Social Organization

Chapter 7: The Growth of Communication

Charles Horton Cooley

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THE chief means of what we may call pre-verbal communication are the expression of the face—especially of the mobile portions about the eyes and mouth—the pitch, inflection, and emotional tone of the voice; and the gestures of the head and limbs. All of these begin in involuntary movements but are capable of becoming voluntary, and all are eagerly practiced and interpreted by children long before they learn to speak. They are immediately joined to action and emotion: the inflections of the voice, for instance, play upon the child's feelings as directly as music, and are interpreted partly by an instinctive sensibility. I have heard a child seventeen months old using her voice so expressively, though inarticulately, that it sounded, a little way off, as if she were carrying on an animated conversation. And gesture, such as reaching out the hand, bending forward, turning away the head, and; the like, springs directly from the ideas and feelings it represents.

The human face, " the shape and color of a mind and life," is a kind of epitome of society, and if one could only read all that is written in the countenances of men as they pass he might find a great deal of sociology in them. He-

(67)-reditary bias, family nurture, the print of the school, current opinion, contemporary institutions, all are there, drawn with a very fine pencil. If one wishes to get a real human insight into the times of Henry the Eighth, for example, he call hardly do better than to study the portrait drawings of Holbein; and so of other periods, including our own, whose traits would appear conspicuously in a collection of portraits. Many people can discriminate particular classes, as, for instance, clergymen, by their expression, and not a few will tell with much accuracy what church the latter belong to and whether they are of the lower rank or in authority. Again there is a difference, indescribable, perhaps, yet apparent, between the look of American and of English youths—still more of girls—which reflects the differing social systems.

This sort of communication is, of course, involuntary. An artificial mechanism of communication originates when man begins purposely to reproduce his own instinctive motions and cries, or the sounds, forms, and movements of the world about him, in order to recall the ideas associated with them. All kinds of conventional communication are believed to be rooted in these primitive imitations, which, by a process not hard to imagine, extend and differentiate into gesture, speech, writing, and the special symbols of the arts and sciences; so that the whole exterior organization of thought refers back to these beginnings.

We can only conjecture the life of man, or of his humanizing progenitor, before speech was achieved; but we may suppose that facial expression, inarticulate cries and songs,[1]

(68) and a variety of imitative sounds and actions aroused sympathy, permitted the simpler kinds of general ideas to be formed, and were the medium through which tradition and convention had their earliest development It is probable that artificial gesture language was well organized before speech had made much headway. Even without words life may have been an active and continuous mental whole, not dependent for its unity upon mere heredity, but bound together by some conscious community in the simpler sorts of thought and feeling, and by the transmission and accumulation of these through tradition. There was presumably cooperation and instruction of a crude sort in which was the germ of future institutions.

No one who has observed children will have any difficulty in conjecturing the beginnings of speech, since nearly every child starts in to invent a language for himself, and only desists when he finds that there is one all ready-made for him. There are as many natural words (if we may call them so) as there are familiar sounds with definite associations, whether coming from human beings, from animals, or from inanimate nature. These the child instinctively loves to reproduce and communicate, at first in mere sport and sociability, then, as occasion arises, with more definite meaning. This meaning is easily extended by various sorts of association of ideas; the sounds themselves are altered and combined in usage; and thus speech is well begun.

Many humble inventors contribute to its growth, every man, possibly, altering the heritage in proportion as he puts his individuality into his speech. Variations of

(69) idea are preserved in words or other symbols, and so stored up in a continuing whole, constantly growing in bulk and diversity, which is, as we have seen, nothing less than the outside or sensible embodiment of human thought, in which every particular mind lives and grows, drawing from it the material of its own life, and contributing to it whatever higher product it may make out of that material.

A word is a vehicle, a boat floating down from the past, laden with the thought of men we never saw; and in coming to understand it we enter not only into the minds of our contemporaries, but into the general mind of humanity continuous through time. The popular notion of learning to speak is that the child first has the idea and then gets from others a sound to use in communicating it; but a closer study shows that this is hardly true even of the simplest ideas, and is nearly the reverse of truth as regards developed thought. In that the word usually goes before, leading and kindling the idea—we should not have the latter if u-e did not have the word first. "This way," says the word, "is an interesting thought: come and find it." And so we are led on to rediscover old knowledge. Such words, for instance, as good, right, truth, love, home, justice, beauty, freedom; are powerful makers of what they stand for.

