Edward Shils on pluralism and civility

in The calling of social thought
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One place where Edward Shils’ writings remain prominent and particularly salient today is in contemporary debates over the concept of civility. Shils has recently been characterized as a ‘civilitarian’ for his emphasis on the importance of civility in modern society. While some participants invoke Shils’ work affirmatively, critics fear that appeals to civility serve as a mask for exclusion, repression, or the hegemony of traditional religious values. This chapter critically examines this particular rendition of Shils’ notion of civility, taking issue both with the characterization of his views of civility as well as the contention that civility is necessarily ‘conservative’, repressive, or inimical to a modern pluralistic society. Upon closer examination, I will suggest, Shils’ emphasis on civility represents a prescient acknowledgment of civility as the virtue uniquely congenial to complex, diverse, and pluralistic societies where citizens can no longer be expected to share substantive ends or purposes: a fundamentally liberal disposition borne of modern social conditions and well suited to maximizing the freedoms afforded to liberal citizens.

The calling of social thought

Rediscovering the work of Edward Shils

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