Sincronía Spring 2003

George Steiner, Lord Acton, and Anthony Giddens On The Conditions for the Emergence of Modern Sociology

Kafkazli Seyed Javad
University of Bristol


Abstract: The emergence of modern sociology or the birth of modern cosmology in defining the boundaries of being within the paradigm of science has been one of the most cumbersome problems in historiography and philosophy. In this article the emergence of sociology is not only under investigation but the assumptions of modern ‘conditions’ for the emergence of modern cosmology as it appears within social philosophy and secular thought are assessed and the contemporary cul-de-sac is termed in relation to monological civilizational model and instead the dialogical paradigm is suggested.


Tragoidia or Tragedy is a constitutive part of life, says George Steiner. All men are aware of tragedy in life. But tragedy as a form of drama is not universal. Oriental art knows violence, grief, and the stroke of natural or contrived disaster; the Japanese theatre, he says, is full of ferocity and ceremonial death. But that representation of personal suffering and heroism, which we call tragic drama, is distinctive of the western tradition. It, Steiner helds, has become so much a part of our sense of the possibilities of human conduct, the Oresteia, Hamlet, and Phedre are so ingrained in our habits of spirit, that we forget what a strange and complex idea it is to re-enact private anguish on a public stage. This idea and the vision of man, which it implies, are Greek. And nearly till the moment of their decline, Steiner argues, the tragic forms are Hellenic. (1961. 3)

In his view, tragedy is alien to the Judaic sense of the world. It is not far-fetched to extend this conclusion to cover what one calls the Abrahamitic Tradition: Judaeo-Christian-Islamico-Tradition. Steiner's view on Tragedy has a significant point to offer when his is connected to the view offered by Lord Acton at Cambridge in 1895.Steiner's view is an attempt to 'mark off' the interior life of European Man in contrast to the Restern World. There is something in Hellenic World (and the true heir of this heritage, i.e. Europe) that marks off its substantial sense of being in contrast to others. This sense of being different in ontological and existential terms has its equivalence in other levels of abstraction too.

In his inaugural lecture delivered at Cambridge in 1895, Lord Acton expressed the conviction (that in one way or other resembles this Steinerian feeling of being and sensing unique) that there is an evident and intellectually discernible line which 'marks off' the modern age in Europe from that which preceded it. What one chronologically conceptualizes as modern-premodern or modern versus non-modern are not simple matters of one era replaces the other or one geographical space versus the other. Modernity is an ontological claim. As Lord Acton argues, the modern epoch did not succeed the medieval era by gradual pace. The issue is far from this simple construction. How was that succession and what does this narrative to do with our historiographical problem?

Unheralded, Acton argues, it founded a new order of things, under a law of innovation, sapping the ancient reign of continuity. In those days Columbus subverted the notions of the world, and reversed the conditions of production, wealth, and power; in those days Machiavelli released government from the restraint of law; Erasmus diverted the current of ancient learning from profane into Christian channels; Luther broke the chain of authority and tradition at the strongest link; and Copernicus erected an invincible power that set for ever the mark of progress upon the time that was to come. It was, he helds, an awakening of new life; the world revolved in a different orbit, determined by influences unknown before. (Acton,1960. 19)

