Preliminary Reflections on ‘Social Cohesion’ (Part III)

This text is written as part of the 2022 Humboldt Residency Programme’s work on the topic ‘social cohesion’.

As a scholar of rhetoric, my first impulse when confronted with an unfamiliar concept is usually to try to understand what French philosopher, rhetoric scholar, and philologist Barbara Cassin would call its world-effect: what image of the world is constructed within the confines of this specific concept. As the concept of ‘social cohesion’ is entirely new to me, this is thus what I will now attempt to do. More specifically, in this text I want to understand what makes it possible to even ask such a question, the question of the cohesion of a people. To answer this, I believe we have to start with a simple, yet extremely difficult, question, namely: What makes a people?

The problem to which a notion like social cohesion refers, is the supposed contemporary division in the people, as if the people today was particularly wrought with internal strife, as if our current sufferings stem from a lack of social cohesion. More specifically, there is, as we have heard, that there is a lack of cohesion around even the most fundamental aspects of the liberal democratic framework, what Rousseau would have called the social contract. And without this contract, the social fabric as we know it would disintegrate. As an answer to this lacking social cohesion, many are asking themselves about how to develop a rhetoric capable of counteracting the success of supposedly authoritarian and anti-(liberal)democratic movements (and perhaps to convince these citizens and their political representatives about the values of liberal democracy). Others highlight the importance of hearing and acknowledging the grievances of the people (even though the liberal minded among us might not always like what they hear). But what they have in common, what is pointed out, is the need to recreate social cohesion in some way. To restore or to create unity within the people. But wouldn’t it be easier, as Brecht suggests, to simply elect another people?

So, at the heart of democracy is its greatest strength, but also its greatest weakness: the people as its sovereign. But at the same time, the people is not only a problem of democracy. Couldn’t we say that any form of government, regardless of its nature, always rules over a people. What is, one could ask, the aristocrats, the tyrant, the revolutionary guard etc. without a people to govern? Nothing, I assume. There cannot be someone governing without the governed, and this entity is what we know as the people. But this means we have to ask the question what comes first: the sovereign or the people? In democracy, this becomes even more difficult: Is the people first an entity to be governed? Or is the primary form of the people that appears in history a sovereign?  

Let us look a bit deeper into the problem of the relationship between the one who governs an the one who is governed. Already Aristotle told us that a king who no longer cares for his people becomes a tyrant. An aristocracy who no longer cares for the people becomes an oligarchy. And a polity which does not have the best interest of the people in mind, turns into a democracy, (an ochlocracy) or a mob rule. This is an idea that also returns again and again in modernity, but in slightly different way. For Aristotle, the good of the people was equal to the good of the community. So, if someone seemed to for instance be causing trouble, the best thing was to just excommunicate him, if that was what the people wanted.

So, to retain social cohesion in Ancient Greece, the demos could simply decide to expel or get rid of those deemed to threaten to the given order. The most famous example of this was, of course, Socrates, sentenced to death for introducing new gods and corrupting the youth. Hence, rather than posing a threat against the rights of the individual, the community was always given priority. The threat was, thus, when either the people or an individual had abandoned moderation (i.e., the proper way to manage a community) in favor of short-termed gains. For instance, Athenian speaker and rhetorician Isocrates, in a speech held to urge the Athenians to seek peace with its former allies, whom they were fighting in the so-called social war (in the middle of the fourth century BCE), said the following:

I observe, however, that you do not hear with equal favor the speakers who address you, but that, while you give your attention to some, in the case of others you do not even suffer their voice to be heard. And it is not surprising that you do this; for in the past you have formed the habit of driving all the orators from the platform except those who support your desires.

As we can see if we keep reading the speech, Isocrates issue with his fellow Athenians was not that they didn’t respect the isêgoría, the right of every Athenian free man to speak his mind at the assembly, but the long-term goal of Athens prosperity. To drive his point home, he employs a metaphor, likening the state with the family, saying, “while you know well that many great houses have been ruined by flatterers and while in your private affairs you abhor those who practice this art, in your public affairs you are not so minded towards them.” I.e., they are telling you what you want to hear (that the war will bring riches to Athens) instead of what you need to hear (although the peace is more costly now, it will be better for the future).

