In a society of individuals is there a society to speak of? The question certainly seems both circular and banal. But, the implication of being left to your own devices as an individual, free from bond or constraints from others has ramifications that go beyond our own sense of autonomy or freedom. The implications of individuality and individualism are both practical and philosophical and, dare I say it, political.
What it means to be a group of people, sharing purpose, language and a commitment to a world requires that we agree on common features in our lives. Those features include language, rules, norms and beliefs about what is and what isn’t real. On the one hand we must share a belief about right and wrong, it also means we have to go beyond ourselves as autonomous agents; acting less as free particles of individual activity and understand individuality in a context that is embedded in a world of many agents acting as a whole. That whole is what we call a society.
So is a society of individuals a society as such? Yes and no. I should be clear about what it is I want to write about here. Language and meaning are two things that we share as people. In order that we can share in a common language we must also agree on what things mean. When I point at the world with the words I use I assume that those words do point at something I am certain you will look at. That assumption is that despite our differences there is something between the two of us that is common; an understanding of what words mean. For me to make that assumption is evidence that beyond the matter and fact of our two bodies there is a common factor, a shared sense of what the world is and what tools we can use to navigate that world through something more than gesture.
The role of language is one feature of the common area of a group of people who share more than a physical space. Language, the set of symbols that allow us to share the content of our minds in relation to the content of the world is a powerful feature of a functioning social group. It betrays a deep facet of how it is that we as humans operate on a purely symbolic level. It’s that symbolic level of being that makes a society more than the sum total of the individuals in it. With words we point at more than just objects like trees and rocks, we point at and share ideas and beliefs.
I don’t think that it’s a stretch to say that for us as human beings the world we inhabit is more than just the physical objects in it. We also share concepts about that we share that are more than physical, they include ideas like government, religion, friendship and community. These kinds of things are not necessarily manifested in an object, they are constructs whose reality is contingent on our shared belief about what they are, should be and what our relationship with them should be. They are concepts open to debate in a social context and it requires more than individuals for any one of these things to have a real world value, for them to impact our lives really.
The interesting feature of any one of these meta-constructs is that they have the same conceptual A society is as contingent on the belief its members have in it as its parts do. That makes the idea of a society an interesting one. In this light it becomes clear that a society is not only contingent on the belief people have that it exists at all but, it also becomes clear that what a society is can’t be static.
A society, like any concept is defined in this context by the belief people share about what it is. Since our beliefs about what it means to be a group will change as the members of the group changes, pinning down a static idea of what it means to be a society is like asking the members of that society to never change.
In a very human sense the idea that we exist in a dialogue about the nature and meaning of our world is a powerful one. It implies that by sharing a sense of reality we have a common view of what the world is. It is as if there were some meta-structure of belief above and beyond the things we speak about. In order to mitigate the possibility of over complexity a simple way to think of the meta-structure is to think of a priest. Without a church or a religion in which to be a priest a priest is no more than a man. However, give that man larger structure of meaning and the man becomes a voice to a higher authority.
In that sense the fact that we have a language that allows us to talk about contingent features of a shared world directly illustrates that we share more than just a language; we share a common belief about what the world is. That belief is manifested in not just our language but, our ability to share an understanding of what words mean. That meaning is only possible in a common space and for lack of a better word that space can also be called our social space, a space realized in a society.
We very well may be individuals and free agents. But, that freedom comes with an important caveat for us as humans. For us to have meaning, share that meaning and for us to allow that meaning to impact more than our introspection we must also consider ourselves meaning agents in a space of shared meanings. It is those shared meanings that form the social space that is a society. It is also the platform from which new meanings emerge, meanings that are the basis of what we understand as a culture.