Steiner took the inner dimension of man as his point of departure and found in Argos the foundations of this unique way of expressing Man's tragic being- that was inherited by Europe in contrast to the Oriental mode of expression. Lord Acton, in turn, externalizes this inner dimension and periodicizes its external historicity and spatiality in Portugal, Italy, Holland, Germany and Poland. Both Steiner and Lord Acton view the process of civilization, either in spiritual terms or material sense in a monological frame of reference. If Lord Acton denied the intercivilizationality as a valid conceptual category or Steiner deprived the oriental Japanese from a Hellenic sense of expressing tragedy, one would not be surprised or disheartened. Because the latter, in describing the inner poetical language of human spirit overlooked the significant point that Sumero-Akkadian epics such as Gilgamesh had important influence on the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey. What Steiner calls the birth of Tragedy in Greece is another version of monological civilizationalism that disregards how much the Greeks owed to the Semitic nations of the East in general and Sumero-Akkadian in particular. As a matter of fact Odysseus' descent into Hades, in particular, may owe much to Eastern models, and although the Queen of the Underworld is called Persephone by Homer, Greek documents have been found with magical recipes in which she is called just like in the Sumerian myth, i.e. Ereshkigal. (Walter Burkert, 1992) Now to the former one, Lord Acton who provided the historico-theoretical stage for Anthony Giddens in depicting the '' ... conditions for the emergence of sociology'' (Giddens,1971. xi). In fact, if he did not bother to connect his theoretical formulation of sociology's historiography to Lord Acton, we would not get into any discussion on either Akkadian or Summerian. However, Giddens reliance in terms of historiography on Acton's monological view in civilizational terms would lead us to a very interesting point.

What Lord Acton described as an '' ... awakening of new life'' (Acton, 1960. 19) at best could be termed as an excellent story. As in all forms of narration, one should not be concerned with either falsity or the truth of this story. In narrative mode, questions are different and modes of judgment are quite distinct. Lord Acton told a good story that captivated the scope of historical imagination of Giddens. However, it should be noted that Lord Acton too disregarded the importance and the substantial significance of Muslim Civilization in the Heart of Christian European mode of thinking, i.e. in theology: the highest form of established knowledge during the Middle Ages. Lord Acton mentions Luther whom, in his view, '' ... broke the chain of authority and tradition at the strongest link'' (1960. 19) but he fails to notice that Luther was for a long time in intense debate with Islamic theology and philosophy. (Francis Nigel Lee, 2000) As a matter of fact, Lord Acton disregards the significance of Calvin- who's ethical view on life in Weberian frame of sociology of religion gave rise to the 'spirit of capitalism'- who too was in intense debate with the ghost of Islamic thought. (Francis Nigel Lee,2000)

Historiography and The Story of Modernity Revisited

Why is of significance to look at Steiner and Lord Acton in relation to historiography? The former takes the '' ... idea and vision of man'' (1961. 3) in monological-civilizational terms; and the latter narrates the history of pre-modernity that would set the stage of history of modernity (where sociology in Giddens' terms emerge) again in monological-civilizational terms. The problem would turn more urgent when one connects this Steinerian-Actonian-Giddensian frame of setting the scene to 'the promise of sociology' as a sociological category. As mentioned earlier, Alvin Gouldner in 1970 published his book on the Crisis of western Sociology. One year later, Giddens published his book Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: an analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim and Max Weber (1971) where he set as his aim to reconcile the various camps of sociology into one single frame of debate rather than Marxist sociology versus bourgeois sociology. Indeed, in the same decade, John Urry surprisingly noted that if '' ... Western Sociology is to be saved from its continuing crisis, Anthony Giddens may be the author to achieve it'' (John Urry,1977. 911).

Giddens and The route to 'Salvation from the Crisis'?

When it comes to Giddens who in the eyes of John Urry might '' ... be the author to achieve'' (Bob Mullan, 1987. 4) in rescuing the western sociology from its continuing crisis, one should pause and investigate how is this 'rescue mission' possible? Or is it possible in the hands of Giddens whose frame of historical vision is Actonian in character and Steinerian in spirit? To put it differently what are the main theses of Giddens historical vision? Or what is the scope of his theoretical investigation? Is he working within monological civilizational frame of reference or is his inter-civilizationally informed?

Could man think what his imagination has not yet captured? Could sociology be relevant or valid as an intellectual enterprise if its historical imagination is fixed on one single image? Above, I mentioned Lord Acton who set the boundaries of human dynamism in Portugal, Italy, Holland, Germany and Poland which gave rise to 'an awakening of new life'; and therefrom came a rebirth of Europe which took us, in Giddens' view, to the era of sociology. (Giddens,1971. xi) Therefrom Giddens takes us to a hermeneutic journey in explicating Marx', Weber's, and Durkheim's ideas without assigning any particular significance to the connection between their respective ideas and the role of 'personality'. (1971. viii) In order to open up this sophisticatedly packed historiographical black box; we need to resort to the domain of metaphors.

