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CHAPTER FIVE: Society and Its Variations - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Society and Its Variations
SOCIETY AS AN ASPIRATION
if we ask what it is that a Scottish crofter, a London stockbroker, a Welsh steelworker, and a Manchester journalist all have in common, then it is not difficult to give a political answer. They are all British citizens, can travel on British passports, pay taxes to the British State, and can vote in British elections. The political unity of the British State is clear and precise, and it includes all individuals equally. But what makes each of them a member of British “society”? Only the fact that they are members of the British State. There is virtually nothing else they have exclusively in common. Moral standards, linguistic usages, traditions, customs and prejudices will all vary. The State no doubt includes an enormous number of institutions, laws, “norms,” “folkways,” communities, associations, beliefs, etc. But none of these is precisely co-existent with the boundaries of any given State. They are all either parts of the State, or else spill across its boundaries and constitute international linkages.
Yet if the liberal distinction between State and society is to be sustained, there must be something held in common which is not the creation of the State. Still, the ambiguities of the term “society” allow a good deal of hedging on this point before it ever need be faced; and the hedging is facilitated by the fact that the liberal uses of “society” are seldom qualified by any adjective, especially any political designation of boundaries. Used alone, the term will absorb from the context sufficient in the way of connotations to be clear to anyone who is sympathetic. At its widest, “society” may be taken to “include all or any dealings of man with man, whether these be direct or indirect, organized or unorganized, conscious or unconscious, co-operative or antagonistic.”1 This is the generic use of the term, and it is simply an organizing abstraction which covers all possible instances of our more businesslike use of the adjective “social.” This meaning of “society” will certainly absorb politics; it will absorb anything. But just because it is so hospitable, this meaning is of no use to liberalism.
But “society” may be distinguished, Professor Ginsberg tells us, “from a society.” And a society in this more precise meaning is a much more promising candidate for liberal usages. “A society is a collection of individuals united by certain relations or modes of behaviour which mark them off from others who do not enter into those relations or who differ from them in behavior.”2 Now the members of any State will, in terms of this definition, also constitute a society; and if we also bear in mind the more extensive generic meaning of society, then we will easily be convinced that the members of any State constitute a society independently of their political association.
But how can the members of a State also constitute a society in this non-political manner? One obvious answer lies in discovering things upon which they all agree. This was the view taken by Locke. It is a moral view, for it is an agreement to approve of certain common acts and objects. Society, then, is constituted by our agreements, the State by our conflicts. Here we may observe a continuity between the liberal and the Marxist views, both linked to the nostalgic desire that the State might “wither away.” This solution runs into the difficulty that there is nothing upon which all the members of a politically constituted class also happen to agree. There will always be times when many of them act disagreeably to whatever is thought to be the consensus. They do not thereby cease to be members of the State, but in some sense they withdraw from “society.”3
Social and moral disagreement is something normally tolerated in free States. But there are certain circumstances, particularly that of modern war, when internal dissension and conflict are found to be disruptive. In such times the State is expected to take on a more cohesive unity which will promote a “high morale.” The crofter and the stockbroker, whatever their variations, are expected to consider their membership of State and nation as the deepest and most important thing of all. The State seeks to monopolize the emotions and services of its citizens; it demands further that these things should be willingly given.
Even when there is no such crisis, the doctrine of nationalism may develop exactly the same demands. Such a doctrine naturally becomes an ethic. It insists on the goodness of national devotion, and places the sceptical or the recalcitrant in various undesirable categories. At its height, this kind of movement becomes an exaltation. “There is something terrible,” said St. Just, “in the sacred love of the fatherland; it is so exclusive as to sacrifice everything to the public interest, without pity, without fear, without respect for humanity. . . . What produces the general good is always terrible.”4 The State generates a great range of powerful emotions, and directs them towards a metaphysical idea; it can hardly do anything else, for the particular actions of any existing government cannot in themselves justify such sentiments.
It might be imagined that here we have a fairly rigid distinction between liberal and totalitarian kinds of political thinking. Liberals insist that the State is simply a piece of machinery designed for the good of individuals whilst their totalitarian enemies make of the State a small god, and project violent emotions on to it. On this argument the distinction between the State and society is the whole crux of the liberal-democratic position. It places a limit on the activities of the State, making the latter responsive to the demands of its subjects. This is exactly the position of Locke, who kept the State on a short chain which could only be loosened for the good of the people, and then only in emergencies. Society, as Locke saw it, was rational and conservative, composed of a multitude of individuals, who needed political arrangements but were determined not to become enslaved by them. This theoretical position would seem to be amply confirmed by experience. Wherever a country has fallen into the hands of leaders claiming unlimited authority to regulate social affairs, oppression, misery, and usually war have been the result. And in all these countries, the prevalent philosophy denied the distinction between the State and society.