Compare this to the voice of Immanuel Kant, notoriously ambiguous in his feelings towards the French Revolution. This is what he is writing in a public pamphlet on peace, published just a year after la Terreur. After telling us that a form of government can first be divided into how many people are ruling (one, a few, or all), his second categorization of governments relates to how it makes use of its sovereign powers. Here, a government can be, as he puts it

either republican or despotic. Republicanism is that political principle whereby the executive power (the government) is separated from the legislative power. Despotism prevails in a state if the laws are made and arbitrarily executed by one and the same power, and it reflects the will of the people only in so far as the ruler treats the will of the people as his own private will. Of the three forms of sovereignty, democracy, in the truest sense of the word, is necessarily a despotism, because it establishes an executive power through which all the citizens may make decisions about (and indeed against) the single individual without his consent, so that decisions are made by all the people and yet not by all the people; and this means that the general will is in contradiction with itself, and thus also with freedom.

So, Kant was in no sense a democrat, but a republican. Considering the question of whether one, a few or all should rule, he was less clear, the important thing was that whoever ruled, did so in a way that it protect the freedoms of the individual. Hence, from Aristotle to Kant, we find the idea that the will of the people needs to be contained, since the will of the people does not always coincide with what is the best for all the people. As Rousseau puts it, the individual will does not always coincide with the volonté générale. The difference is whether “all the people” means the people as a unity or as a collective of individuals. So in this sense, it seems as if the people as an entity to be governed pre-exists the sovereign, which then comes in to make sure that the people can fulfill its potential.

During our weeks here, what returns in the discussions regarding the problems of social cohesion is probably a sentiment of a more Kantian variety: the most obvious example is how right-wing populists and extremists threaten the rights and safeties of minorities, how their authoritarian tendencies allow for the prosecution of political opponents, etc. But we also hear the problems described in a way that offers a more ancient, or if you will, Aristotelian, inclination: I am here thinking about the argument that the grievances of the people must be listened to and acted upon by the elites, since this is for the long term good of the community as a whole. But what we have here are, still, two very different notions of the people: one seeing it as a congregation of individuals, and the important thing is just to make sure that every person will not see their individual rights violated in any way, and one in which the whole creates something greater than its parts (the people is more than the sum of its individuals), meaning that the good of the people must sometimes guide us, even though a part of the citizens might find themselves on the shorter end of the stick.

Although we haven’t actually reached the creation of a people, to me, this discrepancy points to precisely this question: these different notions illustrate the fact that a people is not a natural phenomenon which simply appears out in the wilderness, which is why we should ask the question: how does a people come to be? And I know, for empirically minded people, this question might seem absurd: why should we ask about how a people is created? Peoples are out there, and they have been out there for millennia. Sure, once they were maybe going under a different name, the Roman populus are now the Italian popolo, the demos of Athens, Sparta, Boethia are now the demos of Greece. But what we are missing when taking the people for granted are the ambiguities which come with the term, and more precisely, we are missing the opportunity to understand what made these differences possible.

Let us therefore begin with some well-known narratives telling the tale of the creation of a people. Kant explicitly bases his argumentation on Hobbes notion of an original bellium omnium contra omnes, that the natural state is defined by everyone’s war against everyone. Here we find the famous contractual theory, the idea that humans, in the state of nature, lives in a constant war for survival, but that these individuals, at some point, realized that the protection and social freedoms offered by communal living outweighs the complete freedoms offered by pure anarchy. Compare this once again to an ancient source, more specifically young Cicero’s handbook on rhetoric De Inventione. In a reflection on the origin of oratory, Cicero equates it with the origin of human society, writing:

For there was a time when men wandered at large in the fields like animals and lived on wild fare; they did nothing by the guidance of reason, but relied chiefly on physical strength; there was as yet no ordered system of religious worship nor of social duties; no one had seen legitimate marriage nor had anyone looked upon children whom he knew to be his own; nor had they learned the advantages of an equitable code of law. And so through their ignorance and error blind and unreasoning passion satisfied itself by misuse of bodily strength, which is a very dangerous servant. At this juncture a man—great and wise I am sure— became aware of the power latent in man and the wide field offered by his mind for great achievements if one could develop this power and improve it by instruction. Men were scattered in the fields and hidden in sylvan retreats when he assembled and gathered them in accordance with a plan; he introduced them to every useful and honourable occupation, though they cried out against it at first because of its novelty, and then when through reason and eloquence they had listened with greater attention, he transformed them from wild savages into a kind and gentle folk.

