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The plot thickens (with Herbert Spencer)

In a paper attempting to outline the conceptual domain of comparative psychology, Herbert Spencer discusses the quality of impulsiveness in relation with human races (bearded and unbearded). Among his "sundry questions of interests" about the relationship between mental energy, evolution, complexity, etc. are the following notes:
(b) What connection is there between this trait and the social state? Clearly a very explosive nature - such as that of the Bushman - is unfit for social; and, commonly, social union, when by any means established, checks impulsiveness. (c) What respective shares in checking impulsiveness are taken by the feelings which the social state fosters - such as the fear of surrounding individuals, the instinct of sociality, the desire to accumulate property, the sympathetic feelings, the sentiment of justice? These, which require a social environment for their development, all of them involve imaginations of consequences more or less distant; and thus imply checks upon the prompting of the simpler passions. Hence arise the questions - In what order, in what degrees, and in what combinations do they come into play? (Spencer 1876: 12)
My first thought was to make a table, but each entry requires some commentary so I'l conduct it via quotes:

HS: "social union"

BM: "phatic communion"

Phatic communion is "a type of speech in which ties of union are created" (PC 6.1), a type of speech with "a social function" as its "principal aim" (PC 6.4).

HS: "the social state fosters [...] the fear of surrounding individuals"

BM: "to a natural man, another man's silence is not a reassuring factor, but, on the contrary, something alarming and dangerous"

Phatic communion is the type of social union in which speech helps participants to overcome the fear of surrounding individuals and reassure them that they are bound "by a tie of some social sentiment or other" (PC 7.8), be it "ambition, vanity, passion for power and wealth" (PC 3.3) or even "the mere need of companionship" (PC 9.1)

HS: "the instinct of sociality"

BM: "the term Herd-instinct"

Malinowski has the following footnote to a page about phatic communion:
I avoid on purpose the use of the expression Herd-instinct, for I believe the tendency in question cannot strictly be called an instinct. Moreover the term Herd-instinct has been misused in a recent sociological work which has, however, become sufficiently popular to establish its views on this subject with the general reader. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314ff)
I have only seen Jurgen Ruesch pick up on this footnote, but he finds no fault in the "social instinct", he seems to find it an accurate metaphor. In Ruesch and Bateson's discussion of metacommunication (in Communication, the Social Matrix of Psychiatry, 1951), humans are attributed a level of communication and organization accessible only to a select group of other organisms. Not only does he not protest about the term, he develops what the term signifies. This is in fact the first time I noticed the reference to an unnamed sociological study, and consulted Wikipedia. It is likely that Malinowski has George Simmel in mind, who referred to the "impulse to sociability in man", and sought to describe "the forms of association by which a mere sum of separate individuals are made into a 'society' ", exactly the stuff of Ruesch & Bateson's discussion of metacommunication. Do you see how more and more pieces fall into place? It certainly feels like a step towards solving a good chunk of the puzzle.

HS: "the desire to accumulate property"

BM: "ambition, vanity, passion for power and wealth"

Curiously, this is even less treated in relevant research. That is to say, I've never noticed anyone explicitly drawing attention to this aspect, though I similarly haven't seen any explanation to Malinowski's odd understanding of "sentiments". Nevertheless, the Couplands' treatment of phaticity in service encounters and Julia Elyachar's study of phatic infrastructure and microfinances can probably be approached and reconsidered with this aspect in mind. As of yet I haven't found the key to open this door and though it could be forcefully broken down easy enough, I personally see no need for it at the moment.

HS: "the sympathetic feelings"

BM: "expressions of sympathy"