This argument is one that deserves to be taken seriously. But it depends very much upon how “society” is conceived, and as we shall see, a good many changes have been imposed upon the original Lockian formulation. Society has in fact become a person. It features in a great variety of roles, not only in political propaganda, but also in sociology itself. Convicts are said to be “paying their debt to society.” Race riots, visible prostitution, capital punishment and a whole set of things which the speaker dislikes are said to be “an affront to society.” Or again: “The existence of race prejudice indicates a widespread social failure.” But how can a complex of relationships “fail”? Society is, furthermore, something which can be tested: there is a social order which is only good if it satisfies social (or human) needs. We are the products of our society, yet we are also told that we must decide “what kind of society we want to live in.” If we extend our search for such usages into the fields of sociology and political theory, we shall find the word “social” qualifying such terms as objective, purpose, order, system, needs, problems, etc. Now sometimes a “social purpose” simply will mean a purpose arising out of social relations, as it means sociologically. But more often we find a curious monistic use, by which these objectives, purposes, etc., are thought to qualify “society” as a whole. It is this monistic usage which is the basis of liberal propaganda.
Our problem, then, is to discover what it is that collects debts, suffers affronts, determines the behavior of people and is also determined by them (whichever is convenient), fails, moves in different directions, has purposes and problems, and so on. A reader trained in linguistic philosophy may at this point hasten to enter a demurrer: All of these usages, he will say, must be evaluated in their contexts and on their merits; to look for a single meaning in a collection of usages is the sort of basically misguided question which has created the metaphysical confusions of the past. To this objection, we may readily agree that we shall be unlikely to find a single real entity to which all these usages clearly or confusedly refer. But this kind of single entity is exactly what is necessary to make sense of the many liberal uses of the term.
Liberals emphatically reject the idea of obligatory nationalist or totalitarian participation in the State. They accord to each individual the right to go about his own business within the protection of the State, so long as he does not illegally interfere with others. For something like a century now, however, they have been evolving a new form of obligatory participation. This new form of participation can be stated in the form of a moral argument.
The first premise of this argument would be the assertion that Britain is a democracy. Most of us would give some sort of qualified approval to this proposition. Democracy may be a vague term, but it has a number of signs (freedom of political organization, a thriving opposition, extensive freedom from official censorship) which are certainly present in Great Britain. Still, it is always rather inaccurate to connect an actually existing, concrete, political organization existing over time, with an abstract system; such a connection will rapidly lead us to conclude that Britain is only imperfectly a democracy, and (since we are supporters of democracy) we find that our harmless political proposition has turned into a program of action under our very eyes. There are some writers who take this bull very firmly by the horns and declare that democracy is an “ideal” (that is, that it fits as an end into someone’s policy) which we can approach but never quite fully attain. Ideals often get less tolerable as one gets closer to them. Our proposition can also generate all sorts of elegant intellectual difficulties: When did Britain become a democracy? For example—in 1688? 1832? 1867? 1884? 1920? 1928? 1945? Or, if Britain is still moving closer to the ideal, then our proposition is false, and Britain is not a democracy. The position here is similar to, say, “Britain is a Christian Community.” The assertion is a strange mixture of fact and aspiration. It is, in other words, a device, fitting into the endless flux of propaganda and persuasion.
The argument develops by unmasking some fragments of a definition: Democracies are states in which all sane adults participate in making political decisions. We are all by now familiar with the picture of the democratic citizen as one who takes an intelligent interest in public affairs and, when election time comes round, votes for the party which he judges will be better for the country. This picture has been under fire during the last decades from some political scientists writing articles with titles like “In defense of apathy.”5 The line taken in these arguments is that apathy is usually evidence of a well-governed State in which the populace is content to go about its business, and that it is frequently a preferable condition to the political hysteria which sometimes accompanies a protracted period of popular interest in political affairs. This account of political life has pretty clear conservative implications. The conclusion we may draw from this kind of dispute is that whether we are politically active, or inactive, we are going to please some people and displease others. More generally, what looks like a more or less academic question of defining the abstract term “democracy” is in fact a highly loaded ideological dispute. (How the political scientist, seeking to remain uncontaminated by “values,” and to supply means to anybody’s ends, gets off this hook is a fascinating question. Even if he merely reports usages—like a linguistic philosopher—he is still dealing with inflammatory materials.)
The general point about such definitions is that their content varies according to the political situation of the promoters of the abstraction. Those who are promoting an unestablished abstraction in hostile country (the champions of Moral Rearmament for example) are keen to define it in terms which will appeal to everyone—as being wholesome, idealistic, anti-communist and whatever else happens to be popular or support-gathering at any given time. On the other hand, those defining an established abstraction will write hortatory strictures with titles like “What is a Democrat (Communist, Nazi, Liberal, etc.)?” in which the emphasis is very much on how people must accommodate themselves to the movement. In the contemporary west, Democracy is such an established abstraction. Most people feel strongly attached to Democracy and are therefore likely to be receptive to all duties which can be presented to them as democratic.
We may now state the argument in the form of a rough syllogism:
Britain is a democracy.
A democracy is a State in which all sane adults participate in making political decisions.
Therefore all sane British adults ought to participate in social and political affairs.
Strictly speaking, one needs a number of supplementary propositions to establish, for example, that one can only make intelligent decisions if one has first taken an interest in the matters to be decided, but these are refinements we may neglect. Also, we may note that the duty reported in the conclusion is another version of meliorism: the theorist who completes his “negative” and “destructive” analysis and then goes on to make “constructive” suggestions is simply conforming to this democratic duty of participation. Its political effect is, as we argued in discussing trend-persuasion, to bring within the range of political propaganda people formerly protected by apathy.
