Unification in the Social Sciences: Search for a Science of Society

8. Reuniting the Individual and the Collective

The divorce in social sciences between subjective and objective phenomena is closely related to a second disunity between the individual and the collective. The science of material Nature and lower life forms is the science of types. Particles, atoms, molecules, minerals, stars, solar systems, galaxies, unicellular organisms, plants and animals fall into categories and subcategories that can be distinguished by their observable characteristics. In each case science studies the common characteristics of the type. Every diamond may possess some unique attributes, but the atoms and particles of which diamonds are composed are remarkably uniform and indistinguishable. Ascending the scale to complex forms of life, we observe greater differences and disparities between individuals of the same type, as every pet owner knows from personal experience, but science focuses on the similarities and mostly ignores the differences. While ancient history was normally recorded in terms of the lives of outstanding individuals, the modern approach to historical analysis and contemporary events places much greater stress on the action of broad tendencies and statistical trends, than unique individuals and events.

Applied with incredible success with regard to non-human subjects of study, the same approach has been applied by the social sciences to categorize societies, classes, groups, institutions, social processes and activities by generalized type and to apply statistical measures to describe the shared behaviors of groups. In practice, this approach encounters serious methodological and practical problems.

Foremost among these is the problem of the Individual. What would have happened to the banking American crisis in 1933 had Herbert Hoover been re-elected for a second term? Would the Cold War have ended in 1989 if Mikhail Gorbachev had never been elected as President of the Soviet Union? Would the North have won the American Civil War and constitutionally abolished slavery in 1865 if Lincoln had not been the president during this period? Would Britain have defeated the Nazis in the Battle of Britain had Churchill not been chosen as its leader? Would Apple Computers have ever been founded or would it have recovered from its progressive decline during the 1990s to become the most valuable company in the history of the world had Steve Jobs not lived or had he not returned a decade later to the company from which he had been summarily ejected in 1985?

Attention to the central importance of the individual and his uniqueness has recently reemerged, as Ivo Šlaus points out. Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable emphasizes the inordinate significance of highly improbable, high impact, unpredictable events in human affairs. Taleb observes that statistical measures of normal behavior have been inadequate to anticipate the most important events in human history, such as the onset of World War I, the Great Crash, the End of the Cold War, the invention of the World Wide Web, 9/11, Fukushima, the 2008 financial crisis. He concludes from these observations that human existence is inherently uncertain, like the behavior of subatomic particles, an appealing premise since it implies a sort of unity between the human and material microcosm of quantum particles. Taleb’s thesis is a useful reminder that human life cannot be wholly understood in terms of generalizations and statistics, but his interpreta­tion of events does not take fully into account the role of conscious individuality in human affairs.

The human individual is distinguished from every other species of living and non-living life form by the enormous variation and uniqueness of its individual members. Within our species there are wide disparities between the degree of individual or unique characteristics exhibited by different people and the degree of individuality or individuation is increasing over time. Our individuality is evolving. The formed individual – variously described by leading humanistic psychologists such as Goldstein, Maslow, May, Murray and Rogers – is the self-actualized, self-realized person who by a process of individuation assimilates the rich experience of life and internalizes it as a unique organization of aspirations, knowledge, perceptions and values. According to Rogers, the human organism has an inherent “actualizing tendency”, which aims to develop all capacities in ways that maintain or enhance the organism and move it toward autonomy. Individuality is that which does not depend on social authority or tend toward social conformity for its own sake; it is the capacity for original inspiration, creativity, and uniqueness of expression. Zucconi cites prominent characteristics that emerge by the process of individuation: self-awareness, authenticity, trust in oneself and others, a sense of purposefulness and direction, creativity, leadership qualities, a deep capacity for affiliation and communication, adaptability, flexibility, self-regulation and maturity.††

