Social Imaginaries

Volume 1, Issue 2, Autumn 2015

Johann P. Arnason
Pages 146-176

Elias and Eisenstadt: The Multiple Meanings of Civilisation

The works of Norbert Elias and Shmuel Eisenstadt represent different versions of civilisational analysis. Elias focused on a long-term transformative process, more precisely on state formation and its ramifications in the course of Western European history, and neither he nor his disciples showed much interest in a broader comparative approach. Eisenstadt defined the civilisational dimension of human societies as a configuration of cultural and institutional patterns; he emphasised the plurality of such formations, but had little to say on the specific processual paths taken by each of them. So far, there has been no significant discussion of ways to bring the two approaches into closer contact. Such attempts can start with a brief examination of the common background in classical sociology: the notion of civilisation adumbrated by Durkheim and Mauss anticipated both Eliasian and Eisenstadtian lines of argument. Drawing on this source, it can then be shown that each of the two authors implicitly poses problems related to key concerns of the other. Elias’s account of the ‘long middle ages’ that gave rise to the early modern European state presupposes the overall civilisational context of Western Christendom as well as specific cultural-institutional shifts within it, especially those of the high middle ages. Eisenstadt’s interpretation of the Axial Age calls for further development through analyses of the historical processes unfolding in the wake of the axial turns.