Mind Self and Society

Section 28 The Social Creativity of the Emergent Self

Table of Contents | Next | Previous

We have been discussing the value which gathers about the self, especially that which is involved in the "I" as over against that involved in the "me." The "me" is essentially a member of a social group, and represents, therefore, the value of the group, that sort of experience which the group makes possible. Its values are the values that belong to society. In a sense these values are supreme. They are values which under certain extreme moral and religious conditions call out the sacrifice of the self for the whole. Without this structure of things, the life of the self would become impossible. These are the conditions under which that seeming paradox arises, that the individual sacrifices himself for the whole which makes his own life as a self possible. Just as there could not be individual consciousness except in a social group, so the individual in a certain sense is not willing to live under certain conditions which would involve a sort of suicide of the self in its process of realization. Over against that situation we referred to those values which attach particularly to the "I" rather than to the "me," those values which are found in the immediate attitude of the artist, the inventor, the scientist in his discovery, in general in the action of the "I" which cannot be calculated and which involves a reconstruction of the society, and so of the "me" which belongs to that society. It is that phase of experience which is found in the "I" and the values that attach to it are the values belonging to this type of experience as such. These values are not peculiar to the artist, the inventor, and the scientific discoverer, but belong to the experience of all selves where there is an "I" that answers to the "me."

The response of the "I" involves adaptation, but an adaptation which affects not only the sclf but also the social environment which helps to constitute the self; that is, it implies a view of evolution in which the individual affects its own environment as well as being affected by it. A statement of evolution that was common in an earlier period assumed simply the effect of an environment on organized living protoplasm, molding it in

(215) some sense to the world in which it had to live. On this view the individual is really passive as over against the influences which are affecting it all the time. But what needs now to be recognized is that the character of the organism is a determinant of its environment. We speak of bare sensitivity as existent by itself, forgetting it is always a sensitivity to certain types of stimuli. In terms of its sensitivity the form selects an environment, not selecting exactly in the sense in which a person selects a city or a country or a particular climate in which to live, but selects in the sense that it finds those characteristics to which it can respond, and uses the resulting experiences to gain certain organic results that are essential to its continued life-process. In a sense, therefore, the organism states its environment in terms of means and ends. That sort of a determination of the environment is as real, of course, as the effect of the environment on the form. When a form develops a capacity, however this takes place, to deal with parts of the environment which its progenitors could not deal with, it has to this degree created a new environment for itself. The ox that has a digestive organ capable of treating grass as a food adds a new food, and in adding this it adds a new object. The substance which was not food before becomes food now. The environment of the form has increased. The organism in a real sense is determinative of its environment. The situation is one in which there is action and reaction, and adaptation that changes the form must also change the environment.

As a man adjusts himself to a certain environment he becomes a different individual; but in becoming a different individual he has affected the community in which he lives. It may be a slight effect, but in so far as he has adjusted himself, the adjustments have changed the type of the environment to which he can respond and the world is accordingly a different world. There is always a mutual relationship of the individual and the community in which the individual lives. Our recognition of this under ordinary conditions is confined to relatively small social groups, for here an individual cannot come into the group with-

(216) -out in some degree changing the character of the organization. People have to adjust themselves to him as much as he adjusts himself to them. It may seem to be a molding of the individual by the forces about him, but the society likewise changes in this process, and becomes to some degree a different society. The change may be desirable or it may be undesirable, but it inevitably takes place.

This relationship of the individual to the community becomes striking when we get minds that by their advent make the wider society a noticeably different society. Persons of great mind and great character have strikingly changed the communities to which they have responded. We call them leaders, as such, but they are simply carrying to the nth power this change in the community by the individual who makes himself a part of it, who belongs to it.[1] The great characters have been those who, by being what they were in the community, made that community a different one. They have enlarged and enriched the community. Such figures as great religious characters in history have, through their membership, indefinitely increased the possible size of the community itself. Jesus generalized the conception of the community in terms of the family in such a statement as that of the neighbor in the parables. Even the man outside of the community will now take that generalized family attitude toward it, and he makes those that are so brought into relationship with him members of the community to which he belongs, the community of a universal religion. The change of the community through the attitude of

(217) the individual becomes, of course, peculiarly impressive and effective in history. It makes separate individuals stand out as symbolic. They represent, in their personal relationships, a new order, and then become representative of the community as it might exist if it were fully developed along the lines that they had started. New conceptions have brought with them, through great individuals, attitudes which enormously enlarge the environment within which these individuals lived. A man who is a neighbor of anybody else in the group is a member of a larger society, and to the extent that he lives in such a community he has helped to create that society.