But the main point that concerns us here is to discover what is the relation between the democratic duty of participation on the one hand and the liberal conception of “society” on the other. The clue to this relationship is to be found in the conception of a “social problem.” In strictly liberal terms, and indeed in all pre-liberal societies, there is no such thing as a “social problem.” There are political problems, which States and other institutions have to solve, and there are individual problems which individuals must deal with as best they can—and this may, of course, include turning individual problems into political ones. Institutions also have their problems—trade unions used to face the danger of political suppression or civil lawsuit; churches face such problems as a declining membership, or a disposition among enemies to persecute them. Now, as we saw in our earlier analysis of a policy, there cannot be a problem unless it fits into someone’s policy—unless, that is to say, it falls in principle to someone or some institution to solve it. If “society” is simply a complex descriptive abstraction, then it clearly cannot even have problems, much less solve them. In a purely formal sense we can say that the conception of a “social problem” is incoherent and impossible. Taken seriously, it yields a definition of “society” as “that for which the thing in question is a problem.”
But that obviously does not dispose of the question. For the modern liberal conception of society has nibbled away at the State so successfully as to reduce the State to “society in its political aspect,” an agency for making effective the wishes of the community. Here we are in the perilous territory of interacting abstractions, and some intricate untangling is required.
To say that the State is an agency of society is to indicate a causal direction. We are asserting, in fact, that society acts as a cause which determines (or, given the calculated ambiguity of these propositions, ought to determine) the acts of the State. This situation is very familiar to us, in which what starts off as a factual statement (“The State is an agency of society”) abruptly turns into a criterion, that is, into a particular policy. To be properly understood, the proposition requires to be prefaced by: “In a fully liberal world . . .” or “In terms of the policy of liberal movement. . . .” If we remember to add such a preface, then we shall not be puzzled by this perfectly ordinary logical dualism. But what is objectionable about the statement is that the causal relationship is one-directional. In other words, society determines the State, but the State is not allowed to influence society. And this, of course, is absurd, whether it be taken as a factual or a normative statement. Liberal theorists would no doubt agree that an executive act, or a piece of legislation, can indeed influence social affairs, but they would wish to insist on some criterion by which the political act could be shown to have social origins. For the liberal idea of political evil is a governmental act which springs full grown from the brow of politicians, and which lacks the antecedent of social support.
Next we must turn to elucidate the significant word “aspect” which crops up in the definition of the State as “society in its political aspect.” Here again we must analyze the matter in terms of policies. An aspect is something which interests us about an already determined whole. The dimness of this definition may be illuminated by an example. In wartime, the morale of the people is an “aspect” of the war effort; but to the people themselves it isn’t an aspect of anything—it is simply how they feel. Or, to take another example, the general policy of understanding and investigating the world leads to the field of knowledge being carved up into a number of subjects or disciplines. A scholar who is concerned to explain rural settlements in the Highlands of Scotland might, in some contexts, be said to deal with an “aspect” of geography, but to the scholar himself his subject is not an aspect, but a whole in itself—one which will no doubt have its own aspects. As long as this is understood, there is nothing especially objectionable about seeing the world in terms of wholes and aspects, though when this becomes a metaphysical exercise, it rapidly turns into idealism and begins to undermine the independence of everything in the world. In idealist terms everything is simply an aspect of an all-inclusive whole which is usually referred to as the absolute.
How does this general point affect the definition of the State as “society in its political aspect”? Obviously the definition is positing society as a whole which includes and determines politics. But in that case, we will have some difficulty in discovering the nature (or the defining principle) of this peculiar whole. We observed at the beginning of this section that the only thing which equally united the citizens of Great Britain (or of any other country) was the political fact of citizenship. The borders of “societies” and their internal constitutions are all produced by the work of politicians—whether kings or statesmen. It is, of course, true that all manner of social, geographical, linguistic and historical circumstances went into the definition of any given modern community; but the work of creating States and maintaining them is political, and inescapably so.
The unity of that “society” which claims the State as its “political aspect” is thus itself a political unity. The State is not an aspect of society; it is the only unity that society can lay claim to. In digging a grave for this widely accepted formula, we are actually laying to rest the ghost of the social contract theories, which also (and for ideological reasons) wished to establish that society was logically prior to the State, and therefore ought to control it. But once we are free of this assumption, we are able to detect the bones of liberal ideology. The unity of society in the liberal sense thus emerges not as a fact but as an aspiration—which might become a fact if everyone followed out the democratic duty which emerged from the syllogism we discussed. Liberal social unity is that of obligatory social participation, and it gains its plausibility from confusion with the sociological definition of society as a “complex of relationships”—for everyone is involved in many sorts of social relationships.
The liberal who argues in this manner is now in a position which is very characteristic of all ideologies. He is able to say both that social unity exists (i.e. there is such a thing as society apart from its political unity), and that the fact that social unity does not exist, is a social problem. He can have things both ways, shifting from one position to the other according to whether he is arguing with ideological opponents or trying to affect the behavior of ideological supporters.
