Philosophical commentary on contemporary political issues in the tradition of Charles Taylor, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Michael Sandel.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Why I Don't Use the Word "Communitarianism"

In yesterday's Washington Post, sociologist and journalist E.J. Dionne published an incisive op-ed concerning the modern GOP's decision to turn away from the traditional conservative value of community. In the op-ed, Dionne talks about the tension between American commitment to individualism and the commitment to community life by saying that "we are communitarian individualists or individualistic communitarians, but we have rarely been comfortable with being all one or all the other."

While thinkers like Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor, and Michael Walzer are often lumped into the category of "communitarian," Dionne's use of the word is an illustration of the reason that these philosophers routinely reject the label. "Communitarianism" is often described as a foil to liberalism. These thinkers are described as critics of liberalism at its foundation, offering a new way of thinking that is fundamentally opposed to the liberal thesis. The basis of this supposed critique is that liberalism considers the individual as primary and that communitarianism concerns the primacy of community.

A look at these thinkers, however, shows that this view is an oversimplification of their true positions. MacIntyre, in his 1999 book Dependent Rational Animals, places special importance on the individual's ability to exercise "independent practical reason." Taylor, in The Ethics of Authenticity, iterates the importance of authentic individuality for flourishing. Even Walzer in Spheres of Justice lays out a system of justice that is focused on goods accrued to individuals.

The takeaway from this is that the thinkers and the philosophical tradition that is often labeled "communitarian" is not the antithesis to individualism that Dionne describes, but is rather a position that supports Dionne's thesis. MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor, and Walzer are not critics of liberalism at its most fundamental level, but are rather offering critiques within liberalism.

Thus, the use of the phrase "communitarian" does little more than to reinforce misconceptions and cause confusion. It would be nice if there were some catch-all phrase to describe the philosophy of this critique, but at this point there is not, so the best we can do is shy away from a label that does nothing but obfuscate the positive contributions of the cause.

1 comment:

  1. You write "MacIntyre, Sandel, Taylor, and Walzer are not critics of liberalism at its most fundamental level, but are rather offering critiques within liberalism" and I think: Really, how so? ...I am wondering if you believe these thinkers to be fundamentally comfortable with liberalism. If you consider liberalism, in the final analysis, THE worldview of contemporary political theory. If you can point to legitimate critiques of liberalism that you consider essentially against liberalism and perhaps even altogether different from liberalism. This sort of thing. ...I remember running into you once last summer, and me trying to briefly articulate my interest in political philosophy that has little to do with the concerns of liberalism. This now leads me to ask: Do you think your own interest in liberalism informs your consideration of the "communitarian" thinkers you admire? In either event, I look forward to reading more from you, especially when you justify why it is you engage in liberal political philosophy (as opposed to other political philosophies).