Charles Fourier (1772-1837)

“The Study of Groups”

Source: The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier. Selected Texts on Work, Love, and Passionate Attraction. Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Jonathan Beecher and Richard Bienvenu. Published by Jonathan Cape, 1972;
First Published: 1829 in Le Nouveau monde industrielle et sociétaire.
Transcribed: by Andy Blunden.
Proofread: by Andy Carloff 2010.

The term “group” is conventionally applied to any sort of gathering, even to a band of idlers who come together out of boredom with no passion or purpose — even to an assemblage of empty-minded individuals who are busy killing time and waiting for something to happen. In the theory of the passions the term group refers to a number of individuals who are united by a shared taste for the exercise of a particular function. Three men have dinner together: they are served a soup which pleases two of them and displeases the third; on this occasion they do not make up a group because they are in discord about the function that occupies them. They do not share a common passionate inclination for the soup.

The two individuals who like the soup form a false group. To be properly organised and susceptible to passionate equilibrium a group must include at least three members. It must be arranged like a set of scales which consists of three forces of which the middle one keeps the two extremities in balance. In short no group can be composed of less than three people sharing a common inclination for the performance of a particular function.

One might object: “Although these three men are in discord about the trifling matter of the soup, they are in agreement about the main purpose of the get-together which is friendship. They are close friends.” In this case I would answer that the group is defective because it is simple; the only tie that binds it is a spiritual one. To make it into a compound group, a sensual bond would have to be added, a soup liked by all three members of the group.

“Bah! If the three are not in agreement about the soup, they will have shared preferences for other kinds of food. In any case the group actually does have two bonds, for besides the bond of friendship, these three men are united by the bond of ambition; they are in cabalistic league. They have gotten together for dinner in order to hatch an electoral intrigue. So there’s the double link, the compound bond that you require.”

This would only be a bastard compound relationship, formed by two spiritual bonds. The pure compound demands a mixture of the pleasures of the soul and those of the senses without any sort of dissidence. In this case the meal begins with a disagreement about the soup and the group is falsified despite the double bond... .

Since passionate series are composed only of groups, it is necessary first of all to learn how to form groups.

“Ha! Ha! Groups! What a silly subject that is! It must be very amusing to talk about groups!”

This is the way our wits reason when one talks about groups. At the start you are always subjected to a salvo of stale jokes. But whether the subject is comical or not, it is certain that people know nothing about groups, and that they don’t even know how to form a proper group of three people, much less one of thirty.

We have numerous treatises on the study of man. But what can they tell us about the subject if they neglect the essential portion, the analysis of groups. In all our relationships we persistently tend to form groups, and they have never been an object of study.

Civilised people, having an instinct for the false, are constantly inclined to prefer the false to the true. As the pivot of their social system they have chosen a group which is essentially false: the conjugal couple. This group is false because it only includes two members; it is false in its lack of liberty; it is false in the conflicts or differing inclinations which break out from the very start of married life over expenses, food, friends, and a hundred other little details like the degree of heat in an apartment. If people do not know how to harmonise basic groups of two or three people, they must be even less able to harmonise the whole.

I have been speaking only about sub-groups whose minimum size is three people. A full group in the societary system must include at least seven members, for it must include three sub-divisions or sub-groups. The central sub-group must be stronger than either of the two extremities which it keeps in balance. A group of seven may be divided into three sub-divisions consisting of two, three and two members. Each of these sub-groups devotes itself to one aspect of a given activity. Groups consisting of two members are false when they act in isolation, but here they are admissible since their activity is linked to that of others.

The central sub-group (which consists of three people) is in a state of balance with the two extreme sub-groups (consisting of two members each). The reason for this is that in any activity the central sub-group always performs the most attractive functions; the greater attraction of its functions compensates for its numerical weakness. Thus its influence within the group is equal to that of the four other members who perform two different functions... .

A group is sufficiently large if it includes seven members, but it is more perfect with nine members. Then its three subgroups can be supplemented by a pivot or leader and an ambiguous or transitional member. For example:

Transition1ambiguous member
Higher wing2intermediate members
Lower wing2beginners

This division emerges naturally in any gathering for work or pleasure if the passions and instincts are allowed to express themselves freely. Man has an instinctual aversion to equality and a penchant for hierarchical patterns. Thus when free expression is permitted, this nuanced, hierarchical scale will emerge in a series of nine groups just as it will in a group composed of nine individuals.

There must be at least seven members in a full group and at least twenty-four in a full series. But to replace individuals who are sick or absent it is better for each group to consist of twelve and each series of forty members. In this way each group and series will be assured of having its full complement of leaders and ambiguous members.