Introduction to the Study of Society

Book V Chapter 4
Social Volition and Execution—Morality and Law

Albion Small and George Vincent

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§ 188. We have traced the processes by which the perceptions, cognitions, and feelings of individuals are combined into collective observation, intelligence, and instinctive judgment common to larger or smaller social groups. We have seen that increased efficiency in social perception leads to an enlargement and clarification of social knowledge ; and that this growing intelligence constantly modifies social standards of feeling, or estimates of worth.

Individual Psychology tells us that feeling instantly transmutes itself into will. To feel strongly is to wish something done. It follows from this law that common knowledge and feeling will produce a common will. If all the individuals in a given group hold the same general opinions and are governed by the same standards of feeling, they will desire the same course of action. A genuine common will can be formed only as a result of such community of thought and feeling.

Inasmuch as a large society is made up of countless aggregates and organs, each with a body of knowledge and standards of judgment peculiar to itself and in some respect differing from that of any other group, it is manifestly impossible so to unify and render authoritative all these psychical resources and impulses, as to produce in all

( 350) matters a common volition, —a general will with which all individual wills actually coincide.

Yet, on the other hand, it is clear that the intelligence and feeling of different groups about certain phenomena may be, in a greater or less degree, consolidated into a body of social knowledge and judgment which will produce a given volition common to all the aggregates and organs involved. In other words, some feelings are much more general than others, and a common will may, under certain conditions, characterize a whole population, which, on other questions, is divided into many antagonistic groups.

There is a certain aggregate of men who firmly believe that the manufacture and sale of liquor should be socially prohibited; they feel intensely on the subject. Every evil effect of intemperance that is brought to their notice instantly arouses an emotion of indignation, and they are at once conscious of a wish to put an end to the traffic which renders such results possible. Common knowledge, and especially a common standard of judgment, produces a common will. The same incident which thus affects the prohibitionists would produce in another group a desire or will to regulate and control the sale of liquor, while still another class would simply deplore the weakness of individuals and feel no impulse to modify existing arrangements. It is clear that, for the present, at least, a general volition is utterly impossible.

The proposition to hold the World's Fair in Chicago met with general local approval. A common feeling that the city would gain in reputation and prosperity instantly passed into a common will that the plan should he carried out. Newspapers, the board of trade, railway companies, political organizations, trades' unions,—all classes and groups of citizens were unanimous in their wish to secure the Fair.

On the other hand, when the question as to the opening of the Fair on Sundays came up, opinions and feelings varied widely. There was no common will, but several antagonistic group volitions instead. The efforts of each party to convince the others that they were wrong may, possibly, have modified in some slight degree the intelligence and feeling of each group; but anything like agreement was not even approached.

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§ 189. While many widely different bodies of collective knowledge, feeling, and volition may and do exist side by side in society, it is manifestly impossible that antagonistic group wills should find harmonious and simultaneous expression in action. People and parties may entertain a great variety of different opinions, may be governed by equally divergent standards of instinctive judgment, and may have a corresponding number of conflicting desires, without involving society in difficulty or danger; but the moment they attempt to embody their varying wills in overt acts, regardless each of the other, they threaten social order and welfare. It is obviously necessary, therefore, that some means should be available for coördinating the peculiar volitions of individuals and social organs into a single determination, which can result in definite and orderly execution.

The directors of a railway or other corporation often have different ideas, judgments, and volitions as to the management of the affairs intrusted to them. Sometimes, by discussion and argument, they come to a unanimous decision as to policy; i.e. they form a common will. But in many cases no such agreement is reached. Nevertheless, by means of a vote a single determination is reached. It would clearly be ruinous if each individual or party in the board were to put into execution a different plan. The interests of the concern demand that one definite policy shall be fixed upon and executed.

So, in every social organ, whether it be a church, a factory, or a family, different ideas and feelings may coexist; indeed, such diversity, if it does not result in antagonisms, is desirable; but the welfare of the group requires that there shall be some means of securing orderly and unified executive activities.

Church quarrels furnish illustrations of antagonistic volitions. The congregation is split up into two or more factions, each of which insists upon having a given minister, or a certain form of church music. Feelings of antagonism are aroused, and oftentimes the trouble results in the division or dissolution of the church, because it is impossible to form either a common will or a decision in which all are willing to acquiesce.

