Support us

The good of civilization

Posted on by Chris Powell

Hello all,
I’d first like to thank the organizers of “Elias in the 21st Century” for a very successful and enormously stimulating conference!

I have a question that I’d like to put to the members of this list if I may.

As you probably know very well, Elias opens “The Civilizing Process” by describing the term ‘civilization’ as expressing “the self-consciousness of the West”, “everything in which Western society of the last two or three centuries believes itself superior to earlier societies or ‘more primitive’ contemporary ones … the level of its technology, the nature of its manners, the development of its scientific knowledge or view of the world, and much more”. My question is, did Elias participate in this consciousness? That is, did he consider Western society to be superior to other societies on these or other counts?

A closely related question is, does the term ‘civilization’ convey for Elias a value, or does he use it to denote something that others may value but that he as a detached sociologist neither values nor abhors? My first inclination has been always to impute a detached attitude to Elias. More than once he very nicely criticizes Parsons for concealing value-judgments within supposedly value-neutral concepts (particularly in Parsons’ concept of “function”, in Chapter 3 of “What is Sociology?”). Over and over in “The Civilizing Process” Elias emphasizes that ‘more or less developed’ does not mean ‘better or worse’ in a normative sense. He usually puts the words ‘civilized’, ‘primitive’, ‘savage’, etc. in ironic quotation marks whenever they are used descriptively. And even though ‘detachment’ is not quite ‘value-neutrality’, I tend to read him as giving ‘civilization’ the treatment Weber gave ‘rationality’, i.e. treating it as a specific social practice to be observed rather than a metaphysical value to be invoked.

But some evidence points the other way. For example, his last words in “The Civilizing Process” suggest that when human happiness and freedom (as he conceived them) are achieved, “then and only then can humans say of themselves with some justice that they *are* civilized. Until then they are best in the process of becoming civilized.” In “The Symbol Theory” he suggests that we today will, in the future, be remembered as ‘late barbarians’. In “The Germans”, especially in the essay “The Breakdown of Civilization”, he uses the terms “savage” and “barbaric” normatively, not just descriptively or ironically, to express condemnation of violence in everyday life in German society, and especially of Nazi practices. These suggest an Elias for whom the word ‘civilization’ does express a positive normative value.

In “The Civilizing Process”, at the close of Volume 1, Part 1, discussing the self-consciousness of European nations at the close of the 18th century, he seems to slide from saying that they saw themselves as superior to speaking as if they really were superior, e.g.”Indeed, an essential phase of the civilizing process was concluded at exactly the time when the *consciousness* of civilization, the consciousness of the superiority of their own behaviour and its embodiments in science, technology or art began to spread over whole nations of the West.” Even if we read the passage in context, it’s ambiguous to me whether the author does himself endorse the superiority of Western culture.

So my two questions, to repeat, are: did Elias perceive Western civilized societies to be superior to others, and did he regard civilization as intrinsically or necessarily a good thing?

These questions inform work that I am preparing for publication, and I would like to get it right, so I will be very grateful for any insights from other members of this community.

Yours sincerely,

Christopher Powell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology, University of Manitoba
tel: (204) 474-8150 / fax: (204) 261-1216