Are Communitarians "Premodern" or "Postmodern"? The Place of Communitarian Thought in Contemporary Political Theory
Communitarian political theory and policy analysis have gained increased prominence in American academic and public debate over the past decade. The term "communitarian" itself, however, still seems to be only vaguely defined. To some, the term implies a backward-looking nostalgia for an idealized communal past that would restore old social hierarchies and limit individual freedom; to others, it sounds suspiciously like a kind of closet socialism that would replace the market economy with centralized regulation in the name of community. The theoretical basis of communitarianism is hardly less confusing: communitarians cite with approval an incongruous collection of theorists that includes Aristotle, G. W. F. Hegel, sometimes Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and occasionally even John Dewey. Is there a unifying theoretical perspective to communitarian thought other than a vague dissatisfaction with modern individualism? Does communitarianism look mainly to the past or mainly to the future? I will argue that a coherent theoretical basis for communitarianism can be developed, but that much current communitarian thought seems incoherent because it appears to draw upon two incompatible theoretical models. I will do this by placing the concerns of communitarian thinking in the broader context of late twentieth-century political theory. Examining the major issues in contemporary political philosophy should, I think, illuminate the central thrust of communitarianism.
The essential concern of present-day political theory could hardly be more fundamental: it amounts to nothing less than finding a new basis for political order. To state the situation most briefly (and drastically), there is widespread agreement among contemporary philosophers, theologians, and political theorists that we are, at the end of the twentieth century, also at the end of an era. On