On the Need for Belonging: Roots and Communities
Francesco Botturi 16 June 2020

Laying out the parameters

A coherent classical liberal vision is grounded on the belief that the primary issue, due to its universality, is the safeguard of individual autonomy, governed by a legal system capable of protecting and promoting it. According to the liberal vision, this premise does not exclude community life and the practice of good therein related but enables these elements through a (public) regulatory framework within which the individual can make his or her (private) choices as widely as possible. The pure liberal tradition therefore does not hold at its core a conception of the world, but contains a methodological choice centered on the formal and procedural idea of the individual, compatible with all available conceptions which accept that premise. This makes evident the liberal historic project to enable the virtuous coexistence of as many as possible different conceptions and practices of the world. Its aim is to solve the main problem of modern politics since Westphalia, that of pluralism, when coexistence seemed possible only at the cost of individual freedom. There is no denying the fact that liberalism constituted a turning point in the political and social customs of the West and that it became part of the heritage of civilization, constituting a paradigm in the relationship between unity and pluralism. Liberalism contains an ethical-political lesson, to which does not seem reasonable to renounce; it could be considered outdated only on the condition of facing in a new way the fundamental question to which liberalism has responded.

I think we have to bear this in mind in order to face Seligman and Montgomery’s critique within a broad theoretical context. The authors, in fact, consider the problem of the place occupied by the community and the criteria for belonging within the liberal vision (see pgs. 3 and 4), and they indirectly call into question the status of the liberal individual. For liberalism, social identity is something that one has, not something to which one belongs, because the individual nucleus is not originally in-relation, but enters into relation adding something to its already definite identity; for this reason “having an identity is not the same as belonging to a community”, which is not something external but something that also structures thought: the individual’s way of knowing and interpreting (p. 3). Hence the interesting pattern of the two models, the communitarian one and the liberal one, focused on two different concepts of trust, that of “communities of trust” and that of “communities of confidence”. That is, on one side, relying on a belonging that is different and more consistent than the sum of individualities; on the other, a trusting attitude towards values (rights and virtues) shared by more, who remain separate. In the first instance, as is well illustrated by the pattern of the two models (p. 5), we find that the terminology of belonging and sharing prevails; in the second, the language of plurality and difference, of rules and security.

With this schematization, the authors introduce a decisive consideration in order to begin a revision of the liberal paradigm. As long as the liberal idea remains at the level of the program of normative regulation of relations on the basis of formal universalist criteria, its individualism is a guarantee of priority and independence of the individual with respect to his or her relational commitments, with a weak communitarianism in terms of fiduciary sharing of basic values. But when individualism clashes with the density of social and political life, it proves to be a fragile foundation.

To give an authoritative example, one only needs to think of Rawls’ proposal of constructivist contractualism in which the individual is socially aggregated through the formalization of the founding contract, accomplished through the artificial condition of the “veil of ignorance” in which the real identity of the individual is removed. But when Rawls himself, pursued by the critiques of the communitarians, has to deal with the political applicability of the criteria of justice, he recognizes that man has always belonged to the “social” by virtue of a fundamental “cooperation”, that is, to a sensible and somehow already regulated way, “before” the founding contract.[1]

In other words, on impact with the political management of social reality, the liberal methodological formalism inevitably changes into an anthropological formalism or a formal anthropology too narrow to account for all the aspects of the thick and complex social reality. There is a relational fabric to which the individual belongs, which a social and political theory cannot ignore in favor of formal principles and rules; as M. Walzer recalled with the metaphors of “thick” and “thin”, their irreducible distinction and their necessary circularity and, therefore, with the relationship and tension between moral “maximalism” and “minimalism”.[2] Seligman and Montgomery’s critical reflection on the incompleteness of the liberal vision of rights is connected to this issue. In their text, one can find numerous instances of criticisms of the abstractly disembodied universality of rights policy: “rights provide no sense of belonging, appeal to no sentiment of shared company, and eschew the obligations entailed by already existing ties” (p. 4), which does not take into account the “thick” content of experience that the law should regulate.

