The Communitarian Option
Examining "The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self" [Pt.5]
§V. Trueman’s Tertium Quid
So far in our examination of RTMS, we have seen that Carl R. Trueman’s ideas are very much in alignment with those of Marxist and Postmodernist thinkers. We have also noted that Trueman is not a Marxist and, while not stated explicitly in our last article, that he is also not a postmodernist. Given that he believes in a fixed human nature, unlike the Marxists,1 Hegelians, and Postmodernists, but also believes that the self is a social construct, how are we to understand Trueman’s position?
As I stated in the preface to my first article,2 Trueman is presenting a criticism of the modernist self and a positive case for a postmodernist/constructivist self that are rooted in postmodern thinking. More specifically, we see that in RTMS he repeats standard communitarian arguments against individualism and for collectivism (albeit of the communitarian variety). This will become clear once we define communitarianism and look at its proponents’ arguments.
1. Defining Communitarianism
According to Daniel A. Bell,
Communitarianism is the idea that human identities are largely shaped by different kinds of constitutive communities (or social relations) and that this conception of human nature should inform our moral and political judgments as well as policies and institutions.3
Regarding its origins, Bell explains that
…modern-day communitarianism began in the upper reaches of Anglo-American academia in the form of a critical reaction to John Rawls’ landmark 1971 book A Theory of Justice. Drawing primarily upon the insights of Aristotle and Hegel, political philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre, Michael Sandel, Charles Taylor and Michael Walzer disputed Rawls’ assumption that the principal task of government is to secure and distribute fairly the liberties and economic resources individuals need to lead freely chosen lives.4
While these thinkers critiqued Rawls’ theory of justice, they did so primarily by attacking his modernist philosophical anthropology. As Bernard Matolino notes, Rawls’ theory assumes that “the essential unity and priority of the self is given prior to the ends it chooses.”5 This means that the self is not a social construct, a point which contradicts the teaching of MacIntyre, Taylor, Sandel, and Trueman who argue that “an individual's identity is established through her belonging…to communal groups.”6 On the communitarian view, membership of this kind is viewed as a “fundamental necessity for one's being,”7 since “without those groups the particular identity that she claims to have is not possible.”8
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Bogdan Constantin Mihailescu helpfully explains the similarities between postmodernism and communitarianism in his article “Counter-Enlightenment, Communitarianism and Postmodernism.”9 He writes —
Although different phenomena, having dissimilar messages and horizons, between counter-enlightenment, communitarianism and postmodernism there is a consistent common ground. It’s about the critical reaction towards modernity, especially concerning its major cultural ethos, the enlightenment. The claim to discover, by the help of the reason, some doubtless, universal, unhistorical and transcultural bases of the just social organization is contested by the initial counter-enlightenment, this critique being revealed, into a very consistent manner, within communitarianism and postmodernism.10
The victory of [Classical] liberalism means the victory of individualism. Communitarianism, taking up the counter-enlightenment discourse, is highlighting the illusory and deformative dimension of total individual autonomization and of promised de-positioning. Liberal modernity is also a product of a particular culture. The force of the reason – glorified by enlightenment – of establishing the social order of the objective justice, is a myth. Liberal modernity, consider the defenders of communitarianism, not only doesn't succeed to create the right society, of proceduralism, of neutrality and of equity, but it destructures and disorientates the communities and the persons, depriving them of the necessary narrations and superindividual benchmarks…11
These similarities are of the same kind we encounter in RTMS, showing us the extent of Trueman’s commitment to communitarian thinking, which we also see when we look at his key influences.