Here we have a marked differentiation with regard to point of view: one is emphasizing feelings (content), the other expressions (form). Malinowski, namely, is critical of sympathy: where it is expressed in common phrases of intercourse, i.e. in a situation where sympathetic feelings appear falsely (purport) to exist, "it is avowedly spurious ['not what it purports to be'] on one side" (PC 2.3). In this regard E. R. Clay's differentiation of homogeneous and heterogeneous sympathy could become useful. After all, Spencer is listing a series of traits that "imply checks upon the promptings of the simpler passions", and sympathetic feelings certainly curb impulsive feelings, but Malinowski's point is that when such a thing is conducted in casual conversation, where it is unlikely or even impossile to have the same feelings about something, it comes across as fake and manipulative. In short, forced empathy is not true empathy.
Specialities of emotional nature. - These are worthy of careful study, as being intimately related to social phenomena - to the possibility of social progress, and to the nature of the social structure. Of those to be chiefly noted there are - (a) Gregariousness or sociality - a trait in the strength of which races differ widely: some, as the Mantras, being almost indifferent to social intercourse; others being unable to dispense with it. Obviously the degree of the desire for the presence of fellow-men, affect greatly the formation of social groups, and consequently underlies social progress. (Spencer 1876: 18)
While I continue with analogies with Malinowski's phatic communion, Spencer continues to egg the theme of social control, i.e. the conjunction of fear and reassurance, in which gregariousness - i.e. (1) being 'fond of the company of others'; (2) the tendency 'to move in or form a group with others of the same kind'; (3) enjoying 'being in crowds and socializing'; (4) and 'having a dislike of being alone' - is first and foremost in the list of relevant specialties of emotional nature.

HS: "gregariousness or sociality"

BM: "the specific feelings which form convivial gregariousness"

Both authors emphasize some core element of feeling or emotion but the function of this core remains obtuse in these treatments, possissing only cursory indications towards ambition for possession and wealth (havent both of these authors been accused of crass utilitarianism?). It is La Barre and a variety of modern female authors who most poignantly point out the role of feelings and emotions in phatic communication. Now that I think about it, these old men discuss fear and reassurance in the implicit context of physical threats of violence and speech as a means of appeasement, while young women (Patricia Blanco, Victoria Wang, Julia Elyachar) tend to emphasize care and support in relationship maintenance.

HS: "social intercourse"

BM: "a pleasant atmosphere of polite, social intercourse"

At every turn, Malinowski seems to add detail to Spencer, much as he did with Tylor's illustrations. Though, in some regards the development feels like too small of a step: while one affirms "the unlikeness between the minds of savage and civilised" (Spencer 1876: 9), Malinowsi affirms that phatic communion "brings savage and civilized alike" (PC 9.4) into a pleasant atmosphere.

HS: "the desire for the presence of fellow-men"

BM: "the mere presence of others [is] a necessity for man"

BM: "the communion of words is the first act to establish links of fellowship"

Malinowski's consistent point is that it is speech that 'breaks the ice', the frozen state of water being a metaphor for a cold and unappealing form of human relations (relationships can freeze or cool down). Since Spencer has broad psychological, instead of anthropo-linguistic matters in mind he brings out the desire for co-presence only to emphasize that it varies between peoples. Malinowski, on the other hand, sees it as "one of the bedrock aspects of man's nature in society" (PC 3.1). Here, indeed, Spencer might be more on point, as many since Hayakawa (in the 1940) have pointed out that the generalizations made about phatic communion and politeness behaviours by Western authors often don't pan out in non-Western cultures, though the extent of universality here is a point of contention too diffuse for a neat breakdown.

HS: "[it] affects greatly the formation of social groups"

BM: "The stranger who cannot speak the language is to all savage tribesmen a natural enemy"