Thus, the theoretical dialectic with the liberalism of rights is outlined, which does not contest their intrinsic foundation and functionality, but their abstraction with respect to an anthropological and social-cultural whole that logically precedes the legal formality and which cannot be considered only an external factual antecedent, because it is more likely a condition of sense of the law self. It is therefore a matter of deepening criticism in a twofold direction; a primary one that concerns a more precise understanding of what community means; and a secondary one relating to the compatibility and complementarity of the two perspectives.


Roots, belonging, community

The focal point of the author’s analysis seems to me to be in the elegant quote by S. Weil in dispute with the alleged liberal blindness towards the most significant of human needs, which Weil indicates as “to be rooted […] by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community”, capable of preserving past treasures and future expectations. This “inescapable truth” focuses on the systematic connection between “to be rooted”, “to belong” and “to be a member of a community” (p. 2). There is in short outlined an entire anthropology that demands analysis.

Belonging is the medium between being rooted and being members of a community, which corresponds to saying that no one is rooted in him or herself, but everyone needs a link with others to have roots. The need for belonging is therefore expressive of a primary need, that of roots; so, the sequence is in genetic order is: roots – belonging – community, and conversely in experimental order. This is the anthropological netting that seems unintelligible to liberal individualism. On the other hand, not even the communitarian movement has given an articulated explanation, limiting itself mostly to a phenomenology of the community event; and even the authors leave many things on the implicit level.

What is clear is the fact that there is a shared experience that is pluriform and full of synchronic and diachronic senses, which precedes and accompanies the life of the individual, which also provides practical and theoretical definitions, fundamental for the orientation of existence. The authors, in fact, qualify the communitarian reality “with its own past, its own traditions, stories, smells, tastes, jokes, obligations, recipes, holidays, moral judgments, boundaries of what is permissible and prohibited, basic frames of meaning, fears, and desires” (p. 2); that heritage of experiences and conceptions, stratified and transmitted, acts as a substrate and context for coexistence and is in fact immediately regulatory of customs. We could also say that it provides indispensable pre-judgments (in the Gadamerian sense) that allow us to understand and interpret reality and that also stimulate the critical work of their verification (a fundamental task of a mature community, which should oversee the educational processes – family, school, university, cultural institutions – and the informational ones in the public debate.

If this is community, then belonging is to be understood first in ascriptive terms, since the social-cultural communitarian qualities are something in which we identify, and it is precisely because of this that they possess formational effectiveness on mentality and customs. From this point of view, it is easy to understand the liberal repugnance to interpret community not only as a fact but as a fundamental and active component of politics, since within it, it seems that individual liberty does not occupy a leading role.

In fact, if freedom is understood as original and active free will, a primary capability that is accomplished from the start, then the conditioning of a communal life and its forms can, can only result as negative for freedom. Here we touch on a strategic anthropological point of the debate. In fact, responding to the liberal objection does not mean denying the communitarian conditioning and its ambivalence, but rather revisiting the (imaginary) presupposition of a perfectly given freedom, void of the historical formative process. In this sense, the objection presupposes an idea of effective freedom, abstracted from its micro and macro-social context in which every liberty is born and grows.

To be more precise and more satisfactory from a theoretical point of view, one must introduce the distinction between the essence and the existence of freedom, without losing sight of their relationship. It is true that freedom in itself is whole: one is either equipped with freedom or one is not; but this does not mean that there is no graduality, no progress or regression, positive or negative conditioning, in short, a history of individual freedom in relation to freedoms both individual and collective. Now, before being positive or negative, the conditioning of a communitarian culture is an undeniable and inevitable fact that enters among the foundational and enabling factors of freedom: simply no a-historical exercise of freedom exists.

