Social Process

Chapter 30: The Diversification and Conflict of Ideas

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE movement of intelligence in large social wholes is an intricate organic process, in which many types of men participate, and also many traditions and environments under the influence of which these types of men are formed. From these diverse points of view come forecasts and experiments in various directions, accompanied by a general process of discussion in which all points of view are modified and a fresh synthesis is worked out. Thus we think our way along from one stage to another.

Accordingly, every group needs to have what we call in the individual "a fertile mind"; so that, as new situations arise, a goodly number of intelligent ideas may spring up to meet them, out of which the best lines of action may be evolved through the usual methods of discussion and trial. Thus, if a group of boys have to camp in a rocky place where no tent-stakes can be driven, their success in putting up the tent will depend upon having among their number those whose ingenuity or experience will suggest good plans for using stones or logs instead of stakes.

We need, then, to encourage the growth of special lines of tradition and association in order that we may have

(364) expert guidance. So biologists may suggest plans for improving the breed of animals and the quality and yield of crops, bankers schemes of finance, and men trained in the labor movement methods of conciliation. We cannot expect to reach high levels of intelligence except through the medium of functional groups which, by some adequate process of selection and training have come to represent as nearly as may be the highest attainable faculty in a given direction. These groups must be small, because there must be many of them and because the members must be specially qualified; but there is nothing undemocratic in them. Indeed the more democratic they are, that is, the more selection is based on fair play and equal opportunity, the more efficient they should be. It is essential, however, that they should have a continuous organization, making possible a group spirit and a regular development through tradition and discussion. There is no reason why democracy should not express itself through such groups at least as successfully as any other form of society.

Indeed few things are more obstructive of the understanding and development of democracy than the popular idea of it as a uniform mass of individuals without lasting group distinctions. If it is to work well it must become differentiated into functional parts, although admission to these, after suitable training, must be kept open. The conception of a vast, level proletariat, which is to work out a uniform social system on the principle of the greatest good to the greatest number is not only repellent to all who look toward a richly diversified culture, but is far from according with the probable development of democracy. Democracy is primarily an

( 365) increase of consciousness and personal choice in the social system, which cannot take place except through the growth of diversity. The higher organic life is based upon systematic differentiation, and if differences are functional and adaptive the more we have of them the better. If our democracy is somewhat uniform, this is a defect which time, let us hope, will remedy.

I believe in democracy, but not in the philosophy by which it has often been justified. It appeals to me as on the whole the best means of enfranchising the human spirit and giving sway to those tendencies and persons which, being truly strong in a higher sense, are fit to prevail. I expect that a real democracy will prove to be a true aristocracy, in which leadership will fall to those fit by nature and training to exercise it, though I trust also to the sense and sentiment of the masses. I doubt whether God is equally represented in all men, as some maintain, though I believe that the men who represent him more than others are as likely to be found in a lower social class as in a higher.

The encouragement of recognized lines of special thought is by no means sufficient. It is equally important that we have the utmost freedom of proposal and discussion for projects originating in unforeseen and unaccredited quarters. The specialist, whether lawyer, economist, biologist, business man, minister, socialist, anarchist, or what-not, is, after all, likely to be an expression of what has already been worked out, an organ of the institution, not confronting the new situation in the naive and unbiassed manner which may give value to the views of people of inferior training.

And, moreover, fruitful originality may come quite as 

(366) much from urgent contact with the situation as from more general knowledge. Workmen in the shop have suggested innumerable improvements which the designer in his office would never have thought of; and practicable ideas of economic and social betterment originate largely with those who have most reason to feel the wrong of the actual condition of things. At any rate their point of view is essential to the formulation of a good plan, and should have every facility to impress itself upon the general process of thought.

The question of free speech is surrounded by a kind of illusion, as a result of which we think of it as a matter that was important in the past, and still is, perhaps, in other circles of society, but is not so in our own environment. We are confident, if we think of the matter at all, that we are not interfering with free speech, nor are any of those other liberal-minded people our friends and associates.

But this is what people have always believed. We know how humane and broad-minded the Emperor Marcus Aurelius was, and also how he regretted the turbulence of the Christians and the severity he felt compelled to use toward them-the same occurrences which have come down to us in the Christian tradition as martyrdoms. Torquemada, of the Spanish Inquisition, was a humane and liberal-minded man in his own view and that of his associates, and so were the burners of witches, the German officials in Belgium, and indeed nearly all of those we look upon as persecutors.

The plain truth is that we are all engaged with more or less energy in endeavoring to force upon others those modes of thought and behavior which we, as a result of our habit and environment, have come to look upon as

( 367) decent and necessary. This is all that Torquemada did, and we, as I say, are doing no less. The main difference is that we have become more humane in our methods of suppression, and even somewhat aware, vaguely and intermittently, of the illusion of which I speak, so that we are inclined to admit, especially in matters remote from ourselves, the importance of insisting upon freedom of speech.

