Sociology and Anthropology Monday: Ferdinand Tönnies

Dropped on:June 2, 2014
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Ferdinand Tönnies (1855-1936) was a co-founder – with Georg Simmel, Werner Sombart and Max Weber – and first president of the German Sociological Society (1909). He is best known and remembered for his pairing of social groupings into Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (society) a pairing that has often been linked to Durkheim’s mechanical and organic solidarity, Henry Sumner Maine’s status and contract and even Spengler among others’ distinction between culture and civilization. But different sorts of will, two different kinds of underlying drives, forces, impetus’ which propel different kinds of sociation (to use a term associated with Georg Simmel). The two different kinds of will are Wesenwille (essential or natural will) and Kürwille (translated as rational will, but implying the notion of choice or purpose). Tönnies was influenced by the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) who wrote about will as the primary, indestructible, conative force in the universe. He may have also been influenced by J. J. Rousseau’s distinction in Du contrat social between the general will (volunté générale) and the will of all (volunté de tous), the former being a kind of organic or ‘natural’ will which all members of the community participate in and share, the latter a kind of mechanical or arithmetical sum of particular wills. Rudolf Heberle has likened Wesenwille to Weber’s traditional, affective and value-rational ideal-types of social action and Kürwille to Weber’s purposeful-rational social action. A student of the works of Thomas Hobbes, he spent some time researching Hobbes at Oxford and published a book on his life and works. He was also influenced by the writings of the historical jurist Otto von Gierke whose study Das deutsche Genossenschaftsrecht (4 volumes) shows that the medieval and early modern German village community corresponds generally to what Tönnies meant by Gemeinschaft. Although Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft were never or rarely found in empirical reality we can consider them as pure types which appear in mixed forms in actual groupings. Gemeinschaft has something in common with romantic notions of organicity, rootedness, spontaneity and yet the basis for this lies in Wesenwille. But even a Gemeinschaft may have elements of Kürwille in that rational and purposive elements become instituted to help aspects of the Gemeinschaft to function. And even the most rationally planned and calculated Gesellschaft almost always arises on the basis of some pre-existing, rooted, spontaneous elements arising out of Wesenwille. Typically, we would say that a traditional village community, an ancient church, and established systems of kinship correspond more closely to Gemeinschaft, whereas business partnerships, public and private bureaucracies and special interest organizations tend to correspond more closely to Gesellschaft.

Tönnies collected works consist of 24 published volumes and his contributions to sociology go far beyond his theories of Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft. He preceded Georg Simmel who developed the concept of pure or formal sociology further. For Tönnies sociology consisted of pure, applied and empirical studies. He was also interested in the application of statistical methods to the study of social problems such as crime, suicide, poverty, etc. Although not a Marxist he was interested in the Marxist and other socialist approaches to the study of society and wrote a book on the life and work of Marx.

Tönnies’ appointment to a professorship at the University of Kiel was delayed on account of his trade union and social democratic sympathies and he was removed from his academic position by the Nazis when they acceded to power in 1933. It is said that he joined the German Social Democratic Party as a response to the rise of National Socialism.


Ferdinand Tönnies in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences pp. 98-103.

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