Once again, we see that humans before the creation of society are not properly human, they are physically strong, like animals, but they aren’t capable of a properly good and human life, i.e., to use reason. And reason, logos for the Greeks, can only be found in community. Hence, in an imagined pre-social time, we do not encounter individuals, who through their reason and economical thinking decides to come together to create a society, but instead, these humans are created in and through being a part of society.

So, what Kant and other early moderns such as Rousseau have in common is the idea that the natural or pre-social human, still always thinks like a homo economicus. This figure is already an individual, always acting in accordance with the logic of maximizing profits, which is also why this individual chooses to enter into the social contract, giving up individual freedoms for the freedom offered in the general will. And it is through this expression of the general will that creates the people, meaning that the people as a unity, logically must precede their expression of themselves as sovereign. But, as countless thinkers have pointed out apropos contract theory, also this economic logic is a relational, and therefore social. In other words, the social contract theory takes for granted the very thing it sets out to explain, the existence of a social people. So, what is it that makes this individual as homo economicus possible?

As Foucault noted in his lectures from 1978, a great transformation of political thought took place during the early modern period. At this time, the economic logic was taken from the sphere of the family, more specifically the family manor, and applied on the sphere that we today know as the political. Take for instance Rousseau’s first lines of his Discourse on Political Economy from 1755:

Economy. The word comes from the Greek oikos, ‘house’, and nomos, ‘law’, and originally meant only the wise and lawful government of a household for the common good of the whole family. The meaning of the term has since been extended to cover the government of the greater family, which is the state.

The metaphor, as we have seen, existed already in antiquity, but it is here given a more prominent position. However, as Foucault goes on to point out, what defines this literature was not only how it made use of a new logic of governing, that of the economy of the family, it was also, to a very large degree an anti-Machiavellian literature. To many in the political sciences, Machiavelli represents the beginning of the modern, so-called realist, school of political thought. It usually is highlighted how, in Machiavelli’s time, the first steps were taken towards the creation of the modern nation state and the international sphere that we are living in today, and Machiavelli was supposedly the first to think this situation in its proper terms: there can no longer be any overarching power, no pope, or church or holy emperor, that can resolve disputes. Every prince, king or nation state is stuck in an anarchic field where the only thing of that matters is military and financial power. To these realists, Machiavelli was only interested in the “effectual truths” of politics, not giving heed to issues of morality or values so dear to for instance the idealist strand of political thought. He only cares about how one obtains and keeps power.

But this image of Machiavelli does not necessarily capture his actual thought. Rather, as Foucault points out, it is a construction of, in particular, the 19th century and the early thinkers of political science. Against this, Foucault claims that the anti-Machiavellian nature of this new form of governmental logic, defined as it was by economy, points out that the scandalous nature of Machiavelli was that he represented an antiquated form of governmentality, that of the medieval prince. For a prince, before the advent of capitalism, the important relationship was that between himself and his territory. This relationship was always external, the prince existed in a separate realm, and tried his best to secure the territory and to use it to his own advantage (it might be fertile, rich in minerals, it might be strategically good, it might have a lazy population, a hard-working population, a rebellious population, etc. all features that the prince can use to his advantage, or to work around in order to keep it). But as we saw with the quote from Rousseau, within the economic logic, the state is a family, where the prince is the father and the people are his children. And just as father loves and cares for his children, he feeds them well, educates them etc. in order for them to grow up and continue on his legacy, becoming even more prosperous, a prince must treat his children, the people, in the same way. They are no longer just a resource, like an iron mine or a fertile valley for growing crops. Instead, they are what we, with this horrible modern expression, would call “human capital”.

