Social Consciousness

Charles Horton Cooley
University of Michigan


Mind is an organic whole made up of co-operating individualities, in somewhat the same way that the music of an orchestra is made up of divergent but related sounds. No one would think it necessary or reasonable to divide the music into two kinds—that made by the whole and that of particular instruments: and no more are there two kinds of mind—the social mind and the individual mind. When we study the social mind, we merely fix our attention on larger aspects and relations, rather than on the narrower ones of ordinary psychology.

The view that all mind hangs together in a vital whole, from which the individual is never really separate, flows naturally from our growing knowledge of heredity and suggestion, which makes it increasingly clear that every thought we have is linked with the thought of our ancestors and associates, and through them with that of society at large. It is also the only view consistent with the general standpoint of modern science, which admits nothing isolate in nature.

The unity of the social mind consists, not in agreement, but in organization, in the fact of reciprocal influence or causation among its parts, by virtue of which everything that takes place in it is connected with everything else, and so is an outcome of the whole. Whether, like the orchestra, it gives forth harmony may be a matter of dispute, but that its sound, pleasing or otherwise, is the expression of a vital co-operation, cannot well be denied.


In the social mind we may distinguish—very roughly, of course—conscious and unconscious relations. The unconscious are those of which we are not aware; which, in one way or

(98) another escape our notice. A great part of the influences at work upon us are of this character. Our language, our mechanical arts, our government and other institutions we derive chiefly from people to whom we are but indirectly and unconsciously related. The larger movements of society—the progress and decadence of nations, institutions and races—have seldom been a matter of consciousness until they were past. And although the growth of social consciousness is perhaps the greatest fact of history, it has still but a narrow and fallible grasp of human life.

Social consciousness, or awareness of society, is inseparable from self-consciousness, because we can hardly think of ourselves excepting with reference to a social group of some sort, nor of the group except with reference to ourselves. The two things go together, and what we are really aware of is a more or less complex personal or social whole, of which now the particular, now the general aspect is emphasized.

In general, then, most of our reflective consciousness—of our wide-awake state of mind—is social consciousness, because a sense of our relation to other persons, or of other persons to one another, can hardly fail to be a part of it. Self and society are twin-born, and we know one as immediately as we know the other.

This view, which seems to me quite simple and in accord with common-sense, is not, so far as I can discover, the view most commonly held. Psychologists, and even sociologists, are still much infected with the idea that self-consciousness is in some way primary, and antecedent to social consciousness, which must be derived by some recondite process of combination or elimination. I venture, therefore, to give some further exposition of it, based in part on first-hand observation—too detailed for this paper—of the growth of social ideas in children.

Descartes is, I take it, the best-known exponent of the traditional view regarding the primacy of self-consciousness. Seeking an unquestionable basis for philosophy, he thought that he found it in the proposition, "I think, therefore I am" (Cogito, ergo sum). This seemed to him inevitable, though all else might be illusion.

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I observed [he says] that, whilst I thus wished to think that all was false, it was absolutely necessary that I, who thus thought, should be somewhat; and as I observed that this truth, I think, hence I am, was so certain and of such evidence that no ground of doubt, however extravagant, could be alleged by the skeptics capable of shaking it, I concluded that I might, without scruple, accept it as the first principle of the philosophy of which I was in search.

From our point of view this statement is unsatisfactory in two essential respects. In the first place, it seems to imply that "I"-consciousness is a part of all consciousness, when, in fact, it belongs only to a rather advanced stage of development. In the second it is one-sided or "individualistic" in asserting the personal or "I"-aspect of consciousness to the exclusion of the social or "we"-aspect, which is equally original with it.

Introspection is essential to psychological or social insight, but the introspection of Descartes was, in this instance, a limited, almost abnormal, sort of introspection—that of a self-absorbed philosopher doing his best to isolate himself from other people, and from all simple and natural conditions of life. The mind into which he looked was in a highly technical state, not likely to give him a just view of human consciousness in general.