Belonging is, therefore, understandable as a state of affairs from which one needs to emerge in order to rescue freedom, that is, to give it the adequate space for its moral autonomy and individual rights or as a condition itself favorable to the path of the freedom towards an identity not merely formal. It is in this second hypothesis that the authors’ thesis hangs on the need for belonging in reference to having roots.

But in what sense is being rooted a need and not an obstacle, a constraint and a passive subordination? The metaphor of being rooted meant a beneficial connection with the need for nourishment, growth and stability of organisms in the vegetable kingdom; it refers to a receptive apparatus of nutrients that through active metabolic processes conserve life and allow the organism to grow. The analogy with the anthropological being therefore is not limited to saying that belonging to a certain tradition, its ways of life, its culture, and its planned development transmits contents and methods that guarantee the safety of individuals and continuity for their community, but adds that through such belonging the individual is able to elaborate his or her identity or experience. Here, having roots, means that the construction of the Self requires an existential exchange with other significant individuals and a vital insertion into humanity’s symbolic universes.

If we wanted to look more deeply into this perspective, we would have to move into a systematic consideration that is capable of putting together the two aspects of anthropological truth, which I already mentioned in reference to freedom: the essential constitutive autonomy of the individual (who would otherwise be an irremediable subdued to historical circumstances and to the network of pre-established relationships) and the equally constituting need to be made able to assume one’s own autonomy and to exercise it. According to an elementary law of the human psyche and spirit, according to which the “I” needs the “Other” in order to know and to live oneself as an individual being and at the same time needing to be generated. Consequently, the “other” does not coincide with the “stranger” with whom one needs to negotiate (according to some criterion of purpose) over being in relation, but is, in principle, a necessary figure in the path towards self-awareness and freedom of the Self, role often played by parental, friendly and educational figures, etc. And as the individual, activated and nurtured in his or her identity, becomes self-aware, he/she is able to carry out the work of responsibly evaluating the tradition to which he/she belongs and of discerning one’s own values and non-values. In this way the overall character of the identity-freedom of an individual is circular and diachronically in spirals: through the solicitation and education by one’s surrounding context, the constitutive autonomy becomes autonomous morality capable of giving analytical feedback (confirmation, innovation, retraction) on the inherited and shared tradition.[3]

In this anthropological environment, then, the community membership is not only a matter of additional contents, services or functions, but also an indispensable place of activation of one’s concrete and responsible identity. In this I would interpret what the authors say, “while a continued advocacy of human rights may well be necessary, rights by themselves are a far from sufficient condition for human flourishing and satisfying the need for roots” (p. 5); if we have to acknowledge “what human rights have accomplished in improving the living conditions of many”, we must also admit “that it is insufficient precisely because its implicit prioritization of the individual is at the expense of belonging. And belonging is something that is necessary for existence beyond the individual; that is, for all existence that is social.” (p. 6). Also, because belonging is the basis for social existence both in a general sense and in the specific and effective approach of the many forms of “mutuality”, such as reciprocity, aid, and social works. “Mutual aid societies, hospitals, old-age homes, schools, charity organizations, burial societies, and much else” are active especially in communities with strong religious or philanthropic motivations. It is precisely within these limited but real and active communities that “human actors are born, thrive, live, die, and make sense (or do not) of their worlds and the worlds of others. We cannot live without these communities and, despite all the dangers that arise from them, we submit that there is no possibility of human life or achievement outside of them”, so “membership in community remains an essential component in any shared vision of the good” (p. 2).


Community and politics

It should be quite clear that modern political philosophies, share, in the absolute majority, the removal of this anthropological communitarian premise; better yet, they converge in considering this substratum of human coexistence as spontaneous and unreliable, foreign or harmful to the political foundation and its idea of sovereignty: sovereignty is the power that stands as superior to any other power and therefore capable of creating an external and unifying order. The sovereignty, therefore, as an agent of rationalization of the social reality, entrusted to the central political power, does not want competitors (Hobbes); but it can also be decentralized through the distributed sovereignty of owners (Locke) and therefore is allocated primarily in the Market rather than in the State (as it is being realized in a new way with the contemporary process of globalization).