THE USES OF SOCIETY
We are now able to understand how the British liberal traditions could, more or less in defiance of the facts, remain consistently individualistic for so many centuries. We can understand also how misguided were those nineteenth-century German writers who despised the English as being selfish and grasping—those who thought that Bentham was actually describing real people. The answer is perfectly simple. It is that liberal theory managed to combine an atomistic account of the State with a monistic account of society. The liberal individualist always had this extra card up his sleeve, one which could always deal with the many dangling bits of social and political life left over by utilitarianism. Now while we may deplore this split intellectually, we are unlikely to do so politically. Intellectually, there is no distinction between State and society; life cannot be carved up in this convenient way. And if the attempt to do so is made, then the result will be bad social and political theory, that is, theory which constantly has recourse to mystery, ambiguity, evasion, and downright falsity, in order to give a coherent account of its material. Politically, the story is rather different. On the basis of distinction between the State and society, an ideology has developed to support the British political tradition whereby an autonomous set of institutions live together within a single and limited order, within which politics functions to adjust conflicts of interest. As we have already argued, the adjustment of interests conception is a limited and local view of politics, a view which is not even fully adequate to the small area which it does appear to cover. It omits the crunch of truncheon on skull which always lies just in the background of political life; it has no place for the shadow institutions which arise out of those inadequately characterized “interests.”
So long as these autonomous institutions—churches, sects, business companies, social circles, universities, local communities—retain their vitality, then the notion of balance can remain the presiding theory of British (and indeed all) political life. But the vitality of these institutions has long been under attack from a variety of forces and circumstances. The main circumstances have been war and industrialism. The main force has been the socialist version of liberal ideology. But the curious and significant thing is that the attacks on these institutions have been made in the name of society.
Why has society been preferred to the State? One minor reason has been that States have earned a bad reputation. They have always had a pretty bad name, except in times of nationalist enthusiasm. Besides, conservative critics of socialist planning like to build up the State as a frightening bogey, pointing legitimately enough at totalitarian States. By now, society has a much nicer ring about it.
Society, in any case, is a usefully vague idea. It has become a great causal rag-bag and hold-all, accommodating without protest virtually anything arising out of the communal experience of mankind. It is therefore a suitable term in which to dress the vaguest sorts of fancy; those projects which it would be preposterous to advance in the name of the State may be plausibly attributed to “society.” Thus wherever we come across statements suggesting that “society must act thus or decide thus,” the only meaning that can be attached to them is a political meaning. They are exhortations that the State should act in a certain way. What limited plausibility the use of “society” has in these cases arises simply from the democratic assumption that the indispensable prelude to any governmental act must be the support of popular opinion. And this, of course, is by no means always true.
Most conservatives are ready to accept the State as au fond a coercive organization which holds social life together. It includes the severe impartiality of the law and the sometimes brutal machinery of police, army, prisons, punishment and execution. It presents individuals with the choice of obedience or punishment. We cannot realistically consider the State without including some of these unlovely facts about it; but liberals have tried very hard to do so. They describe the State in terms of competing claims, maximizing happiness, provision of welfare, eliminating suffering and injustice. The State—all States—do actually carry out programs of this kind, with considerable variations from State to State, and from time to time. In so far as States behave coercively, however, the conclusion of liberalism is usually that they have failed. By the assumption of ultimate unanimity, and by that of the externality of causes of evil, liberals are led to believe that the coercive role of the State is necessary only because the State is inadequately organized. Now given the inescapably coercive and brutal conduct of all States at various times, liberal doctrines begin to sound unrealistic if they claim to be concerned with the State. And therefore it is much more convenient to talk about society.
Not, indeed, that liberals cannot deliver a sharp rap over the knuckles when they talk about society. Here, for example, is a curiously petulant passage from L. T. Hobhouse: “On the other side, the individual owes more to the community than is always recognized. Under modern conditions he is too much inclined to take for granted what the State does for him and to use the personal security and liberty of speech which it affords him as a vantage ground from which he can in safety denounce its works and repudiate its authority. He assumes the right to be in or out of the social system as he chooses. He relies on the general law which protects him and emancipates himself from some particular law which he finds oppressive to his conscience. He forgets or does not take the trouble to reflect that, if everyone were to act as he does, the social machine would come to a stop. He certainly fails to make it clear how a society would subsist in which every man should claim the right of unrestricted disobedience to a law which he happens to think wrong. In fact, it is possible for an over-tender conscience to consort with an insufficient sense of social responsibility.”6
In this remarkable passage, we have the other side of that spirit of liberalism which expresses itself in the abstract delineation of the compassionate spirit. Here we have “community,” “society,” “State,” “social system,” even the “social machine,” all mixed up indiscriminately together. Here, in the figure of the rascally critic who steps in and out of “the social system,” we have the liberal confusions about causation which we discussed on the issue of social commitment, which is both a fact and yet also an aspiration. And here also we have that curious moral criticism which is sometimes elevated into a moral philosophy: a concern with the consequences not of the act in question, but of the universalized act—the eternal complaint of angry headmasters crying: “What if everybody did it?” Which is, of course, not the point. For in the relevant situation, everybody is not doing it. And lastly, we have the mention of that sinisterly vague idea, a sense of social responsibility, which conjures up a future of sternly benevolent heads of organizations explaining to the errant subordinate the beautiful general ends of the particular system, which his deviations are selfishly threatening.