Imagine Giddens standing on a stage. The foundations and ornamental parts of this stage is what he explicitly relates to Lord Acton and the ideational dimension of what makes this collection to be perceptively tangible is provided by Steiner (who tells the interior story of European Man via the concept of Tragedy). What all these add up to? Isn't this what one calls the idea of Europe? Most accounts on what Europe are obviously what European intellectuals say it is: it is unique and dynamic and is the heir of Greaco-Roman Civilizations but Judeao-Christian in spirit.

The name to begin with: that most Western (hence in terms of civilizational logic monologically conceptualized) of all words, Europe, is a gift from the Akkadian civilization in ancient Mesopotamia (now Iraq) from about 3000 B.C. until the time of Christ. (S. N. Kramer,1963) What is the meaning of this most of all dear concept that envelops a universe of discourses larger than the Real Universe? It comes from the Akkadian world 'erebu' which means twilight or sunset. (Vaclav Havel,1996)98 In other words, the very emergence of Europe as a linguistic possibility owes its existence to other civilizations: inter-civilizationality. Europe, in Vaclav Havel's view, has three essential meanings. The third meaning of Europe which represents a common destiny, a common complex history and in one word the notion of civilizational unit is what makes the first meaning, i.e. the geographical changeable reality (due to wars, ideological orientation and etc.) coherent and viable and might be the source of inspiration of the second meaning: an economic entity. (Vaclav Havel,1996) The stage prepared by Lord Acton and adopted by Giddens is a Europe that in Vaclav Havel's classification of Europe is an entity that shows relatively little concern for the challenge of rising above the everyday striving and undertake a profound self-examination in terms of intercivilizationality. This second meaning of Europe (and its adoption by historians, sociologists and narrators of the soul's anguish cry a la Steiner) is an omission of the inter-civilizational idea of Europe that it has borne on its forehead since Akkadian left the stage. This omission of true idea of Europe, which has been omitted by the proponents of second meaning of Europe, brings us to Gandhi when asked about 'Western Civilization'? In respond, Gandhi replied: it is a good idea. If Europe as an idea is not realized yet, then how can one write the history of Mankind in European terms? How can one imagine a historiography of global sociology that relies on unrealized European idea of itself? If the idea of Europe is based on inter-civilizationality but its history is written in mono-civilizational terms, then what is the value of a sociology that relies on such historiography? In other words, what would be a Giddensian sociological historiography and the exposition of Central Sociological Ideas? Would a sociology that operates within monological frame of thought (and its historiography is deeply entangled in mono-civilizationality) rescue a Humankind that is best understood in multipolar and multicultural terms?

Giddens' work rests on two major theses: one that I call Nisbetian Golden Age-Thesis (based on a historical imagination that does not stretch more than seventy years) 1830-1900, and the second is Abelian Foundation-Thesis (that works with a short-term historical memory) 1895-1920. We have in Giddens three couple of dyad generations that are comprised of Comte-Tocqueville, Spencer-Marx, and Durkheim-Weber. (Giddens,1971. vii) However, in a presentist manner of historiographical mode of narrative, Giddens opts for the triumvirate construction of contemporary sociology: Marx-Durkheim-Weber trilogy. In re-viewing Giddens' work four issues are of overall importance for his theoretic-historical frame of analysis:

a) The cultural specificity of existentially-ontologically-loaded concepts that make the epistemological edifice of sociology to stand in the first place. (1971. viii)

b) The relevance of personality as an analytical category in assessing a theory. (1971. viii)

c) The shortcomings of current philosophy of science and social sciences in distinguishing the scientificity of our theories. (1971. x)

d) The importance of keeping the lines between sociology (which is not as empirical as most people think it is) and social philosophy clear (even it is hard to draw). (1971. x)

These points are Giddensian signposts in the road towards re-discovery of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. Earlier I have discussed the frame of his historico-theoretical 'Stage' by investigating the background issues that make his notion of sociology susceptible to monologically self-constructing theories in civilizatory terms. However, here, I would like to assess these above-mentioned points that taken together would demonstrate how immature Urry's verdict is in regard to the crisis of Western sociology and the theorists who could accomplish such a rescue mission.