It is in such reactions of the individual, the "I," over against the situation in which the "I" finds itself, that important social changes take place. We frequently speak of them as expressions of the individual genius of certain persons. We do not know when the great artist, scientist, statesman, religious leader will come-persons who will have a formative effect upon the society to which they belong. The very definition of genius would come back to something of the sort to which I have been referring, to this incalculable quality, this change of the environment on the part of an individual by himself becoming a member of the community.

An individual of the type to which we are referring arises always with reference to a form of society or social order which is implied but not adequately expressed. Take the religious genius, such as Jesus or Buddha, or the reflective type, such as Socrates. What has given them their unique importance is that they have taken the attitude of living with reference to a larger society. That larger state was one which was already more or less implied in the institutions of the community in which they lived. Such an individual is divergent from the point of view of what we would call the prejudices of the community; but in another -- sense he expresses the principles of the community more completely than any other. Thus arises the situation of an Athenian or a Hebrew stoning the genius who expresses the principles of his own society, one the principle of rationality and

(218) the other the principle of complete neighborliness. The type we refer to as the genius is of that sort. There is an analogous situation in the field of artistic creation: the artists also reveal contents which represent a wider emotional expression answering to a wider society. To the degree that we make the community in which we live different we all have what is essential to genius, and which becomes genius when the effects are profound.

The response of the "I" may be a process which involves a degradation of the social state as well as one which involves higher integration. Take the case of the mob in its various expressions. A mob is an organization which has eliminated certain values which have obtained in the interrelation of individuals with each other, has simplified itself, and in doing that has made it possible to allow the individual, especially the repressed individual, to get an expression which otherwise would not be allowed. The individual's response is made possible by the actual degradation of the social structure itself, but that does not take away the immediate value to the individual which arises under those conditions. He gets his emotional response out of that situation because in his expression of violence he is doing what everyone else is doing. The whole community is doing the same thing. The repression which existed has disappeared and he is at one with the community and the community is at one with him. An illustration of a more trivial character is found in our personal relations with those about us. Our manners are methods of not only mediated intercourse between persons but also ways of protecting ourselves against each other. A person may, by manners, isolate himself so that he cannot be touched by anyone else. Manners provide a way in which we keep people at a distance, people that we do not know and do not want to know. We all make use of processes of that sort. But there are occasions in which we can drop off the type of manner which holds people at arm's length. We meet the man in some distant country whom perhaps we would seek to avoid meeting at home, and we almost tear our arms off embracing him. There is a great deal of exhilaration in situations involved in the hostil-

(219) -ity of other nations; we all seem at one against a common enemy; the barriers drop, and we have a social sense of comradeship to those standing with us in a common undertaking. The same thing takes place in a political campaign. For the time being we extend the glad hand-and a cigar-to anyone who is a member of the particular group to which we belong. We get rid of certain restrictions under those circumstances, restrictions which really keep us from intense social experiences. A person may be a victim of his good manners; they may incase him as well as protect him. But under the conditions to which I have referred, a person does get outside of himself, and by doing so makes himself a definite member of a larger community than that to which he previously belonged.

This enlarged experience has a profound influence. It is the sort of experience which the neophyte has in conversion. It is the sense of belonging to the community, of having an intimate relationship with an indefinite number of individuals who belong to the same group. That is the experience which lies back of the sometimes hysterical extremes which belong to conversions. The person has entered into the universal community of the church, and the resulting experience is the expression of that sense of identification of one's self with everyone else in the community. The sense of love is shown by such proceedings as washing the feet of lepers; in general, by finding a person who is most distant from the community, and by making a seemingly servile offering, identifying one's self completely with this individual. This is a process of breaking down the walls so that the individual is a brother of everyone. The medieval saint worked out that method of identifying himself with all living beings, as did the religious technique of India. This breakdown of barriers is something that arouses a flood of emotions, because it sets free an indefinite number of possible contacts to other people which have been checked, held repressed. The individual, by entering into that new community, has, by his step in making himself a member, by his experience of identification, taken on the value that belongs to all members of that community.


