Social Organization

Chapter 28: Institutions and the Individual

Charles Horton Cooley

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AN institution is simply a definite and established phase of the public mind, not different in its ultimate nature from public opinion, though often seeming, on account of its ; permanence and the visible customs and symbols in which it is clothed, to have a somewhat distinct and independent existence. Thus the political state and the church, with their venerable associations, their vast and ancient power, their literature, buildings and offices, hardly appear even to a democratic people as the mere products of human invention which, of course, they are.

The great institutions are the outcome of that organization which human thought naturally takes on when it is directed for age after age upon a particular subject, and so gradually crystallizes in definite forms—enduring sentiments, beliefs, customs and symbols. And this is the case when there is some deep and abiding interest to hold the attention of men. Language, government, the church, laws and customs of property and of the family, systems

(314) of industry and education, are institutions because they are the working out of permanent needs of human nature.

These various institutions are not separable entities, but rather phases of a common and at least partly homogeneous body of thought, just as are the various tendencies and convictions of an individual: they are the "apperceptive systems" or organized attitudes of the public mind, and it is only by abstraction that we can regard them as things by themselves. We are to remember that the social system is above all a whole, no matter how the convenience of study may lead us to divide it.

In the individual the institution exists as a habit of mind and of action, largely unconscious because largely common to all the group: it is only the differential aspect of ourselves of which we are commonly aware. But it is in men and nowhere else that the institution is to be found. The real existence of the Constitution of the United States, for example is in the traditional ideas of the people and the activities of judges, legislators and administrators; the written instrument being only a means of communication, an Ark of the Covenant, ensuring the integrity of the tradition.

The individual is always cause as well as effect of the institution: he receives the impress of the state whose traditions have enveloped him from childhood, but at the same time impresses his own character, formed by other forces as well as this, upon the state, which thus in him and others like him undergoes change.

If we think carefully about this matter, however, we shall see that there are several somewhat different questions which might be included in a study of the relation between

(315) the individual and institutions; and these we ought to distinguish.

One of them is that of the babe to the world, or of the hereditary factor of life, existing in us at birth, to the factor of communication and influence.

Another and quite different one is that of society and personality, or of the relation between the mature individual and the whole of which he is a member.

A third is the question—again a distinct one—of the relation, not between the person and society at large, but between him and particular institutions. This last is the one with which we are more properly concerned, but it may not be amiss to offer some observations on the others.

The child at birth, when, we may suppose for convenience, society has had no direct influence upon him represents the race stock or hereditary factor in life in antithesis to the factor of tradition, communication and social organization. He also represents an undeveloped or merely biological individuality in contrast to the developed social whole into which he comes.

We think of the social world as the mature, organized, institutional factor in the problem; and yet we may well say that the child also embodies an institution (using the word largely) and one more ancient and stable than church or state, namely the biological type, little changed, probably, since the dawn of history. It cannot be shown in any way that I know of that the children born to-day of English or American parents—leaving aside any question of race mixture—are greatly different in natural outfit from

(316) the Saxon boys and girls, their ancestors, who played upon the banks of the Elbe fifteen hundred years ago. The rooted instincts and temperament of races appear to be very much what they were, and the changes of history— the development of political institutions, the economic revolutions, the settlement of new countries, the Reformation, the rise of science and the like—are changes mainly in the social factor of life, which thus appears comparatively a shifting thing.

In the development of the child, then, we have to do with the interaction of two types, both of which are ancient and stable, though one more so than the other. And the stir and generation of human life is precisely in the mingling of these types and in the many variations of each one. The hereditary outfit of a child consists of vague tendencies or aptitudes which get definiteness and meaning only through the communicative influences which enable them to develop. Thus babbling is instinctive, while speech comes by this instinct being defined and instructed in society; curiosity comes by nature, knowledge by life; fear, in a vague, instinctive form, is supposed to be felt even by the foetus, but the fears of later life are chiefly social fears; there is an instinctive sensibility which develops into sympathy and love; and so on.

