). This will presumably be true of a marriage in particular. Having been divorced from his first wife, he was in his second marriage as he wrote.


A social consciousness consists of a precise idea of one’s place in a society, and a vague sense of the society as a whole (21. 21). This vague sense may come from accepting the word of an authority (21. 24). Collingwood here may be alluding to nationalist propaganda. It is curious that he does not supply an example to illustrate his words. Perhaps he thought examples were obvious.

21. 25. Granted that a society exists, it may authorize one of its members to assign their tasks to each, and without knowing in detail what he has done accept on his authority his report that he has done it.

21. 26. In that case a given member does not know, he only believes, that the members have received each his own task. If the belief is unfounded, there is still a society; there is a society of fools, combining to believe the word of a knave. But there is not the society of which the fools believe themselves to be members.

The citizens who voted for him and who still attend his rallies may believe that Donald Trump is giving each of them a place in a renewed America. There is a real society of Trump supporters; but America is not being made great again in the sense of their fantasy.

In the last chapter we made a distinction between a society and a non-social community. It seems hard to consider a community of fools as a full-fledged society. As we said and shall say again, no society is perfect.


Meanwhile, we consider again the distinction just mentioned.

21. 29. The activity of ruling, whether immanent or transeunt (20. 37), is among the activities of a society; perhaps, together with all it implies, the only activity of a society. The ruling whether of itself or its dependents which a society does is wholly done by its members as their joint work, and the responsibility for it rests wholly on its members’ shoulders.

By contrast, what the members of a non-social community do is forced on them by their transeunt rulers, who are thus responsible for what is done (21. 31).

Collingwood introduced the notion of responsibility in Chapter X, “Passion,” by saying that, according to Christianity, God was responsible for the sin of Adam and for every other evil in the world (10. 61), and the sacramental bread and wine of Communion were either a commemoration of, or a repetition of, the punishment of God for his responsibility (10. 63).

Responsibility returned in the ABC example in Chapter XVII, “Duty”: the Believer regarded himself both as responsible for the debt of Adam and as freed of the responsibility by Christ (17. 34).

It would seem to me that I am responsible precisely for what I will to happen. In practice I may incur a debt without intending it; but then I may well feel indignant if accused of this.


To form a society is to form social relations for some purpose. There are two things here: social relations in general, and a particular purpose (21. 43). This leads us to the notion of a universal society, with no other purpose but to be a society (21. 42). Experience suggests that we shall never be able to form a universal society (21. 45). Attempts have been made, from the Romans on down, to create a universal society, whether by force or consent (21. 44).

21. 46. The League of Nations was originally designed to consist of all such political communities as would declare themselves peacefully disposed towards each other. What broke the League of Nations was not the fact that a group of Powers arose pledged to aggression, a group of wolf-minded ‘have-nots’ regarding the League members as sheep-minded ‘haves’: but the fact that the League (having been conceived by a man too incompetent in politics to recommend his own conception to the country of which he was President) was run by men too ignorant of politics to see that this result was inevitable.

21. 47. They thought of the League as a kind of heaven on earth. They ought to have known that if you aim at a heaven on earth you are certain of getting a hell on earth.

In his first book, Religion and Philosophy (1916), Collingwood said there was no point in trying to be perfect if this one man, Jesus Christ, had not lived who was perfect. Collingwood appeared to say this as a Christian himself. Writing New Leviathan a quarter century later, trying to finish before he dies, Collingwood is irascible and disillusioned.

Collingwood is right to blame the breakdown of the League of Nations on President Wilson of the United States, insofar as he considers Wilson to have been on Collingwood’s own side, which is the side of civilization. If somebody else destroys what we have set up, we are responsible for having made this possible. There is no point in assigning responsibility to somebody who will not accept it.


There is a theoretical argument for the practical impossibility of the universal society, but Collingwood only adumbrates it; details might be spelled out on the basis of An Essay on Philosophical Method (1933) and its notion of a “scale of forms.” Our current subject is the scale of forms of community. The universal society would be at the end of the scale, but we cannot expect to have a basis for saying that we have reached it.