This is a reading which finds much backing in the text of Machiavelli, as for instance in The Prince, when Machiavelli brings up how the strength of principalities should be measured, he begins by writing:

There is another consideration rightly to be borne in mind when inquiring into the characteristics of these principalities: and that is whether a prince has territory such that, in case of necessity, he can stand alone, or whether he must always have recourse to the protection of others.

But although it seems reasonable to assume that the anti-Machiavellian literature to a large extent was defined by this economic logic of the family, we do need to ask ourselves: was this change in governmentality really a complete rejection of Machiavelli rather than an attempt to counteract the discovery that he had made. A point in case can be found in Rousseau, who, in his famous text on the social contract, rightly criticizes the family metaphor he had employed almost a decade earlier, now claiming “in the state this love is replaced by the pleasure of being in command, the prince having no love for his people.”

Rousseau’s most interesting contribution in this context is, however, how he asks the question of the peoples making. Against Grotius’ claim that “a people may give itself a king” Rousseau urges us to do the following: “before examining the act by which a people elects a king, it would be well to examine the act by which people becomes a people”. In a section filled with positive references to Machiavelli, Rousseau seems to abandon the idea that the people simply comes together of their own volition. Instead, in a very Machiavellian way, he imagines a legislator, the person capable of bringing the people into being through his first, sovereign act. He writes:

The man who dares to undertake the establishment of a people has to feel himself capable of changing, so to speak, the nature of man; of transforming each individual.

This is a properly Machiavellian image, the idea that it is only the sovereign act that is capable of bringing about the people. However, Machiavelli even goes further than this: it is not only in this imagined past, where a mythical legislator steps down from heaven (Rousseau actually says that gods are needed to give laws to men) that this creation of a people takes place. Rather, it is necessary for every prince that wants to keep power over a territory to shape it into his image. This cannot, as he constantly notes, be done freely, but it has to be done taking into account the current situation.

If the ruler wants to keep hold of his new possessions, he must bear two things in mind: first, that the family of the old prince must be destroyed; next, that he must change neither their laws nor their taxes. In this way, in a very short space of time the new principality will be rolled into one with the old. But when states are acquired in a province differing in language, in customs, and in institutions, then difficulties arise; and to hold them one must be very fortunate and very assiduous. One of the best, most effective expedients would be for the conqueror to go to live there in person.

What the distance from Machiavelli to Rousseau might teach us is the need for a sovereign intervention in times of trouble. During the chaotic time in Italy during the end of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth century, there was, at least in Machiavelli’s eyes, need for a brave man capable of grabbing Lady Fortune violently, and to use the opportunity to mold the Italian people in a way that ensures stability. As Althusser points to in his reading of Machiavelli, this creation of order through the inaugurating act of a sovereign returns in comments on Machiavelli from Rousseau and Hegel to Gramsci, all living through similar times of turmoil, forcing them to reflect upon the nature of the state.

Hence, following the early modern thought on the forming of a people suggests that it is actually the authoritarian right that, in a sense, is correct: we can not imagine that we would be capable of developing the correct rhetoric or install the proper processes to avoid the disintegration of social bonds. What is needed to restore order in a capitalist system is the sovereign intervention, the act of drawing the line, of reintroducing normality. This was Machiavelli’s great revelation, and why he was always made relevant when this task seemed most urgent: in the build up and aftermath of the French revolution, in the break down after the first world war, and perhaps also today. And this was also why he was so scandalous in his own time: the family was supposed to be natural and thus god given, not the effect of some performative act. To this speaks also a time with which our own shares many similarities. I’m thinking here of the revolutionary year of 1848. As Marx noted in his The Class Struggles in France, treating the rise and fall of the revolutionary government in Paris and the events that eventually saw Napoleon III become president and emperor: “Napoleon was the common name for all the parties in coalition against the bourgeois republic.” Napoleon named the reactionary act of sovereignty, installing a new people and returning France to order, just as his uncle had achieved (as Marx noted in the Holy Family) by substituting permanent revolution for permanent war. 