Conceptual Mechanism or The poesy of Impregnation of Meaning?

Concepts are the results of instances of naked confrontation with poetical dimension of being. As each person confronts his/her own ontological poesy at distinct state of mind and level of abstraction, then each culture is doomed to do the same. The results of these various individual and collective confrontations and abstractions are crystallized in concepts. The very word 'concept' is a poetical expression taken from the brute fact of human life in rendering a highly poetical and existential form of feeling that occurs in mind; like pregnancy. Commonly is admitted that a concept is an idea conveyed by a term. It is an image. The very playground of life serves as an arsenal of metaphors in relation to construction of concepts. In the very moment of conveyance from an idea to a term, the life (social life with all its variety and multiplication) provides the necessary means to perform this transformation. The major misunderstandings occur when the act of conveyance is performed and sealed and has already become a fact of socio-historical life. Most of sociological efforts have been directed at the 'terms' and the 'conveyances'. Maybe this is one of the meaning of being 'Logical Human'; i.e. an animal that speaks. Maybe there are domains that one could best say while silent.

However, sociology is not performed in that silent state of mind, on the contrary it claims to be done with forceful logical (in both sense of the term: reasonable and spoken) sobriety. That means, in sociology, we are confronted with concepts when they are shaped in terms. In one sense, that would imply the loss of poesy and neglect of universal poetical state of humanity. On the other hand, it would mean an endless discussion on how to pin down the accurate meaning of each concept and the collection of concepts demonstrated in each lingual-cultural unit. This problem would lead us to ask in what state of mind is the social theory made? What is the significance of 'Consciousness' as a conceptual category for the making of social theory? And if, one admits that consciousness have more than one layer, then what would be the state of social theory in relation to this complex? If one assumes as Muslim Poet-philosopher Farid al-Din Attar (1142-1220) does that there are at least seven valleys (or layers) of awareness and consciousness (C.S. Nott,1971), then Giddens' attempt in minimizing the role of poetical aspects in sociology is question-begging.

In 'Capitalism and modern social theory', Giddens opens a discussion regarding the importance of 'cultural specificity' in social theory. He admits that there are difficulties concerning the rendition of '' ... culturally specific German or French terms into English'' (1971. viii). He holds that terms '' ... such as Geist or representation collective'' (1971. viii) express something more than phrasological problem. However, he surprisingly does not elaborate on the distinction between 'concept' and 'term' and gloss over the complexities in this regard. Moreover, Giddens' conventional approach to the problem of concepts (that he calls terms alone) would bring to mind an important question which is related to the social history of England, France, and Germany. Giddens holds that terms such as Geist or representation collective have no satisfactory English equivalents and the reason for this inequivalency is more than an accidental linguistic misfortune. He argues (1971. viii) that these phraseological issues have intimate connections with '' ... differences in social development between Britain, Germany and France'' (1971. viii). But the problem here is Giddens' approach to this problematique. He wishes to deal with these issues in an exegetical mode, which cannot confront the various meta-theoretical problems involved in this equation.

