The Organic Fallacy
Once in a while I troll the Internet newsgroups in search of an argument. Although newsgroup discussions usually more closely resemble barroom brawls than civilized debates, they can relieve the boredom of a dreary winter day.
In one recent thread a rabid leftist who claims to be a former philosophy professor declared that the celebration of individualism is an Anglo-American philosophical anomaly, deriving mainly from Hobbes, Locke, and Adam Smith, while Continental thought, as exemplified by Rousseau, Hegel, and Marx, has tended to be more cognizant of the social dimensions of personhood.
The professor is right about the schism in Western philosophy. He could have mentioned that the “communitarian” approach traces all the way back to Plato.
A fundamental choice when constructing any social theory is that between two different sociological assumptions, which we can call atomism and organicism. It is an assumption concerning the nature of the relationship between the individual and the society of which he is a member. If you go wrong at this point, you end up with a theory that is irrelevant, that describes (or prescribes) a society that does not (and perhaps cannot) exist.
Fortunately, whether society is best described as an organism or as a collection of “atoms,” interacting but having no fixed connections among one another, is essentially an empirical question. It can only be answered by observing societies and the patterns of interaction among their members. And only a moment’s observations are needed to convince us that the atomistic model is much closer to the truth.
Let’s look at Plato’s formulation:
And is not that the best-ordered State in which the greatest number of persons apply the terms ‘mine’ and ‘not mine’ in the same way to the same things?
Or that again which most nearly approaches to the condition of the individual–as in the body, when but a finger of one of us is hurt, the whole frame, drawn towards the soul as a centre and forming one kingdom under the ruling power therein, feels the hurt and sympathizes all together with the part affected, and we say that the man has a pain in his finger; and the same expression is used about any other part of the body, which has a sensation of pain at suffering or of pleasure at the alleviation of suffering.
Very true, he replied; and I agree with you that in the best-ordered State there is the nearest approach to this common feeling which you describe.
But in what modern society do we find even an approximation of this “common feeling”? Nowhere do we find a global or “general” will or uniformity of purpose; in none do we find everyone, in Plato’s words, applying the terms “mine” and “not mine” in the same ways to the same things. Instead we find millions of individual wills enthusiastically pursuing millions of individual purposes; instead of commonality and coherence we find diversity and disorder. We find cooperation, but also competition and conflict. No matter how diligently we search for the collective consciousness, all we find are individual minds, each infused with its own uncertain conception of the good and beset by the dread of its eventual extinction.
Homo sapiens, if the anthropologists are right, has been on Earth for about 200,000 years. Until the last 10,000 or so of those years, he lived in small tribal villages, consisting of a few dozen to a few hundred members — small enough that all of its members knew all of the others; indeed, had known each other all of their lives. They midwifed one another’s births, tended one another’s illnesses, shared one another’s possessions, and married one another’s cousins. They knew and trusted one another, and had dense, intimate relationships among one another. They needed no formal ethics nor any political structure to govern their affairs, simply because each was and had always been a part of every other’s life.
The organic model is a good approximation of the structure of such societies. But with the rise of civilization — societies characterized by cities — that model began to break down. People found themselves living in communities in which most of the people around them were strangers, with whom they had no familial or other personal ties, and often very little in common. People began to take notice of the differences among them — differences in coloration and bone structure, in choices of dress, in temperament and mannerisms, in interests and tastes, in the habits and practices of daily life, and eventually even in religion and language. They acquired individuality.
In tribal societies there is no free will, and no individuality. All the myriad choices we today are constantly obliged to make are prescribed by the tribe; they’re part of the tribal consciousness, codified in tribal tradition, the “folkways” of the tribe. How one dresses, what one eats, where one lives, how one earns a living, the choosing of mates, the Gods to be worshipped and the rituals for worshipping them, all the petty rules governing the tasks of daily life and the “standard methods” for performing them, are absorbed from the tribe, without question and without the need for thought.
