Herbert Spencer: Individualism Versus Organicism
Individualism Versus Organicism
Spencer had to find a way of reconciling his thoroughgoing individualism with his organicist approach. In this he differed sharply from Comte, who, it will be remembered, was basically anti-individualistic in his general philosophy and developed an organicist theory in which the individual was conceived as firmly subordinated to society. Spencer, in contrast, not only conceived of the origins of society in individualistic and utilitarian terms, but saw society as a vehicle for the enhancement of the purposes of individuals.
According to Spencer, men had originally banded together because it was advantageous for them to do so. "Living together arose because, on the average, it proved more advantageous to each than living apart." And once society had come into being, it was perpetuated because, "maintenance of combination [of individuals] is maintenance of conditions . . . more satisfactory [to] living than the combined persons would otherwise have." In line with his individualistic perspective, he saw the quality of a society as depending to a large extent on the quality of the individuals who formed it. "There is no way of coming at a true theory of society, but by inquiry into the nature of its component individuals. . . . Every phenomenon exhibited by an aggregation of men originates in some quality of man himself." Spencer held as a general principle that "the properties of the units determine the properties of the aggregate."
In spite of these individualistic underpinnings of his philosophy, Spencer developed an overall system in which the organicist analogy is pursued with even more rigor than in Comte's work. The ingenious way Spencer attempted to overcome the basic incompatibility between individualism and organicism is best described in his own words. After having shown the similarity between social and biological organisms, he turned to show how they were unlike each other. A biological organism is encased in a skin, but a society is bound together by the medium of language.
The parts of an animal form a concrete whole, but the parts of society form a whole which is discrete. While the living units composing the one are bound together in close contact, the living unit composing the other are free, are not in contact, and are more or less widely dispersed. . . . Though coherence among its parts is a prerequisite to that cooperation by which the life of an individual organism is carried on, and though the members of a social organism, not forming a concrete whole, cannot maintain cooperation by means of physical influences directly propagated from part to part, yet they can and do maintain cooperation by another agency. Not in contact, they nevertheless affect one another through intervening spaces, both by emotional language and by the language, oral and written of the intellect . . . .That is to say, the internuncial function, not achievable by stimuli physically transferred, is nevertheless achieved by language.
The medium of language enables societies, though formed of discrete units, to exhibit a permanence of relations between component parts. But there is a more important difference still.
In the [biological organism] consciousness is concentrated in a small part of the aggregate. In the [social organism] it is diffused throughout the aggregate: all the units possess the capacity for happiness and misery, if not in equal degree, still in degrees that approximate. As, then, there is no social sensorium, the welfare of the aggregate, considered apart from that of the units, is not an end to be sought. The society exists for the benefit of its members; not its members for the benefit of society.
This is not the place to judge whether Spencer really managed to reconcile his individualism and his organicism--I rather think that he did not--but only to note that Spencer thought he had done so by stressing that no social body possessed a collective sensorium. Thus, despite functional differentiations between men, they all still aspired to a measure of "happiness" and satisfaction.
From Coser, 1977:98-99.