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Pluralism and the

Crisis of Meaning
The Orientation of Modern Man
Peter L. Berger
Thomas Luckmann
Bertelsmann Foundation Publishers
Gtersloh 1995
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Peter L. Betger, Tbomas Luchmann
Modernity, pluralism and the crisis of meaning
what basic human needs of oricntation
m u s t b e s a t i s f i e d l . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
1. The foundations of the meaningfulness
o f h n m a n l i f e
. . . . . . . . . . . . 9
2. The meani ngf uhre*
. oci al rel rt i on<hi ps.
the concurrence of meaning and the
g e n e r a l c o n d i t i o n s f o r c r i s e s o f n r e a n i n g . . . . . . . . . . . 1 8
3 . Mo d e r n i t y a n d t h e c r i s i s o f me a n i n g . . . . . . 2 8
4 . Th e l o s s o f t h e t a k e n - f o r - g r a n t e d . . . . . . . . 4 0
5. Flabituated meaning and crises of rneaning . . . . . . . . . . 49
6. How societies deal with criscs of meaning:
illusions and possibilities
7 . O u t l o o k . . . . . . . 6 4
The authors
The project
of cultural orientatioo are among the most urgenr issues
of modern society. lndividualism and pluralism lead to the conse-
quence that individuals more ancl more face the difficulty to define
standards and values guiding their own lives. IndividuaLs require
these values to be able to find orientation in a situation rvhich is de-
fined by options and the necessity to take decisions.
Three ccntral groups of questions clelineate crucial problems,
which the Bertelsmann Foumlation intends to tackle by creating a
new r, rngc o[ pro: c, rs on cuhural orrcnt at i on:
l l ow can i ndi vi dual s real i ze meani ngf ul l i ves by chosi ng f rom
thc pluralistic rnultiplicity of optionsl
How do human beings coorclinate the numerous roles and social
networks in which they interactl In other words: how do they
stabilizc thcir own identity)
V/hat value systems guide thcir ideas of good and cvil? In as
much :s individuals sharc conrnron value patterns we have to
raisc a consccutive question: *'hich communities do such individu-
als fonn who
sharc similar pattcrns of mearing and
lives by the same value systcrns? And finally: what do these
comnrunities contributc to thc integration of the society as a
whole or to what extcnt do thcy endanger such integration?
How can modern societies provide dre required ligaturesl
Individuals who havc acquircd stable orienrations possess an cffcc-
tive panacea against cxistential thrcats to their self-perception. lhey
regard themsclves as people with an undoubted identity. And they
avai l t henxel ves of et hi cal st andards whi ch enabl e t hem t o
j udge
their actions with regard to their effect on society as a whole
On all drree levels individuals have ceased to act according to what
hes traditionally been regarrled as self-evident and takcn for grantcd.
Thereforc the loss of the taken-for-granted has led to the possibility
and cven necessity to decide -hat is meaningful, good and sociaily
acceptablc. This decision is an individual one and it is debatrble if
thc cohesion of society suffcrs as a consequence ofthese decisions. In
addrtion the pluraiistic abundance of such decisions allows commun-
i t i es t o emerge whi ch enj oy t he l oyal t i es of rhei r members but do
not nccessarily take into eccount the welfare of socicty as a whole.
range of projects on
orientation" started its series of
publications with a first volume on
loss of orientation
cohesion crisis in modern society"
(in German language only). In a
next phase of the field of projects wc commissioned a number of
expcrtises. As a first result, Peter llerger (Boston) and
Lucknrann (Konstanz) present their analysis of the mechanisms
whi ch l ead t o a cri si s of meani ng i n nodern soci et y. l hi s st udy
emerged from a context of projects which are dealing with orienta
tion in the immediate social neighborhood and with the orientation
by communication in a workplacc environment and in company
hierarchies. other sub-projects focus on the legitimacy of political
iction and the limits to state control of social processes or on new
challenges due to the ever increasint complexity of knowledge and
the flow of information which modern individuals face.
Peter Berger and Thomas Lucknrann count among the ceuses for
t he modern cri si s of meani ng processcs of moderni zat i on, pLural i sm
and particularly with regard to Buropean societies
tion. fhjs leads to the conscqucnce that the validity of shared mean-
ing is difficult to mailtain for larger groups of individuals in society.
Patterns of meaning are being shared and maintained by smaller
communities. It is therefore crucial to distinguish in which way in
dividuals unite to form these communities. In addition, all of them
relate to the functional macro systerns in society like politics, eco-
nomy and science. Interaction between these levels and communities
is being regulated by intermediary institutions, media communica-
tion and moralizing statements in everyday life. It will need further
enquiry to establish definitc knowledge on which institutions are ef-
fective in this respect and how they perform their task. The result of
such a study can be evidence on the possibility to counteracr
centripetal tendencies in society.
Prof. Dr. Verner \eidenfeld
Member of the Board of the
Bertelsmann Foundation
Modernity, pluralism and the crisis of meaning
what basi c human needs of ori entati on
must be satisfied?
Peter [.. etger
Tbomas Luchmann
1. The foundations ofthe meaningfulness ofhuman life
It is not apparent whether talk about the crisis of meaning in today's
world really corresponds to a new form of disorientation in the life
of modern pcopLe. Could it be that wc are merely hearing the Latest
repetition of an old lament? Is ir the complaint *'hich cxpresses the
feeLing of distress which has again and again afflicted humanity in
the face of a worid become unstcady? Is this thc old lament, that
hurnan life ls a life to*'ards dcath? ls this the voice of doubt, that this
life could find its meaning in a transcendent history of salvationl Or
is this despcration about the lack of such a meaningl \Vc are distant
i n t i me f rom t hc book of t he Eccl csi ast es (' everyt hi ng i s nought l
everyt hi ng i s i n vai nl ") but not di st ant f rom t he spi ri t of t hc Chroni
cle of Bishop C)tto von Frcising written more than 850 ycars ago:
alL, wc are so depressed by thc mcmory of things past, the pres'
surc of thc present and the fear of future vicissitudes that we accept
the sentence of death that is in rrs and rnay become tired of lifc it-
self." It is even further and all thc sanle not so far betwecn the con-
cept i ons of human f at e i n hi st ory f rom Thucydi des t o Al ben
On t,hat basis are modern (and post-modern) critics of present day
society and culture convinced that the crisis of our tirnes is funda-
mentally different from aLl past mkeries? These observers hardly
start from the assumption that thcre has been a radical change in the
human condition, the conditio humana. Rather they seem to suspect
a new social constitutior of the meaning of human life in moder-
nity, which has thrown meaning, and with it human life, into a his'
torically unique crisis. Such specLations are powerfully suggestive
and may appear convincing, that does not mean, however, that they
will actually stand up to cmpiricaL investigation. Contemporary
sociological analysis tends far too easily !o assume the existence of
something like meaning and meaningfulness as fiotive of human
action and as a backdrop against which the modern crisis of meaning
is apparcnt. It is, therefore, necessary to begin with sonre anthropo-
logical preliminaries. They shall seek to identify the general condi-
tions and basic structures of mexningful human life. Only in this
way is it possible to improve our understanding of chenges in par-
t i cul ar st ruct ures of meani ng.
Meaning is constituted in human consciousness: in the conscious
ness of the individual, who is individuated in a body and who has
been socialized as a person. Consciousness, individuation, the speci-
ficity of the body, society and the historico'social constitution of
pcrsonal identity are charactristics of our species, the phylo- and
ontogenesis of which need not be considered- Flowever, we will
provicle a short sketch of the generaL performances of consciousness
from which the multi-layered meaningfulness of experience and ac-
tion in human life is built up.
Conscior.rsncss taken in itself is nothing; it is always consciousness
ofsomething. It exists only in so far as it directs its attntion towerds
an object, towerds a goal. This intentional object is constituted by
the various synthetic achievements of consciousness and appears in
i t s gcner; l st ruct ure.
i t bc percept i on. memory or i magi
nat i on: around t he core, t he t heme' of t he i nt ent i onal obj ect ,
extends a thematic field that is delimited by an open horizon. This
horizon in which consciousness of ones own body is always given
can lso be themxtizcd. The sequence of interconnected themes
lct us call them apprehensions'
is in itself stili without meaning.
It is however the foundation, on which rncaning can come into ex-
istence. For, apprehensions which do not occur simply and inde-
pendentLy but which the ego turns its attention lowards acquire a
higher degrec of thcmatic definition; thcy become clearly contoured
"expcri enccs".
Expericnces taken nrdividr.rally wouLd stili bc without mcaning
Ilowever, as a core of expcricncc cletaches itself from the back'
ground of apprehensions, consciousness grasps the rclatioD of this
core to other expcnences. The srmplcst form of such relationships
"equal ' , ' si mi 1ar", "di f f crcnt ", "equal l y
good' ,
"di f f erent
worse" etc. Thus is constituted thc most elementary level of mean-
ing. Me:rning is nothing but a complex form of consciousness: it does
nor exist independently. k always has a point of reference. Meaning
is consciousness of the fact th:t a relationship exists between
experi ences. The i nverse i s al so t rue: t he meani ng of experi ences
and, as wiLl be shon'n, of actjons has to be constructed through
rel at i onal " perf ormances of consci ousness. 1he experi ence current
ar a particular monent can be rclated to one in the immediate or
distant past. GeneralLy, each expcrience is related not to one other,
but to a type of experience, schenre of experience, a maxim, moral
legitimation ctc. won fron many experiences and cither stored in
subjective knowiedge or tkcn fronl a social store of knowledge.
As convoluted as this phcnomcnology of multi-layered perform-
ances of consciousness mxy scenr, its results are the simple elemeots
of meaning in our daily livcs. l-or cxample, in the apprehension of a
flower a typical gestalt is tied in with a typical color connected to a
typical quality of snell, touch, and use. In directed consciousness
this apprehension becomes experience, this experience is grasped in
relation to other experiences ("so nrany flowcrs') or related to a clas'
sification taken from a social stock of knowledge
("an Alpine
flower') and may finally be intcgrated into a plan of action ("pick it
and take it to my lovcd one!"). In this process multiple types ("A1-
pi ne f l ower",
"l oved
one' ) are i nt egrat ecl i nt o a processual scheme
(' pi ck n and t ake i t t o' ) and f used i nt o a more compl ex, but st i l l
everyday unit of meening. If finrlly this project is not simply put
into action because it confiicts with a morally founded maxim
("don't pick itl rare flowerl"), then a decision is arrived at and a
higher level meaning is constituted through the scquential evaiuation
of values and intcrcsts.
his example already indicates the double meaning of
Th meaning of the current act is constituted prospective-
ly. A completcd action is meaningful in retrospect. Action is guided
by a vi ew t o a prcconcei ved ai m. Thi s desi gn i s a ut opi a i n whi ch t he
actor anticipates a future stete, assesscs its desirability and urgency
and considers the steps which will bring it about
insofar as the
process i s not f anri l i ar t hrough earl i er si mi l ar act i ons and has not
bccome a habi t . ' I he rneani ng of t hc aci ons,
"i n
t he acr", i s const i -
t ut ed by t hei r rcl at i on t o t he goal . The compl et ed aci on, wherher
successful or not
but also the action projected as complete
be compared to other actions, can be undersrood as the fulfillment
of maxims, can be explained and
es rhe execution of laws,
can bc excused as def yi ng a norm, can be deni ed t o ot hers and i n t he
l i mi t al so t o onesel f . l he doubl e meani ng and t he compl ex st ruct ure
of meaning are characteristic of all action but in day-to-day routine
!he chxracteristics may appear blurred.
Social action, of course, shares rhis structure of meaning but ac-
quires additional characteristic dimensions: it can be indirect or di-
rect, it can be mutual or unilateral. Social action can be directed to-
wards other pcople present or absent, dead or unborn. It can seek to
address them in their individuality, or as social types of different de-
grees of anonynrity, or nrercly as social categories. It can be directed
towards obtaining a response or nor
there may, or may not be, an
answer. It can bc intended as unique or may aim to achieve regular
repetition or to be prolonged through time. The complex meaning
l 2
of social action and social relations is constructed
in these different
dimensions of nreaning.
In speaking of the constitution of nreaning in thc consciousness of
the individual it rvas already clear that this could not neen the iso
lated subject, thc s'indowless monad. Daily life is full of manyfold
successi ons of soci i rl act i on and t he personal i dent i t y of t he i ndi vi d-
ual i s f ormed onl y i n t hi s act i on. Purcl y subj ect i ve apprchensi ons are
the foundation of the constitution of meaning: simplc layers of
mcaning can bc created in thc s.rbjcctive expericnce of a
Higher laycrs of meaning and a more complex strucnrrc of meaning
depend on thc objectification of subjective meaning in social action.
The i ndi vi duaL i s onl y abl e t o make compl i cat ed Logi cal connect i ons
and i ni t i at e and cont rol di f f erent i at ed sequences of act i on i f he or
she is ablc to draw on the vealth of experience avaiiable in a social
contexr. In fact, elemcnts of meaning siraped by older streams of so-
ci al act i on ("t radi t i ons' ), f l ow even i n t he l owest l evcl s of meani ng
of nrdi vi dLral cxperi ence.