It is indeed a matter for eternal vigilance and courage, not only in resisting the unconscious encroachments of others but in keeping our own minds open and tolerant. The question is a very real one in American universities, where ideas that shock prevalent habits of thought can hardly be advocated without resisting social and academic pressure, and, perhaps, endangering one's position, or advancement that might otherwise be expected. This was true thirty or forty years ago as regards the doctrine of evolution; it was true quite recently as regards socialism; it is true now of other social and economic heresies, such as birth-control, pacifism, or whatnot, that in time may become entirely respectable.

The need of tolerance has been greatly increased by the rise of a social system which aims to be intelligent, recognizes change as rational, and seeks to guide it by discussion. Under an older regime, as in the Middle Ages, the prevalent doctrine was that there could be but one right way of thinking and that others must be suppressed. And in a society not organized for discussion there was more truth in this than the modem reader of history is apt to admit. A thousand years ago freedom of religious teaching, for example, would probably have resulted in doctrinal and moral anarchy. Innumerable conflicting sects would have sprung up, and there was no

( 368) general organization of thought vigorous enough to keep them within limits or maintain a voluntary unity. In this, as in many other fields, we can dispense with a compulsory discipline because we have developed one which is spontaneous: formerly, if there was to be a moral whole it had to be authoritative. Even now this is more or less true of unenlightened populations, and it is only along with a campaign for enlightenment that we can safely demand freedom of speech.

It is essential to the intelligent conduct of society that radical groups, however small and unpopular, should develop and express their views. Their proposals do good by forcing the discussion of principles and so leading to an illumination otherwise impossible. The large and moderate parties have a conforming tendency and usually differ but little in principles, if indeed they are conscious of these at all. But the radical programme is a challenge to thought, and can hardly fail to be educative. For some time past the Socialists have been of the utmost service in this way, and round their searching theories of human betterment discussion has largely centred. I have often been impressed by their value as a factor in clarifying the minds of college students. Such theories are like the occupation of an advanced post by a detachment of an army: they push forward the line of battle even if the position occupied does not, in the long run, prove tenable. We easily overlook the fact that an honest project is seldom wholly wrong, and that even if it is there may be profit in discussing it.

The value of partial isolation as a factor in social intelligence is not often recognized in a democracy, where, under the sway of the brotherhood idea, we commonly

( 369) assume that we cannot see too much of one another. But if we are to have a rich organization of thought, including many types of men, each good of its kind, we must have a corresponding diversity of environments in which these types of men may get their nurture. The culture of individuality, the need of which we are beginning to recognize, cannot go far except as we also foster distinctive groups. We need many kinds of family, of school, of church, of community, of occupational and culture associations, each with a tradition and spirit of its own.

There is much to be said in favor of our schools and universities entering heartily into the lives of the communities that surround them; but if the communities are of a spirit hostile or indifferent to culture they may, and partly do, submerge the latter in their own barbarism. The democratization of higher traditions must be on a plane of militant leadership, not of concession, or it is pernicious. Better a real culture, though in monasteries, than a general vulgarization.

The same considerations may serve to qualify our democratic criticism of hereditary wealth and of the class differences based upon it. The man with an inherited competence is in a position to separate himself from the rush of competition enough to make a fresh estimate of things, and to use his independence as a fulcrum for starting a new movement. No doubt the great majority fail to do this; it requires other qualifications than pecuniary; still, much fruitful initiative in science, art, literature and social reform has in fact been supplied by people having this advantage, and until we provide for leisure and independence in some other way the argument for hereditary wealth will have force. In the same way the finest ideals of life and conduct-as distinguished, possi-

( 370) -bly, from the highest ideals — have often been the tradition of an upper class, upon which their continuance depended. If we are to dispense with upper classes we must at the same time provide for continuous culture groups of a more democratic sort.

It is much the same with national variation as with that of individuals and groups. Bagehot, in the earliest and perhaps the ablest attempt to apply Darwinism to society, pointed out that "all great nations have been prepared in privacy and in secret. They have been composed far away from all distraction. Greece, Rome, Judea, were framed each by itself, and the antipathy of each to men of different race and different speech is one of their most marked peculiarities, and quite their strongest common property."[1] In modern life, however, as nations come to share consciously and with good-will in a common organic life, this differentiation should not be one of isolation or antipathy, but of pride in a distinctive contribution to the higher life of the world. I need hardly add that the independence and individuality of small nations -which has seemed to be threatened-is essential to the general good.

