In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Communitarianism

  • Introduction
  • Philosophy of Community
  • Feminist Critique of the Debate
  • Community and Imagination
  • New Communitarianism
  • Communitarianism Applied
  • Philosophy from Asia and Africa

Philosophy Communitarianism
Elizabeth Frazer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0348


Communitarianism, like other “isms,” is relational—worked out and articulated in distinction from rival philosophical positions and political ideologies. We could present a bibliography of avowedly communitarian references without explicitly including communitarianism’s rivals and antagonists. But communitarianism would then look more free-standing than it really is. So this bibliography presents works that contribute to communitarianism as a position and also some that are critical of and dissent from it. Communitarianism is a position with a history. Communitarian critiques of individualism and liberalism developed in response to a particular articulation, from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, of “liberal individualism.” As well as engaging with, diagnosing, and criticizing particular aspects of liberal individualism, communitarian critics made reference to a wide range of historical and philosophical precursors and antecedents. These included a diverse range of philosophical sources which were interpreted as congenial to contemporary communitarian concerns, and a range of sources from humanities and social sciences which focused on forms of community in human societies. The communitarian critiques of liberalism and individualism generated a sizeable critical literature, beginning with publications from the mid-1980s which individuated communitarianism as a specific, though ambiguous and contested, position in political philosophy and theory, and weighed up the respective merits of “liberalism,” “individualism,” and “communitarianism.” This critical literature is notable, first, for the contributions of a number of thinkers who had originally been grouped under the heading “communitarian” or “liberal,” who published rejoinder papers which considered the debate and the issues, distancing the author from the position ascribed to them by early commentators. Second, the critical literature complicated communitarianism, separating out questions of metaphysics or ontology, philosophical anthropology, epistemology, meta-ethics, ethics, and methodology in social science, ethics, and philosophy. Criticism of liberalism as a tradition in political philosophy was separated out from the political projects of liberal parties and broadly liberal societies. Most analyses attempt to show that positions on these various dimensions of the debate are independent: for instance, one can be communitarian metaphysically and individualist ethically, or vice versa; one’s commitments as an individualist in the one branch of philosophy—methodology of social science, for instance—do not commit one to an individualist stand in another—epistemology or philosophical anthropology. Further, such philosophical analysis is indeterminate regarding one’s attitude to communitarian, socialist, conservative, liberal, or other political and social programs, including policy aims, objectives, means, strategies, and tactics.

Communitarians and Liberals

Reference is made to critiques in the plural, because while some of the original so-called communitarian texts focused explicitly on liberalism, and in particular on the liberalism of John Rawls, others focused more generally on individualism (and not all liberals are individualist in the same way). Although the works of liberal thinkers such as J. S. Mill, F. A. Hayek, and Isaiah Berlin, and more lately Ronald Dworkin (Dworkin 1977) and Robert Nozick (Nozick 1974), are among the targets for communitarian criticism, Rawls’ Theory of Justice (Rawls 1971) with its discussion of methodology for political theory, its substantive prescriptive ethics and public policy, its focus on individual rights and duties, and its presumption of constitutional democratic liberal government and society, is clearly a key text and a trigger for this episode of communitarian thought. The main communitarian critics are conventionally identified as MacIntyre 1981, Sandel 1982, Taylor 1985, Taylor 1989, Walzer 1983, and Walzer 1987.

  • Dworkin, Ronald. Taking Rights Seriously. London: Duckworth, 1977.

    Dworkin emphasizes the centrality of individual rights as constraints on legal action and judgment, arguing that rights are independent of statute and case law.

  • Macintyre, Alasdair. After Virtue. London: Duckworth, 1981.

    Argues, against the Rawlsian position, that the dominance of abstract theory in philosophy, and the presumption to a rational derivation of first principles, denies and sacrifices the idea of a whole life lived with integrity in the context of a tradition and standards of excellence.

  • MacIntyre, Alasdair. Whose Justice? Which Rationality? London: Duckworth, 1988.

    Explores historical variations in standards of justice and rationality, from Aristotle, through the Aquinean tradition to Hume and beyond.

  • Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State and Utopia. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1974.

    Nozick’s riposte to Rawls is premised on an account of natural rights which constrain absolutely what individuals and groups may do to individuals, preventing any compulsory participation or taxation. Nozick derives a justification of a minimal state from his premises, but this state’s taxation is confined to the function of policing and defending individual natural rights.

  • Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

    Rawls’ work is widely received as transforming and reinvigorating the field of political philosophy, making a decisive break with the hitherto-dominant utilitarian and consequentialist model of justification. Rawls argues that institutions of justice are justified (and may justify coercive state measures such as legislatively mandated redistribution of income) if they are institutions that would be chosen by ideally rational persons in ignorance of their particular circumstances and position in the relevant society.

  • Sandel, Michael J. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    Explicitly criticizes Rawls’ method for the derivation of the principles of justice, arguing that the reasoning and judgment of the ideal parties in the Rawlsian model, because they lack social connectedness, cultural context, and an adequately reflexive relation to their own lives, cannot serve as a politically or socially serviceable standard of justice.

  • Taylor, Charles. Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139173483

    Charles Taylor’s Philosophical Papers Vols. 1 and 2 (1985) include a number of papers that individually are key to the construction of “communitarianism” including “Interpretation and the Sciences of Man,” first published in the Review of Metaphysics in 1971, and a hitherto-unpublished critical review of Rawls, “The Nature and Scope of Distributive Justice,” which was drafted in 1976. Volume 2 is entitled The Taylor’s Philosophy and the Human Sciences: Philosophical Papers 2 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

  • Taylor, Charles. Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    The intellectual, philosophical, and psychological history of modern subjectivity.

  • Walzer, Michael. Spheres of Justice: A Defence of Pluralism and Equality. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1983.

    Argues that there cannot be a single standard of justice for the distribution of social goods, because different goods need to be distributed according to different principles, depending on their meaning and role in the particular society in question, this meaning and role being forged in a particular tradition.

  • Walzer, Michael. Interpretation and Social Criticism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

    Develops the argument that our engagement with the institutions of our society is a matter of interpretation over time, with room for critical interpretation and dissent.

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