Thus our first conclusion about the uses of “society” must be that it is a way of avoiding talking about the State. Further, the reason why this transition takes place is the ordinary propaganda reason of confusing the implications of a political program. If political demands are advanced then they come from a determinate source and can be appropriately criticized. But the idea of a social problem appears to come from no particular location in society. It is a social incoherence arising out of an ideal; and this ideal can most persuasively be put in moral terms. For this reason, while it is absurd to talk of a “sick” or “healthy” or “decadent” State, we often find people applying holistic moral descriptions of this kind to society. Society as a propaganda term must therefore be conceived as an organism. The “real question,” in liberal terms, is “whether the social order actually serves our needs.”7 We have already considered the use of needs propaganda. Here we have illustrated the use of “needs” as something mysteriously outside the social order and acting as a moral criterion of the “social order.” But what is the “social order”? If “society” is simply the “complex of social relationships” then it is not a single manipulable order. In so far as there is a single order, then it is that imposed by the State and expressed in laws. Similarly, when we read that “the true nature of society” is that it is a “human organization for common needs,”8 we can only observe that a complex of relationships is not an “organization” at all—only the State and the institutions it sanctions are “organizations” in that sense. But it is precisely the aim of liberalism to make society into a single, complex organization.
We cannot understand the force of the liberal conception of society unless we understand the impulse behind it. As Lady Wootton formulates it: “The contrast between man’s amazing ability to manipulate his material environment and his pitiful incompetence in managing his own affairs is now as commonplace as it is tragic.”9 Well, contrasts depend upon our hopes and interests, but the point is clear enough. “Society” is man controlling his own affairs, consciously and deliberately. From the liberal uses of the concept a dream of controlled harmony begins to emerge. Such dreams have often been influential in human affairs.
In this dream, we find a single all-embracing organization in which each individual can find fulfilment and the completion of his own personality. We find a spontaneous moral harmony, without anything more in the way of dogmatic presupposition than is imposed by the guiding idea of harmony. This is particularly true in respect of sexual deviations; liberals are prepared to leave the question of homosexuality, for example, to one side, pending the advance of medical techniques. Science is expected to provide a progressive revelation by means of which we can construct such a harmony.
This ideal has no place for barriers between classes of people. It is hostile to social class, racial discrimination, and any kind of social differentiation, except in some cases a differentiation based on vocational ability. The pervasive emotion of the ideal is that of love, for love creates and is constructive, whilst hatred destroys and creates barriers. In some versions of the concept of society, loving seems to be an attribute of generic man. For hatred is taken to be an irrationality produced by mental illness and social circumstances; remove these and men will naturally love each other and behave considerately.
Some of the details of this picture emerge from descriptions of the concept of “mental health.”10 Many such definitions include the notion of inner harmony within the personality; most also use the idea of adjustment (especially “positive, emotional, social and intellectual adjustment”) to the individual’s environment. The fact that this harmony would be a system comes out in the frequent reference to function and role which is found in these definitions; it comes out even more strikingly in the references to efficiency: “. . . the end result will be an integrated, harmonious personality, capable of attaining maximum efficiency, satisfaction and self-realization with the least expenditure of energy and the least strain from interfering and conflicting desires and habits, and maximally free from serious inner strife, maladjustment, or other evidence of mental discord.” The conception of human beings functioning in a systematic organization is, of course, a mechanical one; and the careless inattentive reader of some definitions of mental health is likely to be brought up short by an eerie feeling that he is reading a disquisition on diesel engines. Particularly do we find this in the more extreme and optimistic views of mental health: “Industrial unrest to a large degree means bad mental hygiene, and is to be corrected by good mental hygiene. The various anti-social attitudes that lead to crime are problems for the mental hygienist. Dependency, in so far as it is social parasitism not due to mental or physical defect, belongs to mental hygiene. But mental hygiene has a message also for those who consider themselves quite normal, for, by its aims, the man who is fifty per cent efficient can make himself seventy per cent efficient.”
It is clear that this particular area of the social sciences exemplifies scientific moralism; that is, a moral and political movement advancing its banners under the camouflage of science. But, as we have argued, the claim to be scientific is a bogus one. The movement includes the metaphysical idea of generic man; and it depends for its incursions into ethics on the rationalist teleology of ends and means: “. . . actually many of the apparent needs of everyday life are, in fact, means dressed up as ends as a matter of practical convenience; they are logically derived from some much more general principle, which for practical purposes it is assumed that they will promote.”11 We have already dealt with many of the objections to this kind of argument; the main point being that where something is taken as both an end and a means, there exist (as a matter of social fact) two policies which determine its dual role. The scientific procedure here would be to discover and investigate these policies. The liberal movement, however, dogmatically classifies whatever it can as being “in reality” a means. In other words, it espouses one policy uncritically and rejects the other, whilst simultaneously confusing the issue by its claim to science. What we confront is a metaphysics of the familiar appearance and reality type, proceeding under a heavy smokescreen. Science is concerned with issues of truth and falsity, the liberal movement with an imperfectly defined conception of improvement or reform; and there is no necessary relationship between the desirable and the true.
The function of these ends-means arguments is to make the system flexible. What is “normal” or healthy must be able to fit into it without strain. But there are some classes of people whose behavior cannot be universalized to fit into the system called “society.” These people are called deviants or “social problems.” And since the system is itself a moral conception, though it tries to avoid seeming so, then deviants must also be morally significant. We have already argued that the conception of a social problem is strictly speaking meaningless. But it is made plausible by its moral content.
