Senses of community -Making sense of the word community in European languages

The short presentation that follows was delivered at Birkbeck (University of London) in November 2016.

by Thierry Tremblay

The word community seems to follow the same usage in both French and English, however, it can be a source of misunderstanding. To tackle the difficulties of its senses, it would require a much more thorough investigation. One of these difficulties is not specific to this term, but can be said of many other terms: in a given language at a given time, senses vary. For instance, the contemporary American usage of the word community is not exactly the same as, for example, in British English. Even in the American usage, there are probably substantial differences between different regions of the country, between different generations and, so to say, between the different “communities” using it.

It is also the case in the Francophone space: there may be differences, from country to country, and between the different ‘communities’ in these countries.

If we go back to Antiquity, the Greek κοινός and the Latin communitas share a common etymology: both words contain the idea of togetherness, or “with-ness”, which is what we hear in cum in Latin, or in the prefixes con-, com-, co-.

Hence, the κοινόβιος (French cénobite or English coenobite) is the person living in a community (koino-bios). The Latin comes, comitis, is the companion, and the comitium is the meeting place. All these words come from the same root.

Surprisingly, this etymon will give Latin words like contra and contrarius, that is, in English, counter and contrary. What is counter, comes with its opposite. Contra in Latin (or contre in French) is what is in front of, what faces something (the word against, in English, is similar: it means an opposition but also what is in front: you put a stick against a wall, for example).

The meaning of the Greek word κοινός evolved with Greek Christianity[1]. Kοινός is the common in the meaning of “referring to what is defiled (stripped of specialness) because treated as ordinary (‘common’). In the Bible, κοινός […] describes the result of a person reducing what God calls special (holy, set apart) – to what is mundane, i.e. stripping it of its sacredness.” In the same line of thought, κοινός “is always used negatively”, to characterize “what is profaned”.

It is in the context of his famous study of the word Hospitality that Émile Benveniste[2] evokes the notion of community. As for the double-sided meaning of Hospitality, rooted in the duality between hostis and hospes, the sense of community is also dual. Let me recount this duality in Benveniste’s example of hospitality.

In French, hôte – or hoste in old French –, is in itself twofold: it is at the same time the person hosting and the person hosted. But the duality of hospitality is even more puzzling: its root mean at the same time what is welcomed and what is hostile. We can clearly see that in familiar words like hospital (“hôpital”) and hostility (we can hear the host of host-ility). Hostel or Hotel are also words that remind us of the welcoming nature of the hospes.

Benveniste writes that the term hostis in ancient Rome is not linked to the foreigner in general, the hostis is the foreigner that benefits from the same rights as a Roman citizen. He is therefore not Roman but still bound by a relation of reciprocity.

Benveniste finally remarks that the same logic is applied in the Greek term xenos or its correspondents in gothic, gasts, which gave guest and ghost, and in Slavic gospodī.

Let’s come back to the word community or the Latin communitas. Incidentally, Benveniste observes that there is the “same semantic mechanism” at work here as in the word hostis; the foreigner that came to mean the enemy (or vice-versa).

The word communitas is composed of a prefix and the radical mūnus. Benveniste writes: “En effet, mūnus a le sens de ‘devoir, charge officielle’. Il a formé des dérivés adjectifs: mūnis, immūnis, commūnis. Ce dernier a un parallèle en gothique: ga-mains ‘gemein’. (“In fact mūnus has the sense of ‘duty, a public office.’ From it are derived several adjectives: mūnis, immūnis, communis. The last has a parallel in Gothic: ga-mains, German gemein ‘common’.”)

“But, continues Benveniste, how can the notion of ‘charge, responsibility, public office’ expressed by mūnus be associated with that of ‘exchange’ indicated by the root?”

It is, answers Benveniste, because when a charge is given to someone you expect something in exchange. Benveniste writes: “If mūnus is a gift carrying the obligation of an exchange, immūnis is he who does not fulfil his obligation to make due return.”

