A source revisited – Ferdinand Tonnies

April 10, 2010

Copmmunity and SocietyI’ve just revisited Ferdinand Tonnies‘ book Community and Society. You could have come across it in a course for community leaders or in any sociology course from introductory to advanced level. It’s an indispensable source. First written in 1887, it’s the ‘founding work’ in the sociology of community.

Everyone who has taken courses about community is familiar with the distinction Tonnies draws between local co-operative communitiesGemeinschaft and global competitive market societiesGesellschaft.

Read the original book carefully and it’s clear that he did not believe in a simple community = good and society = bad equation.

That crude distinction comes down to us from the ancient world:  Plato’s ideal communities in the Republic and the Laws versus the Sophists; Confucius’ ideal community in the Analects versus the Chinese Legalists and so on. This sharp opposition was a recurring theme in the Romantics and in many later counter-cultures.

What Tonnies rejects is clear, but what he agrees to is rather confused. It appears it’s all a matter of Will. Community comes from Natural Will and Society from Rational Will. He also draws a sharp distinction between his theory and the real world social order. So his theory cannot lead to a social science that can predict things. When first published Tonnies’ book went largely unnoticed. When republished in 1912 its sales took off when it was taken up by romantics who mistook its argument as being for an earlier age of community, of Gemeinschaft.

With hindsight it could be that Tonnies had been looking at a solution all along – but not drawing the correct conclusion. A signs of communities conclusion. He came from a rural German background to Oxford University when Britain had a vast global empire. The University was a society dominated by communities with global connections, dominated by financier, merchant and rentier money signs.

Batle of Omdurman

The colonial Battle of Omdurman 1898

What struck me as odd in Tonnies’ book is that there’s no real consideration of money in his definition of society or of community. Yet the British Empire he saw from its centre when he was at Oxford was an empire of money. It dominated the world through its control of the gold supply backed up by its navy. In Tonnies’ world and in our world – money is the supreme social sign. For the British Empire this was especially true. The book’s first publication coincided with the start of a long depression which resulted in the relative decline in manufacturing from which the island of Britain would never recover. A depression in which the power of finance was the key factor

A warm, mutually supportive financier community directed the colonial genocides, famines and slavery. It thrived on depression and industrial decline at home. A community, a Gemeinschaft, with shared life experiences from the cradle to the grave. Their harmed populations were re-made into societies, into Gesellschafts.

So the relation between community and society is one of coexistence in time. There was no clear-cut golden age of community declining later into a dark age of society as the romantics and counter-culture people believe.

Perhaps if Tonnies had thought of community and society as different systems of signs he could have led the social sciences onto a rewarding new route. A road not taken – over a century ago.

The British Empire

The British Empire at its greatest extent

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‘1421’ and 1-D, 2-D and 3-D history

March 21, 2010

I paid 1p. last week for 1421: the year that China discovered the world by1421 - a book by Gavin Menzies Gavin Menzies. Initially, I felt I paid too much for it! However on reflection,  provided you want a Dan Brown style yarn which you don’t really believe in, it’s good entertainment.

His thesis, widely derided by scholars throughout China as well as abroad, is that Chinese fleets reached America and Australasia before Europeans and sailed to Italy (before the Suez canal!) to spark the Italian Renaissance. All with a lack of contemporary witness reports as evidence.

In yesterday’s post I pointed out, based on Walter Watson’s book The Architectonics of Meaning, how important it is to look at the entire developmental range of a civilization over time. Well, Menzies was a submariner, and he never gets his head up for any length of time out of the watery world into the world of signs, of textual evidence, into comparative cultural evolution.

Flatland - annotated edition of the classic book by Edwin A. AbbottOn reflection, though, I think a good metaphor for the quality differences in history can be found in Edwin A. Abbott’s short novel Flatland. Recently an excellent new edition annotated by Ian Stewart has been published. Abbott was a Victorian headteacher who specialised in mathematics and theology. He talks about a 1- dimensional Lineland and the creatures who live there, and then a 2- dimensional Flatland with the other creatures who live there and finally migrating to the wonderful 3-dimensional Sphereland. Salvation! The inhabitants of each ‘-land’ are unaware of the other dimensions, until some special circumstances occur, which gives Flatland its plot.

Gavin Menzies’ is a 1-D history, unaware of the world of the general ideas which animate the Chinese literati and their Neoconfucian orthodoxies.