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§ 190. Every social organ must have, as a condition of its existence, some means of forming a collective decision. The regulating system of every group may be tested by its ability to render this important service. In proportion as a social organ can reach a definite conclusion, in which its members acquiesce, and can put it promptly into execution, will the group, other things being equal, do its appointed work efficiently.

The political organization of social aggregates and organs into unities, such as cities or states, affords the most conspicuous examples of devices for combining many individual and group volitions into collective decisions. No amount of executive machinery is of any value, unless it is set in motion by definite and coördinated impulses.

The state, in its legislative aspect, provides an apparatus for determining the collective will, and in its executive character, a mechanism for transforming that general volition into appropriate action. While it is true that every social organ carries on both these activities, the functions, as displayed in political organization, are far more general, and lend themselves more readily to clear exposition. We shall, therefore, confine our study in this regard chiefly to the phenomena of government.

The device of elections involving the supremacy of the will of the majority, is the chief means of reaching social decisions. This method does not succeed in forming a genuine common will, but it determines the authority of a given impulse to find expression in action.

At every political election two or more volitions, as to men or measures, struggle for the victory; i.e., for the right to be put into execution. In the United States, for example., one party may be set down as favoring in general a radical modification of the tariff; another represents a collective wish to retain, in the main, an existing schedule. The votes of one party outweigh in numbers those of the other. The

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former gain the right to execute their will. But the wish of the minority has not been merged in the volition of the majority. No common will has been formed. Merely a decision has been reached, which, in the nature of things, must be definite and exclusive. Except in rare cases of virtual unanimity, "The will of the people," as descriptive of a social decision, is rhetoric rather than reality. To admit the necessity of reaching decisions is not to acknowledge the existence of a general social volition.

§ 191. The phenomena of social volition and determination are by no means simple. Struggle for supremacy does not involve merely the definition of different group wills, and the victory of the stronger in its original form. Volitions undergo many modifications before they are executed, or even submitted to vote.

If we regard the many wills of different social organs and aggregates as forces exerted in correspondingly diverse directions, it is easy to conceive of situations analogous to those discovered in Mechanics. "These psychical forces encounter each other at different angles, as it were, and certain resultant determinations and actions follow by virtue of the impact.

Three general cases are possible: (1)when the various social volitions coincide and reënforce each other, (2) when equal forces meet in exactly opposite directions and completely neutralize each other, and (3) when they meet in direct or oblique opposition, and result in a determination whose force and direction are in general proportioned to the original forces, and the degree of opposition in which they met.

These phenomena of social psychical Mechanics are observable in the reciprocal action of authorities and their publics, in the struggles of factions within political parties, in all the activities which precede the definition of collective volitions which are to be submitted to electoral arbitration, and finally and clearly in executive acts.

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The unanimity of all groups in seeking to secure the World's Fair for Chicago (§ 188) afforded an admirable example of social volitions exerted in the same direction, and reënforcing each other. The fact that gambling is permitted in open defiance of the law in certain large cities, may be attributed superficially to the inefficiency or dishonesty of the police, but it is in reality, like other forms of municipal corruption, an evidence that the forces of social volition on the one hand to abolish the practice entirely, and on the other to remove all restrictions from it, are in such equilibrium as to permit a certain amount of gaming to go on unmolested.

Legislation constantly displays compromises which are simply resultants of opposing volitions. High license may be regarded as a resultant of the impact between the demands for prohibition, and for unrestricted sale of liquor. Bimetallism bears a similar relation to free silver and gold monometallism. The famous Missouri Compromise is another case in point. Party platforms represent compromises resulting from the conflicting wills of many groups, factional or geographical. A tariff bill is the resultant of a vast number of wholly or partially opposed interests and desires.

