Is There a Social Mind?

Ralph Barton Perry
Harvard University


The question of the existence of a social mind is one of interpretation rather than of fact, since the meaning of the term is, itself, in doubt. It is not an idle question, for it is answerable, in the sense that one may hope to reach a sounder judgment by addressing himself to it, and it is also useful, for it implies a practical attitude. The urgency of the question is the result of a reaction against the extreme individualism of the eighteenth century, along with the multiplication of "corporate groups." Five characters may be applied to groups. (i) Class. Class is an aggregate of individuals of which the same thing is true. If by a social mind we mean "a class of minds" then there is such a thing, but we need a term less formal and more dynamic. (2) Whole. By this is meant an aggregation of which something is true which is not true for the individuals. There is no doubt that "wholes" are composed of individual human beings, but wholeness must not be identified with ca y. (3) Individuality. This term has been a y overworked, meaning ear a member of a class, or uniqueness, or identity. In all three respects society may be said to be an individual. (4) System. This refers to the connecting relations rather than to the members of the relation. Societies may be systems. Now while a society is a class, a whole, an individual, and a system, so also is a row of books. Thus the term is deflated and our idolatrous proclivities are left unaroused. But the suggestion is that the characters which attach to the members of the whole also attach to the whole. This we shall examine.

The question which forms the title of this essay is not, strictly speaking, a question of fact, but rather one of interpretation. It is not as though we all knew precisely what we meant by a "social mind," and were concerned only to establish the fact of its existence. This would be comparatively easy. If we desired to know whether there was a two-hundred-pound man, there would be so little doubt as to the meaning of the conception that it would be

( 562) possible to devise a purely mechanical method of obtaining the answer. But in the present question the issue lies mainly if not wholly in the meaning of the conception. If we were asked whether there was a Christian in the room, there would be no acceptable acid test. Someone would be sure to remark, "That depends on what you mean by Christianity." Or he might say, "Here are my opinions. Whether you call that `Christianity' or not, I cannot say." The discussion would then turn on the meaning of the term "Christianity." Similarly, a rapidly accumulating and ill-digested mass of facts regarding human relations has led to the question of: the propriety or legitimacy! of applying to these facts the conception of "a social mind"; and the question inevitably turns on the meaning which we propose to give to the conception.

It is to be remarked that in such cases it is rarely possible to prove the answer, though it may be possible to obtain agreement. In circles in which terms like "Christianity" are fixed by scholastic definitions, it would be possible by applying these definitions to the opinions in question to prove the answer with something like mathematical exactness. But if an emancipated and heterogeneous group were to debate the issue it would assume a wholly different form. They would soon be asking whether the conception of Christianity should or should not be so constructed as to apply to 'the defendant's opinions. We should not only be considering the circumstances in the light of the conception, but the conception in the light of the circumstances; and the discussion might result not only in an interpretation of the case, but also in the clarification, or extension, or even modification of the idea employed in the interpretation. In the course of one's dealing with a doubtful case of belief Christianity might acquire a new meaning. So in the case before us, in the course of attempting to apply to a social group the conception of mind which is ordinarily applied to a single man, one might in the end attach a new and maturer meaning to the conception itself.

One may perhaps feel that this sort of question is an idle sort of question; idle in the double sense of being both unanswerable useless. Whether the question is deemed answerable or not depends on one's standards. Answerable in the sense expected

( 563) of a question of fact or of mathematics, it is not; but then, neither are most questions. It is at least answerable in the sense that one may hope to reach a sounder judgment by thoughtfully addressing one's self to it, than by uttering a snap judgment or echoing the customary judgment.

Put is it a useful question? I am fully alive to the fact that there may be artificial and gratuitious questions, and that the philosopher is suspected of inventing them in order to provide himself an occupation. It has been said of a well-known philosopher that his philosophizing was a game in which he first hid an object and then pretended he didn't know where it was; all for the fun of trying to find it. So the philosopher is sometimes grouped with the lawyer as one who makes trouble in order that he may fatten on it. If men were only left to live in peace, they would need no lawyers; if they were only left to their common sense, they would need no philosophers.

