Acceptance Speech – Bern, 17.2.1984


Edward Shils

1983 Balzan Prize for Sociology

For his important innovative and unique contribution to contemporary sociology. He has combined the more empirical tradition of American sociology with European sociology’s more theoretical approach, analysing and defending the intellectual and moral responsibility of the social sciences, and emphasizing the components of civilization, cultural tradition and religious orientation in the development of the social order.

The Committee which has awarded the International Balzan Prize to me has, in doing so, commended me to the respect of the learned world. I am grateful for its intention to expand into the wider public the small circle which has read some of my writings and the journal I have edited. I appreciate that intention but I appreciate much more the fact that such a distinguished body of scholars and scientists has thought that my activities have merited the great distinction which lies in their power to confer. I will not deny that there is truth in the old belief that honour, once conferred, is something objective, existing and having a claim beyond that of the judgment of those who first conferred it. As far as I myself am concerned, I am less sensitive to the objective reality of honour than I am to the obligation which the prize-committee lays upon me to live up to the standards which they apply in their decisions to allocate the award.

Whether I am worthy of the honour conferred on me is a difficult matter for me to decide. Fortunately I am not called upon to make that decision. But I have no difficulty in admitting, indeed even in promising, that the award of this honour requires that the honour be repaid by rendering myself worthy of the honour conferred.
I cannot undertake to enter entirely upon a new path of life or thought. I can only go on doing what I have been trying to do throughout my rather long life namely, to go on thinking, studying and writing.

After many years spent in wrestling with the problems of the constitution of society, the foundations of social order, and the causes of the disruption and disorder of social life, I have moved more and more to the study of the role played by knowledge in the life of individuals and societies. I have tried to estimate the autonomy of traditions of scientific and scholarly knowledge and to gauge the capacities of different kinds of knowledge for universal expansion and affirmation. Although Minerva is confined to the natural and social sciences and the humanities, the interests which have impelled the work which I now have in hand, reaches out to embrace religious and philosophical knowledge and wisdom, too.
It is therefore an unforeseen consequence of the cunning of reason that my main present work is devoted to the very same objects as those so imaginatively cultivated by the International Balzan Foundation. That pleases me greatly and I am very acutely sensible of the burden which the acceptance of this prize places on me and which I humbly but happily accept.

To the extent that my achievements have merited the high honour of the International Balzan Prize, I think it fitting to acknowledge what I owe, not only to those who have conferred the prize but to those who have equipped me for the long journey of study and thought which I have traversed over more than half a century. Let me mention first here my two great teachers, one the sociologist Robert Park and the other the economist Frank Knight, neither now widely known in the great world. To them I owe the courage and obligation of curiosity, the reverence for truth, and their belief in the ultimate rightness of the main values of our civilization. Among those no longer living, I should mention in the first place and above all others Max Weber and after him Émile Durkheim and with him Marcel Mauss; I must also mention two friends, now deceased, Michael Polanyi in whom I saw embodied the love of science as a reverent search for truth in the unknown; and Raymond Aron whose disinterested and passionate determination to be both truthful and just in his intellectual and moral judgments set before me an exigent standard.

Among the living I owe most to Arnaldo Momigliano with his restless striving for greater, more embracing and deeper knowledge. I owe much also to my pupils, especially at the University of Chicago and at the London School of Economics, who challenged me by their eager sympathy and their desire to learn what is known and to launch themselves on unknown paths. In trying to teach them, I have been compelled to learn new things and to think more strenuously about what I know.
I hope in the years to remain to me to pay a little more of my debt to all these numerous benefactors and not least to the generous committee of the International Balzan Foundation.

Balzan Prize Awards Ceremony 1983
Bern, Rathaus – 17 February 1984

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