El concepto de sociedad muestra ejemplarmente en qué escasa medida los conceptos, como pretende Nietzsche , pueden definirse verbalmente afirmando que «en ellos se sintetiza semióticamente todo un proceso». La sociedad es esencialmente proceso; sobre ella dicen más las leyes de su evolución que cualquier invariante previa. Esto mismo prueban también los intentos de delimitar su concepto. Así, por ejemplo, si éste se determinara como la humanidad junto con todos los grupos en los que se divide y la forman, o de modo más simple, como la totalidad de los hombres que viven en una época determinada, se omitiría el sentido más propio del término sociedad. Esta definición, en apariencia sumamente formal, prejuzgaría que la sociedad es una sociedad de seres humanos, que es humana, que es absolutamente idéntica a sus sujetos; como si lo específicamente social no consistiera acaso en la preponderancia de las circunstancias sobre los hombres, que no son ya sino sus productos impotentes. En relación con épocas pasadas, cuando quizá pudo ser de otro modo —la Edad de piedra —, apenas puede hablarse de la sociedad en el mismo sentido que en la fase del capitalismo intenso. J. C. Bluntschli, especialista en derecho público, caracterizó la sociedad, hace ya más de cien años, como un «concepto del tercer estamento». Y lo es no sólo en razón de las tendencias igualitarias que se han infiltrado en él y que lo distinguen de la «buena sociedad» feudal y absolutista, sino también porque su construcción obedece al modelo de la sociedad burguesa. El concepto de sociedad no es en absoluto un concepto clasificatorio, no es la abstracción suprema de la sociología, que incluiría en sí misma todas las demás formaciones sociales. Tal concepción confiandiría el ideal científico corriente del orden continuo y jerárquico de las categorías con el objeto del conocimiento. El objeto al que apunta el concepto de sociedad no es en sí mismo continuo desde el punto de vista racional. Tampoco es el universo de sus elementos ; el concepto de sociedad no es simplemente una categoría din ámica, sino funcional. Para una aproximación inicial, aunque todavía demasiado abstracta, piénsese en la dependencia de todos los individuos respecto de la totalidad que forman. En ésta, todos dependen también de todos. El todo se mantiene únicamente gracias a la unidad de las funciones desempeñadas por sus partes. En general, cada uno de los individuos, para prolongar su vida, ha de desempeñar una función, y se le enseña a dar las gracias por tener una.
En virtud de su determinación funcional, el concepto de sociedad no puede captarse inmediatamente ni, a diferencia de las leyes científiconaturales, verificarse directamente. Ésta es la razón por la que las corrientes positivistas de la sociología querrían desterrarlo de la ciencia en tanto que reliquia filosófica. Pero este realismo es poco realista. Pues si la sociedad no puede obtenerse por abstracción a partir de hechos particulares ni aprehenderse como un factum , no hay factum social que no esté determinado por la sociedad. Esta se manifiesta en las situaciones sociales fácticas. Conflictos típicos como los existentes entre superiores y subordinados no son algo último e irreductible, algo que pudiera circunscribirse al lugar de su ocurrencia. Más bien enmascaran antagonismos fundamentales. Los conflictos particulares no pueden subsumirse en éstos como lo particular en lo universal . Tales antagonismos producen conflictos aquí y ahora conforme a un proceso, a una legalidad. Así, la llamada paz salarial, estudiada desde muchos puntos de vista por la actual sociología empresarial, sólo sigue aparentemente las pautas marcadas por las condiciones existentes en una empresa y en un sector determinados. Depende, por encima de ellas, del ordenamiento salarial general, y de su relación con los distintos sectores; depende del paralelogramo de fuerzas, del que el ordenamiento salarial es la resultante, cuyo alcance es mucho mayor que el de las pugnas entre las organizaciones de empresarios y trabajadores integradas institucionalmente, pues en éstas se han sedimentado consideraciones referidas a un electorado potencial definido desde el punto de vista organizativo. Decisivas también para la paz salarial son, finalmente, aunque sólo sea de forma indirecta, las relaciones de poder, la posesión del aparato de producción por parte de los empresarios. Si no se tiene plena conciencia de esto, resulta imposible comprender suficientemente cualquier situación concreta, a menos que la ciencia esté dispuesta a atribuir a la parte lo que únicamente adquiere su valor dentro de un todo. Así como la mediación social no podría existir sin lo mediado por ella, sin los elementos: los individuos, las instituciones y las situaciones particulares, así éstos tampoco existen sin la mediación. Cuando los detalles, en virtud de su inmediata tangibilidad, se toman por lo más real, causan al mismo tiempo ofuscación.
