Society and Sanity by Alan Watts – Excerpt from Psychotherapy East & West

Though it cannot as yet be shown that a society is a body of people in the same way that a man is a body of cells, it is clear that any social group is something more than the sum of its members. People do not live in mere juxtaposition. To sum is to collect things together in a one-to-one correspondence with a series of numbers, and the relationship between 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 is so simple that it does not begin to resemble the relationship of people living together. A society is people living together in a certain pattern of behavior — a pattern which makes such physical traces as roads and the structure of towns, codes of law and language, tools and artifacts, all of which lay down “channels” determining the future behavior of the group. Moreover, a society is not “made up” of people in the same way that a house is composed of bricks, or even in the same way that an army is gathered together by recruitment. Strictly speaking, society is not so much a thing as a process of action which is really indistinguishable from human beings and animals, and from life itself. That no human organism exists without male and female parents is already society.

As a pattern of behavior, society is above all a system of people in communication maintained by consistent action. To keep the system going, what is done has to be consistent with what has been done. The pattern is recognizable as a pattern because it goes ahead with reference to its own past; it is just this that establishes what we call order and identity, a situation in which trees do not suddenly turn into rabbits and in which one man does not suddenly behave like another so that we do not know who he is. “Who” is consistent behavior. System, pattern, coherence, order, agreement, identity, and consistency are all in a way synonymous. But in a pattern so mobile and volatile as human society, maintaining consistency of action and communication is not easy. It requires the most elaborate agreements as to what the pattern is, or, to put it in another way, as to what are the rules, the consistencies, of the system. Without agreement as to the rules of playing together there is no game. Without agreement as to the use of words, signs, and gestures there is no communication.

The maintenance of society would be simple enough if human beings were content just to survive. In this case they would be simply animals, and it would be enough to eat, sleep, and reproduce. But if these are their basic needs, human beings go about getting them in the most complicated way imaginable. If what must be done to survive is work, it would seem that the main concern of human beings is to play, yet at the same time pretending that most of such play is work. When one comes to think of it, the boundary between work and play is vague and changeable. Both are work in the sense that they expend energy; but if work is what must be done to survive, may we not ask, “But is it really necessary to survive? Is not survival, the continuation of the consistent pattern of the organism, a form of play?” We must be careful of the anthropomorphism which asserts that animals hunt and eat in order to survive, or that a sunflower turns in order to keep its face to the sun. There is no scientific reason to suppose that there are such things as instincts for survival or for pleasure. When we say that an organism likes to go on living, or that it goes on living because it likes it, what evidence is there for this “like” except that it does in fact go on living — until it doesn’t? Similarly, to say that we always choose what we prefer says no more than that we always choose what we choose. If there is a basic urge to live, there must also, as Freud thought, be a basic urge to die. But language and thought are cleaner without these ghostly instincts, urges, and necessities. As Wittgenstein says, “A necessity for one thing to happen because another has happened does not exist. There is only logical necessity.”

An enduring organism is simply one that is consistent with its environment. Its climate and its food agree with it; its pattern assimilates them, eliminating what does not agree, and this consistent motion, this transformation of food and air into the pattern of the organism, is what we call its existence. There is no mysterious necessity for this to continue or discontinue. To say that the organism needs food is only to say that it is food. To say that it eats because it is hungry is only to say that it eats when it is ready to eat. To say that it dies because it cannot find food is only another way of saying that its death is the same thing as its ceasing to be consistent with the environment. The so-called causal explanation of an event is only the description of the same event in other words. To quote Wittgenstein again, “At the basis of the whole modern view of the world lies the illusion that the so-called laws of nature are the explanations of natural phenomena.”

More complex organisms, such as human beings, are more complex consistencies, more complex transformations of the environment. Not only are they patterns of transforming food, but their agreement or consistency with the environment changes nuclear vibrations into sound and light, weight and color, taste and smell, temperature and texture, until finally they generate elaborate patterns of signs and symbols of great interior consistency. When these mesh with the environment it becomes possible to describe the world in terms of sign patterns. The world is thus transformed into thought in the same way that food was transformed into body. The agreement or consistency of body pattern or thought pattern with the pattern of the world goes on as long as it goes on. To say why it starts or stops is only to describe particular consistencies or inconsistencies.

To say that there is no necessity for things to happen as they do is perhaps another way of saying that the world is play. But this idea is an affront to common sense because the basic rule of human societies is that one must be consistent. If you want to belong to our society, you must play our game — or, simply, if we are going to be consistent, we must be consistent. The conclusion is substituted for the premise. But this is understandable because, as we have seen, human society is so complex and volatile that consistency is difficult to maintain. Children keep slipping out of the patterns of behavior that we try to impose upon them, and for this and similar reasons our social conventions have to be maintained by force. The first rule of the game, put in another way, is that the game must continue, that the survival of the society is necessary. But we must not lose sight of the fact that the consistencies or regularities of nature are patterns that do occur, not patterns that must occur. Natural events do not obey commandments in the same way that human beings obey the law.

Or put in still other words, the first rule of the game is that this game is serious, i.e., is not a game. This might be called the primordial “repression.” By this I do not mean that it is an event at the temporal beginnings of human life, but rather that it may be our most deeply ingrained social attitude. But just as soon as we feel that certain things, such as survival, are serious necessities, life becomes problematic in a very special sense quite different from, say, the problems of chess or of science. Life and problem become the same; the human situation becomes a predicament for which there is no solution. Man then behaves as a self-frustrating organism, and this behavior can be seen in many different ways. For example, one of our greatest assets for survival is our sense of time, our marvelously sensitive memory, which enables us to predict the future from the pattern of the past. Yet awareness of time ceases to be an asset when concern for the future makes it almost impossible to live fully in the present, or when increasing knowledge of the future makes it increasingly certain that beyond a brief span we have no future. If, too, man’s growing sensitivity requires that he become more and more aware of himself as an individual, if social institutions are designed more and more to foster the unique person, not only are we in great danger of overpopulating but also we are betting and concentrating upon man in his most vulnerable and impermanent form.


Alan Watts (6 January 1915 – 16 November 1973) was a British-born American philosopher, writer, speaker, and counterculture hero, best known as an interpreter of Asian philosophies for a Western audience. He wrote over 25 books and numerous articles weaving scientific knowledge into the teachings of Eastern and Western religion and philosophy, including Psychotherapy East & West.

Excerpted from the book Psychotherapy East & West. Copyright ©1989 by Anne Watts and Joan Watts. Printed with permission from New World Library —