EDUCATION AND SOCIETY
The liberal conception of society is, then, determined by the moral and political policies of modern liberalism. It has only a tenuous connection with sociological description (though sociologists themselves often adopt it). The ends of this policy are described, usually in the abstract singular, as “social purpose.” The means or necessary conditions of the policy are “social needs,” and the barriers to it are “social problems.” It is an ambitious policy which aims at nothing less than the transformation of human life. So ambitious a project necessarily takes a great interest in education, for like all movements, it is eager to recruit the young. In liberal terms, education, like everything else, is a means towards something else, and once this instrumental character has been established, then outside manipulation is not far away. For it is inevitable that “that of which it is an instrument” (viz. “society”12 ) will begin to apply its own criteria of efficient functioning. The only way in which we can expose this kind of attempt to reduce education to a socially dependent role is by making some remarks about education as an independent tradition.
Education depends upon what we may call, with a maximum of vagueness, the impulse towards understanding. Sometimes this impulse is said to be produced by curiosity; sometimes it is even elevated into an instinct or natural disposition of human nature. Men have exhibited this impulse under a great variety of circumstances, and in western civilization it has generated a tradition of immense complexity and significance. It is an impulse which may clearly be distinguished from the meliorist conception of a search for knowledge to promote the satisfaction of desires. For, however the impulse towards understanding may begin, it is capable of freeing itself from practical considerations.
The distinction between the academic and vocational pursuit of knowledge may be developed into an ethical argument. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has often been taken as a good; as something distinguished from other kinds of pursuit by the ethical quality of goodness. A man dominated by the mood of philosophical enquiry has been thought to be one who has stepped aside from the blinkered confusion of everyday life, and who alone is fully conscious of himself in the world. Those who pursue other kinds of desire necessarily limit themselves; they have eyes only for what is relevant to the object of their pursuit. They are liable to frustration, hope, fear, disappointment, even hysteria—all emotions capable of precipitating evil acts. The pursuit of most desires necessarily promotes illusions—sometimes facts must be ignored or distorted, but always transient objects and satisfactions are allowed an importance which other moods will find disproportionate. The philosopher, this argument continues, is therefore the model of the good man, and the disinterested pursuit of truth is a good activity. This argument is Greek in origin; further it is one which does not involve exhortation. It does not lead to the command: Pursue knowledge. For as a matter of fact, men will pursue truth, though intermittently. Exhortation, or the command to pursue knowledge, would in fact defeat this purpose, for it would subject truth-seeking to a policy.
We may therefore adopt this conventional distinction between vocational and academic pursuit of knowledge, though we should be careful not to vulgarize it into a distinction between practice and theory. All societies make some provision for vocational training; but not all have strong and independent traditions of academic investigation of the world. And while it is rather pointless to struggle over the possession of a word, we may note that “education” has traditionally referred primarily to the academic pursuit of knowledge, and the preparations for it.
Arguments asserting the autonomy of freedom of enquiry have always had a prominent place in the liberal tradition. Areopagitica and the Essay on Liberty are both passionate defenses of the social tradition of enquiry; but they are both expressed in individualist terms, and in each there is a tendency to support freedom of enquiry because of the incidental utilities which accrue to a political system in which it is untrammelled. But defenses of free enquiry are only as strong as their weakest argument; and any defense which points to the outside interests which free enquiry may serve is a hostage to fortune: it may have to submit when the balance of utility turns against it. If philosophy is for the greater glory of God, there may come a time when those entrusted with the earthly affairs of the Deity decide that it no longer glorifies Him. At the present time, liberalism is weakened in its defense of free enquiry by the meliorist question: Knowledge for what?
Free enquiry, like any social activity, has to fight for its existence in a hostile environment. The most obvious hazard is orthodoxy. An orthodoxy which asserts geocentricity of the universe as a truth on the same level as that of transubstantiation is likely to be understandably flustered when men start building telescopes and toying with Copernican ideas; and one which asserts the inferiority of certain races will wish to keep a strong grip on its social scientists. These, of course, are merely the dramatic examples; what they dramatize is the constant and ceaseless pressure upon enquiry to arrive at required conclusions. The first antagonist of the educational tradition is dogma, which limits the free play of enquiry. People have been burned, shot, hanged, imprisoned and exiled for the questioning of politically established dogmas, those which are thought necessary to the stability of the régime. In a free society, the consequences of contesting any particular dogma are not fatal.
The tradition of free enquiry has developed institutions, and institutions very quickly develop their own momentum. In particular, questions of status, comfort and respectability begin to arise, and play a powerful role in the minds of those who are officially custodians of the tradition. We have noted as a general psychological principle that any act will be determined not by a single motive but by a cluster of motives, and the holding of an opinion is an act. The participants in controversies will often include among their motives not only that of understanding the issue, but also those of self-esteem, ambition, security, or fear of giving offence. All manner of ideological motives are likely to force their way into academic life. These dangers are often more insidious than the dramatic force of threatened persecution, and they are inevitably part of the milieu within which enquiry must operate. Where the tradition is strong, these motives will themselves be criticized and exposed; at other times they will encompass the slow strangulation of the tradition. When that happens, free enquiry may languish, or, alternatively, it may simply move outside the universities, as it did during the seventeenth century, when modern science and philosophy were most vigorously carried on by a network of communicating private individuals.
