The Nature of the Community

Updated: Nov 21

Urban, Wilbur. “The Nature of the Community.” The Philosophical Review 28, no. 6 (November 1919): 547–61.

MAN is always interested in the community because he lives in it. He is interested in its nature because he usually wishes to change it, to mold that which he considers ‘a sorry scheme of things' 'nearer to the heart's desire.' He is especially interested in it at the present time because, say what we may, life within the community and relations between communities have become strangely difficult and unsatisfactory. The community as we have known it is rapidly becoming unrecognizable. The state is no longer the state as we have understood boards of conciliation and conferences. As in all such times of practical change and reconstruction, theoretical questions have again become uppermost.

What is this thing, society or community? What is its matter and its form? Is it something made, or does it grow? or is it partly a growth and partly a construction? What are the limits of its modifiability? Is it a collection, an organism, or a person? Which is more ultimate, individual, society, or group? What of the communitas or state? What is its relation to other communities or groups? Is it omni-competent and omnipotent, or is it but one among equally sovereign groups? Such are some of the specific questions now being asked with new and greater insistency. But underneath them all is a deeper and more fundamental question which may perhaps be stated in the following form: Does the community, for instance the state and the ordered institutions of historical man, but give utterance and protection to the natural interests and rights of individuals and groups, or does it have ends of its own and in fulfilling these ends, by its own intrinsic life, add to the wealth of interests and values of individuals?

The problem of the nature of the community is thus far from simple. All these questions and many more, are interwoven in the recent literature of our topic. They are obviously closely connected with one another, yet no less obviously a discussion of each of them on its own merits requires an expertness in so many fields of knowledge and practice that no single science can hope to deal with them adequately. It is to the sympathetic cooperation of the specialists in sociology, jurisprudence, and political science, who have so generously given us their services, that we look for light on most of these problems. Yet, as doubtless our guests would be the first to admit, not only are inspiration and assistance to be got from the philosophers of the past, but the central question about which all our discussions will in the end revolve, is still such that we cannot wholly dispense with the philosophers of the present. The task of the philosopher is greatly simplified by the fact that these central questions reduce themselves in the last analysis to one. The over-individual and monistic conception of community and state represents, on the one hand, such a constant stream of human thought and feeling that it has acquired the name of traditional and orthodox. It represents, on the other hand, a tendency which has been well-nigh inescapable for so large a body of philosophical thought that it has been called the metaphysical theory par excellence. The discussion of this theory is inevitable and the thesis which I shall attempt to support may best be described as a defense of a modified form of the orthodox view. It is my conviction that most of the progressive and even radical developments in social and political thought with some of which I am myself in sympathy call not so much for its abandonment as for its reinterpretation.

The philosopher's task is essentially interpretation, and we may best approach that task by asking ourselves what is implied by these various questions which our general topic includes. Limits of space will permit merely a statement of our position, not its debate. "What we desire to know," says a recent writer in political theory, "is not what has the legal or ideal right to prevail, but what does in actual fact prevail." For some purposes of political science this is perhaps true; for more human, and therefore more philosophical ends, it certainly is not. Not only does each of these specific questions have significance only with reference to our interest in maintaining or modifying the social order, but any formula in terms of which these questions are answered, therefore any social or political theory, is necessarily a scheme of social values and by its very nature a standard of appreciation and evaluation. We have long since learned to distinguish between such formulas as descriptions of historical fact and as expressions of the meaning of any recognized social order. It is with the latter that the philosopher is mainly concerned, and it is as the best sum of communal meanings that the traditional idealistic formulas seem to me worthy of defense.


In present-day discussions the over-individual conception is more generally accepted than the monistic. It is quite common to hear, even in the more radical social and political philosophies, that both individual and state, as commonly envisaged, are not truths but fictions, and that the unit of social thought is to be found in the group, to which quite frequently an over individual reality is granted. We shall accordingly take up the two problems separately, our first task being a critical consideration of the formulas, organic or hyper organic, in terms of which the over-individual character of communities is described.