A mind without words would make only such feeble and uncertain progress as a traveller set down in the midst of a wilderness where there were no paths or conveyances and without even a compass. A mind with them is like the same traveller in the midst of civilization, with beaten roads and rapid vehicles ready to take him in any direction

(70) where men have been before. As the traveller must pass over the ground in either case, so the mind must pass through experience, but if it has language it finds its experience foreseen, mapped out and interpreted by all the wisdom of the past, so that it has not only its own experience but that of the race—just as the modern traveller sees not only the original country but the cities and plantations of men.

The principle that applies to words applies also to all structures that are built of words, to literature and the manifold traditions that it conveys. As the lines of Dante are "foot-paths for the thought of Italy," so the successful efforts of the mind in every field are preserved in their symbols and become foot-paths by which other minds reach the same point. And this includes feeling as well as definite idea. It is almost the most wonderful thing about language that by something intangible in its order and movement and in the selection and collocation of words, it can transmit the very soul of a man, making his page live when his definite ideas have ceased to have value. In this way one gets from Sir Thomas Browne, let us say, not his conceits and credulities, but his high and religious spirit, hovering, as it were, over the page.

The achievement of speech is commonly and properly regarded as the distinctive trait of man, as the gate by which he emerged from his pre-human state. It means that, like Helen Keller, he has learned that everything has, or may have, a name, and so has entered upon a life of conscious fellowship in thought. It not only permitted the rise of a more rational and human kind of thinking and feeling, but was also the basis of the earliest definite

(71) institutions A wider and fuller unity of thought took place in every group where it appeared. Ideas regarding the chief interests of primitive life—hunting, warfare, marriage' feasting and the like—were defined, communicated and extended. Public opinion no doubt began to arise within the tribe, and crystallized into current sayings which served as rules of thought and conduct; the festal chants, if they existed before, became articulate and historical. And when any thought of special value was achieved in the group, it did not perish, but was handed on by tradition and made the basis of new gains. In this way primitive wisdom and rule were perpetuated, enlarged and improved until, in connection with ceremonial and other symbols, they became such institutions, of government, marriage, religion and property as are found in every savage tribe.

Nor must we forget that this state of things reacted upon the natural capacities of man, perhaps by the direct inheritance of acquired social habits and aptitudes, certainly by the survival of those who, having these, were more fitted than others to thrive in a social life. In this way man, if he was human when speech began to be used, rapidly became more so, and went on accumulating a social heritage.

So the study of speech reveals a truth which we may also reach in many other ways, namely, that the growth of the individual mind is not a separate growth, but rather a differentiation within the general mind. Our personal life, so far as we can make out, has its sources partly in congenital tendency, and partly in the stream of communication, both of which flow from the corporate life of the

(72) race. The individual has no better ground for thinking of himself as separate from humanity than he has for thinking of the self he is to-day as separate from the self he was yesterday; the continuity being no more certain in the one case than in the other. If it be said that he is separate because he feels separate, it may be answered that to the infant each moment is separate, and that we know our personal life to be a whole only through the growth of thought and memory. In the same way the sense of a larger or social wholeness is perhaps merely a question of our growing into more vivid and intelligent consciousness of a unity which is already clear enough to reflective observation.

It is the social function of writing, by giving ideas a lasting record, to make possible a more certain, continuous and diversified growth of the human mind. It does for the race very much what it does for the individual. When the student has a good thought he writes it down, so that it may be recalled at will and made the starting point for a better thought in the same direction; and so mankind at large records and cherishes its insights.