Introspection is of a larger sort in our day. There is a world of things in the mind worth looking at, and the modern psychologist, instead of fixing his attention wholly on an extreme form of speculative self-consciousness, puts his mind through an infinite of variety of experiences—intellectual and emotional, simple and complex, normal and abnormal, sociable and private-recording in each case what he sees in it. He does this by subjecting it to suggestions or incitements of various kinds, which awaken the activities he desires to study.

In particular he does it largely by what may be called sympathetic introspection, putting himself into intimate contact with various sorts of persons and allowing them to awake in himself a life similar to their own, which he afterward, to the best of his ability, recalls and describes. In this way he is more or less able to understand—always by introspection—children, idiots, crimi-

(100) -nals, rich and poor, conservative and radical—any phase of human nature not wholly alien to his own.

This I conceive to be the principal method of the social psychologist.

One thing which this broader introspection reveals is that the "I"-consciousness does not explicitly appear until the child is about two, years old, and that, when it does appear, it comes in inseparable conjunction with the consciousness of other persons and of those relations which make up a social group. It is, in fact, simply one phase of a body of personal thought which is self-consciousness in one aspect and social consciousness in another.

The mental experience of a new-born child is probably a mere stream of impressions, which may be regarded as individual in being differentiated from any other stream, or as social, in being an undoubted product of inheritance and suggestion from human life at large; but is not aware either of itself or of society.

Very soon, however, the mind begins to discriminate personal impressions and to become both naÔvely self-conscious and naÔvely conscious of society; that is, the child is aware, in an unreflective way, of a group and of his 'own special relation to it. He does not say "I," nor does he name his mother, his sister, or his nurse; but he has images and feelings out of which these ideas will grow. Later comes the more reflective consciousness which names both himself and other people and brings a fuller perception of the relations which constitute the social unity of this small world.

And so on to the most elaborate phases of self-consciousness and social consciousness, to the metaphysician pondering the ego, or the sociologist meditating on the social 'organism. Self and society go together, as phases of a common whole. I am aware of the social groups in which I live as immediately and authentically as I am aware of myself; and Descartes might have said "you think" or "we think," cogitas or cogitamus, on as good grounds as he said cogito. I have explained this point of view more fully in "Human Nature and the Social Order," New York, 1902.

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But, it may be said, this very consciousness that you are considering is, after all, located in a particular person, and so are all similar consciousnesses, so that what we see, if we take an objective view of the matter, is merely an aggregate of individualities, however social those individualities may be. Commonsense, most people think, assures us that the separate person is the primary fact of life.

If so, it is because common-sense has been trained by custom to look at one aspect of things and not another. Common-sense, moderately informed, assures us that the individual has his being only as a part of a whole. What does not come by heredity comes by communication and intercourse; and the more closely we look, the more apparent it is that separateness is an illusion of the eye and community the inner truth. "Social organism"—using the term in no technical sense, but merely to mean a vital unity in human life—is a fact as obvious to enlightened commonsense as individuality.

There is, then, no mystery about social consciousness. The view that there is something recondite about it, and that it must be dug for with metaphysics and drawn forth from the depths of speculation, springs from a failure to grasp adequately the social nature of all higher consciousness. What we need in this connection is only a better seeing and understanding of rather ordinary and familiar facts.


We may find social consciousness either in a particular mind or as a co-operative activity of many minds. The social ideas that I have are closely connected with those that other people have, and act and react upon them to form a whole. This gives us public opinion, in the broad sense of a group state of mind of which the group is more or less distinctly aware. The unity of public opinion, like all vital unity, is not one of uniformity, but of organization, of interaction and mutual influence. It is true that a certain underlying likeness of nature is necessary in order that minds may influence one another and so co-operate in

( 102) forming a vital whole, but identity, even in the simplest process, is unnecessary and probably impossible.

The consciousness of the House of Representatives, for example, is by no means limited to the common views, if there are any, shared by its members, but embraces the whole consciousness of every member, so far as this deals with the activity of the House. It would be a poor conception of the whole which left out the opposition, or even one dissentient individual.

