Norbert Elias and Modern Social Theory (Theory, Culture & Society)

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  1. Theory, Culture & Society
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  3. Climbing the verculpprosos.tk the Progress of Society and Science in Norbert Elias’s Theory | IWM
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Return to Book Page. Offering a fascinating survey of Elias's life and writings, Dennis Smith traces the growth of his reputation. He also illustrates how Elias's insights can be applied to understand Western modernity and social and political cha Offering a fascinating survey of Elias's life and writings, Dennis Smith traces the growth of his reputation.

He also illustrates how Elias's insights can be applied to understand Western modernity and social and political change. Smith shows why Elias is important for sociology, but he is also clear sighted about the limitations of Elias's approach. Get A Copy. Hardcover , pages. More Details Original Title.

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Theory, Culture & Society

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Knowledge, Interdependence, Power, Process

Sort order. John rated it really liked it Feb 07, Barbara rated it really liked it Oct 15, Miguel Somoza marked it as to-read Oct 23, Thijs Den braven marked it as to-read Oct 20, At the same time, the level of civilization is rising. Progress in this sense is only possible as long as we remember the lengths we have already covered and problematized in our thinking.

It is very likely that the postmodern condition may not exist without reflexivity, but it does not follow logically that in every other epoch before our own reflexivity was absent or drastically limited to a margin of intellectual deviation. Nevertheless, Elias would not reserve reflexivity for any social group, although he does see a certain advantage to science as a carrier of reflexivity.

This lies in his concept of detachment. In the social sciences, it is sometimes taken for granted that the notion of truth perceived as adequacy of image and reality may only coexist with a strictly positivist theory of cognition and philosophy of science, whereas any element of constructivism automatically deprives the notion of truth of its normative effect and hence of any productivity. The very use of the metaphor of climbing the tower proves that Elias would not have accepted this false and simplistic axiom. A true image of reality is produced in an effort of collective reflective assessment of formerly held beliefs, reproducing them in linguistic communication and gradually eliminating fantastic notions as more reality-congruent data make themselves available.

However, Elias does not project this eliminative process as a finitist scheme in which humanity gradually reaches the level of pure or unsituated knowledge.

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On the contrary, as long as people live within social figurations, such unsituated knowledge is not attainable [22]. However, considering the issue of situated knowledge it is difficult to avoid the problem of truth. Thus, the truth status of socially situated knowledge and the function of the category of truth become a mere derivate of the share of fantasy in the body of knowledge put to analysis.

On the other hand, however, Elias is not led to conclude that truth is a useless category in any descriptive sense. Both are to be found in every kind of knowledge, not only in science [24]. The relationship between the two is similar to the one described earlier by Max Weber between the ethic of responsibility and the ethic of ultimate ends or: of convictions , although Elias would most probably perceive this distinction as too static and, as a consequence, inadequate [25].

Climbing the verculpprosos.tk the Progress of Society and Science in Norbert Elias’s Theory | IWM

Involvement is typical of everyday attitude and comprises an element of emotional attachment which gives knowledge as such a subjective turn and makes it prone to representing reality in a mythical fantastic way [26]. An involved believer is not willing to abandon his or her beliefs on any testimony, including the proof of their falsity, as it is not truth that sustains such beliefs, but the strength of emotions, habits and personal engagement resulting from the figurational position of an individual and the historical situatedness of his or her worldview.

That is the point of affinity to the Weberian ethic of ultimate ends insofar as the person concerned will act on his or her beliefs regardless of any reasoning to the contrary. Understandably enough, a certain degree of involvement is indispensible in everyday life in order to provide both the motivation and the automatism necessary to proceed with current affairs without excessive doubt and in a reliable manner. However, it also follows that involvement is a quality whose intensity may vary from very high to very low, nearing zero.

A maximum level of involvement would equal fanaticism — the zero level would be a Kelvin zero of human action. Neither of these extremes is attainable in normal social conditions [27].


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Such a zero point would be the point of absolute detachment. Detachment is a condition of effective striving for the truth and, at the same time, of reflexivity applied to previous states of knowledge [28]. This freedom from undue attachment to the current state of knowledge makes it possible to proceed from one phase of development to another, more advanced and comprehensive, with a conscience of contingency of both the outset and the point of arrival.

This attitude is, of course, akin to the Weberian sense of limitation — or, to put it in a non-Weberian way, irony — inherent in the ethic of responsibility. Such a right balance allows the scientific community to climb the stairs of development. Modern science is not a domain of fully detached knowledge, but it operates concepts which are highly detached and reality congruent in the sense of being reliable in both reasoning and practice [30].