In the survey of older literature about phatic communion I was struck by how many authors, particularly in the mid-period of the previous century, found very natural means of connecting the subject with the discusion of group formation. Basil Bernstein and Leon Festinger, both very influential in their time, are notable examples of authors whose works should one day be read with phatic communion explicitly in mind. There are numerous authors in my collection of quotations who make something of the fact that people have an easier time associating when they speak the same language, dialect, slang, jargon, technical language, etc. I have yet to figure out how to structure an exposition about the extensive list of aspects meeting at that conjunction.
The altruistic sentiments. - Coming last, these are also highest. The evolution of them in the course of civilisation shows us very clearly the reciprocal influences of the social unit and the social organism. On the other hand, there can be no sympathy, nor any of the sentiments which sympathy generates, unless there are fellow-beings around. On the other hand, maintenance of union with fellow-beings depends in part on the presence of sympathy, and the resulting restraints on conduct. Gregariousness or sociality favours the growth of sympathy; increased sympathy conduces to closer sociality and a more stable social state; and so, continuously, each increment of the one makes possible a further increment of the other. (Spencer 1876: 19)
While altruism is a topic I find wholly uninteresting - perhaps too far abstracted from reality for my taste - it forms an undeniable element in the philosophical system of utilitarianism, and its echo can be seen in Malinowski's treatment of phatic communion, though in a paragraph less frequently quoted. In particular, I have the following quote in mind:
Our personal accounts of the speaker's views and life history, to which the hearer listens under some restraint and with slightly veiled impatience, waiting till his own turn arrives to speak. For in this use of speech the bonds created between hearer and speaker are not quite symmetrical, the man linguistically active receiving the greater share of social pleasure and self-enhancement. (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314)
Though the key-word here is symmetry, it touches sympathy with regard to the net-result of phatic communion and makes it clear why the expression of sympathy in it is "avowedly suprious on one side": the linguistically more active party who expresses their sympathy over and above the sympathy expressed by the listener(s) gains more from it. In other words, the sympathy in question is heterogeneous, not homogeneous - what we would today simply empathy.
One of my less certive interpretations of the origin of the term, phatic, is that Malinowski read Tylor and transformed his "emphatic words", i.e. words uttered with a musical accent in order to emphasize something, into phatic words, which not only lack this quality of musicality but also lack the homogeneity of emotions implied in empathy. After all, Malinowski writes that "such words [do not] serve the purpose of establishing a common sentiment" (PC 2.3). When read against Spencer's last quote here, which says that sympathy generates sentiments, Malinowski is actually saying that phatic communion is not sympathetic, it does not generate sentiments (or establish their commonality).
So, sympathy is really where the plot gets very thick. The semantic history of 'sympathy' and 'empathy' are complex enough to elude any simple interpretation about it. But it is worth to take this word seriously, because it is the one by which other authors in the Mind journal address Spencers theory of social instinct, and perhaps there is a whole proto-phatic discourse built around it that no-one has as of yet taken the care to uncover. It may be also noted that sympathy is also a frequent figure in phatic studies - it appears several hundred times in my phatic corpus (everything up to the first half of 2016), and a cursory glance at search results proves that there's so much more to get into there. But I'd end on another note:

HS: "maintenance of union with fellow-beings depends in part on the presence of sympathy, and the resulting restraints on conduct"

There is no limit to the amount of discussion about relationship management in the Jakobson-inspired line of phatic studies that could be brought to bear on this idea, particularly in conjunction with the "restraints on conduct", which opens up the door to the discussion of power. That is, this point could be carried further by treating the phatics of propaganda, the phatic reassurance of national identity, the social aspects of foreign occupation, etc. At least that's where I imagine it could be taken with the aid of early social engineering theory.
In any case I think I found in this paper of Spencers an important key to a better understanding of phatic communion, and several ways to elaborate upon it with the aid of this historical context. That Malinowski might have read this paper (in a journal published ot Oxford several decades earlier) during his own studies in London, I have no doubt, but cannot lay too much certitude until I've read more of his own writings and found if he cited Spencer on other occasions or anything from Mind in that period. Still, I think it's something a thorough historical account of phatic communion simply must contain, along with a note about the illustrations he borrowed and elaborated from Tylor.


  1. Another piece from the very first issue of Mind delved deeper on how the opposition between instinct and sentiment were actually part of an attempt to overcome the problematic connotations of "instinct" in the Utilitarian school of philosophy, and sentiment has an intellectual quality - as Day's psychological glossary points out - because it is naturally related to the word "sentience", a synonym of mind and consciousness. At this point I'm very sure that this rabbit hole goes very deep, but I'll post more about it when I have finished re-typing the relevant comments and found more about this topic in the upcoming issues (my plan is to read Mind in chronological order up to the 1883 review of Clay's Alternative, but I'll see how far I can really make it because it's very time-consuming).

  2. This is a truly wonderful post, thank you! I agree this is a big puzzle piece.

    Here are several ideas it kicks off.

    (1) Practically, you might want to have a look at the journal History of the Present:
    I read this article yesterday and I found it really remarkable, elegant, well-argued, and so forth:
    I don't know if all of the articles in that journal are as good, but it's a treat to read your essay immediately after that one. I feel like there is a slight schematic similarity to the "layout" of ideas.