Such experiences are, of course, of immense importance. We make use of them all the time in the community. We decry the attitude of hostility as a means of carrying on the interrelations between nations. We feel we should get beyond the methods of warfare and diplomacy, and reach some sort of political relation of nations to each other in which they could be regarded as members of a common community, and so be able to express themselves, not in the attitude of hostility, but in terms of their common values. That is what we set up as the ideal of the League of Nations. We have to remember, however, that we are not able to work out our own political institutions without introducing the hostilities of parties. Without parties we could not get a fraction of the voters to come to the polls to express themselves on issues of great public importance, but we can enrol a considerable part of the community in a political party that is fighting some other party. It is the element of the fight that keeps up the interest. We can enlist the interest of a number of people who want to defeat the opposing party, and get them to t-he polls to do that. The party platform is an abstraction, of course, and does not mean much to us, since we are actually depending psychologically upon the operation of these more barbarous impulses in order to keep our ordinary institutions running. When we object to the organization of corrupt political machines we ought to remember to feel a certain gratitude to people who are able to enlist the interest of people in public affairs.

We are normally dependent upon those situations in which the self is able to express itself in a direct fashion, and there is no situation in which the self can express itself so easily as it can over against the common enemy of the groups to which it is united. The hymn that comes to our minds most frequently as expressive of Christendom is "Onward Christian Soldiers"; Paul organized the church of his time against the world of heathens; and "Revelation" represents the community over against the world of darkness. The idea of Satan has been as essential to the organization of the church as politics has been to the organ-

(221) -ization of democracy. There has to be something to fight against because the self is most easily able to express itself in joining a definite group.

The value of an ordered society is essential to our existence, but there also has to be room for an expression of the individual himself if there is to be a satisfactorily developed society. A means for such expression must be provided. Until we have such a social structure in which an individual can express himself as the artist and the scientist does, we are thrown back on the sort of structure found in the mob, in which everybody is free to express himself against some hated object of the group.

One difference between primitive human society and civilized human society is that in primitive human society the individual self is much more completely determined, with regard to his thinking and his behavior, by the general pattern of the organized social activity carried on by the particular social group to which he belongs, than he is in civilized human society. In other words, primitive human society offers much less scope for individuality-for original, unique, or creative thinking and behavior on the part of the individual self within it or belonging to it-than does civilized human society; and indeed the evolution of civilized human society from primitive human society has largely depended upon or resulted from a progressive social liberation of the individual self and his conduct, with the modifications and elaborations of the human social process which have followed from and been made possible by that liberation. In primitive society, to a far greater extent than in civilized society, individuality is constituted by the more or less perfect achievement of a given social type a type already given, indicated, or exemplified in the organized pattern of social conduct, in the integrated relational structure of the social process of experience and behavior which the given social group exhibits and is carrying on; in civilized society individuality is constituted rather by the individual's departure from, or modified realization of, any given social type than by his conformity, and tends to be something much more distinctive and singular and

(222) peculiar than it is in primitive human society. But even in the most modern and highly-evolved forms of human civilization the individual, however original and creative he may be in his thinking or behavior, always and necessarily assumes a definite relation to, and reflects in the structure of his self or personality, the general organized pattern of experience and activity exhibited in or characterizing the social life-process in which he is involved, and of which his self or personality is essentially a creative expression or embodiment. No individual has a mind which operates simply in itself, in isolation from the social life-process in which it has arisen or out of which it has emerged, and in which the pattern of organized social behavior has consequently been basically impressed upon it.


  1. The behavior of a genius is socially conditioned, just as that of an ordinary individual is; and his achievements are the results of, or are responses to, social stimuli, just as those of an ordinary individual are. The genius, like the ordinary individual, comes back at himself from the standpoint of the organized social group to which he belongs, and the attitudes of that group toward any given project in which he becomes involved; and he responds to this generalized attitude of the group with a definite attitude of his own toward the given project, just as the ordinary individual does. But this definite attitude of his own with which he responds to the generalized attitude of the group is unique and original in the case of the genius, whereas it is not so in the case of the ordinary individual; and it is this uniqueness and originality of his response to a given social situation or problem or project - which nevertheless conditions his behavior no less than it does that of the ordinary individual - that distinguishes the genius from the ordinary individual.

Valid HTML 4.01 Strict Valid CSS2