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2005 (27) Heft 2

The Actuality of Communitarianism


Editorial | Inhalt | Abstracts

'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'.


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