No. 20: Some Thoughts on the History of the Idea of “Society”

“Some speak of The Public as if it were someone with whom they have had dinner at the Leipzig Fair in the Hotel de Saxe. Who is this Public? The Public is not a thing, but rather an idea, a postulate, like The Church.”

-Friedrich Schlegel, “Lyceum” Aphorism #35

“Social Thought” begins in the 18th century, specifically in Germany during the Kantian era. Now, to be clear, the Kantians were largely against “Social Thought” themselves, it’s more from a constellation of Kant’s rivals and contemporaries, as well as some of the later Post-Kantian thinkers that “Social Thought”, as we know it today, sprouted.

“Society” didn’t always exist, meaning the intellectual concept of “Society”, people didn’t always have that idea at their disposal, they weren’t always able to conceptualize the social world around them as a “Society”. Originally “Society” was called “The Public”, and one of the very important early works that proliferated the idea of “The Public” and brought the concept into wide circulation was a daily English lifestyle paper called “The Spectator”, written by Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele, which, along with the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1692, the publication of Dryden’s Virgil in 1697, and the Acts of Union in 1707, marks the beginning of 18th century English Augustan culture.

The conceit of “The Spectator” is that every issue is written by a member of a fictional “club”, The Spectator Club, the chief member being someone only identified as “Mr. Spectator”:

“Thus I live in the World, rather as a Spectator of Mankind, than as one of the Species; by which means I have made my self a Speculative Statesman, Soldier, Merchant, and Artizan, without ever medling with any Practical Part in Life. I am very well versed in the Theory of an Husband, or a Father, and can discern the Errors in the Œconomy, Business, and Diversion of others, better than those who are engaged in them; as Standers-by discover Blots, which are apt to escape those who are in the Game. I never espoused any Party with Violence, and am resolved to observe an exact Neutrality between the Whigs and Tories, unless I shall be forc’d to declare myself by the Hostilities of either side. In short, I have acted in all the parts of my Life as a Looker-on, which is the Character I intend to preserve in this Paper.”

If you’re familiar with the concept of the Panopticon from Foucault, that’s the general idea here basically, that this is how modern subjectivity really began.

In Schelling’s “Critical-Historical Introduction To The Philosophy Of Mythology” he observes of the early Greek literature of Homer and Hesiod [Lecture #3]:

“If it is impossible that the mythology of a society comes into existence out of or within the society which is already present, then nothing remains but that it might come into existence at the same time as the society, as the individual consciousness of that society, by way of which it emerged from the common consciousness of humanity, and through which, no less than by its language, it is this particular society and is distinguished from every other.”

The period of Ancient Greek history between The Dorian Invasion, ~1,500 BCE, and the beginning of Classical Antiquity proper, ~600 BCE, represents an incubation period, subjectively speaking, for the emergence of Greek Consciousness. Greek Humanity came into being and became actual with and through its “Theogony”. Friedrich Schlegel, in his “Lectures On The History Of Literature, Ancient And Modern” [#7], remarks:

“Every where, in individuals as in species, in small things as in great, the fullness of invention must precede the refinements of art, – legend must go before history, and poetry before criticism. If the literature of any nation has had no such poetical antiquity before arriving at its period of regular and artificial development, we may be sure that this literature can never attain to a national shape and character, or come to breathe the spirit of originality and independence. The Greeks possessed such a period of poetical wealth in those ages (ages certainly not very remarkable for their refinement either in literature, properly so called, or in science) which elapsed between the Trojan adventures [13th Century BCE] and the times of Solon and Pericles [5th and 6th century BCE], and it is to this period that the literature of Greece was mainly indebted for the variety, originality, and beauty of its unrivaled productions. What that period was to Greece, the middle age was to modern Europe; the fullness of creative fancy was the distinguishing characteristic of them both. The long and silent process of vegetation must precede the spring, and the spring must precede the maturity of the fruit.”

The heart of Modernity is “Society”, the concept of “Society”. Schelling sees Hesiod’s “Theogony” as being a transcendental genealogy of the subjective forces out of whose conflict Greek Consciousness sprung. The idea is that it’s the succession of mythologies which is important, the successive generations of polytheism from the Titans to the Olympians. The Greeks inherited the deities and polytheisms of antecedent cultures, the Egyptians and the Phoenicians, and they situated their mythology, their civilization, their culture, their Mind, temporally within a continuous chain of development, and by doing so, they literally created themselves.

We did the same thing during the Early Modern Period, but in a deceptively secular way. Historicism is our Theogony, and “Society” is our Zeus. Beiser traces Modern Historicism back to the work of Johann Martin Chladenius and Justus Möser in the first half of the 18th century, but the most important figure in the development of Historicism was Kant’s student and Goethe’s mentor, Gottfried Herder. Herder is an enormously influential philosopher, who, despite not always being recognized in English speaking scholarship, is one of the central thinkers of the 18th century. His breakout work was “On The Origin Of Human Language”, which won a major prize from the Berlin Academy in 1772, and in the subsequent decade, through a series of pioneering works, he more or less single handily founded a whole range of modern disciplines. Linguistics, Hermeneutics, Translation Theory, Modern Philology, really the entire field of Anthropology is a product of Herder’s work. Mill’s “On Liberty” is largely derived from Herder, and Herder was the basis for Hegel’s philosophy of mind as well as his philosophy of history, and Mill and Hegel, together, form two of the three traditionally identified sources of Marxist thought.

“Society” is nothing less than the “Consciousness” of Modernity itself. It is Kant’s “Psychological Idea”, Fichte’s “Absolute Subjectivity”, and Schiller’s “Universal Man”. Basically we all, as individuals, possess empirical ego, limited subjectivity, and these definite “states” of consciousness that individuals find themselves in are connected transcendentally by a regulative, second-order idea, that of Absolute Subjectivity. Absolute Subjectivity is a theoretical construct, it is the infinite union of every specific consciousness possible. One of the central problems of Post-Kantianism, beginning with Fichte, was how mitigation between the actual diversity of individual minds was possible, and how the ideal of Subjectivity, the universal, infinite consciousness of Modernity could be brought about in actuality (Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”, as application of Schiller’s Transcendental Aesthetics, being the “solution” to this problem).

The French Revolution was nothing less than an attempt to bring about the ideal of infinite Subjectivity within reality itself, through the physical institution of The State, and it’s to this that Schlegel is referring when he says:

“The revolutionary desire to realize God’s Kingdom on Earth is the elastic point of progressive development and the beginning of Modern History. Whatever is without relationship to God’s Kingdom is for it only incidental.”

-Schlegel, “Athenaeum”, Aphorism #222

“Society”, the ideal “Universal Man”, “God’s Kingdom”, Communist Utopia, that’s the heart of Leftism, that’s what Revolutionary Politics has as its object, its aim or goal, bringing about what is only an idea, possessing only regulative, second-order validity, within the limited world of objective actuality. What Schlegel means when he says “The Public” isn’t a thing, but an idea, is that people are making a fundamental logical error in not recognizing the purely regulative status “Society” has, as a transcendental condition of empirical ego necessary for its existence. Not as an object, a thing, that can be located within the world around us as something that meaningfully exists, physically and materially.