§ 192. In popular thought, the legislature of a politically organized group is conceived as representing, by virtue of suffrage and election, if not the collective will of the citizens, at least the volitions of two or more distinct parties in the city or nation. As a matter of fact, this theory is largely erroneous. There is almost never such a thing as representation of the will in regard to specific acts. The legislator is chosen on certain general grounds, but aside from the vague limitations imposed by party platforms, and the usually rather indefinite pressure which may be brought to bear on him by his constituents after election, the representative is free to make decisions about which those who chose him often know nothing, or are not in a position to form an intelligent opinion. Unforeseen contingencies may so utterly change the aspect of affairs that the legislator ceases to be, even in the most general sense, a representative of the electoral district from which he comes. Mani-

( 355) -festly, if election is to be defended on the ground that, by the supremacy of the majority, it secures a genuine numerical representation of collective volition, it has but a weak case.

We summarize from Schäffle an estimate in a hypothetical case of the number of persons represented in a given legislative act. Assuming manhood suffrage, from which women, children, and criminals are excluded, it is fair to conclude that only one half the individual wills of the community can exercise themselves. As a matter of fact, perhaps only two thirds of those with the right to vote exercise that right, on the average. The actual voters are thus only two thirds of one half of the adults in the community, or one third. Further than this, if the actual majority amounts to two thirds of the actual voters, then the result of the expression of popular will through the ballot is an expression of two thirds of one third of the wills of adults in the population,or two ninths. Suppose we assume, further, that at each vote of the representatives so chosen to form any legislative body, two thirds of the members are present, and one of their enactments is carried by a two thirds majority. In that case we have to multiply the two ninths obtained above by two thirds of two thirds, or four ninths, in order to find the actual fraction of the people concerned in reaching the conclusion assumed. Two ninths of four ninths is eight eighty-firsts, or about one tenth. The result is, therefore, that before the legislative conclusion is reached, even in the case of so-called universal suffrage, the universal majority will shrinks to the representative will of one tenth the adult population.

§ 193. Although election manifestly falls far short of securing numerical representation of the popular will, it may be the means of placing individuals with ability as social leaders in positions of authority, and it certainly serves to keep the public in close relation with collective agencies of decision and execution. We have seen that authorities are necessary to give direction to social thought and feeling, while, on the other hand, the reaction of the public upon such sources of impulse is equally essential to individual and social welfare.

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Right decisions may be reached by an enlightened despot, but without the voluntary acquiescence of his subjects, enforced execution of his will is the only alternative. Election offers a means for establishing authorities and reacting upon them ; it affords the people a sense of self-determination, without which complete personal and collective development are impossible.

The employment of Pinkerton detectives at Homestead, during the strike in 1892, aroused popular indignation in many parts of the United States, notably in Kentucky. The papers of that commonwealth started an agitation for legislation which should prohibit the use of bodies of detectives, or " private armies," as they were termed, in the state of Kentucky. Many citizens sent petitions to their state senators and representatives, urging the passing of a law. No election was held to determine the popular will. The authorities at Frankfort, acted upon by their publics, with whom they maintained relations of close sympathy, passed a law which public opinion evidently demanded. It is quite conceivable that a body of life peers, secure in their positions, might have ignored the urgent appeal.

Elections serve a most important social purpose, but their influence is far more subtle, and less definite and mechanical, than is popularly supposed.

§ 194. It is obvious that, in proportion as people think and feel alike, they will have similar volitions and express them in similar ways. In a manner analogous to the formation of social knowledge and standards of judgment, individual volition and acts tend to group themselves into uniformity, and become fixed and conventional in manners and customs, which, handed down from one generation to the next, modified gradually, but never losing their continuity, exercise a determining influence upon the wills and acts of all who belong to the society. Thus each social organ or aggregate has customs or technical procedures peculiar to itself, while whole nations are characterized by certain general conventions, which are virtually common to

( 357) all citizens. Manners and customs are, for the most part, socially unconscious (§ 170), and even individuals conform with them almost instinctively. The well-bred person is he to whom the mere formal courtesies and amenities of social intercourse have become almost reflex, " a second nature."

Certain customs which regulate the relations of men and are of recognized importance to social coherence and progress come, at length, to gain greater authority than others. They receive the sanction of society. Little by little conformity with them ceases to be merely optional, and becomes obligatory. They gradually develop into customary laws, which are enforced by society.