That all minds are different is a condition, not an obstacle, of that unity that consists in a differentiated and co-operative life.

Here is another illustration of what is meant by individual and collective aspects of social consciousness : Some of us possess a good many books relating to social questions of the day. Each of these books, considered by itself, is the expression of a particular social consciousness : the author has cleared up his ideas as well as he can and printed them. But a library of such books expresses social consciousness in a larger sense; it speaks for the epoch. And certainly no one who reads the books will doubt that they form a whole, whatever their differences. The radical and the reactionist are clearly part of the same general situation.

A group "makes up its mind" in very much the same manner that an individual makes up his mind. The latter must give time and attention to the matter; he must search his consciousness for pertinent ideas and sentiments, bring them together, and work them into a whole, before he knows what his real thought about it is. In the case of a nation the same thing must take place, only on a larger scale. Each individual must make up his mind as before, but in doing so he has to deal, not only with what was already in his thought or memory, but with fresh ideas that flow in from others whose minds are also aroused. Everyone who has any fact, or thought, or feeling which he thinks is unknown or insufficiently regarded by others, tries to impart it; and thus not one mind only, but all minds, are searched for pertinent material which is poured into the general stream of thought for each one to use as he can. In this manner the minds in a communicating group become one mind, a single organic

( 103) whole. Their unity is not one of identity, but 'of life and action—a crystallization of diverse but related ideas.

There may be quite as much difference of opinion as there was before, but the differences now existing are comparatively intelligent and stable. People know what they really think about the matter, and what other people think. Measures, platforms, candidates, creeds, and other symbols have been produced which serve to express and assist co-operation and to define opposition. There has come to be a relatively complete organization of thought to which each individual or group contributes in its own peculiar way.

Take, for instance, the state of opinion in the United States regarding slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War. No general agreement had been reached, but the popular mind had become organized with reference to this matter. It had been turned over and regarded from all points of view by all parts of the community, until a certain ripeness regarding it had been reached, revealing in this case a. radical conflict of thought between the North and the South, and much local diversity in both sections.

One who would understand public opinion should distinguish clearly between a true 'or mature opinion and a popular impression. The former requires earnest attention and discussion for a considerable time, and when reached is significant, even if mistaken. It rarely exists regarding matters of temporary interest, and current talk or print is a most uncertain index of it. A popular impression, on the other hand, is facile, shallow, transient, with that fickleness and blatancy that used to be ascribed to the popular mind in general. It is analogous to the unconsidered views and utterances of an individual, and the more one studies it, the less seriously he will take it. It may happen that ninety-nine men in a hundred hold opinions today contradictory of those they will hold a month hence—partly because they have not yet searched their own minds, partly because the few who have really significant and well-grounded ideas have not had time to impress them upon the rest.

It is not unreasonable, then, to combine a very slight regard

( 104) for most of what passes for public opinion with much confidence in the soundness of an aroused, mature, organic social judgment.


Social will differs from public opinion only in implying a more continuous and efficient organization. It is merely public opinion become an effective guide to social development.

It is quite plain that the development of the past has been mostly blind and without human intention. Any page of history shows that men have been unable to foresee, much less to control, the larger movements of life. There have been seers, but they have seen principles rather than processes, and have almost never been men of immediate sway. Statesmen have lived in the present, having no purpose beyond the aggrandizement 'of their own country, their order, or their family. Such partial exceptions as the framing of the American Constitution by the light of history and philosophy, and with some prevision of its actual working, are confined to recent times and excite a special wonder.

Will has been alive only in details, in the smaller courses of life, while the larger structure and movement has been subconscious, erratic, and wasteful. The very idea of progress, of orderly development on a great scale, is of recent origin and diffusion.

At the present day, also, social phenomena of a large sort are for the most part not willed at all, but are the unforseen result of diverse and partial 'endeavors. It is seldom that any large plan of social action is intelligently drawn up and followed out. Each interest works along in a somewhat blind and selfish manner, grasping, fighting, and groping. As regards general ends most of the energy is wasted; and yet a sort of advance takes place, more like the surging of a throng than the orderly movement of troops. Who can pretend that the American people, for example, are guided by any clear and rational plan in their economic, social, and religious development? They have glimpses and impulses, but hardly a will, except 'on a few matters of near and urgent interest.

