The good of civilization

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

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2 Responses to The good of civilization

  1. Joop Goudsblom says:

    Dear Christian,

    You raise some important questions. In addressing them I’d like to begin with the second one: Did Elias regard civilization as intrinsically or necessarily a good thing? It leads to closer inspection of the term civilization, which makes it perhaps easier to deal with the first question: Did Elias perceive Western civilized societies to be superior to others?

    Elias wrote his book in the late 1930s, in exile. He knew that European societies were in great trouble, haunted by at least three kinds of tensions: between states, within states, and at the personal level. All these tensions were interrelated, and very difficult to manage. The task that Elias set himself was to first of all come to a better understanding of these tensions, which tended to be experienced and interpreted mostly as more or less separate political, social, or ‘psychological’ phenomena.

    The general heading, the theme, that he eventually chose for his comprehensive sociogenetic and psychogenetic investigations was ‘the process of civilization’. We tend to forget and overlook the polemic thrust of that concept. We can ‘revive’ the polemic thrust by contrasting the title that Elias chose for his book with Ruth Benedict’s then famous and highly successful ‘Patterns of Culture’. The difference was that both the P-word and the C-word in Benedict’s title suggested something static and unchanging, whereas both terms were in Elias’s case dynamic, referring to change.

    In Part One (I refer to the revised edition, published in 2000) Elias discussed the concepts of civilization and culture – a nice example of the sociology of concepts. In doing so he focused the differences and did not say much about the underlying similarities. The two words have much in common, however. They both began their careers as ‘we-concepts’ by means of which people in certain educated upper-middle-class strata asserted their own identity and dignity vis-á-vis both established upper classes on the one hand and lower-middle and lower classes on the other. The differentiation between the two concepts discussed by Elias was rooted in this common ground.

    An aspect of the differentiation process not discussed by Elias is that the term culture has gained general acceptance in the social sciences as a ‘technical’ concept. At the same time, it continues to be used often in a more narrow sense to indicate ‘higher’ culture. For the term ‘civilization’, the associations with things ‘better’ and ‘higher’ still prevail, and may prove to be ineradicable. I have tried several times, for example in the first chapter of my book ‘Fire and Civilization’ to propagate the use of the term ‘civilization’ in a technical sense, but I am afraid this has been of little avail (the fact that English is not my native language is not a great help).

    Still, if we continue in our efforts to ‘cleanse’ the word civilization in a technical sense from its associations with what Cas Wouters aptly calls ‘superiorism’, we can proceeed to make some rather simple observations. We will have to recognize that civilizing processes are universal, as universal as all manifestations of ‘culture’. In fact, technically speaking the two words refer to the same set of phenomena, in respectively a dynamic and a static perspective.

    Now, in discussing ourselves as social beings, whether it be in terms of civilization or culture, we are always confronted with the issue of involvement and detachment. We are all ‘civilized’ in our own way. The very extent to which we may be capable of ‘detachment’ is dependent upon our ‘civilization’ (= the way we are ‘civilized’). So, if we do value sociological insight with a certain measure of detachment, that shows our commitment to certain standards of ‘civilization’.

    We cannot pretend that we are ‘uncivilized’. But we can do our best to scrutinize our own ‘civilization’. And we can do so in a highly ‘detached’ fashion, trying to gain a better understanding by setting aside as best we can our own biases and prejudices. But, again, if we appreciate the pursuit of sociological knowledge, we have to acknowledge our commitment to certain standards of ‘civilization’.

    As Elias intimated in the first sentence of his original essay on Involvement and Detachment, shifts in the balance between these two conditions do not reflect a split personality; such shifts belong to the >> normal state of affairs for every human being. Thus, we all participate in the overall process of civilization, and at the same time, as participants, we can also reflect upon it, and decide, perhaps, what we like and approve, or dislike and disapprove in it.

    So much for your second, most general question: ‘does the term ‘civilization’ convey for Elias a value?’.

    Now the first, more specific question: ‘did he consider Western society to be superior to other societies’? This question keeps recurring. I think it should be dismissed. I think that everyone who raises it should substitute ‘do I’?’ for ‘did he?. The moment you do that, you see what a crude question it is.

    Here again I’d like to refer to my own work, especially to Fire and Civilization. Standing on the shoulders of others, especially Elias, William McNeill and Marvin Harris, I have presented a survey of the process of human civilization, focusing one particular aspect, and showing that there is a clear structure in the process. The domestication of fire, the rise of agriculture, and the rise of modern industry are successive stages in a continuing process. Elias in his great book dealt with one specific episode in this process: the transition from a military-agrarian through a substage that might be designated as military-commercial to a military-industrial society. What I have tried to do was to expand the model developed by Elias for particular strata at a particular stage in the history of ‘the expanding anthroposphere’ as I would now call it, and apply it to human history at large. Using fire as a focus (or a ‘torch’) enabled me to make this task manageable.

