Social Process

Chapter 5: Particularism versus the Organic View

Charles Horton Cooley

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WE meet in social discussion a way of thinking opposed to the conception of organic process as I have tried to expound it, which I will call intellectual particularism.[1] It consists in holding some one phase of the process to be the source of all the others, so that they may be treated as subsidiary to it.

A form of particularism that until recently was quite general is one that regards the personal wills of individual men, supplemented, perhaps, by the similar will of a personal God, as the originative factor in life from which all else comes. Everything took place, it was assumed, because some one willed it so, and for the will there was no explanation or antecedent history: it was the beginning, the creative act. When this view prevailed there could be no science of human affairs, because there was no notion of system or continuity in them; life was kept going by a series of arbitrary impulses. As opposed to this we have the organic idea that will is as much effect as cause, that it always has a history, and is no more than one phase of a great whole.

In contrast to particularistic views of this sort we

(44) have others which find the originative impulse in external conditions of life, such as climate, soil, flora, and fauna; and regard intellectual and social activities merely as the result of the physiological needs of men seeking gratification under these conditions.

A doctrine of the latter character having wide acceptance at the present time is " economic determinism," which looks upon the production of wealth and the competition for it as the process of which everything else is the result. The teaching of Marxian socialism upon this point is well known, and some economists who are not socialists nevertheless hold that all important social questions grow out of the economic struggle, and that all social institutions, including those of education, art, and religion, should be judged according as they contribute to success in this struggle. This is, indeed, a view natural to economists, who are accustomed to look at life from this window, though most of them have enough larger philosophy to avoid any extreme form of it.[2]

The fallacy of all such ideas lies in supposing that life is built up from some one point, instead of being an organic whole which is developing as a whole now and, so far as we know, always has done so in the past. Nothing is fixed or independent, everything is plastic and takes influence as well as gives it. No factor of life can exist for men except as it is merged in the organic system and becomes an effect as much as a cause of the total devel-

(45) -opment. If you insist that there is a centre from which the influence comes, all flowing in one direction, you fly in the face of fact. What observation shows is a universal interaction, in which no factor appears antecedent to the rest.

Any particularistic explanation of things, I should say, must be based on the idea that most institutions, most phases of life, are passive, receive force but do not impart it, are mere constructions and not transitive processes. But where will you find such passive institutions or phases? Are not all alive, all factors in the course of history as we know it? It seems to me that if you think concretely, in terms of experience, such an explanation cannot be definitely conceived.

I hold that the organic view is not a merely abstract theory about the nature of life and of society, but is concrete and verifiable, giving a more adequate general description than other theories of what we actually see, and appealing to fact as the test of its value. It does not attempt to say how things began, but claims that their actual working, in the present and in the historical past, corresponds to the organic conception.

Let any one fix his mind upon some one factor or group of factors which may appear at first to be original, and see if, upon reflection, it does not prove to be an outgrowth of the organic whole of history. Thus many start their explanation of modern life with the industrial revolution in England. But what made the industrial revolution? Was it brought into the world by an act of special creation, or was it a natural sequence of the preceding political, social, intellectual, and industrial development? Evidently the latter: it is a historical fact, like another, to be explained as the outcome of a total process,

(46) just as much an effect of the mental and social conditions of the past as it came to be a cause of those of the future. I think this will always prove to be the case when we inquire into the antecedents of any factor in life. There is no beginning; we know nothing about beginnings; there is always continuity with the past, and not with any one element only of the past, but with the whole interacting organism of man.

If universal interaction is a fact, it follows that social life is a whole which can be understood only by studying its total working, not by fixing attention upon one activity and attempting to infer the rest. The latter method implies an idea similar to that of special creation, an idea that there is a starting-place, a break of continuity, a cause that is not also an effect.

Such visible and tangible things as climate, fuel, soils, fruits, grains, wild or domestic animals, and the like have for many a more substantial appearance than ideas or institutions, and they are disposed to lean upon these, or upon some human activity immediately connected with them, as a solid support for their philosophy of life. But after all such things exist for us only as they have interacted with our traditional organism of life and become a part of it. Climate, as it actually touches us, may be said to be a social institution, of which clothes, shelter, artificial heat, and irrigation are obvious aspects. And so with our economic "environment." What are deposits of iron and coal, or fertility of soil, or navigable waters, or plants and animals capable of domestication, except in conjunction with the traditional arts and customs through which these are utilized? To a people with one inheritance of ideas a coal-field means nothing at all, to

( 47) a people with another it means a special development of industry. Such conditions owe their importance, like anything else, to the way they work in with the process already going on.

Another reason for the popularity of material or economic determinism is the industrial character of our time and of many of our more urgent problems, which has caused our minds to be preoccupied with this class of ideas. A society like ours produces such theories just as a militarist society produces theories that make war the dominating process.

It is easy to show that the "mores of maintenance." the way a people gets its living, exercise an immense influence upon all their ideas and institutions.[3] But what are the "mores of maintenance"? Surely not something external to their history and imposed upon them by their material surroundings, as seems often to he assumed in this connection, but simply their whole mental and social organism, functioning for self-support through its interaction with these surroundings. They are as much the effect as they can possibly be the cause of psychical phenomena, and to argue economic determinism from their importance begs the whole question. Material factors are essential in the organic whole of life, but certainly no more so than the spiritual factors, the ideas, and institutions of the group.