As social development proceeds and organization attains a higher complexity, the need of definite collective decisionsbecomes constantly more pressing. Society must, as a condition of its survival, determine upon (1) positive acts, by which to adjust itself to ever-changing natural and artificial conditions; and (2) regulative principles, which shall secure that coördination of activities which is essential to social existence and growth. By means of the legislative machinery of a politically organized society, these two classes of determinations are being constantly made and embodied with precision in legal statutes.

Thus social volitions, past and present, are represented in a vast body of conventions, which vary from trivial rules of social etiquette to collective decisions, which have behind them the coercive power of great nations.

All the most familiar procedures of family and social life have long histories of development. How many individual volitions have been concerned in the evolution from the alternate surfeiting and fasting of early savages to the regular meals of modern life, or in the decree that soup shall precede fish and that both shall come before the meat !

Englishmen, on the road, pass to the left, because, it is said, their ancestors wished to have the right arm nearest the possible enemy that might be encountered on the highway.

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Fashions in coats may change, but the two buttons on the back remain a monument to the fact that hunting gentlemen had the will to loop up their skirts when they rode after the hounds. The history of manners, customs, and fashions is a whole department of study in itself.

In the English common law we have an organic product of individual volitions combined, through centuries, into general principles, which influence a large part of the world to-day.

A statute law directing the executive branch of government to build a canal, or improve a harbor, or construct a war vessel, is a positive social decision, embodied in legal enactment.

A law defining the way in which companies shall be organized and conducted, or prescribing the plans in accordance with which buildings must be erected, or requiring the inspection of mines and factories, is a regulative statute. All laws which define crimes and indicate punishments are obviously of this second class.

In customs, and especially in laws, social knowledge, feeling, and volition find formal outward expression.

§ 195. We have seen that the vital principle of society is psychical. Improvements in technical devices, and other external readjustments, are merely expressions of psychical modifications in social knowledge, feeling, and volition. Laws, likewise, are embodiments of the same forces. It is obvious that enactments which express the social volitions of a given period may, after a time, cease to represent the ever-changing body of popular knowledge, feeling, and will ; or the principles involved may be so thoroughly incorporated in instinctive conduct, as no longer to require the support of formal social authority. In other words, laws become superfluous, or are outgrown. New conditions arise which so completely change public sentiment, that statutes once appropriate are clearly anachronisms. Or, under the influence of a sudden impulse, a law may be passed which does not embody the sober opinion and real wish of the people. Such a statute is often quite as ineffective as one which has been outgrown.

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" Dead-letter " laws may be dealt with in two ways : they may be permitted by the executive authorities to fall into disuse and be quietly ignored, or they may be enforced. In the latter case the contrast between the old ideas and the new arouses public feeling, and usually secures the repeal of laws which have evidently lost all popular support.

Or, perhaps, the discussion may discover an unsuspected latent sentiment in favor of an alleged obsolete statute, and secure its reënforcement. Again, since social development is not always, or as a whole, genuine progress, it is possible that a "dead-letter " law may embody a higher ideal than that of a later generation, and in rare cases it may be feasible to arouse public intelligence, feeling, and volition to such purpose that the old statute will be revived.

But, in general, the attempt to enforce upon one generation the will of the past, or upon one society the will of another, is doomed, in so far as the two volitions differ, to certain failure.

It is hardly necessary to point out that a chief source of weakness in present-day reform movements is the failure to comprehend the nature of law. To suppose that the statute books form an arsenal, whither one may resort for ancient or cast-off weapons, which, once put in use again, will rout all evil, is to ignore the laws of social development.

The so-called New England "blue laws," relative to Sabbath observance, are, for the most part, obsolete, and could not be enforced. Yet the sentiment which originally created them still exerts an influence through customs and morals. Fewer railway trains are run on Sunday in New England than in other parts of the United States. Public amusements are restricted. Sunday baseball games between professional teams are prohibited.

In Chicago, on the other hand, with a large cosmopolitan population having no common traditions, many municipal regulations with regard to Sunday, such as those requiring saloons to close after a certain hour, or prohibiting ball games, theatrical entertainments, etc , are

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absolutely ignored. An attempt to enforce most of these " dead-letter " laws would be utterly futile, and, if pressed, would very likely end in their repeal by the city council. The question, in such instances, is not simply whether there are laws which bear upon the case, but chiefly whether the laws are an expression of contemporary public feeling and will.