According to him, the original commūnis, the community, signifies “qui a en commun des mūnia” (“he who has munia in common”). The community is understood as a group unified in a bond of reciprocity, a reciprocity constituted by giving and receiving. Here we could continue by analysing a form close to the mūnus of the community: it is the mūtuus, a family of words that gave what is mutual. And, that would lead us to what is common but also to what is borrowed and what is lent.

What can we conclude from this? Firstly, that Roberto Esposito draws massively on Benveniste for his definition of community (he is of course not the only academic to draw massively on this book). Secondly, that the original meaning of community is linked to an obligation: one who gives recognition expects something back and one who receives contracts a debt, it hence follows the logic of the gift, exemplified or radicalized in the potlatch, although without the necessary excess that the potlatch imposes. We can also conclude that this relation of obligation in the binding of community is ultimately a separation from the whole: by its relation of reciprocity, and hence creating a space within space, it traces a circle, delimits the interior of the community. The person that is not from the community is the other of the other, or more precisely the other of the neighbour.

There is a profound equivocity in the thought of community: it is at the same time that to which I belong before being a subject, and what expropriates me of myself in the common, in the being-in-common.

Let’s turn now how the word community is employed in contemporary English, as compared to French. We can say that it determines a group of people that shares a range of attributes. Some of these usages and attributes are common to French and English, some are not. For instance, the French communauté cannot or very rarely means the population as a homogenous whole of a given area. There is no community college in French, and one would hardly use the term to designate the people of a village or a town. The sentence “il y a un problème dans notre communauté” cannot mean, or very rarely mean, that there is a problem in all the population of given village or town. The word communauté can however designate for instance la Communauté urbaine de Montréal, but here communauté means a group of municipalities, not a being-together or a group of individuals linked by an attribute. It is in the same sense that we talk of an international community or communauté internationale: in the sense of an addition of nations and in the sense of a common ground. And it is for that reason that the international community means more a group of certain nations sharing certain values than the totality of the world’s nations. It is true it would make no sense, or it would have a completely different meaning, to speak of an international society.

If a community is generally understood as a sharing of one or more attributes, what are the types of attribute constitutive of a community? Without trying to conceive a logical typology, here are some examples.

  1. A national attribute, and specifically when the members of this nation are a subgroup.
  2. Sexual orientation, or more precisely the exception in sexual orientation (because there is a gay community, but we never encounter the expression heterosexual community).
  3. A colour of the skin or a ‘race’.
  4. A community linked to an activity. For instance, the “gamers’ community”. In French, the same expression exists: la “communauté des gamers”. Here we have a “culture” linked to this community (culture in its weaker meaning: a dress code, perhaps a way of speaking, a common hobby, an age group or often a gender, etc.).
  5. A religion, of course, since the common is fundamentally shared in a religion practice that tends to celebrate in common the presence of what transcends the simple fact of being-here. Or transcends, in the constant impulse of being, the simple transcendental fact of the hic et nunc, the here and the now.

If we look at the German language, the common word for community is Gemeinschaft, while the word for society is Gesellschaft. Much has been written on the couple Gemeinschaft/Gesellschaft, most notably by Max Weber, who makes the Gemeinshaft an affective relation and the Gesellschaft a rational and more objective relation. The Gesellschaft also means a company, a “société”, in French. The same logic applies to a Slavic language like Czech, where you have Společenství (sometimes, but rarely, the synonym komunita is used), and společnost (the equivalent of “société” in French or Gesellschaft, in German).

In other words, société, company and Gesellschaft all have an idea of togetherness, but in a more objective way.

The tension and the opposition between society and community (and one could add the word nation) is not specific to German, it is also at work in English and in French.

