An review on The Crowds刘子轩
A review on The Crowds: A Study of the Popular Mind
The Crowds: A Study of the Popular Mind, written by Gustave Le Bon in 1895, occupied the status of the trail blazer in pubic psychology. The book aims to show that crowds act unconsciously instead of rationally. It starts form the general characteristics of crowd minds that serve as the foundation of his theory, and then goes to the apparent phenomena like opinions, beliefs and leaders. At last, as an application of the above theory, it classifies the crowds.
My remark on its foundation is that Le Bon laid too much on biological factors like race but took them as self-evident and didn’t prove the legitimacy of biological connections, as he did in claiming the differences between Latin and English groups. In fact, social factors are also ingrained in human societies and can’t be degraded, or there may be risks to support racial discrimination. Another drawback might be attacked that he relied too much on emotion, for which I will defend below.
As for his argument, I appreciate his analysis on French Revolution, which debunked the rational fantasy during the Enlightenment. Perhaps we can forgive him for using domestic examples only, but too much reliance on examples distracts me a bit from the main idea of each unit, for lack of enough theoretical analysis. Maybe we can draw that it’s kind of sacrificing professional accuracy for readability, to some extent. Thus I may conclude that the book is logically acceptable on the whole, but the way with details is not.
However, as a pioneer aiming to create a field of public psychology, the above flaws can be forgiven. Below will be the inspiration I received from the book—ultimate purpose, which I will interpret philosophically.
The whole book rests on one idea: a crowd, in contrast with individuals, is solely controlled by emotion. It’s kind of going to another extreme in rejecting the clichés that all our decisions are rational, which cover the fact that political forces are manipulating behind.
But let’s ponder some more. What do you mean by ‘ration’? You search for a reason for everything. But what is it that connects your logical chain? Causation, you may answer. And where do you rest at the end of your chain? An ultimate purpose. Causation, as well as your ultimate purpose, seems ‘self-evident’ and unchallenged. But do they really have such legitimacy? Philosophy often annoys us in questioning concepts like ‘moral’ ’prestige’ and ‘existence’ and we may often find our foundation in danger of collapsing. How do we sanction our ideas on earth? By instincts, by emotion, by something we may use ‘self-evidence’ ’necessity’ ‘belief’ to cover our fear and sustain ourselves. Thus we find, no ration is truly ‘rational’, given that the ultimate end is sanctioned by emotion, as Locke and Hume claimed.
Therefore, ultimate purpose gradually becomes a tool, even if we can’t prove it theoretically. As Kant says, God can’t be proved or denied by human ration, but only remains as a tool to sustain the strength of morality. It’s no wonder that almost all countries nowadays carries a flavor of communism, due to the practical effect it produces on the masses. Such symbolic and practical use of ultimate purposes can be seen throughout history. God to the Crusade, liberty to the French Revolution, and ‘Revolution’ to the Cultural Revolution of China all show the strength of such use.
The two characteristics of ultimate purpose are essential. Simplicity takes the first place. It has to be easy enough to understand so as to produce enough influence and unity. Therefore, ultimate purposes are ‘principles’, unifying and consolidating the crowds by its uniqueness. And a complex philosophy can never grasp the minds of the crowds as simple ideas do. The second is mystery. Mystery brings along novelty and attractiveness. ’-isms’, with its obscure names and seemingly profound meanings, exemplify this perfectly by the prestige we have for those mentioning them. What’s more, the two combine to create a space allowing interpretation. Particular meanings can be assigned to an ultimate end, though the words may have a zone possible for interpretation. And under the name of the ultimate end, everything receives their legitimacy, becomes glorious and on more needs proving. We all have a taste of this when it comes to our fervent aroused by religion or politics.
But an ultimate purpose is too much a concept and this provides soil for leaders, as an entity, an symbol, a representative of the ultimate purpose. But it remains a question whether the leaders themselves are hypnotized, indulging themselves in the belief or they are clear-minded, focusing on its practical use only, and manipulate the whole drama as directors as well as actors or actresses.
Below is how the ultimate purpose is sowed in the crowds. First of all, suggesting and stressing make a dent in their minds. However, as it’s the case with a good sculptor, the tools he or she uses must be moderate. Neither should it be too weak in the face of the material nor should it be so strong that it’s broken up. The material, as Heidegger says, is the daily lives learnt by us in a topically way but ‘in a familiar way’. Therefore, suggestion and stress have to be consistent with the soil of the crowd.
Then we comes to the form of this delivery-image. An image of the ultimate purpose has to be grand, self-evident, alluring yet vague. Take ‘communism’ or ‘utopia’ as examples, and you may find their beauty, poetry and uncertainty. Yet they produce a strong tendency prompting us to think ‘It should be so’ and a strong bond between members is thus formed through images.
Another factor also plays a role, namely the division of labour. Anyone ignorant of professional knowledge of a subject, as an outsider, can hardly choose but to turn to others for interpretation. Even when one claims that he or she interpret it on his or her own, insisting his or her own opinions, he or she has no idea that there’s something already injected in his thought that he or she grasps for evidence.
And here we come to how crowds react to the ultimate goal. First of all, it has to undergo a tribunal by instincts to acquire its status in the crowds through its plausibility. After that, there arises prestige around everything associated with the ultimate purpose-‘sacred’, as they say. Then the crowds push this ultimate purpose to extreme, for which they can sacrifice anything. And the number of followers ‘self- evidently’ ‘guarantees’ the impunity of actions under the name of ultimate goal, making them think themselves as heroic and invincible. Meanwhile, crowds put the ultimate goal at an immovable place but remain expectant of specific meanings of it, and are therefore obedient to interpretations and orders from the leaders. And inside an crowd, contagion is important. But there comes a question: does contagion need a common ground, or does it create one itself? My opinion is that both exist, the first being like the mention of blood relationship from a Chinese will spread across the region only on condition that it touches the bottom of a nation’s common ground, the second injecting a new idea into a culture like the spread of Western ideas to China in 1900s.
What if the ultimate purpose is challenged? In fact, we have a strong tendency to sustain our previous thought and find a reason to yield to the purpose, as we find reasons in literary works to prove to ourselves why we love someone, said by Proust. Thus the ultimate purpose acquires a self-repairing mode. However, crowds will revenge once the death of ultimate purpose is announced, considering it’s not worth it, as Russians react to the Czar’s reform on serfs in 1861. But this gives us a feeling that we are just going from one dream to another. Truth seems to be a mistake itself.
At last, let me restate the whole problem in the language of ‘clear’ and ‘blur’. Ration, is thought to be a process clarifying the situation but so do the tendency to go to extreme. We also rest on one ultimate purpose for the sake of unity and clearness. What’s more, the appearances of leaders clarify the ultimate purpose, giving it a symbol in the reality. However, the specific meaning of the ultimate purpose, the lack of basis of it and whether a leader can represent the idea all give our world a blur flavor.
Crowds are a special mode of human existence. An answer to the question of the crowd, is after all, a step to the answer to ‘Who are we’. ‘Pas à pas ,on va loin.’