Clearly, the reality of the over-individual character of communities is a compulsion we find it very difficult to resist. When we take any group of people leading a common life, to whom some kindred purpose may be ascribed, we seem to evolve from it a thing or a personality that is beyond the personalities of the constituent parts. The sources of this compulsion lie partly in feeling and tradition, partly in certain logical necessities of ethical and legal thought which require subjects of obligation and responsibility, but even more fundamentally in certain logical or supra logical necessities generated by community life itself.

The prevailing doctrine at least until quite recently regarding the nature of this over-individual reality is, in most general terms, the organic conception, which has been interpreted, now in a purely biological sense, again in a more psychological sense. Communities, it is held, must be looked upon approximately as organisms, and as such they are subject to the law of historical development. That this teaching has won such widespread consideration is due to several circumstances the growth of the biological and historical categories and the possibility which such a conception offers of including social reality in a triumphant scientific monism. But what weighs far more than this, I think, is the fact that the 'organic formula' resumes as does no other, certain results of community experience, and therefore certain social meanings and values. From this point of view, it is a formula upon which both liberals and conservatives have been able to agree, as against extremes of radicalism. “Evolution not revolution" is the conclusion of the practical syllogism which the conservative constructs with the organic formula as the major premise. On the other hand, as Hobhouse who accepts the organic formula, says, the putting of the category of life above that of mechanism is for the liberal "the very heart of liberalism," the understanding namely, that progress is not a matter of mechanical contrivance, but of the liberation of living spiritual energy.

Criticism of this over-individual conception, especially of the organic formula has been markedly revived in recent discussion. Neglecting the radical animus which underlies much of the opposition to these conceptions, the criticisms may be described as of two types, and from two points of view, that of fact and that of value. The first line of criticism is largely directed against the analogical formulas, biological or psychological, in which this over-individual and organic conception is expressed. Space will not permit us to enter into the details of these criticisms. In essence they consist in denying the possibility of such hypothetical entities. "Even to say," says one writer, "that it is possible to suppose individual minds integrated into an over-individual mind, is to put the matter too strongly. There is no such super-organism even among the most complete biological collections. It would contradict all known anatomical and physiological laws. Nor is it clear that any such unity is possible in terms of self-consciousness, in view of the peculiar individuality which is attached to the data of introspection."

Now I think we must admit the justice of this criticism up to a certain point. It is obvious that, as James Ward says, if an organism must be literally either an animal or a vegetable, then society is certainly not an organism. We may go further and say that if an over-individual mind must have literally the same type of self-consciousness that characterizes the individual mind and personality, then society is not an over-individual mind. Yet it is by no means clear that such objections are insuperable. Thinkers differing as widely as Mr. Wells and Professor Wundt, for instance, think that the immediate oneness of self-consciousness is too unessential a characteristic to counterbalance the fundamental agreement of the analogy on other points. But aside from this, it seems fair to say that such criticisms misapprehend completely the basis of the analogies and the significance of the formulas. The amusing extremes to which some writers, such as Bluntschli for instance, push their organic and psychological conceptions of society and state, can scarcely blind the judicious thinker to the importance of their conclusions as attempts to express the meaning of the social order. All social and political theories are primarily schemes of social values, and it is from this point of view that their truth is ultimately to be tested.

It is, therefore, from the standpoint of ' value ' that the more recent as well as the more significant criticisms are made. "Such metaphysical entity as the over-individual state or the living being set on high above individuals," says one writer, "is a rational monstrosity. To call it superhuman is quite in the Germanic vogue, but to men reared in the humanitarian school, there is nothing complimentary in the epithet. The Ubermensch Can never be less than unlovely and ogrish." More definitely it is charged, as by Malvern, that it is not only impossible to give meaning and concreteness to such a value, but "the postulation of it deprives of reality the values that we actually know. “It creates an illusion of personal values.