What has primarily burdened the tradition of education over the last century or so is the weight of hopes and expectations which have rested upon it. For the Enlightenment, education was the instrument which would bring us out of the darkness of superstition. Then, more significantly, in the nineteenth century, education became an indispensable instrument of industrial advance. It was the pressure of industrial demand which was the necessary and sufficient condition of the spread of literacy and instruction towards the end of that century. The very usefulness of universities meant from that period on that government and industry were ready to employ the products of their training. And very soon, universities began to receive public money. In earlier times, they had managed to subsist off private support, at the cost of only intermittent attempts to influence the content of what was taught and thought. In the early stage of public support for universities, no question arose of universities meeting “national needs.” The universities of Britain were dominated, and to a large extent still are dominated, by wily men who know perfectly well how to deal with ideological encroachments of that kind. In any case, given the political policies of the last half century—by which large private accumulations of wealth were systematically mopped up by the central Treasury—universities faced the alternative of public support or total collapse. But having been forced into this position, they were bound to face demagogic criticism framed in terms of: What are the taxpayers getting for their money?
But above the demagogic hustle more profound-sounding themes are persuasively broached. What is the true purpose of a university? What are the values of education? Where should it lead? Here the ideologist approaches on tiptoe, often himself unaware of his role. And here the only full response to such questions is a comprehensive understanding of social life. Otherwise the disputants flounder around looking for points which will clinch the argument. Some answers to these questions are readily rejected. Few people at the moment could be induced to believe that a university ought to produce unshakable patriots, men who will never accept the view that any act of their country is wrong. Nor would many people believe that a university exists simply to state the dogma of the one true religious belief. On the other hand, those who have not considered the matter closely (and some who have) might agree with any number of vague formulae: that universities exist to promote self-realization, to express the values of society, to play a vital social role, to educate the whole man, or to investigate the purpose of life. Exactly what meanings lurk in ambush behind these mellifluous phrases is difficult to detect. Sometimes they are as vapid as they sound; sometimes they are not. Frequently they are the innocuous source of a whole range of prescriptions demanding reform of curricula, different directions of university interest, or a more “committed” attitude on the part of academics. In other words, they are “criteria,” or determining policies, which once established are to be used to adjudicate conflicts of interest within universities, or between universities on the one hand and the State or any other social institution on the other. For this reason, they cannot be ignored.
In beginning this section with some brief remarks on the tradition of enquiry and education, we have implicitly established one possible answer to these questions; namely, that universities were created and sustained by the activity of free enquiry. There is a sense in which free enquiry is their “purpose.”
For various reasons which are only imperfectly understood, traditions and activities are liable to a decline, and sometimes this decline may take place even though the institutions remain powerful and perhaps even continue to exhibit a glittering and impressive appearance. Traditions can lose their flexibility and inventiveness and degenerate into dogmas. The French army, for example, spent vast resources upon elaborating the assumptions which it considered had brought success in the First World War. The motives lying behind this hardening would seem to have been fear resulting from the shock of that earlier victory. And it is possible that fear always lies behind the defensiveness that results in a tradition hardening into a set of dogma.
It is probably some realization of this kind which leads to the universities being criticized for resistance to innovation—with “not keeping up with the times.” But here the complexity of ideological battles becomes very evident; for those who make the criticism are often seeking to impose their own demands, indeed their own kind of hardening, upon the institutions they criticize. And whilst fashion is a fatal influence on most activities it is peculiarly dangerous to artistic and academic traditions. It amounts to importing all the currently fashionable slogans into the work of free enquiry. If the latter is in a vigorous condition, it will proceed to criticize these slogans, to lay bare, in particular, the simplifications and illusions involved in modern thinking. Such criticism is likely to be as unwelcome to very strong interests in the State as was Socratic criticism to the Athenian orthodoxies.
The social pressure resisting criticism is very strong, but it must not be seen as an outside pressure working upon the universities, for the simple reason that it exists within. University teachers, in so far as they are involved in social life, are themselves resistant to criticism. The result is that the controversy over the “role” of universities is a highly confused struggle, in which some of the external criticisms are true. In the twentieth century, universities have gained greatly in self-importance, and the pronouncements of their members are attended to with gravity by the authorities of other institutions. In realizing this very condition, university teachers are liable to a peculiar feeling of self-consciousness; in particular, they are liable to be especially receptive to the ethic of social responsibility. If issues of great State importance depend upon them, they are forced into the role of being politicians. And when the discussion turns upon the question of responsibility, they are forced into working out just what they are responsible to. Is it the State? Is it to “morality”? Is it to universities as institutions? Is it to the spirit of free enquiry? And, as we argued earlier in discussing policies, there can be no determinate answer to questions of this kind. Each answer which is implicitly or explicitly given registers the social character of the people involved.