I am willing to accept the parallel, but not the verdict. The important point in both cases is that it is not commonly the same individual who makes the trouble and offers the remedy. If the same lawyer cultivated litigiousness and then proposed to satisfy it, he might be a fit subject for disbarment proceedings. The unfortunate fact is, however, that litigiousness springs naturally from the human breast, and that every man is in the first instance his own lawyer. The professional lawyer is the fruit and not the root of amateur litigiousness. Similarly the loss of common sense is as natural to man as the loss of innocence, and every man is in the first instance his own philosopher. The professional philosopher is the fruit and not the root of the speculative impulse.

It must, however, be admitted that what one lawyer or philosopher sets up, in the interest of mankind, another lawyer or philosopher may feel called upon to renovate or take down; so that the original needs are often lost sight of. Philosophers, like lawyers, may in this way be largely occupied with each other and with their own products; and an outsider is tempted to feel that while the philosophers evidently need one another the world at large could get on comfortably without any of them. It is said that one of the Transcendentalist disciples of Amos Bronson Alcott put

( 564) the question to him in this form: "Mr. Alcott, does omnipotence abnegate attribute?"[1] In this case the demand for light, as well as the supply, seems to have been created by the business. The world was not hanging on the answer; or, if it was, it did not know it. And the extraordinary and regrettable thing about it is that once a question of this sort gets put, people will go on debating it forever, long after the occasion for it is past, and despite the fact that all parties to the discussion would be very much at a loss to explain what they meant by their terms.

In raising the question "Is there a social mind?" I am quite aware of all this, and duly humble in view of the notorious pedantry of the philosophical mind. Indeed it is because of this awareness that I do raise the question. I call for the question, in other words, not so much in order to have it put, as to find out what it is. And my excuse is that there is no one but the philosopher who can protect the general public from the abuse of their confidence by other philosophers. Don't promote thievery; but if there be thieves then set a thief to catch a thief. Since there is and must be philosophy, then a philosopher with a sense of responsibility must be willing to assume the rôle of a protector of the guileless.

One may still have doubts as to the profitableness of this particular kind of question, doubts that would perhaps find expression as follows: "Isn't it, after all, merely a matter of words? Provided we can obtain the facts regarding human relations, what earthly difference does it make whether we call them by the name of `social mind' or by any other name, sacred or profane?" Now I am perfectly willing to admit that it is a matter of words, provided the objector is willing to omit the derogatory "merely." It does, after all, make a good deal of difference what things are called.I doubt, for example, whether anyone who reads these words would regard it as a matter of indifference whether he was called a liar or a gentleman, even though the ascertainable facts might be the same in either case. The reason is that the epithet indicates the attitude; the man who calls me a liar views me with distrust, hostility, or contempt. Similarly, there is the case of the Central American customs collector who remarked that "dogs is dogs, and

( 565) cats is dogs; but turtles is birds." It was not a matter of indifference that a turtle should be called a bird, because it indicated a practical intention to treat the turtle like a bird.

So it may prove a matter of the utmost importance whether we do or do not call an aggregate of human beings "a social mind, " or "a state personality" of "a collective will." It implies an intention to treat them as such; to transfer to a collectivity of human beings methods of action and modes of sentiment which have- been deemed appropriate only to a single human being. Thus it makes a difference whether we call a corporation a fictitious person or a real person. In the former case we treat a corporation as a being having only a legal status; in the latter case we treat a corporation as a human individual in having various extralegal relations and capacities which it may at any time be incumbent on the law to recognize. It makes a difference whether we ' regard the state as a collection, an organism, a mechanism, or a person; because, in the last case at least, we have an appropriate attitude in readiness. In accordance with a deeply rooted and apparently inalienable trait, when a man finds himself in the presence of what he calls a person of a higher order, he worships it, 'or rather hint or her. It would make a considerable difference to a man's conduct if he should regard corporations as having souls to save, or a state as having a divinity to worship.

The question concerning what it is proper to call an aggregate of related human beings has of late been growing more and more urgent for two reasons. In the first place, there has been a swing of psychological doctrine away from an excessive emphasis on the individual. We are still in a stage of reaction against the errors of the eighteenth century. It was then thought that man was naturally self-centered, that he acted solely from a calculation of self-interest. To offset this error it has been necessary to exaggerate the extent of his regard for others; in other words, to put the emphasis on sympathy, imitation, gregariousness, and the parental instinct. Again, it was once thought that man was self-sufficient and that for his happiness and perfection he needed only to be removed from the intrusion and tyranny of his fellows. To offset this error it has been necessary to insist upon the value of organiza-

( 566) -tion and institutional control. Furthermore, the old psychology, which was excessively rationalistic, neglected the unintended and elusive, but widespread and unceasing, play of mind on mind. Thus the new movement has been a wholesome corrective and supplement to the old psychology. It has required its catchwords for driving home the truth-such catchwords as "the crowd," "the group mind," "the social consciousness," and "the collective will." We have thus acquired a polemical vocabulary which threatens to beget new superstitions, scarcely less blind than the old.