The climb consists in increasing this reality congruence, which of course means that the members of the scientific community must learn to control their natural proclivity to become involved in certain beliefs and to form involved, fantastic concepts instead of seeking the truth. In this point, the overall progress of humanity and the development of science converge: there is a correlation between the increase in human knowledge and in the standards of control of behavior in society.

On this level, the correspondence between social and scientific improvement is established in a novel way, independent of old evolutionary or Enlightenment progressivist schemes, even though sharing some of their optimism.

1.7 The Sociological Theoretical Field

Climbing up the stairs in order to reach a broader and more comprehensive view I have thus interpreted as progress towards a fuller control over human behavior. In social life in general, it is carried out by means of reflexivity and gradually putting the previous states of knowledge in perspective. Social science is largely responsible for accomplishing this task, as it is a specialized agent of reflexivity. Science in turn may not discharge its social responsibility satisfactorily unless it reaches a sufficient level of detachment, which is a precondition of all reflexivity.


  • A steep way up.
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  • People do not necessarily become wiser as they become more self-controlled and reflective, as they know more and fantasize less. They just happen to get more reliable in the sense of their actions being easier to foresee and to coordinate. It may well be that it leads to a normative idea of a society liberated from all ideology, and exclusively based on the scientifically established rules of properly human social relationships [31].

    Be that as it may, the fact that coordination of behavior is rising alongside with the level of civilization is the reason why the higher the floor of the tower humanity is climbing, the easier we find it to form more complex, larger and internally interdependent figurations encompassing more integration levels and subtler power balances. The prerequisite to all these are the constraints imposed on individual emotions and behavior. This increase in the level of control does not make people better in any sense — it only makes them less directly violent, more prone to sublimation in the Freudian sense and easier to dominate.

    Indeed, his position as a classic of sociological thought is a very special one. In him, we truly find the case of a single man trying to reconstruct the whole tradition as he goes along and becoming part of that tradition and at the same time one of its most ardent critics, his stance of an outsider gradually shifting into the status of a holy relic. However, it is fair to say that these aspects of his thought are grossly underestimated, as much as the classical roots of sociology of knowledge in general [32]. Every effort in science may be perceived as a step be it an attempted or successful one on our way up the stairs.

    Nevertheless, we do not know what is to be found on the top of the tower — if the top is at all there. It is possible, after all, that we find the happiness of humanity as a final product of our collective progress.

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    Even if we do not, it does not change our destiny, neither as humans nor as scientists, as in any case — and this seems to be the ultimate creed of Elias — it is better to know more than to know less; for it is certainly desirable to get as close as possible to the truth about external reality and the human condition. She graduated in sociology and philosophy at the College for Interdisciplinary Individual Studies in the Humanities of the University of Warsaw and in law at the same University.

    She obtained her Ph. Her research focus is the history of sociological ideas, philosophy of politics and sociology of knowledge. Revue des Sciences Humaines et Sociales , vol. Marody, Miros? Janusz Stawi? Studien zur Entstehung und Wirkungsgeschichte seines Werkes , ed. Edmund Jephcott, Oxford: Blackwell, This article may not be reprinted or redistributed for commercial use without prior written permission from the author.

    In: Social Transformations in Theory and Practice, ed. Search for:. Fellowship Programs Open Calls. Audio Files. Climbing the Stairs. A steep way up Norbert Elias was one of the first sociologists ever to remark on the uselessness of hypostasizing artificial conceptual distinctions, which was typical of positivist sociology and its abstractly empirical branch [11]. Climbing the tower as a metaphor of progressing humanity Apart from applying the climbing metaphor to the progress of science, we may reflect on the broader possibilities of its interpretation, which are to a large extent rendered suspicious by the developments in 20th-century humanities and social sciences.


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    • Development of knowledge: between involvement and detachment In the social sciences, it is sometimes taken for granted that the notion of truth perceived as adequacy of image and reality may only coexist with a strictly positivist theory of cognition and philosophy of science, whereas any element of constructivism automatically deprives the notion of truth of its normative effect and hence of any productivity. Conclusion — towards a more self-possessed humanity Climbing up the stairs in order to reach a broader and more comprehensive view I have thus interpreted as progress towards a fuller control over human behavior.

      Notes: 1. Ibidem, 49ff. Ibidem, All rights reserved. Powered by WordPress.