' I ypi f i cat i on,
cl assi f i cat i on, pat t erns of ex-
pcri ence and schcnl es o{ ect i on are el cnrent s of subj ect i vc st ores of
knowledge that are largely takcn over ftom thc social stock of
Certainly, subjcctive constitution of meaning is the origin of all
social stocks of knowiedge, historicai rcservoirs of meaning, on
which peoplc born into a particular society in a particular epoch
may dral . ' l he neani ng of an cxperi ence ol act i on was born
once upon a timc in the conscious, problenl
soLving" action of an individuai relative to his or her natural and
social environnrcnt. Howeverl si ce most problenrs with which the
nrdividual is confronted also arise in thc lives of other pcople, the
solutions to these problems arc not
subjcctively but also
i nt crsubj ect i vel y rcl cvant . Ei t her t he probl cI rrs t hemsel ves ari se {rom
interactive social action, so that the solutions must also be found in
common. Ihcsc solutions can also be objectified in one of a number
of possible ways, through signs, tools, buildings, but above all
l l
through thc cormnunicative fornx of a language an<i thus made
available also to othcrs.
I n obj ect i f i cari ons t he subj ect i ve meani ng of experi encc or act i on
i s det ached f rom t he uni queness of t he ori gi nal si t uat i on and of f ers
itself as a typical meaning for acceptance inro the social stock of
knowledge. As different people rcact to similar challenges simiJarly,
it may come to pass that they expcct dtese standard rcactions of one
anothcr or evcn that they obligate cach other to dcal with this typi-
cal situation in this and no other way. That is the precondition for
actions to bc transformed into social institutions. The emcrgence of
hi st ori caL reservoi rs of meani ng and i nst i t ut i ons rel i eves t he i ndi vi d,
ual of rhe burden of solving problems of experience and action
which appear in parricular situations from scratch. If dre concrete
situation is Lrasically identical with constellations which are already
familiar, thcn the individual is ablc to resort to familiar and prac-
ticed forms of cxperience and action.
as all repctitious actions are not transformed into
i nst i t ut i ons al l subj ect i vel y const i t ut ed and i nt ersubj ect i vel y obl ect i -
fied meaning is not absorbed into social srocks of knowledge. Orher
processes are inrerposed,
processes in which objecificd meaning is
These proccsses are ro a large extenr deter-
mined by thc dominant socil relarions. The existing institutions of
domination and labor, but above all the institutions which socialize
trensactions with unusual forces direct rhemselvcs towerds rhe dif-
f erent l evcl s and areas i n whi ch meani ng i s produced. Wi t h vari abl e
succcss they attempr ro influencc this production or to inrervene in
it. Thc differcnces in the degree of control have been and remain
enormous even within a single epoch. This is obvious if one com
pares the supcrvision of the production of meaning in ancient Egypt
with that in Israel and Babyion, or that in today's Iran with Sweden.
Even more significant are the difierences one can obscrve across suc,
cessive epoches; even if one assunres that up until the onser of mo,
dernity there was a comnon structural characrerisric
the tend
ency towards monopolization.
for problenrs of experience and action,
objcctifications of rreening rvhich became intersuLr-
retrievable through conrrnunication with othcrs are social_
ly processed on different
have varied enormously
across history. In institutionaLly controllerl
much i s i gnored as t oo i nsi gni f i cant ; ot her t hi ngs are di scarded as i n
appropriate or even dangerous. A part of the objectifications of
nrcani g drawn on f or processi ng are nerel y st ored away, dl ose
*'hich are
to be adequate or right are given a form of ordcr,
vhi l c cert ai n el ement s ac<l i re t he f uncri on of exampl es. l hc hi er
archies of knowledge and value systems thus created nray be close-
Iy intcrconnccted
as in the premodern world
or may develop
inrlcpcndently of one anodrer. llurthermore, those elemcnts of
nrcaning and systems of rneaning which are retained are cut into a
shape suitable for transmission to futurc generations. There have
bccn speciaLists for this function in all but the rnost simple societies.
SpeciaLly trained experts takc on thc function of censorship, canoni-
zation, systenatization and pedagogy.
As the overall resulr of all of these activities there eflerges the spe-
cific historical structure of thc social reservoir of meaning. This
structurc is characterized by the proportion between that which is
acccssible to all members of the society as general knr-'wledge anrl
that specialist knowledge to which cccss
limited. The portion of
thc reservoir o{ meaning which is gencral knowledge forms the ker-
nel of everyday common scnse wrth which the individual has to
copc rvith the natural xnd sociel environment of the time.
portion does not have an o"erarching systematic structure. Never-
t hcl css i t i s not wi t hout st ruct ure: i t cont ai ns areas of neani ng whi ch
map t he regi ons of day t o day real i t y t het have t o be managed and
anot hcr regi on of meani ng -hi ch pl ums ext raordi nary real i t y. Somc
of these areas of rneaning acquire a grcatcr dcgree of structure than
those limjted to the practical routines of everyday life through
imports fron systems of special knc'wlcdgc. The everyday of mod-
ern socictics is increasingly shrpccl by such
mass media
diffusc cxpcrt knowledge in populariz,cd form and people appropri-
arc pi cccs of t hi s i nf ormat i on and ; nt egrat e i t wi t h t hci r st ock of
The arcas of rneaning are stratificd. The
simplest typifi
cations, relating to facts of namre and the social world, are thc foun-
dations of different parterns of cxperience and action. Stacked on
thcsc typifications are schenes of action orientatcd by maxirns of
action towards higher values. Supcrordinate
of va-
luc" hrvc bcen developed since the old high culturcs by rcligious and
later phiJosophical experrs into value systenN. These clainr to nrean,
ingfully cxplain and regulatc thc conduct of life of thc inclividuai in
relation to thc community in both routines of daily life and in over-
coming criscs with reference towards realities transccnding every
day lifc (thcodicy).
The claiur of superordinatc conligurations of values and value sys,
r ems
r "
f i l l r he r nr i r " r y of l i f e wr r h nr er ni ng i . nr osr r pp. r ygnl i n I
schenre drat brings together models for action in the most diverse
areas and fits them into a projection of meaning that srrerches from
birth to death. This scheme of mcaning relates the totality of a life to
a t i me t hat t ranscends dre l i f e of t he i ndi vi dual (e. g.
' ererni t y").
catcgories of ncaning, as wc call thcm, endow the
mcxning of short-range actiols with long,tern significancc. 1he
meaning of cvcryday routines does not disappear entirely but it is
subordi nat e t o t he
"meanj ng
of l i f c". \ (c wi l l narne hcre, amongst
the many historical constructions of biographical schcnrcs, only rhe
smal l genrc of t he exempl ary l i f c' and t he l arger genrc of t he hol y
l i f e", rhc anci ent hcroi c cpi c, and t hc modern heroi c l egend
(e. g. Prince Eugene, Georgc Vashington, Baron von Richrhofen,
Antoine dc St. Exupry, Rosa l,uxemburg, Stakhanov).
All institrrtions embody an
action-nealing which has
proved itself in the definitivc rcgLrlation
of social action in a parricu-
lar functional area. Of particular irlportance are those institurions
whose task includes the sociaL processing of meaning- Most import,
ant of all are those institutions whose main functions consist in the
l 6
coDtrol of the production of mcaning and the transmission of mean_
i ng. Such i nst i t ut i ons have exi st ed i n al most al l soci ct i es ot her t hn
thc archaic. In dre old high culturcs, in the societies of the early mo'
dcrn period and latcr (e. g. in todays Iran) rcLigious moral instittr
tions have bcen closcLy tied to thc apparatus of domination
coLrld aim relatively successfully at both the production and distri'
but i on of a rel at i vcl y consi st ent hi erarchy of meani ng. I f however
t he condi t i ons bot h of product i on and di st ri but i on of soci al meani ng
approximatc ro an opcn market, this has considcrable consequcnces
f or t he
' nreani ng
budget ' . I n t hat case a nunrbcr of suPPl i ers of
mcaning compctc for the favor c,f a public that is confronted with
the clifficulty of choosing the nrost suitable meaning from the wcalth
of me: ni ngs avai l abl e. Wc shal l renrrn t o t hi s l at er.
I nst i t ut i ons have t he t ask of st ori ng and maki ng a"ai l abl e meani ng
for the actions of the individual both in particular situations and for
en e[tire conduct of lifc. This function of institutions is however cs
scntially related to tire rolc of dre individual as a consumer but also
f i onl * e' o. , r r r . :
pr odu, cr of l r cani n6.
Thi s rel at i onshi p can be comparat i vel y si mpl c Ln bot h archai c so-
cietics and in most traditional high cultures. In such civilizations
mcani ng of i ndi vrrhraLsphcres of act i ons i s i nt egrat cd wi t hout maj or
ruptures *ith thc o"erall meaning of life conduct and this is itself rc
fcrred to a rclatively coherent
value systcm. The conrmunication of
rneaning is
to thc control of the production of mcanirg. Ildu
cation or direct incloctrination sccks to ensure that the lndividual
only thinks and does what conforns to the basic norms of thc so-
cicty. And thc corrtrol and censorship of everything that is pubLicly
said, taught or preachcd aims to prevent the diffusion of dissidcnt
opi ni on. l nt ernal and ext ernal compet i t i on i s auoi ded or el i mi nat ed
(not always succcssfullyl). l he |re:rning o{ actions and life conduct is
irlposed as a unquestioncd rule brnding on all. For examPle, the rc-
lationship of marricd couples and the relationship of parents to
chi l drcn i s def i ncd unambi guousl y. Parent s and chi l dren general l y
conform; deviancc is clearly defincd as dcviance from thc norn.
In modern societies conditions are different. Of course, there are
still institutions which conmunicatc the meaning of actions for their
particular area of action; there are still value systcms which are ad-
ministercd by some institutions as nrcaningful categories of life con,
duct. Ho*'cver, as will
be sho*'n, there are, by comparison with
premodern societies, differences in the consisrency of value systems
as in the internal and external conpetition over the production of
meaning, thc communication of rneaning, and its imposition. To re-
turn once morc to the example: in modern societies it would be dif-
ficult to find parcnts and children for whom the relationship is
equally binding on both parties and is de{ined unquestioningly by a
firm valuc system.
2. Thc meaningfulness
of social relationships,
the concurrence of meaning and the general
conditions for crises of meaning
Socially objcctified and processcd stocks of meaning are
in historical reservoirs of mcaning and
by institu-
tions. The actions of the individual are shaped by objective meaning
supplied from social stocks of knorvledge and communicated by the
pressure for compliance which emanates from institutions. In this
process, objectificd meaning is constantly in interaction with subjec-
tively constitutcd meaning and individual projects {or acion. IIow-
ever, nreaning can also be ascribed
one might even say, above all
to the intcr'subjcctive
structure of social relations in which thc
individual ac* and lives.
From the very beginning a child is incorporated into sociaL rela-
tionships: with its parents and with other significant persons. These
relationships deveiop in regular, dircct and reciprocal actions. Strict-
l 8
ly, an infant is not capable of action in the full meening of the word.
As an individuated organism i! has, however, the bodily and con-
sci ous capaci t i cs i nherent t o t hc human speci es
whi ch i t empl oys i n
i t s behavi or t owards ot hers. ' I hc act i ons of ot hers rel at i ve t o t he
child are thcmseives largely dctennined by schemes of experience
and action that are drawn frotr s<xicty's reservoir of nrcaning l'he
chilcl progrcssively learns to comprchcnd the actions of its counter-
parts and to understand thcir meaning. Thus
is able to understand
their actions as typical actions in thc light of historically given
t erns of expcri ence and act i on. The chi l d pl aces i t sel f i n rcl at i on t o
soci al st ocks of meani ng. I n t he proccss i t progressl vel y devel ops i t s
personal iclcntity. As soon as it understands the meaning of its
actions, it alrc understands that in principle it is held rcsponsible for
its own actions. Ancl that is what constitutes the essence of personal
identity: subjcctive control of action for which one is objectivcly
responsi bl e.
Let us i nragi nc f or t hi s basi c si t uat i on of t he communi cat i on of
meaning ts o
variants drawn as stylized ideal types. Let us flrst as-
sume rhat there is a 'alue system valid for all of society
with which
the variors layers of the historical reservoir of meaning are well
coordinatcd. Let us furthcr assumc that the parents and the other
important pcrsonal rclations o{ drc child have formed their pcrsonal
identities according to the patterns in the historical reservoir of
meaning. ln such a case the bchavior of the child is mirrored con-
t ruent l y
i n t hc act i ons of t he ot hers. l f i t knocks a pl at e of f t he t abl c
then it wlll not be rewarded by a smiLe from one parent and pun
ished by thr: other with an angry glancc. Under such conditions the
identity of thc child will develop normally without special diffi'
ler alonc
of meaning"
in the smc manncr as the
identity of the parents was forrned: in concordance with the bio-
graphical catcgories and the value systcm of society's reservoir of
meani ng.
