Intellectual, Social, and Beloved Communities

C. S. Pierce, Josiah Royce, and Alfred North Whitehead are three American philosophers who understood the implications of then-current science for the future of philosophy. Each developed a distinctive philosophical position that transcended simple mechanical materialism. Each accounted for the impact of evolutionary theory, and later for Whitehead, relativistic and early quantum physics. Interestingly, each were sympathetic to Christianity and religion in general. Last week, I focused on Royce’s notion of the importance of individuals in the formation of community. This week, the focus is on his understanding of the central importance of communities, and especially on his notion of “Beloved Community,” which has continuing relevance.’

Communities of Interpretation

Royce, more than any other American philosopher, emphasize the role of community for human society, human individuals, and human knowledge. Following C. S. Pierce, Royce held a theory of knowledge that emphasized the social nature and source of truth. The necessity of a sign, an interpreter, and an interpretation of experience drove Pierce (who was the source of this line of thinking) and Royce to an essentially social theory of how truth emerges from human investigation and is verified by human community. Both understood that, while science was a paradigmatic community in search for truth, are were other such communities searching for truth in their own domains. [1] In fact, any kind of human knowledge is developed within a community of inquiry.

The notion of community appears in nearly every aspect of Royce’s thought. In science, and religion, and all other forms of reasoning, Royce emphasizes the need for a community of interpretation within which rational thinking and progress in human understanding occurs. For community to exist, there must be what Royce terms “loyalty,” a common commitment to the enterprise at hand, a love for the subject matter and for the community, and a disciplined search for a proper interpretation. As seen below, healthy community cannot be forced, but is the choice of free individuals to give of themselves to a community that embraces goals larger than a single human life.

From Individuals to Community

Peirce saw that individualistic self-centeredness, selfish tendencies, and the human propensity to error had to be tempered and checked by community bonds. Peirce was especially critical of social Darwinism and what he called, the “Gospel of Greed” that Social Darwinism engendered. [2] Instead, Peirce believed that the universe, though involving chance and regularities, also involved a social, “agapistic” (love) component. This is a part of Pierce’s thought that we might need to reinternalize in an age of media and other billionaires. 

Human individuals are inevitably self-centered. Each of us tends to see the world through the physical, perceptual and interpretive center of our own self. As outlined last week, this unique “self” is the product of all of our life experiences, lessons and learning. This historically constructed, evolving self is inevitably trapped in a kind of isolation. No one else shares exactly the same perception or interpretation of reality we possess. More importantly, we do not have the same kind of access to the hopes, dreams, and knowledge of others that we have of our own hopes, dreams and knowledge. Our communication with others, even others to whom we are close, is distorted by the inevitable differences between what we intend to communicate and what another person believes we have communicated.

How do human beings overcome this natural solitude and the danger of misunderstanding and misinterpretation? The answer for Royce lies in the constant need for interpretation, correction, and reinterpretation, all of which are social enterprises. This is not just true in intellectual life, but every area of life. Human beings need the sympathetic correction of others in order to perceive the world clearly. Sympathetic correction and reinterpretation require communities of interpretation where any kind of complex subject matter is involved. Royce puts it in this way:

“In this world of interpretation, of whose most general structure we have now obtained a glimpse at how, selves and communities may exist, past and future can be defined, and the realms of the spirit may find a place which neither barren conception nor the chaotic flow of interpenetrating perceptions could ever render significant.” [3]

Both Royce and Pierce (as well as others) often use science as the paradigm of a truth-seeking community. At any given point in time, there are always things scientists believe they understand, other matters which they do not yet understand, and matters about which there are disputes within the scientific community. Eventually, someone discovers new facts or develops a new theory and publishes the results to the scientific community at large. Other scientists will do the same. Still others examine and either verify or critique the new experimental results or theory. Out of this process of research, interpretation, theorizing and publication eventually a consensus emerges concerning the best interpretation. This process, in the case of science has been going on for centuries, with many changes and improvements in our understanding of the world. This is how, over time scientific understanding grows and develops.

