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The Symbol Theory

Norbert Elias (author)
Richard Kilminster (editor)
Publication date:
5th September 2011

Author Biography

NORBERT ELIAS (1897-1990) was one of the greatest sociologists of the twentieth century. He studied in Breslau and Heidelberg and served as Karl Mannheim's assistant in Frankfurt. In exile after 1933, first in France and then in Britain, he wrote his magnum opus The Civilizing Process. At its ill-timed publication in 1939, it received little note. Only after his formal retirement in 1962 was the book reissued in German and translated into many other languages. That, and a flood of other books and essays, made him an international intellectual celebrity towards the end of his long life. His whole oeuvre is now appearing in new scholarly editions in the Collected Works in English. RICHARD KILMINSTER is an Honorary Research Fellow in Sociology at the University of Leeds.


"The Symbol Theory, volume 13 in "The Collected Works of Norbert Elias", 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 Elias' Introduction now includes previously unpublished passages written in the days before he died.