Immigration is another topic that might well be considered from the standpoint of variety of ideas. We need as many kinds of people as possible, provided they are good kinds, because their various temperaments and capacities enrich our life. This seems true biologically, as regards diversity of natural stocks, and applies also to the ideals and habits of thought that immigrants bring with them. Our self-esteem naturally depreciates these contributions, but it is fairly clear that after a long course

( 371) of pioneer life and crude industrialism we are in a position to profit by culture elements that even the peasantry of an older civilization may supply. The Slavs, Italians, Jews, and others who have recently come to America in such numbers have many things to learn from us, but beyond doubt they have also much to teach. Certainly it is a mistake to attempt to suppress foreign customs or languages by any kind of coercion. It is true that a common language, at least, is necessary to assimilation, but this will come naturally if our social attitude is hospitable and our schools efficient. Moreover, a too sudden or compulsory break with the past is a bad thing, impairing self-respect and stability of character. Those who cherish what is best in the old life will make all the better members of the new. Such trouble as we have had with our immigrants, in regard to assimilation, is almost negligible, compared with the complete failure of harsher methods in Europe.

The larger discussion involves a struggle for survival among innumerable ideas, springing from the innumerable diversities of person, class, and situation. One naturally inquires what causes some of these ideas to survive and prevail rather than others. What makes the success or failure of a principle or a project?

Some writers will answer this question for us by pointing to specific factors which they think are decisive—though they by no means agree as to what these are — but I take it that the determining agent is nothing less than the total situation, which we must grasp as a whole in order to see the trend of things. The life of an idea depends upon the degree and manner of its working in the actual complex state of the mind of the people, consist-

( 372) -ing largely of impulses, habits, and traditions whose sources are remote and obscure. Take, for example, the change in our ideas regarding the functions and problems of women, indicated by the contrast between the literature of the nineteenth century and that of to-day. Certain reasons can be given for it, such as the growing self-dependence and class-consciousness of women, their employment in modern industry and the popularization of social and biological science. These and many other elements are worked up by discussion, producing an atmosphere in which the conventions of fifty years ago seem prudish and absurd. A novel, a play, or a social programme will succeed now which our fathers and mothers would have suppressed.

I doubt whether rules can be formulated which will help us much in interpreting the state of the social mind and predicting what success a given proposition will have. The attempts which have been made in this direction, such as those of Tarde in his Logique sociale, seem to me mechanical and unilluminating. If we accept the view that the higher intelligence is a complex imaginative synthesis, there is little reason for expecting help from such rules. What is necessary is that the interpreter and prophet shall have the knowledge and vision to reproduce in himself the essential influences of the time, and so, by a dramatic process, carry on the movement in his imagination and foresee the outcome. No formula of psychological selection will be of much use. Life is not subject to such formulas.

If an idea is quite incapable of working in the actual situation, if there is no soil in which it can grow, people will take no interest in it, it will not " take hold " any-

( 373) where, but come and go as a mere flitting impression, not even achieving definite statement. It is certain that ideas not infrequently occur to men which will later be esteemed as great truths, but are rejected by those to whom they occur because they do not kindle in the actual trend of thought. This was the case with the Darwinian idea of development through the survival of the fittest; several persons who are known, and probably others who are not known, having seen it vaguely long before Darwin, and it came to power only when the situation was ripe.

It is particularly true of social and moral ideals, since these are never novel or obscure in themselves, but are old thoughts renewed and illuminated from time to time by successive waves of faith. The Christian conception of a society of brothers with God as a loving father, is probably older than civilization, and can never have been far from men's desires. The case is much the same with the idea of democracy, with Rousseau's idea of the nobility of human nature and the depravity of institutions, and with Kant's moral imperative.

Even if an idea impresses an individual here and there it can hardly hold its ground without some kind of group support. Thus Hamerton says of the development of ideas in art: "The taste and knowledge of their contemporaries usually erect impassable barriers around artists. If there is no feeling or desire for a certain order of truth on the part of the public, the artist will have no stimulus to study that order of truth; nay, if he does study and render it, he will incur insult and abuse, and be thereby driven back into the line of subject and treatment which his contemporaries understand."[2]

However, an idea that gets possession of even one in-

( 374) -dividual so that he will formulate and defend it cannot be said to have failed. It takes its part in the larger discussion, and, however contumeliously rejected, it will leave some impress upon the ideas that are accepted. And the stone that the builders reject may prove to be the cornerstone of to-morrow's edifice.

Educated men are often alarmed by the spread of superficial doctrines which have a timely appeal to passion or interest, and seem likely to sweep the people off their feet and into disaster. It is normal in the history of the United States, or of any country where there is some freedom of speech, that there should be a numerous party of radicals advocating some social or economic heresy like populism, free silver, revolutionary socialism, anarchism, or the like. And indeed we sometimes narrowly escape being swamped by these waves of unreason.

