A group of perennial problems in social philosophy arises from the concept “society” itself and from its relation to the “individual.”What is the ontological status of a society? When one speaks of it as having members, is that to recognize it as a whole with parts, or is the relation of some different kind? Or is this a case of what Alfred North Whitehead called the fallacy of misplaced concreteness?

Social Action and Social Relations

“Society” is used both abstractly and to refer to entities that can be particularized, identified, and distinguished from each other as social systems or organizations. The phrase “man in society” is an instance of the more abstract use, for it refers neither to some particular form of association nor to a particular collectivity in which individuals find themselves.

It refers, rather, to the social dimension of human action—to a certain generalized type of human relationship. Purely spatial or physical relations between human beings, like contiguity, are not social; for social relations give to human actions a dimension possessed neither by the mere behavior of things nor, indeed, of animals.

Social Action and Social Relations
Social Action and Social Relations

Max Weber defined a social action as one which, “by virtue of the subjective meaning attached to it by the acting individual (or individuals), ... takes account of the behavior of others and is thereby oriented in its course”.

That is to say, the agent understands his own action as having a particular point, which in turn depends on an understanding of what another individual or other individuals have done in the past (as, for instance, in an act of vengeance), are doing now, or are expected to do in the future (as, for instance, in a proposal of marriage). So, said Weber, the efforts of two cyclists to avoid hitting one another would have a social character, whereas the collision between them would not.

An action would not be social merely because it was the effect on an individual of the existence of a crowd as such. For instance, laughing less inhibitedly in a crowd than one would when alone would not be an action oriented to the fact of the existence of the crowd “on the level of meaning”; while the crowd may be one of the causes of the action, the point or meaning of the action does not presuppose some conception of, say, the crowd’s purposes or the reasons for its presence.

Max Weber
Max Weber

Nor would merely imitative behavior be social; one could learn to whistle by imitating a man, a bird, or a whistling kettle. Learning and performance need neither an understanding of what is imitated as an action nor an orientation toward expected future action of the model.

Nevertheless, says Weber, if the action is imitated because it is “fashionable, or traditional, or exemplary, or lends social distinction ... it is meaningfully oriented either to the behavior of the source of imitation or of third persons or of both”. Weber then goes on to define “social relationship.” This would exist wherever, among a number of actors, there existed a probability that their actions would be social actions.

Weber’s concept of the “meaning” of an action is rather obscure. It may be a meaning “imputed to the parties in a given concrete case,” or it may be what the action means “on the average, or in a theoretically formulated pure type—it is never a normatively ‘correct’ or metaphysically ‘true’ meaning”. This concept is connected with Weber’s much criticized conception of empathic understanding (Verstehen).

social actions
social actions

But this connection is not strictly necessary, for the meaning we give to the actions of others depends not so much on an attempted reconstruction of what is in their minds as on a knowledge of the norms and standards regulating their behavior in a given context.

Thus I know what a man is about when he presents a bank teller with a signed paper of a certain size, shape, and color, not because I can reconstruct his state of mind in imagination but because I can recognize the procedures for cashing checks.

Weber insists that it is the probability itself of a course of social action that constitutes the social relation, not any particular basis for the probability.Yet we can rely on situational responses (like the bank teller’s, for instance) very largely because we expect them to conform to norms and procedures, by which such responses are deemed appropriate or otherwise.

Heddal stave church in Telemark, Norway
situational responses

Assuming, as many sociologists would, that even war is a social relation, the acts of opposing commanders are mutually oriented by an understanding of the aims and practices of warfare and by the supposition that the other’s actions will be appropriate, not only in terms of means and ends but also in consideration of whatever rules of war may be current. Thus we can move from the concept of social relations as frameworks for interaction to Talcott Parsons’s conception of a social system constituted by differentiated statuses and roles.

Societies as Organizations

The concept of “a society” implies a system of more or less settled statuses, to each of which correspond particular patterns of actions appropriate to a range of situations. By virtue of qualifying conditions a man enjoys a status; in virtue of that status he has a role to play.