For our sccond case let us assume, on the contrary, thxt there is no
generally binding value syste'n, no adapted reservoir of meaning
t 9
with biographical categories and schemes of action and rhar rhe
others who enter inro sociai rclations with the child do not nrirror
its behavior even approximatcly. The typical consequences for the
development o{ thc child arc predictable! Pcrfect concordancc, as
proj cct ed above, i s never achi eved, but rrchai c soci et i cs and t he t ra
ditional high cuitures were not far removed from it. The opposite
case has hovever no correspondi ng reaLi ry: a soci ery wi t hout any
ki nd of val ue syst em and si t hout st ocks of mcani ng adapt ed t o i t i s
hard to imagine as a
. As a child one is born into commun-
, t r c. uf l i f e
( l
ebenr t emci nr hal r cnt whr , h r r e
t o \ r yi ng exi . nr s
also conmunities
of meaning.
means that even without a
univcrsally shared stock of meaning adapted to a single, closed valuc
systen conrmonalties
of meaning can be developcd in communities
or drawn from the historical rescrvoir o{ meaning. These comrlon
meanings can then, of course, be contnrunicated to children relative-
Iy consistently.
Communities oflife are charactcrized by regularly repeated, dircctly
reci procal act i on i n durabl c soci al rcl at i onshi ps. Thosc i nvol ved
place an institutionaily or other\r,ise secured trust in thc durability
of the cormnunity. Beyond these basic commonalties there are wide
differenccs between societies in the differcnt forms of conrmunities
which are institutionalized
in them. The universalbasic form are life
communities into which ole is born. However, there are also lifc
communities into which one is adoptcd and those which one
such as partners in marriagc. Some cornmunities of life form
thcftselves through adapting oncs life to the continuation of sociaL
relations that were originally not intended to be prolonged, others
rcqui re i ni t i at i on. Thc exampl cs i ncl ude hol y orders whi ch al so
const i t ut e t hemsel ves as conrmuni t i es of rneani ng, l eper col oni es,
retlrctuent homes! and
of life presupposc a minimum of cornmon meaning.
measurc can in some societies and for some forms of conrmu-
nity be very minimal: it may concern only the coincidcnce of the
objcctive ncaning
of the schemcs of day to day social action, as per-
haps in ancient slave households or in nrodern prisons. Commu'
nities of life may also aspire to complcte unison in all layers of mean-
lng including the categories of thc entire conduct o[ life as in some
monastic orders or in the ideal of certain tyPes of marriage. How
ever, most comntunities of life across diffcrent socitics and ePoches
aspire to a dcgree of shared nrcaning somevhere
in between this
nl i ni mum and maxi nrum.
l xpc. r : r on. cl o<c
, u
l nc nr l r nr l l r r r r r e nr ost conr nl on , n cor ' n. r l
nuies institution:rlizecl through force. lheir problems are hardiy
cvcr those of nreaning. tvcn where expectations are considerably
above the minimurl and a ccrtain congruence even of higher lcveis
of mcaning is assumed to be constitutive for the life cornmunity
it is
hardl y l i kel y t hxt a real non-co grucnce i n part i cul ar
l ayers of
meannrg vill create :rdditional difficulties beyond thc real life prob
lcms of the comnrunity
insofar as the discrePancy between cxPec-
tatiurs and pra.tical realization docs not becone too great Things
arc different if the valuc systenr of a society prescribes that commu
ni t i es of l i f e and ncani ng shoul d bc coi nci dent , i e. t hat al l pcopl e
who l i ve i n commLrni t i es shoul d al so bri ng t hei r modes of expcri -
ence ancl action lnto concurrence- ln such a case any apparently
trivial non concurrence of meaning, any lack of agrccment can initi'
atc a crisis of meaning in the life conrmunity in which it appears.
A marri ed coupl c f or i nsrance m: y f ol l ow t he i deal s of t hesoci et y
i n
rvhich it lives and may wish for a good and happy old age together'
l.ct us assume that only the man experiencs their cornmon aging as
it actually occurs, in the objectificd sense, whercas the womxn
expcricnces a too large discrepancy between the mcanings suggested
by society and her own concrcte expcrience.
If, in her society,
marriages are not characterized by a perfec! con1munity
of meaning
t hc non concurrcnce i n t he i nt crpret at i on of t hei r common agi ng
between the two partners in nr:rrriagc may Lead to disputes and
serious arguments but it will hardly lead to a crisis of meaning
which threatens their life community. If, howevcr, it \ras the
assumpt i on of soci et y t hat a marri age shoul d be a compl et e commu
nity of meaning then their disagreemenr would be painful for both
partncrs and the crisis of meaning would escalate into a life crisis.
Let us renrain for an instant rvith our example. Let trs assume the
wife encountcrs other aging nrarried women who have arrived at a
si mi l ar perspcct i ve on t hei r common agi ng, a perspect i ve whi ch does
not agrec *ith the dominant views shared by their hLrsbancls. In ex-
changing thcir expericnces a conmunity of meaning might be
formed. In thc first variant of our example this community of mean-
ing remains as partial as does thc rlisagreement with the husband and
there{ore servcs as compensation rather than replaccment. In the se-
cond variant any partiaL disagreement is interpretcd as
t he new f ound communi t y of meani ng coul d t ake t he pl ace of t he
broken rnarri age.
Vher e; r l i f * . ommuni r i c\
ml r \ l pr e\ ume a nr i ni mr r n . . r mmuni r y
of meanrng, the inverse is not true. Communitics of meaning may
under certain circumstances
become communities of lifc, they may
however bc built up and naintained exclusively through nrediared,
reciprocal action- These conrnrunities may be founded on different
not directly practical ievels of nreanrng and may concern different
realms of meaning, e. g. philosophical, such as the humanist circles
of the early modern period, scientific, such es the nlany E-Mail
cliques of today, or the
of souls" of which farnous cor-
tell, such as thar between H6loise and Ab6lard.
\Ve have scen that under certain circunrstances problenrs may occur
i n t he i nt er subj ect i ve const ruct i on of t he personal i dent i t y of t he
child to which the term subjective crisis of meaning nray be appli-
cable. lf the behavior of the child is constantly confronred in the
action of significanr adults with incongruent reacrions the child will
be able to discern thc objecrive social meaning of its actions only
with difficLrlty or not at all. If the child does nor receive reasonably
concordant answers t o t he quest i on
am I ? posed t hroughout
its behavior, then ir nrust encounrer great difficulties in taking on
responsibility for itself. Even if under trore favorablc circumstances
the identity
of a pcrson has been unproblemarically
constructed, its
strength can be endangcred later Lry persistent, systematlc Lrlconsrs-
tency in the rcflection of its actions in the actions of others
Fur l . . r nr r r . , we ha' e
. ecn
r h r r r r r r dcr , er t a n i r cun. r , r n, c. i nt er _
subj ecri ve cri scs of meani ng may occur. For di f f erent f orms of
community of life different typicaL mcasures of coherence are to be
and these diffcr from society to society and from period
to period. 1hc condition for a crisis of meaning is that the mcnbers
of a particular life-community accept unqestioningly
thc degree of
coi nci dencc of neani ng expect et l of t hem, but are unabl e t o mat ch
i t . ^s was al ready st at cd, t hi s di scrcpancy bet ween
"i s'
' shoul d"
appears part i cul arl y of t en l f t he i dcal s <-rf a l i f e communi t y i nsi st t hat
r r
<hou1d I ' e . r . un' pl er . conr munr r v ul nr c; ni ng.
l i
' ubj c. t i '
< and rnt er-' ubj e. , i vc crr' c. ol meani ng oi crrr en nra-e i n
a society so th:rt thcy develop into a gcneral social problem, then
one wi l l hauc t o seek t he cause not i n t he subj ect i t sel f nor i n t he
given inter-subjectivity of human existence. It is rather to be ex-
pected that the causes arc !o be found in thc socil structure itself
Let us, t heref ore, cnqui re whi ch part l cul ar st ruct ures of a hi st ori cal
society counteract the dcvelopment of crises of nre:rning and which
encouragc such a development. More precisely:
what are the struc-
tural conditions for a sufficient dcgree of coincidcnce
in inter-sub-
jective reflections such that rhe foundation for the formation of per'
sonal idcntity *ith constant merlrng is givenl \(hen do these pro-
cesses create subjective criscs ol mcaningl And which structural
condi t i ons promot e and whi ch hi ndcr t he suf Fi ci ent coi nci dcnce of
' ocr al r el . r r ' r nr t hr r r . he l ound. r t ' " n of l r f F communi l i e(
t e' r \ t ; nr I u
\(e will attempt to answer thesc questions in concrete tcrms in the
light of thc historical developmcnt of nodcrn society. Flowever, we
wish to prcccdc this attempt with a fcw abstract, gencral considerx
tions. For it is possible
despite the prxctically endlcss multiPlicit/
and importance of differcnces between societies
to identify
with respect to our qr.lestion about the structural conditions for the
cnrergcnce of crisis of meaning
trvo basic types of social structure
across all cpoches-
he first type not particularly susceptible to crises of merning are
socicties which have a single and generally binding value systern into
which the different layers and rcalms of rncaning are well intcgrxrcd:
from cveryclay schemes of expericnce and action to the superordi-
nate categories of lifc conduct and crisis managerncnt directed
tovards extraordinary realiries. l he totaL stock of meaning is stored
and managed i n soci al i nst rt ut i ons.
Because the schemes of action objcctified and made mandatory in
social institutions are directed towards a common value system
superordinate to the specific nreaning it is assured in this type of so-
cicty that the institutions
sustain thc order of mcaning in basic con-
cordance with practical life. lhcy do this directly and, so to speak,
in dctail, by imprinting
thenlsclves or1 thc meaning of many day to
day actions; thcy do this, so to spcak, in the large by identifying bio-
graphical categories of meaning with communities of life, in particu-
l ar t hose s4ri ch are ent rust ed wi rh f orrni ng t he personal i dent i t y of
Lr l dr cn
Br or ur ng
i nr o nr enr bcr . of . oci cr y.
Differcnt societies correspond to this basic type to different extents.
Archaic societies correspond lrost truely to this type. The complcx,
ancicnt high cultures are slightly less closc, but essential characeris-
tics of this type are to be found cven in the premodern socieries of
modern times. Like all other societies these societies have nrany
organizational problems and their members have every life problem
i nragi nabl e: i n deal i ng wi t h nat ure, work, domi nat i on, l i f e and
deat h. Nat ural l y t here are al so qucsl ons of meani ng f or t he i ndi -
vi dual .
But t hese comparat i vel y st abl e, of t en even st at i c soci cri es
communicate an order of meaning which is consistent to a large
extent through congruent processcs of sociaiization and thc irxti-
tutionalization of action. Thcse proccsses are located in meaning-
fully rclated life communities
ancl diffcrcnt social spaces. This basic
type may be simplified as an ideal type, however societics whose
structure even approximates to this type provide no ground for the
growth and extension of subjective and inter+ubjective crises of
are diffcrent in societics in which shared and binding valucs
arc no longer given for everyonc and structuraLly
secured and in
whi ch t hese val Lrcs do not pcrmeat e al l spheres of l i f e equal l y and
bri ng t hem i nt o concordancc. Thrs Ls t he basi c concl i t i on f or t he
spread of both subjective and inter-subjective crises of rneaning. In
formulating this basic type of socicty
to crises" wc will again
neglect many dctails to identify in sinplification its structural char-
In such societies thcre may be a ualue systcn inherited by tradition
as a stock ol nreaning from bygone periods. This value system is
objectified in the socieral stock of knowledge and is here end there
still administered by specialized (rcligious) institutions.
even bc more than one set of valucs
fronr the stocks of
the musc imagin:rire of meanings. Not wanting to dexl with the
question of so crlled pluralisn at this point we set to one side the
posibility that a multiplicity of value systems may coexist A society
may even be l i abl e t o cri si s" i f i t cont ai ns onl y one si ngl e val uc sys-
tem, in the firll sense of the word, a single system consisting of ele
ments of mcaning (frorn schemes of experience and action all the
way to gener:rl categories of life conduct) incorPorating all spheres
of life arranged steprvise to{'ards superordinate valucs.
Even i n such a soci et yaval ue syst cm woul dbebot h
and not
presen!. In such a society the big instirutions
(of the economy,
politics, and religion) have separated themselves from the superordi-
nate valuc systen and determine the action of the individual in the
functional arca that they administcr. Economic and political institu-
tions make obligatory dre instmncntal rational, objcctive meaning
of schemes of : ct j on i n t hose areas f or whi ch t hey are responsi bl e.