We have noted that problems arise in the context of policies. Now what is a problem in terms of one policy may not be a problem in terms of another. The problems of the balance of trade, for example, may be of little intellectual significance to economists; the theoretical elements can be laid bare. But the problem as it exists for the Treasury is of a different kind. The economist who accepts the Treasury view of the problem is doing something different from advancing economics. It is doubtful whether the problem of juvenile delinquency in the social sciences has a sufficient intellectual unity to mark it off from other forms of social behavior; the fact that it is a problem to police forces does not necessarily mean that it is the same sort of problem to social scientists. On the other hand, the problem of what causes cancer happens to be one of great importance for a number of policies. But here again, the intellectual problem of causation may well be solved whilst other difficulties prevent the establishment of a cure for the condition.
None of this, of course, is to argue that people ought not to work on so-called practical problems. People obviously will. But they will not necessarily be doing work of much intellectual significance. The point is indeed a rather obvious one, yet its importance for the social sciences is immense. What claims individuals may legitimately make upon governments is a question of very little intellectual significance. The answer does not allow us to understand politics any better; yet just this concern has immensely influenced politics over the last century and more—indeed is one of the reasons why political theory is generally so drearily unilluminating. Again, what mechanical adjustments to a constitution will make the country safe for democracy is intellectually a banal and irrelevant question, yet thinkers write many books upon it—books which are thus intellectually sterile and, because of their abstract generality, of no use to politicians.
The damage done by this—in fact meliorist—confusion does not lie simply in the diversion of attention. It lies partly in the fact that such preoccupations are capable of imposing “commonsense” upon the conceptualization of a subject. And, as we pointed out in discussing trend-persuasion, given that the investigators of a subject are saddled with a set of “practical” categories, the use of statistics and similar devices is now so extensive that results which are in some sense meaningful can be squeezed out of a barren subject for a very long time. Further damage is done to a subject by the fact that the defense of already unacademic procedures maneuvers its protagonists further away from the tradition of academic understanding. Such people are forced into elaborating the duties of the scholar to the State, the community, society, the well-being of mankind or various other vague conceptions.
The awareness of this question that does exist has often protected the universities from the cruder forms of outside pressure. Both governments and private foundations are often careful to insist that the money they donate shall be used for academic purposes and not devoted to the trivia of everyday life. The fault to a surprising extent lies within the universities themselves—in the empire-building of professors and the kind of research which is done. The most useful defense of academic immunity against outside pressures has been the argument that if scholars and scientists are allowed to carry on in their own way, they are likely to produce some useful by-products in the course of their academic work. Developments in science and mathematics are an excellent illustration that such things have happened. A constant flow of scientific wonders has so far kept the utilitarian pack of critics from baying too hard at ivory towers. A more serious threat comes from contemporary ideologists of national purpose, who would subject the universities to the changing demands of competitive nationalism.13
To defend education by pointing to its incidental utilities is unsound. Academic enquiry is not strictly useful to society, for, as we have argued, society in this sense is meaningless. But it is indispensable to the continuance of a number of civilized traditions which are still very strong, and which would be threatened by the wholesale barbarization implicit in the program of making universities practically useful. In these interests, the universities are likely to find a number of dependable allies in the immediate future.
[1. ]Morris Ginsberg, Sociology, Oxford, 1955, p. 40.
[3. ]This might suggest that “society” is a more exclusive term than “state,” and in this usage, and in many sociological contexts, it is. In this liberal usage, it retains valuable overtones of that earlier meaning by which “society” indicated only the respectable. But “society” may also become wider than the State, as in this rather baffing proposition from a letter to the Listener: “The enemies of the State are not necessarily the enemies of society.”
[4. ]Quoted by Elie Kedourie in Nationalism, London, 1960, p. 18.
[5. ]For example in an interesting article by Professor Morris Jones, in Political Studies, February 1954.
[6. ]Liberalism, 1934, pp. 149–50.
[7. ]Raymond Williams, The Long Revolution, London, 1961, p. 104.
[8. ]Raymond Williams, op. cit., p. 112.
[9. ]Testament for Social Science, London, 1950, p. 1.
[10. ]A useful set of definitions of mental health has been collected by Barbara Wootton in Social Science and Social Pathology, London, 1959, pp. 219–224, where they are also discussed and criticized. The examples quoted here are taken from this source.
[11. ]Barbara Wootton, Testament for Social Science, p. 121. Cf. the note on Flugel above, p. 117.
[12. ]“Society” is sometimes used in conjunction with another logically similar term, “the economy.” Thus John Vaizey (Britain in the Sixties, Penguin Special, 1962) has a chapter entitled “The New Society and the New Economy,” which begins: “It is worth spending money on education because it assists the economy . . . in the last ten years Britain’s national income has risen less sharply than those of other countries in Europe, and this failure in growth is associated with a profound shift in the country’s international position” (my italics). This passage, with its propagandist transition from “risen less sharply” to “this failure of growth,” is part of the heavy fall of Snow which has followed the Rede Lecture of 1959. It is an example of trend-persuasion as it affiects education.
[13. ]“I think we are lacking, clearly, in effiective leadership: I mean, a leadership in getting things done, a leadership in terms of a sense of national purpose”—Anthony Crosland, in a broadcast discussion, printed in The Listener, 5.7.62. And Professor McRae, in the same discussion, remarks: “I believe that if we are going to get out of our stagnation over the next generation, the heart of this lies with doing something about education—not with just adjusting the educational system but actually with thinking education out anew.”