At the same time that there has been a swing of psychological doctrine toward the social aspects of human nature, these aspects have themselves been greatly increased in number and variety. Thus Maitland, in his Introduction to Gierke's Political Theories of the Middle Age, remarks that "in the second half of the nineteenth century corporate groups of the most various sorts have been multiplying all the world over at a rate that far outstrips the increase of `natural persons."[2] , This is true not only of corporations in the legal sense, but of nation-states having a vivid sense of corporate unity, and of innumerable associations within the state. Organization has become a habit, if not a disease. There is no individual who does not belong to something, and the average individual belongs to a great variety of intersecting groups, in each of which he has a different status and plays a different part. The activities incident to this multiple membership make up the larger part of a man's life, and the whole of his obituary. Unorganized social groups have also shown a tendency to increase in number, variety, volume, and importance. There have always been crowds; but whereas close physical proximity was once necessary, modern facilities for communication, publicity, and transportation, together with the wide diffusion of literacy, have made it possible for crowd influences to overcome distance and to act upon the individual almost continuously.

In view of these facts it is not strange that the last three-quarters of a century should have witnessed an enormous and diversified growth of social science; or that we should find ourselves equipped with an extensive and vivid social vocabulary. . Nor would it be surprising if this vocabulary should require some

(567) overhauling lest terms and phrases which have served a useful purpose in dislodging old prejudices and exciting the speculative imagination should conduce to incoherence, credulity, sentimentality, or even fanaticism. That incoherence, at least, is not uncommon even among those who call themselves social scientists, could be proved to the reader's satisfaction by citing long extracts from their writings. But that will not be necessary. The mere threat will, I am sure, move him to concede the point. Let us, therefore, proceed without further preliminaries, to our analysis.

I shall distinguish and illustrate five characters that may be applied to collections, aggregates, manifolds, or groups[3] of any kind; to groups of bodies, inorganic and organic, as well as to groups of human beings. I propose, in other words, to consider certain abstract features of grouping in general, more or less independently of social aggregation. I do so because I believe that most of the difficulties arise from the confused use of these comparatively simple ideas in their application to such very complicated phenomena as human relations. I want to show, too, that they are very common workaday ideas. It is customary to apply them with awe and reverence to society when, as a matter of fact, they can equally well be applied to the alphabet or to a five-foot shelf of books. These abstract group-characters to which I wish to call attention are (1) class, (2) whole, (3) individual, (4) system, and (5) compound.

1. By a class we mean an aggregate of individuals, of which the same thing is true.[4] Thus all the men of whom it is true that they were born on August 2, form a class. The extreme lower limit of a class would be an aggregate of individuals of all of whom it was true only that they existed, or that they were mentioned, as, for example, Lewis, Carroll's class of. "shoes and ships and sealing-wax, and cabbages and kings"; or Stevenson's "the world is full of a number of things." Ordinarily, however, we think of a class as an aggregate of individuals having much in common; or where that which is true of all is the most definitive and explanatory truth about each, as in the case of an animal or plant species. When this is the case the class-name is the common noun used for designat-

(568) -ing the individual. Now it is plain that there are innumerable classes of human individuals, from the definitive biological class "man," to such comparatively accidental classes as those who have just now eaten dinner, or the men whose names begin with "T." Since it is an implied property of a man that he has or is a mind, then we can say that these are all classes of minds; and if by "a social mind" we mean only "a class of minds," then there is unquestionably such a thing.