No matter how successful the exclusive concentration on shared characteristics may be when applied to other fields of natural science, a science of society cannot ignore the significant differences in knowledge, skill, motivation, aspiration, action and achievement that distinguish members of our species and their influence on the life of the collective. A symbiotic relationship exists between the human individual and social collective. Mila Popovich calls for a sense of responsible interconnectedness. “Always keep in mind the relational nature of individuality – the correlation between the micro and macro scale – the co-creative relationship among individuals, individuals and their environment as well as the human embodied and embedded system within the greater cosmic system.”‡‡

Society is the repository of the accumulated knowledge, skills, values, laws, customs, institutions, activities and behaviors of past generations made accessible to every new member to varying degrees. We acquire our language, ideas, beliefs, attitudes, habits and values from the societies to which we belong. The behaviors, attitudes and values that characterize our personalities are molded by the social institutions with which we relate, as Zbigniew Bochniarz points out.§§

At the same time, the individual is the catalyst for all social change. As Margaret Mead observed, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” All social innovation, invention, discovery and creativity can be traced back to one or a few individuals who seek to push beyond society’s current boundaries. The explorer, adventurer, entrepreneur, inventor, public leader, original thinker and creative artist are the source of innovations that propel the evolution of society. Progress of organization and society ultimately depends on the development of each of their individual members. The individual develops by raising his consciousness and organizing his personality at a higher level. The highest stage of organization of personality is what we mean by individuality. The formed individual is the catalyst for raising the con­sciousness and organization of society.

It is evident to most people that Apple Computers would never have invented the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone or iPad had it not been for the work of a single individual, Steve Jobs. But in most cases we do not perceive the relationship between the personalities and actions of individuals and the social institutions that govern the social collective. In fact, all our social institutions can be traced back to the ideas, values and actions of creative individuals. As chief of the Continental Army, George Washington had such a firm belief in the need for subordination of military to civilian authority that he submitted to the authority of the Continental Congress even when Congress left its soldiers without food, clothing, shoes and ammunition to survive the harsh New England winters and wage war against the British. When the war was finally won, most Americans were highly suspicious of central authority and reluctant to empower a federal government to rule over the states. They unanimously elected a reluctant Washington as the first President because he was the one leader who had demonstrated beyond doubt his commitment to civilian democratic rule. So little did he crave for power that he accepted only on condition that he would be relieved of responsibility within two years. When told that Washington wanted to return to his farm after winning independence, his bitter enemy King George III replied incredulously, “If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world.” For 230 years since then, the US military has subordinated itself to the elected government. Washington’s personal values became embodied as the values of the nation.

Social institutions are an objectification of the consciousness of individuals. Individual personality and social culture are interdependent expressions of a unified reality. Our vision of social reality is based on an erroneous separation of consciousness and force. Like Descartes, we view social institutions as impersonal seats of power functioning autonomously and beyond our power to control. We fail to perceive the consciousness of human beings that underpins and supports that exercise of power and therefore feel helpless. This perception is so prevalent that politicians, lawyers and judges act as if law is created by legislatures and interpreted by judges independently of the will of the people. In reality, law is a codification of public conscience founded on what the public endorses and is willing to accept, even when governing power is a colonial or authoritarian government. Mahatma Gandhi demonstrated this truth by a single act of civil disobedience that shook the foundations of the British Empire. In April 1930 he called on Indians to violate law taxing the manufacture of salt by marching to the sea coast and making salt. Tens of thousands rose to his call. More than 60,000 were arrested, but Gandhi had demonstrated to all concerned the obvious fact that no foreign power could rule India if the Indians were unwilling to accept foreign rule. Indian Independence was achieved by altering the attitude of millions of Indians to reject its position as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire.