The issue with this reactionary authoritarian thinking can be found in their belief that this act will usher in a new era of stability, perhaps even a sort of end of history. But within capitalism, no such authority is possible. It is rather, as Marx and Engels had written nearly ten months prior to Napoleon’s inauguration as president in December 1948: “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft, alles Heilige wird entweiht, und die Menschen sind endlich gezwungen, ihre Lebensstellung, ihre gegenseitigen Beziehungen mit nüchternen Augen anzusehen.”

Preliminary Reflections on ’Social Cohesion’ (Part II)

This text is written as part of the 2022 Humboldt Residency Programme’s work on the topic ‘social cohesion’.

As a scholar of rhetoric, my first impulse when confronted with an unfamiliar concept is usually to try to understand what French philosopher, rhetoric scholar, and philologist Barbara Cassin would call its world-effect: what image of the world is constructed within the confines of this specific concept. As the concept of ‘social cohesion’ is entirely new to me, this is thus what I will now attempt to do.

Back in 2012, the OECD’s Development Centre focused its annual report on the topic of ‘Social Cohesion’. More specifically, the center had identified what they saw as a problematic development in so-called “rapidly growing countries” where social cohesion was threatened by fast paced “economic and social transformation”. Already in the foreword, written by the then OECD Secretary General and former Foreign Minister of Mexico Ángel Gurría, we are introduced to the fundamental aspects of social cohesion as the OECD understands it. Here, we are told that social cohesion is necessary for the establishment of a “social contract” as it fosters “a sense of community and equality of opportunities” among citizens, meaning that the antidote for developing countries experiencing divisions and social tensions can be found in promoting “social cohesion for inclusive growth, development and ultimately, better lives” (3). Early on in the report, we are introduced to the three components of social cohesion according to the OECD – social inclusion, social capital, and social mobility – and we are told that “[t]he report argues that social cohesion is a valuable goal in itself and contributes to maintaining long-term economic growth” (17). Hence, social cohesion is not just a goal in itself, it also constitutes a means for furthering economic growth. Through Durkheim’s thoughts on the division of labor, the report explains that growing divisions are an effect of modern social organization: the difference between traditional and modern social cohesion arises out of differences in how we organize work. In a traditional society, with a low degree of division of labor, social cohesion is predicated on the maxim that helping someone implies that they will return the favor later, thus creating a sense of belonging and co-dependence (we should here perhaps imagine a farmer helping his neighbor to sow in the fields, taking for granted that this neighbor will help him with the harvest should it be necessary). However, in modern society, wherein such interactions are taken care of by highly specialized and salaried laborers, another base for solidarity must be established, according to Durkheim. As has often been noted, Durkheim’s focus on solidarity grew out of his own attempts to deal with the struggles that had been going on in French society since the Revolution, where a conservative right was fighting to restore monarchy and a socialist and communist left were attempting to organize the struggle of the proletariat against the industrial bourgeoise, both threatening to overturn the new bourgeois society. In this situation, it seemed to Durkheim as if society was missing a more general solidarity (beyond class) which could put an end to internal division and never-ending struggles. And perhaps could we, out of this perspective, claim that the success of both left- and right-wing populists during the last decade, at least to some extent, mirrors the political situation in which Durkheim formulated his theories, turning him into a precursor of social cohesion-theory.

But social cohesion, according to the OECD, seems to go beyond just solidarity. A cohesive society is defined as focusing on “the well-being of all its members, fights exclusion and marginalisation, creates a sense of belonging, promotes trust, and offers its members the opportunity of upward social mobility” (53). Hence, society is presented as consisting of two interconnected sides, the economy and social cohesion, and if not enough attention is paid to the latter, politicians risk “social instability, ineffective policy interventions and, ultimately, a possible loss of political power” (61). In other words, private economical interest must be coupled with what we could call a strengthening of mutual recognition (in the Hegelian sense) between citizens: trust, belonging, the potentiality of social mobility all depends on a recognition between individuals. To achieve social cohesion, one must acknowledge that

[n]eeds and means, as existing in reality, become a being for others by whose needs and work their satisfaction is mutually conditioned. That abstraction which becomes a quality of both needs and means also becomes a determination of the mutual relations between individuals. This universality, as the quality of being recognized, is the moment which makes isolated and abstract needs, means, and modes of satisfaction into concrete, i.e. social ones. (§192)

