Radically revised edition of The Symbol Theory

Norbert Elias, The Symbol Theory, edited by Richard Kilminster (Dublin: UCD Press, 2011 [Collected Works, vol. 13]). xxvi + 193 pp. ISBN: 978-1-906359-10-2. €60.00 [for 20 per cent discount, order online direct from the publisher: www.ucdpress.ie.]

This – the last book Elias completed before his death – is the thirteenth volume of the Collected Works to be published, and also volume 13 of the series. It contains much that is new. Elias wrote it when he was already effectively blind, and the dictated text was not easy to follow. Now Richard Kilminster has made the numbered sections into separate chapters and given each of them a thematic title – which, at a stroke, makes apparent the overall architecture of a remarkable book.

The Symbol Theory situates the human capacity for forming symbols in the long-term biological evolution of Homo sapiens, showing how it is linked through communication and orientation to group survival. Elias proceeds to recast the question of the ontological status of knowledge, moving beyond the old philosophical dualisms of idealism/materialism and subject/object. He readjusts the boundary between the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ by interweaving evolutionary biology and the social sciences. The Symbol Theory provides nothing less than a new image of the human condition as an accidental outcome of the blind flux of an indifferent cosmos.

Elias was still dictating a new Introduction to the book over the weekend before he died (on Wednesday 1 August 1990). It was published in an incomplete version. Now, however, it has proved possible to retrieve from ‘floppy disks’ the last parts he wrote – indeed the last academic statements of his life – and incorporate them into a trenchant new version of the Introduction. Among other things, he makes passing remarks about his friend Pierre Bourdieu and, of special interest, launches a devastating critique of Jacques Derrida.

Finally, in the course of reconstructing the Introduction, Kilminster gleaned information from two of his last student assistants, Mieke van Stigt and Willem Kranendonk, about Elias’s way of working in the last phase of his life. He dictated to an ever-changing team of assistants, who had to read back to him whatever the last passages were, whereupon Elias would begin dictating again. Sometimes the assistants were not always sure for which of several ongoing projects the new text was intended! This new evidence goes a long way to explaining why some of Elias’s very last work can seem rambling and repetitive. But the new edition of The Symbol Theory makes clear that this is a misleading impression: Elias’s intellect remained keen and sharply focused until the very end.

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