    The title of McNeill’s book The Rise of the West clearly points to the episode-like character of the period in human history when ‘the West’ gradually gained ascendency in many respects, not the least of which was military organization and technology. McNeill was clearly aware that western hegemony was a passing phase – as Elias also was as early as the 1930s.

    Finally, I’d like to point to one of the basic principles of ‘phaseology’ (see ‘The Course of Human History’): when the tendencies prevailing at a later stage become dominant, the tendencies prevailing at earlier stages are likely to persist and may even become dominant again. This principle can be applied readily and simply to the – admittedly antiquated – succession of stages postulated by Lewis Henry Morgan: the wild, the barbarian, and the civilized. We are now in a position to state that the ‘wild’ were also ‘civilized’; and that the ‘civilized’ are not ‘unwild’.

    Best wishes,
    Joop Goudsblom

    I just received copies of the May 2006 issue of the journal History and Theory (Vol. 45, No. 2) containing a review article called ‘Civilization:
    The Career of a Controversial Concept’ (pp. 288-97) in which I deal at greater length with some of the problems raised by Chris Powell.

  2. Reinhard Blomert says:


    the revolution, that Elias brought, was the combination of concepts of technical progress (industrialisation and so on, as is included in concepts of “modernisation”) and progress of human behaviour: Civilisation includes the technicalities of lifestyle, but what he found out, was, that there had been a change of behaviour and psyche in the same process, a pacification of aggressive impulses, necessary as a precondition for trade and industry. I am convinced, that civilisation was a high value for Elias, and that the strongest motivation for his work was implemented by the ideal of civilized manners amongst human beings, that means behaviour, which is free of open violence (hidden and transformed violence is included in the concept of “competition” of our societies). One of the reasons for that is his biography: The jews lived best in the pacified civilized space of a constitutional state, as he says in his autobiographical notes. For Elias, as for Freud, state was the solution for the problem of containment of violence, the instrument to overcome anarchy and violence of the stronger against the weaker. This pacified room allows and produces at the same time long chains of action, and long term thinking, which is necessary for societies with a higher and higher degree of division of work. He saw history as a developping spiral of stages, like Vico, from one scale of knowledge to the next, accompanied by parallel steps in the economy of emotions. So he believed, that we will look back on our forbears as barbarians, in the same way, as our grandchildren will look at us as barbarians. The end of the CP book is an obvious parallel to Freud, in his reflections on individual’s happiness by freedom of neurosis and psychotic pain. Societes are measured on the scale of their steps towards civilisation – the French were at the top in his view, and tribal societies are some steps behind, because life is hard there, violent and long term thinking and long chain actions are senseless or merely impossible. But this is said for societies – the individual human being is born with anthropologically equal equipment, and may be educated on the same scale, as individuals from societies of higher civilisational status. Like Freud, he saw the function of the state as disciplinary instrument for pacification of aggressive impulses. But also as a governing unity: higher degree of division of work and longer chains of actions need complex rules and high quality of steering instruments (that cannot be delivered by markets). The state is changing too during that process. But this is an observation, not a consecration of state – he is the detached observer, noting, that in history there is a progress towards civilisation as an ongoing process, a process with ups and downs and backsteps and retardations.

    So Elias’ concept is not “value neutral”, seeing humankind from a technical standpoint, but involves special “values” for human life, but is detached at the same time insofar he tries to show this as a historical process of change of human behaviour. He was optimistic, that humankind can learn, this is the message and his insight in history at the same time. There are a lot of parallels to Weber’s rationalisation process, but his emphasis diverges – it is not rationality, but civilization, as he includes the change of the psyche during that process. His values are open values, not hidden (as in Max Weber’s descriptions behind the seemingly value free concept of “rationality”). His was not Kantian separation of real world and the world of thoughts and science. While we learn more, we do not only accumulate knowledge, but we are more and more able to control nature (also our own nature), was his idea. One has to look at his scientific position not in terms of separable systems (here values, there technical systems), but dialectical, old greek style. His ideal of sociology was not to establish systems, but to destroy myths. He knew, that he was part of the Western culture, and he knew that this culture had developed relatively free (i.e. detached) thought and intellectual life – by delivering pacified space. I think, in spite of the one or other irritating change of style in few parts of his work, on the whole, his argument is clear, he believed in the “good” of Plato, and tried at the same time, to be a detached observer, this was not a contradiction for him,


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