But one may properly object that this misses the real point at issue. All it means is that instead of there being only one of the kind, as in the case of the Tower of London or Vesuvius, there are, in the case of man, many of the kind. In this sense "collectivism" and "individualism" would not mean two alternative and mutually excessive doctrines or ideals, but two sides of the same fact. As Bosanquet has recently remarked, "so far from an antithesis these terms rather suggest an identity. A collection means a collection of individuals."[5] There is this man, and there are these men, and you may study the member or the collection, as you please. The real question is whether the collection is not more than a collection, as is suggested by expressions such as the "Great Being" of Comte or the "Leviathan" of Hobbes. In the statement from which I have quoted, Bosanquet objects to both collectivism and individualism for failing to recognize the fact of social fusion. In his view there are, over and above such human individuals as are enumerated in a census or city directory, human individuals of a higher order, s distinct from the former as water is distinct from hydrogen and oxygen. Similarly, Durkheim contends that "Society is a Reality sui generis." [6]

It is evident that in order to illuminate this question we need something more than the conception of a class, something less formal and more dynamic. But meanwhile it is worth remarking that sometimes when we speak of a human society, "class of men" is all we mean. This is commonly the case with the terms "mankind" and "humanity"; which, if their symbolic and sentimental values are disregarded, signify no more of unity or transcendence than do the terms "catkind" and "felinity."

( 569)

2. Our next conception is the conception of a "whole." I am here using the term to signify an aggregation of individuals such that something is true of the aggregation. which is not true of the individuals. Professor Royce was fond of speaking of "the fecundity of aggregations." He meant that when you put things together something usually happens. We might speak of this as collective novelty. The traditional logic has recognized it in the so-called fallacies of "composition" and "division," commonly illustrated by the old riddle, "Why do white sheep eat more than black?" The answer, as will doubtless be seen, is, "Because there are more of them." The point is that when individuals are aggregated some things are true of the individuals that are not true of the aggregation, and some things are true of the aggregation that are not true of the individuals; and it is desirable not to mix them up. If you undertake to say the same things of each of the angles of a triangle that you say of all, you fall into the error of "division";if you undertake to say the same things of an army that you say of a soldier you fall into the error of "composition."[7]

Now there is no doubt whatsoever of the existence of wholes tom posed of human beings; or of aggregations of human beings which possess properties which are other than those of their constituents.[8] Human beings are brought together in a great variety of relations in which they compose something new. A population, an audience, a family, a crowd, an army, a labor union — each of these does things and has properties which it would be fallacious to attribute to its members.

Before we leave this conception there is a further distinction that it is desirable to make. Although I have spoken of wholeness as a dynamic conception in the sense that novelty emerges, wholeness must not be identified with causality. We are thinking not `of the case in which a small boy and a match produce a fire; but of the case in which one small boy and another small boy compose

( 570) a riot; or of the case in which "two is company, three's a crowd." Or take the case of ten men pulling on a rope attached to a balloon. The force of the pull is a whole composed of the forces exerted by the individual men, while at the same time having a magnitude and a causal efficacy that are peculiarly its own. But the effect, the position or motion of the balloon, if a whole at all, is of a totally different composition.

Now, while this is obvious, it has social applications that are not so obvious. While, for example, we may speak of the combined aspirations and efforts of men as creating a total force which realizes itself in certain works of civilization, these works are not themselves wholes composed of aspirations and efforts. If we say that aspirations and efforts have "gone into" them, we must mean rather that they have "gone" than that they are "in" them. A calf may go into the making of an anaconda, but it would not be correct to say that the calf composes the anaconda (except, perhaps, in a wholly different sense). Similarly, if it should appear that society devours and assimilates men, it would be correct to say of society that its sources or conditions were human, but it would not be correct to describe it as a whole composed of men. There is a moral to this, which may appear later.

3. In the third place, a whole may be said to have individuality. This term, like many terms in this field of discourse, is badly overworked. It appears to mean at least three independent things, two of which are not only independent but opposite. Thus (a) a whole is said to be an individual when it is itself a member of a class. Just as we speak of individual men in relation to the class of mankind, so we may speak of individual societies in relation to the class of societies, or of individual nations in relation to a league of nations. Individuality in this sense implies the possession of a class-characteristic in common with other individuals. But sometimes (b) we use the term "individuality" to signify uniqueness. A society with a "well-marked" individuality would be comparatively lacking in common characteristics, and the individual part of it would be the distinctive part of it. Another meaning of individuality is (c) identity. This is disclosed, if not constituted, by persistence through change. In this sense a highly individual society will be one whose characters as a whole remain constant

( 571) while its external relations and its internal members vary. In all three of these respects it is clear that a society may be said to be an individual; or, in some cases, to be possessed of a high degree of individuality.

