Society as an Organism – Spencer’s Paradox

After Comte, the next greatest name in sociology is Spencer.

Comte calls society a collective organism like Spencer does. A human society, like a family, is made up of independent individuals. A biological organism, on the other hand, is made up of separate organs which are not independent. The separate organs are neither free nor conscious.

The illustration in the above picture has two figures. The upper one represents society, like human society. The crosses (the individuals) within the circular perimeter (society as a whole) make the society, the social organism. The bottom half shows individual biological organism(s) – like a plant / tree, or a human being.

There are major distinctions between how the Social Organism and the Individual (Organic) organism behave. In a human body for instance, there is a central Sensorium (the brain) which processes the sense information. The sensorium makes the organic organism conscious of the sensations like pleasure or pain for instance. In case of a social organism, there is no social sensorium. The social organism as a whole has no way of knowing how an individual feels. This is the cardinal difference between a social organism and an organic organism. When our finger gets hurt, we know our finger is hurt. A similar system of knowing an individual’s pain doesn’t exist in the social organism.

In case of an organic organism (the individual), the individual parts contribute towards the survival of the aggregate (the organism as a whole). In fact, the individual organs exist for the survival of the aggregate.

In case of the social organism, the individual parts do not exist for the social aggregate. In fact, the social aggregate exists for the benefit of the individual. The individuals in this case are independent units who are mutually dependent on one another. Together they contribute towards the welfare of the aggregate. However, their existence is independent of the aggregate. Without being a part of the aggregate, the individual continues to live independently.

The individual is a part of the social aggregate by choice as they find a social milieu in the aggregate that is adaptable to them, and they themselves are adaptable to the social aggregate. Thus exists in a social organism a paradox – the individual is consciously a part of the society, but the social aggregate exists for the individual’s benefit, rather than the individual for the benefit of the aggregate. This is called Spencer’s Paradox.

Spencer explains this paradox by saying that the consciousness of the society doesn’t exist in the social aggregate. The consciousness is located with the individual. The consciousness of the social organism is spread throughout, at the individual level. This is what is called Collectivity.

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