Until writing is achieved the accumulation of ideas depends upon oral tradition, the capacity of which is measured by the interest and memory of the people who transmit it. It must, therefore, confine itself chiefly to ideas and sentiments for which there is a somewhat general and constant demand, such as popular stories—like the Homerian legends—chants, proverbs, maxims and the like. It is true that tradition becomes more or less specialized in families and castes—as we see, for instance, in the wide

(73) spread existence of a hereditary priesthood—but this specialization cannot be very elaborate or very secure in its continuance. There can hardly be, without writing, any science or any diversified literature. These require a means by which important ideas can he passed on unimpaired to men distant in time and space from their authors. We may safely pronounce, with Gibbon, that ''without some species of writing no people has ever preserved the faithful annals of their history, ever made any considerable progress in the abstract sciences, or ever possessed, in any tolerable degree of perfection, the useful and agreeable arts of life." [2]

Nor can stable and extended government be organized without it, for such government requires a constitution of some sort, a definite and permanent body of law and custom, embracing the wisdom of the past regarding the maintenance of social order.

It is quite the same with religious systems. The historical religions are based upon Scriptures, the essential part of which is the recorded teaching of the founder and his immediate disciples, and without such a record Christianity, Buddhism or Mohammedanism could never have been more than a small and transient sect. There may well have been men of religious genius among our illiterate forefathers, but it was impossible that they should found enduring systems.

The whole structure and progress of modern life evidently rests upon the preservation, in writing, of the achievements of the antique mind, upon the records, especially, of Judea, Greece and Rome. To inquire what

(74) we should have been without these would be like asking what we should have been if our parents had not existed. Writing made history possible, and the man of history with his complex institutions. It enabled a rapid and secure enlargement of that human nature which had previously been confined within small and unstable groups.

If writing, by giving thought permanence, brought in the earlier civilization, printing, by giving it diffusion opened the doors of the modern world.

Before its advent access to the records of the race was limited to a learned class, who thus held a kind of monopoly of the traditions upon which the social system rested. Throughout the earlier Middle Ages, for example, the clergy, or that small portion of the clergy who were educated, occupied this position in Europe, and their system was the one animate and wide-reaching mental organization of the period. For many centuries it was rare for a layman, of whatever rank, to know how to sign his name. Through the Latin language, written and spoken, which would apparently have perished had it not been for the Church, the larger continuity and cooperation of the human mind was maintained. Those who could read it had a common literature and a vague sense of unity and brotherhood. Roman ideas were preserved, however imperfectly, and an ideal Rome lived in the Papacy and the Empire. Education, naturally, was controlled by the clergy, who were also intrusted with political correspondence and the framing of laws. As is well known they somewhat recast the traditions in their own interest, and were aided by their control of the commu

(75)-nicating medium in becoming the dominant power in Europe.

Printing means democracy, because it brings knowledge within the reach of the common people; and knowledge, in the long run, is sure to make good its claim to power. It brings to the individual whatever part in the heritage of ideas he is fit to receive. The world of thought, and eventually the world of action, comes gradually under the rule of a true aristocracy of intelligence and character, in place of an artificial one created by exclusive opportunity.

Everywhere the spread of printing was followed by a general awakening due to the unsettling suggestions which it scattered abroad. Political and religious agitation, by no means unknown before, was immensely stimulated, and has continued unabated to the present time. "The whole of this movement," says Mr. H. C. Lea, speaking of the liberal agitations of the early sixteenth century, "had been rendered possible by the invention of printing, which facilitated so enormously the diffusion of intelligence, which enabled public opinion to form and express itself, and which, by bringing into communication minds of similar ways of thinking, afforded opportunity for combined action." "When, therefore, on October 31, 1517, Luther's fateful theses were hung on the church door at Wittenberg, they were, as he tells us, known in a fortnight throughout Germany; and in a month they had reached Rome and were being read in every school and convent in Europe—a result manifestly impossible without the aid of the printing press."[3]

(76) The printed page is also the door by which the individual, in our own time, enters the larger rooms of life A good book, "the precious life blood of a master spirit stored upon purpose to a life beyond life,"[4] is almost always the channel through which uncommon minds get incitement and aid to lift themselves into the higher thought that other uncommon minds have created. " In study we hold converse with the wise, in action usually with the foolish "[5] While the mass of mankind about us is ever common place, there is always, in our day, a more select society not far away for one who craves it, and a man like Abraham Lincoln, whose birth would have meant hopeless serfdom a few centuries ago, may get from half a dozen books aspirations which lead him out to authority and beneficence.

