Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought

Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought

by Derek L. Phillips


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ISBN-13: 9780691605395
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #269
Pages: 260
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

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Looking Backward

A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought

By Derek L. Phillips


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07425-2



MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor, Bellah and his collaborators, and many other writers advocate community as a normative ideal. Yet, only the last-named specify what they intend by the term. It is important, then, to examine carefully what these different communitarians have to say about the attributes of community. For there seem to be some features that are basic in the conceptions set forth by the various communitarian writers. My interest is to distill a definition of community from the specific characteristics that communitarian scholars—either implicitly or explicitly—include as central to the notion of community. Thus, I will examine their writings in order to learn what they mean by community.


Alasdair MacIntyre speaks of a community having the "realisation of the human good" as its shared aim, of a community as envisaging its life as directed toward a "shared good" which provides it with its common tasks, of communities in which people together pursue a "common good." What is clearly crucial for MacIntvre is that there be "a community' whose primary bond is a shared understanding both of the good for man and of the good of that community and where individuals identify their primary interests with reference to those goods." Throughout After Virtue, one finds frequent reference to various elements that suggest the content of Maclntyre's community ideal. Among those attributes of community most often mentioned are a shared history, shared practices, shared meanings, a common tradition, and common ideals about a life together. In his more recent book—Whose Justice? Which Rationality?—he speaks of community as being "held together by sympathetic feeling and by coincidence of interest."

Michael Sandel echoes much of what is said by MacIntyre. Community he says, is marked by "a common vocabulary of discourse and a background of implicit practices and understandings." He, too, characterizes community partly in terms of what is good for individuals and for the community itself. Sandel contrasts what he terms the "constitutive conception" of community with those conceptions of community where individuals cooperate either simply for the sake of achieving their private ends or in order to attain certain shared final ends.

With regard to his own conception of community, Sandel writes: "to say that the members of a society are bound by a sense of community is not simply to say that a great many of them profess communitarian sentiments and pursue communitarian aims, but rather that they conceive their identity—the subject and not just the object of their feelings and aspirations—as defined to some extent by the community of which they are a part." For the members of a genuine community, he adds, "community describes not just what they have as fellow citizens but also what they are, not a relationship they choose (as in a voluntary association) but an attachment they discover, not merely an attribute but a constituent of their identity." Although he goes further than MacIntyre in specifying his conception of community, Sandel does not provide an actual definition of community.

Charles Taylor also refers frequently to community in his work, without specifying what he sees as its contours. In Hegel, he emphasizes "the moral obligations that I have to an ongoing community of which I am a part," and says that it is in virtue of the community's "being an ongoing affair that I have these obligations; and my fulfilment of these obligations is what sustains it." It is essential, says Taylor, that man achieve his true identity in the public life of a community. In fact, "our highest and most complete moral existence is one we can only attain to as members of a community." One of the great needs of the modern age, he says, is the achievement of communities that "can become again important centers of concern and activity for their members in a way which connects them to the whole." In Sources of the Self, as well, Taylor refers to the crucial importance of a defining community." But he does not say what it is.

Robert Bellah and his colleagues in Habits of the Heart differ from other communitarians in that they do offer a concrete definition of community in their glossary of key terms, although they unfortunately provide no extended discussion of it. They state:

Community is a term used very loosely by Americans today. We use it in a strong sense: a community is a group of people who are socially interdependent, who participate together in discussion and decision making, and who share certain practices ... that both define the community and are nurtured by it. Such a community is not quickly formed. It almost always has a history and so is also a community of memory, defined in part by its past and its memory of its past.

It is no coincidence that the ingredients in this definition have much in common with the views of MacIntyre, Sandel, and Taylor, since Bellah et al. draw explicitly on the writings of these three scholars. Given the many similarities in the conceptions of community held by these different writers, it is appropriate to consider carefully the various elements contained in the definition above.

As they make clear in their book, Bellah and his collaborators conceive of a community as a group of people whose relationships are tied to a common territory. Like other communitarian writers, they see shared locality or place as having a unique community-engendering power. In a genuine community, they emphasize, people's affiliations are not the sort that are formed entirely voluntarily or broken at will. A common locale helps assure that people's ties to other community members are to some extent unwilled and nonvoluntary. Bellah et al. hold that groups based on freely chosen associations cannot replace "natural" inherited groups in maintaining the "moral order."