' On
t he si dc
so t o spcak, rel i gi ous l nst i t ut i ons
' of f er"
val ue-
rationaL (wcrtrational) categories for life conduct. S(e use thc term
offer' even in thc case, assumed hcre, that society contains only one
ordcr of meaning orientated towards supcrordintc
valucs, not muf
tiple, courpcting systems. Because even in this case religiorrs institu-
t i ons t ransmi t t he hi gher ordcr cat egori es capabl e of gi vi ng meani ng
t o t he ent i rc conduct of Li f e, but even wi t hout compet i t i on f rom
ot hcr val uc syst ens t hese c: t et ori es may not be madc bi ndi ng and
may not be inposed on the conduct of people. Overall, the institu-
tions of tilis type of society no longer carry a well-ordered srock of
meaning and value consistendy and bindingly into thc practice of
A socicty is rnthinkable entirely without common values and
shared i nt erpret at i ons of real i t y. Vhat i s t he nat ure of val ues i n
such a type of society, obvrously tending towards the modern, and
wherc are they to be found) It is certain that the scheDres of action
institutionalized in the different functional spheres have a binding
ancl objcctive meaning for those acting in them. In the organization
of action within a single sphere there is definitely a community of
meaning. 1'har however is not much by way of commonalties. The
objective meaning of institutionalized schemes of :rction is instru-
mentally orientated towards the function of this area. Apart from its
generalizable aspect as instrumentally rariofial this institutionalized
scheme of action cannot be transferred between sphercs and it
certainly cannot be integrated into superordinate schenres of
meaning. lhe objective meaning of acrion cannor in itself be inte-
grated into ctegories refrring to rhe subject and simultaneously
directcd towards a superordinate value system. Only rcligious and
' quasi '
rel i gi ous i nst i t ut i ons
communi cat e cat egori es of meani ng
with such a claim ro generality. This claim is however refuted by the
obj cct i ve meani ng of t he schemes of act i on of t he ot her
"bi g"
i nst i -
direcr t[e adion of the individual in most
arcas of daily lifc, whether rhey conform ro the superordinate
meanings of schemes of life cornnrunicared, for cxample by religious
institutions, or not. The clai to integrate ones own life into a
superordinatc value system can be realized essentially only in a
sphere not t ouched by t he ot hcr
' bi g' i nst i t ut i ons,
i n a sphere so-
ci al i y def i ned as t he pri vat e sphere' .
A mi ni mum of shared meani ngs i n a soci et y
i s cont ai ned i n t he
t eneral
agrccment gi ven t o t he
"f i rnct i c, ni ng
of f unct i ons' , i e. t he
agreement that in each area of action condud should be directed
towards instrumcntally rational requircments.
Ancl this minimal
consensus is sccured by the generl ccePtance that in the
reserves of individual existencc and comnlunities
of life separate
meanings of Life may be pursucd, distinct from those of other indi
viduals and groups. This minimum may be cxceedcd even in this
typc of societics. First, it is remarkable that the
bind their spccific meanings
beyond the rationality of the
organization of action within thenr to general
valucs, such as for
exampl e
general i nt erest ". I -xceedi ng t he mi ni nl Lrm i n t hi s way
may fulfill abo"e all legitimately purposes
while the schemes ol
action thenxclvcs may remain untouched. Furthermore, secondly,
individr.rals and comrnunities of meaning may attenPt to difcct their
action evcn within a sphere adnrinistcred by a
towards supcrordinate
going beyond its instrumentally
rational objectivc meaning. llowevcr, this can occur only in conflict
with the specific instrumental rationality.
attenrpts by institutions to connct to suPerordinatc
values for
lcgitimatory purposes may prodrrcc only vapid fonnLriac and value-
orientated conduct of life may bc limited to the reserve of the pri-
vate. This would add to the conditions for the spread of subjective
anrl i nt er-subj ect i vc cri ses of nrcani ng. However, t hi s al so creat es,
simultaneously, the precondrtions for something clse, nanely the
coexistence of different value systems anclfragments of value systems
in the sanre society and thus the parallel existence of quite different
communities of meaning. The state which results fronr thse pre-
conditions can be called pluralism. If it itself becomes a suPerordi
nate value for a socicty we may speak of modern plLrralism
3. Modernity and the crisis of meaning
If pluralism rvere defined as a state in which people who lead their
lives in vcry different ways are to bc found in thc same society, one
would not be dealing with a spccifically modern phenomenon. One
could find one or other variant o{ pluralism in almost all societies
other than the archaic. Ancient lndia as well as the India o{ today
was charactcrized by a pluralism of casts, medieval Europe by a
pluralism of estates- But in thcse examplcs the different forms of life
would still be related to a common value systen and thc interaction
bctween the communities
of life would remain limited and strictly
regulrtcd. Even if one defincd pluralisrn as a state in which dif{erent
forrns of lifc were to be found in a society without these different
forms of life being referrcd to a common value system one would be
ablc to find examples, for instance the Roman Empire which in
economic and poLitical terms was a single sociery. But even here the
interaction between thc different groups and peoples
insofar as
they werc not regionally separatcd
was reglllated such that the dif-
fercnt supcrordinate stocks of nreaning were uncoupled from the in-
stitutionalized schcmes of action of the functional spheres. The dif-
ferent groups could, therefore, interacr in the instrumentally ra-
tional spheres o[ action while at thc same time remaining attached to
their orvn value systems- For example, the relations ofJews to non,
rvere regul at ed by t he so-cal l ed
' f ence
of t he l aw".
1f t hesc regul at i ons are no l onger, or can no l onger, be nrai nt ai ned,
then a ncw situation is created, widr serious implications for the
takcn-for granted starus of value systems and overarching views of
the world. Thc ethnic, religious and orher groups and coDrmunities
of lifc, divided by different stocks of meaning, are no longcr spatially
. cp. ] rrr. d (r.
f or o, ampl e i n rrgrorr ut r rori erl or ' rrrc
or i n quar.
ters or
of a city), nor do they interact only through the
neutral tcrrain of strictly separated sequences of action in institution-
al i zed f unct i onal spheres. Encount ers or, under cert ai n ci rcum-
stances, clashes betwcen diflerent vlue systens nd views of the
world becomc inevitablc.
ha'e bcen approximations to this state of affairs before, c. g.
in thc Ilellenic uorlcl. This form of pltralisrn is not necessarily
l i nkcd t o t he spread of cri ses of meani ng, t hough part i cul ari y
i n t he
Hellcnic world there wcre also signs of this. This form of plLrralism
has become fully flcdged only in modcrn societics. Here, the ccntral
structural aspects of this pluralisnr havc been raisecl to the sttus of
an cnl i ght encd val uc above t he di f f crent coexi st i ng and cont pet i ng
value systcnx. So, for examplc, tc'lerance is rcckoned the
lightencd' virtue par cxcellence, since onLy through tolerance can in-
dividuaLs and conrmunities Live side by sicle and with one anodler,
whilst directing eir existence towards different values. This
modcrn f orm of pl ural i sn i s, ho*cvcr, al so t hc Lrasi c condi t i on f or
t i re spread of mbj cct i ve and i nt er subj ect i ve cri ses of meani ng.
\Vhethcr modern pluralism neccssarily lcads to such crises is en open
quest i on. Howevcr, one can say wi t h cert ai nt y t hat i n hi ghl y
devcloperl indusrrial countries, i-c. where mc,dernization has
progrcssecl furthcst and thc nlern form of pLuralism is fully
developcd, value systems and stocks of meaning are no longcr the
comnron property of ail members c'f society.
he individual grows
up i n a norl d i n whi ch t here arc nei t her conrmon val ues whi ch
det ernri ne act i on i n di f f erent sphcres of l i f e, nor a si ngl e rcal i t y
identical lor all. The 'ndividual is incorporated into a suPcrordinate
system of meaning by thc cornmunity of life in which it grows up.
Howcvcr, this canrot be assuned to bc the nrcaring system of odler
pcopl e (Mi t mcnschen). l hcse ot hers may ha"c been shaped by quhe
different sysrens of nrcaning in the communities of life in which
they grew up. In Europc, shared and overarching systems of in-
terprctation werc already shakcn in the early phase of modcrni-
zation. The history of totalitarian ideologies in the last hundred
ycars has shorvn th:rt nothing, not cven radical regrcssion, can re
store such interpretativc schemes pcnnanently or make thcnr the
structLrral charactcristic of a modern society. lt is, by the way, also
questionable whcther fundamentalist attempts in rhe countries ofthe
so called Third Vorld will be more successlul regardless of the in-
tensiry rvuh *'hrch overarching and universally binding stocks of
meaning are defended today.
It has been notcd that such conditions pronrote the spread of sub-
and intcr-subjective crises of meaning. ut while some condi-
tions accelerate such crises there are others which hinder them. The
pal c superordi nat e val ues of modern pl ural i sm do not have t hi s
power. They nray have other useful effects in that they promote the
peaceful coexistence of diffcrent forms of life and value systems.
lhey are, howevcr, not suitable to dircctly counteract the spread of
crises of meaning. They tell the inclividual how to behave towards
other people and groups who differ in their view of life. They do
not, however, tell one how one should lead onc's life when the un-
questioned validity of the traditional order is shaken. That may be
achieved by diffcrent means. As the degree to which socially valid
conditioning of shared interpretations ol reality decreases different
communities of life can develop increasingly into quasi-autononrous
comnunities of meaning. insofar as these communities prove rhem-
selves relatively stable they may preserve their nrembers from crises
of meaning. Stability is particularly important for the role played by
such life communities in the coherent formation of personal identity
of children grorving up in them, who may thereby be protected
f rom subj ect i ve cri ses of meani ng. Concret e communi t i es of l i f e as
qasr'autonomous conmunities of nreaning, and nrore stable,
conrmurnitics of like minded peoplc (Gesinnungsgemeinschaften)
counteract the pa demic spread of crises of meaning. However, they
cannot t ranscend t he precondi t i ons whi ch prornot e t he spread oF
cnscs of meaning anchored structurally in modern society. Iiur-
themore, to rcpeat this point, communities of ljfe nr which the dis,
crepncy between the expectcd and factual community of mcaning
is too great can themselves become the trigger for inter-subjective
cri ses of meani ng.
This dialectical relationship bctween the loss of meaning and the
nev creat i on of nreani ng or bet ween t he erosi on of nrcani ng and i t s
rebuilding can most clcarly be observed in the case of religion.
is, in any case, thr: most important form of a comprehensive pattern
of experiencc and values, systematically structurcd and rich in mean_
ing. For the largest part of human history a society was unthinkable
without a single rcligion encompassing everything and everyone
gods of nry ancestors verc nanrrally also nry own gods; my
gods were naturally aLso the gods of all the members of my tribe or
ry town. Most archaic societies wcre like this. Across long periods
of time high culnrres with rnany differentiated social institutions
wcre l i ke t hi s as wcl l . Then t hi s uni t y bet ween t he i ndi vi dual , hi s or
her soci et y and t he gods, embodyi ng t hc hi ghest aut hori t y i n t he or-
dcr of vaiue, rvas shaken in diffcrcnt piaces and at diflerent types by
religious schisms. This happened long before the beginning of mo-
dernity, as for exarnple in the exodus of lsrael from the unified sym
bolic order of the Middle East, or even more radically in the separa-
tion of Christianity from the symbolic order of classical antiquity.
After such schisnrs there were rcpeated attempts to restore a super
ordinate sysrem of oreaning on a new basis, perhaps of a smaller
scope ("subculture' instead of culturc)
as in the unity of the tribe
of Isracl with its God or in the constant search for thc unity of the
Chri st i an church.
Vith the concept of Christendom in the European middle ages an
anempt was made to irring together all the people in a certrin space
of power under a single, common and superordinate system ol
meaning, and to h,-,ld thcm there. \Vc know that this attemPt
never entircly successful. \ithin Christendom nrinorities preserved
their special symbolic systerls
heretics, cults deriving from a
pagan part. At ti'res thc symbolic unity of Christendom was broke
up f rom wi t hout (l sl am) or f rom wi t hi n (Greek Ort hodoxy, Al bi n-
gensians). It was most severely shakcn by the Rcformation- The con-
sequences of thn quake were not intended, for the reformers wanted
to restore and prcscrve a uni{ied Christendom on r ncw basis. The
schism of thc church foiled this attempt at thc European level.
l 1
Alongside thc Orthodox church two new
onc C:rtholic, the othcr Protcstant. The formula rvirh which the
religious wars in central Europc were ended
cuius rcgio, eius reli-
wis thc foundation for an attcnrpt to restorc symbolic unity at
l east wi t hi n smal l spaces of rul e. Ll owcver, due t o t he onset of mod
ernization cven this territorial solution was only short lived. In-
dustrialization, urtranization, nrigration and mass communications
could not be clcanly divided into Catholic and Protestant channels.
In nodcrn central Europc Catholics and Protestants (and increas-
ingly membcrs of many faiths, not to speak of incrcasing numbers of
peopl e ni t hoLu rel i gi on) encount er each ot her and are mi xed up,
e. g. t hrough rrarri age.
The conccpt ofregio in thc formula of the Peace of Vestphalia thus
loses its spatial mening. ltcgio becomes the sphcre of cotrmu
nication for a community of meaning and conviction rrsually not
limited to a particular area. One is Catholic by belonging to a
Catholic rcligious community and taking part in other Catholic
i nst i t ut i ons evcn i f one' s nei ghbors are prot est ant s.
' l hese
tures, generally voluntary conrntunities of convrction, no longer
offer the security of earlier comnrunities of life and nreaning which
were embcdded in societai ordcrs of value and meaning. Never,
rheless, through various fornrs of comnrunication and social rela-
tions they can save the individual from unmasterablc crises of
meaning. If they do not turn radically against socicty and are at ieast
toierated by it, they act, so to spcak, on aggregate to stenr the spread
of crises of mcaning in society. linlightened rulers wcre wise enough
to recognizc this and left their subjects to seek happiness where
they find it". It turned out that the hope tirat Catholics could be
loyal supporters of the Prussian crorvn was well founded.