Regarding the first point Mr. Malvern and his congener are certainly wrong. Far from it being impossible to give meaning and concreteness to such a value, it is in fact, as I have pointed out elsewhere, something that we are constantly doing. It is true that if by meaning and concreteness we are to understand some grotesque picture of this "rational monstrosity, “we are indeed dealing with fictions which are both theoretically indefensible and practically delusive. If, on the other hand, we understand by such meaning, "the attribution to communities and nations of such degree and form of personality as can evoke in us interests and emotions which personality alone can win, “not only is it something that we are constantly doing, but something which we must do if a large part of our moral and legal judgments are to be valid. Nor is it at all clear that we have here to deal with a voracious ogre, who devours personal values. We should first have to know just wherein personal values consist. Perhaps nowhere is clear thinking more in order nowhere is the purely instrumental conception of the social order and the state so far from the real truth as at this point. Some of the personal values at least arise precisely from the postulation of objective over-individual structures and participation in their life. It is an axiom of any satisfactory theory of knowledge that if knowledge is to be genuine, the object must in some sense be independent of the subject. Is it not strange that it should be so little understood that this same postulate is equally the condition of genuine appreciation of values?

There are, indeed, as Nietzsche says, some things we must learn not to say about reality, and if the organic formula in either its biological or psychological sense is to be taken literally, Nietzsche’s saying is eminently applicable to social reality. But it must be remembered that all social and political theories, as schemes of values, inevitably contain an element of practical dogma. As dogmas they are perhaps more significant in that they tell us what reality is not, rather than what it ultimately is. From this point of view, the organic formula in its psychological form, with its significant assertions of what the social order is not, is the most adequate sum of our experiences with human communities. This is the abiding value of the Hegelian formula of "self-conscious ethical substance," for it expresses, however inadequately, a truth of which no serious student of social reality can long remain in doubt, namely that no formula of sheer realism, still less of bald instrumentalism, can exhibit the true nature of the social order. The community, the social order, is not just my idea, but it is certainly not merely a collection of independent entities, either physical or mental. A community, a state, an authority whose reality is not in some sense constituted by mind, is not in other words a chapter in the history of mind, is no real community and no real state.


The step is easy, says Mr. Laski, from the talk of the state to the talk of the community, but it is illegitimate. This may or may not be true, but at least the step from talk of the community to talk of the state is not only easy, but also inevitable. I think it is also legitimate.

We cannot avoid the temptation to make our state a unity because, as Gierke says, it is out of the personal character of the community that the demand for the unity of the state arises, “a unity which, like that of the individual, is to be as simple as possible, one in which the parts are completely contained, and worthful only for the whole, a unity which ultimately leads to Monism which is accordingly but a more abstract term for communal logic, if I may be permitted the term, to pass from the communitas to the communitas communitatum.

Neither this inner compulsion, nor the external dominance of this traditional conception of the state is minimized by its opponents. Those who oppose it recognize quite frankly that it is independent of the political distinctions of autocracy and democracy, that on this point the erstwhile socialist Combes is no less insistent than a Treitschke. Whether now this tendency be viewed as communal instinct, or as something more ontological part of a general nisus towards totality, the fact remains that it seems to witness to one of those ultimates of which philosophers are fond of ultimates which seem to be proved by their very denial.

At times in the history of every state there comes a point where the maintenance of its unity and supremacy seems to some men worthless as an end compared with the achievement of some good deemed greater than order and peace. But as careful analysis will always disclose, such moments are by no means a denial of the supremacy of the state and of the general will which it ideally represents, or of the belief that its larger purposes have superior worth. They are rather an insistence upon its supremacy and constitute denial of validity to governmental acts on the ground that they do not represent the common will and do not achieve its ends in adequate fashion. It is by no means accidental that the formula, "Republic one and indivisible," was born in the throes of the French Revolution and that, as Carlyle says, it was "the newest birth of Nature's vast organic deep, which men name Orcus, Chaos, primeval night, and which knows one law, that of self-preservation. Tigresse Nationale, meddle not with a whisker of her."

Yet this inherent character, like the more general character of over-individuality, is seriously questioned by the more radical thought of the day. Here again, the 'traditional' theory is criticized from the two points of view, that of fact and that of value.