Chief among the thinkers responsible for communitarianism, we find two who serve as primary influences on RTMS. Trueman acknowledges that he is “deeply indebted to the work of the Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor,”12 and Alisdair MacIntyre’s critique of our age’s ethics of emotivism.13 Overall, however, Trueman’s communitarian and communitarian-esque14 influences is much broader, including thinkers like Michael Sandel (whose concept of the unencumbered self is taken for granted in RTMS and elsewhere),15 Patrick J. Deneen,16 O. Carter Snead,17 Philip Rieff, Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn,18 and Robert Bellah.19
2. The Communitarian Argument
Communitarianism is presented by its adherents as a “Third Way” between classical liberalism (which rests upon a Modernist understanding of the self) and collectivism. As Bob Brecher explains —
Communitarianism offers a reconceptualization of the individual, society, and their relation to each other that avoids the atomization of the Anglo-American liberal model. As such, it allows us to pursue what its advocates regard as a “politics of responsibility”, whether in respect of the provision of social welfare or the creation of political theory: no right to unemployment benefit without the concomitant duty to take the work there is; away with liberalism’s unencumbered and impossibly abstract individual; in with the specificities of difference. Both theoretically and practically, then, communitarianism is claimed by its proponents to offer an alternative to the rampantly libertarian individualism inherent in the liberal tradition and epitomised by the contemporary neo-liberal consensus.20
This is a position that is needed, according to the communitarians, because the currently left/right opposing parties ultimately owe their existence to an individualist and, ergo, modernist understanding of the self. Robert N. Bellah writes —
The great ideological wars of our current politics focus on whether the most effective provider of opportunity is the market or the state. On this issue we imagine a radical polarity between conservative and liberal, Republican and Democrat. What we often do not see is that this is a very tame polarity, because the opponents agree so deeply on most of the terms of the problem. Both solutions are individualistic.21
Like Trueman, communitarians believe this individualistic self is traceable to Descartes and other Enlightenment thinkers who downplayed the significance of culture and tradition as sources of authority and truth, and brought the individual knower to the forefront. As Hugh T. Miller and Charles J. Fox explain —
The modern liberal understanding of the self supposes an atomistic (bourgeois) individual who rationally maximizes valuables unto its lonely self. Communitarians, on the other hand, worry about lifestyle agendas that lead to withdrawal from political engagement…Communitarians protest that the “self” presupposed in utilitarian doctrines is hardly a recognizable self at all. Such a cipher self has no culture, no history, and no situatedness; it is not embodied. It is an abstract self, a disembodied reasoning being theoretically fashioned after Descartes's cogito: “I think, therefore I am.”22
In a similar manner, Deneen traces the problems in contemporary society back through individualism to Descartes,23 as do Philip Rieff,24 Michael Walzer,25 and Carl R. Trueman. In addition to their shared genealogy of the psychologization and inward turning of man through the influence of Descartes’ cogito formula, other communitarians attack Descartes for his dualist emphasis and prioritization of the mind over and against the body — just as Trueman does in RTMS. Michael J. Sandel views Descartes mind-body dualism as key in making the individual’s well-being his central and highest concern.26
A. R. Momin summarizes the basic thrust of the communitarian critique of classical liberalism —
In Western societies, social institutions—family, neighbourhood, religion, community—that once provided common bonds and a sense of belonging and served as a bulwark in the face of life’s inevitable uncertainties and crises, have nearly disappeared and have not been replaced.27
The individual is believed to be the basic source and locus of identity...Individualism is embedded in the doctrine of liberalism which emphasizes the autonomy and freedom of the individual from all kinds of tyrannies.
The process of individualization and the tenet of radical individualism have brought about baneful, socially disruptive consequences in Western societies. The idea of unbounded freedom, which is an essential ingredient of individualism, has involved substantial social, political, cultural and psychological costs.
…heightened or exaggerated individualism seems to be positively correlated with the corrosion and slow disintegration of citizenship…The real threat to the stability and cohesiveness of Western societies…comes from a growing deterioration in human relationships…Exaggerated individualism has a positive bearing on apathy, indifference and lack of social commitment which, in turn, have contributed to the breakdown and disintegration of the family, erosion of social bonds, loss of faith in public institutions, drug abuse, and the spurt in crime and delinquency in Western societies.28
This entails that in order for us to properly address the individualism of our day that has torn apart Western civilization we must look away from classical liberalism and socialism. The communitarians argue that we must foreground the social body, and cultivate individuals in a manner consistent with the greater good.