4. Fourthly, we speak of a whole as a system, when we refer to the connecting relations rather than to the members so related. In common speech this distinction is conveyed by the term "relationship." The family, for example, is a complex relationship, or system, in so far as we think of the particular members as negligible, provided only a specific set of relations is maintained. There must be a marital relation, parental relation, a filial relation, and a fraternal relation; and these relations are arranged in a fixed pattern. Thus, for example, if A stands in the marital relation B and if C stands in the filial relation to A, then B stands in the parental (or step-parental) relation to C. In a system the terms appear only as defined by the relations, or as enabling the relations to obtain. When a concrete object enters into a system it is called by a special name to indicate that it has assumed a specific set of relations. Thus a man is called a "father" or "husband," w ere these names mean only having such-and-such relations. Sometimes we speak of such a concrete object as having assumed this or that rôle, or as having acquired this or that status or capacity. It is the same thing as the familiar distinction between the office and the man.

Now societies may be systems; there can be no doubt about that. During the medieval period when collective entities like Church and State were favorite topics of speculation, this systematic aspect of relations was clearly recognized and distinguished. The Church, as Gierke tells us, was conceived both "genossenschaftlich" as the congregation of the faithful, and "anstaltlich" as a hierarchy of ecclesiastical offices.[9] The offices, like, for example, the papacy, were thought of as having a higher being than their temporary incumbents. Similarly, we may think of almost any soviet either as a collection of concrete human being or as an institution, that is an abstract system of relations.

In this discussion of class, whole, individual, and system, I have sought first to dissociate them from the social context, and then to

( 572) illustrate their social applications. My purpose is twofold. On the one hand, I have sought to present them as simply as possible; and, on the other hand, I have sought to rob them of any honorific associations which they may have acquired. They are all terms, I think, which need deflating. And the best way to deflate them is to use them in other contexts where one's idolatrous proclivities are less likely to be aroused. Take a row of books, for example. (1) They constitute a class in that they are all books; and (2) they constitute a whole, in that there are things which are true of the row, such as its five-foot length, which are not true of the members. (3) They constitute an individual whole in all three senses: (a) this is but one of many rows; (b) it is more or less unique; and (c) it maintains its identity though all the books should be gradually replaced. Finally, (4) they constitute a system in that the complex of relative positions can be abstracted from the concrete members. Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, for example, assumes the rôle of "the fourth from the left"; and as such it must be next to the left of "number five from the left." But there is nothing in all this which exalts a row of books, or impels us to spell it with a capital letter and worship it.

Similarly, then, while a 'society is a class, and a whole, and an individual, and a system, these are not prerogatives which dignify it, but very humble characteristics which it shares with most collections. Nor are they doubtful attributes, which require any peculiar ingenuity for their discovery or proof. The great question of social philosophy must, then, be a material, rather than a formal one. The novelty or value of society must lie not in its being an individual and systematic whole, but rather in its being a particular kind of individual and systematic whole. The point is, you may say, that it is a whole of the living, mental, moral, human, or superhuman kind. But there is a further formal conception involved in this view. The suggestion is that these characters which attach to the members of the social whole attach also in some sense to the whole itself. This I believe is the major source of confusion in the whole discussion.. I propose to employ the term "compound" for a whole made up of members like itself. We shall sharpen this definition as the discussion proceeds.

[To be continued]


  1. Richard Garnett's Life of Emerson, 1888, p. 100,
  2. Edition of 1913, p. xii
  3. I shall use these terms interchangeably to mean bare manyness or plurality.
  4. C. I. Lewis, Survey of Symbolic Logic, 1918, p. 261.
  5. Bosanquet, Review of Vaughan's "Political Writings of Rousseau," Mind, N.S. XXV (rgr6), PP. 403-4.
  6. Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, p. 16.
  7. Cf. J. N. Keynes, Formal Logic, 1906, p. 16, note.
  8. Strictly speaking, every class is a whole, and every whole a class. The extreme lower limit of a whole would be the case in which its only collective novelty was its plurality or number; and the extreme lower limit of a class would be the case in which the only thing true of all its members was their belonging to the same whole. Wholeness does not begin to be important until the collective novelties consist of dynamic properties, arising from the joint or reciprocal action of the members, and requiring temporal and spacial proximity. It is in this sense that a society is thought of as a whole.
  9. Gierke, op. cit., pp. 58, 161.

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