Vhat has been said about religion holds, mutatis mutandis, for other
conprehcnsive orders of meaning. Moderniz-ation has made the
assertion ol thc monopoly of localized sysrems of nreaning and value
across entire socicties more tlifficult if not entirely impossible. Ar
the safle time it has creatcd e posibility for the formation
communitics of conviction transcending spacc (e. g. through com-
prchcnsive ideologies) and from drcse stocks of meaning the shared
nreanings of smaller coolmunities mxy be derived. Despite this pos
sibility the overall deuelopmcnt cngenders, above all, a great degree
of insecurity; both in the orientation of individual actions and the
ent i re di rect i on of l ; f e.
Nevert hel ess, i t ' oul d be mi sl cadi ng t o draw t he concl usi on, f rom
this alone, that nrodern societies suffer from comprehensive crises of
rneaning. There are still people who cven under these conditions are
able to establish a meaningful relationship between the experiences
of thcir own lives and the various interpretive possibilities offcred to
them and who are therefore able to conduct their lives relatively
meaningfully. Furthertrore, there are the institntions, sub-cultures
and communities of convictiol wirich transport transcendent values
and stocks of mcaning into concrete social relationships and life
conrmunities and support rhenr there. The succcss of modern socicty
beyond t hcse
"i sl ands
of meani ng" i s duc t o a l egal i zat i on of t he
rules of social iife and its
fashioned nrorality", lurthermore
through the formal moralization of certain more or less profession-
alizcd sphercs of action- Legalization means that the functionaL sys-
tem is rcgulatcd by abstract nonns, fixed in writing and binding on
ali members of a society. Moralization is an attempt to solve con-
crcte cthical qucstions that appear in individual spheres of action.
|or example, in the USA academic disciplines such as
etirics' or
ethics' have cmerged. Legalization ignores the
different value systenrs of thosc affected. The nroralization of pro-
fessional spheres does without a conrprehensive order of meaning.
Iloth creatc thc conditions in which people manage their daily lives
wi t hout a comprehensi ve and shared nroral rt y.
Such a society can be comparcd rvith a system of traffic rules. One
stops on red and drives on grcen and the maintenance of these rrrles
is in the intcrest of all participants. One can therefore normally rely
on people abiding by the rules without the rules themselves being
legitinrated in deep moral tcnns. If the rules are inlringed, one can
bring those who have infringcd thc
rules" to reason, by laws
or by non state rules, rlaintained by trade associations or medical as-
sociations. Char:rcteristically, groups with rival interest in demo-
crtic societies attcmpt to havc the
rules' which are most im-
portant for them legalizcd by thc state. Obviously, the analogy is
only partial:
rul""s" can rcfcr only to the practical issues of
individual spheres of social lifc. Lven there a moralizing, value-
orientared rhetoric must bc enrployed.
Particularly if groups with an intcrest in a particular set of rules
wish to use the denrocratic proccss to legalize these rules, then they
must seek t o l egi t i mi ze t hese rul cs by ref erence t o vxl ues rel evant t o
all of society
however vaguely thesc may be formulated.
Beyond t he i nf l uence of t he l aw and t he
"et hi cs'
of part i cul ar sphere
individuals are lcft to their own devices. Systems of ethics let
alone the laws which rcgulate conduct in professional life or in the
publ i c sphere
arc of l i nl e rrse i n overcomi ng cri ses of meani ng and
conf l i ct s i n person: l l i f c. I l owcvcr, even i f we i gnore t he f act t hat
the analogy wnh traffic rulcs is incomplete, it is in any case valid
onl y f or t hc
' normal
case . Vhat docs t hat mean? h means t hat t he
analogy assumcs a society which has achievcd a high degree of eco-
nomic prospcrity, experiences no inrDlcdiatc threat from outside and
has netotiated relations betwccn diffcrent group interests relatively
peacefully. h is one of thc saddcning experiences of this century that
"normal i t y'
i s al ways f ragi l e. l f condi t i ons are
"abnormal "
particularly if it is dcmanded of individuals that they should place
their interests bchind those of socicty as a whole, then
are no longcr cnough. In such a situation, an overarching morality,
regardless of how it is founded, bccorncs e societal imperative.
\{rhat we have
claimed draws on a tradition of sociological
theory which can be traced back abovc all to Emile Durkheim and
the French school founded by hin. Flowever, it rejects one of their
basic assumptions. Durkheim bclicved that no society can survive
without an overarching morality; ire named that overarching
morat-symbolic c,rder
\e diverge frorn Durkheim in that
wc clo not accept this necessity for thc
case". lhe dialogue
with Durkheirn rcquires us to specify this
case" more pre
cisely. Durkheim devoted much effort to the study of the phenom-
enon of sacrifice because he considercd that the willingness to sacri'
ficc oncs own interests and in extrcnris ones life for thc social whole
was a decisive characteristic for thc ability of a society to survivc.
Durkhci nr' s assumpt i on hol ds f or a soci et y rvhi ch i s exposcd t o an
cxi st cnt i al reat . But i t rs preci sel y t h t hreat whi ch i s mi ssi ng i n
t hc normal case . The t raf f i c part l crpant s need t o f ol l ow t he rui es
i n t hci r orr, n i nt erest ; no wi l l i ngncss i or sacri f i ce i s presumed.
Modcrnization makes the occurrcrrce of such
cases" nruch
morc 1ikely than it was in carlicr pcriocls: rnodernizarion brings with
it cconomic growth which is typically associared with rclative politi-
cal stability. The citizenry is much lcss tcnrpted to question the le-
gitinracy of an order lvhcn its survival is sccured by matcrirl
prosperiy. However, it should bc cmphasized that it would be a
gravc crror to assume that this statc could be regarded as secure and
i rreversi bl e.
' l
hc rveakeni ng and even t he col l apse of an overarchi ng order of
nrcani ng wi t h t he onset of moderni t y i s hardl y a novel t heme. The
cnlishtcnmcnt and its successors n,clconrcd this process as thc over-
turc for thc crcation of a new onler bascd on freedom and rcason.
hc postrevohLtionary French traclitioralists and other conservative
thinkers have bewailed the same procss as decadence and declinc.
Vhcthcr modcrnity and its conset1ucnce arc welcomed or rcjected
thcrc ;s widespread conscnsus on tbe facts of the matter. !e feel thet
t hi s conscnsus t hough not compl ct cl y unf ounded does undul y si nr
pl i f y a conrpl cx si t uat i on.
' l hcrc
i s wi despread consensus not onl y
anrong* experts but also in conrnxrn sense understanding about the
cause, perhaps even the main crusc of this breaking apart of the
conrprehensive order of meaning.
his is to be found in the retreat
of religion. Religion here is not understood in the wider sense
enployed by DLrrkheim, i.e. as any comprehensive order of meaning
and world order, but rather in the narrower more corventionl
t 5
religion, as belief in god, in another world, salvation and
the bcyond. $(ith reference to thc n)odern \Vest this implies that the
declinc of Christianity has causcd thc modern crisis of meenint.
This nor very original interpretation was accepted as fact and wel-
comed by progrcssive philosophers anrl intellectuals and mourned
by almost all conservative ideological thinkers. Put simply the main
thesis of this argument, well established in the socioiogy of religion
as the
thesis' is that modernhy leads inescapably to
sccularization secularization in the sense of a loss of influence of
religious institutions on socicty as well as the ioss of credibility of
religious interpretations in peoplc's consciousness. Thus comes into
being a historically new species:
nrodern person" who believes
that one can cope both in ones own life and in social existence with-
out rel i gi on.
The conf ront at i on wi t h t hi s
' nrodern
person" hes become an i m-
port ant t opi c f or whol e
gcnerat i ons of Chri st i an t heol ogi ans and a
cent ral poi nt i n t he progranrme of t he Chri st i an churches i n west ern
count ri es. l ; or t hi s t hesi s, as wel l , a nLrmber of argrrmen* can be de-
pl oyed. I l i st ori cal evi dence suggcst s t hat at Least si nce t he 18t h cen-
t ury t he soci al i nf l uence of t hc church has decl i ned, at l easr i n wes-
t ern Europe, and t hat i mport ant i nst i t ut i ons (e. g. t he enri re educa-
tional systcm) have liberated thcmselvcs from their earlier religious
ties. In addition, the term
person" is not entirely divorccd
from reality. It is likcly that there are a considerablc number of
peoplc who cope with thcir lives without religious faith (in the sense
defined carlier) or religious practice. Vhether this type of secular
exjstence is an absolute novelty is questionable. It is likely that there
have always been pcople who have found thcir happiness in this
v'orld without churches
before and after they came into ex-
istence. But even disregarding this, dre equation of modernity and
secularization must be treated skeptically. I{ the secularization thesis
applies anywhcre, then in westcrn l-urope. (Even there it would
have to be questioned sr'hethcr thc institutional retreat of the
churches can be equatcd with the rctreat of rcligious interpretations
in consciousness.) Observers of the European religious scene (incLLrd-
ing one of the two authors of this study) have for a long time
pointed out that declericalization shouLd lot be confused with the
loss of religion. In any case the convcntional secularizalion dlesis
rapidly loses credibility as soo as oue leaves
A particular irritant for this theory is the state of religion in the
United States. American society crn hardly be described as un-
modern. I Io*'ever, religion is forccfully alive and present therc. And
t hi s i s t rue bot h at t he i nst i t ut i onal l euel as
q' el l
as i n t he consci ous-
ness anrl life conduct of millions of peoplc. There are fcw signs that
this situation is changing in thc dircction suggcsted by the scculariza-
tion thesis. Outside l:,urope and North America it is in any case
nonscnse. The so called l'hird Vorlcl is in fact shaken by thc onrush
of religious rnovements. The Islauric rereissxnce has attracted most
attention but it is far from bcing the only case. \Vorldwide one can
tracc thc success story of evangelical Protestantism, the most striking
chapter of which is Evangelism. l his new Protestantism spreads like
a prairie fire
in s-ide stretches of East and Southeastern Asia, in
Af ri ca sout h of t he Sahara and most surpri si ngl y
i n al l coun-
trics of Latin America. Often it is precisely those layers of society
most touched by modernization which are most susceptible to reli
gious cndrusiasm. The troops of todays religious mass movcnrents
arc to bc found in the new citics of the Third Vorld, not in thc tra-
ditional villages. People traincd at tbe nrodern universitics are olten
t he l cadi ng cadres of t hi s movemcnt .
ln short: the European model of secularized modernity has only
l i mi t ed export val Lre. The most i nrport ant f act or i n t he creat i on of
cri ses of meani ng i n soci ct y as i n dre l i l c of t he i ndi vi dual i s prob-
abl y not t he supposedl y modcrrr secul ari t y but modern pl ural i snr.
Modcrnity means a quantitative as lvellas qualitative increase in plu
structural causes of this fact are well known: popula-
tion growth and migration and, associated with this, urbanization;
pluralization in the physical, dcrrogr:rphic sense; the market eco-
nomy and inclustriaLization which throw together people of the
most different hinds and force them to deal with each other reason-
ably peacefully; the rule of law and denrocracy which provide insti-
tutional guarantces for this peaceful coexhtence. The media of mass
communi cat i on const ant l y and emphari caLl y parade a pl ural i ry of
ways of life and thinking: both prlnted material riding on mass li,
teracy spread across the entire population by compulsory schooling
and the nes-est electronic media. If the interactions enabled by this
pluralization are not restricted by
of one kind or another,
rhis plurlism takes full effect, bringing with it one of its conse-
quencesr the
crisis of meaning.
of the law" was alrcady mentioned. Rabbinical
erected this fence to distinguish practicing
from their profane
surroundings. It was this
which made possible the survival of
community over many centuries in a mainly hostile
Christian or Islamic society- One nlight also sey: the
of the
law" protected those people livnrg within it from pluralism. This
protection collapsed with the emancipation of the
in wesrern
societies and the people affccted were consequently particularly
liable to crises of meaning. It is not mere happenstance lhat modern
thinkers and writers hav e con cern ed th emselves particularly in-
tensively with such crises of meaning. Conversely one can say that
any group that wishes to protect itself from the consequences of
pluralism must erect its own
of the law'. As was mentioned,
there have been instances of pluralisur throughout history, for in,
stxnce in the large towns of late antiquity and probably at times
along the trade routes and the urban cenrers of Asia. The modern
processes of pluralization distinguish themselves from their pred-
ccessors not only by their immense extent (much wider circles are
affected by them), they are also distinguished by their acceleration:
whiLst their effects progressively extend to
countries, they do
not remain static, in already highly modernized societies they are
Modern pluralism leads to a thorough relativization of systems of
values and schemes of intcrpretation. Put differently: the old value
systems and schemes of interpretation arc
The result-
ing disorientation of the individual and of whole groups has for
years bccn the main theme of socixl and cultural criticism. Catego-
ries such as
arc proposed to charctcrize
thc difficulty experienccd by people trying to find their way in the
modcrn world. fhe weakness of such common place concePtions is
not that they exaggerate the crisis of meaning. Their weakness is
t hei r bl i ndncss t owards t he capaci t y of i ndi vi dual s as wel l as di f f er
ent conrmunities of life and meaning to
preserve their own values
and intcrpretations. Existential philosophy from Kicrkegaard to
Sartrc has developed the most imprcssive conception of the alienatcd
human being. Other versions xrc to be found throughot recent
\festcrn literanrre (one need mention only Kafka). However, it can-
not bc doubted that this imagc of humanity applies to only a small
portion of the population in rnodern societies
(though this portion
may be in certin respecrs an important one). Most people in these
societies do not vander around likc characters in a Kafha novel.