Puesto que el concepto de sociedad no puede definirse conforme a la lógica corriente ni demostrarse «deícticamente», mientras que los fenómenos sociales reclaman imperiosamente su concepto, su órgano es la teoría. Sólo una detallada teoría de la sociedad podría decir qué es la sociedad. Recientemente se ha objetado que es poco científico insistir en conceptos tales como el de sociedad, pues sólo podría juzgarse sobre la verdad o falsedad de enunciados, no de conceptos. Esta objeción confunde un concepto enfático como el de sociedad con una definición al uso. El concepo de sociedad ha de ser desplegado, no fijado terminológicamente de forma arbitraria en pro de su pretendida pureza .
Ladies and Gentlemen, I should like now to talk in more detail about the central concept of sociology, the concept of society. As you may know, a number of sociologists consider that this term is no longer usable.1 The first thing to be said is that if you expect me to follow the custom of many other disciplines and offer you a definition of the term ‘society’, you will find yourselves bitterly disappointed, and not because I believe myself incapable of formulating such a definition. In the discussion of the concept of society I think I shall give you enough information to allow you to form a sufficiently clear idea of this concept. But such a concept is not a legal term definable once and for all, since it contains an inexhaustible wealth of historical reference. I should like here to quote a statement of Nietzsche’s which also appears in the Exkursen: ‘No concept in which a whole process is summarized semiotically’ – which means, for those of you who have no Greek: no concept which is a sign or an abbreviation for an entire process – ‘can be defined; only that which has no history is definable.’2 Later in these lectures I shall show you the central importance which history has for sociology, that it is not mere background for social knowledge but is actually constitutive of all social knowledge. Naturally, that applies also to the central concept of the discipline, the concept of society.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it was rightly pointed out to me at the last introductory seminar3 that Herr Schelsky’s critique of the concept of society4 does not imply that one can actually do without such a theoretical concept. He argues that there are various types of society, some of which still exist side-by-side, and that such societies should not be simply subsumed or synthesized under a single concept. Of course, there is a difference between, for example, the society of capitalist countries and those in the Soviet or Chinese spheres of influence, or again, those of the Third World. And, naturally, I am far from wanting sociology to neglect these differences, which sometimes go very deep, or to replace them by a kind of ‘hotel gravy’ which can be poured indiscriminately over any dish [Laughter], I hope you do not believe that. But I should like to remind you of what I referred to in the last two lectures as sociology’s interest in the essential questions of society. And I would point out that if, in a certain kind of sociology which classifies various types of society, you come across terms such as the ‘horde society’ or the ‘hunter or gatherer society’, these terms mean something quite different to what we refer to when we talk of society in the strong sense which this concept took on in the nineteenth century. That is something entirely different. The terms for classifying different societies, some of which come close to the usage of ethnology and anthropology, really refer to different forms of communal living and of the production and reproduction of life by human beings. They refer to basic types of arrangement by which people gain their livelihood and which define the forms of their coexistence. However, when we speak of society in the strong sense – and here I am deliberately using an expression from so-called ‘bourgeois sociology’, the sociology of Max Weber , which, in terms of its basic intentions, can be included among the positivist sociologies – we are referring essentially to the element of ‘socialization’,5 which does not apply in the same manner to the societies I have just mentioned. This latter use of the term implies that there exists between people a functional connection, which varies considerably, of course, according to the historical level of development of the society, and which leaves no-one out, a connectedness in which all the members of the society are entwined and which takes on a certain kind of autonomy in relation to them. In the types of society I enumerated earlier, by contrast, the functional connection between people is much looser and the interplay between the individual people and the whole does not take place . In addition – and this is very important – different social groups exist more-or-less side-by-side in such societies, without there being between them any relationship important enough to shape these groups in a significant way. Let us consider a very primitive society of this kind, a gatherer society before hunting has been organized. Because of a certain uniformity of historical development which, curiously, is to be observed again and again in the most diverse countries, the situation is such that while all these people exist more-or-less on the level of the gatherer, the different groups or – if I must use the term – the different societies of gatherers exist fairly independently, and take relatively little notice of each other. One result of this – and a very important one for sociology – is that, simply because these archaic forms of society exist side-by-side independently of each other and because their interests intersect relatively little, gatherer societies have a somewhat peaceable character; they do not attack each other in the way which is generally the case with developed societies. What Thorstein Veblen called the ‘peaceable savages’6 are no doubt to be found here. ‘Society’ in the stronger sense, therefore, represents a certain kind of intertwinement which leaves nothing out; one essential characteristic of such a society – even though it may be modified or negated – is that its individual elements are presented as relatively equal, endowed with the same faculty of reason. They appear as atoms stripped of qualities, defined only by their self-preserving reason, and are not structured in terms of estates in the original sense. Thus, as early as the nineteenth century, the Swiss sociologist Bluntschli described the concept of society – as Helge Pross tells us7 – as an essentially bourgeois term, or a ‘concept of the third estate’.8 In the state-capitalist and socialist forms which developed later, this moment of the functional interconnectedness of the whole, and of the virtual equality of those comprising it, has been maintained, despite the consolidation of forms of domination and all the dictatorial features of these societies. This functional interrelationship, therefore, is what I mean first and foremost by society, and I have defined it in these terms on a number of occasions previously.
