Civility, Virtue and Emotions in Europe and Asia. (completed)

History of Concepts as Entangled History from the 18th century to the First World War.

About the project

This project aimed at investigating the concept of civility in four European and nine Asian regions. This permits to focus on exchange processes both within Europe and between European metropoles and their colonies and spheres of influence, as well as between the different Asian regions. These exchange processes take place both at a linguistic level (hence asking for history of concepts and translation studies joining forces) and at the level of practices and institutions (education, law, science…).

Civility and its related concepts in most of the languages involves a specific way of virtuously managing emotions; the ascription of certain emotions in turn is central both to the definition of an individuals place within a society and of a society’s place in history and in the globalised world.

The project brings together a network of scholars from three continents, who conduct their research at their home institutions, coming together for four conferences in the time of two years (starting in October 2011). These conferences aim not only at a discussion of individual papers, but also at drawing out the multiple influences and entanglements between the regions. The final product shall consist of a co-authored volume.

Interview with Helge Jordheim: Civilization is defined by “the others”.



The aims of the present project can be summed up in three points:

  1. To bring together the history of civility with the history of emotions in a systematic way.
  2. To study the semantic field of civility as a way of understanding processes of colonisation and globalisation in the 18th and 19th century.
  3. To work out the interaction between concepts emanating from Europe and concepts in the different Asian languages and to investigate their entanglement.


After two year of collaboration and four conferences, we aimed at a book of about 350 pages.

At the first conference in Berlin 5-7 October 2011 we will discussed the proposal and its theoretical and methodological foundations. We aimed at an agreement on the core concepts of the semantic field and discussed the range of sources to be used in the individual projects. While no papers are expected at this stage, participants should familiarise themselves with the corpus of core texts on the histories of concepts and emotion (which most, but not all of them, will be familiar with already) and on translation studies, which will provide the starting point for the discussion and have a fairly detailed idea on the genre of sources available in their respective regions.

For the second conference, in Oslo 13-15 June 2012, the participants were asked to provide first draft papers, which will be pre-circulated, allowing for an intense discussion during the two days of the conference. The aim of this Conference was twofold: first, to make out the periods of intensive semantic shifts; second, to identify possible entanglements, not only between colonies (or semi-colonies) and the metropoles, but also between European countries and between Asian countries. This in turn will show where different individual projects have to establish a closer contact in order to be able to explain these processes.

The third conference, in Berlin, 21-23 February 2013, started out from the discussion of the papers which have been revised in a way to take account of the connections and entanglements between regions. While all papers were discussed in the plenary, there was also be enough time for discussion in groups of various composition – engaging with an entanglement which impacts several regions at the same time, can only be done as a collective endeavour.

The fourth conference, Oslo, 20-22 June 2013, discussed the final papers and the first draft of the introduction.


Method: Conceptual History

With reference to the now “classical” conceptual history of Reinhart Koselleck and the Geschichtliche Grundbegriffe, the project takes up and develops three aims:

• To integrate translation studies and point out the entanglement between languages in order to overcome methodological nationalism
• To examine concepts within a larger semantic field
• To further work out the relation between conceptual history on the one hand and practices and institutions on the other


Civility and Emotions

In early modern Europe, the Latin civilitas and its vernacular derivatives, was one of the central concepts for the discussion on values and virtues related to social behaviour. It involved norms for interacting in a way as to minimize social friction and hence focused on rules of deportment and bodily control.

While the expression of correct emotions was held to be sufficient for the courtly society, advice literature during the Enlightenment and even more during the age of sentimentalism placed the need for authenticity in the centre of their attention: not only the outward signs, but the inner feelings themselves had to conform to certain norms.

Just renouncing to vent anger and keep a smiling face or to fake admiration while being devoured by jealousy and resentment wouldn’t suffice any longer. Civility thus is about behaviour, certainly, but a behaviour which is supposed to express a specific set of emotions. Emotions are the touchstone, whether a person is really civilized or just pretending to its outer appearances.

Research in the newly developing field of history of emotions permits to push the research agenda further. Emotions themselves have a history. This allows us to ask:

  • On what concepts and knowledge about emotions was the concept on civility based?
  • What were the historical actors’ views on the universality or specificity of emotions?
  • How did they conceive the relation between the external world and emotions? Between the body and emotions?
  • Could emotions be civilized and whose emotions were open to a civilizing project?

But emotions not only have a history, they also make history:

  • How was this knowledge about emotions and their civilization translated into individual, collective and global practices?
  • How did the ascription of certain emotions to certain social groups and the assumption about their potential (or lack of potential) for civilization contribute to the creation and upholding of a specific social order?
  • Which institutions were ascribed the task of either civilizing emotions by creating a certain kind of person, or keeping those emotions within bounds which could not be civilized?