Twenty-six years after India became free, a middle aged black woman in Montgomery, Alabama refused to obey a local law imposing racial segregation on public buses. Arrested and fined $8 for her crime, Rosa Parks’ example inspired thousands of citizens to boycott the public transport system until the law was abolished the following year. A local clergyman named Martin Luther King was inspired by the enormous power of her actions to launch the American Civil Rights Movement. Rosa’s role illustrates the bridge between the generation of new law at the micro level and its gradual expression at the macro level. Laws, public policies and social institutions are expressions of the social consciousness, whether by consciously determined intention or reluctant passive submission. The individual who perceives that truth possesses the power to re-establish the connection between the apparently impersonal social system and the personal values and aspirations of its members. Such an individual possesses the knowledge and therefore the power to change the world.

Human beings have a marked propensity for creating marvelous new inventions and then becoming slaves to their own creations. Thus, today we feel helpless before the governments, technology and financial systems created to serve us. The sense of fatalism that pervades public attitudes about unrepresentative political systems, corruption, unfair public policies and unsustainable economies arises from a flawed understanding of the true relationship between individual consciousness and collective power. A science of society for the 21st century can empower humanity to reclaim control of institutions that have gotten out of control, restoring the connections and providing the theoretical and practical support needed to heal the breach.

9. Unification of Time
Causality in the physical sciences moves in only one direction, from past to future. Past actions have future consequences that often appear inevitable, such as the path of the apple as it falls from the tree to the ground. The future in the physical sciences is something that does not exist yet, so it cannot possibly impact on the present. Events in the present depend only on the forces set in motion during a preceding interval of time.

But time behaves somewhat differently for conscious human beings. For us the future already exists in the form of our aspirations, expectations, imaginations, perceptions, hopes and fears. Unlike rolling stones and falling apples that are propelled by the past into a future course, human beings are moved to act in the present according to their anticipation of future outcomes. The expectation that banks would fail motivated millions of Americans to rush to their banks before it was too late, setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophesy. The dream of creating a computer that would empower creative individuals motivated Steve Jobs to invent something that did not previously exist. The aspiration for freedom and self-government motivated the American colonies to revolt and fight for independence. The faith in the power of non-violence espoused by Mahatma Gandhi led Indians to win their freedom without waging war. Modelled after the natural sciences, theories of causality in the social sciences depend inordinately on the consequences of past events and tend to ignore or minimize the role of future expectations, even in instances where it is intuitively obvious that perceptions of the future are a critical determinant of present behavior.

The flaw in this paradigm is made evident by a well-documented history of flawed projections by ‘experts’ considered to be most qualified to predict the future based on their knowledge of past and present achievements. Among the most notable and amusing, Lord Kelvin’s observation in 1883 that “X-rays will prove to be a hoax”; the comment in 1946 by the famous American movie producer, Darryl Zanuck, “Television won’t last because people will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night”; IBM founder Tom Watson’s assessment in 1943 that there would be a world market for about five computers, the advice by famed entrepreneur Michael Dell to Steve Jobs on his return to Apple in 1996 to shut down the company and give the money back to the shareholders; and then Microsoft President Steve Balmer’s estimation in 2007 that “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” Note that these efforts to project the future based on past experience and present knowledge relate to social and economic trends, not merely technological advances.

Roberto Poli cites recent evidence from psychology, anthropology, sociology, and economics that indicates that the importance of future anticipation in the social sciences is gaining recognition. He and a group of associates are striving to establish a discipline of Anticipation that has potential applications to all fields of social science. “A better and more complete understanding of anticipation and its effects will improve theories and models of individual and collective human behaviour and its consequences. The benefits will thus assist those who are explicitly seeking to understand and design ‘the prepared society’, to make more effective and sustainable use of technologies, to create more inclusive democracies and to explore the boundaries of human endeavours.”13

Human behavior is the product of subconscious and conscious perceptions and forces that are influenced by past events, present perceptions and future possibilities. The reunification of these three dimensions of time into a triple time vision will mark an important contribution to the emergence of a trans-disciplinary science of society.

