We’ve Got a (Historical) Situation

Triangles may be explicable without reference to historical situations. Concepts such as ‘civilization’ and Kultur are not. It may be that particular individuals formed them from the existing linguistic material of their group, or at least gave them new meaning. But they took root. They became established. Others picked them up in their new meaning and form, developing and polishing them in speech or writing. They were tossed back and forth until they became efficient instruments for expressing what people had jointly experienced and wanted to communicate. They became fashionable words, concepts current in the everyday speech of a particular society. This shows that they met not merely individual but shared needs for expression. The shared history has crystallized in them and resonates in them. Individuals find this crystallization already in their possibilities of use. They do not know very precisely why this meaning and this delimitation are bound up with the words, why exactly this nuance and that new possibility can be drawn from them. They make use of them because it seems to them a matter of course, because from childhood they learn to see the world through the lens of these concepts. The social process of their genesis may be long forgotten. One generation hands them on to another without being aware of the process as a whole, and the concepts live as long as this crystallization of past experiences and situations retains an existential value, a function in the actual being of society—that is, as long as succeeding generations can hear their own experiences in the meaning of the words. The terms gradually die when the functions and experiences in the actual life of society cease to be bound up with them. At times, too, they only sleep, or sleep in certain respects, and acquire a new existential value from a new social situation. They are recalled then because something in the present state of society finds expression in the crystallization of the past embodied in the words.

— Norbert Elias, The Civilizing Process

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