    (2) It reminds me of issues in cultural contact, especially a topic of concern for missionaries. Indeed my great-grandfather Donald McGavran was one such, and his book "Bridges of God" is a classic of missionary theory. This book has even been used by contemporary political campaigns (both Bush and Obama). One of the main ideas in the book is that rather than coverting people one by one, it is much more efficient to convert the entire group. Hence the need for a "bridge." I haven't looked at the book recently -- but anyway, it strikes me as a third setting for discourse, different from the two settings that Spencer considers.

    (3) On "sentiment", Nietzsche seems to have a similarly dim view of it to Malinowski. At the risk of stereotyping, maybe there's some cultural similarity between these two individuals. One crucial Nietzsche keyword "ressentiment." I think it would be possible to draw some schematic comparisons with Spencer's dichotomies. Not sure how useful.

    (4) Another comment on sympathy: if I remember correctly, Sloterdijk's "Spheres I" talks quite a bit about things like "animal magnetism". Possibly useful.

    (5) The first inset quote about "an explosive nature" reminded me of Trump. It's interesting to think about how phatics are / are not related to demagoguery. Again there's another schematic comparison:

    > these old men discuss fear and reassurance in the implicit context of physical threats of violence and speech as a means of appeasement, while young women ... tend to emphasize care and support in relationship maintenance.

    In news from home about the election I think a lot of women are taking Trump as a real offense against feminism (naturally the fact that they had voted for a female candidate who didn't win tips the balance here).

    (*) There are other themes that would connect up here too -- e.g. the business about property is considerably expanded by James Leach, which is how I started reading his work. Also I could probably dredge up some comments about altruism that would make it a bit less uninteristing. But both of these tangents could distract from the more central issues.

    1. If my calculations about "sympathy" are correct then it does indeed open up the door for much older philosophy, including Nietzsche (and possibly Hegel?). My calculation is currently this: if Malinowski's point truly is to negate the primary functions (emotive, conative, referential), then he must also dispense with sympathy, and this is what I think he in fact did by removing the "sym-" and yielding "phatic". Not only does the lack of sympathetic feelings in phatic communion remove it from 'feeling the same' to "verbally expressing feeling the same' (i.e. "my condolences," "I know what you feel," etc.), but it also places emphasis on the etymologically prior 'spoken'. The novelty of this result is that it's not either it's a negation of sympathy or a loan from earlier etymology, it's both. Nietzsche's ressentiment might be a good point of comparison. If "Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one's frustration" (Wikipedia), then "sentiment" by itself can be understood more as positive feelings towards one's fellows and associate with the so-called social instinct.

      Animal magnetism would be ideal for expanding on the Herd-Instinct, which I most definitely intend to do in the pace I can afford - Giddens is first in the list, and Ruesch & Bateson might have citations about it that I haven't consulted (Bateson has a metalogue about the concept of instinct, so I'm pretty sure he must have read relevant works in early zoology and ethology). Do you think you could provide quotes from Sloterdijk's "Spheres I"?

      Likewise with Leach. But it's up to you how far you want to go with solving the puzzle. I didn't really expect to find a key piece in Mind, and I didn't notice that it was "Read before the Anthropological Institute" until after the post. There's much about anthropology I don't know since my reading of it is highly selective (traced by phaticity). I know just enough about the economic aspects and discussion of altruism to stay away from it. If there's a connection with sympathy - which there definitely is, if Malinowski's "breaking bread" and talk of moral sentiments is any indication - then I'm most definitely missing out. If you already know how to expand it in that direction, lead the way.

      Your great-grandfathers stuff sounds extremely interesting. Do you have a PDF version of it? I think if we went far enough down this road (i.e. get to 1950s human relationism, group psychology, mass media and propaganda studies, etc.), his observations about converting whole people groups who are isolated from the social mainstream could serve as a back-drop for what's going on right now with all these social media bubbles.

  3. «As with quantitative multiplicities, Bergson gives us many examples [of qualitative multiplicity]; but perhaps the easiest example to grasp is the feeling of sympathy, a moral feeling (Time and Free Will, pp. 18–19). Sympathy is not only the easiest to grasp, it is also significant, as we shall see. Our experience of sympathy begins, according to Bergson, with our putting ourselves in the place of others, feeling their pain.» Apropos Spencer, and my theory that he is a shared philosophical ancestor of both Bergon and Malinowski. Quote from


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