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  • Conceptions of Civil Society
  • Susan Shell (bio)
The Idea of Civil Society. By Adam B. Seligman. The Free Press, 1992. 220 pp.
Civil Society and Political Theory. By Jean L. Cohen and Andrew Arato. MIT Press, 1992. 800 pp.

In recent years, both democratic activists and students of transitions to democracy have made extensive use of the term "civil society." While there may be at least rough agreement in these quarters as to the meaning of this term, the concept of civil society remains a matter of much dispute among scholars of political theory and of the history of ideas. This is evident in the two books under review, which take what are in many ways contrasting approaches.

Adam Seligman characterizes his attractively synoptic Idea of Civil Society as an exercise in the "sociology of knowledge" that looks to the historical roots of the concept. His general thesis is that the original eighteenth-century idea of civil society presupposed a peculiar religious climate that muted the natural tension between public and private interests. Cut loose from this specific political and religious context, the concept has subsequently taken on new meanings, but at the price of losing its initial coherence.

Such considerations make Seligman somewhat dubious about the utility of the concept of civil society for elucidating recent developments in Eastern Europe, despite a widespread temptation to regard them as a historical reenactment of the eighteenth-century emergence in Western Europe of "an autonomous, self-regulating domain independent of the State." For all its popularity as a theme of international conferences and [End Page 124] journal articles, Seligman argues, the concept of civil society as currently employed lacks a "revelatory dimension," and is thus, "metaphorically speaking, truncated." As a result, its value in today's debates about Eastern Europe is "tactical" rather than substantive (pp. 7-8).

Building his analysis principally on the thought of Max Weber, Seligman traces the success of civil society as it originally emerged to a delicate balance between Reason and Revelation. What has destroyed this balance is the erosion of civil society's affective basis—grounded in "ascetic Protestantism"—by an increasing emphasis on reason and individual autonomy (to which, ironically, ascetic Protestantism contributed both directly and indirectly). Seligman's analysis of the role of Kant here is especially helpful.

The upshot is a "Janus-faced" rationalization of the world which (paradoxically) deprives universal values of their former "charisma" (p. 128). More specifically, Seligman posits a growing tension between rationality as a Kantian moral norm and rationality as what Jiirgen Habermas calls an "intercommunicative process." The more the claims of universal citizenship expand, the more individuals confront one another principally as autonomous members of an abstract community of self-seeking individuals.

What follows, according to the author, is the effective disappearance of any genuine civic sphere, and with it, the affective "mutuality" encompassed by the original idea of civil society. In Tocqueville's words (as quoted by Seligman), each "is close to [his fellow citizens] but sees them not; . . . and if his kindred still remain to him, he may be said at any rate to have lost his country." At the same time, private and often trivial concerns (such as the issue of smoking in restaurants) are projected into a quasi-public realm, where—precisely because the private individual constitutes "the universal category of the ethical"—they serve to represent an increasingly hollow social whole (p. 140). Given the current "apotheosis of the particular" and attendant "refusal to articulate a universal standard of the good," it is, he concludes, increasingly difficult to represent society at all (p. 143).

Seligman turns in his final chapter to a brief consideration of civic existence as experienced in three cities—Jerusalem, Budapest, and Los Angeles. Between the United States, where citizens encounter one another as respectful but impersonal equals, and Hungary, where citizens encounter one another either as fellow tribesmen or as strangers, Israel marks out an awkward but revealing middle road.

All in all, this is a helpful and insightful book, not least for its measured pessimism concerning prospects for the (re)construction of civil society. To be sure, a number of readers—especially those who question Weber's...


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pp. 124-128
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