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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 Elias' Introduction now includes previously unpublished passages written in the days before he died.
Norbert Elias (1897-1990)
Note on the text
Towards a comprehensive understanding of human beings
- reconfiguring sociology, evolutionary biology and philosophy
Languages as learned sound patterns and symbols as the 'fifth dimension'
'Symbol emancipation' as an evolutionary breakthrough
The high survival value of communication by learned sound-symbols
To speak, to think, to know
- the sociogenesis and psychogenesis of reality-congruent symbols
Human society as a level of nature
- beyond idealism and materialism
From 'truth' to reality congruence
- beyond traditional philosophical theories of knowledge
Concept-formation in the 'five-dimensional' human world
- beyond abstraction explanations
The distant past and the long future
- reality-congruent knowledge and human survival
- Previously unpublished passages in Elias's Introduction