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto is a fine historian who has been particularity trenchant about Gavin Menzies. In his book Millenium: a history of our last 1000 years he describes the history of China and of the West in cross-sections sliced into time. For example, in one scenario he shows that in the year 1000 CE , China was far more advanced than Western Europe, both culturally and materially. In this book he uses a  2-D method. By that I mean a method which is aware of the world of general ideas but does not take into account the transmission of cultural ideas over time.

In other books Fernandez-Armesto uses a 3-D method, which includes anCivilization and science in China vol 1 - masterpiece by Joseph Needham awareness of the generational transmission of the shared concepts of a civilization. The supreme example of the 3-D history method applied to China is Joseph Needham’s multi-volume masterpiece Science and Civilization in China. This traces the Middle Kingdom’s core ideas and their application in technologies as they mutate over the centuries. A breathtaking vision!

Correction. Since posting this article I have been contacted by Dr Geoff Wade, of the Australian National University. Dr Wade made the valid point that Gavin Menzies clearly does not market his book as a fictional entertainment, as does Dan Brown. Mr Menzies expects us to read it as alternative history. Dr Wade provided the web link to ‘The ‘1421’ Myth Exposed’ which I strongly encourage you to visit. My next post will summarise the evidence from the perspective of ‘signs of communities’.


The wisdom of pluralism and diversity – East and West

March 20, 2010

Richard McKeon was a one-time Chair of the University of Chicago’s Department of Philosophy. An exponent of the comparative method in the history of philosophy he supported the Great Books approach to Western Culture and had a major role in the United Nations Declaration On Human Rights. He wrote many books including the standard partly-abridged translation of Aristotle into English.

McKeon  set his  face against Leo Strauss joining the Philosophy Department. Strauss is better known that McKeon today – because he founded intellectual neo-conservatism. McKeon felt that neo-conservatism was an unstable mixture of exoteric authoritarianism layered over esoteric relativism. Strauss joined the Politics Department at Chicago for the rest of his career.

McKeon’s pluralism has its best expression in his essay ‘Philosophical Semantics and Philosophical Enquiry’ in his Freedom and History and Other Essays: an introduction to the work of Richard McKeon. He sees the works of the great European philosophers falling into four categories, four great traditions. We can describe them as traditions of Matter, Mind, Media and a Mixture of the first three. Matter is represented by the tradition of the Eleatic materialists, Democritus and Epicurus – and modern science. Mind by Pythagoras, Plato,  the Neo-Platonists – and the central traditions of Christianity and Islam. Media by the Sophists such as the benign Protagoras, the malign Gorgias, modern existentialist and pomo thinkers – and the persuasion professions such as public relations, marketing and journalism. The Mixture of these three is represented by Aristotle and the Scholastic tradition.

His work was then developed by Walter Watson from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook. His book The Architectonics of Meaning: foundations of the new pluralism has a more Aristotelian take on pluralism and support for the diversity of thought and enquiry. ‘Architectonics’ is the Aristotelian’s term for their own eclectic method of interpreting all aspects of human life and of the natural world.

You may think: so far, so Eurocentric, so outdated! That would be very incorrect. The work of McKeon and Watson was taken further by David A. Dilworth, a Columbia University philosopher and orientalist.  In his great extension of the work of McKeon and Watson, titled Philosophy in World Perspective: a comparative hermeneutic of the major theories, Dilworth applies the pluralist method worked out for 2,400 years of European thought to the thought of East Asia over a similar period. His interpretation of the interpretations of the cosmos and the world shared by the great thinkers of the two civilizations is a dazzling success. Matter is Taoism, Mind is Buddhism, Media is Confucianism/Legalism. Media is Neoconfucianism, the ideology of the Imperial bureaucracy, the examination syllabus of Max Weber’s ‘Chinese Literati’ from 605 CE down to 1912. Once we see that China kept its equivalent of Aristotelianism, its own Scholasticism, for 300 years longer than Europe, we can see why Chinese science and civilization did not develop from an early high. There were no Chinese equivalents of Bacon and Hobbes, Leibniz, Montaigne and many others who overthrew the Scholastics and their descendants in Europe.

Dilworth shows in detail the commonality of humanity’s high culture. A pluralism and a diversity in both East and West. He is a life-changing read. Once you’ve read his book you won’t ever again think from a biassed Orientalist or Occidentalist viewpoint.


Welcome to Signs of Communities!

February 6, 2010

Signs of Communities is a web log of the work of the author and other people who work on behalf of the communities in Kirklees, West Yorkshire, England. Work to celebrate and increase the cohesion of our rich variety of communities.

This blog also makes occasional virtual trips to South-east Asia – for reasons of personal community heritage which are outlined in About Me.