Gemeinschaft, or “community,” has always been an ambiguous notion. Particularly in the German context, it has been contrasted with the term Gesellschaft (society). Both notions represent aspects of the Ancient Greek term KOIVCQVI’OC, the historical background of which is identical to “society.”
In German, the term can turn up in connection with family, village, city, profession, or religion. Often, Gemeinschaft (community) and Gemeinde (rural commune or parish) have been used as synonyms.
According to Kant, the ambiguity of the notion of community is such that it can be translated as communio as well as commercium, whereby the first stands for a formal negation of individuation while the second represents a proper relationship, a reciprocal influence, and the participation of individuals within a whole, which as dynamic community is ahead of solely local communities. Kant concentrates on the logical and metaphysical aspect of the notion. More important and influential is the moral and political meaning of the term.
Toennies’s work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society) contains the most influential discussion of these terms for German sociological theory. His description of a community is summarized as follows.
According to Toennies, communities are based upon organic relationships, whereas societies presuppose ideal relationships, by which he does not mean that relationships in a society cannot get improved, but that they are dependent on contracts, which were made between individuals.
The basic constituent of a community is the family, and the family analogously turns up at all levels of a community. The most basic relationships of a family are the following: First, mother-child relationship; second, husband-wife relationship; and third, the relationship between brothers and sisters. As a consequence, Toennies holds that if one studies a house, then one studies a community. A house consists of three layers, the inner, with husband and wife; the descendants and their spouses; and the outer sphere, which involves others. The next-larger group of a community is the clan, or the large family, which involves all distant relatives and relatives of relatives. It is structured analogously to the family, and so is the town, and the city. In this context, Toennies does not refer to really large cities, as it is difficult to uphold a family-like, organic structure in these.
Besides discussing the various levels of a community, Toennies further explains what it is that allows men to form close bonds. It is obvious for him that blood, location, and spirit or character are especially important for men. The best communities are therefore based upon these aspects. These three aspects are closely interconnected, and they correspond to the human relationships of relatives, neighbors, and friends. With one’s relatives, one shares the blood, with one’s neighbors the location, and with one’s friends the character. Family, friendship, and neighborhood are reached best by means of conventional sociability, which one can find in houses, towns, and cities.
Yet there are other relationships as well that are important for men, like that which one has in a guild, a brotherhood, or a religious community. In all of these, people share something that is particularly valuable for them, something basic to their character. In all of these groups, people form certain hierarchies, and the student, or anyone on a lower level, has respect for the dignity of the more advanced, the master of the respective profession. Here, Toennies employs the term dignity in a traditional sense. Dignity, Wuerde in German, is related to worth (Wert), and only someone special can be worthy and can have value. Nowadays, the term, particularly in Germany, is mostly used in a much wider sense, whereby it is attributed to all human beings. Toennies not only refers to the dignity of spirit, but expands the concept to other areas as well. Any kind of superiority, Toennies calls dignity. He distinguishes further between a dignity of age, strength, and spirit or wisdom. The superior do not abuse their superiority, but as Toennies stresses, within a bodily-organic relationship, there is an instinctual naive tenderness of the strong toward the weak, a generous will to help and protect them.
As a consequence of this mutual help, people feel safe and at home. In addition, one feels close to others, as one was born into the community, grows up in it, and is therefore familiar with all the practices traditionally performed there. This feeling of safety is also achieved in families, with neighbors, and with friends. Most men feel most serene and happy when they are together with their family. Neighborhoods allow people to form close bonds, as one is used to the others, one sees, helps, and gets to know them. One is familiar with their history, and one shares certain habits on which living together is based. Friendship is based on character, a similar way of thinking about things. Not only does this enable people to feel a bond between the various members of a community, but one also knows that these bonds are not instable, but rather long-lasting, real, strong, and alive. Such bonds are possible only within a community, as one can feel sympathy and be happy with others only if one understands others’ characters. The consensus of a community consists in its common unifying character, and understanding presupposes an intimate knowledge of one another.
Related to the great amount of common features is the importance attributed to art and religion in communities, as both are concerned with the life of the people and matters regarding character, and values. The traditions of both religion and art are best sustained in families and can therefore be well promoted in a community. However, in the same way as families support the flourishing of art and religion, they, in return, help to preserve the idea of a family and to keep it alive.