They are not plagued by fear and are not tempted to make desperate
lcaps of faith
nor do they co sider themselves
frcedonr'- One x-ay or anothcr, with or without religion, they cope
with their lives. It is important to understand how they mnagc this.
But before we attempt !o pursue this question
we wish to return
oncc more to or.rr clain that pluralism is the cause of the crisis of
mcaning ir modernity. We must cxamine more closely the signifi'
cance for the stock of meaning end the process through which
meaning is lost, of the social psychological status of meaning and
knowlcdge as taken'for granted.
4. The loss of the taken-for-granted
lf communities of life and mc:ning rcally overlap to the extent that
is demanded by social cxpectariols, rhen social life and the existence
of t hc i ndi vi dual procced habi t u: l l y al nrost
t hemsel ves". Thi s
does not necessarily imply drat drc individuals have no life problems
or that they are happy with thcir fate. However, rhey a! least
about the world, how tr-, bchave in it, what is reasonable to
cxpect and, iast but not least, indiviclLrals know who they are. For
exrmple, the role of a slavc was presurnably never a pleasant one.
Nevertheless, however unpleasant it may have been the individuals
who occupied this role livcd in a steady and clearly identifiable
world in which they could orientate their behavior, rheir expecta-
tions and their iden!ity rvith sonrc dcgree of confidence. They were
not lorced to daily rcdefine the nrcaning of their existence. This un
anbi guous def i ni t i on of exnt cnce i n t he worl d was shared by t he
siaves ard their owners, though it must be assurned that the latter
f el t more at ease i n t hei r cxi st ence t han di d t he sl aves. Nei t her rhe
slavc nor the slavc orvner were, as Sartre rvould say,
freedom". (Thc possibilrty that the slaves might rebel or the slave
on'ner abandon his property to bccome a monk nccd not concern us
quite apart from the f:ct that such cases were rare.)
Modern pluralism undcrmines this conrnron-sense
The world, society, life and personai identity are called ever more
into question. They may be subjcct to nrultiple interpretations and
cxch interpretation defines its own perspcctivcs of possible action.
No irterpretrtion, no rangc of possiblc actions can any longer be ac
cepted as the only true and unquestionably right one. lodividuals are
thus frequently faced with thc question whether they should not
have iived their lives in a completely different manner than they
have hitherto. 1'his is expericnced on dre one hand as a great libera-
tion, as an opening of new horizons and possibilities of life, leading
out of the confines of the old, unquestioned mode of existence. The
sanre process is, however, often exPerienced as oPPressive
(often by
the sanre peoplc)
as a pressure on individuals to repeatedly make
sensc of the new and the unfamiliar in their realities. Thcre are
pcople who withstand tllis pressure; thcre are some who evcn seem
to rclish it. One might call thcnr v,rtuosos of pluralism.
the najority of people feel insccure and lost in a confusing
full of possibilities of interpretation of l'hich some arc linked to al
rernat i ve ways of l i f e.
The concept s devel oped by Arnol d Gehl en i n hi s t heory of i nst i t Lr
lions help us to understand this anrbivaLent situation. Vc have al-
ready made rcfcrence to this body of theory in the introductory
cirapter with reference tc, the inrportmce of institutions for hunran
oricntation in reality. Institutions are designed to relieve individuals
of thc nccessity of reinventing thc world and reoricntatiog thcm
selves in it evcry day. Instittltions create
for the con
duct of social interaction and for the
of particular cur-
ri cul um vi t ae. They provi de t cst cd part erns t owards whi ch peoPl e
may rl i rect behavi or. By pract i ci ng t hese prescri bed" nodes of be'
havi or t he i ndi vi dual l earns t o nat ch t he expect at i ons t hat go wi t h
ccrtain roles: c. g. as husbancl, father, employec, tL\
Paycrl Particr'
pant in traffic, consumer. If institutions are functioning reasonably
norm:rlly, thcn individuals fuLfill the roles assigned to them by so'
cicty in the form of institutionalizcd schemes of action and lead their
livcs accorcling to insritutionally sccurcd, socially shaped curricula
which arc largely accepted unqucstioningly.
in their effccts institutions are substitutes for instincts: they allow
act i on ni t hcrut a1l al t ernat i ves havi ng t o be consi dered.
Many soci -
et al l y i nport ant soci al i nt cract i ons arc carri ed out quasi aut omat i
calLy. Every timc slaves receive an order from their mastcr they do
not need to consider whcthcr to obey or Dot. Nor does the slave
orvner pause to consider whether he is entitled to give orclers to his
slaves. Neither the slaves nor the slve owner queslion their own ac-
tions or the actrons of dre other; typiclly, their action is unreflec-
tivc. Connecting Gehlen's theory of institutions
with the social
psychology of Georgc I Icrbert Mcadc (to which the preceding dis-
cussion of the formation of pcrsonal idcntity is also indebted) one
can say that the institutional
ir in-
dividual consciousness and dircct thc indivldual's acrions not as alicn
but as t he i ndi vi dual ' s
own mcani ngs.
' Programmes"
are i nt ernal -
ized in multi-laycred proccsscs: first in
sociliztion", in
which the Ioundations are laid for the formation of personal iden-
tityi then in
socializ-ation" which directs the individual
towards the rolcs of social rcality, above all in the world of work.
The structurcs of society bccomc structures of consciousness. Slave
and master do not mcrcly behave in conformity with their roles,
they think, feel and conccive of thcnxclves in ways that conform to
their rolc behavior.
hc srrbjectivc world of the individual does not
necessari)y have to coincide complctcly s,ith socially objectified rea-
this is impossible. In the process of socialization there are if
not real breaks then at least snrall cracks. In the fornration of person-
ality there can be at best an :pproxinration to the complete con-
gruence of meani ngs. A scanrl ess t ransi t i on f rom pri mary t o sec
ondary soci al i zat i on
j s
t hc cxcepri o i n nrost soci et i es, not t he rul e.
The individual has idiosyncratrc inrpulses and dares ro transfer
dreams into day to day life and to seek adventures outside the pro-
grammes of socicty. Neverthclcss, even is can be spoken of as
' ' nonnat i t y' .
Devi at i ons f rom t he i nst i t ut i onal programmes and di -
vergences from the society's historical rescrvoirs of meaning (and re
serves of meaning) are relativc)y rare and remain limited to the indi-
vrrl rul :
and rhi ' rncan' t h: u rl
. y
Jo nor enrer i nro communi carrve
processcs anri that
opcrares even at the lowest level of
objectification and conrmunication of
thoughrs. If
is unable to contain the deviation within the interior
life of the individual
thcn special institutional programmes are ap-
plied in the treatment of the deviant.
rrearment has both an ex-
ternal and an internal aspect. DxternalLy tllc range of treatments ex-
tends from the physical liquidation of those who have deviated from
the true path to loving spiritual care for
sheep". One way or
another the deviant bchavior must bc rendered harmless
for the execution of thc progrannre. fhe obstacle to the smooth
functioning of the machinery must be removed. The internal aspect
of t hi s process of soci al cont roL i s t he at t empt t o st op devi ant
thought and to restorc the previoLrs
acceptance of nor
Instinrtions draw thcir power from the naintcnance ol unqlres-
tioned vaLidity. An institution is endangered fronr the moment in
which the people Living within it or with it begin to think about in-
stitutional roles, identities, schenres of interpretation, values and
ways of viewing thc worlcl. Conscrvative philosophers have always
sensed dris; senior police mcn know it from practical experiencc. In
t he normal case" dangerous t hought can be reasonabl y cont roi l ed.
However, pluralism makes this controL more difficult.
is here
a cLear sociafpsychological dialectic
from liberation to burden-
some frccdom: it is extremely hard to be forced to lead ones own life
without being able to hold on to' unquestioned patters of interpre-
t at i on and norms of bchavi or. Thi s l eads t o a cl amorous nost al gi a
for the good oLd days of unfreedom. Liberation is an xmbituous
thing. As GehLen puts it: freedom is born out of alienation
Modern l i t erat urc i s f ul l of exampl es of t hi s. One need t hi nk onl y of
t hc t heme of
"provi nci al i sm",
of t hc bi ographi cal di al ect i c bet ween
town and city, of thc many possiblc
to freedom' (Arthur
Schnitzlcr). Madame Bovary suffers in her narrow, provincial world.
But if she had had the chance to move to Paris she would not have
remai ned happy f or l ong. Al i enat l on woul d have been t he pri ce of
her grcrt er l re"dom. rhe l -, ' ' cl r. br"r cen, rrnl y l rer
"roorl c-
chilclrcn would probably have conceived the idea that the old pro-
vincial world had its good sides after all which at the time were so
taken for grantcd drat they were not noticed at ali. A physicalreturn
to that world is usually no longer possible. There is however no
shortagc of suggested routes for an internal return (religious, po'
litical, therapeutic), *.ays of healing the pain of alienation. Projects
aimed at restoring the good
world" almost always include the
suppression or linitation of pluralism
and with good reason:
pluralism constantly suggcsts alternatives, alternatives force people
to think, thinking undermincs the foundation of all versions of a
oLd world'; the assumption o[ its unquestioned existence.
Modernization inplies the radrcal transformatjon of all external
conditions of hunan existence. l he motor of this giant transforma-
tion, as has often been said, is drc science-based technology of the
last centuries. In purely matcrial terms this dcvclopment hes
brought rvith it a huge expansion of the range of possibilities.
Vhereas in thc past a few technologies, passed on from generation
to generalion, wcre the foundation of material cxistence, there is
now an apparently endless and constantly improving plurality of
technological systems. Both individuals and huge organizations face
the nccessity of choosing one or other option from amongst this
plurality. This conpulsion for choice extends fronr trivial consumer
goods (which brand of tooth pastel) to basic technological alterna
tives (which
raw nTaterial for the motor vehicle industryl). The in-
crease in the rangc of options also extends to the social and intellcc-
tual sphere. I Icrc, nodernization meam the change from an exist-
ence dctermined by fate to onc consisting of a long series of possible
choices. l:ate previously determined almost atl phases of life, the in-
dividual movcd frorr phase to phasc according to prcdetermined pat-
terns, childhood, rites of passagc, employment, marriage, child rear
ing, ageing, illncss and death. Fate also determined the internal life
of the individual: feelings, interpret;rtions of the world, values and
personal identity. The gods were
preselt" at birth, as was
the sequence of social roles that followed. Put diffcrently: the range
of pregiven, unqucstioned assumptions exrendcd to lhe largest part
of human exi st ence.
Modernization fundamentalLy changed this. Birth and death are still
determined by fate. In parallel to the plurality of pos-
sible choiccs at a natcrial level multilayered processes of moderni-
zation open up x rarge of options at thc social and intellectual levcl:
should I take up) Vhom shall I marry? Ifow shorrld I
bring up nry children? Even the gods can be sclected fronr a range of
possible options. I can change my rcligious allcgiance, my citizen-
ship, ny life style, my image of nrysclf and my sexual habitus. The
rangc of taken for-granted assumptions shrinks to a relatively small
core whi ch i s hard t o def i ne.
' l
hc t echnol ogi cal economi c f ounda
t i ons of t hi s changc are at t he l evcl of t he mat cri al , but i t s soci al di -
nrcnsi ons are i nt ensi f i ed, above al l , by pl ural i sm. Pl ural i sm not onl y
pcrmi t s one t o rnakc choi ces (j ob, hud; and or i vi f e, rel i gi on, part y), i t
forces one to do so as the moclcrn range o[ consumer goods forccs
onc to choosc (Persil or ArieL, VV or Saab). One can no longcr
choosc not to choose: it has bccome in)possible to close ones eyes to
the frct that a decision that onc nrirkes could also have been made
diffcrcndy. Two central instirutions of modern society
transition from rhe possibility of choice to the comPulsion to
choosc: the ruarket econorny and denrocracy. Both institr.ltions are
f oundcd on t he aggregat i on of i ndi vi dual choi ce
and t hemsel ves
cncorage cont ; ouous choi ce and scl cct ron. Thc et hos of dcmocracy
nrakcs choi ce i nt o a f undament al human nght .
f ire taken-for-granred resides in thc reaLm of unquestioned, securc
knowledge. lhe loss of the taken for-granted unsettles this realm: I
know less and lcss. Instead I have :r ralge of opinions. Some of thesc
opinious condcnsc into sornething that one night call bclief. Thesc
are opinions for vhich I an prcparcd to make sacrifices in the lirrrit,
even today, to sacrifice my lifc, but probably no longer unquestion-
i ngl y. I t l i cs i n t he nat ure of t hi ngs t hat i n t he
' normal "
l i f e of so
ci ct y and t he i ndi vi dual such l i nri t cascs are rel at i vel y rare l n t he
' nornral
process of moderni zat i on i anr i n any case no l onger
forcecl to decide v.hcther I am preparcd to wager my life for faith or
evcn nrcre opinions. Unqucstioncd, secure knor'ledge dissolves into
a no longer very compclLing aggrcgate of loosely connccted
opi ni ons. Fi rm i nt erpret at i ons of reai i t y bccome hypot heses. Con-
victions become matters of tastc. Conrmandments become sugges
t i ons. These changes i n consci ousness crcat c t he i mpressi on of a cer-
t ai n' f l ar ess.