These concepts, however, are meaningful only in the context of rules or norms of conduct—a man’s role is not simply what he habitually does (for this may be no more socially significant than a tic), nor even what he is expected to do, if an expectation is only what one might predict about his future conduct from a knowledge of his past.

Beautiful flower
Societies as Organizations

His role is what is expected of him, in the sense of what is required of him by some standard. The role of secretary to an association, for instance, requires that he read the minutes of the last meeting, because the rules of procedure assign this action to whosoever enjoys this status.

Less formally, a father’s role may be to provide the family with an income, and failure to do so will be regarded not merely as falsifying predictions but also as disappointing reasonable or legitimate expectations—reasonable, because grounded on an understanding of the norms constituting the structure of the family. Indeed, though what we knew of some particular father might give us good grounds for predicting that he would neglect his role, that would not mean that its requirements did not apply to him.

Of course, when we speak of “the family” or “the modern state,” we commonly have in mind ideal types or paradigms. There may be significant deviations from these in practice. Any particular family may have its own standards, deviant from the social norm, according to which the role of father does not include providing the family income.

John Smith
John Smith

Looked at in these terms, a society is an aggregate of interacting individuals whose relations are governed by role-conferring rules and practices which give their actions their characteristic significance. Thus, to demand money with menaces is one thing if done by a common blackmailer or footpad, another if done by a tax collector.

Nevertheless, the act of John Smith, tax collector, is still the act of John Smith, who acts also in different roles in other situations—as father, member of Rotary, and so forth. So one may take two views of a society.

On the one hand, one may see it, as a biographer might, as an aggregate of life histories of its individual members, each, in the course of his life, acting in a variety of roles that explain (but only partially) what he does. Or one may adopt the sociological standpoint. A society is then a pattern of roles, and what President Brown does is less important than that it instantiates the role of president.

Individualist and Holistic Accounts

Individualist and Holistic Accounts
Individualist and Holistic Accounts

Are there any statements about societies, or what Émile Durkheim termed “social facts,” that are not ultimately reducible to statements about individuals? According to an extreme individualist or nominalist, such as Thomas Hobbes, social wholes have no substantial reality; propositions attributing properties or actions to a collectivity can be reduced, without residue, to a series of propositions about the relations and actions of individuals: “A multitude of men are made one person, when they are by one man, or one person, represented.... and unity, can not otherwise be understood in multitude”.

Karl Popper’s methodological individualism is as uncompromising. So-called social wholes, he declares, are theoretical constructs; “social phenomena, including collectives, should be analysed in terms of individuals and their actions and relations”.

There is no agreement, however, on whether such analysis is possible. Some philosophers, while admitting that every action is the action of an individual, nevertheless deny that “statements which contain societal terms” can be reduced “to a conjunction of statements which only include terms referring to the thoughts and actions of specific individuals”.

Émile Durkheim
Émile Durkheim

While the “societal fact” of cashing a check can be expressed in terms of what individuals do, nevertheless the description will always contain such societal terms as bank and money, which cannot themselves be translated without remainder into wholly individual terms. Furthermore, such societal facts, it is said, interact with individual behavior; a banking system can have an effect on a concrete individual.

For it is clearly true that for every individual, the institutions and mores of his society present themselves as independent and external facts, just as much as his physical environment does. And if that is true for every individual, it is true for the totality of individuals composing the society.

That is not to say that a totality is a thing independent of individuals or that it has a group mind; it is only to say that for any participant or for any observer of an individual’s actions, it makes sense to talk of him confronting and confronted by independent social facts (Ernest Gellner elaborates this point).

Rainbow lollipops ~ Ʀεƥɪאאεð вƴ ╭•⊰✿ © Ʀσxʌאʌ Ƭʌאʌ ✿⊱•╮
Thomas Hobbes

Moreover, the principle that social action can ultimately be explained by referring to the dispositions of individuals to behave in certain ways in given circumstances overlooks the possibility that these dispositions may themselves depend on social facts.

The view that social facts are not reducible to individual facts is commonly called holism. In its more extreme forms it relies heavily on biological organic analogies. An organism, it is said, is prior to its constituent parts in the sense that any understanding of their nature and function presupposes an understanding of the whole organism.