Nothing is more futile than general discussions of the relative importance of heredity and environment. It is much like the case of matter versus mind; both are indispensable to every phase of life, and neither can exist apart from the other: they are coordinate in importance and incommensurable in nature. One might as well ask whether the soil or the seed predominates in the formation

(317) of a tree, as whether nature does more for us than nurture. The fact that most writers have a predilection for one of these factors at the expense of the other (Mr. Galton and the biological school, for example, seeing heredity everywhere, and not much else, while psychologists and sociologists put the stress on influence) means only that some are trained to attend to one class of facts and some to another. One may be more relevant for a given practical purpose than the other, but to make a general opposition is unintelligent.

To the eye of sentiment a new-born child offers a moving contrast to the ancient and grimy world into which it so innocently enters; the one formed, apparently, for all that is pure and good, "trailing clouds of glory" as some think, from a more spiritual world than ours, pathetically unconscious of anything but joy; the other gray and saturnine, sure to prove in many ways a prison-house, perhaps a foul one.

"Full soon thy soul shall have her earthly freight."[1]

No doubt, however, the pathos of this contrast arises in part from somewhat fallacious preconceptions. The imagination idealizes the child, reading its own visions into his innocence as it does into the innocence of the sea and the mountains, and contrasting his future career not with what he is, but with an ideal of what he might become. In truth the child already feels, in his own way, the painful side of life; he has the seeds of darkness in him as well as those of light, and cannot in strictness be said to be any

(318) better than the world. The good of life transcends his imagination as much as does the evil, and he could not become anything at all except in a social world. The pity of the matter which may well move every one who thinks of it to work for better homes, schools and playgrounds, is simply that we are about to make so poor a use of a plastic material, that he might be so much better and happier if we would prepare a better place for him.

It is true, in a sense, as Bacon says, that youth has more of divinity, but perhaps we might also say that it has more of deviltry; the younger life is, the more unbound it is, not yet in harness, with more divine insight and more reckless passion, and adolescence is the period of criminality as well as of poetry.

There is a natural affinity between childhood and democracy; the latter implying, indeed, that we are to become more as little children, more simple, frank and human. And it is a very proper part of the democratic movement that more and more prestige is attaching to childhood, that it is more studied, cherished and respected. Probably nothing else gives such cogency to the idea of reform as to think of what it means to children. We wish to know that all the children of the land are happily unfolding their minds and hearts at home, school and play; and that there is a gradual induction into useful work, which also proceeds regularly and happily. This calls for better homes and neighborhoods, and the overcoming of conditions that degrade them; it implies better schools, the suppression of child-labor, regular industrial education, wholesome and fairly paid work and reasonable security of position. While the child is not exactly better

(319) than the world, his possibilities make us feel that the world ought to be better for his sake.

As fast as a child becomes a person he also becomes

member of the existing social order. '['his is simply a case of a whole and one of its differentiated parts; having so often insisted that society and the individual are aspects of the same thing, I need not enlarge upon it here. Even the degenerate, so far as they have faculty enough to be human, live in the social order and are as much one with it as the rest of mankind. We simply cannot separate the individual from society at large; to get a contrast we must pass on to consider him in relation to particular institutions, or to institutions in general as distinguished from more plastic phases of life.

An institution is a mature, specialized and comparatively rigid part of the social structure. It is made up of persons, but not of whole persons; each one enters into it with a trained and specialized part of himself. Consider, for instance, the legal part of a lawyer, the ecclesiastical part of a church member or the business part of a merchant. In antithesis to the institution, therefore, the person represents the wholeness and humanness of life; he is, as Professor Alfred Lloyd says,[2] "a corrector of partiality, and a translator and distributor of special development." A man is no man at all if he is merely a piece of an institution; he must stand also for human nature, for the instinctive, the plastic and the ideal.

(320) The saying that corporations have no soul expresses well enough this defect of all definite social structures, which gives rise to an irrepressible conflict between them and the freer and larger impulses of human nature. Just in proportion as they achieve an effective special mechanism for a narrow purpose, they lose humanness, breadth and adaptability. As we have to be specially on our guard against commercial corporations, because of their union of power and impersonality, so we should be against all institutions.

