Social Process

Chapter 29: Intelligence in Social Function

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE test of intelligence is the power to act successfully in new situations. We judge a man to be intelligent when we see that in going through the world he is not guided merely by routine or second-hand ideas, but that when he meets a fresh difficulty he thinks out a fresh line of action appropriate to it, which is justified by its success. We value the faculty because it does succeed, because in the changing world of human life we feel a constant need for it. In animal existence, where situations repeat themselves day after day, and generation after generation, with practical uniformity, a successful method of behavior may be worked out by unintelligent adaptation, and may become fixed in instinct or habit, but the power to deal effectively with intricate and shifting forces belongs to intelligence alone.

It is, then, essentially a kind of foresight, a mental reaction that anticipates the operation of the forces at work and is Prepared in advance to adjust itself to them. How is this possible when the situation is a new one whose working cannot have been observed in the past?

The answer is that the situation is new only as a whole, and that it always has elements whose operation is familiar. Intelligence is the power to anticipate how these

(352) elements will work in a novel combination: it is a power of grasp, of synthesis, of constructive vision.[1]

It does not dispense with experience. A man who can take hold of a new undertaking and make it go will commonly be a man who has prepared himself by previous undertakings of a similar character: the more pertinent experience he has had the better. If he is opening a business agency in a strange city he will require a general acquaintance with the business, such as he might gain at the home office, and will do well also to learn all he can in advance about the city into which he goes. But beyond this he will need the power to take a fresh, understanding view of the situation as he actually finds it, the state of the market, the people with whom he deals and the like, so as to perceive their probable working in relation to his own designs.

Intelligence, then, is based on memories, but makes a free and constructive use of these, as distinguished from a mechanical use. By an act of mental synthesis it grasps the new combination as a going whole and foresees how it must work. It apprehends life through an inner organizing process of its own, corresponding to the outward process which it needs to interpret, but working in advance of the latter and anticipating the outcome.

You might say that memory supplies us with a thousand motion-picture films showing what has happened in given sets of circumstances in the past. Now, when a new set of circumstances occurs the unintelligent mind picks out a film that shows something in common with it

( 353) and, expecting a repetition of that film, guides its course accordingly. The intelligent mind, however, surveying many old films, is content with none of them, but by a creative synthesis imagines a new film answering more closely to the new situation, and foreshowing more nearly what will happen. It is a work of art, depicting what never was on sea or land, yet more like the truth than anything actually experienced.

I conceive that no mechanical theory of intelligence can be other than illusive. It is essentially a process of dealing with the unknown, of discovery. After its operations have taken place they may, perhaps, be formulated; but they can be predicted in advance only by the parallel operation of another intelligence. Behavior which can be formulated in advance is not, in any high sense, intelligent.

Even the intelligence, however, works by a tentative method; it has to feel its way. Its superiority lies in the fewness and effectiveness of its experiments. Our mental staging of what is about to happen is almost never completely true, but it approaches the truth, in proportion as we are intelligent, so that our action comes somewhere near success, and we can the more easily make the necessary corrections. Napoleon did not always foresee how military operations would work out, but his prevision was so much more nearly correct than that of other generals that his rapid and sure experiments led to almost certain victory. In a similar manner Darwin felt his way among observations and hypotheses, proving all things and holding fast what was good, going slowly but surely up a road where others could make no headway at all. It is the same, I believe, with composers, sculptors,

( 354) painters, and poets: their occasionally rapid accomplishment is the fruit of a long discipline in trial and error.

This selection and organization in the intelligent mind is also a participation in the social process. As the mental and the social are merely phases of the same life, this hardly needs proof, but an illustration will do no harm.

Suppose, then, I am considering whether to send my son away from home to a certain college. Here is a problem for my intelligence, and it is also a social problem, a situation in a drama wherein my son and I and others are characters, my aim being to understand and guide its development so that it may issue as I wish. I bring before my mind all that I have been able to learn about the teachers at the college, the traditions and surrounding influences, as well as the disposition and previous history of the boy, striving all the time to see how things will develop if I do send him, and how this will be related to my own wishes for his welfare. The better I can do this the more likely I am to act successfully in the premises. The whole procedure is a staging in my mind of a scene in the life of society.

The process that goes on in a case like this is the work not only of my own private mind but of a social group. My information comes to me through other people, and they share in forming my ideas. Quite probably I discuss the matter with my friends; certainly with ray wife: it may be matter for a family council. Intelligence works through a social process.

It is easy, then, to pass from what seems to be an act of merely private intelligence through a series of steps by which it becomes distinctly public or societal. The

( 355) deliberations of a family council differ only in continuity of organization from those of a wide nation, with newspapers, legislatures, and an ancient constitution. There is nothing exclusively individual about intelligence. It is part of our social heritage, inseparably bound up with communication and discussion, and has always functioned for that common life which embraces the most cogent interests of the individual. The groups in which men have lived-the family, the tribe, the clan, the secret society, the village community, and so on to the multiform associations of our own time — have had a public intelligence, working itself out through discussion and tradition, and illuminating more or less the situations and endeavors of the group.