One can rmaginc the conscioLrsncss of the individual as different
levcls layered on top of each othcr. In the
(this term is not
r.rscd here in thc |reudian scnsc of depth psychology) lie those inter-
prctations drat arc taken for granted. This is the sphere of unques-
tioned, certain knowlcdge. Alfrcd Schtitz called dris the level of the
for-grantcd'; Robcrt and Ilelen Lynd meant some-
thing of the same kind with their concept of
The other pole, thc uppermost lcvcl of consciousness (uppermost in
the sensc of closest to thc
is the sphere of insecurity, that
which is not taken for grantcd, opinions which I am in principle
prepared to revise or evcn retract. This sphcre is ruled by the motto
son gut . In this layer rlodel, thc modernization of con-
sci ousness appears as a l oss of
' dept h' .
More engagi ngl y one can
view consciousness as a huge coffee nraker the contents of con
sciousness of all types have evaporated upwards, the residual
grounds has senousl y shrunken, t hc cof f ce has become prert y rhi n.
The l oss of t he t akcn-f or-grant ed rvi t h al l i t s soci al and psychol ogi cal
consequerces rs most pronounced
as one woui d expect
i n t he
sphere of religion. Modern pluralism has undercut the monopoly
enjoyed by religious institurions. Vhether they like it or not the
religious institutions :rc suppliers in a nrarket of religious options.
peoplc has drvindlcd to a mernbership which
can in nany churches bc countcd on the fingers of two hands.
Membership in a particulxr church is no longcr taken for granted,
bur rather dre result of a delibcrate choice. Evcn those who decide to
renain with thc confession of their parcnts are making such a
choice: they could, after all, havc changed confcssion or religion or
simply left the church altogethcr. This fundamentally changes the
social position of the churchcs, whether their theological self-image
is willing to acknowledge
dris state of aff:rirs or not. If they wish to
survive, churches increasnrgly necd to consider the wishes of their
membcrs. The church must provc irself in the free markct. The
pcoplc x'ho
a particular faith become a group of consuners.
Regardlcss of how stubbornly the thcologians refuse to acknowledge
it, the wisdom of thc old connercial nraxirn
customer is al-
ways right'
has forced itself on the churchcs. They do not always
abidc by this maxirn, but often enough they do.
' l
hc churches have i ncreasi ng di f f i cul t y i n hangi ng c' nt o unmarket -
abl c dogmas and pract i ces. l hc sanre process changes t he rel at i on
shi p of t hc churches t o one anot hcr. They can no l onger count on
t hc st at c ci t her t o dri ve t he f l ock i nt o church servi ces or t o deel wi t h
their rivals. The pluralistic situxti<>ll forces thc rival churchcs to get
aLong. Initially, this forced tolcr:rnce is grLrdging, later it is lcgiti-
ruized theologically (it bccomcs oecunrenical). The American church
historian Richard Niebuhr introducecl the corcept of
t i ons" whi ch hc def i ned as f ol l ows: ' A denomi nat i on i s a church,
which has achnowlcdgcd dre right of othcr chr.rrches to exist." It is
no acci dent t hat t he t erm
"dcnon)rDat i on"
ori gi nat ed i n t hc USA
f ronr a soci et y rvhi ch can be secn as rhe p; oneer of modern pl ural -
i snr. l hc i ncreasi ng si mi l ari t y of t hc rel i gi ous si ruat i on i n ot hcr
modern soci ct i cs n i t h rhe si t uat i on i n t he USA cannot be expl ai ncd
by a proccss of cul t ural Aneri cani zat i on
as somc, f or obvi ous
idcological reasons, wish to bclicve. The simiLarity is only superfi-
cially due to American inflLrences. I* real cause is the global sprcad
of nrodern pl ural i sm.
hLs shift has i* correspondent rt the level of individual conscious-
ncs. Religion also
rrpwards'; it loscs its status as taken
for granted. This shift creatcs for faith the status of
bascLl on t he sent encc: I do rot hal c ! o bcl i eve
vhat I know.
' l
hi s
rel i gi ous possi bi l i t y' i s usual l y ovcrl ooked
when t heol ogi ans
l anrcnt t hc t ri vi al i zat i on of rel i gi on i n moderni t y. I l owever, such
drcol ogi ans are not keen t o ednl i t t hat t hey mi ght wi sh t o sce a si t u-
ation in which one could bc * Christian in the same taken'for-
grantcd way in which one is man or woman, one has brown or blue
cycs and suffers from hay fevcr since birdr. This posibility of faith
mst howcvcr be plausible particularly to protestant theologians.
Prot est ant i snr, f ronr Lrrt her' s comprchensi on of consci ence (Ver
st ndni s des Ge\ \ ' l sscns) t o Ki erkcgord' s l cap of f ai t h' , has been t he
modern rel i gi on par cxcel i ence. I hcol ogi ans coul d acknowl edge
t hese i deas wi t h hopc rat her t hal pessi mi sl . From t hc soci al sci ent i
fic perspective one nru$ howrvcr recotnize that modcrn society has
not scen a great accumulation of Kierkegaardirn
of fairh .
More typical is a typc of pcrson l,ith
a per
son who belongs
sonrchow' to r church, but in a loose way, which
for theologians must be r.rnconlfortably closc to other realms of con-
sun]ption. People with
opinions change their opinions
relatively easily evcn if they do not thcrcforc aLways change their
membershi p i n a
"denomrnat i ou
. l radi t i onal Chri st i an churches,
particularly il F.uropc, stiLl h.rvc grcrt difficulty in accepting this
change. They, in fact, wLsh to closc their eyes to it. For examplc, the
Roman Catholic ChLrrch refuscs to understand i*elf as a
t i on . Those branches of Prot cst ant i sm whi ch st i l l underst and t hem
sel vcs as appeal i ng t o t hc popul at i on at l arge have si mi l ar di f f i cul t i es.
The excepri on are di sest : bl i shcd churches, above al l i n t he Angl o-
sa-ron world, *'hich have exisred in a pluralistic situation from the
The loss of depth in religious consciousness can be traced (not co-
incidentally) in the ^nerican languagc.
he nost common exprcs-
sion for belonging to a religion in thc United States is
prcf crence", as i n
' my
rcl i gi ous prcf crcncc i s I -ut heran"; i n German
this transLates into:
7-jehe es vor, l,uthcrancr zu sein". By com-
parison, the expression still comnrcn in Contincntal Europe is
anr of the Luthcran confession". The exprcssion
fession" refcrs to bearing witness, cven to the wilLingness to make
the sacrjfice of a martyr. .lhe American cxprcssion, by contrast,
comes from thc realm of the languagc of consunption (and from the
realm of economic sciencc
detenninc the market for a commodity or a service). k implies a lack
of comnl t ment and ref ers t o t he possi bi l i t y of prcf erri ng somet hi ng
else in future. It is a historical irony of the current European situa
tion, that, for cxarnple, Gennans also mean nothing more than a
ligious prefercncc' when they say that they are of the Luthcran con-
fession. Thc Ioss of the takcnJor-granted is today a global phenom-
5. Habituatcd meaning and crises of mcaning
Day-t o day act i ons are carri ed on habi t ual l y. Thei r i mpl i ci t rneani ng
i s unt ouched. Hard, t hrcat eni ng ri nres can l ead t o t he eppearance of
crises of nreaning in some areas of life. Even then orher arcas remain
under the inflLLcncc of old habinratcd rneanings. liven during civil
wars and earthquakcs people bmsh thcir teeth if thc water supply
has not beer cut off. Thc litcratrrrc c,n such periods, c. g. memoirs
about Gcrnrany in the last years of the war and its imnrediate after
n1at h cont ^i n i mpressi ve t est i mony of t he rvay i n whi ch apocal ypse
and norm:rlity coexist side'by side.
Even in hard tirnes, crises of meaning rarely afflict all arcas of life
sinultaneously and vith dre same forcc. Particularly when habitu-
ated action has become difficult or irnpossible in many areas, it pro-
tects x8ainst crises of meaning in those areas where one can continue
according to habit. In societies in rvhich crises of meaning occr.rr not
in the rvakc of serious catastrophcs and total wars the range of ha-
bi t ual norrnal i t y vhi ch i s mai nt ai ncd i s of course much wi der. But
takenJor-granted habits are not
thrextened by serious events in
thc fate of the collectivity, but also by radical changc in the life of
the individual. In all societies there arc certain typical changcs which
may unlcash crises of meaning if thcy are not socially acknowledged.
In archaic and traditional societics there are ritcs of passage which
give mcaning to these changes. Puberty, sexual initiation, cntry into
agc and death could be cxpccted with less uncertainty because
codes of behavior existed for dealing with these biographical breaks.
l he societal foundation of tue:ning c sured that these changes were
not experielced by the incli"idual pcrson as deep crises let alone
existcntial threats.
weakenirg or even complete absence of such
ritcs of passage in modern societies can be read as a symptom
a co-cause
of a slowly rising crisis of meaning. In part, this devel-
opr r r . nt r . wel l i . oued r o moJer n pl ur al i zr t i on.
clarify what has been saicl, let us consider two spheres of life in
t he exi st ence of t he i ndj vi dual t hat are part i cul arl y i mport ant bur
al so cri si s ri dden: sexual i t y and occupat l on. That human sexual i t y
couLl alv'ays and everywhere lcad to crises of meaning is adequately
documented in popular sayings and the entirety of human literamre.
he main theme of popular songs in all countries is lovc, love sick-
ncss and disappointed love. The institutions that were fonncriy re-
rluired to dealwith such troubles are still in business today, foretrost
amongst these the churches. Ve will return to this point. Churches
were, however, never the only institutions which were and have re-
nrai ned act i ve i n t hi s area. Rel ari onal nerworks of i nt erect i on
t hcy cont i nue t o cxi st
bel ong t o t he soci al i nsri t ut i ons
whi ch scrve f or t he producri on and communi cat i on of nreani ng.
Young pcople in this or that fornr of sexual trouble mey still rrn to
a well treaning uncle, aunt, grand-parent or godparent. However
here as wcll, like for the churchcs, there has been a decided loss of
crcdlbility. Geographic and social mobility has very much weakenerl
the network of relational intcraction. Furthermore, it is more and
more likely that, for example, the well-meaning uncle not only lives
far away but is also hopelessly confused by his own love life. The
same can be said for problems in the arca of work
worrics about
sui t abl e rrai ni ng, t roubLes wi t h t he boss and wi t h col l eagues, unem-
pl oyment and at some poi nt , usual l y i n t he mi ddl e of a career, t he
incscapable rcalization that cvcrything has becn achieved that could
be hoped for and that from can at bcst hope ro evoid
downward social mobility.
In both areas, modern socicty has
new institutions for
the production and communication of meaning
psychotherapy of
different sorts, sexual and professional counsellors (both already pre-
sent within schools), special courscs and seminars for adult educa-
tion, departrnents of the welfare state, psychologically trained (or ra-
t her, hal f t rarned) personnei of f i ccrs, and l : st but no! l easr t he mass
media. The piest and the old aunt may sometimes sti1l be heLpfuL.
But it is more probable that
pcople turn towards the new
institutions of orientation. For this purpose one often does not even
have to visit an office, an institution or a practice. Simply turning on
the television, one is faced with a widc range of therapeutic pro-
granrmes. ^lternatively one goes to thc bookshop and chooses from
the shelves packed with Self-Help litcrature the volume that is best
tuned to ones crrent difficulties, whcthcr they be in ones outer or
inner life.
A word on the mcdia of mass conrnrunication from publishing to
tclcvision: as has often and rightly been said these institutions play a
kcy rolc in modern mcaningful orientation
or more precisely in
the communication of meaning. lhey mediate between collective
and i ndi vi dual experi ence by provi di ng t ypi cal i nt erprerat i ons f or
probl ems whi ch are dcf i ncd as t ypi cal . Vhat ever ot her i nst i t ut i ons
provi dc by way of i nt crprct t i ons of real i t y and val ues, t he medi a
select and peckage these products, transform them in the process and
decide on the form of dissemination.