21. 54. There is always a discrepancy between the social will and its products. The social will always aims at the universal society; what it produces is always some particular society which is half-way between the universal society and a non-social community.

Another way to say this is, “no actual society can ever lose all trace of the non-social community out of which it has emerged” (21. 5). We may try to transform our existing community into something better. The result will retain traces of the original community, or as Collingwood says, be “visibly continuous” with it. Otherwise, “nothing would have been transformed; no problem would have been solved” (21. 55).

If seeing the foolishness and cruelty of children makes me cringe to recall my own former self, this can be taken as a sign that growth is possible. If I couldn’t see myself in children, how could I be called an adult?

Collingwood has an example of personal interest, not for its relevance to childhood, but for involving my professional subject. If Collingwood forms a society for the study of mathematics, the potential membership is the totality of free persons. In practice the members will happen to meet “non-social conditions” like speaking English (21. 52). Collingwood does not mention the condition that they be interested in mathematics in the first place. He might say that any free person is potentially interested, and the very purpose of the society is to develop that interest.


We now consider differences between members of a society.

Persons who are going to join a society must already be free. They must then be equal in a sense that Collingwood defines: “each is possessed of that degree of freedom which the decision to join that society demands” (21. 6). Actual members of a society are equal in the additional sense of being members (21. 61). In this sense, it would seem, a society must be classless.

Inequalities do exist in society:

  1. They may be compensated for, as by handicaps in games, or by asking the stronger person on a hike to carry a heavier load (21. 62), or (one might add) by progressive taxation of income.
  2. They may be turned into assets, as when, in Collingwood’s example, the best map-reader in a walking party carries the maps (21. 63), or (in my example) the best cook does the cooking (and the others the washing up).
  3. They may simply be recognized and built on. In Collingwood’s walking party, perhaps only one person has a car, which is what the party use to get to the trail-head. Collingwood’s own example is an all-encompassing one: initiative (21. 64). If there is going to be a society at all, somebody with initiative has to propose it (21. 65).

The inequalities just discussed are natural in the sense of not being created by a society itself. They may be created by non-social processes, and thus not be innate (21. 66).

Authority is an inequality that is not natural, but created by a society (21. 67). A society of two piano-movers may assign to one of them the authority of saying when to lift a piano (21. 68). This authority as such comes not from that person’s skill or feudal rank or anything else but the joint will of the society (21. 69). The society’s decision to assign authority may happen to be based on such factors as mentioned; but this is up to the society.

Thus would seem to be shot down any arguments about the organization of a society that are based on social Darwinism or any other notion of what is natural. A society is fundamentally unnatural. Collingwood writes so tersely here that such an assertion becomes true by definition, and thus not very useful. We may however recall the distinction made in Chapter I, “Body and Mind,” between the natural sciences and the sciences of mind. Society is an artefact of mind.


In a non-social community, as was said in the last chapter, authority is force (21. 72). Force may be applied through rewards and punishments. These are not physical, but objects of desire and fear, respectively. Let us see what Collingwood says.

21. 73. A may force B to do something by promise of reward or threat of punishment. By the first A excites in B an irresistible desire; by the second an irresistible fear. These are irresistible only if B is slavish enough for the promised reward or the threatened penalty to overwhelm any will he may happen to possess. If his will is strong enough he will laugh at them.

It sounds as if Collingwood thinks with the Stoics that one can be happy being waterboarded. He may not literally mean that, but be counterbalancing weaknesses that must be overcome if Fascism is to be defeated.

Collingwood observes that the promise of reward or threat of punishment may be successful without being sincere. In short, members of a non-social community can be controlled by fraud, “which is not a different thing from force but a special form of force specially adapted for use against fools” (21. 74). Trump voters are fools in this way. Some would say all voters are; see Paul Street, “If Hillary Had Won,” Counterpunch, September 1, 2017:

A recurrent problem with some who read Left essays on U.S. politics is that a writer of such essays can’t criticize a Republican policymaker or politician without some “radical” reader sending that writer a snotty lecture on the writer’s supposed failure to understand that Barack Obama, the Clintons, Nancy Pelosi, and rest of the top Democrats are terrible too.

The exertion of force may be voluntary or not (21. 75). This seems to be just another way of saying that an application of force can be willed or not. Slave-drivers risk losing the power of will (21. 76).

Napoleon, by his own account, guarded against this danger; his outbursts of passion, said he, were not allowed to ‘rise higher than this’ (pointing to his chin): he kept his head clear, or said he did; he retained in spite of them, or claimed to retain, that coolness of mind which is freedom.

It does not sound as if Collingwood thought Napoleon was successful. By the fictionalized account of Tolstoy in War and Peace, Napoleon was unsuccessful. In the antebellum American South, were plantation owners successful? Collingwood seems to grant at least a theoretical possibility:

Slave-driving is compatible with freedom only if the slave-driver retains the conviction of his own freedom by consorting with other men whom he recognizes as free.

Consorting with free persons is a necessary condition for being free oneself; it is not sufficient.

Plato understood the problem in writing of the political slave-driver, called a tyrant (21. 78). The study of the tyrant is not strictly political science (21. 79), since (apparently) the tyrant’s field of action is not a society proper, but a non-social community.

If we can know oneselves to be free only by recognizing freedom in others, this should mean that the hermits discussed in “Ahtamar Island” also risk losing their freedom.


Members of a society may crack, in the sense of losing force of will (21. 81). Criminal law is instituted to mitigate the problems that arise from this cracking (21. 84). Not every society has a criminal law, but here again Collingwood uses small examples: a walking party and or a party of a dozen persons sailing a schooner. For the latter example, Collingwood may have in mind the 1939 voyage with undergraduates that he recounts in The First Mate’s Log. If those sailors did not need criminal law, I should think it was because they implicitly recognized the need for cooperation and for respect for their chosen captain, and they behaved accordingly. In Collingwood’s final example,

The Society of Antiquaries make no provision for the contingency that one of its Fellows, reading a paper to the rest, might hoax them with a spoof discovery.

Unfortunately scholarly societies do now have to make such provisions, with policies on plagiarism and so forth.

Collingwood distinguishes between crime and civil wrong:

21. 87. Not only is the idea of providing against crime, as distinct from tort, unknown in most societies, but where it does occur it rests on the assumption that crime will be committed only when the society has to some extent broken down into a non-social community by the cracking of some member’s will and the member’s ceasing in consequence to function as a member of that society; though he may perfectly well continue to be a member of the non-social community from which it was derived.

Mere tort would seem then not to imply the cracking of the will that crime does. On the other hand, a plagiarist has ceased functioning as a proper scholar, and thus, I should think, has committed a crime against the society of scholars. Representing the work of another as one’s own is a wrong done not only to that other person, as in a tort, but to all who might benefit from the work.

I mentioned care earlier. Members of a society may not exactly care for one another, but it would seem they must have a level of trust in one another. This would bear further investigation. We may consider how well Collingwood has made such investigation in the next two chapters, which concern the family.


I have already mentioned marriage as being a temporary society (21. 93). Examples of permanent societies are formed for the advancement of science and the prevention of cruelty to animals (21. 94).

Business corporations were once temporary, being given legal status only for the sake of completing a canal or a bridge; but it seems they have become permanent.

We have not been told whether England or the United Kingdom is to be considered as a society, or if it is, whether it is temporary or permanent. If it is a society, it should have a purpose, but it is not clear what the purpose would be, unless it is ensuring the well-being of persons living in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. One would have to talk about the colonies that still existed, though perhaps Collingwood has alluded to these in talking of non-social communities as needing exeunt rule by a society. It would be odd if Collingwood were an imperialist at a time when others thought he was turning communist (as I mentioned at the beginning of the article on Chapter XIV, “Reason”).

3 Trackbacks

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