Imagine; if these three nations did not embark upon colonial route, then what would be the state of respective social theory of each cultural unit? Isn't sociology a society's understanding of itself? (Mann, 1983. v) Besides, if sociology is a society's frame of self-understanding, wouldn't this imply that this self-understanding is a more sophisticated mode of thinking of self in contrast to commonsensical one? Wouldn't this, in turn, entail that sociology claims a higher state of abstraction and hence a more sublime state of awareness? Then we are left with correlational aspects of Geist and state of awareness. The real question here that has been overlooked by Giddens is which tradition these concepts belong to? Assume that we take a concept from the bosom of analytical philosophy such as speech act or illocutionary act. These concepts derived from analytical philosophy represent an intellectual tradition that has specific awareness boundaries; i.e. in this tradition one has assumed that mind functions in this particular way and cannot reach beyond. In other words, the layers of consciousness are predominantly composed of two levels: commonsensical and scientific one. To return to Giddens; concepts like Geist or representation collective are difficult to render, pace Giddens, because he does not problematize the state of consciousness that characterize such terms. This problem in Giddens becomes more problematic when he attempts to solve methodological issues between social sciences and natural sciences.

He knows that there are theoretical issues within sociology that cannot be settled '' ... in the conventional sense in which scientific theories are 'confirmed' or 'invalidated' by empirical test'' (1971. x). But one is left without any explanation why does he think that sociological theories cannot be brought entirely to the empirical court for assessment? On the other hand, at the same time, Giddens opts for a contradistinction between philosophy and sociology and grants some kind of scientificity to the latter over the former.


There are three distinct but inter-related issues in his treatment of above-mentioned questions and all are relevant to any kind of social theory. His stance towards philosophy of science and social sciences raises the question (why does he think that sociology cannot be just assessed in empirical terms?) that he chooses to ignore while he touches upon it; i.e. the significance of personality(1971. viii) in making a theory or framing an instance of vision into a linguistic-conceptual body of propositions and arguments. Issues such as:

What is a 'person'? How is a 'personality' possible? What is the driving-force behind the personality construction? How are a sociological personality possible and what a person whose life is imbued with dramatic nuances could bring into the sociological epistemic universe? Or what are the relations between lebensphilosophie and analytical philosophy? What are the relations between social theory as an analytic enterprise and the existential relevance of sociologist as a doomed existential being? Could a neat line be drawn between social theory produced by a sociologist and the sense of being a person before being a sociological writer? Wouldn't Giddens semi-Popperian demarcative line between context of discovery and context of justification be too simplistic?

The other important issue in Giddens is his concern to mark off the territory of sociology as a science in contrast to social philosophy as refractory, in terms of empirical assessment, frame of thought. Why is this distinction in terms of borderline between sociology and social philosophy of substantial significance for him? This would lead us to the third issue, which is related to his constitutive two overall theses: One is the Nisbetian one (sociology as an authentic body of thought is a product of 1830-1900) and the other is Abelian's (sociology as an intellectual option came to being between 1895-1920). In terms of widening the historiographical horizons in social thought Giddens did not go any further than his predecessors.


George Steiner (1961). The Death of Tragedy. Faber: Great Britain.

Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton (1960). Lectures on Modern History. London.

Walter Burkert (1992). The Orientalizing Revolution. Harvard University Press. Gerald F. Else (1967). The Origin and Early Form of Greek Tragedy. Harvard University Press.

Anthony Giddens (1971). Capitalism and Modern Social Theory: An analysis of the writings of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. Cambridge University Press.

Rev. Prof. Dr. Francis Nigel Lee (2000). Luther on Islam and the Papacy. An excellent article on Luther's views of Islam and the Papcy, published online by The Historicism Research Foundation:


Rev. Prof. Dr. Francis Nigel Lee (2000). Calvin on Islam. This article was published online by The Historicism Foundation:


John Urry (1977). Review of A. Giddens New Rules of Sociological Method., Sociological Review, Vol. 25, 911-15.

Bob Mullan (1987). Sociologists on Sociology. Croom Helm: London&Sydney.

S. N. Kramer (1963). The Sumerians: Their History, Culture and Character. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Vaclav Havel (1996). Europe as Task. An Address in Achen on May 15, 1996. Full text, published by European Library (Pro Europa) online:

C. S. Nott (1971). The Conference of the Birds. Shambala (Berkeley).

M. Mann (ed.) (1983). Student Encyclopaedia of Sociology. Macmillan: London.

Sincronía Spring 2003

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