Arnold and the Irish Question: Anticipating Communitarianism

By Frame, Frances | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring-Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Arnold and the Irish Question: Anticipating Communitarianism


Frame, Frances, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Arnold's work on the Irish Question reveals a coherent view of the self, the community, and the importance of community to individual development that strikingly anticipates modern Communitarian political philosophy. Arnold foreshadows Communitarianism first by emphasizing the cognitive dimension of agency, thus downplaying the role of the will in defining identity. He also presages Communitarian thought by conceptualizing community as at least partly constitutive of identity, rejecting a notion of the self as antecedently individuated and prior to its ends. His reliance on Hegelian concepts of mutual recognition and Bildung further establishes his link with modern Communitarians, who draw significantly on Hegel. Arnold also anticipates modern Communitarianism by conceptualizing justice as moral desert, by refusing to privilege the right over the good, and by advocating community as a good. Finally, as a critic, Arnold plays out the role Communitarians believe a friend can play in assisting another to make moral choices that accord with one's true identity. Appreciating Arnold as a forerunner of Communitarian thought can deepen our understanding of his reference to himself as a "Liberal of the future."

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In work beginning with On the Study of Celtic Literature, first delivered as a series of lectures at Oxford from December 1865 to May 1866, and concluding with "From Easter to August," published in Nineteenth Century in September 1887, Matthew Arnold wrestled with various dimensions of the "Irish Question." Because Arnold has two goals in these works--on the one hand, to rediscover and repair community between the English and the Irish and, on the other, to foster his countrymen's growth toward critical maturity, the essays represent a unique source for investigating the relation Arnold saw between the community and individual development. Behind policies that have been labeled everything from conservative to radical, the works reveal a remarkably coherent vision that is based on a consistent view of the self and the community and that is in fact a striking anticipation of modern Communitarian political philosophy. (1) Arnold foreshadows Communitarianism first by emphasizing the cognitive dimension of agency, thus downplaying the role of the will in defining identity. Further, he conceptualizes community as at least partly constitutive of identity, rejecting a notion of the self as antecedently individuated and prior to its ends. His reliance on Hegelian concepts of mutual recognition and Bildung further establishes his link with modern Communitarians, who draw significantly on Hegel. Arnold also anticipates modern Communitarianism by conceptualizing justice as moral desert, by refusing to privilege the right over the good, and by advocating community as a good. Finally, as a critic, Arnold perfectly plays out the role Communitarians believe a friend can play in assisting another to make moral choices that accord with his true identity. Although modern Communitarianism diverges from Arnold in some ways, its practical policies harmonize in many areas with Arnold's positions, and some more recent Communitarians have argued that it is quite possible to be both a Liberal and a Communitarian at the same time. Perhaps appreciating the resemblance between Arnold and modern Communitarians will bring us one step closer to understanding what Arnold meant by calling himself a "Liberal of the future."

First, Arnold anticipates Communitarianism by constructing the achievement of agency as primarily a cognitive process. As Michael Sandel explains in the Communitarian classic, Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, "We might understand human agency as the faculty by which the self comes by its ends.... [And] if I am a being with ends, there are at least two ways I might 'come by' them: one is by choice, the other by discovery, by 'finding them out'. The first sense of 'coming by' we might call the voluntarist dimension of agency, the second sense the cognitive dimension.

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