The institution represents might, and also, perhaps, right, but right organized, mature, perhaps gone to seed, never fresh and unrecognized. New right, or moral progress, always begins in a revolt against institutions.

I have in mind a painting which may be said to set forth to the eye this relation between the living soul and the institution. It represents St. James before the Roman Emperor.[3] The former is poorly clad, beautiful, with rapt, uplifted face; the latter majestic, dominant, assured, seated high on his ivory chair and surrounded by soldiers.

Of course the institutional element is equally essential with the personal. The mechanical working of tradition and convention pours into the mind the tried wisdom of the race, a system of thought every part of which has survived because it was, in some sense, the fittest, because it approved itself to the human spirit. In this way the individual gets language, sentiments, moral standards and all kinds of knowledge: gets them with an exertion of the

(321) will biding compared with what these things originally cost. They have become a social atmosphere which pervades the mind mostly without its active participation. Once the focus of attention and effort, they have now receded into the dimness of the matter-of-course, leaving energy free for new conquests. On this involuntary foundation we build, and it needs no argument to show that we could accomplish nothing without it.

Thus all innovation is based on conformity, all heterodoxy on orthodoxy, all individuality on solidarity. Without the orthodox tradition in biology, for instance, under the guidance of which a store of ordered knowledge had been collected, the heterodoxy of Darwin, based on a reinterpretation of this knowledge, would have been impossible. And so in art, the institution supplies a basis to the very individual who rebels against it. Mr. Brownell in his work on French Art, points out, in discussing the relation of Rodin the innovating sculptor to the [French Institute, that he owes his development and the interest his non-conformity excites largely to " the very system that has been powerful enough to popularize indefinitely the subject both of subscription and revolt."* In America it is not hostile criticism but no criticism at al1—sheer ignorance and indifference—that discourages the artist and man of letters and makes it difficult to form a high ideal. Where there is an organized tradition there may be intolerance but there will also be intelligence.

Thus choice, which represents the relatively free action of human nature in building up life, is like the coral insect,

(322) always working on a mountain made up of the crystallized remains of dead predecessors.

It is a mistake to suppose that the person is, in general, better than the institution. Morally, as in other respects, there are advantages on each side. The person has love and aspiration and all sorts of warm, fresh, plastic impulses, to which the institution is seldom hospitable, but the latter has a sober and tried goodness of the ages, the deposit, little by little, of what has been found practicable in the wayward and transient outreachings of human idealism. The law, the state, the traditional code of right and wrong, these are related to personality as a grayhaired father to a child. However world-worn and hardened by conflict, they are yet strong and wise and kind, and we do well in most matters to obey them.

A similar line of reasoning applies to the popular fallacy that a nation is of necessity less moral in its dealings with other nations than an individual with other individuals. International morality is on a low plane because it is recent and undeveloped, not from any inevitable defect in its nature. It is slow to grow, like anything else of an institutional character, but there is no reason why it should not eventually express the utmost justice and generosity of which we are capable. All depends upon the energy and persistence with which people try to effectuate their ideals in this sphere. The slowness of an institution is compensated by its capacity for age-long cumulative growth, and in this way it may outstrip, even morally, the ordinary achievement of individuals as the Christian Church, for example, stands for ideals beyond the attain-

(323)-ment of most of its members. If we set our hearts on having a righteous state we can have one more righteous than any individual.

The treatment of Cuba by the United States and the suppression of the slave-trade by the British are examples Of nations acting upon generous principles which we may reasonably expect to extend as time goes on. As the need of international justice and peace becomes keenly felt, its growth becomes as natural as the analogous process in an individual.

Whenever the question is raised between choice and mechanism,[5] the advocates of the latter may justly claim that it saves energy, and may demand whether, in a given case, the results of choice justify its cost.

