Individualism Versus Organicism



Spencer had to find away of reconciling his thoroughgoing individualism with his organicistapproach. In this he differed sharply from Comte, who, it will beremembered, was basically anti-individualistic in his general philosophyand developed an organicist theory in which the individual was conceivedas firmly subordinated to society. Spencer, in contrast, not onlyconceived of the origins of society in individualistic and utilitarianterms, but saw society as a vehicle for the enhancement of the purposesof individuals.

According to Spencer, men had originally bandedtogether because it was advantageous for them to do so. "Livingtogether arose because, on the average, it proved more advantageous toeach than living apart." And once society had come into being, it wasperpetuated because, "maintenance of combination [of individuals] ismaintenance of conditions . . . more satisfactory [to] living than thecombined persons would otherwise have." In line with hisindividualistic perspective, he saw the quality of a society asdepending to a large extent on the quality of the individuals who formedit. "There is no way of coming at a true theory of society, but byinquiry into the nature of its component individuals. . . . Everyphenomenon exhibited by an aggregation of men originates in some qualityof man himself." Spencer held as a general principle that "theproperties of the units determine the properties of the aggregate."

In spite of these individualistic underpinnings of his philosophy,Spencer developed an overall system in which the organicist analogy ispursued with even more rigor than in Comte's work. The ingenious waySpencer attempted to overcome the basic incompatibility betweenindividualism and organicism is best described in his own words. Afterhaving shown the similarity between social and biological organisms, heturned to show how they were unlike each other. A biological organismis encased in a skin, but a society is bound together by the medium oflanguage.

The parts of an animal form a concrete whole,but the parts of society form a whole which is discrete. While theliving units composing the one are bound together in close contact, theliving unit composing the other are free, are not in contact, and aremore or less widely dispersed. . . . Though coherence among its parts isa prerequisite to that cooperation by which the life of an individualorganism is carried on, and though the members of a social organism, notforming a concrete whole, cannot maintain cooperation by means ofphysical influences directly propagated from part to part, yet they canand do maintain cooperation by another agency. Not in contact, theynevertheless affect one another through intervening spaces, both byemotional language and by the language, oral and written of theintellect . . . .That is to say, the internuncial function, notachievable by stimuli physically transferred, is nevertheless achievedby language.

The medium of language enables societies,though formed of discrete units, to exhibit a permanence of relationsbetween component parts. But there is a more important differencestill.

In the [biological organism] consciousness isconcentrated in a small part of the aggregate. In the [social organism]it is diffused throughout the aggregate: all the units possess thecapacity for happiness and misery, if not in equal degree, still indegrees that approximate. As, then, there is no social sensorium, thewelfare of the aggregate, considered apart from that of the units, isnot an end to be sought. The society exists for the benefit of itsmembers; not its members for the benefit of society.

Thisis not the place to judge whether Spencer really managed to reconcilehis individualism and his organicism--I rather think that he didnot--but only to note that Spencer thought he had done so by stressingthat no social body possessed a collective sensorium. Thus, despitefunctional differentiations between men, they all still aspired to ameasure of "happiness" and satisfaction.

From Coser, 1977:98-99.


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