Representative of this proposed solution is Amitai Etzioni, one of the most influential communitarian thinkers today. Speaking about the purportedly classical-liberalism inspired conflictual factionalism in America and how to solve it, he writes —
For the kind of sweeping changes now called for to save democratic regimes and make governments functional again, a major social movement will have to provide a mandate that will cut across party lines and force both sides to work together.29
To move forward, we need new social formations—chapters of a patriotic movement yet to be fashioned—that will include people of different political persuasions, backgrounds, and parties all committed to consenting on and advancing the common good.30
To advance specific agendas, people must see each other as members of one overarching community, one with shared values and, for better or worse, a shared destiny.31
For Etzioni and most, if not all, communitarians this solution can and must be applied to all of the sub-communities — including religious communities — if its application to the nation-state is to be effective.32
3. Trueman’s Communitarianism
It should be evident to attentive reader that Trueman’s thinking is in lockstep with the communitarians mentioned above. Does this mean that Trueman is a communitarian? Yes. However, if one were to attempt to argue that it does not, let him note that communitarianism, as Brecher explains, underpins “the European ‘Centre-Left’”33 with which Carl Trueman has openly identified.34 Not only this, but Michael F. Bird has praised Trueman’s political book Republocrat: Confessions of a Liberal Conservative as a “sheer genius” “attempt to indigenize British communitarianism within libertarian America in the name of Christian political responsibility,”35 which indirectly identifies Trueman’s thinking as communitarian.
Additionally, Trueman’s thinking in RTMS, according to Vika Pechersky, has “made a remarkable and almost Hauerwasian move”36 by, in essence, arguing that by
…rebuilding its community, the American church can counter the prevailing individualistic narratives with a genuine, meaningful, and ordered lifestyle.37
Hauerwas is, unsurprisingly, a communitarian whose response to the so-called problem of “expressive individualism” has been the same as Trueman’s — focusing on building up the Christian community, and the individual Christian’s sense of communal identity.
Trueman argues that
If the church is to avoid the absolutizing of aesthetics by an appropriate commitment to Christianity as first and foremost doctrinal, then second, she must also be a community.38
Indeed, as he states in his article “The Impact of Psychological Man and How to Respond” —
…only by modeling true community, oriented toward the transcendent, can the church show a rapidly destabilizing world of expressive individuals that there is something greater, more solid, and more lasting than the immediate satisfaction of personal desires.39
This is nothing other than communitarianism applied to the religious realm. It is a push for Christians to embrace communitarianism, a push which Trueman’s colleagues have also advocated for quite some time.
There are some scholars who have attempted to argue that Marx believed in an unchanging and universal human nature. For instance, see Geras, Norman. Marx and Human Nature: Refutation of a Legend (New York: Verso, 2016), and Fromm, Erich. Marx’s Concept of Man (New York: Frederich Ungar Publishing, 1961), Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/index.htm.
“Communitarianism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, May 15, 2020, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/communitarianism/.
“A Communitarian Critique of Liberalism,” in Analyse & Kritik 27 (2005), 216. (emphasis added)
Defending Rawls on the Self: A Response to the Communitarian Critique, (Master’s Thesis, University of KwaZulu-Natal), 13.
In Meta: Research in Hermeneutics, Phenomenologu, and Practical Philosophy Vol. IX, No. 1 (June: 2017).
ibid., 262-263. (emphasis added)
ibid., 263-264. (emphasis added)
cf. RTMS, 85-87.
By communitarian-esque I simply mean those who may deny being a communitarian because they have non-essential beliefs that are not in line with communitarianism proper, but whose essential beliefs are rightly characterizable as communitarian (e.g. Christopher Lasch).
See Thayne, Jeffery. “A Conversation With Carl R. Trueman,” Public Square Magazine, Mar 25, 2022, https://publicsquaremag.org/media-education/education/a-conversation-with-carl-r-trueman/.