Civility, colonialism and globalisation

The ascription of emotions and the ability to civilize them through a project of education and self-education to specific social groups, and hence the development of distinctions between them first worked out at an intra-societal level.

From the second half of the 18th century onward and in direct relation to the colonial expansion, a global level is added to these categories of difference within each society. Civility not only places a man in society, but also a society at a certain level of civilisation.

It is by the prevalent emotions, notably towards women and children, that moral philosophers like John Millar or Adam Smith are distinguishing between stages of development, leading from savagery and barbarity to the civility of a “polite and commercial people”.

With the mapping out of historical difference as a spatial category, emotions thus became one of the central categories to distinguish between civilised and barbarous nations and to order the globalising world.

Knowledge on the linkages between civilisation and emotions was institutionalised in the newly created disciplines of ethnology, physical anthropology, evolution theory as well as social and collective psychology.

While remaining aware of the difference in power, which gave a greater impact to European ideas to actually shape global relations, our project shall not follow the divide between the universal and the particular as a divide between European and non-European concepts, but investigate views on global order through concepts of civility and civilisation and their interaction with intra-societal order for each of the regions under consideration.

Civility and entangled history

The project takes up two of the most important developments in recent historiography: the movement away from the focus on nations as well-defined and stable units, which may interact without more than marginally changing; and the challenge of the assumption that any transformation happened only in a uni-directional way, from Europe, the given centre, to the colonial and semi-colonial periphery.

Instead, the new imperial history, influenced by postcolonial studies, has pointed out that the differences in power did not prevent a close entanglement, which shaped not only the regions of formal and informal imperial influence, but also the European countries.

For this project, three entanglements are of special importance, as they shape the meaning civility and civilisation take in the different languages:

First: Civility as defining the position of a person in society, and civility as defining the position of a society among other societies have to be read together. The opposition and gendering of the brain and the heart, of rationality and emotion, but also the ascription of certain emotions to men and others to women was reflected in the discourse on the effeminate Oriental; Orientalism in turn was projected back onto the relation between the middle classes and the subalterns, leading to equations between the darkest Africa and the East End as the darkest London.

Second: The mapping out of differences between nations according to their degree of civility or barbarity happened first within Europe, distinguishing for instance the civilized Englishmen from the Irish, who like children were all too easily overwhelmed by their passions and hence required a more developed nation to protect them against themselves, as well as from the French, who in turn had acquired such a mastery on the expression of their emotions that they were no longer to be trusted. Probably similar classifications existed also in other regions of the world – it is our aim to investigate how together they influenced the new world order of the civilized nations and the barbarians.

Third: This creation of a world order according to the degree of civilization affected not only the nations at the bottom of the scale – through a variety of colonial practices and civilizing missions – but also Europe itself. Therefore it is necessary to extend the conceptual history of Germany, France and Britain  and include the changes which occurred once the colonial expansion developed it full impact. Rather than assuming that the concept can be explained sufficiently within the European context, the focus on entanglement permits to draw out the darker side of civility and civilisation, namely its intertwining with categories like race and eugenics and its highly problematic relation to colonial violence, which it not only legitimated, but also made possible.


The project was co-financed by

  • Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin, and
  • Kultrans, University of Oslo.



Margrit Pernau, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin.

Helge Jordheim, Kultrans, University of Oslo.


Dipesh Chakrabarty, Professor of History, South Asian Languages and Civilizations and the College at the University of Chicago.

Jan Ifversen, Institute of History and Area Studies, Head of the Center for Europe Studies, University Aarhus.

Dominic Sachsenmaier, Professor of Modern Asian History, Jacobs University.


Christian Bailey, Lecturer in History, The Open University, UK.

Orit Bashkin, Assistant Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of Chicago.

Oleg Benesch, Past & Present Fellow, Institute of Historical Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Mana Kia, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for the History of the Emotions, Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin.

Rochona Majumdar, Assistant Professor, Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago.

Angelika C.Messner, Seminar für Orientalistik, Christian-Albrechts-Universität zu Kiel.

Myoungkyu Park, Professor, Department of Sociology, Seoul National University.

Emmanuelle Saada, Associate Professor, Director of Center for French and Francophone Studies, Columbia University.

Mohinder Singh, Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, Delhi University.

Einar Wigen, Doctoral Fellow, Kultrans, University of Oslo.

Published Jan. 2, 2012 6:08 PM - Last modified Oct. 30, 2020 6:24 PM