Professor W. G. Sumner, probably by way of protest against a merely ideal view of history, said: "We have not made America; America has made us." Evidently we might turn this around, and it would be just as plausible. "We" have made of America something very dif-

( 48) -ferent from what the American Indians made of it, or from what the Spaniards would probably have made of it if it had fallen to them. "America" (the United States) is the total outcome of all the complex spiritual and material factors-the former chiefly derived from European sources-which have gone into its development.

To treat the human mind as the primary factor in life, gradually unfolding its innate tendencies under the moulding power of conditions, is no less and no more plausible than to begin with the material. Why should originative impulse be ascribed to things rather than to mind? I see no warrant in observed fact for giving preference to either.[4]

It is the aim of the organic view to " see life whole," or at least as largely as our limitations permit. However, it by no means discredits the study of society from particular standpoints, such as the economic, the political, the military, the religious. This is profitable because the whole is so vast that to get any grasp of it we need to approach it now from one point of view, now from another, fixing our attention upon each phase in turn, and then synthetizing it all as best we can.

Moreover, every phenomenon stands in more immediate relation to some parts of the process than to others, making it necessary that these parts should be especially studied in order to understand this phenomenon. Hence it may be quite legitimate, with reference to a given problem, to regard certain factors as of peculiar importance. I would not deny that poverty, for example, is to be considered chiefly in connection with the economic sys-

( 49) -tem; while I regard the attempt to explain literature, art, or religion mainly from this standpoint as fantastic. But when we are seeking a large view we should endeavor to embrace the whole process. No study of a special chain of causes is more than an incident in that perception of a reciprocating whole which I take to be our great aim.

If we think in this way we shall approach the comprehension of a period of history, or of any social situation, very much as we approach a work of organic art, like a Gothic cathedral. We view the cathedral from many points, and at our leisure, now the front and now the apse, now taking in the whole from a distance, now lingering near at hand over the details, living with it, if we can, for months, until gradually there arises a conception of it which is confined to no one aspect, but is, so fax as the limits of our mind permit, the image of the whole in all its unity and richness.

We must distinguish between the real particularist, who will not allow that any other view but his own is tenable, and the specialist, who merely develops a distinctive line of thought without imagining that it is all-sufficing. The latter is a man you can work with, while the former tries to rule the rest of us off the field. Of course he does not succeed, and the invariable outcome is that men tire of him and retain only such special illumination as his ardor may have cast; so that he contributes his bit much like the specialist. Still, it would diminish the chagrin that awaits him, and the confusion of his disciples, if he would recognize that the life-process is an evolving whole of mutually interacting parts, any one of which is effect as well as cause.

It should be the outcome of the organic view that we

( 50) embrace specialty with ardor, and yet recognize that it is partial and tentative, needing from time to time to be reabsorbed and reborn of the whole. The Babel of conflicting particularisms resembles the condition of religious doctrine a century ago, when every one took it for granted that there could be but one true form of belief, and there were dozens of antagonistic systems claiming to be this form. The organic conception, in any sphere, requires that we pursue our differences in the sense of a larger unity.

I take it that what the particularist mainly needs is a philosophy and general culture which shall enable him to see his own point of view in something like its true relation to the whole of thought. It is hard to believe, for example, that an economist who also reads Plato or Emerson comprehendingly could adhere to economic determinism.

There are several rather evident reasons for the prevalence of particularism. One is the convenience of a fixed starting-point for thinking. Our minds find it much easier to move by a lineal method, in one-two-three order, than to take in action and reaction, operating at many points, in a single view. In fact, it is necessary to begin somewhere, and when we have begun somewhere we soon come to feel that that is the beginning, for everybody, and not merely an arbitrary selection of our own.

Very like this is what I may call the illusion of centrality, the fact that if you are familiar with any one factor of life it presents itself to you as a centre from which influence radiates in all directions, somewhat in the same way that the trees in an orchard will appear to radiate from any point where you happen to stand. Indeed it really

( 51) is such a centre; the illusion arises from not seeing that every other factor is a centre also. The individual is a very real and active thing, but so is the group or general tendency; it is true that you can see life from the standpoint of imitation (several writers have centred upon this) but so you can from the standpoint of competition or organization. The economic process is as vital as anything can be, and there is nothing in life that does not change when it changes; but the same is true of the ideal processes; geography is important, but not more so than the technical institutions through which we react upon it; and so on.

Another root of particularism is the impulse of self-assertion. After we have worked over an idea a while we identify ourselves with it, and are impelled to make it as big as possible -to ourselves as well as to others. There are few books on sociology, or any other subject, in which this influence does not appear at least as clearly as anything which the author intended to express. It is not possible or desirable to avoid these ambitions, but they ought to be disciplined by a total view.

I have little hope of converting hardened particularists by argument; but it would seem that the spectacle of other particularists maintaining by similar reasoning views quite opposite to their own must, in time, have some effect upon them.


  1. The word means, in general, devotion to a small part as against the whole, and is most commonly used in historical writing to describe excessive attachment to localities or factions as against nations or other larger unities.
  2. American sociologists are, with a few exceptions, opponents of particularism and upholders of the organic view. Among recent writers of which this is notably true I may mention U. A. Ellwood, in his lntroduction to Social Psychology and other works, E. C. Hayes, in his Introduction to the Study of Sociology and his papers on methodology, Maurice Parmelee, In his works on poverty and criminology, L. M. Bristol, in his Social Adaptation, Blackmar and Gillin, in their Outlines of Sociology, and A. J. Todd, In his Theories of Social Progress.
  3. Compare the views of Professor A. G. Keller, as expressed In his Societal Evolution, 141 ff.
  4. Other varieties of particularism are discussed In Chapters XV, XVIII, XXI, and XXII.

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