10. Ways of Knowing
This discussion of the present status and future development of social science returns repeatedly to the central importance of our instruments of knowledge in determining the validity of our quest for truth. In the natural sciences, we rely to a large extent on instruments that extend remarkably the reach of our senses from the microscopic infinitesimal to the macroscopic infinite. But the social sciences cannot take refuge in mechanical and electronic instrumentation, no matter how powerful or impressive. The reality we are striving to comprehend is not material. It is social and psychological. The objects of which it consists are invisible to both the eye and instrumentation. We cannot see our thoughts, feelings, beliefs, values, sentiments. We cannot even see our social institutions and culture, only expressions and symbolic representations of them. The bond between a married couple may be symbolized by a wedding ring, but to the naked eye they are simply man and woman.

The one essential instrument we possess for the study of our individual and collective humanity – indeed for the study of all reality – is the power of the human mind and consciousness. Our capacity to effectively utilize that power of knowledge depends very much on understanding its characteristics, modes of operation and its limitations. As is the consciousness, so is the power. Limited knowledge means limited power for accomplishment.

The future of science requires that we focus much greater effort to understand the workings and limitations of the human mind. Foremost among those characteristics is the tendency of mind to divide reality into parts and relate to each part as if it were an independent whole, which is the basis for reductionism and the division of disciplines that now limit the evolution of social science. This divisive tendency also accounts for our habit of perceiving reality in terms of mutually contradictory opposites such as objective and subjective, individual and collective, overlooking the fact that contradictions can be resolved into complementarities at a higher level. Mind by its very character has the capacity to affirm any perspective as true or false.¶¶

Mind also has an opposite tendency to aggregate assemblies of parts, mistaking the sum of those parts for the whole, as many regard society as simply a sum of its members, rather than a complex living social organism. In addition mind thinks in symbols to represent reality and often mistakes the symbols for the reality itself. Thus, we tend to forget that money is only a symbol for productive capacity and public trust, not a thing in itself of any inherent value. So too, we overlook the common tendency of mind to analyze reality based on premises that pre-determine the conclusions we come to, such as the current quest for the chemical substances that determine human behavior.

Finally, we should not overlook the evidence that the greatest scientific discoveries have arrived by processes other than the normal rational mental faculty we pride on as the essence and mainstay of science – processes such as insight and intuition which we barely understand and rarely even try study scientifically. The testimony of great thinkers and scientists is irrefutable. As Kant observed, “All human knowledge begins with intuitions, proceeds from thence to concepts, and ends with ideas.” Einstein stated it this way: “The intellect has little to do on the road to discovery. There comes a leap in consciousness, call it intuition or what you will, and the solution comes to you and you don’t know why or how.”14 We must always keep in mind that the pursuit of science itself is entirely a human activity with its own sociological, cultural, mental, psychological and spiritual dimensions.

†† Alberto Zucconi, “Personality and individual accomplishments”, lecture delivered during a World University Consortium course entitled “Individuality & Accomplishment”, Inter-university Centre, Dubrovnik, August 28, 2014.
‡‡ Mila Popovich, “Restoring order and care: The Role of Human Relationships in Individual and Social Development”, lecture delivered during a World University Consortium course entitled “Towards a trans-disciplinary science of society”, Inter-University Centre, Dubrovnik, August 28, 2014.
§§ “Institutions are patterns of social activity that give shape to collective and individual experience…. Institutions form individuals by making possible or impossible certain ways of behaving and relating to others. They shape character by assigning responsibility, demanding accountability, and providing the standards in terms of which each person recognizes the excellence of his or her achievements. Each person’s possibilities depend on the opportunities opened up within the institutional contexts to which that person has access.” Robert Bellah, et. al., The Good Society, 1991, p. 40.
¶¶ “All human thought, all mental man’s experience moves between a constant affirmation and negation; there is for his mind no truth of idea , no result of exp
13 Roberto Poli, “Anticipation: A New Thread for the Human and Social Sciences?,” Cadmus 2, no.3(2014): 23-36.
14 Garry Jacobs, “Ways of Knowing: Life Beyond Chaos” Eruditio 1, no.4 (2013): 9-30.

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