There is no individuality to speak of in these groups because all members have known and interacted only with each other since birth, and they are locked into a resonance. There is no politics, no debate, no alternate point of view on any matter — and as a result, almost no innovation. Tribal cultures can remain all but static for thousands of years, with only a slight refinement in spear points to indicate any time has passed at all. Australian Aborigines, for example, when encountered by Europeans in the 18th century, were making didgeridoos indistinguishable from those made 2000 years earlier. In 40,000 years they never added another instrument to their musical technology.
That resonance, however, cannot be maintained in larger groups, because the required intimacy is impossible. The group becomes too large for everyone to know and interact constantly with everyone else; hence one soon finds oneself in the company of strangers — individuals with whom they’ve had no prior contact and whose habits, preferences, and beliefs cannot be predicted in advance. And because they’ve all been subject to different combinations of influences, they begin to differ in all the ways indicated above.
The breakdown of that resonance represented a huge transformation, not merely of the social structure, but of the human psyche. The traditional tribal control mechanisms, based on age and personal stature, gave way to formal systems of governance — politics. The tribesman’s intuitive sense of right and wrong, which derived primarily from his personal ties to and commonality with his fellows, gave way to formal systems of ethics. Indeed, ethics, like law, is a code for regulating behavior among strangers — among people who have no personal interest in one another’s welfare. As Jared Diamond pointed out in Guns, Germs, and Steel, “With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them.”
Every utopia conceived in the last 5000 years has been an attempt to recapture the tribal consciousness. The Garden of Eden story embodies this “fall from Grace” — the loss of mankind’s oneness with God and Nature, his “alienation,” his exile into a world of strife and temptation, where he seems to have free will and must constantly choose between good and evil, between this course of action or that, relying only on his own judgement, and must suffer the consequences when his judgments go awry.
All these laments of lost innocence and alienation are atavisms, psychic echoes of our tribal heritage, the social form honed over the course of our 3 million year primate history. All of our fellow primates still practice that form, and until the rise of civilization, so did all humans. It would be surprising were our brains not adapted to that social form. They have evolved syncronously with that form, and thus may be expected to function optimally in that environment, in many ways. So it is not surprising that we miss that form, or that we long to regain it. We are ducks out of water, trying to find our way back to the pond.
We remain “wired” for tribal life. We long for it, unattainable though it may be. And often we try to recreate or or substitute for it, by immersing ourselves in cults or joining in totalitarian movements. The cult seeks to insulate itself from the “society of strangers;” the totalitarian movement seeks to subdue it and impose a tribal-like conformity, a synthetic common identity and purpose — usually resulting in much bloodshed.
But civilized humans are individuated; they are no longer interchangeable instances or exemplars of a tribal identity, and cannot be forced into that mold. That individuality is what drives the dynamism of civilized societies; what enables it to change more in 100 years than tribal societies might in 10,000. It is what has permitted humans to overcome the famines, diseases, disasters, and other idiosyncrasies of Nature which beset them and all their primate cousins for millions of years, and to transform the natural world to better meet their needs and better satisfy their ever-evolving and proliferating desires.
What worked for pre-civilized societies never worked very well, and cannot work at all for the unrelated, individuated members of civilized societies. There is no longer a collective consciousness, and in communities of more than a few hundred members, not even any common goals. Modern societies are meta-communities — public venues for personal interactions. They provide opportunities for individuals to forge relationships with others, but supply no content for those relationships. They are like public playing fields; they offer space and seating, but each team brings its own gear, its own personnel, and its own game with its own rules. The house rules are few and general: “No reservations accepted: first-come, first served,” “Do not intrude on others’ games,” and “Pick up your litter.”
The organic society that continues to beckon to the professor from our long primate ancestry is lost to history. It is irrecoverable. Contemporary social theorists need to let it go, and craft theories applicable to societies and to persons as we find them today.
Every totalitarian movement that emerged in the bloody 20th century began with some version of the organic sociolological assumption. But that premise is false, destructive, and obsolete.