Letter: Philosophical approach to communitarianism

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The Independent Online
Sir: Anna Coote's article ("A bit too much of a prig and a prude", 3 July) exemplifies the tendency to take philosophers' ideas out of their contexts and set them up as straw men in order to conveniently demolish them. Judging by the way she defines communitarianism, I am not sure at all whether she is familiar with the work of Charles Taylor or Alasdair MacIntyre, whom she labels as the "high priests of communitarianism". "Undiluted," we are told by Ms Coote, "[communitarianism] has no time for civil rights or the quest for individual autonomy." And farther on, communitarian philosophers argue that "humans don't need equal opportunities or free choice so much as a sense of belonging and a clear set of rules. Authority. Boundaries. Certainty."

Nowhere will she find either Taylor or MacIntyre putting forward, or even implying, such Gingrich-inspired simplifications. They hardly even use the term "communitarianism", although the idea of community is quite central to their thinking. What they mean, however, by community, is very different from what Ms Coote would let us believe that they mean.

To illustrate, take a look at Taylor's work. One of his arguments is that the social activities in which people engage (eg, negotiating, voting, working, etc) embody sets of meanings or distinctions that are expressed in the language people use. For example, in most modern societies, the notion of negotiation is bound up with a contractual understanding of the relationship between the parties involved, which is quite different from the way other societies understand negotiations. Although the members of a society may have their own individual attitudes and beliefs about a number of specific policies, goals, tactics, etc related to negotiation, their very understanding of negotiation itself is given to them by the society's set of meanings and norms that constitute the practice of negotiation. As Taylor puts it, "these must be the common property of the society before there can be any question of anyone entering into negotiation or not".

In other words, it is the society, the broader community of which individuals are members, that provides us with meanings; the community is the locus of meanings upon which we draw in our daily practices. It is in this sense that the community takes logical priority over the individual.

Both Taylor and MacIntyre have developed their arguments in opposition to a mechanistic view of the social sciences (the former), and to the fragmentation of modern moral discourse (the latter). In their work, they have not been concerned with policy-making but with developing and elaborating a philosophical vocabulary with which we can think about institutions, individuals, and communities in a way that is different from the hitherto dominant ethos of bureaucratic individualism.

Yours sincerely,

Haridimos Tsoukas


Business School

Warwick University


3 July

John Pilgrim


3 July