From the perspective of communitarian theorists, only those forms of association that are based in part on locale are communities in the full-blooded sense. Thus, they would not consider the Arab community, the international community of scholars, or all those people who have a common interest in stamp collecting to be communities. Such persons do not share a common locale. Furthermore, they relate to one another solely on the basis of the interests that they have in common and not as members of a group with a rich texture of interconnections.

Bellah and his associates sometimes speak of a community as being national in scope but generally use the term in reference to more limited collectivities. Similarly, MacIntyre variously speaks of the community in terms of the city-state and local territory as well as in terms of kinship and religious groups. Sandel also gives special emphasis to the importance of inherited membership for genuine community. Taylor does the same. These scholars generally acknowledge that the modern state is too complex and heterogeneous to constitute a viable site for the recreation of community. Instead, they place their hope in smaller, local collectivities.

Bellah and his colleagues' definition of community in terms of its being a group, then, refers partly to the territorial dimension of people's relationships. Here they combine aspects of the two major usages of "community" in the sociological literature. One, the territorial, conceives of community in terms of locale, physical territory, geographical continuity, and the like. The other, the relational, conceives of community in terms of the quality of human relationships and associations.

Like other communitarians who call for the return of community, BelIah and his associates place special emphasis on its relational aspects. At the same time, however, they also refer to it as a geographical entity. This is consistent with ordinary speech, where the term community usually refers to the people with whom we identify in a locale. Obviously, however, locality is not sufficient to turn a population into a community.

To continue with the definition set forth by the authors of Habits of the Heart, they say that a community is a group of people who are socially interdependent. This implies that in their involvements with one another people have some of their important needs and interests met by other group members, and that their actions have direct consequences for those with whom they regularly interact.

Certain shared behavior patterns are an ingredient of community. Thus, for a group of people to constitute a community, say Bellah and his associates, they must participate "together in discussions and decision making." This emphasis on mutual involvement and participation is a common theme to all writers on community. Sandel argues that we are all defined by our political associations, and MacIntyre emphasizes that traditions and practices can be maintained and understood only if all members of the community are regarded as competent participants in the ongoing process of shaping them. These writers follow Aristotle in viewing man as an active political agent whose humanity is realized through such activity.

Bellah and his associates specify that community involves people sharing certain practices. Elsewhere in their book, they define practices as "shared activities that are not undertaken as means to an end but are ethically good in themselves." Among other things, these practices define the patterns of loyalty and obligation that keep the community alive. These practices help establish a web of interconnection by creating trust, joining people together, and making each individual aware of his or her reliance on the community. Sandel and MacIntyre also give special attention to shared practices as central elements of community.

Noting that a real community is not quickly formed, Bellah and his associates say that it almost always has a history and so is also a community of memory. A "community of memory" does not forget its past. "In order not to forget that past," we are told, "a community is involved in retelling its story, its constitutive narrative, and in so doing, it offers examples of the men and women who have embodied and exemplified the meaning of the community." As they observe, MacIntyre speaks of the same thing in stressing the importance of the past, shared history, and common traditions. Sandel, too, emphasizes a shared history and common memories.

For these communitarian scholars, then, the shared collective values are uncovered from the traditions and practices of the group. These common values are deeply rooted in the history and ongoing activities of the community. People are members of a community and share its traditions and practices before they are able to explicitly recognize and reflect on what they have in common.

MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor, and various other writers suggest that a true community requires that the bonds between the members rest on their mutual recognition or "we sense" of belonging together. This psychological dimension is absent, however, from the definition of community set forth by Bellah et al. in Habits of the Heart. Yet it is clear that they, like other scholars advocating community, place a high value on a shared emotional connection as an element of community. This shared sense of community—of how we see ourselves, of who and what we are—is, then, an additional characteristic in the conception of community espoused by various communitarian thinkers today.


The definition offered by Bellah et al. as well as the writings of MacIntyre, Sandel, and Taylor all include four particular characteristics as central to community: a common geographical territory or locale, a common history and shared values, widespread political participation, and a high degree of moral solidarity. These four elements together make up the normative ideal of community common to communitarian thought. For these writers:

A community is a group of people who live in a common territory, have a common history and shared values, participate together in various activities, and have a high degree of solidarity.

Let me now consider each of these four elements at greater length.

