Furthest Right

Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought. – book review (William M. Sullivan)

For writers, the appeal of polemic over critique is obvious. While critique demands that one present the best arguments of the work in question in order to show its limits, the genre of polemic has few rules of fair play. The danger is that the polemicist will allow indignation to distort perception into caricature and then seriously try to dismantle a straw figure. Despite some useful observations along the way, in Looking Backward: A Critical Appraisal of Communitarian Thought, Derek L. Phillips proceeds to do just that.

Phillips’s strategy is to take the loose usage of “communitarian” as a label for a variety of current writers on social and political issues, and try to find in that label a conceptual core centered on the notion of “community.” The writers principally considered – Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and the authors of Habits of the Heart (of which the reviewer is one) – are by “considerable agreement” judged to be “the major communitarian thinkers.” All are found to be not only “highly critical of political individualism and liberalism” but also “emphasize very similar features in characterizing social groups as communities.”

Phillips proceeds to “uncover the communitarian ideal,” asserting that it continues the critique of modem society put forward in the nineteenth century by thinkers nostalgic for a lost premodern world. Thus, for Phillips, whatever particular authors say, “community” must mean common territory, common history and values, a widespread participation in common activities, and a high degree of solidarity, especially as expressed in emotional attachments springing from ascribed rather than achieved status. This, of course, is that staple of introductory sociology texts, Ferdinand Tonnies’s contrast between die lost warmth of Gemeinschaft and the chilliness of modem Gesellschaft. But Phillips claims that what “communitarians” have in common is the effort to restate this old dichotomy to the detriment of right-thinking liberal minds.

Phillips wants to debunk this nostalgic idealization of the past by showing that the good old.days weren’t nearly so rosy. “The bulk of this book, then, represents a sort of sociology of the past,” he writes. Two chapters on early America follow, then two on the Middle Ages, finally one on ancient Athens, plus instructions on “Learning from History.” These tutorials are neither startling nor particularly gripping in their recitation of the oppressions and violence of the allegedly more “communal” societies of the past. The patient reader will find more to ponder in the concluding chapter, “A Liberal Reply to Communitarian Thought.” There Phillips tries to stage a head-to-head confrontation between the approaches of the “communitarians” and those of a variety of philosophical liberals.

The central issue here turns out to be that while liberals want to exalt the freedom, dignity, and self-determination of persons, communitarians “and their nineteenth-century counterparts emphasize the primacy of die collective life over the individual.” Phillips at one point claims that these alleged differences stem from different views of the self, in which communitarians stress the “emergent” and unchosen features of identity which result from die contingencies of birth and history, while liberals want to emphasize “self-creation” and play down the ways in which selves are “products of our social relations.”

This line of thinking, however, hardly advances Phillips’s efforts to clarify the contemporary scene. Put in his terms, self-avowed “bourgeois liberals” who stress the contingency of thought and identity, such as Richard Rorty, must be classified as “communitarian.” And so it goes. Finally, though, we get to a strong, if not entirely clear, statement of the book’s thesis. Phillips asserts that while “social ties, attachments, and fellow feeling” are necessary for human well-being, they need not entail “relatedness in terms of the group or collective,” nor find their source in “the community.” What counts, we are told, is not “membership” or participation but “attachment.”

Here, labels such as “communitarian” aside, the significance of the arguments surrounding the authors Phillips criticizes begins to appear. What is missing from Phillips’s thin theory of attachments” is the recognition that the goods he most praises, such as individual agency, dignity, and critical inquiry, cannot be sustained over time apart from ongoing patterns of collective action and practice. That is, liberal values, like all human goods, depend upon a complex social network of practices and institutions.

The argument Phillips misses is the claim that the survival of liberal goods is threatened by public and theoretical languages, not to say social developments, which ignore or run down those sustaining social and moral contexts and curtail discussion of them. Part of the history which counts here is trying to understand how such a fundamental recognition could have been eclipsed in much modern thought and action. Something like this, and not nostalgic appeals for Gemeinschaft, is closer to the core of the criticisms of liberal individualism, atomism, and abstraction found in MacIntyre, Taylor, and others. Unfortunately misled by the effort to find some essence of “communitarianism,” Derek Phillips never identifies his authors’ major themes clearly enough to subject them to critique.

[Commonweal,  Dec 17, 1993]  


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