The whole organism is more than the mere sum of its parts, since no account in terms of the parts considered separately could add up to some of the things that could be said about the whole. (The same might be said, however, of some of the properties of a triangle that arise from the three sides considered in relation to one another.)

Ernest Gellner
Ernest Gellner

Just as the liver is a more significant object considered as an organ of a working body than as a detached piece of tissue, so the acts of individuals are significant or intelligible only when considered as the acts of role-bearers or as manifesting characteristics of their social or cultural environment. So drinking wine has a different range of social meaning in England from the one it has in France.

The thought-experiment of the social contract theorists, who put man into an asocial state of nature the better to understand his real purposes in society, was radically misconceived, precisely because it abstracted man from the very context in which alone he would be a man but still attributed human properties to him.

According to the Hegelians (Bernard Bosanquet, for example), so far are we from being able to reduce social facts to individual facts that it is the individual himself who must be explained as an expression of the concrete social universal—an idea manifesting itself organically in its differentiated parts, as the idea of an oak tree is differentially but organically manifest in its leaves, bark, trunk, and so forth, all in a sense different from one another yet all linked by the idea of the oak and collectively differentiated thereby from the corresponding parts of an elm. “Man” is an abstraction—we are men as we are Germans, Englishmen, Frenchmen; that is, we instantiate the spirit of our own society.

blue poison dart frog (Dendrobates azureus) is listed as Vulnerable, but if rainforest deforestation continues, its status will become more critical.
Bernard Bosanquet

Holistic organicism of this kind has laid great stress on history. Social wholes, it is said (by Friedrich Karl von Savigny, for instance), are not like mechanical wholes. Mechanical wholes can be understood by reducing them to their smallest constituent parts that conform in their behavior to general laws from which the varying behavior of the aggregates can be deduced.

A social whole, on the contrary, is sui generis, to be understood not by analysis but by studying it as a developing whole. Consequently, there can be no general theory of social action, and history is the only legitimate mode of sociological inquiry.

According to Popper, these arguments are totally misconceived. There is simply no way of studying wholes as wholes; any attempt at understanding implies abstracting from a particular configuration of properties and circumstances those that seem significant for the particular study and relating them to general laws and hypotheses that are valid for all cases, irrespective of time, in which the stated initial conditions are satisfied.

Lindsay Perry
Friedrich Karl von Savigny

A law of development could be a statement about the general tendencies of certain types of society, given certain initial conditions; but it is a misunderstanding of the nature of both scientific and historical inquiry to propose a study of a society as a whole, partly because a social whole is a theoretical construct and partly because to attribute to it its own peculiar law of growth, in some sense true regardless of, or despite, any initial conditions whatsoever, is to make any explanatory statement about its behavior impossible.

Community and Association

The individualist account of social action is most persuasive when the form of social organization under consideration is a joint-stock corporation or a trade association. There is little temptation to attribute group personalities to such bodies, except in a strictly legal sense, and therefore little resistance to treating them as nothing but procedural forms.

Their members and officials are clearly identified individuals with limited common interests. These interests explain their interaction, without suggesting that the association is anything more than a means for promoting them.Moreover, such interests remain intelligible even abstracted from the context of the society.

Community and Association
Community and Association

Ferdinand Tönnies distinguished this type of organization, which he called a Gesellschaft (association), from its polar opposite, the Gemeinschaft (community). Paradigms of the latter type are the family, the village, the tribe, and the nation. These are much less formally organized than a joint-stock company.

They have no clearly defined, limited aim; qualifications for membership may be poorly defined, depending very largely on subjective criteria. Yet individuals do not deliberately join such bodies—more usually they are born into them or acquire membership by residence.

At the same time,membership in such a community may mean much more to the individual. So far from his using the organization as a means for the pursuit of personal interest, privately conceived, what he conceives to be his interest may depend very much on the influence of the collectivity upon him.

Ferdinand Tönnies
Ferdinand Tönnies
He may feel bound to it by ties and responsibilities not of his own choosing which nevertheless demand his respect. Moreover, such communities appear to have a lifespan greater than that of any generation of individual members, which cannot be explained, as might that of a corporation, by the continuities of constitutional procedures.