Communities of Interpretation and Political Practice

Where a political community is concerned, there is a similar process. For example, after the Revolutionary War, the original states were bound together by the Articles of Confederation. There were deficiencies in the system of government this agreement instituted. There was no ability of the central government to tax, and so it was constantly near bankruptcy. There was no guarantee of freedom of commerce between the states, and some states used their own state powers to prevent competition. There was no central military command structure, and so the nation was weak. Eventually, the Constitution Convention was held. In the beginning, there were vast differences of opinion about what should be done. Through a series of compromises and accommodations, the original Constitution was drafted and submitted to the states, followed by the original Bill of Rights. This process is often criticized, in my view mistakenly. What is often missed are the first words of the Constitution: “We the People of the United States.” The thirteen original states already viewed themselves as one “People,” and therefore were willing to compromise, even give up important points.  Some states e joined the union, even though they disagreed with aspects of the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention, the various state conventions that ratified the constitution, and the process followed reveals various communities of people, all gathered with a common purpose searching for a common and better solution than the current state of affairs permits. Since its original adoption, the Constitution has had to be revised on several occasions to meet the demands of the times.

Royce especially, understood that American life took for granted a certain amount of attention, struggle, search for power, differences of opinion, and jockeying for position. Left to themselves, this aspect of American life could lead to the dissolution of our national community. In fact, during the Civil War, it did. The only solution to the problem of warring factions is found in the idea of a community made out of many individuals who join together in the common search for a just, fair, and orderly society. Without the willingness to debate, discuss, dialogue, and compromise, eventually there has to be a solution imposed by force. The Civil War was an event of this exact kind.

The impulse we see at work in the violence in our politics and some of our cities today reflects a lack of trust in the American community and in its fundamental values and structures. We’ve lost our sense of being in a national community in which we do not always get exactly what we want, but are willing to join with others in the search for a solution that is as reasonable and fair as possible to all.

Royce understood that’s such a community can only be formed and maintained through a committed form of mutual respect and love he called “loyalty.” Loyalty exists when an individual voluntarily participates in a community and seeks the common good of the community with and above his or her personal preferences in an act of self-giving to the community. Loyalty involves personal sacrifice for the common good and a willingness to explore the best solution to the problem of human progress.

Community and Beloved Community

Royce sees that communities are not all alike, though they have certain features in common. For example, a community is not a melding or absorption of individuals. In any true community individuals retain their uniqueness, individuality, and perspective. A community is bound together by loyalty and love, not by absolute identity or merging of individuals. Communities look backward (and, therefore, have traditions) and all living communities look forward (and therefore are somewhat oriented towards the future. To take a simple example, a fraternity or sorority has both a tradition into which members are initiated and a fraternity or sorority is always taking in new pledges as it looks to sustain itself into the future. Royce calls these two aspects of communities, “Communities of Tradition” and “Communities of Hope. 

The search for truthful, just, and life enhancing community finds its ultimate symbol in the notion of a “Beloved Community.” There is no question but which Royce sees in the church, and perhaps in John’s vision of the Heavenly City” the root and ground of the Beloved Community and a kind of eschatological realization of the hopes and dreams of all lesser communities. In the case of Christianity, the community looks back through the Scriptures to the beginning of the world. Its tradition goes all the way back to the beginning. And, as a community of hope, it looks forward to the end of history and the renewal of all things. Thus, members of the Beloved Community look infinitely backwards and forwards in time, in both tradition and hope, to a future that encompasses all of humanity and human history. This is why Royce sometimes calls the “Beloved Community” the “Universal Community”—all people are invited to pledge their loyalty to and find meaning and purpose in the Beloved Community.

The hope of the Beloved Community is the hope of a place of perfect individuality and perfect community joined in a kind of perfect self-giving love—a love that, for Christians, mirrors the love that constitutes and characterizes the divine Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each maintaining perfect individuality and joined in perfect community. This universal hope of the reconciliation of the human race, heaven, and earth is an eschatological not historical hope. As I return to the Beloved Community in my next blog, I will talk about the dangers and impossibility of the undisciplined attempt to bring in the Universal Community that Royce envisioned by the means of violence.

Copyright 2020, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] This line of thinking was also followed by Michael Polanyi in his works, most importantly in his Gifford Lectures. See, Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy (Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press, 1958).

[2] “Evolutionary Love,” first published in the Monist introduces his theory of agapism, the cosmic principle of love. This love is a cherishing love, because it recognizes that which is lovely in another being and sympathetically supports its existence. Peirce contrasts his “agapism” with evolutionary theories based on a selfish form of love, which had resulted in social Darwinism and “the Gospel of Greed.” Agapism includes helping one’s neighbors, and is a consistent with with a Christian social ethics. See, “Evolutionary Love” at (Downloaded August 3, 2020).

[3] Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Volume 2, Barnes and Noble Digital Library  (Downloaded July 20, 2020).

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