In a modern society, the needs and means of the individual is inextricably bound up with that of their fellow citizens, meaning they only truly exist as determined social needs and means when they are exchanged to ensure survival. However, when this mutual recognition is broken, divisions show themselves. Hegel captured the origin of these tensions in the concept of the rabble, anticipating the divisions identified by the OECD in the rapidly expanding economies during the first decade of the twenty-first century. In a formulation which sounds like a precursor to the theory of social cohesion, Hegel writes:

When a large mass of people sinks below the level of a certain standard of living – which automatically regulates itself at the level necessary for a member of the    society in question – that feeling of right, integrity, and honour which comes from supporting oneself by one’s own activity and work is lost. This leads to the creation of a rabble, which in turn makes it much easier for disproportionate wealth to be concentrated in a few hands. (§244)

But at one major point, Hegel’s theory of the state and the concept of social cohesion according to the OECD seemingly differ: can we avoid the emergence of a rabble? The OECD seems to indicate that economic growth creates the inequalities undermining social cohesion, but they simultaneously claim that an increased focus on social cohesion from politicians will increase growth even further. Hence, the most probably conclusion must be that division and strife is not only avoidable, by acting correctly, working to reduce inequalities, a society could even be more successful than if it only allows these inequalities to grow uncontrollably. But while the OECD never discusses this problematic explicitly, Hegel provides us with a more sustained reflection on the topic, and it is not positive for those who want to put their faith in social cohesion. According to him, because of the way the economy is organized, a rabble will always emerge within the state. If the economy is growing, it is doing so because of technical advancements or cheaper costs of production, both leading to workers losing their jobs (and thus, providing fertile ground for the emergence of a rabble). At the same time, when a poor rabble is forming, another version of this rabble also emerges; those that are in possession of so much wealth that they do not need the recognition of society. As he puts it in the quote above: the emergence of a poor rabble, “in turn makes it much easier for disproportionate wealth to be concentrated in a few hands.” It is thus not inequality that brings forth a rabble. Instead, the rich and the poor rabble are an effect of the logic of modern society. For Hegel, there is, ultimately, only one solution to this problem: the necessity of war. The unavoidable production of a rabble, creating social tensions, can only be solved if the conflict is externalized, saving “the ethical health of nations […] just as the movement of the winds preserves the sea from stagnation which a lasting calm would produce – a stagnation which a lasting, not to say a perpetual, peace would also produce among nations” (§324).

Hence, in order to save the possibility of social cohesion, we must begin by imagining a concept of economic growth in which inequality constitutes a secondary phenomenon, as a potential but not necessary effect of individual wealth accumulation. But as growth in our system is dependent on the circulation of private capital, meaning it is always tied to individuals, inequalities seem to be an unavoidable part of life today. This would also mean that any politician or policy maker trying to counteract this unequal foundation while also retaining economic growth, will all the time find themselves one step behind.

Preliminary Reflections on ’Social Cohesion’ (Part I)

This text is written as part of the 2022 Humboldt Residency Programme’s work on the topic ‘social cohesion’.

As a scholar of rhetoric, my first impulse when confronted with an unfamiliar concept is usually to try to understand what French philosopher, rhetoric scholar, and philologist Barbara Cassin would call its world-effect: what image of the world is constructed within the confines of this specific concept. As the concept of ‘social cohesion’ is entirely new to me, this is thus what I will now attempt to do.

