Toennies & the Loss of Community
Ferdinand Tönnies was one of sociology's founding fathers. His influential dichotomy of community and society is one of the most famous and still most often applied concepts from the sociological toolbox today. The crisis that is described in the term "the loss of community" is therefore inescapably bound to his name. However, his conceptions were deeply intertwined in the philosophical discourse of his time and therefore, in contemporary interpretations, have been subject to misunderstanding and distortion.
Keywords Arbitrary Will; Community; Epistemology; Essential Will; Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft; Hobbes, Thomas; Industrialization 2.0; Neo-Kantianism; Society; Tönnies, Ferdinand
Social Change: Tönnies
Ferdinand Tönnies (1855–1936) can be considered an "almost founding father of sociology." Generally, the first classic scholars of sociology, and therefore founders of modern sociology, are hailed to be Max Weber (1864–1920), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), and either Karl Marx (1818–1883) or Georg Simmel (1858–1918). It must be said that Marx certainly belonged to a different generation and was not involved in academic discourse and discipline creation, but rather stuck between political philosophy and political ideology.
The generation of Weber, Simmel, and Durkheim found in Tönnies one of their anchors, both intellectually and institutionally. Tönnies crafted some of the most advanced and sophisticated conceptual frames of reference, eventually reduced by modern sociologists to a dichotomy between community and society (in the original German: gemeinschaft and gesellschaft). These two concepts were widely discussed and criticized by his contemporaries, specifically for the very rich conceptual and theoretical prerequisites in the forms of will, which Tönnies conceived.
At the same time, Tönnies co-founded the influential German Sociological Society and served as its president from 1909 until the Nazi takeover in 1933, when the shifting powers within the society led to his resignation and the reign of the Nazi-supporters of the Leipzig School of sociology, led by the notorious Hans Freyer (1887–1969).
The first edition of Gemeinschaft und gesellschaft, which remains to this day one of the best-known titles of sociology (at least in reputation), was first published in 1887 with a lengthy introduction, placing the study within the general discourse in between the experimental sciences, the social sciences, and epistemology (the theory of knowledge) of the time. Tönnies' seminal text cannot be fully understood without the reference to the intellectual disputes at the time, which were set between different branches of neo-Kantianism.
Tönnies himself was a student and admirer of Berlin philosopher Friedrich Paulsen (1846–1908), but clearly conceived his own philosophical point of view, combining his views on the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) with his perception of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804).
However, most sociologists read Tönnies work(s) as being somewhat oblivious to the intertwinement with the debates of his era. This is partly due to the dismissal of the original introduction from all later editions of Gemeinschaft und gesellschaft and to the lack of attention paid to Tönnies' entire works and his life circumstances.
Tönnies lived most of his personal and academic life in his native region of Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. And even though he travelled occasionally to speak at many of Europe's universities and attended conferences as far as the United States, his outlook on life remained somewhat rural and provincial, in a way close to being "pastoral," as William Purdue (1986) called it. His political views began in the community's structures of social life, which he supposed to be reflected in the structures of the nation. The decline or loss of the community through processes of urbanization and industrialization was a process that Tönnies had himself witnessed in the society around him. Many scholars seek to view his work as a critical perception of this loss of community.
We should also bear in mind that today we face a situation similar to the one that presented itself to Tönnies. In many regards, our world has been experiencing a process of urbanization and re-urbanization both in developed and developing countries. Globalization and the digital revolution are picking up speed in what is sometimes called industrialization 2.0. Countries like Brazil and India have been rising into the ranks of players on the global political scene, not so much through their potential in military matters — as was the case with the global players of the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century — but for their economic power. These countries have seen many regions undergo transformations that are, if not identical, remarkably similar to the effects of the decline or loss of community that Tönnies witnessed in his era.
Secondly, while the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries have been dominated by a scientific language that can be described as physical reductionism —that all aspects of the social sciences and arts have been subject to the idea that the facts and relations they investigate are reducible to (quantifiable) cause-and-effect laws and explanatory descriptions)—we have been seeing a return of more complex and holistic descriptions and a return of more organic and biologic semantics, specifically due to the challenges that the evolution of biotechnologies has presented us with.
The general problems debated, as well as the basic theoretical, empirico-pragmatical, and practical-ethical, often either refer directly back to much older discussions between the natural and the social sciences, or appear remarkably similar to problems debated in earlier times.
Tönnies grew up in a Germany that was not yet a nation. In fact, the unity of Germany as a nation was a product of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, when Tönnies was sixteen. He witnessed the rapid processes of the country's social transformation in the growth of population, Bismarckian political reforms, and industrialization. At the same time he was the child of a rural environment—his father a farmer, his mother the daughter of a protestant preacher. However, his view of the rural community was not idealistic or romanticized — as in comparison with that of Martin Heidegger (1889–1976). But Tönnies certainly saw that the community could function as core unit of social life, because the organic and naturalistic mechanisms of the community forced individual wills to be in line with those of the group.
The Concept of Will
The concept of will is actually at the very heart of Tönnies' theoretical thought and is also at the heart of community and society. Will was for Tönnies not an abstract concept, but an actual and real force.
The first half of the nineteenth century in science was largely ruled by scholars battling with the "romantic conception of life," according to historian Robert J. Richards (2002). Beginning with Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), and a group of philosophically trained physiologists, anatomists, and embryologists, the new science of biology (a term coined by Gottfried Reinhold Treviranus [1776–1837]) became a guiding topic for this era, spanning the hard experimental science and the romanticists' abstractions, such as those of Friedrich Schelling (1775–1854) and Georg Hegel (1770–1831). Followed by a time of struggle between materialists and idealists, the intellectual scene was then dominated first by (Hegel's arch-nemesis) Arthur Schopenhauer's (1788–1860) seminal The World...
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