Now, Hans Albert, in his first polemical essay against Habermas , has criticized the concept of society I am advancing here as amounting to no more than the trivial observation that ‘everything is connected to everything else’, and as an abstract concept in the bad sense. Albert is the positivist sociologist who has conducted the argument against the dialectical theory of society most energetically in recent years.9 His standpoint is largely that of Popper ; at least with regard to Albert’s intentions there is clearly extensive agreement between the two. I should like to address Albert’s criticism, as it does, indeed, represent a serious objection.
The reply I would give is that society, in its ‘socialized’ form, is not merely a functional interrelationship between the socialized people of the kind referred to by Albert, but is determined, as its fundamental precondition, by exchange. What really makes society a social entity, what constitutes it both conceptually and in reality, is the relationship of exchange, which binds together virtually all the people participating in this kind of society. It is also, in a sense, the precondition of post-capitalist societies – if I may state the matter cautiously here – in which there can be no question that exchange will have ceased to take place. As for the charge of abstraction, it involves, it seems to me, one of those typical confusions between the subject of knowledge, the knower and the theory, on one hand, and the form of that to which the theory relates, on the other. The abstract element here is not an idea which is content with the trifling observation that everything is connected to everything else. It is something which I believe to be a central feature of any theory of society, and I would ask you to take this central feature very seriously and to note what I now have to say. Ladies and Gentlemen, the abstraction we are concerned with is not one that first came into being in the head of a sociological theoretician who then offered the somewhat flimsy definition of society which states that everything relates to everything else. The abstraction in question here is really the specific form of the exchange process itself, the underlying social fact through which socialization first comes about. If you want to exchange two objects and – as is implied by the concept of exchange – if you want to exchange them in terms of equivalents, and if neither party is to receive more than the other, then the parties must leave aside a certain aspect of the commodities. In discussing equal exchange, I must for the moment disregard the question whether a violation of equivalence is not implied in the concept of exchange itself; for the present we are concerned only with constructing the concept to the extent that it is constitutive of society. In developed societies the exchange takes place, as you all know, through money as the equivalent form. Classical political economy demonstrated, as did Marx in his turn, that the true unit which stands behind money as the equivalent form is the average necessary amount of social labour time, which is modified, of course, in keeping with the specific social relationships governing the exchange. In this exchange in terms of average social labour time the specific forms of the objects to be exchanged are necessarily disregarded; instead, they are reduced to a universal unit. The abstraction, therefore, lies not in the abstracting mode of thought of the sociologist, but in society itself. Or, if you will permit me to use this term once again, something like a ‘concept’ is implicit in society in its objective form. And I believe that the decisive difference between a positivist and a dialectical theory of society lies in this objectivity of the concept inherent in the subject matter itself; positivist sociology denies this process of abstraction, or at least relegates it to the background; its concepts are formed solely within the subject which observes, classifies and draws conclusions. I would ask you not to misunderstand this to mean that the process of abstraction, as we understand it, takes place within the individual subjects performing the exchange. Media such as money, which are accepted by naïve consciousness as the self-evident form of equivalence and thus as the self-evident medium of exchange, relieve people of the need for such reflection. How far this reflection has ever consciously taken place, and how far the process of abstraction has always asserted itself over the heads of human beings through the simple necessity of exchanging like for like, need not concern us for the present, though I incline to the latter view. At any rate, once you grasp this functional exchange relationship as constituting the essence of socialization, with all the social problems which the elaboration of the exchange principle entails, the concept of society ceases to be the seemingly empty abstraction stating that everything is connected to everything else for which Herr Albert takes me to task. Such a concept of society becomes, through its very nature, critical of society, in that the unfolding of the exchange process it refers to, objectively located within society itself, ends up