It is, indeed, a chief function of the institutions of society to provide an organization on the basis of which public intelligence may work effectively. They preserve the results of past experiment and accumulate them about the principal lines of public endeavor, so that intelligence working along these lines may use them. They supply also specialized symbols, traditions, methods of discussion and decision, for industry, science, literature, government, art, philosophy and other departments of life. The growth of intelligence and the growth of a differentiated social system are inseparable.

The movement of this larger or public intelligence is a social process of somewhat the same character as the less conscious processes. It is tentative, adaptive, has periods of conflict and of compromise, and results in progressive organization. The difference is just that it is more intelligent; that thinking and planning and forecasting play a greater part in it, and that there is not so much waste and misdirection. Its development requires a

( 356) special psychological method, including the initiation of ideas, discussion, modification, and decision; which of course is absent on the lower plane of life.

It is essential, if we are to have a public intelligence, that individuals should identify themselves with the public organism and think from that point of view. If there is no consciousness of the whole its experiments and adaptations cannot be truly intelligent, because, as a whole, it makes no mental synthesis and prevision. A society of "economic men," that is, of men who regarded all questions only from the standpoint of their individual pecuniary loss or gain, could never be an intelligent whole. If it worked well, as economists formerly believed that it would, this would be an unforeseen and unintended result, not a direct work of intelligence. In fact, during the nineteenth century England and America went largely upon the theory that a general intelligence and control were unnecessary in the economic sphere—with the result that all competent minds now perceive the theory to be false.

On the other hand, the act of larger intelligence need not take place all at once or in the mind of only one individual. It is usually co-operative and cumulative, the work of many individuals, all of them, in some measure, thinking from the point of view of the whole and building up their ideas and endeavors in a continuing structure.

Thus it may be said that in all modem nations the political life is partly intelligent, because none of them, perhaps, is without a line of patriots who, generation after generation, identify their thoughts with the state, discuss aims and methods with one another, and maintain a tradition of rational policy. It is so with any organism which attracts the allegiance of a continuous group. The church, as a whole and in its several branches, has

( 357) a corporate intelligence maintained in this way, and so have the various sciences; also, in a measure, political parties, the fine arts, and the more enduring forms of industrial organization. Human nature likes to merge itself in great wholes, and many a corporation is served, better, perhaps, than it deserves, by men who identify their spirits with it.

It would be a false conception of intelligence to regard it as something apart from sentiment and passion. It is, rather, an organization of the whole working of the mind, a development at the top of a process which remains an interrelated whole. This is true of its individual aspect; for our sentiments and passions furnish in great part the premises with which intelligence works; they are the pigments, so to speak, with which we paint the picture. And so with the collective aspect; discussion is far more than an interchange of ideas; it is also an interaction of feelings, which are sometimes conveyed by words. and sometimes by gesture, tones, glances of the eye, and by all sorts of deeds. The obscure impulses that pass from man to man in this way have quite as much to do with the building of the collective mind as has explicit reasoning. The whole psychic current works itself up by complex interaction and synthesis. And the power of collective intelligence in a people is not to be measured by dialectic faculty alone; it rests quite as much upon those qualities of sense and character which underlie insight, judgment, and belief. Intelligence, in the fullest sense, is wisdom, and wisdom draws upon every resource of the mind.

There is no way of telling whether a people is capable of intelligent self-direction except by observing that they

( 358) practise it. It may be true that certain races or stocks do not have political capacity in sufficient measure to meet the needs of modern organization, and will fail to produce stable and efficient societies. it is a matter of experiment, and our more optimistic theories may prove to be unsound.

For similar reasons no dividing-line can be drawn between what is intelligent and what is ethical, however clearly they may be separated in particular cases. That is, the intelligent view of situations is a synthetic view which, if it is only synthetic enough, embracing in one whole all the human interests at stake, tends to become an ethical view. Righteousness is the completest intelligence in action, and we are constantly finding that what appears intelligent to a narrow state of mind is quite the opposite when our imaginations expand to take in a wider range of life. There can be an unmoral kind of intelligence which is very keen in its way, as, for that matter, there can be an unintelligent kind of morality which is very conscientious in its way; but the two tend to coincide as they become more complete. The question of our higher development is all one question, of which the intellectual and moral sides are aspects. We get on by forming intelligent ideals of right, which are imaginative reconstructions and anticipations of life, based upon experience. And in trying to realize these ideals we initiate a new phase of the social process, which goes on through the usual interactions to a fresh synthesis.