When trying to understand the landscape opened up by a concept, a potentially fruitful approach is to try to understand its etymology. When it comes to the compound noun ‘social cohesion’, however, that etymology appears to be rather short, coined as it was by sociologists in the middle of the nineties. Although there are potentially interesting historical circumstances which could explain why it emerges precisely there and at that time, the uncovering of these threads might constitute a too difficult task at the moment. Let us instead look at the second (and, in the context slightly more awkward) part of the noun, namely ‘cohesion’. This noun has, if we are to believe the online etymologies, its roots in French and ultimately in Latin, where it finds its origin in the verb cohaerere, meaning to ‘stick to’, ‘to consist of’ or ‘to be closely connected to’/‘belonging to’. This verb also occurs in an interesting context within the rhetorical tradition, more specifically it is often used by Cicero to speak of the logical coherence in argumentation (De inventione, I, 19, 53, 85-86). Furthermore, the great follower of Cicero within the roman rhetorical tradition, Quintilian, uses coharere to refer to an even more general level of language, not just that the arguments but that all the “diverse elements” of a speech most stick together, otherwise the discourse will appear fragmented and “it becomes like a boy’s notebook in which he records admired passages in other people’s declamations” (Institutio Oratoria, 2.11.7). Thus, if we can speak about ‘argumentative cohesion’, and even a ‘cohesion of spoken or written language’, what could this, by way of analogy, tell us about ‘social cohesion’?

In both cases, in argumentation as well as in language more generally, the idea of cohesion paints a picture of their respective logic as one in which different pre-existing entities are brought together in order to create a whole greater than its individual parts: either we have two or more premises that let us arrive at a conclusion or we have a number of different grammatical elements that together create meaning that can only be found in their specific combination (not in the individual elements). It would be tempting here to simply translate this to the social by taking the individual as analogous with the individual premise or the grammatical element, assuming that what is needed to achieve ‘social’ rather than ‘argumentative’ or ‘linguistic’ cohesion is to simply find the right place, location, or combination of all the individual elements so that they, together, can construct a greater whole (a social world the nature of which its members agree upon, similar to how we have agreed on what we are referring to when we are combining words into the phrase “the sun will rise tomorrow morning”). But what is assumed here is that the elements of society, as well as those of language, are unambiguous, that they only hold one single meaning and uphold one single place, making it possible to fit them together like unique puzzle pieces to reveal a larger picture.

Thus, when seen from this perspective, ambiguity would appear to constitute the main threat against both social and linguistic cohesion. Such an understanding of language can be found already in Aristotle, as he is claiming that those who come to the wrong conclusion themselves, or believe the outcome of a faulty logic in a speech they are listening to, are “unacquainted with the power of names” (On Sophistical Refutations, 165a). The question at this point becomes, if we are to continue the analogy between ‘social’ and ‘linguistic’ cohesion, is to understand why ambiguity, as the name for division in language (i.e., when one term or sentence hold different, even antithetical, meanings), appears in the first place. For Aristotle, the origin of ambiguity is external to language, it can be found in the fact that the world is made up of more things than we have names, meaning that the same name must be used to refer to several objects, potentially causing confusion. And the antidote, the only way to lessen the effects of this unavoidable limit, is knowledge, so that anyone who speaks or tries to reason can become aware of potential ambiguities and try to avoid them (rather than, as the sophist, use them for their own advantage). Hence, in an analogous way, just like argumentative cohesion presupposes knowledge on how to combine premises according to the laws of logic, social cohesion would require knowledge on how to combine different individuals into a community, in which their bonds are based in a feeling of unity and belonging.

But the Aristotelian understanding of language and argumentation is not the only one. Some would, for instance, claim that the roots of ambiguities are not found outside of language, but rather at its very core. Instead of treating language as individual words which are later combined, we would here understand it as first and foremost a system of relations. It is only when a certain number of relations are established, defining the meaning of the individual elements, that we are speaking of a language proper, and not just of a collection of individual words. However, these relations are never set or completely defined, rather they change over time, as well as between different coexisting situations, giving rise to an unavoidable ambiguity within the system (as the meaning of the elements are dependent on how the system of relations is set up). This was Plato’s issue, in particular with written language or the letters, as he in The Phaedrus used an old Egyptian myth to illustrate how speech, when it is written down, loses its father, the authority on how it is to be interpreted. Plato seems to have believed that system of relations was in need of an authority capable of securing its stability. The biggest threat against meaning is, thus, turning language into an orphan (274c-275b). But what if language was already an orphan to begin with? Which are the consequences that have for our analogy with ‘social cohesion’? Is it possible to, in any way, fixate a society in order for individuals to belong in it, or are we, in the quest for cohesion, forever doomed to search for an inexistent father of society?