In the paradigmatic model of sovereignty according to Hobbes, statehood is necessarily accompanied by an overall process of de-socialization through the elimination or strict control of all spontaneous forms of aggregation; thus realizing the archetypal idea that the task of the State is to “found” (give foundation and legitimacy to) civil society. Ultimately, an inverse proportionality is established between the state and the community, since the Hobbesian state exists on the assumption of the “natural” danger of community relations and therefore of their essential “un-politicity”.[4] From here, beyond its narrow Hobbesian version, the political idea of the “second modernity” will be influenced by the idea of the “immunitarian device” that establishes protective boundaries both towards the outside and between internal members and that displaces the exercise of power in some higher, formal and procedural system. The versions of this architectural idea of the modern politician will be many and also opposed to one another (from the total absorption of civil society in the totalitarian state sphere to the dilution of the idea of free contract of interest in liberal mercantilism guaranteed by a system of rights), but the paradigm will remain a component of the most influential voices of modern political thought.

Today the paradigm has entered a crisis of functionality that has launched a new phase of a still open discussion. But it is clear that, due to the long hegemony of this previous and stratified model, the idea of community still cannot easily advance, and in any case, its political re-evaluation constitutes an important topic of the debate.

A significant contribution that the discussion has generated is the clarification of the very concept of community, from its etymology, according to which the term communitas derives from the composition of cum and munus, which means having in common a received good that engages one in the task of welcoming it and raising it (in ancient times, this would primarily refer to public office). The community reality is such if it has an objective and participatory density. It is not enough to say one stays and works together, though it is necessary that this basis exist, but that it is motivated and oriented by something that gives reason to be together and qualify this unity. Something that places itself as a third among the individuals in relation: the thirdness of the munus, that is the precious received good, that must be preserved, cared for, transmitted, and implemented. This demanding and dynamic idea of the community is relevant because it excludes reductive − sentimental and psychological, instrumental, and functional – senses/meanings of community. Rather, if each community is qualitatively identified by the content of its munus, its raison d’être, then each community, at different scales, has a significant past to pass on, specific ways to treasure, some future project to carry out, which perform its social function as a significant expression of the “world of life”.


Universal and particular

At this point we encounter a relevant question regarding the political significance of the communitarian fabric. One aspect of the liberal objection to the public value of spontaneous forms of aggregation and community is their lack of universality, which is expressed and guaranteed only by the legal framework and therefore by a “policy of rights”. The issue of universality, in fact, is essential for the relevance of political entities called to answer, not personal interests, but the entire socio-political good (common good).

Seligman and Montgomery include some short but interesting expressions in this regard. On the one hand, they speak of human rights “as universal and transcendent of all (group) boundaries”, on the other they observe that if it is true that one is always “member of a particular community” (p.2), “the need to belong, to be born, grown old, die and be buried as a member of a community” is precisely what “appears universal” (p.3). These affirmations contain two truths; the first, that rights and communities cannot be hurriedly classified as two opposite realities, one universal and the other particular; the second, that two different universalities are at stake, which contradict each other only if they are unduly kept on the same level.

Legal universality is recognizable as that of cases, provisions, and punishments that apply to all people, on a case by case basis. The legal detail, in fact, is only relevant as an example of a universal logic, similar to that of scientific thought. Here the relationship to reality is rigorously selective according to the categories (abstract universalities) of reference; an abstraction that is justified and profitable, because it is an indispensable epistemological condition for obtaining critical and specialized knowledge, just as the abstract juridical universalities aims for an orderly and systematic government according to a universalist criterion of justice.

