Analyse & Kritik

Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory

The Actuality of Communitarianism

2005 (27) Issue 2


'Communitarianism' drew extraordinary public attention in the early nineties and still exerts some influence on the social sciences and political philosophy, even if it is no longer as controversially debated as in former days. What still fires interest in the claims and ideas of communitarianism today, albeit on a lower level of public attention, is the widely felt fascination, in part perhaps also trepidation, vis-a-vis non-individualist social phenomena and trans-individualist social values and aims, especially those of large communities such as cities, countries or the 'nation'. Challenges and unresolved puzzles remain inherent in the diverse dimensions revealed by the earlier debate.

There are at least four to be noted, all characterized by conflicting claims towards the topics discussed. There is, to begin with, the ontological dimension of social actors and persons. Are persons self-sufficient agents with independent capabilities and attitudes, or are they rather 'socially embedded' selves or even mere indices of social relationships or systems? The empiric dimension: Are recent social developments in the work-place, family or city, to name only a few, detrimental to communal needs and close-knit social relationships or is there an establishment of communal ties and flexible new forms of community? The methodological-normative dimension: Is it at all feasible, as modern moral philosophers typically venture to claim, that 'formal' rational 'methods', whether in ethical or jurisprudential contexts, are helpful for decisions on common social matters? Or should we be sceptical of all such proposals, as for example theories of an 'original position', 'ideal discourse' or equal voting procedures? Substantially-normative: Must moral and jurisprudential norms be particularist and culturally contextualized or are they rather universalist and rational, founded on something like a universal 'human rationality' ? The complexity of what is involved in debates on communitarianism and communal phenomena can be guessed from the influence of these different dimensions on each other, both on the level of argument and on the level of real social preconditions.

In his contribution on the Actuality of Communitarianism Daniel A. Bell opens with a similar differentiation between the ontological, methodological and normative claims of communitarians and states that during the last years philosophical concerns behind these claims have developed into political ones. The highly abstract juxtaposition of 'universalism vs. particularism' has given way to more concrete disputes on the range and differentiation of human rights and the transformation of abstract principles into culturally diverse local ones. The importance of liberal rights, Bell points out, does not depend on the true existence of a 'liberal', i.e. 'thin' self, therefore important cultural identities and liberal rights can go together. So far as their value is concerned, communities play very diversified roles, communities of place such as cities are strengthened and accompanied 214 Editorial by 'communities of memory' and 'psychological communities'. According to Bell, conflicts between these types of communities as well as solutions can be studied in the East Asian cultural context, which often combines robust formal democratic thinking with strong community ties.

Conflicts between the universal and the particular are also at the core of Frank Dietrich's contribution. The defenders of a 'liberal nationalism' try to give a liberalist foundation to individual rights to cultural self-determination within an autonomous state and to secession and nation building, if this should be necessary. Dietrich critically examines some recent prominent defences of 'liberal nationalists'and finds them wanting. In his opinion self-determination arising from cultural identities has not the singular, over-arching importance necessary for prioritizing rights to nationality to the extent suggested by these liberalists. Two incompatible values seem to lie at the basis of the very idea of liberal nationalism. Once a liberal, Dietrich argues, not any longer a nationalist.

The contributions by Kelvin Knight and Wolfgang Luutz are devoted to two philosophers who have perhaps most successfully (besides Sandel and Taylor) initiated interest in communitarian ideas in the first place, Alasdair MacIntyre and Michael Walzer. MacIntyre, however, does not see himself as a 'communitarian'at all, and in his article Knight tries to gather and analyse arguments and motives behind this desire for demarcation. Due to his Marxist beginnings MacIntyre is much more sceptical towards the invocation of power and money than the usual communitarian. He recurrently delves into the social bases for normative sources to establish perfectionist counterbalances to the suppressive effects of institutions. Whether MacIntyres special blend of Thomist ethics with Aristotelian 'practices' works out seems of vital importance, as it would make both the fruitful reception of Aristotle and of large parts of communitarianism itself much easier.

Luutz's reformulation of the argument of a more typical communitarian, Michael Walzer, illustrates even if not intentionally what distinguishes the ethical and the political version of community orientation. In accordance with Walzer, Luutz suggests the 'art of drawing boundaries', especially national boundaries against a never-ending flood of immigrants in order to secure the nations inner coherence as a precondition for distributive justice. Such an argument seems to rest on positions of political power or at least factual cultural ties alone. A more explicit normative communitarianism like MacIntyres would look for normative social structures instead of remaining diffusely contingent like Walzer.

The articles on communitarianism are followed by an empirical study by Wulf Gaertner and Lars Schwettmann, commented on by Dieter Birnbacher, on the evaluation of distributive justice in different situations. The related empirical research was done at a German university and spans over a period of fifteen years.It is compared with findings in the Baltics and in Israel.

The issue concludes with a programmatic outline of the importance of cognitive learning processes for the development of institutions by C. Mantzavinos, Douglass C. North and Syed Shariq. Their article provides an overview of the interplay between cognition, belief systems, and institutions, advocating a position to be characterized as 'cognitive institutionalism'.

