Wednesday Philosophical Query #3

Today’s proposition comes from Gabriel Marcel:

A community is only possible when beings acknowledge that they are mutually different while existing together in their differences.

Was he correct?


Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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10 Responses

  1. Rodak says:

    I don’t know if this works for me without a modifier of the term “community.” Certainly a community can be homogenous in the reason for its foundation.
    If Marcel only means that we need to respect the differences between individuals in any context, then sure… But that’s not very profound, is it?

  2. Burt Likko says:

    Is this anthropology? The Hadza people of Tanzania, an extant example of an egalitarian, leaderless society, provide a case study in which about the only differences between people are sex and age, and even then those differences are not hugely dramatic.

    Most “communities,” as that term is used by laypeople, are neither heterogenous nor homogenous, but rather somewhere in between. The essence of community is people finding things in common with one another. Sometimes, differences between people override the things they originally found in common, or at least were told they had in common, and the community fragments or even dissolves.

    And sometimes, the commonality between people is something immutable, like geographic isolation or oppression imposed from without. In such cases, people who otherwise might not choose to be in the same community with one another are deprived of the opportunity to opt out. Is that a real community? I would say so, although it might not be a happy one.

    • Fnord says:

      Surely, even among the Hazda, there are some people who prefer tubers to fruit, and some who prefer fruit to tubers. It’s a matter of degree.

      • Burt Likko says:

        Yes, I’m sure — but at some point, the differences between people become trivial. Perhaps a more interesting question is when do societies expand their definition of what are trivial versus material differences between their members — a condition that we might label as “tolerance.”

        It’s also not precisely true that there are no “leaders” amongst the Hadza; leadership is assumed on a task-and-ability basis. For instance, when hunting, the best hunter leads the group. What is interesting is that their culture places no particular premium on leadership and leadership is not a durable position. When the hunt is over, the best hunter is no longer a leader, and neither endures any shame for loss of the leadership nor enjoys any prestige for the success of his leadership. (At least, so I’ve learned from study; I’ve not been to Tanzania nor personally interacted with any Hadzi people.)

        I bring them up because Kyle raised the issue of community, and it seems to me that both leadership and tolerance are implicated by the proposition offered for discussion. So I thought a reminder was in order that our traditional Euro-American cultural norms about those things are not necessarily the only norms that create a viable community.

  3. Citizen says:

    I would have said “stable community”. Communities do occur that don’t acknowledge differences. Unstable communities exist where members decide to not exist together.

  4. Kazzy says:

    What does it mean to be “mutually different”? I’ve never heard the phrase, and sort of want it to mean that acknowledged differences are considered reciprocal, such that in an interaction between a man and a woman, both are equally different than the other. This abandons the tradition of seeing a norm defined and folks who deviate from that being labeled different.

    If that is, indeed, what it means… I like it.

  5. GordonHide says:

    We are social animals. Communities are not only possible but necessary. They depend on our commonalities not our differences. Our individuality remains in tension with social needs. This state of affairs would exist whether individuals acknowledge difference or not.

    We know that many societies try to suppress difference for the sake of conformity to a perceived norm. We know that maximizing personal freedom consistent with society’s need for conformance leads to greater happiness. So I guess you could say that recognition of difference is helpful but probably not crucial.

  6. Citizen says:

    “They depend on our commonalities not our differences.”

    Communities can flourish in their acknowledgement of differences. If a portion of the community is great at making fresh bread, and another at fishing they can swap services. Fresh fish for a loaf of fresh bread. It becomes a problem when the community only knows bread.

    Society’s need for conformance is at odds with maximizing personal freedom. Live and let live has legs. No society or government can survive when built upon unstable communities.

  7. Citizen says:

    Please expand on the differences you have in mind. It becomes more interesting from here.