The Personhood Of Society, Part 2

A few days ago a posted a brief item about the idea of “society” as something more than an aggregate of individuals. It began:

How can anything benefit “society”? There is nothing we can call “society” that actually experiences anything at all — and what (and to whom) is the value of a benefit unexperienced? If “society” benefits, it is only experienced by individual persons, each of whom experiences any social benefit or blessing as an individual. There is not, nor can there be in humanity as presently constituted, any “mass man”.

I described this as a “hard-nominalist” view. It is so in the sense that it argues that the only actually existing entities that can experience the harms or blessings of social and political policies and circumstances, or that can express a creative will, are individual human beings. Presumably the purpose of good government, and the advantage of healthy culture, is that they foster happiness, and decrease suffering. But the very idea of “suffering” or “happiness” requires the existence of something that is capable of conscious experience, and it is impossible to see how “society” or “culture” are such things. Only human beings, then, can suffer or be happy, and so it is only at the level of individual human lives that any benefit to “society” can manifest itself in any real sense.

This view, however, seems at first glance to be incompatible with how we are accustomed to thinking and talking about these things. We speak often of society being harmed by, or having an interest in, some or other arrangement or outcome. We also speak often about society as a living organism; the metaphor is rich and deep. I’ve relied on it often myself.

How is a healthy society like a living organism? The similarities are many, and persuasive:

1) A society, like a living thing, is made of countless smaller, living parts, which must interact harmoniously and productively for the organism to survive. In an animal or plant, these are individual cells; in a society they are individual people.

2) The “cells” of a living organism are differentiated, and perform different roles.

3) These differentiated cells are arranged to form essential organs and subsystems. These subsystems must perform various necessary tasks, such as taking in energy sources, distributing energy throughout the system, eliminating waste products, sensation of both the internal and external environment, defense against threats, synthesis of necessary things from raw materials, communication between its own parts and with other organisms, repairing damage, anticipating and preparing for what the future may bring, and much more.

4) An organism, in order to survive, must make essential discriminations — between “self” and “other”, food and poison, friend and enemy, predator and prey, etc.

The close parallels between societies and living things means that it is a useful and simplifying assumption to take what Daniel Dennett has called the “intentional stance” in trying to understand complex societies. To explain what the term means, Dennett has used the example of a chess-playing machine. Clearly there is no conscious agent, no purposeful homunculus, inside the machine; there is nobody there that “wants” to win the game. If we want to predict its behavior, we might examine it at the lowest and most deterministic level, namely its hardware and the code it’s running. But this is a needlessly difficult and time-consuming task; if we know the game of chess, the simplest approach to predicting its behavior is simply to look at the machine as if there is an intentional agent inside that knows the rules and wants to win.

Likewise, if we adopt the “intentional stance” toward a society, we can ascribe to it various interests: that, like a living thing, it wishes to survive, that it wishes to minimize pain and maximize pleasure, that it has long-term interests it ought to look after, that it should recognize and respond to threats, and so on. In this way we can identify various measures of its success and well-being — and when we have done that, we can begin to assess how well it is doing in maximizing these values. We can, if we like, even begin to speak in a meaningful sense of its “health”, and of its prospects for survival.

At this point we should pause to consider, with some respect, another aspect of the living things we see all around us: that they are complex in countless ways that are far beyond our understanding. The origin of this complexity is yet unknown, except as either a vague and general idea of natural selection, or as direct creation by God. In the former case, we must accept a “bottom-up” account of self-organizing complexity and emergent hierarchy, in a gradual process spanning an ungraspable immensity of time; the details of which, to the small extent that we can see them at all, are visible only in retrospect, and explicable only in the most general ways. In the latter case, we are simply confronted with the infinite creative genius of God, and there the story ends.

In either of these cases — the origin of the stupefying complexity of living systems as either a self-organizing process across “deep time”, or as an act of God — if we turn and apply the metaphor to the obvious complexity of human societies, we should be humbled. We can no more create such a thing from scratch than we can build a fly. Just as the bodies we inhabit are “given”, so are our societies and our cultures. We should appreciate them as precious and mysterious gifts, not as disposable artifacts.

We must, however, keep this in mind: no metaphor is perfect, and neither is this one.

To be continued…

One Comment

  1. Anonymous says

    Democracy is predicated on the possibility of a communal consciousness, in which a people have the ability to collectively consent to a form of government, but democracy is still fundamentally individualistic in that it sees a communal organism as a way to achieve individual freedom. For example the rousseuvian idea of a “general will” doesn’t recognise the existence of a prior organic community in which the constituent members inherit a set of preceding historical obligations, but instead seeks to establish a form of popular will which will eliminate all corporative elements and interdependencies which are independent of the republican state. A democratic communalism, along with other collectivist conceptions of the state still rest on the idea that the atomized individual is the foundation of society; collective forms of government are only ways by which “individual freedom” can be guaranteed and reinforced. I suppose an organic conservatism is anti-individualistic and anti-collectivist. The conservative society rather than resting on an aggregation of individuals who have certain pre-existing rights which the state exists only to guarantee, instead is rooted in the cumulative build up of traditions and institutions which enable social existence which the individual lives within. An interventionist state has a duty to preserve and uphold the traditions and moral foundations of the community, but does not seek to collectively organise the citizenry for societally transformative purposes.

    Posted December 20, 2017 at 11:20 am | Permalink

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