Toennies’s understanding of a community bears many similarities to Aristotle’s poAaZ (city/state). In both theories, the most fundamental aspect is the family, which is there for the everyday wants of human beings. In the family, various types of relationship can be distinguished. Aristotle stresses the husband/ wife, parents/children, and master/slave relationship, whereas Toennies refers to the mother/child relationship, husband/wife relationship, and the relationship between brothers and sisters. However, according to both, a clear hierarchical structure can be found both in the family, as well as in all other ideal types of social system. In addition, both stress the importance of a natural organic structure. Aristotle even gives a detailed account of the various levels of a city-state. According to him, several families united form a village to aim at more than their daily needs. When several villages are united to form a self-sufficient whole, the state comes into existence, for the sake of the good life.
In the contemporary debate, many thinkers who stress the importance of common aspects within a social system and are referred to as “communitarians” mention Aristotle in order to support their own positions. In general, one can distinguish two main types of communitarians. First, there are the “right-communitarians,” who stress the relevance of common values and, like Toennies, point out that that this leads to a hierarchical system. The most prominent right-communitarian thinker is A. MacIntyre.
the German context, there is a tendency to associate right-communitarianism with fascism, as people hold that each theory that tries to attain worldly power and has a detailed account of what is good concerning all relevant aspects of human life has to oppress the people and force them into a specific shape that does not take into consideration the specific nature of each individual. Second, there are the left-communitarians who demand stronger common values but combine these with equality. Many of these thinkers also have sympathies for communism. The most famous thinkers here are M. Nussbaum and C. Taylor.
Maclntyre holds that it would be best if we returned to an Aristotelian, neo-Thomistic type of Christianity. He sees modernity as a descent, and the Enlightenment as a moving away from the true Christian faith, which enables human beings to give order to their lives and the state. The Christian religion in its adequate form is supposed to help all the people to live a free and good life. Maclntyre’s concept of freedom is a positive one rather than a negative one, which is being upheld by liberal thinkers. Positive freedom implies that one holds the true concept of the good, which one integrates in the political sphere so that it can help the people make the right choices, the choices necessary for living a good life. Negative freedom, on the other hand, implies an absence of constraint, as long as one does not intrude into the freedom of other human beings.
Maclntyre holds a strong, detailed, and inclusive concept of the “good.” It is strong, as it includes all relevant human aspects, both with respect to public as well as private matters. A weak concept of the good does not include all relevant human aspects. It is detailed, as it puts forward a clear, many-layered description of the aspect in question. A vague concept of the good gives open hints instead of a specific description. It is inclusive, as it is valid for the political as well as the religious sphere. An exclusive concept of the good would be in favour of a separation of the political and the religious spheres.
Nussbaum, like Maclntyre, is a neo-Aristotelian, and in contrast to him, she holds a strong, but vague and exclusive, concept of the good. Her essentialist concept is based on two separate intuitive lists. The first gives a description of the conditio humana and lists 10 points that are relevant for all human beings (mortality, the human body, cognition, early childhood development, practical reason, community with other human beings, relationship to other species and nature, humor and play, individuality). The second list states abilities important for all human lives (live through all stages of life, health, sexual satisfaction, avoid pain, have a concept of the good, solidarity). Her concept is strong, as it deals with all relevant human aspects, but it is also vague, so that it leaves open the negative freedom for individuals to adapt the aspects to their own needs. In addition, it is exclusive, so that it can be applied in the various regions of the world.
In contrast to the other two communitarian thinkers, C. Taylor does not hold a strong concept of the good. He is in favor of a pluralist ethics, but in a world that is being interpreted in a Catholic manner, which is the reason why his position is detailed at least in one aspect. His writings are particularly noteworthy for his criticism of human atomism, which according to him is associated with both liberalism and libertarianism.
Although communitarianism is fairly strong in the present, there are also many liberals and libertarians. Both hold a weak, vague, and exclusive concept of the good. The most important liberal thinker is J. Rawls. He is the author of A Theory of Justice. Even more liberal is the libertarian R. Nozzick, who achieved fame with his Anarchy, State, and Utopia. In the history of philosophy, there have also been quite a few vehement critics of community. M. Stirner particularly upheld the importance of singularity in contrast to the community. According to F. Nietzsche, each community eventually has to make men common, but by being common, one becomes base and does not fulfill one’s natural drive for power and excellence.
- Bell, D. (1993). Communitarianism and its critics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Nussbaum, M. C. (1990). Aristotelian social democracy. In R. B. Douglass, G. M. Mara, & H. S. Richardson (Eds.), Liberalism and the good (pp. 203-252). New York: Routledge.
- Toennies, F. (2001). Community and civil society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.