Civil Society’s Barbarisms

European Journal of Social Theory 7 (4):499-517 (2004)
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Abstract

Instead of arguing about elements and boundaries of civil society, recent discussions in social theory have focused on the concept of civil society itself as embedded in different currents of social and political thought. Following up on these discussions, this article reconstructs the concept of civil society by identifying a number of implicit oppositional terms and the respective semantic fields, which in different historical contexts have lent meaning to the concept. Three such oppositional terms and counter-meanings will be distinguished in turn and traced back to different traditions of European social and political theory: (1) the barbarism of disorder; (2) the barbarism of order; and (3) the realm of toil and material necessity. It is argued that the multiple meanings and counter-meanings of civil society are connected by a deep structure of discourse. This deep structure of civil society thinking can be translated into a ‘semiotic square’ in the tradition of A.J. Greimas. In conclusion, it is suggested to further investigate current uses of civil society along these lines, in order to clarify normative goals and possible ways of mediating between opposing moral worlds.

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