Gesellschaft, which I will here translate as “society,” is one of the most ambiguous sociological notions. One talks about caste societies, class societies, open and closed societies, agrarian, socialist, capitalist, industrial, civil, and pluralist societies, static and dynamic societies, and many other types of societies. All types of societies are particularly being dealt with within sociology, a term coined by A. Comte, which can be translated as “study of societies.” Society in the German context is mostly contrasted with the term “community” (Gemeinschaft).
In Ancient Greece, the terms associated most directly to society are KotvcQvi’a (community/society), poXiC, (city/state), olkoz (family/household), and ptAia (friendship). All four terms are of central significance in the ethical theories of Plato and Aristotle. According to Aristotle, the terms Koivcovla, noAtTucrj, and poo AtZ are synonymous. There are societies based on nature (husband/wife, parents/children, master/slave) and others based on agreement (some laws of a city-state). According to Aristotle, human beings are political animals, which implies that human beings can only be eudaimonious (live a good life) within a city-state, a civil society. It can be discussed whether a po Ait) is a type of society or community. The political leaders have to be free male citizens who rule above other free male citizens who are their equals; unfree slaves; children who are not yet free human beings; and free women who are slightly subordinate to free male citizens. It is clear, however, that for Aristotle, human beings were divided up into the free and the unfree, without there being the concept of equality of all human beings, which is closely linked to the concepts of human rights and human dignity.
In Roman antiquity, the notion Koivcovia noXtrtKij was translated as communitas, conciliato, societas civilis, societas humana, and societas by Cicero. Cicero was the first to hold that all human beings are equal because of their dignity as human beings, and he did refer to all human beings as belonging to the societas humana, or to the societas, and when referring to all human beings, he normally employed the term societas. It needs to be stressed that it can be problematic to employ the term society in order to refer to humanity as a whole, because in that case, a sociological notion and a term for a species is being mixed up, as L. Gumplowicz has already pointed out. When referring to human organizations that have more in common (family, friendship, city-state), Cicero, on the other hand, tended to use communitas more often. It would be misleading, however, to hold that Cicero already had a clear-cut distinction between societies and communities. It can only be said that he employed the term societas to refer to all type of human organizations, the largest being the group consisting of all human beings and the smallest being related to family and friends.
From the 13th century onward, the Aristotelian Koivcovia TCoAixiKrj was translated as communitas, communication civilis, or politica. In the same century, Thomas Aquinas introduced the distinction between a public and a private society, which can be related to Aristotle’s po Ait)/olkoz distinction. During the Enlightenment, Hobbes identified the civil society with the Greek poAi). A similar position was presented by Locke in the Second Treatise of Government, in which he wrote a chapter titled “Of Political or Civil Society.” In the same century, English moral philosophers (A. A. C. Shaftesbury, A. Smith) employed the term society to refer to civil societies. Around 1800, German writers (Herder, Goethe, Schiller) used the term to refer to civilized humanity in general. Kant identified the state (civitas) with the societas civilis, and Hegel, in his philosophy of law, understood the state (synthesis) as the combination of family (thesis) and civil society (antithesis). A basic thought in Marxist theory is also concerned with societies. It is claimed that the history of all past societies is the history of class struggles.
Tonnies’s work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (Community and Society) contains the most influential discussion of these terms for German sociological theory. Here, his description of a society is summarized as follows:
In a society, individuals with arbitrary goals are brought together, which is the reason why societies have to be governed by obligatory rights. Societies demand people who live in big cities, stick to conventions and public opinion, and live a cosmopolitan life.
Given this background, it becomes clear what Tonnies means when he claims that a society is something public, is linked to the world, to trade, to the sciences. A joint stock company is a type of society but never a community. A society is always something transitory and artificial, as it is rather like a machine that is there for some purpose, as opposed to a living organism. Human beings within a society also live together peacefully but without being much connected to one another, separated from another like disintegrated atoms. No deeds come about due to an existent solidarity, unity, a feeling for the others, but rather each one does what is good for himself and lives in a permanent tension with the others. No one does anything for anyone else without expecting anything of at least equal value in return. The laws of exchange are important, and the subjective exchange values become the absolute criteria for value. These individuals can be serving a society by serving themselves, and they are dependent on a society. Money in such a system is a way of regulating the exchange and becomes particularly important. Each good is equivalent to an amount of money, and the better a good is, the more money one gets for it. The system is based on scientific reasoning. When two people exchange goods, it is done on the basis of a contract, which is a place where two singular wills or individuals can meet. Contracts are often made without explicitly formulating them. All things including one’s work turn into a good. This is the reason why civilized society is an exchange society. However, it is natural to create order to enhance the preservation and promotion of pleasure in a community, but the trade undertaken in a society is the opposite of such behavior. One does it to enhance and support only one’s own interests. Tradesmen and capitalists (the owners of money) are the lords and leaders of a society. People without money do not have any rights; they are like slaves. The tradesperson is educated, without a home, is knowledgeable of foreign morals and arts, without love and piety for a particular culture, speaks many languages, is well spoken, is adaptable, changes and adapts his character according to his surroundings, and employs everything to his own advantage. Trades people buy things not because they are in need of them, but in order to sell them for more money. The difference is the gain. Three deeds describe the structure of a society, namely, to buy work, to employ work, and to sell work as products and pay much less for the work and the raw material than you receive for the final product. The meaning of making money is to exchange the money into semiluxury. Money is power, but it has to be given away in order to receive something for it.
