The writings of Edward Shils have been widely neglected in contemporary sociology. One major reason for this neglect is due to the contradictory receptions of his ideas. There have been two dominant lines of interpretation—the functionalist as well as the practice-theoretical paradigm of understanding of Shils’ writings—and they are not consistent with each other. Therefore, a more comprehensive understanding of Shils’ thinking needs to take into account his close attachment to the University of Chicago and to some of its pragmatist traditions. The suggestion in this paper is that we should read Shils from a standpoint which is called a human scientific approach. Thus, placing Shils in the context of contemporary social theory and moral philosophy reveals similarities to what has been called ‘sacralisation’ and ‘affirmative genealogy’.
The meaning of Shils
The concept of ideology played an important role in the thinking of Edward Shils. He established his reputation on the basis of his translation of Karl Mannheim’s Ideologie und Utopie and he later refined Mannheim’s concept. While Shils always acknowledged his debt to Mannheim, he ensured that his concept was divorced from the Marxist leanings that he believed marred Mannheim’s work. Throughout the nineteen fifties and sixties, Shils returned to the concept of ideology and contributed not only to the discussion about its impact but he entered into the debate regarding the “end of ideology.” Shils continued to discuss the conception of ideology as late as the nineteen seventies. Shils clearly recognized the political importance and impact of ideology but he always examined it from a scholarly point of view.
This chapter traces Shils' distinctive conception of the intellectual—as indispensable to, but all too often an opponent of, social order. Shils’ aversion to intellectual disloyalty was a constant throughout his adult life, though his speciﬁcally ‘Shilsian’ take on the intellectual and his society would only cohere, in a sophisticated, original, and consistent way, in the late 1950s. The chapter reconstructs Shils encounter with the downcast intellectual, first as a precocious reader of Gustave Flaubert, Hippolyte Taine, and, above all, Georges Sorel. It was Sorel’s chiliastic politics of heroic violence which, in its purist clarity, helped disclose the transcendent moral impulse that, to varying degrees, leads intellectuals to judge their societies harshly. When, after World War II, the moral ideal seemed spent even within socialist movements, Shils observed its traces in the complaints of ex-radicals. Society’s loose consensus depends on public belief, he argued, which in turn depends on the social picture put forward by intellectuals. These ‘persons with an unusual sensitivity to the sacred’ could help support the fragile achievements of civil politics, but Shils was not optimistic.
Michael Oakeshott and Edward Shils are thinkers similar in many respects. They both belonged to the intellectual current of the post-war anti-totalitarianism that was characterised by the opposition to the idea of regulating society by planning, by the rejection of ideological politics, and by the perception of similarity, if not identity, between the left-wing and right-wing radicalisms. They both occupied the conservative-liberal slot within the broad anti-totalitarian spectrum, combining their adherence to freedom and minimal state with their deep appreciation of tradition. At the same time, their different intellectual temperaments led them to opposite directions. Beneath Oakeshott’s apparent conservatism one often discovers an emancipatory and optimistic disposition grounded in his Romantic appreciation of radical individuality. Shils’ respectable liberalism, by contrast, often results in cultural pessimism and social conservatism.
Lenore T. Ealy
Scholars have increasingly conceptualized American civil society as a realm of mediating structures that humanize our lives by shielding us from the power of society’s megastructures (whether the State or multinational corporations). This focus on structural position and the work of “mediation” has tended to crowd out an alternative exploration of the family, faith communities, clubs, and voluntary associations rooted in an exploration of their custodial and creative functions in relationship to the traditions through which American society persists. This chapter draws upon Edward Shils’ seminal work, Tradition, to argue that the essential function of these social institutions is to renew the patterns of belief and conduct that guide human action and enable the re-enactment of such patterns across generations. It highlights the importance of Shils’ understanding of the intrinsic value and authority of traditionality in light of the ultimate frailty and insufficiency of rationality by itself in enabling human beings to solve the important problems that confront them individually and as participants in a shared culture.
The work of Edward Shils is replete with a number of rich anthropological insights that amount to a philosophy of life. His analysis of the different, heterogeneous orientations of the human mind, and the implications of that analysis, represent a philosophical anthropology. It may be that the most productive way to understand the wide-ranging corpus of his writings, including his understanding of the calling of sociology and the purpose of the university, is to approach them from the perspective of the principled pluralism of his philosophical anthropology.
This chapter explores Shils’ original and highly nuanced treatment of the concepts of ‘nationality’, ‘nationalism’, and ‘civil society’. In particular, the chapter argues that Shils distinguishes between ‘nationality’ (which he seems to use as a synonym for ‘national self-consciousness’) and ‘nationalism’, which he identifies as an ideology. In this taxonomy, ‘nationality’ is a basic almost primordial force that provides the foundation for civil society and, ultimately, individual liberty. In this respect, nationality is a positive, or at the very least neutral, force. Shils portrays the ideology of nationalism, on the other hand, as highly dangerous. To put it simply, while regarding nationality as essential for civil society, Shils suggested that nationalism is in fact a danger to it. The chapter goes on to situate Shils’s theories of nations and nationalism with in the broader scholarly debate on these subjects. In the process, it examines Shils’s ideas concerning the relative antiquity of nations and the historical specifics about the origins of nationalism.
Discovering and rediscovering Shils
Stephen P. Turner
Edward Shils was a complex thinker and complex individual, who was both a central figure of his time and a theorist with an unusual perspective. This chapter describes his career and discusses the various paradoxical aspects of his personality and his thought, and explains its lack of closure. The chapter then discusses the common dismissal of Shils as a Cold War scholar, and explains the nature of his response to Communism and his activities against it. The rest of the chapter introduces the chapters in this volume, and through this provides an overview of his thought.
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 terms of engagement
This essay examines the thirty-year personal and intellectual friendship of Edward Shils and Michael Polanyi. Shils identifies Polanyi as one of his three important mentors; he is aware of and often involved in many Polanyi projects after the mid-forties and absorbs elements of Polanyi’s developing post-critical philosophical perspective. Shils helped Polanyi better understand the social sciences and he was a trusted friend whose scholarly writing apparently inspired Polanyi; Shils was also a capable younger figure on whom Polanyi often relied to organize endeavours such as Polanyi’s long term affiliation with the University of Chicago.