by destroying society. To demonstrate this was really Marx’s intention in Capital. Society, therefore, if it is to continue to reproduce the life of its members – as we should have to formulate the matter today – must transcend the concept of exchange. The transition to criticism thus coincides with a perception of the way in which the objective structure is itself conceptually determined, whereas, were it not so determined, but merely an ordered agglomeration of facts, the notion of a critique of society would be nonsensical. You can see, therefore, that the concept of exchange is, as it were, the hinge connecting the conception of a critical theory of society to the construction of the concept of society as a totality. Perhaps I may sum up what I have just been saying with a few sentences from the discussion of the concept of society10 in the Evangelisches Staatslexikon, of which many of you are probably not aware. Such a concept of society would take us beyond the trivial observation that everything is connected to everything else. The bad abstraction of that proposition is not so much a product of flimsy thought as a bad basic constituent of society itself: the role of exchange in modern society. Abstraction takes place objectively in the universal practice of exchange, and not merely in scholarly reflexion; in this abstraction the qualitative nature of producer and consumer, the mode of production and even the need which the social mechanism incidentally satisfies, are disregarded.
What is also disregarded, I should add for the sake of completeness, is the concrete form of the objects to be exchanged.
The primary element is profit. Even humanity itself, the subject of needs, which is reduced to a mere ‘clientele’
You will see from this how emphatically society is to be understood as a functional concept. In view of what I have told you, society cannot be regarded, as common sense suggests, as the sum total of all the people living at a particular time or in the same epoch. Such a merely quantitative agglomeration would fail to do justice to society as society. It would be really no more than a descriptive concept which did not define what Marx called the ‘inner connection’13 holding society together. But ours is a functional concept14 in the additional sense that, by virtue of existing for others and being defined essentially as workers, human beings cease to be something existing in itself, a mere fact, but define themselves by what they do and by the relationship existing between them, namely that of exchange. The positivists argue that our central concept, that of society, is not something given, that one cannot put one’s finger on such a concept, or say: This thing here is society; I can show it to you just as a doctor can point in a test tube to the pathogen causing an illness, if he has been able to discover it. To this we can reply that just because of that definition – because the concept of society is a concept defining, on a universal scale, relationships between elements, namely individual human beings who work, and not merely the agglomeration of these people – it is not enough to point to the individual elements. In other words, the positivist criterion of a significant datum , that one must finally be able to point to something physical in order to say that it is the substrate which is sought, is inapplicable to the concept of society. Brecht , with the gift of splendid simplification characteristic of him in his best moments, once expressed this situation by saying that the essential truth about society had ‘slipped to the functional level’. This had gone so far, he said, that if one wanted to find out something about the Krupp conglomerate, for example, and then looked at the different Krupp factories, one would be able to discover absolutely nothing about the essence of this functional level, that is, about the processes of production and exploitation, and the consequences they had for human beings.15 Through his friendship with Karl Korsch,16 Brecht had formed a certain sympathy for positivism . He had probably not quite thought through the implications of the alternatives at issue here – and heaven forbid that I should criticize the poet for that – otherwise he would have realized that the functional concept of society that he himself had formulated actually negated in principle the positivists’ criterion of the tangible datum. I would even say that in his formulation he had stated the difference between our position and that of positivism in a striking and conclusive way.
But what I have been saying to you has one further implication. It is that while the functional concept of society is not physically given, while it cannot be directly apprehended as a mere fact, it can certainly be ascertained and known, and not by some irrational mode of knowledge. It is knowable simply by showing the complications and contradictions to which the unfolding of this principle of socialization necessarily gives rise. This unfolding, however, cannot be pursued beyond the social facts, but only in its interaction with a determinate reality. I believe that will have become clear to you after these first four lectures. – Thank you. [Applause]