While spoken language, along with the writing and printing by which it is preserved and disseminated, in the main current of communication, there are from the start many side channels.

Thus among savage or barbarous peoples we everywhere find, beside gesture language, the use of a multitude of other symbols, such as the red arrow for war, the pipe of peace, signal fires, notched sticks, knotted cords, totems, and, among nations more advanced in culture, coats-of-arms, flags and an infinite diversity of symbolic ritual. There is, indeed, a world of signs outside of language, most of which, however, we may pass by, since its general nature is obvious enough.


The arts of painting, sculpture, music, and architecture. considered as communication, have two somewhat different functions: First, as mere picture or image writing, conveying ideas that could also be conveyed (though with a difference) in words; and, second, as the vehicle of peculiar phases of sentiment incommunicable in any other way. These two were often, indeed usually, combined in the art of the past. In modern times the former, because of the diffusion of literacy, has become of secondary importance

Of the picture-writing function the mosaics, in colors on a gold ground, that cover the inner walls of St. Mark's at Venice are a familiar instance. They set forth in somewhat rude figures, helped out by symbols, the whole system of Christian theology as it was then understood. They were thus an illuminated book of sacred learning through which the people entered into the religious tradition. The same tradition is illustrated in the sculpture of the cathedrals of Chartres and Rheims, together with much other matter—secular history, typified by figures of the kings of France; moral philosophy, with virtues and _ices, rewards and punishments; and emblems of husbandry and handicraft. Along with these sculptures went the pictured windows, the sacred relics—which, as Gibbon says, "fixed and inflamed the devotion of the faithful"[6]—the music, and the elaborate pageants and ritual; all working together as one rich sign, in which was incarnated the ideal life of the times.

A subtler function of the non-verbal arts is to communicate matter that could not go by any other road,

(78) especially certain sorts of sentiment which are thus perpetuated and diffused.

One of the simplest and most fruitful examples of this is the depiction of human forms and faces which embody! as if by living presence, the nobler feelings and aspirations of the time. Such works, in painting or sculpture, ret main as symbols by the aid of which like sentiments grow up in the minds of whomsoever become familiar with them Sentiment is cumulative in human history in the same manner as thought, though less definitely and surely, and Christian feeling, as it grew and flourished in the Middle Ages, was fostered by painting as much, perhaps, as by the Scriptures. And so Greek sculpture, from the time of the humanists down through Winckelmann and Goethe to the present day, has been a channel by which Greek sentiment has flowed into modern life.

This record of human feeling in expressive forms and faces, as in the madonnas and saints of Raphael, is called by some critics "illustration"; and they distinguish it from "decoration," which includes all those elements in a work of art which exist not to transmit something else but for their own more immediate value, such as beauty of color, form, composition and suggested movement. This latter is communication also, appealing to vivid but other wise inarticulate phases of human instinct. Each art can convey a unique kind of sentiment and has "its own peculiar and incommunicable sensuous charm, its own special mode of reaching the imagination." In a picture the most characteristic thing is "that true pictorial quality . . . the inventive or creative handling of pure line and color, which, as almost always in Dutch painting, as

(79) often also in the works of Titian or Veronese, is quite independent of anything definitely poetical in the subject it accompanies." in music "the musical charm—that essential music, which presents no words, no matter of sentiment or thought, separable from the special form in which it is conveyed to us."{[7] And so with architecture, an art peculiarly close to social organization, so that in many cases—as in the Place of Venice—the spirit of a social system has been visibly raised up in stone.

It needs no argument, I suppose, to show that these arts are no less essential to the growth of the human spirit than literature or government.


  1. On the probability that song preceded speech, see Darwin, Descent of Man, chap. 19.
  2. Decline and Fall, Milman-Smith edition, i, 354.
  3. The Cambridge Modern History, i, 684, 685.
  4. Milton, Areopagitiea.
  5. Bacon, Antitheta on Studies.
  6. Decline and Fall, Milman-Smith edition, iii, 428.
  7. Walter Pater, Essay on the School of Giorgione.

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