At the risk of repetition we refer to another phase of liquor legislation in connection with this subject. We express no judgment as to the feasibility of prohibition as a policy, or its sanction as a principle, but merely cite what we believe, on good authority, to be facts in a specific instance. The state of Kansas, as a whole, has enacted a prohibitive law which applies to every village, town, and city in the state. In the capital, Topeka, public sentiment is strongly in favor of the measure, which is locally enforced, with comparative efficiency. The city of Wichita is characterized by a wholly different group feeling in the matter, and saloons are maintained there in open defiance of state law. In the case of the first city, the volition of an external public coincides with the local will; in the second instance, the attempt to enforce, by dictation from without, a policy in opposition to the general sentiment of the community, ends in virtual failure.

§ 196. The coherence and progress of society are conditioned upon the appropriate performance of a vast number of individual activities. What are the influences which insure such discharge of personal functions, — what are the forces that determine individual wills to the acts which are conducive to the welfare of social units and of the total organism? These forces are two. They have the same end ; they complement each other. One is internal; the other external. Morality imposes the obligation of self-determination toward appropriate conduct ; law represents the constraint or direction exerted by the will of others. That conduct is of the greatest worth in which both these elements find expression.

The discussion of ethical standards belongs to Statical Sociology. We may here simply indicate the two aspects of conduct in relation to morality and law. The former, largely through common knowledge and standards of feel

( 361) -ing, gives direction to the individual will which, in normal conditions, is reënforced by law, the formal expression of social volition.

Self-direction independent of law, and legal restraint without the response and acquiescence of individual determination, are almost equally harmful to society.

The efficient soldier is he who feels a keen sense of duty and addresses himself to his tasks with ardor and enthusiasm, scrupulously observing, however, the minute and definite regulations which characterize military discipline. It is hard to say which class would make the worse troops, men with the best motives and highest courage who ignored commands, or spiritless fellows who sullenly went through perfunctory maneuvers.

The anarchist who is quite sure that without legal restraint he would conduct himself in the most social manner, and the socialist who plans to regulate individual activities in detail very much as though persons were puppets, seem equally to ignore the dual nature of volitional determination.

§ 197. There have been endless discussions as to how far individual interests are reconcilable with social welfare. We cannot undertake to analyze in detail the relation of the individual to society. This much seems clear, however: if men were completely informed about all the elements of their own welfare, and if they made their plans accordingly, in seeking their own good they would necessarily consult the best interests of the society of which they are parts. On the other hand, the conditions of collective life impose upon the individual certain obligations which he cannot ignore. He must not only be a healthy and normal cell, but he must sustain proper structural and functional relations with other cells, not only for the sake of the whole, but to attain the very completeness at which he aims. Egoism describes the motive which primarily seeks self-completion ; altruism, that which aims at getting into appropriate relations with the

( 362) whole organism. But, as we have seen, self-completion and organic normality are so interdependent that, it is impossible to formulate principles of discrimination that will apply in all cases.

The man who maintains physical health is so much the better able to serve his fellows. He who by genuine social function seeks to acquire wealth is increasing social no less than personal efficiency. Gratification of the instinct for sociability may benefit not only the individual, but those with whom he associates. Personal acquisition of knowledge, other things being equal, increases the area of social intelligence. The effort to sustain appropriate relations with nature and mankind enriches individual life, as well as makes truly social existence possible. By a specious argument, one may show that selfishness, or enlightened self-interest, really should be the sole motive of human conduct ; for, it may be said, whatever tends to improve society as a whole, ought to offer enlarged opportunity for individual development ; and, on the other hand, in so far as the social unit seeks to attain complete self-realization, he is consulting the best interests of the whole society to which he belongs.

In practical discrimination of right conduct among social beings, it is impossible to make either the individual or the whole organism the sole standard. We are sometimes able to discover the best assurance of probable individual good from our perception of social utility; and, on the other hand, we sometimes learn principles of social righteousness by scrutiny of the known elements of individual well-being. Whether we can demonstrate the complementary relation or not, the already discovered economies and harmonies of society authorize the belief that rational egoism and rational altruism are not radically opposed, but essentially complementary.

