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Ferdinand Tönnies, Community and Society (1887). Preface to the 2nd edition (1912)

The excerpt that follows is from the preface to the second edition (1912) of a classic text by sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936). Written in response to the conditions of modern life in Wilhelmine Germany and first published in 1887, Community and Society [Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft] compares social relationships in traditional and modern societies, arguing that traditional societies produce interpersonal ties of a more "organic" and binding nature. Tönnies's early experiences have often been characterized as provincial. Despite extensive travel, he spent his entire life living in the region of Schleswig-Holstein where he was born. He was therefore the product of a distinctive social form that created an abiding sense of integration: in nature, in personal relationships, in the ways of culture, and ultimately in all aspects of life. But Tönnies’s travels to various universities and Europe’s cosmopolitan capitals allowed him to juxtapose urban and rural life and the contrasting social forms represented by each. He distinguished, for example, between the intimate relations of the countryside and the impersonal relationships that he believed characterized cities. If the peasant was steeped in the family, then the city-dweller was at home in the anonymous marketplace and public institutions. Tönnies's work has endured because it moves beyond nostalgic notions of society. It skillfully reflects the division between folk and urban society, between the intimate relationships of family, kin, and community and the impersonal alliances born of modern politics, economic exchange, and state power.

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[ . . . ]

Modern philosophy has grown up with and through the natural sciences. Two hundred years ago, all of Europe’s universities were still dominated by Aristotelian-scholastic natural philosophy and its ancillaries: moral theology, theological legal philosophy, and theological social doctrine. The eighteenth century brought modernization at least in Protestant Germany, and the Revolution did so in France, with the universities following in the footsteps of the people’s movement and its political progress.

Philosophy, which grew up the stalk of a mechanistic understanding of nature, had a legal philosophy and a social theory; indeed, it regarded them as the chief components of ethics. And the tendency of this “practical” philosophy was necessarily anti-theological, anti-feudal, and anti-medieval; it was individualistic and therefore (by my conception) social [gesellschaftlich].

Its great, historical, and epochal accomplishments are natural law (rationalistic and specifically identified as such) and “political economy,” which (as W. Hasbach has abundantly demonstrated) has a deep inner connection with it and is carried on in the “classic” English school. In the preface to the first edition, I compared the former to geometry, the latter to abstract mechanics.

Natural law and political economy played a powerful part in shaping modern society and the modern state, both of which are developing and unleashing their power. Both developments occurred under the banner of revolution – the great French Revolution, which also destroyed the Holy Roman Empire, and the small revolutions that followed in France and Germany during the nineteenth century, in the latter country in part through the actions of a Prussian monarchy that was revolutionary in its origins and energy. These revolutions imparted enormous impulses to capital and legislation, with the latter developing at first largely to promote the former.

All revolutions trigger powerful counter-movements, however. The restorations and reactionary tendencies followed their upheavals with absolute inevitability.

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