The first ingredient of community is a common territory. Although some social scientists today argue for the irrelevance of locality, communitarian writers conceive of community as being tied to place. They see a common territory as having unique community-engendering power. A common locale, in their view, helps assure that the various shared aspects of community arise from that form of life in which, as Sandel puts it, "the members find themselves situated 'to begin with.'" Communitarian writers argue that inherited membership in a group creates a far stronger and more meaningful sense of attachment than does the sort of membership based on voluntary choice. People are seen as naturally and unselfconsciously identifying themselves with those with whom they share a territory, and as unquestioningly accepting the demands of the particular form of life into which they are born. As will be seen later, nineteenth-century social theorists also emphasized the importance of location.

The second, characteristic of community is that the individuals who compose a community have a common history and shared values. Included are various attributes mentioned by communitarian scholars: traditions, practices, common understandings, and conceptions of the common good. A common history—with a specific background of events, activities, victories and defeats, successes and failures—helps assure consensus about where people come from and who they are. Common origins and common experiences are seen as providing the basic framework for individuals to understand and relate to one another. According to contemporary communitarian writers, as well as classical sociologists like Tonnies and Durkheim, the members accept and internalize the community's shared values and standards. Thus people in a genuine community comply with the norms, and external sanctions are generally unnecessary.

The third characteristic of community is that members participate widely in common activities. Advocates of community stress the importance of community members being involved in discussions and decisions about the most desirable form of collective life for themselves. Like Aristotle, they hold that only the public sphere admits of general deliberation about how people are to "be" together.

Community, from this perspective, involves the idea of collective, participatory engagement of people in the determination of the affairs that directly concern them. Benjamin Barber, whose work contains communitarian elements, points to a dialectic relationship between the nourishing of community and participatory civic activity: "Community grows out of participation and at the same time makes participation possible; civic activity educates individuals how to think publicly as citizens even as citizenship informs civic activity with the required sense of publicness and justice." Community requires, then, that people be actively involved in common talk, common decision making, and common action.

Some writers on community emphasize the necessity of direct, intimate, face-to-face relations as a defining characteristic of community. But the communitarians being considered here do not include regular face-to-face relations as an element in their conception of community. They are agreed that in a modern state, and even in smaller localities, it is unrealistic to expect all members to have face-to-face contact with one another, and equally unrealistic to expect the sort of intimacy that is associated with people's relations with loved ones and close friends.

They share Aristotle's view that there are degrees of intimacy among members of the community who do not all know one another equally well—or even know one another at all. As I will make clear in a later chapter, the population of Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. ran into the tens of thousands. Although Aristotle does say that those sharing membership in the polis are friends of a sort, they are not bound together by feelings of warmth and personal intimacy. He makes it clear that it is "impossible to be an intimate friend of many." "For that reason," he continues, "it is also impossible to be in love with many people: being in love means to have something like an excess of friendship, and that is only possible toward one person. Accordingly, intimate friendship is only possible with a few people."

But an inferior type of friendship, based on the sharing of interests, can exist among fellow citizens. What Aristotle calls "political" friendship is a species of friendship based on utility or shared interests among fellow citizens who are neither close friends nor relations.

The communitarian thinkers being considered here do not, then, see a genuine community as requiring direct, face-to-face relations among people who care deeply about one another. Instead, they emphasize the importance of there being widespread opportunities for everyone to participate in the important affairs of the community, in collective decision making, and in the exercise of power.

The fourth and final characteristic of community is that it has a high degree of solidarity. The dimension of solidarity represents a combination of two elements found in the normative conceptions of community advanced by various communitarian writers: social interdependence and the "we sense" of belonging together. Bellah et al., for example, define community partly in terms of it being "a group of people who are socially interdependent." But social interdependence, by itself, is not really a distinguishing characteristic of community. After all, each and every one of us is socially interdependent, whether it be in the family, the neighborhood, the workplace, or elsewhere. We all depend on others; others depend on us. It is a sociological truism that we cannot even conceive of a person separate and absolutely alone in the world, independent of other people. For human beings are not and never were, of course, atomic, separated, completely self-sufficient creatures.


Excerpted from Looking Backward by Derek L. Phillips. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents



Ch. 1 Uncovering the Communitarian Ideal

Ch. 2 Once upon a Time in America

Ch. 3 The Communitarian Ideal and the American Reality

Ch. 4 Life in the Middle Ages: An Overview

Ch. 5 The Communitarian Ideal and the Medieval Reality

Ch. 6 Community and the Good Life in Classical Athens

Ch. 7 Learning from History

Ch. 8 A Liberal Response to Communitarian Thought




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