Stated in summary fashion, the first line of criticism amounts to the statement that the abstract and traditional doctrines of authority and sovereignty can be made to square with the facts only by an elaborate sophistry, that these theories contain as much fiction as fact. We must admit, I think, a large part of the criticism from this point of view. We must admit, to specify some of the points of this criticism, that while the state is said to be sovereign, in practice its will is often operated by only a portion of its members, and to this portion sovereignty is often denied; that while the state is held to be bound only by its own consent, yet in recent history groups other than itself have compelled its adoption of policies to which it was opposed; that while sovereignty is said to be indivisible, yet as a matter of fact, its broad partition on every hand is obvious. Who would be concerned to deny these facts and others like them? Yet, in social and political theory, have we not long since learned to distinguish between theories as descriptions of historical fact and as expressions of the meaning of any recognized social order, and have we not also learned that social order is primarily a question of meaning? Our question is accordingly not so much whether the dogma of absolute sovereignty has a fictional element in it, as whether there is any meaning or value in that fiction. It is at this point that the criticism of the monistic state from the standpoint of value appears. From this point of view, moreover, the problem is pushed back from the legal conception of the omnipotent state to the more ethical concept of the omnicompetent state. Here again, as we shall see, it is not so much a question whether any existent government is actually omnicompetent, as how far the assumption or postulate of omnicompetence is implied in any organization of our social meanings and values.

Much of the criticism of this theory rests, I cannot help thinking, upon a misapprehension of what the theory implies. If, as some charge, it rests upon the assumption that the activities of man in relation to government exhaust his nature, and upon the capacity of the state to generate and direct all the interests of men as individuals and groups, it is certainly false. But, so far as I know, all that is claimed by the extremist theories is that the function of the state is promotive as well as protective, and this implies the existence of interests already recognized. Nor does it seem to imply the denial of interests transcending those of the state, as Hegel himself was often careful to point out. That which the theory does seem to imply is that all individuals and groups have certain relations in which the state alone is competent, just what these relations are being determined by the aim of the state. In other words, the omni applies, not to the interests and values of society, but rather to the individuals and groups within it. Omni-competence means not ultimate authority in' all things, but final authority in some things which concern all the elements in the community. In modern phraseology, the state is concerned with the "ethical minimum," or in Plato's terms with the "minimum community."

Thus understood, however and it seems to me to be all that we can justly ascribe to the theory, the dogma of the omni-competence of the state, far from implying the absorption of individual and group interests, really constitutes their only guarantee. There is no reason why the retention of the principle should not go hand in hand with the exercise of sovereignty as little as possible, why for instance the state should not prohibit the members of a religious body from killing each other for the glory of God but should allow them, if they so desire, to roll on the ground in agony for that purpose. Here much misunderstanding arises from the confusion of two issues. Extension of state control is not so much a question of increasing or diminishing as of reorganizing restraints. There is no difficulty in understanding why the extension of state control on the one side should not go hand in hand with determined resistance to encroachments on the other. Practically what is called increase of state control is often of the nature of decrease in the total amount of restraint. The object of state coercion is to a large degree to override coercion by individuals and by associations of individuals within the state, and such a function, so far as I can see, is consistent only with the assumption of the competence of the state to decide between the conflicting interests. In the end, as Hobhouse says, the external order belongs to the community, and the right of protest to the individual.

But the attack goes deeper. The state is frankly charged with ethical incompetence in the sense of actual performance. And it's very ethical character and purpose are also challenged, that namely upon which alone the postulate of its competence rests. If it has an ethical purpose, in practice, we are told, the realization of that purpose is so inadequate as to render at best dubious the value of the hypothesis. It is, moreover, sheer delusion to think that the state is necessarily any more in harmony with the ends of society than a church, a trade-union or a Freemasons ‘lodge. The assumption of the ethical superiority of the state to other forms of human association is due either to an illegitimate comparison of their different immediate purposes or to a false identification of state with society.

Here evidently the ultimate issue is definitely joined. The practical issues are far-reaching, but also the issue as to the nature and meaning of political formulas and the ground for their validity. Much of this criticism has its roots in a temporary impatience with the complexities of society and the difficulties of administration. Much of it is due to a temporary panic which has led some men to call the state the "root of madness. “But much of it also arises from a genuine desire to make theory square with the facts in other words, to find in theory some validation for the apparent dissolution of the state into voluntary groups and associations which seems to many the significant social phenomenon of the time. Even in the latter case, which alone merits our consideration, there seems to be serious misapprehension.