It seems that intelligence, as applied to social life, is essentially dramatic in character. That is, it deals with men in all their human complexity, and is required to forecast how they will act in relation to one another and

( 359) how the situation as a whole will work out. The most intelligent man is he who can most adequately dramatize that part of the social process with which he has to deal. If he is a social worker dealing with a family he needs not only to sympathize with the members individually, but to see them as a group in living interaction with one another and with the neighbors, so that he may know how any fresh influence he may bring to bear will actually work. If he is the labor-manager of a factory he must have insight to see the play of motive going on among the men, their attitude toward their work, toward the foreman and toward the "office," the whole group-psychology of the situation. In the same way a business man must see a proposed transaction as a living, moving whole, with all the parties to it in their true human characters. I remember talking with an investigator for one of the great commercial agencies who told me that in forming his judgment of the reliability of a merchant he made a practice, after an interview with him, of imagining him in various critical situations and picturing to himself how such a man would behave—of dramatizing him. I think that we all do this in forming our judgments of people.

Or what is the stock-market but a continuous drama, successful participation in which depends upon the power to apprehend some phase of it as a moving whole and foresee its tendency? And so with statesmanship; the precise knowledge of history or statistics will always and rightly be subordinate to the higher faculty of inspired social imagination.

The literary drama, including fiction and whatever other forms have a dramatic character, may be regarded

( 360) as intelligence striving to interpret the social process in art. It aims to present in comprehensible form some phase of that cyclical movement of life which otherwise is apt to seem unintelligible.

When the curtain rises we perceive, first of all, a number of persons, charged with character and reciprocal tendency, each one standing for something and all together constituting a dynamic situation. We feel ourselves in the stress of life; conflict is implicit and expectation aroused. The play proceeds and the forces begin to work themselves out; there are interactions, mutual incitements and adjustments, with a development both of persons and of the situation at large. At length the interacting powers arrange themselves more or less distinctly about a central question, and presently ensues that struggle for which our expectation is strung; some decisive clash of human forces, which satisfies our need to see the thing fought out, and releases our excitement, to subside, perhaps, in reflection. And presently we have the dénouement, a final and reconciling situation, a completer and more stable organization of the forces that were implicit in the beginning.

Conflict is the crisis of drama, as it is of the social process, and there is hardly any great literature, whether dramatic in form or not, which is not a literature of conflict. What would be left of the Bible if you took away all that is inspired by it; from the Psalms, for instance, all echoes of the struggles of Israel with other nations, of upper with lower classes, or of the warring impulses within the mind of the singer? The power of the story of Jesus centres about his faith, his courage, his lonely struggle, his apparent failure, which is yet felt to be a real success — the Cross. And so one might take Homer,

( 361) Dante, Shakespeare's tragedies, Faust, as well as a thousand works of the second order, finding conflict at the heart of all. Without this we are not greatly moved.

Each type of society has particular forms of the drama setting forth what it apprehends as most significant in its own life. Savages dramatize battle and the chase, while plays of our own time depict the conflict of industrial classes, of old ideas and conventions with new ones, and of the individual with circumstances. The love game between the sexes—a sort of conflict however you look at it-is of perennial interest.

Forms like the play and the novel should be the most effective agents of social discussion; and, in fact, the more searching, in a social and moral sense, are the questions to be discussed, the more these forms are in demand. In an ordinary political campaign, where there is little at issue beyond a personal choice of candidates or some clash of pecuniary interests, the usual appeals through newspaper editorials, interviews, and speeches may suffice. But when people begin to be exercised about really fundamental matters, such as the ethics of marriage, the ascendancy of one social class over another, the contact of races or the significance of vice and crime, they show a need to see these matters through novels and plays. The immense vogue of literature of this sort in recent years is good democracy; in no other way is it possible to present such questions with so much of living truth, and yet so simplified as to make a real impression.

In recent time there has been a great enlargement of the intelligent process, which will doubtless continue in the future. As regards mechanism, this is based on the extension and improvement of communication, of print-

( 362) -ing, telegraphy, rapid travel, illustration, and the like. These disseminate information and make a wider and quicker discussion possible. At the same time there appears to have been an advance in the power of organized intelligence to interpret life and bring sound judgment to bear upon actual situations. No one would dispute the truth of this as regards our dealings with the material world, nor is there much doubt that it is in some degree true in the sphere of social relations. We understand better how life works and should be able to impress a more rational and humane character on the whole process. At any rate this, I suppose, is what we are all striving for.

But no achievement of this sort is likely to affect the preponderance of the unintelligible. You might liken society to a party of men with lanterns making their way by night through an immeasurable forest. The light which the lanterns throw about each individual, and about the party as a whole, showing them how to guide their immediate steps, may increase indefinitely, illuminating more clearly a larger area; but there will always remain, probably, the plutonian wilderness beyond.


  1. The most satisfactory account I know of the stages of synthesis in the development of intelligence, from the simplest assimilation of stimulus and consequence-as when a burnt child dreads the fire — to the most complex purposive action-as in the development said application of science — is found in L. T. Hobhouse's Mind in Evolution, chaps. V-XIV.

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