THE question, What is a society? has to be asked and answered at the outset. Until we have decided whether or not to regard a society as an entity, and until we have decided whether, if regarded as an entity, a society is to be classed as absolutely unlike all other entities or as like some others, our conception of the subject-matter before us remains vague.
It may be said that a society is but a collective name for a number of individuals. Carrying the controversy between nominalism and realism into another sphere, a nominalist might affirm that, just as there exist only the members of a species, while the species considered apart from them has no existence, so the units of a society alone exist, while the existence of the society is but verbal. Instancing a lecturer's audience as an aggregate which, by disappearing at the close of the lecture, proves itself to be not a thing but only a certain arrangement of persons, he might argue that the like holds of the citizens forming a nation.
But, without disputing the other steps of his argument, the last step may be denied. The arrangement, temporary in one case, is lasting in the other; and it is the permanence of the relations among component parts which constitutes the individuality of a whole as distinguished from the individualities of its parts. A coherent mass broken into fragments ceases to be a thing; while, conversely, the stones, bricks, and wood, previously separate, become the thing called a house if connected in fixed ways.
Thus we consistently regard a society as an entity, because, though formed of discrete units, a certain concreteness in the aggregate of
- From advance-sheets of the "Principles of Sociology," Part II., "The Inductions of Sociology."