Discussion of Franklin H. Giddings "A Theory of Social Causation"

Charles Horton Cooley


CHARLES HORTON COOLEY : In discussing this notable paper I wish to confine myself to only one of the fundamental questions upon which it touches, namely, that of the nature of history as regards cause and effect ; and my aim will be to distinguish three ways of thinking about it ; first, the materialistic, second, the idealistic, third, what I would call the organic. In the preference I shall avow for the last, I hope that the distinguished author of the paper will, on the whole, agree with me, though I am not sure that he does not, here and there, show a certain leaning toward the first.

The materialistic view assumes that physical conditions are in some sense original and ultimate causes of the movements of history ; that they are primary, as compared, at least, with such complex products of the mind as institutions and social ideals, which are held to be secondary or derivative, though perhaps of equal immediate importance. The best-known representative of this way of thinking is Herbert Spencer, whose whole philosophy assumes the primacy of material facts and aims to show how mental and social facts grow out them.

The primacy claimed for material elements must, I suppose, be a primacy either in time or in logic. As to time, I am unable to see from what I have learned of history and anthropology, that the physical aspect of life came before institutions and ideals, or was, generally speaking, of relatively greater importance in the past than at present. No doubt institutions and ideals have greatly developed, but no more, perhaps, than have economic activities. To me these seem to be co-ordinate phases of existence which have ever marched side by side. When I look back through the past I seem to see

( 427) human nature, language, institutions, modes of conflict, modes of getting a living, philosophies and aspirations, ever as one indivisible life, even as they are at present ; although certainly the whole and every phase of it be-comes cruder as we go back. We have learned from the works of Professor Giddings that we can no longer regard human nature as separable from language and other institutions ; the individual no more created these things than they created him, all is one growth. Even poetry is, in a sense, as old as man himself ; for language is truly said to be fossil poetry, and language and human nature, we now believe, arose together.

But have not the economic activities at least a prim icy in logic, as being the necessary basis of every thing else?

I cannot see that the getting of food, or whatever else the economic activities may be defined to be, is any more the logical basis of existence than the ideal activities.. It is true that there could be no ideas and institutions without a food-supply ; but no more could we get food if we did not have ideas and institutions. All work together, and each of the principal functions is essential to every other.

I am not sure that the feeling of the primacy of material conditions has any better foundation than their tangible and visible character which makes them stand out more clearly before the mind and gives an illusion of their independence. As they exist in society, or for us, they are really as plastic and changeable as thought itself. Social and psychological science is, in my -opinion far too complaisant to that prejudice of the physical scientist which identifies the ideal with the vague, and wishes to have as little to do with it as possible.

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I do not object to the interpretation of history from the materialistic point of view, so long as it is recognized that this is partial, deserving no logical preference over the idealistic point of view, and always needing to be balanced by the latter. But, so far as I have noticed, writers who start from material data are inclined to hold not merely that this is a place to start but that it is the place ; and, if so, I think they are justly charge-able with materialism.

I do not quite agree with the paper in the view that materialistic interpretations fail to satisfy us only be-cause they have not explained the ideal. I should not be content with seeing how the ideal proceeds from the material, but I should wish also to begin at the other end and see how the material, as it exists in society, proceeds from the ideal. The industrial society of the nineteenth century for instance, is perhaps as much the result of the institutions and philosophies of the eighteenth as it is a cause of those which are to be in the twentieth. And, finally I should wish to unite these partial views so far as possible into a total or organic view, a perception of the living fact.

I will not dwell upon the merely idealistic view of history, since it has little vogue at the present time. It has as much one-sidedness as the other. Looking upon thought as the causal force in all life it treats things as no more than its symbols.

I would not, however, conceal my opinion that it is quite as plausible and legitimate, quite as scientific, if you please, to treat the human mind itself as the primary factor in life, and history as its gradual enfoldment, as it is to begin with the material. Why should the stimulus or spur of progress be ascribed to things more than to the mind itself?

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The organic view of history denies that any factor or factors are more ultimate than others. Indeed it denies that the so-called factors—such as the mind, the various institutions, the physical environment, and so on—have any real existence apart from a total life in which all share in the same way that the members of the body share in the life of the animal organism. It looks upon mind and matter, soil, climate, flora, fauna, thought, language and institutions as aspects of a single rounded whole; one total growth. We may concentrate attention upon some one of these things, but this concentration should never go so far as to overlook the subordination of each to the whole, or to conceive one as precedent to others.

One who holds this view is not content to inquire whether the economic interpretation of history is the fundamental one. Back of that, he thinks, is the question whether there is, in fact, such a thing as a fundamental interpretation of history, in the sense that one aspect, of society is in its nature more ultimate than others ; whether life actually proceeds in a one-two-three manner, and not, rather, in a total manner, each special phase of it at any given time being derived not merely from some other special phase but from the total condition of mankind in the preceding epoch. He believes that life, go back as far as you will, is a progressive transformation of a whole, in which the ideal, institutional and material phases are co-ordinate and inseparable.

History is not like a tangled skein which you may straighten out by getting hold of the right end and following it with sufficient persistence. It has no straightness, to merely lineal continuity, in its nature. It is a

( 430) living thing, to be known by sharing its life, very much as you know a person.

In the organic world—that is to say in real life—each function is a center from which causes radiate and to which they converge ; all is alike cause and effect ; there is no logical primacy, no independent variable, no place where the thread begins. As in the fable of the belly and the members, each is dependent upon all the others You must see the whole or you do not truly see any-thing.

Supposing that this organic conception is a just one, what practical bearing, let us ask in conclusion, has it upon the method of expounding or of comprehending history ?

It by no means discredits the study of history from particular points of view, such as the economic, the political, the military, the religious. The whole is so vast that to get any hold of it we need to approach it now from one point of view, now from another, fixing our attention upon each phase in turn, as all the world did, a few years ago, upon the influence of sea-power when Captain Mahan's work appeared. But no study of a special chain of causes can be more than an incident in that perception of a reciprocating whole which I take to be our true aim.

If we think in this way we shall approach the comprehension of a period of history very much as we approach a great work of organic art, like a gothic cathedral. We view the cathedral from many points and at our leisure, now the front and now the apse, now taking in the whole from a distance, now lingering near at hand over the details, living with it, if we can, for months ; until gradually there arises a conception of it

( 431) which is confined to no one aspect but is, so far as the limits of our mind permit, the image of the whole in all its unity and richness. And it is such a view as this at which we aim in the study of history. Every competent student may help us, whether his work is narrative or philosophical, large or minute, written from one point of view or several ; but after all what we would like to get s nothing less than a living familiarity with the past so that in the measure of our faculty, we might actually possess it in something of the various unity of life itself.


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