In the same way the ills that afflict society are seldom willed

( 105) by any one or any group, but are by-products of acts of will having other objects : they are done, as someone has said, rather with the elbows than with the fists. There is surprisingly little ill intent, and the more one looks into wrong-doing, the less he finds of that vivid chiaroscuro of conscious goodness and badness his childish teaching has led him to expect.

Take, for instance, a conspicuous evil like the sweating system in the garment trades of New York and London. Here are people, largely women and children, forced to work twelve, fourteen, sometimes sixteen, hours a clay, in the midst of dirt, bad air, and contagion, suffering the destruction of home life and decent nurture; and all for a wage insufficient to buy the bare necessities of life. But if one looks for sin dark enough to cast such a shadow, he will scarcely find it. The "sweater" or immediate employer, to whom he first turns, is commonly himself a workman, not much raised above the rest and making but little profit on his transactions. Beyond him is the large dealer, usually a well-intentioned man quite willing that things should be better, if they can be made so without too much trouble or pecuniary loss to himself. He is only doing what others do and what, in his view, the conditions of trade require. And so on; the closer one gets to the facts, the more evident it is that nowhere is the indubitable wickedness our feelings have pictured. It is quite the same with political corruption and the venal alliance between wealth and party management. The men who control wealthy interests are probably no worse intentioned than the rest of us; they only do what they think they are forced to do in order to hold their own. And so with the politician : he finds that others are selling their power, and easily comes to think of it as a matter of course. In truth the consciously, flagrantly wicked man is, and perhaps always has been, for the most part, a fiction of denunciation. The psychologist will hardly find him, but will feel that most sorts of badness are easily comprehensible, and will perhaps agree with Goethe that he never heard of a crime which he might not himself have committed.[1]

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In all such cases the first requisite is to create a social consciousness—that is to say, a definite awareness, not only of the evils themselves, but of the conditions upon which they depend and of the means by which they may be redressed. This will open the way for an effective public opinion, a social conscience, a social will. Those having power in the matter will find a fairly definite course of right marked out for them, and will not be inclined—or, if inclined, will not be permitted—to depart much from it.

Thus it is not bad will, but lack of will, that is mainly the cause of evil things; they exist outside the sphere of choice. We lack rational self-direction, and suffer not so much from our sins —dark as those may be—as from our blindness, weakness, and confusion.

It is true, then, as socialists tell us, that the need of society is rational organization, a more effectual social will. But we shall not agree with the narrowness of this or of any other sect as to the kind of organization that is to be sought. The true will of society is not concentrated in the government or any other single agent, but works itself out through many instruments. It would simplify matters, no doubt, if a single, definite, and coercive institution, like the socialist state, could embrace and execute all right purposes; but I doubt whether life can be organized in that way.

The real ground for expecting a more rational existence and growth is in the increasing efficiency of the intellectual and moral process as a whole, not, peculiarly, in the greater activity of government.

In every province of life a multiform social knowledge is arising and, mingling with the moral impulse, is forming a system of rational ideals which, through leadership and emulation, gradually work their way into practice.

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The striving of our democracy toward clearer consciousness is too evident to escape any observer. Compare, for example, the place now taken in our universities by history, economics, political science, sociology, statistics, and the like, with the attention given them, say, in 1875, when, in fact, some of these studies had no place at all. Or consider the multiplication, since the same date, of government bureaus—federal, state, and local—whose main function is to collect, arrange, and disseminate social knowledge. It is not too much to say that governments are becoming, more and more, vast laboratories of social science. Consider also the number of books and periodicals seriously devoted to these subjects. No doubt much of this work is feverish and shallow, but this is incidental to all rapid change. There is, on the whole, nothing more certain or more hopeful than the advance in the larger self-knowledge of mankind.