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§ 198. The observations of the preceding section are based upon a rational conception which in the past, and even in the present, has attained only a slight influence in social knowledge, feeling, and volition. We have seen that social growth is chiefly unconscious; i.e. each individual goes about his peculiar tasks with little thought as to their relation to the total activity of society. There is no ordered plan of social development by which certain work is assigned to each person.

In the absence of such generally conscious coöperation, it is to be expected that many acts which may be rationally egoistic, will seen to individuals opposed to their own interests. In other words, men will naturally rebel against conduct which is really appropriate, because they cannot conceive of all the relations involved. Hence arises the conflict between so-called egoism and altruism. To the individual the antagonism is real, while in the philosophic conception it is only apparent.

Since altruism, or coöperation in its highest sense, is a condition of social progress, we may well inquire what motive has been effective, in the absence of intelligible rational sanction for social conduct.

Mr. Benjamin Kidd deserves credit for emphasizing the service of the religious motive, the function of idealism and supernatural sanction in social progress. While we are not prepared fully to accept his proposition that the antagonism between the interests of the individual and of the organism is real and inevitable, or his main contention that religion alone is so preeminently a factor in social evolution, we do recognize the value and importance of his work.

Many historians and social philosophers have undoubtedly slighted, and some have positively denied, the almost inestimable service of religion in determining individual wills to truly social conduct. We cannot here discuss this question

( 364) which is manifestly of too great importance, but may only thus suggest the relation of the religious motive to volition and conduct.

The following quotation from Kidd briefly summarizes his conception of the part which religious systems play in social development : — 

" It would appear that the teaching of evolutionary science as applied to society is that there is only one way in which the rationalistic factor in human evolution can be controlled ; namely, through the instrumentality of religious systems. These systems constitute the absolutely characteristic feature of our evolution, the necessary and inevitable complement of our reason. It is under the influence of these systems that the evolution of the race is proceeding: it is in connection with these systems that we must study the laws which regulate the character, growth, and decay of societies and civilizations. It is along the ever-advancing or retreating frontiers where they encounter each other that we have some of the most striking effects that natural selection is producing on the race. It is within their borders that we witness the process by which the external forces that are working out the destiny of the race are continually effecting the subordination of the interests of successive generations of men to those larger interests to which the individual is indifferent, and of which he has only very feeble power to realize either the nature or the magnitude."

Social feeling instantly transmutes itself into volition ; but while many different feelings and volitions may coexist in society, social action must be coordinated and unified. Political organization furnishes conspicuous illustrations of devices for reaching social determinations by means of election, which is defensible, not as a means of representing numerically the popular will, but as a method of selecting authorities, and preserving intimate relations between them and their publics. Differences in social volition give rise to phenomena of opposition, cooperation, and compromise. Social determinations result in manners, customs, and laws, the latter of which are rendered superfluous or are out-

( 365) -grown as society advances. Appropriate individual volition is determined by the complementary forces of law and morality. In the apparent conflict between self-interest and collective welfare, the religious motive exerts a most powerful influence in securing social or altruistic conduct.


1. An observed instance of the dissolution of a social group through inability to reach a collective determination.

2. What general feelings and volitions common to the whole society are discoverable in a given community ?

3. What feelings and volitions peculiar to separate groups are discoverable in the same community ?

4. An observed instance of compromise determination in the community where the writer lives.

5. An observed instance of volitional equilibrium in the same group.

6. A concrete illustration of the reaction of a constituency upon its legislative representative.

7. An examination of the local statute books in a given community, to discover how many laws are " dead letters."

8. Observed effect of attempting to enforce an obsolete law.

9. An account of the origin and development of any custom peculiar to a given group, in a community with which the writer is familiar.

10. A criticism of Kidd's Social Evolution.

11. An examination of Ward's "Theorems of Dynamic Sociology" (Dynamic Sociology, Vol. II., pp. 106 seq.).

12. An examination of Gumplowicz' "Social Hypothesis" (Sociology).

13. Observed instances of the socializing effect of religious influences.

14. Observed instances of the socializing effect of knowledge, and also of the failure of such effect, with inferences from the facts.


No notes

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