But if the doctrine is really superficial it is likely to prove transient. As time goes on people have opportunity to experiment with it, usually on a small scale, and if they are fairly intelligent and their social condition not desperately bad this gives rise to a sounder judgment. In the meantime the particular situation which gave impetus to the doctrine is likely to have changed, as the free-silver agitation, for example, was undermined by the increased production of gold and the advent of higher prices.

Another way by which unwise propositions tend to be eliminated is what may be called cancellation. The multitude of frothy schemes that secure a following might well discourage us did we not reflect that they are as antagonistic to one another as they are to good sense, so that the net resultant may be zero. If we have, on the one hand, extreme anarchists who would break down all

( 375) discipline, we have, on the other, collectivists who would take away all freedom. It is in the very nature of error to lack adaptability to the rest of life, so that it cannot well form large wholes. The saying that no combination of wise men could resist a combination of all the fools does not show much insight at the best, and may be answered by saying that those who combine effectively cannot be fools, since they are meeting one of the most exacting tests of intelligence.

We cannot assert, however, that harmful ideas are necessarily eliminated and that only the beneficial survive. All that we can say with confidence in this direction is that social organisms are subject to a struggle, and in order to survive have to exhibit a certain measure of efficiency, or power to meet the struggle. If they have a long life it shows that ideas and practices injurious with reference to the struggle have been kept within limits. If we go beyond this and assert an onward and upward tendency in life we must, I think, rely finally upon faith rather than demonstration to support our belief.

Much that has shown a vigorous power of survival all through history we believe to be harmful, as, for example, drink, prostitution, and many forms of superstition. Scarcely anything has swept over the world more triumphantly than the tobacco habit, which, to say the least, is under suspicion. Professor Keller reminds us that there are such things as harmful mores, and he instances a number of customs relating to marriage that are clearly of this kind,[3] The scruples of the people of India about killing poisonous snakes result in an immense increase of these animals, and of human deaths. Many of the ancient beliefs surviving in backward parts of our own coun-

( 376) -try regarding the sowing of crops only when the "sign of the moon" is favorable, and the like, are of a similar nature.

The fact that extremes of riches and poverty, subjection of women and domination of one class over another have existed throughout history is no proof that such conditions are innocuous, but merely that they have not been so destructive as to prevent survival. And, in general, we may say of the social system that comes down to us from the past that, while as a whole and in its longer tested parts it has proved capable of life, we have no reason to think that this life is of the highest kind practicable.

In a time of rapid change the struggle of ideas becomes both more intense arid more confused. The social whole is in somewhat the position of a man who has been thrown out of his old occupation and is trying to establish himself in a new one: many questions press upon him at once, while the rules and habits he has been used to go by do not suit the changed conditions. In a more settled time there are traditional beliefs which serve as accepted standards of judgment-as the Scriptures or the writings of the Fathers have served in the history of the church. But in our own period-though we are no doubt too much in it to judge truly of its character-it seems that hardly any authority remains, that we have to create the law as well as make decisions under it.

The effort of intelligence to find a rational course in such a time results in a somewhat anarchic conflict of diverse interpretations. Extreme views of many sorts are urged, and there is no accredited arbiter to decide among them,

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"And a vast noise of rights, wrongs, powers, needs,
—Cries of new faiths that called 'This way is plain,'
Grindings of upper against lower greeds,
Fond sighs for old things, shouts, for new,—did reign."[4]

In the midst of this the ordinary individual, who has no taste for complex thought but longs only for peace with honor, is often in a sad condition. He is like the little neutral country caught up into the struggle of contending Powers and overrun by all of them, unable to stand alone or to find a sure support.

But the more deeply the ground is rent the more fundamental are the truths revealed. A conflict that destroys accepted principles almost certainly brings to light others that are more general and permanent, because after all life is rational, it seems, and the social mind, when pushed to it, has usually been able to discover as much of this rationality as it really needed. As regards religious belief we can already see that ideas of a scope and depth that few could have attained fifty years ago are now becoming domesticated in every-day thought. The conflict in this field has resulted in the perception that none of the contending creeds and forms is essential, but that the permanently human and divine reality, not confined in any formulation, creates new expression for itself along with the general growth of life.

Indeed it would seem that the struggles of the age have given us at least one principle which change cannot easily overthrow; the principle, namely, that life itself is a process rather than a state; so that we no longer expect anything final, but look to discover in the movement itself sufficient matter for reason and faith.


  1. Physics and Politics, 214.
  2. Thoughts About Art, 255.
  3. Societal Evolution. 63.
  4. Lanier, To Richard Wagner.

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