The cultural and practical universe of the community is of a different nature: it has an entirely different relationship with the particular, and the universal is indisputably embedded in the particular. The universal is not the product of an abstraction from the particulars but is the effect of a symbolic game of the references between and beyond the particulars. This, in general, is the logic of human culture, that only an abstract enlightenment and a poor Platonism can interpret as an allegory or staging of presupposed universal values. On the contrary, culture exists through its historic, peculiar, different, and unrepeatable forms that cannot be traced back to any independent universality, but are capable of signaling something valid for the whole humanity and therefore capable of universalizing the meaning of the human experience.

It is the logic of the universal “concreteness”, in which the universal gives meaning to the particular and this gives reality to the universal: it is the logic of religions, of the arts, of moral wisdom and of exemplary experiences. What is the universal meaning of a work of art? Certainly not a concept that can explain it, because it is not the case of a universal artistic genre (as the neoclassical aesthetics believed), but rather that universally acceptable idea (intuition, vision, sentiment) towards which the peculiar psycho-physical perspectives of the work converge: paradoxical universality of something (a work of art) which is, by definition, absolutely particular and unique.

This is also the logic of community life (understood in an appropriate sense), which is qualified by its constructive and motivating munus, which is the more valuable the greater its universal significance is; though manifesting itself through particular life, forms and experiences of a specific community. A broad phenomenology would be useful for this. I suggest only two meaningful examples, on the small and large scale: the family and the nation.

Marriage (according to its thousand-year-old interpretation) is not only a sentimental and sexual link between a male and female, deriving from an individual and reciprocal preferential choice; what makes a relationship between a man and a woman a marriage, is the common commitment to care for and love the same mutual affection as well as to take on together the goods therein, children in the first place. In other words, it is to welcome and actively bind oneself to the munus of marriage that makes the family (relations of genders and generations, with all the weight of their biological and cultural inheritance).

At the other extreme, being a nation follows the same logic: nationality is not just a mere empirical fact of territorial cohabitation, but living as a national community, a stratified experience composed of land, ethnic ties, language or languages, moral inclinations, behavioral criteria, religious traditions, cultural shapes, etc. A complex and great hereditary experience, that is not necessarily homogenous, but that creates many commonalities, of which the national sphere is the largest and most inclusive. J. Maritain believed that the socio-political body supports itself and finds cohesion on the basis of a heritage of spontaneous culture and morality typical of the national community as birthplace (nation derives from the Latin verb nasci) of the historical and social humanity, and which endows the human with belonging, roots, and identity; a great collective good, inherited as munus that unifies and unites.

Ultimately, the two logics (of the abstract universality and the concrete universality) are opposite but not inevitable contradictory. Indeed, they must be able to cohabit, and they can cohabit because they respond to different requirements; they can coexist precisely by virtue of their specific difference, provided they are not confused or have mutually reductionist claims. There is no communitarian experience that does not need a certain normative legal framework (versus neo-communitarianism), but any legal order should refer to historical experiences of belonging to which its own and autonomous logic must be recognized (versus neoliberalism). In the authors’ perspective, the primary criticism is of “rights policy” and of “our current liberal obsession with abstract, universal, and unencumbered human rights” (p.3), which seeks to shape the social fabric in an individualistic and abstractly universalist way.


Inclusion and Exclusion

I believe the considerations I have enlisted, can help to answer one last serious difficulty, which the authors do not avoid confronting and which may constitute a decisive objection against their own theses. It is a twofold observation; firstly, that all community forms carry within themselves an inevitable dialectic of inclusion and exclusion, of community and immunity, a factor of partiality and conflict with respect to which legal universalism claims superior inclusiveness. Secondly, that communitarian cultures have an internal tendency to be “often […] oppressive and restrictive” and externally to have an “exclusionary character” (p. 2). In various parts of the world “we are witnessing a wide-spread revival of exclusionary, xenophobic, self-referential politics and ways of life” (p. 4), for which there is “the challenge” of how to affirm the value of a culture of belonging “without necessarily accepting […] border walls, indifference to the fate of refugees and migrants, forced assimilation of immigrant communities, racist and ethnocentric policies that support authoritarian rulers, etc. How can we articulate a politics of belonging — which we recall, always embraces some exclusionary element — without succumbing to the rhetoric of the extreme right both at home and abroad?” (p. 5).

