Civil Society and Its Discontents

Philanthropy's Civic Mission

Bruce Sievers

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In recent years, "civil society" has gained widespread appeal. Fareed Zakaria tells us that, "in the world of ideas, civil society is hot. It is almost impossible to read an article on foreign or domestic politics without coming across some mention of the concept."2 As with many such terms, however, much of its popularity is based on an elusiveness of meaning. Michael Walzer's useful distinction between thick and thin descriptions applies well here: "Civil society"—like Walzer's "justice," "liberty," and "truth"—tends to be a thin description in its common use, i.e., one that operates at such a level of generality that it embraces multiple meanings while simultaneously conveying minimal content.3


  1. This essay is a shortened version of a talk titled, "The Philanthropy/Civil Society Paradox," delivered at the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the Hudson Institute in May 2004. The talk was a substantially revised version of a paper published earlier under the title, "Can Philanthropy Solve the Problems of Civil Society?" (Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, 1995).
  2. Fareed Zakaria, "Bigger than the Family and Smaller than the State: Are Voluntary Groups What Makes Countries Work?" in New York Times Book Review, August 13, 1995, p. 1.
  3. Michael Walzer, Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (University of Notre Dame Press, 1994).