Feb. 2, 1995
Vol. 14, No. 11

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    Obituary: Edward Shils, Committee on Social Thought, Sociology

    Edward Shils, Distinguished Service Professor in the Committee on Social Thought and in Sociology and one of the world's most influential sociologists, died Jan. 23 in his Chicago home. He was 84.

    Shils was internationally renowned for his research on the role of intellectuals and their relations to power and public policy. His scholarship was recognized in 1983 by the Balzan Foundation, Milan, with the awarding of the Balzan Prize, an honor given in fields in which the Nobel Prize is not awarded. Shils was recognized for his "important, innovative and unique contribution to contemporary sociology." In 1979, he was selected by the National Council on the Humanities to give the Jefferson Lecture, the highest national award given in the humanities.

    The Times (of London) Higher Education Supplement wrote of Shils, "He is essentially an intellectual's intellectual and scarcely a single corner of the Western cultural tradition has not benefited from the illumination afforded by his penetrating and often pungent attention."

    His great knowledge of the literatures of numerous cultures and fields was a source of wonderment to many of his colleagues. He taught sociology, social philosophy, English literature, history of Chinese science and many other subjects to students who went on to become the leading scholars in their fields throughout the world.

    "He was a scholar of the highest eminence," said Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, former professor of Greek at Oxford University. "He made great contributions to all the humanistic sciences."

    His beginnings as a sociologist and social philosopher came when, as a 17-year-old high school student in Philadelphia, he discovered the works of German sociologist Max Weber. He continued to study and write about Weber throughout his career. And as a young researcher at Chicago, Shils translated the works of sociologist Karl Mannheim into English.

    Shils grew up in Philadelphia and received his B.A. in 1931 from the University of Pennsylvania. He became Research Assistant at Chicago in 1934 and Instructor in the College in 1938. He received his M.A. in 1961 from Cambridge University.

    During World War II, he served with the British Army and the United States Office of Strategic Services. He returned to Chicago and was appointed Associate Professor in 1947 and Professor in 1950. In 1971, he was named Distinguished Service Professor.

    For many years, Shils held joint appointments at Chicago and universities abroad. He was a reader in sociology at the London School of Economics from 1946 to 1950; a fellow of King's College, Cambridge, from 1961 to 1970; a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, from 1970 to 1978; and an honorary professor in social anthropology at the University of London from 1971 to 1977. He was named an honorary fellow at the London School of Economics in 1972 and an honorary fellow at Peterhouse in 1979. He also was a professor at the University of Leiden from 1976 to 1977.

    Early in his career, Shils became the bridge between the research traditions of European and American sociology, connecting scholarship in America with work being done at European universities. At Chicago, he was responsible for attracting some of the leading European scholars to teach at the University, including the Italian classicist Arnaldo Momigliano, the French philosopher Raymond Aron and the British sinologist Michael Loewe, among many others.

    Among his achievements was to bring together the empirical tradition of the Chicago school of sociology with the theoretical thinking of European social scientists. In recognizing his work, the Balzan Foundation said, "Probably more than any other single person, he has stressed the importance of combining them into a single framework, thus making an important contribution toward a truly universal, general sociology, as opposed to the 'French,' 'German' and 'American' sociologies."

    In much of his work, Shils sought connections between diverse ways of understanding society. As a reviewer for The Times Literary Supplement observed, in writing about Center and Periphery: Essays in Macrosociology (1976), "Professor Shils takes society as the basic unit of analysis, and he constantly brings all the sub-sectors of inquiry -- economy, polity, culture, ideology -- within the frame of the social whole.

    "Society has a center," the review continued in summarizing Shils' perspective. "This core of values is connected to a wider cosmic order, whether this be located in the necessary dialectic of history, a messianic destiny, or metaphysical powers."

    Throughout his career, Shils challenged conventional thinking. His book Torment of Secrecy (1956), for example, confronted McCarthyism and is widely regarded as the finest work on the security problems of the McCarthy years.

    Among his other books are Toward a General Theory of Action (with Talcott Parsons, 1952), The Intellectual Between Tradition and Modernity: The Indian Situation (1961), The Calling of Sociology, and Other Essays on the Pursuit of Learning (1980), Tradition (1981), On the Constitution of Society (1982) and The Academic Ethos (1984).

    Shils was the founder and editor of Minerva, the world's leading journal of the social, administrative, political and economic problems of science and scholarship. He also was a co-founder of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

    In 1991, he edited a book about distinguished University professors in connection with the University's Centennial. The volume, Remembering the University of Chicago: Teachers, Scientists, and Scholars, was "a great labor of love," he said. Shils wrote four of the 47 essays.

    Shils was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society.

    He is survived by his son and daughter-in-law, Adam and Carrie Shils of Chicago; a grandson, Sam Shils; and a nephew, Edward B. Shils, professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania.