Will and Purpose in Society

Updated: Sep 19, 2020

“Pp. 82-90.” Social Purpose: a Contribution to a Philosophy of Civic Society, by H. J. W. Hetherington and John H. Muirhead, Allen & Unwin, 1922.

It is here we approach the centre of our subject. It is not too much to say that all differences in social theory have their ultimate source in differences as to the sense in which will and purpose may be attributed to society. We may begin by freely admitting the paradox which the phrase “social will ” seems to involve. So long as we are considering mind from the side of instinct and habit, there seems no inherent difficulty in recognizing a species of common mind. Sociologists have familiarized us with the psychology of crowds. “Epidemics of action and belief ” have been made comprehensible by the action of the same motives and the same external influences on aU the individuals of a group and producing, as it has been expressed by Dr. Mercier, "consentaneous emotions and modes of action passing like a wave over communities of men, engulfing them in a common feeling, impelling them all to similar action.” It is only going a step farther to recognize that this similarity may become fixed as a tradition, the same modes of action, feeling, and belief reproducing themselves in individuals and giving at least the appearance of a common mind. But when we come to intelligent will and purpose, implying, as we have seen it does, not only the presence of the idea of an end or object in the mind, but a reference to the self as finding fulfilment in the object, the question is forced upon us. In what sense can there be a common will and a common self which is more than a mere collection of individual wills ? An end which is common in the sense of being “in the group" over and above the separate ends of the individuals which compose it is apt to present the appearance of paradox.

In spite of the paradox, the idea of a real community of will is deeply rooted in ordinary thought and language which confidently appeals to the mind of a nation, of a whole group of nations, or of a period against the limited minds of individuals, and seems to be supported in the appeal by familiar facts. To take a single and recent example; individuals and nations who threw themselves into the great war at the beginning did so from various motives, to find later that they had been caught up into a larger purpose than they were aware of, pointing to issues unconnected and even inconsistent with their original aims.

It is facts like these that have led to the realistic hypothesis (reminding us of the mediaeval theory of “ universals before the thing," traceable to Plato) that over and above the wills of individuals there is in society an active principle possessing all the essential attributes of will and permeating and overruling for purposes of its own the particular short-sighted ends which individuals set consciously before themselves. Just, too, as there were others who rejected these universals as mere " breath of the voice," so there are those who, resenting the mysticism of such a conception as inconsistent with modem methods of interpretation, have preferred to explain the achievement of societies as due to the survival of an irrational instinct acting in the herd before its atomization into the individual minds and wills which composed it. As a way of escape from the dilemma of realism and nominalism is through a truer psychology of the concept, so the way of escape from the dilemma of a mystical supra-social person and the denial of a corporate consciousness is through a truer psychology of the will. We have tried in the last lecture to give a sketch of the line such a psychology must follow : it remains to apply it to the problem of the reality of the general will.

For this application the ground has been prepared by what has been already said in the present chapter of instinct and custom. Just as the true theory of the concept is anticipated in the modem analysis of sense-perception into apperception founded on dispositions or habits of organized interpretation, so the true view of the meaning of the general will is anticipated in the recognition that the organic forms of society are a precipitate of instincts, habits, and dispositions which, from the first, are not merely individual, but point beyond individual and exclusive interests to an interest in the whole. Sex and family affection is an individual impulse, but it acts in a social medium, and may be said to hold in solution the affection for the organized whole which at once makes its exercise possible and endows it with a meaning To form habits and submit to custom is a natural and, if you like, a blind tendency of animate nature. But customs, as we have seen, are formed in the parts under the moulding influence of the whole, which has to adapt itself to its environment. While, therefore, they arc particular modes of conduct, they contain from the first a universal clement which acts as a unifying and controlling influence and constitutes them the habits, not of an isolated individual, whatever this might mean, but of a social being. This being so, the emergence into consciousness of corporate ends is only an instance of the same continuity in the case of society as we have already traced in the case of individual volition. We have seen that the essence of volition consists in the reference of a particular object to a whole of interest which in turn is overshadowed and penetrated in normal cases by the sense of the individual’s interest as a whole. It is not otherwise with society. The birth of social self-consciousness consists in the elevation into the centre of attention, however momentary and confused, of the universal element—the common purpose which the ways of acting called customs embody. It is not the birth of an entirely new attitude to the social environment any more than the birth of will and intelligence in the individual is an entirely new attitude to objects. The only difference is that the reference is now an explicit element in at least some of the members whose actions are determined by an apprehension of the ends that are served by customs and institutions. It is the same logic working in a different medium.