The answer proposed by the authors is that of “a new politics of difference” that avoids both the “the hard and impenetrable boundaries” of the nationalist politics, as well as “the ultimately homogenizing politics of abstract human rights” and that instead proposes “a rigorous engagement with communal differences” within and between communities (p. 5). This means considering differences “as not simply matter of individual preference but as a constitutive of individuals and their communities”, not to ignore by looking for an abstractly universalist common denominator, nor to exalt in a purely oppositional way (p. 6). In fact, the positivity of recognition and respect of differences can be educated at the level of civil society, creating new spaces and places for dialogue, promoting experiences, and social and political projects and commitments.

The proposal is reasonable and coherent, but perhaps too voluntaristic, in the sense that it is entrusted to a benevolent intention but perhaps without sufficient foundation, while starting from the communitarian reality one can elaborate a more fully justification. The negative sticking point is clearly indicated in the text when it says that the problem of differences cannot be resolved at all by “standard[izing] the world in a more uniform and abstract way – a way that minimizes, even trivializes, difference for the sake of finding common ground” (p. 6); this is the mistake of liberal individualism, which does not solve the problem but exacerbates it. On the other hand, it is a question of better understanding the internal needs of the communitarian reality regarding the sense of its differentiating particularity. We have seen, in fact, that this is not without its universal (concrete) meaning, which enables each community (according to its familial, cultural, religious, etc. munus) to be an agent of communication and comparison, of dialogue and dialectic, of agreement and conflict.

On this condition, the two critical observations find an answer. As regards the former, the fact that the community also implies exclusion is something that by definition regards every specific reality and identity, which is such as it is other with respect to any other. The legal universality is certainly more inclusive, but precisely at the cost of its abstractness compared to the historical subjectivity of the communities. In other terms, there is always an inverse proportionality of communitas and immunitas, of which any claim of abolition is deceptive or ideological. As welcoming and “open” a family is, it is clear that it cannot (and should not) drop its immune defenses without exposing itself to dangers and damage.

The second critical observation, however, concerns the pathological attitudes that immunization can assume, which transform it from defensive to offensive, making it oppressive and aggressive. This depends not on the nature of the community but on its misunderstanding, or better, on its misrepresentation. The exclusivity of communitarian identity does not mean in fact oppositional incommunicability and a vocation for conflict, because – for what has already been said – the communitarian reality cannot close in on itself except ideologically in its particularism, being equipped with a universalism that implies communication and comparison. Certainly, there are perverse forms and cultures of communities, that are centered around a negative munus (sectarian, subversive, criminal, etc.) and practice the ideological choice of violently imposing their culture. In this case, the single community denies itself and its need for comparison and regulated exchange, which would allow its identity to remain alive and in progress and not collapse into a sterile and threatening self-referentiality. But this is part of the tragic backlight of the human need for roots and community belonging.



[1] See J. Rawls, Political Liberalism, Columbia University Press, 1993, Lesson VII.

[2] M. Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame – London, 1994.

[3] A fundamental theme in German metaphysical idealism and present in French philosophies of the 20th Century, such as spiritualism, existentialism, phenomenology and in a certain Lacanian-Freudian psychoanalytic tradition; in relation to which Anglophone thought is largely foreign. On relations of recognition and social ties see F. Botturi, Universale, plurale, comune. Percorsi di filosofia sociale, Vita e Pensiero, Milan 2018, ch. V.

[4] R. Esposito, “Comunità e violenza”, in Id. Dieci pensieri sulla politica (1993), il Mulino, Bologna, 2011, pp. 252 and 254.


Photo: Nelson Almeida / AFP

If you liked our analyses, stories, videos and dossiers, follow us on Facebook and Twitter and share our contents.

To get all of the latest, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month)



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)