Less →

Table of Contents

Title: A Communitarian Critique of Liberalism
Author: Daniel A. Bell
Page: 215-238

Abstract: Communitarian thinkers have argued that liberalism devalues community in modern societies. This essay assesses the three main strands of the contemporary debate betweeen communitarianism and liberalism: (1) the communitarian critique of the liberal universalism, (2) the communitarian critique of liberal individualism, and (3) the communitarian critique of liberal politics. In each case, it is argued that the debate has moved from fairly abstract philosophical controversies to more concrete engagement with political disputes in Western as well as East Asian societies.

Title: Liberalismus, Nationalismus und das Recht auf Selbstbestimmung
Author: Frank Dietrich
Page: 239-258

Abstract: In recent years theorists, such as Yael Tamir and David Miller, have proposed a liberal form of nationalism thereby combining two seemingly incompatible traditions of thought. Perhaps the most controversial element of their theories is the claim that national communities should be accorded with a right to political self-determination. In the article it is explained, firstly, why membership in a nation is seen as important for the individual's well-being and, secondly, why statehood is deemed necessary for the thriving of the nation. Subsequently, two problems of the liberal nationalists' argument for political self-determination are discussed. It is argued, firstly, that national communities only need some form of regional autonomy to achieve their most important goals and, secondly, that non-national communities, e.g. religious groups, can base their demand for political sovereignity on the very same argument.

Title: Aristotelianism versus Communitarianism
Author: Kelvin Knight
Page: 259-273

Abstract: Alasdair MacIntyre is an Aristotelian critic of communitarianism, which he understands to be committed to the politics of the capitalist and bureaucratic nation state. The politics he proposes instead is based in the resistance to managerial institutions of what he calls 'practices', because these are schools of virtue. This shares little with the communitarianism of a Taylor or the Aristotelianism of a Gadamer. Although practices require formal institutions. MacIntyre opposes such conservative politics. Conventional accounts of a 'liberal-communitarian debate' in political philosophy face the dilemma that Alasdair MacIntyre, often identified as a paradigmatic communitarian, has consistently and emphatically repudiated this characterization. Although neo-Aristotelianism is sometimes seen as a philosophical warrant for communitarian politics, MacIntyre's Aristotelianism is opposed to communitarianism. This paper explores the rationale of that opposition.

Title: Der Gerechtigkeit einen 'Ort geben' . Zum Platz räumlicher Grenzziehungen in Walzers Konzept einer gerechten Gesellschaft
Author: Wolfgang Luutz
Page: 274-287

Abstract: The paper is concerned with the role of spatial delineations in Walzer's theory of distributive justice. The argument put forward here is that Walzer's concept of the existence of spheres of justice requires socio-spatial and territorial differentiations as a precondition. Walzer himself analyses different socially delineated places of distribution, such as the market (i.e. the economy) or the school (i.e. education). This contribution concentrates on the problem of distribution of political membership, advancing the thesis that we cannot understand Walzer's approach without giving consideration to his concept of concrete delimited territory. According to Walzer, distributive justice needs the framework of the territorial state, but this entity should not be identified with a centralized, ethnically homogenous nation state: One of the merits of Walzer's theory of justice is to draw attention to the value of the locale.

Title: Untersuchungen zur Einschätzung von Gerechtigkeit
Author: Wulf Gaertner / Lars Schwettmann
Page: 288-314

Abstract: This paper discusses evaluations of distributive justice in two different situations. Focal point is the so-called equity axiom which lies at the heart of Rawls' second principle of justice, the maximin rule. Our investigation which was run at a German university spans over a period of fifteen years. It seems to us that consideration for the worst-off (group) in society has become considerably weaker over the years. This and related observations are tested by using a probit model including several demographic characteristics of the probands. The supposed time trend proves to be statistically robust. Several reasons for this observation are given. Obviously, depending on the underlying context, evaluations are to some degree influenced by current topics, including the ongoing discussion about the German educational system as well as about recent economic problems. We also briefly refer to findings that we obtained in the Baltics and in Israel.

Title: Kommentar zu Gaertner/Schwettmann
Author: Dieter Birnbacher
Page: 315-319

Abstract: The changes in the meaning of social justice described by Gaertner and Schwettmann are interpreted as a shift of emphasis within a relatively constant family of meanings. It is argued that any workable concept of social justice is the product of a balancing of a number of different principles of justice that are strictly incompatible and easily come into conflict with one another. In response to changing economic and cultural conditions certain members of the family are given priority without completely abandoning the other members. A parallel is drawn with the changes in the conceptions of justice operative in the distribution of scarce organ transplants.

Title: Lernen' Institutionen und Wirtschaftsleistung
Author: C. Mantzavinos / Douglass C. North / Syed Shariq
Page: 320-337

Abstract: This article provides a broad overview of the interplay among cognition, belief systems and institutions, fleshing out a position best characterized as 'cognitive institutionalism'. We argue that a deeper understanding of institutions, emergence, their working properties and their effect on economic performance should start with the analysis of cognitive processes. Exploring the nature of individual and collective learning the article suggests that the issue is not whether agents are perfectly or boundedly rational, but rather how human beings actually reason and choose. We also show how a full treatment of the phenomenon of path dependence should look like; there is a path dependence at the cognitive level, at the institutional level and at the economic level and there are links among them.