We may take as an illustration what we know of the emergence of law out of custom. The detailed steps by which a society passes from the one stage to the other are wrapt, of course, in obscurity. But it is possible in some instances to go a good way back upon it, and in such brilliant reconstructions as Mr. A. E. Zimmern’s account of the establishment in Athenian society ' of settled law-courts and political government we have a picture of the emergence of the general will out of the confused amalgam of instinct and local custom, that formed the matrix of political consciousness. The essence of such accounts is that law and settled government appear, not as something new super imposed from without, but rather as a declaration," as Rousseau would have called it, of the meaning of what was already there. By the time the great legislators appeared, the Lycurguses, the Solons, the Serviuses, the consciousness of this meaning in individual minds has been met by some general demand for the declaration, and that demand is born of a sense of the inadequacy of existing forms to give room for interests which, if not consciously recognized as the interests of the whole, are felt to be necessary to the continued existence of any whole at all. To this it may perhaps be replied that these are specially selected cases of legislation by agreement. The more common case is conquest and imposition of new conditions from without, as in the case of the Eastern Empires. And even in such selected cases what is forced into recognition is not any universal condition of social well-being, but, as just admitted, some sectional will asserting itself against others equally sectional and maintained in unstable equilibrium by a balance of force rather than a real unity of will. But the answer seems clear. Where the lawgiver appears merely in the form of a conqueror, as in the Eastern Empires, we have to look for the social will, not in the amalgam of tribes and nations, but in the separate groups themselves. As has been pointed out by Sir Henry Maine, these empires were merely taxing agencies. They left the life of the nations under them very much as they found them. So far is the conquest from being the birth of political consciousness, by itself it forms an obstruction to its development. The case of reform in political societies is, of course, different. But here too it may safely be said that the results, so far as permanent, are never merely the entrenchment of a new interest side by side with an old. The new interest, e.g. that of the plebs in Rome, is asserted, as Menenius said, within a whole which underneath its sectional differences was held together by an interest which was common in as profound a sense as the interest of the organs in the life of the organism, and revealed its true universality by the fact that it assigned to each of the interests its place in a system. In such tentative and contentious expressions of a common will, we are still far from the experiments of legislators who work out from clearly realized conceptions of social well-being, farther in the citizens themselves from the idea of loyalty to the State, and farther still from the love of it as the trustee of all they most value in themselves. Yet the instinctive reverence for its symbols and administrators, in the mind of even the least intelligent, witnesses to the hold which already, in rudimentary and even violently distorted forms, the idea of the whole has upon the roots of the mind, and constitutes the hidden source of its power.

The conclusion to which these considerations point seems to be that in order to assert the reality of a general or social will it is not necessary to assume the action of a will distinct from that of the individuals who compose society. All that it is necessary to assume is that the will of the individual is a more complex thing than the older psychology was prepared to admit ; that, underlying the ends which the individual sets before himself in a social world, there is a reference to a wider end than they commonly represent, and that this is none other than the maintenance of the social structure itself. But while this conclusion may be admitted to be valid against the mystical answer to our main problem, it raises a difficulty which seems to give colour to the rival naturalistic solution of it.

We have assumed, it may be said, a social world within which will acts. Once committed to this it may be true enough that we are entangled in its logic and in willing the prosperity of the part we must will the whole. But this does not meet the point obvious in the case of the individual's own material interests, which he seems to be able to will, not only for himself apart from society, but as in the case of the egoist and the criminal, in opposition to the interests of society. Having admitted this, it is only going a step farther to admit that in identifying itself with one of the narrower forms of society, family, trade, or whatnot, the will may entrench itself against the wider, and forms of egoism develop which are the more dangerous to the solidarity of the whole because they share its ground and fight it with its own weapons. On the theory of the organic connection of ends which our doctrine involves we are committed to the paradox that these are cases of the abnormal submergence of a prior and more potent, because more logical, will. In reality they are the natural and normal condition of human life, only transcended (if transcended is the word) in moments of crisis and moral panic by the rebellion of instinctive and irrational elements, which merely serve the purpose of rehabilitating the compromise on which the whole fabric of society rests and giving it a new lease of life.

Although we believe that the answer to this is contained in what it has already been said, it may be well to repeat it here. The essence of the will, we have maintained, consists in having an idea. This means the power of selection and attention to some aspect, or "universe," of the interests of the self. It is an abstraction of thought and feeling from a whole which in a quite definite sense is a part of the mind, in the enlarged view of mind that modem psychology, with its distinction between focal and marginal or subconscious elements, has rendered familiar, Underlying and merging with the idea of individual genius is an attitude to social good. Kept in the background by the vividness of the present interest, it yet extends its influence over it, not only as a feeling, but as an element in its content. Ordinary cases of selfishness there is no paradox in explaining as the result of momentary or habitual neglect of the wider interest. This may be neglected at one point, yet, in virtue of the constitution of human nature, it is bound to assert itself at another, where, just because of the previous denial of it, it is incapable of satisfaction, with the result that life is a state of continual unrest comparable in the intellectual world to that of the man who seeks to maintain agreeable delusions in the face of the logic of fact. In regard to crime which is not the result of disease or the pressure of circumstances, it is surely no paradox, but a commonplace, to note that end is contradictory to means. In seeking wealth, power, position, the criminal seeks an object which has value only because of the recognition of the society of which the very existence is endangered by the crime. In all these cases the instability of the self-seeking life has its source, not merely in the constitution of the external world, but in the inner constitution of the will itself, which in its essence is in secret league with it. What is true of individual selfishness is true of social selfishness — egoisme de deux or a plusieurs. What gives the particular form of union its value in the eyes of its devotees is the place it occupies in the social whole. So long as it fills this place and is charged with the social ideal, there is no contradiction between family pride any more than there is between individual self-assertion and the civic spirit. On the other hand, when the spirit of family shows itself in a form no longer in touch with the conditions of social life in general, we have merely the restless ghost of its former self. The "inheritor of the stuff of the family," to use Meredith’s phrase, is also the inheritor of the stuff of society of which it is a part. To insist on the perpetuation of it in a form already outworn is to reverse the parable and sew old cloth into new—a process necessarily suicidal.

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