See Trueman, Carl R. “Specters of Marx,” Modern Reformation, Sept 17, 2018, https://modernreformation.org/resource-library/web-exclusive-articles/the-mod-specters-of-marx/; “Ciceronian Times Call for Ciceronian Voices: Why I Write for First Things,” First Things, Dec 26, 2016, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2016/12/ciceronian-times-call-for-ciceronian-voices;
See Trueman, Carl R. “The New Culture War Battleground is You,” Deseret News, June 1, 2021, https://www.deseret.com/opinion/2021/6/1/22459065/the-new-culture-war-battleground-is-you-philosophy-freud-nietzsche-rousseau-identity-politics; Trueman, Carl R. “What It Would Mean to Overturn Roe, ”First Things, Aug 26, 2021, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2021/08/what-it-would-mean-to-overturn-roe; and Cline, Timothy. “Whatever I Think, Therefore I Am: An Interview With Carl Trueman,” Modern Reformation, March 1, 2021, https://modernreformation.org/resource-library/articles/whatever-i-think-therefore-i-am-an-interview-with-carl-trueman/.
See Trueman, Carl R. “Platonism Wins,” First Things, Feb 14, 2022, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2022/02/platonism-wins [N.B. — Lasch-Quinn is the daughter of late communitarian adjacent intellectual Christopher Lasch, arguing against “expressive individualism” and the therapeutic culture to which it purportedly has given rise. See Lach-Qinn, Elisabeth. Ars Vitae: The Fate of Inwardness and the Return of the Ancient Arts of Living (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2020).]
Trueman, Carl R. “How Expressive Individualism Threatens Civil Society,” The Heritage Foundation, May 27, 2021, https://www.heritage.org/civil-society/report/how-expressive-individualism-threatens-civil-society. Robert N. Bellah gives a defense of democratic communitarianism in his article, “Community Properly Understood: A Defense of ‘Democratic Communitarianism’”, in The Responsive Community (Winter 1995/1996), 49-54.
“Communitarianism: The Practice of Postmodern Liberalism,” in Global Norms for the 21st Century, ed. K.-G. Giesen & K. Van der Pijl (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Press, 2006), 214. (emphasis added)
“Community Properly Understood: A Defense of “Democratic Communitarianism,” in The Responsive Community (Winter 1995/1996), 51. (emphasis added)
Postmodern Public Administration (New York: Routledge, 2015), 46. (emphasis added)
Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 25-26. (emphasis added)
See Rieff, Philip, ed. Kenneth S. Piver, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 83.
See Walzer, Michael. “Philosophy and Democracy,” in Political Theory Vol. 9, No. 3 (Aug: 1981), 379-399.
See Sandel, Michael J. Justice: A Reader (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 338.
“Multicommunitarianism in a Fragmented World,” in Asia Europe Journal (2004) 2, 446.
ibid., 447. (emphasis added)
Reclaiming Patriotism (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2019), 2.
ibid., 3. (emphasis added)
ibid., 6. (emphasis added)
Regarding religious groups, Etzioni writes —
The term “community” applies to many different kinds of sociological entities, including groups defining their common life around…religion…
— Reclaiming Patriotism, 7. (emphasis added)
Regarding the need for universal application, he writes —
For a social movement to be able to redesign society, the local communities and chapters of the movement must be combined into a community of communities, which makes for the national community.
— Reclaiming Patriotism, 8. (emphasis added)
Brecher, Communitarianism, 214.
See Engdahl, June, “Reflections on Carl Trueman’s Fascination with Edward Said,” Unashamed of the Gospel, Mar 1, 2009, http://www.unashamedofthegospel.org/reflections_carl_trueman.cfm.
“Dr. Trueman’s Hauerwasian Turn,” Mere Orthodoxy, Feb 10, 2021, https://mereorthodoxy.com/dr-truemans-hauerwasian-turn/.