Ideals for the betterment of human life are products of constructive imagination, incited by sentiment and informed by knowledge. In the past the sentiment has mostly been undisciplined and the knowledge deficient. A study of the ideals and programmes that have had most popular acceptance even in recent years makes it appear that our state of mind regarding society is still much like that which prevailed regarding the natural world when men sought the philosopher's stone and the fountain of perpetual youth. A vast amount of energy is wasted, or nearly wasted, in the exclusive and intolerant advocacy of special schemes—single-tax, prohibition, state-socialism, and the like—each of which is imagined by its adherents to be the key to millennial conditions.

Every year, however, makes converts to the truth that no isolated scheme can be a good scheme, and that real progress must be an advance all along the line. Those who see only one thing can never see that truly, and so work in a superficial and mistaken manner.

Idealism ought to be organic; that is to say, each particular ideal ought to be formed and pursued in subordination to a system of ideals based on knowledge and good sense. The idealist, while putting a special enthusiasm into his own work, should have a

( 108) general understanding also of every good work, and of the whole to which all contribute. For him to imagine that his is the only work worth doing is as unfortunate as for the captain of a company to imagine that he is conducting the whole campaign. Other things equal, the most effective idealists are those who are most sane—who have a sense for the complication, the interdependence, and the inertia of human conditions.

The rise of a social will means the substitution of consciousness for mechanism, of principles for formulas. In the early growth of every institution the truth that it embodies is not perceived or expressed in simplicity, but obscurely incarnated in custom and formula. The perception of principles does not do away with mechanism altogether, but makes it relatively simple, flexible, and human. Under the old system everything is preserved because it is not known just where the virtue resides; under the new, the essential is kept and the rest thrown away.

This change is not unlike the substitution of an alphabet for picture-writing. When it is once discovered that speech is made up of a few elementary sounds, the symbols of these suffice to express all possible words, and so supplant the innumerable and cumbrous characters that were used before. Language is thus enabled to become more various and flexible in its function, and at the same time simpler in its mechanism. In the same way, at the present time, the elaborate formulas of the church tend to give way to brief statements of principles based on a better insight into human nature; and all contemporary institutions show change of an analogous character.

We may, then, expect that the modern world, in spite of its complexity, will become fundamentally simpler, more consistent and reasonable. Apparently, formalism can never more be an accepted and justified condition. It exists, and will exist, wherever social consciousness is deficient, but is ceasing to be held as a ruling principle in any department. There will be creeds, but they will affirm no more than is helpful to believe; ritual, but only what is beautiful or edifying; everything must justify itself by function.

Our moral system, which is one phase of the social will, must

( 109) be on the same large scale as modern life itself. The current methods are inadequate, and we must learn to feel and to effectuate new kinds of right—kinds involving a sense of remoter results than men have previously taken into account. Our good intentions will never work out unless they are as intelligently organized as commerce and politics. All thinking persons are coming to see that those traits of decency in the obvious relations of life which we are used to regard as morality are inadequate to our needs. The great wrong-doers, as we now see, are usually decent and kindly in daily walk and conversation, as well as supporters of the church and other respectable institutions. For the most part they are not even hypocrites, but men of a dead and conventional morality, not awake to the real meaning of what they are and do. Social will means, among other things, that they should he waked up; that a social conscience, based on science as well as feeling, should see and judge things by their true results, and should know how to make its judgments effectual.

The guiding force underlying social consciousness is, now as ever, human nature itself, in those more enduring characteristics that are little affected by institutional changes. This nature, familiar yet inscrutable, is apparently in a position to work itself out more adequately than at any time in the past.


  1. I have not space to show at length that this view does not impair the righteousness of blame and punishment ; the reader will perhaps think it out for himself. Men are justly praised or blamed in order to support or discredit the ideals they stand for. It matters little whether their sins and virtues are conscious or not. As to the comparative unimportance of conscious wickedness, note that the man who feels that he is in the wrong is divided against himself, hence weak and unlikely to carry out a sustained policy. The most efficient badness is based on a quiet conscience.

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