Jacques Maritain, a famous French theologian, wrote about this subject and amalgamated nation and community which he sees as having a soul, a spiritual principle[3]. By merging the two terms, he tends to push back the notion of society and state, and everything that constitutes the “corps politique”. For him, there is no such thing as a “communauté nationale” in the meaning of a nation-state that would embody the spiritual principle. The “communauté nationale” is always under a “corps politique”. He seems to think that a nation can be at the same time the ground for society and its product. Society is “artificial”, community “natural”. In other words, not the words of Maritain, society is rational, community irrational. However, community as an organic principle needs to be regulated by the rationality of society. And it is in that fashion that society produces its own “communauté nationale”[4]. He writes after the war, and he tries to fight the idea of a Volksgemeinschaft[5].

If we are to believe Google’s Ngrams (of course we don’t have to, this tool is mentioned here only as an indicative), the expressions communauté nationale and Volksgemeinschaft have a peak occurrence in 1940, whereas the expression national community, on the other hand, follows a completely different curve in English, with peaks in 1969 and 1999 (there is also a peak in 1941, for British English).

Maritain is perhaps the first to have thematised the vivre ensemble (he uses the expression in 1953 at the latest, perhaps as early as 1949). He links it not to a state of things – living on the same territory – but to a spiritual will: for him, to live together is to suffer together.

One other more specific aspect to study would hence be the more particular uses of the words society and community. Not only in the work of Jacques Maritain, but for instance in the work of the utopian writer Charles Fourier who chose société and the adjective sociétaire over communauté and communautaire to describe the social configuration to come or the future agency to be. Perhaps Fourier avoided the term because the word communauté, in French, used to evoke the monastic communities (which is a kind of oxymoron).

It is also interesting to note that the communautés in the France of the seventies meant the hippies’ commune (in Québec, the word commune is used, a term perhaps too charged historically to be used in France).

In conclusion: there are a number of problems that the term community poses. There are translation difficulties, even intra-language translations (from American English to British English, or from Québécois French to the French spoken in France). Difficulties increase when we come to analyse the derivatives, like Communitarianism, Communism or Commune. We encounter even more material for thought when it comes to comparing the word within its semantic field: society (for instance in the expression secret society), nation, people, ethnicity, group, clan, kin, tribe etc.

The Latin word Communis meant “what belongs to everyone”. The question is therefore what is belonging to everyone, who is everyone, and why there is such a belonging.

The Greek κοινός is the common. Its opposite is the ἴδιος, the private, the own (and here one would need to study the pivotal work of Max Steiner). In between these words that designate the generality and the singularity, there must be an articulation that is yet to be found, somewhere between the absolutely common of communism and the absolutely singular as the essence of subjectivity. What is common, can always be divided in singularities; and what is singular needs to pass through the common to be utterable.

Community is the shared propriety of beings in their penchant, or appetency, toward the common. It is to some extent the abstraction of the reality of the common, regardless of the conception of the individual, whether as an atom or in a more holistic fashion.

What remains to be questioned is the community to come, the populous community of the not-yet, a not-yet intensively here, coming to be.

Thierry Tremblay

[1] The HELPS Lexicon []

[2] The following remarks are from chapter 7 on hospitality : Émile Benveniste, Le Vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes, Paris : Minuit, « Sens commun », 2 tomes, 1969. [Indo-European Language and Society, trans. Elizabeth Palmer, Coral Gables : University of Miami Press, 1973].

[3] See : Man and the State, University of Chicago Press, 1951.

[4] “Notes pour servir a l’étude du civisme”: La “communauté nationale qui constitue une communauté de rang supérieur, soit qu’elle élève en degré une conscience communautaire déjà existante, soit qu’elle prenne naissance comme une communauté de nouvelle formation dans laquelle diverses nationalités ont été fondues.” He then goes on to write that the Church, as a spiritual society, is superior to the State (Maritain is a Thomist theologian).

[5] The irony is that according to Aldo Moro, Maritain’s pre-war political texts had an influence on young Italian fascists. Cf. Aldo Moro: Interview sur Maritain, in “Notes et documents”, IV, n. 10/11, 1978, p.3-4.