Current Western states are closer to societies than they are to communities. Capitalism is dominant in them, the importance of traditional families diminishes, people think globally, they travel, live in foreign countries, and thereby lose and abandon their traditional organic roots. All these are reasons that make it necessary to classify our Western states as societies. Whether this is praiseworthy or not is a matter of dispute. A contemporary discussion in the English-speaking world in which Tonnies’s distinction could have been employed was the liberalism/communitarianism debate. Liberalism can be linked with Tonnies’s understanding of a society, and communitarianism with his understanding of community.
Tonnies’s distinction is also closely associated with the culture/civilization distinction in the German-speaking context, whereby the society/ community distinction includes only types of human organization, whereas the culture/civilization distinction not only refers to types of human organization but also includes the ideas and works created by the respective human beings. All cultures include a community, and all civilizations a society. In the Middle
Ages, in Europe, Christian culture was dominant, and human beings were all part of a community with close, organic ties. At the end of the 20th century, European states represented models of pluralist civilizations in which the importance of the individual is extremely strong and human beings are part of a society.
Karl Popper introduced another currently significant distinction, namely, that between an open and a closed society. Both represent types of social order. In contrast to a closed society, an open society sets free the critical ability of human beings. The different notions can be distinguished on a sociological, historical, and ethical level. Concerning the sociological aspect, the notion can be employed to describe contemporary social organizations. In that respect, they can be compared to Tonnies’s community and society. Concerning the historical aspect, Popper regards the two types of society as separate developmental stages in cultural history, whereby the closed society came first, and it was replaced by the open society only during the last couple of centuries. According to Popper, this transition was one of the most important revolutions in the history of mankind. Closed societies were held together by eternal laws, morals, and taboos. The herd or the tribe formed a semiorganic unity, with the members being connected in a semibiological way. All decisions had to be approved by the tribe, and thinking was collective. Open societies, on the other hand, are constituted of individuals who have to make personal decisions and have to employ their own critical abilities in order to grasp situations and give structure to their lives. The third aspect on which Popper’s distinction can be analyzed is the ethical. He polemicizes against Plato and Hegel by accusing them of totalitarianism, upholding an ideal of rationality, which according to him can be the only basis for a humanitarian attitude.
It seems as if Popper’s distinction between open and closed societies bears many similarities to Tonnies’s between community and society. Given the vast variety of contemporary positions concerning social organizations, it might be useful to employ Tonnies’s basic distinction and then distinguish between an open and a closed version. In that case, we would have an open and a closed community, and an open and a closed society. An open society would be one in which a worldview like R. Nozick’s libertarianism is predominant. A closed society is still based on liberalism and pluralism but has a greater amount of formal aspects in common, as in G. Vattimo’s philosophy, which stresses the aesthetic elements of Catholicism. In a closed community, one specific worldview would be dominant, as is demanded by A. Maclntyre, who upholds that a return to a pre-Enlightenment type of Christianity would be desirable. An open community, on the other hand, does not try to determine the behavior of human beings in all aspects, but intends to promote some important basic virtues within a liberal environment, as is the case in H. Kung’s Weltethos theory. The distinction between open and closed societies and communities was introduced by S. L. Sorgner.
- Aristotle. (1996). The politics (T. J. Saunders, Trans.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Jarvie, I., & Pralong, S. (Eds.). (2003). Popper’s open society after fifty years: The continuing relevance of Karl Popper. London and New York: Routledge.
- Popper, K. R. (1962). The open society and its enemies (Vol. 1). London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Tonnies, F. (2001). Community and civil society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.