It is, rather, that from generation to generation there passes an attachment to a common set of symbols and a common history, a participation in what Durkheim termed “collective representations” in a collective consciousness—a common culture, in short—which enables members to identify one another where other criteria are uncertain, which gives the society its cohesion, and which provides the standards by which its members’ actions are regulated and assessed.

A Functionally Inclusive Collectivity

“Boundary maintenance,” to use Talcott Parsons’s term, is a necessity for every society. To possess an identity, a society must furnish criteria whereby its members can identify one another, since their actions and attitudes toward one another will be different from those toward outsiders.

Dragon trainer
A Functionally Inclusive Collectivity

But Parsons also conceives of boundary maintenance by social subsystems within a broader system. Thus he defines “a society” as a collectivity “which is the primary bearer of a distinctive institutionalized culture and which cannot be said to be a differentiated subsystem of a higher-order collectivity oriented to most of the functional exigencies of a social system”.

Such a collectivity is organized by political, economic, familial, and similar subsystems. Parsons distinguishes polity and society, but he asserts that “the boundaries of a society tend to coincide with the territorial jurisdiction of the highest-order units of political organization”.

organized by political - Mixed Toad Lillies Plant
organized by political

For, in Parsons’s view, a society’s existence depends so crucially on commitment to common values and on the maintenance of order between its individual and collective components that the political boundary tends to settle automatically the limits of the society.

The relation between state and society presented no problems for the Greeks. Political, religious, cultural, and athletic activities were largely undifferentiated and occurred within the single organizational structure of the polis.

political boundary - Yamamoto Sayaka (山本彩) member of NMB48 (Team N)/ AKB48 (Team K)
political boundary

The first serious problems in this respect emerged with the Christian dichotomies between God and Caesar, church and state, the Civitas Dei and the Civitas Terrena. The medieval view was that, ideally, there was one universal community of humankind with two modes of organization, or “subsystems,” church and empire. Reality never corresponded very closely to this ideal.

It became irretrievably divorced from it with the rise of the nation state and the Reformation. Since then, when people have talked of the society to which they belong, they have thought primarily (like Parsons) of the social order contained within the boundaries of a state and sustained by its organized power.

Civitas Terrena
Civitas Terrena

Nevertheless, liberal thinkers have striven hard to maintain the conceptual distinction between state, or polity, and society.One reason has been to resist the claim that the state could be the only focus of loyalty, competent by virtue of an overriding authority to lay down the terms on which other associations might function.

On the other hand, there has emerged a new totalitarianism which identifies state and society. Every form of economic, religious, artistic, or scientific activity thereby acquires a political dimension, promoting or impeding the public good as embodied in state policy.

Political dimension - Lee Yeonyun 이연윤
Political dimension

G. W. F. Hegel provided a metaphysical justification for this kind of doctrine when he distinguished between, on one hand, civil society—a level of social organization including the market economy and the forces of civil order—and, on the other, the transcendent state—“the realized ethical idea or ethical spirit,” “the true meaning and ground” of lower forms of social organization like the family and civil society.

By contrast, not only do liberals insist on the subordination of the state to society; they have also tended, according to Sheldon S.Wolin, to depreciate the political and to attach increasingly to other social subsystems, like the business corporation or the voluntary association, concepts like statesmanship, authority, and legitimacy, which have been considered hitherto characteristic of the state.

Sheldon S.Wolin - Citra Kirana
Sheldon S.Wolin

Meanwhile, Wolin argues, the concept of an organization directed to the most general interests of the community tends to get lost, to be replaced by a model of conflicting pressure groups operating within a very nebulously defined arena.

If Parsons is right, our notion of a society as the most inclusive framework of social interaction depends on the political not only for its boundary maintenance but also for its very identity. There may be a danger that in pressing the antitotalitarian, pluralistic account so far that it dissolves the state, it will lose thereby its capacity to define the society.

G. W. F. Hegel - Japanese Model - Hinako Sano
G. W. F. Hegel
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