I will not delay rehearsing in detail the arguments by which an English Burke, no less than a German Hegel, seeks to maintain their theory. For neither of them, however, did ethical competence mean ethical infallibility. That which alone both of them were concerned to maintain is that, because in actual fact the state does transcend, both in length of life and in inclusiveness of interests, the lives and interests of its individual members, therefore it is defector other than a voluntary association and de jure ethically competent. If in that reasoning there was sometimes a tendency illegitimately to identify the state with the community, it seems to me not so serious an error as to identify the nation with a form of government, an assumption which underlies much of this criticism. Nor do the decline of old-fashioned individualism and the growth in importance of voluntary associations seem to me essentially to alter the situation. There is in fact every reason “to think that the state is more in harmony with the ends of society than a church or a trade-union." The ends of the former are the ethical minimum, but it is the indispensable minimum. With this no voluntary association is by its nature primarily concerned. If a government's recreant to its trust, that does not disprove the ethical character of the state and its superiority but constitutes rather a challenge to reaffirm that superiority and to inquire anew into the genuine aims of the state. Certainly, there is no occasion to deny the ethical character of the state itself. To do so is to despise and ignore the entire wealth of experience of which that formula is the expression to revert either to the conception of the state as a non-moral mechanism or to that conception of abstract morality with its inevitable individualism of conscience which it is the great achievement of modern idealism to have overcome. Which of these is practically the more unfortunate I am at a loss to say, but that either is theoretically not progress but retrogression I cannot for a moment be in doubt?


A recent writer praises the common sense of Lowell which always led him to stop short of the ultimate. He attacks the fallacy, the favorite fallacy of the sciolist, he calls it, of reducing all questions to their ultimate metaphysical terms. There will not be lacking those, who will see in the foregoing a glaring illustration of this fallacy. Be that as it may, the problem set us by the Association is one that calls for ultimates, and in so far as this question of the nature of the community is concerned, as we have abundantly seen, 'common sense' and the metaphysical theory par excellence are not in contradiction. It is precisely in common sense, understood as sensus communis, that these finalities are most in evidence.

The practical bearing of this is obvious. The problem here is the limits of the modifiability of the social order through reason and its schemes. Such limits we are accustomed to find in what Sigurd Ibsen calls "might conditions," e.g., "human nature, “economic law, social passions and forces. Beneath these, however, is that deeper "cunning of reason" using these forces and passions for her ends. It is this that shapes our ends, communal and social, rough hew them though we may. Considerable latitude is doubtless to be allowed for this rough-hewing, whether by individuals or by social groups. Or, to change the figure, a priori reluctancies and fears are no more in place in dealing with social growths than with biological. There is no reason why we should have an a priori horror of functional representation, or of any other novelty, any more than of artificial fertilizing of the land or eugenics. But such conservatism as is embodied in the orthodox theory is not of this sort, for it has its roots in the deepest experiences and thoughts of the race.

The bearing on theory is even more important. It is indeed an error, as Professor Dewey insists, "to regard the individual and the social as something fixed and ultimate instead of as something developing and therefore as objects continuously to be worked out." That all the historical theories have suffered more or less from this error is doubtless true. We must, as the political thinkers of the present are fond of insisting, distrust abstract formulas and "make our theories grow out of and coordinate with the life of men in society as it is actually lived." True, but among the facts which our theories are to fit, part of the very life, which is lived, are precisely these values which we have emphasized. A mystical element in the over-individual monistic theory cannot be denied. But, here as elsewhere, I agree with Bosanquet, "despite the strongest predilection for rational simplicity and after the most resolute efforts to follow out a realistic empiricism, I have never in the long run found it possible to construe the world without an element that might be called mystical." As we trench upon the mystical when we attempt to picture the divine immanence, so also when we attempt to envisage the over-individual or interindividual community. Even in the ' soul of the state ' there is a mystery, as Shakespeare says, a mystery, however, that lies so close to common sense that the veil is rent asunder whenever, as in all the great crises of communal life, the transcendence and unity of that soul is acclaimed. Until these traditional values are put out of their place, until more realistic conceptions take on an emotional and religious coloring, the classic formulas will have not only the “advantage of ideality," as Professor Dewey admits, but also the characteristics of essential reality.

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