Thus choice, working on a large scale, is competition, and the only alternative is some mechanical principle, either tire inherited status of history or some new rule of stability to be worked out, perhaps, by socialism. Yet the present competitive order is not unjustly censured as wasteful, harassing, unjust and hostile to the artistic spirit. Choice is working somewhat riotously, without an adequate basis of established principles and standards, and so far as socialism is seeking these it is doing well.

Carlyle and others have urged with much reason that the mediaeval workman, hemmed in as he was by mechanical and to us unreasonable restrictions, was in some respects better off than his modern successor. There was less freedom of opportunity, but also less strain, ugliness and

(324) despair; and the standards of the day were perhaps better maintained than ours are now.

We need a better discipline, a more adequate organization; the competent student can hardly fail to see this; but these things do not exist ready-made, and our present task seems to be to work them out, at the expense, doubt. less, of other objects toward which, in quieter times, choice might be directed.

Thus it is from the interaction of personality and institutions that progress comes. The person represents more directly that human nature which it is the end of all institutions to serve, but the institution represents the net result of a development far transcending any single personal consciousness. The person will criticise, and be mostly in the wrong, but not altogether. He will attack, and mostly fail, but from many attacks change will ensue.

It is also true that- although institutions stand, in a general way, for the more mechanical phase of life, they yet require, within themselves, an element of personal freedom. Individuality, provided it be in harness, is the life of institutions, all vigor and adaptability depending upon it.

An army is the type of a mechanical institution; and yet, even in an army, individual choice, confined of course within special channels, is vital to the machine. In the German army, according to a competent observer, there is a systematic culture of self-reliance, a "development of the individual powers by according liberty to the utmost extent possible with the maintenance of the necessary system and discipline." "To the commandant of the company is left the entire responsibility for the instruction

(325) of his men, in what mode and at what hour he may see fit," and "a like freedom is accorded to every officer charged with every branch whatsoever of instruction," while "the intelligence and self-reliance of the soldier is constantly appealed to." [6] In American armies the self-reliant spirit Of the soldier and the common-sense and adaptability developed by our rough-and-ready civilization have always been of the utmost value. Nor are they unfavorable to discipline, that " true discipline of the soldiers of freedom, a discipline which must arise from individual conviction of duty and is very different from the compulsory discipline of the soldier of despotism."[7] Thus, in the battle of Gettysburg, when Pickett's charge broke the Federal line, and when for the moment, owing to the death of many officers, the succession of command was lost, it is said that the men without orders took up a position which enabled them to crush the invading column.

As the general character of organization becomes freer and more human, both the mechanical and the choosing elements of the institution rise to a higher plane. The former ceases to be an arbitrary and intolerant law, upheld by fear, by supernatural sanctions and the suppression of free speech; and tends to become simply a settled habit of thought, settled not because discussion is stifled but because it is superfluous, because the habit of thought has so proved its fitness to existing conditions that there is no prospect of shaking it.

Thus in a free modern state, the political system, funda-

(326)-mental property rights and the like are settled, so far as they are settled, not because they are sacred or authoritative, but because the public mind is convinced of their soundness. Though we may not reason about them they are, so to speak, potentially rational, inasmuch as they are believed to rest upon reason and may at any time be tested by it.

The advantages and disadvantages of this sort of institutions are well understood. They do not afford quite the sharp and definite discipline of a more arbitrary system, but they are more flexible, more closely expressive of the public mind, and so, if they can be made to work at all, more stable.

The free element in institutions also tends to become better informed, better trained, better organized, more truly rational. We have so many occasions to note this that it is unnecessary to dwell upon it here.


  1. Wordsworth, Ode on the Intimations of Immortality, etc.
  2. In a paper on The Personal and the Factional in the Life of Society. The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology and Scientific Methods, 1905, p. 337
  3. By Mantegna.
  4. Page 30. See also the last chapter.
  5. I mean by mechanism anything in the way of habit, authority or formula that tends to dispense with choice.
  6. Baring-Gould, Germany, i, 350 ff
  7. Garibaldi's Autobiography, i, 105.

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