Ferdinand Toennies

Is There Virtue in Modern Society?

Can traditional virtues such as selflessness and honor survive in the rapidly changing modern world? Pioneering sociologist Ferdinand Toennies (1855-1936) spent his life pursuing the answer to this important question. In the process, along with his colleagues Max Weber and Georg Simmel, Toennies helped to establish sociology as an academic discipline in Germany.Born to a wealthy family in the German countryside, Toennies was raised in comfortable surroundings and received an extensive education. He also learned a great deal from observing the world about him-he was especially fascinated by how the Industrial Revolution was transforming Germany and other European countriesBut, to Toennies, the changes brought on by industrialization did not necessarily contribute to the betterment of humankind. Toennies’s work displays a deep distrust of the notion of “progress,” which he feared amounted to the steady loss of traditional morality. His influential book Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft (1887) is therefore both a chronicle of modernization and an Indictment of an Increasingly Impersonal world. Toennies’s thesis is that traditional societies, built on kinship and neighborhood, nourish collective sentiments, virtue, and honor. Modernization washes across traditional society like an acid, eroding human community and unleashing rampant individualism. Toennies stopped short of claiming that modern society was “worse” than societies of the past, and he made a point of praising the spread of rational, scientific thinking. Nevertheless, the growing individualism and selfishness characteristic of modern societies troubled him. Knowing that there could be no return to the past, he looked to the future, hoping that new forms of social organization would develop that would combine modern rationality with traditional collective responsibility.

Source: Based on Cahnman & Hebede (1971).

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