on the logic of crowds (benjamin adam)

A quick note on what I thought was a really interesting and surprising critique in The Crowd which opens interesting questions about alternate modalities of thought and certain principles of empiricism.  Le Bon challenges the principle by which direct observation and testimonial accounts are thought to provide universally valid and ideal bases on which to establish truth – and to do so by degree related to the number and trustworthiness of observers. In relation to the crowd, Le Bon argues, such principles are reversed: rather than more likely to be true by virtue of consensus, the collective observations of a crowd are “as erroneous as possible” owing to the contagious illusions of a crowd’s leader. The relationship between degree of certainty and number of observers is inverted as well: events are most in doubt when observed by the greatest number of people (19-20).

Le Bon also challenges a typical understanding of the relationship between crowds and the individual by suggesting that it is the crowd and not the individual who lamentably thinks in simple, authoritative absolutes. In this way, Le Bon challenges accounts of the autonomous sovereign individual of liberalism who stands in his authority and clarity of opinion alone and apart from the masses who debate in the confused terms of non-absolutes. There is a re-articulation, then, of the terms of enlightenment thought which hold authority, the individual, and certainty as positive terms contrasted to the negativity of democracy, crowds, and uncertainty. Thus Le Bon does not simply reverse Descartes’ discovery of the indubitable cogito as the last stand against a destructive skepticism but rather pulls apart the structuring assumptions of such thought by linking together its oppositional terms in surprising ways: for Le Bon, it is uncertainty, the individual, and an absence of authority which are linked as positive terms, and certainty, the crowd, and authority as the negative (24-5).