The Origins of Institutions

13 January 2011


The clash of civilizations, literate and pre-literate: a ‘long and tiresome ceremony’ (according to the diary of James King) in which Captain Cook was honored during the festival of Makahiki. The significance of the ritual and Cook's role in it is still debated, not least because the ritual was not formalized at the time. (

A few days ago in Twelve Theses on Institutionalized Power I developed some ideas about implicit versus explicit institutions. An implicit social contract I call an informal institution, and an explicit social contract I call a formal institution. While I find this to be a helpful distinction in terms of clarifying our ideas about institutions as we find them today, in medias res, the distinction cannot be extrapolated backward in time beyond a certain threshold of social organization. Prior to the existence of social institutions in societies possessing historical consciousness and some system of recording this historical consciousness, the distinction does not make sense.

I will posit another distinct species of institutions that exist prior to the fully developed distinction between formal and informal institutions. These pre-formal institutions — institutions emergent prior to the possibility of formalization in a social context — I will call incipient institutions.

I previously discussed some of the conceptual issues surrounding the origin of institutions in The Institution of Language, where I wrote the following:

The social rituals of proto-civilizations lack the intellectual and conceptual infrastructure to emerge as fully formal institutions; however — and this is important — these institutions were formalized in the only way that it was possible to formalize an institution prior to the emergence of written language and explicit legal codes. One could argue the horror of pre-literate ritual culture was given its horrendous form precisely because it had to make an unforgettable impression at a time when there was no other way to preserve tradition.

I want to continue to explore this line of thought in relation to incipient institutions. Rituals of the kind I refer to above are institutions. In literate, historical cultures, rituals too are literate and historical, often prescribed in nearly neurotic detail. In pre-literate, pre-historical cultures, rituals are incipient institutions. Some of these incipient institutions will fall away as the culture matures, some will be retained, some will evolve into secular institutions, and some will evolve into sacred institutions, i.e., religious institutions. Just as in ancient Greece there was no clear line between science and philosophy, since these two traditions cold only be sedulously distinguished after human thought had matured to a given threshold, so too in pre-literate, pre-historical cultures there would have been little or no distinction between secular and sacred rituals. There was only the ritual itself, deeply embedded in the life of the people, and no means to preserve the ritual intact but for the impact that it could be given by the form that it took.

Incipient institutions resemble implicit social contracts, i.e., informal institutions, except that they are formalized to the extent that anything can be formalized in a pre-literate, pre-historical milieu. Incipient institutions can be neither formal or informal, because they are pre-formal. No infrastructure yet exists by which they could be formalized. If anything at all could be said to be a formal institution in this social context, then certainly incipient institutions are formalized in this sense — except that nothing at all, in fact, is formalized in this social context, which context is an absence of all formalized institutions.

Incipient institutions may be present in a state of nature on the verge of transition into a state of non-nature, that is to say, an unnatural state, which is the state of organized social institutions, formal institutions. These conditions are most likely to be found among semi-sedentary peoples of the late Paleolithic, still engaged in hunting and gathering, but also experimenting with agriculturalism and pastoralism.

If we use the term incipient institution not only to refer to pre-formal institutions, but also to institutions that are in the process of development, presently informal but moving toward formalization, then incipient institutions would be a characteristic of any period of historical transition. In times of rapid social change, decadent and incipient institutions would overlap and intersect (as Wittgenstein said of family resemblances), the former failing, in terminal decline, and slowly disappearing, the latter vital and slowly emerging.

This formulation of incipient institutions suggests a further distinction between incipient institutions that are not in a process of maturation into formal institutions (which might characterize many pre-literate, pre-historical rituals) and incipient institutions that are in a process of maturation. Within incipient institutions one might be able to recognize those elements that are stable and which will experience little or no development, and those which suggest much more than they make explicit, and therefore are ripe for development.

Also of interest in the above formulation is the use I have made of Wittgenstein’s famous phrase, that family resemblances “overlap and intersect.” As soon as I wrote that I realized that Wittgenstein’s conception of family resemblances is a static concept and could benefit from being set in a temporal context. Family resemblances over time will be distinct from family resemblances at an instant, as it were; to overlap and to intersect in time is distinct from what it is to overlap and intersect in space. Admittedly, the metaphor is primarily spatial, but there is no reason we cannot engage in some conceptual exaptation and use it for temporal and historical purposes. Incipient institutions in a process of develop into formal institutions, as well as decadent institutions in the process of decomposition, will exhibit temporal forms of family resemblance.

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A Dance in Otaheite, John Keyes Sherwin, engraver (1751–1790) after John Webber (1752–1793) London: 1784 engraving; plate mark 26.5 x 41 cm, Rex Nan Kivell Collection NK10975/4, Pictorial Collection U1244

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In the above I have used the hyphenated term pre-historical to indicate cultures prior to the emergence of historical consciousness. I retain the non-hyphenated form, prehistorical, to indicate the period of history prior to the emergence of history in the narrow sense. This is admittedly a subtle distinction — some might say overly subtle — but I find it a distinction worth making.

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