Modern society has a nunber ofspecialized insritutions for the pro-
duction and communication of nrcaning. Even though an adequate
typology of these institutions and nn enalysis of their mode of opera-
tion would be helpful, social scicntists have only tentatively begun
to deal -ith this problem. lly way of a first approximation one
could distinguish betwecn thosc instittrtions which offer their inter
pretivc scrvices on an opcn nrarkct (e. g. psychotherapy) and those
institutions which cater to a smaller, often strictly closed commu-
ni t y of mcani ng and spi ri t (scct s, cul t s and communes wi t h st ri ct l y
defined styles of life). The distinction into new and old institutions
of meaning-production has its uscs. There are old institutions (the
mos! important are the churchct who continue to cultivate their
5 1
established interpretations of rcality as best as thcy can and to offer
t hem compet i t i vel y i n a pl ural i st i c si t uat i on. Newer i nst i ut i ons
have to start from scratch, but thcy h;rve the
that they
can take unrestraincdly fronr the traditional meanings of the differ-
ent cr.rltures and epochcs. llven though such institutions xre free to
draw on a single, well tlefined, ancicnt stock of meaning, they are
without exception highly syncrctic. Techniques of meditation
imporrcd from Asia are to be found alongside the newest practices
of psychotherapy, dizzrying scxual cxperiments alongside a restricted
petit-bourgeois ideal of f:rmily happiness. And all of this can be
distributed through the mass advcrtising nrcthods of late capitalism.
with these discrepant intcrpretations of reality requires a
ccrtain skill and consequently a number of professions have emcrged
specialized in this aptitude. These are the professions of the
ledge industries", as econonlists call this sector. Helmut Schelsky has
characterized them as occupations which arc conccrned with the
educat i on, counsel i i ng and pl anni rg of ot her peopl e-
The i nst i t ut i ons of meani ng product i on have a range of possi bl e
options. Hos'ever, in tcrnrs of the strategy they chose to enforce
their inrerpretive perspective in society they are limited to two main
possi bi l i t i es. On t hc onc hand t hcy may ent er t he market i n whi ch
they must survive m compctition with old and new suppliers. On
the other hand they may mobiliz-e the state for their purposes. Pro-
duccrs nray acquire a monopoly position through lcgislation
qualified psychologists may practice psychotherapy or their pro
duction attracts a statc subsidy
public health insurance pays for
or thcir product may be dlstributed by means of
certain categorics of delinqrrcnts are obliged to submit to a
psychotherapist treatment. lhis dcvclopnrent does nor lack a certain
irony. The monopoly position which was taken from the churches
by the democratic, law-bound statc is now confcrrcd by thc demo-
cratic wlfare state on a number of new institutions for the produc-
tion of meaning. There arc no longcr established churches in the old
sense. Instcad there is official therapy, to paraphrase Philip Rief, a
therapeutic state.
observation, however, leads to considerations
which lie beyond the theme of this essay.
One can dcscribe all these institutions elso in Arnold Gehlen's ter-
minology as
institutions". lly this is mcant that these
institutions no longer, as in the past, stand at the centre of society
as t he church once di d
"i n
t hc nri ddl e of t he vi l l age . I nst ead, t hey
pcrfonn limited and often highly specialized functions. A further
distinction may bc uscful in this contcxt: on the one side we find in-
stitruions which cnable individuals to transport their pcrsonal vaiues
from privatc lifc into different sphcres of society and to apply them
in sLrch a way as to nrakc them a forcc shaping the rest of society.
On t he ot her si dc t here are i nst i t ut i ons whi ch t rcat t he i ndi vi dual
mercl y as a more or l ess passi ve obj ect of t hei r symbol i c servi ccs.
Only the first mcntioned are
institutions' as they
have been known to sociology since Durkheim. lhcy are
medi ary" i n t hc sense t hat t hey rucdi at e bet wcen t he i ndi vi duel nd
the pattcrns of cxperience and action established in society. Through
t hcsc i nst i rurl ons, i ndi "i dual pcopl e act i vel y corl t ri but c t o t he pro-
duction and processing of the social stock of meaning. It is the effect
of these institutions that the existing stock of mcining is not ex-
perienced as rthoritatively given and prescribcd lrut as an rep-
ertoire of possibilities that has bcen shaped by the individual
members of socicty and which is opcn for further chauSes.
-l ' he
di st i nct i on bet seen i nt crnrcdi ary and non-rnt ernrcdi ary i nst i
tutions cennot bc made in the abstract. It has to bc made through the
cmpiricial analysis of the concretc mode of operation of a sphere of
action. A local parish community, a psychotherapist group, even an
agency of the wclfare statc may be a true, mediating structure in the
midst of the pcoplc associated wilh it. l hc same fornr of institution
rlay, however, also appear as imposed, as a force alien or even hos
tile to the iife world of thosc indivLduals associatecl with it. Both
forms are
both conrnrunicate meaning- I Iowever, only
in the first mentioned fornr arc thcy suitablc to soften the negative
aspect s of mocl erni zat i on ("al i cnat i on",
"anomi e")
or cven t o over-
conre crises of meaning. If such institutions take the sccond form,
t hey cont ri but e t o
"al i cnat i on'
One fLrrther rcmark should L'c made about the churches. Amongst
the prinrary institutions" of practically all premodern societics re
ligion takes a central place. This centrality was essenrial to Durk-
heirl's conception of
Religion was a symbolic remedy
spreacling throughout all of society, collecting all shared interpreta-
tions of reality (repr6sentations collectives) into a cohercnt view of
the world, and in the process providing the foundation for e societxl
moral i t y (consci ence
col l ect i "e)
bot h consci ousness and con-
sciencc. As was already nrentioned, rcligious institutions in modern
soci et i cs can no l onger cl ai m t hi s posi t i on. They are no l onger t he
solc bcarers of supcrordinate ordcrs of value and meaning.
increasingly reduced to secondary institutions. They are pushed
from the centre to rhe periphery of the
The pompous cer-
emonial buildings that stiil stand appcf,r as museums and the theo-
l ogi cal i y l egi t i mi zed sel f -def i ni t i ons ("Cat hol i ci sm",
sanct a' ,
"peopl c' s
church") no l onger f i t t he empi ri cal f act s. The chLrrches
abandon eir (empty) public rolc and take on a private role in the
lives of thosc who still continue to be members of the church or
who havc recent l y
j oi ncd.
l hi s change i n rol e need not be
j udgcd
merely ncgatively. Despitc losing its central role in society overall
in some cases precisely because of this loss
the church can still
perfornl ao cxtremely positivc function as an intermcdiary institu-
t i on, posi t i vc bot h i n t erms of t he l i f e of t he i ndi vi dual and t hat of
soci et y as x whol e. For t hc i ndi vi cl LraL t he church can be t he most
i mport ant communi t y of meani ng; t hrough t he church t hc i ndi vi d'
ual may establish a meaningful bridge between private Jife and par-
ticipation in socieral institutions.
church provides mcaning both
to family life and to citizenship. The church makes en important
contribution for society as a whole. It supports the stability and
crcdibility of the
institutions (above all the statc) and reduces
t he
' al i enat i on"
of i ndi vi dual s f rom soci et y. That was of course
al ways t hc bi g soci al rol e of rel i gi on. Fl owever, t oday, when t he
church perfornls its function as an intcrrnediary institution, it does
so without compulsion. By contrast with its former role, that is
significant diff erence.
The church may also fulfill an important, purely religious function
with no or minimal associated soci:l functions. This is true in the
case of a l onel y ol d person, wi t hout f ami l y and a
j ob
and wi t h pol i -
ticaL interests limited to occasional reading of a newspaper. For thcsc
people participation in church Life nray be of decisive importxncc
in the church scrvice, in prayer, rn bible class and in other actions
which transccnd socially defnred rolcs, such peoplc may exPerience
thenselves as mcmbers of a comrlrrnity of nreaning. If the church
also fulfiLls social functions, these uray communicate meaning in the
manncr discussed above, or may rcmail effective only in thc private
spherc of thc church's members. I hc iatter functions were for a long
time cultivated by the Pietist and cvangelical branches of Protestnt
isrl. But even such
religion may have indirect social
conscqucnces and these may be inrportant (as Ma-x \fleber already
rvas aware). For example, it is an open question to what extent a
f amLl y l i f e regul at ed by rel i gi ous val ues may i nf l uence
' on
t he
i ob'
behavi or (and t hus t hc economy) t , r bcha"i or i n t he pol i t i cal real m.
in any case, the church as an intermcdiary institution has immcdiate
social conscquences by directing thc rndividuaL !o think his
rolc through the church's view of the world and then to act in
ptLblic in concert with othcr nrenrbcrs of thc religious cornmunity of
mcaning. This role of the church otrvic,usly has a particular imPor-
tancc in dernocratically constitutcd societies. Alexis de Tocqueville
alrcady arrived at this conclusion iu his worh on democracy in the
Uni t ed St at es.
Lct us sLrmmari zel The st ruct urel con(l i t i ons f or t he spread of sub-
j cc! i ! c
and i nt er-subj ect i ve cri srs of rncani ng t hat we have deduccd
lrom thcorctical considerations arc to be found in a1l western soci-
clics of the present, though thcy manifest themselves quite differ-
cndy. The most irnport:nt oi thesc conditions is modern pluralism,
sincc it tcnds to destabilize the takcn-for-granted slatus of the systcnl
of meani ng and val ue t hat ori cnt at cs act i on and underpi ns i dcnt i t y.
Neverthcless, modern socictics tlo not
experience the
drarnatic spread of criscs of mcaning. Both subjcctive and inter-
subjectivc crises of meaning occur much more cornmonly in such
societies, however they do not conclcnse into a general crisis of
meaning affecting al1 of society.
characteristic condition of
in modern societics Dtay bc termed a latent crisis of
mcaning. The reasons for this condition are the various factors
which act xgainst thc conscqnences of nrodcrn pluralisnr most liable
to produce crises of mcaning. In our opinion thc most inportant of
these factors is a basic stock of intermediary institutions. These insti,
' Ur
i orr.
. . rvc
ro gener Lre m"*rrrng' . rnJ r" . rrpport
exi sri ng meani ngs
i n t he l i ves of i ndi vi du: rl s and i n t he cohesi on of communi t i es. They
provi de peopl c wi t h ori ent at i on cvcn when soci et y as a whol e no
longer supports an overarching ordcr of meaning and values, but
instead acts as a kind of rcgulating instance for thc differenr systens
of val ue.
' l hose
rul es whi ch arc val l d f or al l of soci ery serve ro
enabl e t he coexi st cnce and neccssary cooperat i on of di f f erent com-
munl t res of nreani ng, wi t hout i nrposi ng on t hem a comnon order of
val ues.
Vc therefore suggcst dre hypothesis dtat as long as the immune
systenr of intermediary institutions rer:rains effective,
dern societies will not suffer the pandenric spread of crises of mean,
ing. As long as thrs condition holds, the crisis-of-rneaning virus
which is at home in the organism of all modern socicties will be
suppressed. Howcver, if the immune system is sufficiently weakened
by othcr influences, thcre is nothing to stop the spread of the virus.
(Characteristically, it is the state which hclps to weaken inrermcdi
ary institutions
as a form of corlpetition?) This hypothesis seems
plausible to us, howcvcr simplificd its formulation, but it, of course,
rcquires careful cmpirical invcstigation. In the last section we return
to this.
illusions and possibilities
Compl ai nt s about t he
of cl t ure", t he l oss of meani ng i n
moderni ry", t he' al i cnat i on of hunrani t y i n l at e capi t al i sm' , t he' i n-
f l at i on of mc: rni ng i n mass soci et y", ' t he di sori ent at i on of peopl c i n
thc irodern rvorld" and suchlike arc hardly new. Theokrgians, phi-
losophcrs, sociol;gists, quitc apart fronr non academjc moral entre-
preneurs fronr far right to farleft havc been making thcse com
pLai nt s l or r nl . rmber of
Benerat i ons.
Under di f f erent i deol ogi cal
signs all inuginable renredies have bccn advertiscd for thesc illnesses
of t he i ndi vi dual and soci et y, f rom dre nroral st rcngt heni ng of t he
individLral to the revolutionary transformation of the entire poiiti-
cal econonric system. C)ur doubts about the most cxaggcrated
noses" c,f thc cultural conrlition were hintcd at in the introductory
section. Lct us add here that
rceard the proposed
wi t h equal skept i ci sm borh t he radi cal -col l ect i vi st opt i ons whi ch
are in the r:nd always totalitarirn as *eli as radical individualism
whi ch i s i n t hc cnd a sol i psi sm.
see whethcr a core of truth is to be found behind the ex:rggcra-
tions and whedrer thc diagnosis rrrs only in the seriousness of the
specifically nrodcrn crisis, we havc attempted to describc the organ-
isn in its healthy state. Ve first refcrrcd to the meaningfulness <-,f ac-
t i on and l i f e const i mt i ve of t he human speci es and t he way i n whi ch
it is conditionecl by social processcs and structures. In a sccond step
we could then clefine the historicaL changes which definc the specifi-
cally nodcrn construction, conrrnunication and sccuring of the
rncaning of life ud acrion nr nrodcrnity. Before formuLating our
own, co]nparatircly modest
suggestions, we will
br i cf l y. u, r ' , r r , r i , . r l - , r c. u
. , , l or r r
" dr ; gn. r . i '
Al l soci ct i es are i nvol ved i n proccsses of generat i ng n)eani ng, even i f
they hxvc not de"elc,ped spccialized institutions for the prodction
of neaning. In any case, thcy control the process through which
clcments of meaning are absorbccl into social stocks of knowledge
and organi ze t he conrnl uni cari on of hi st ori caL st ocks of meani ng t o
the members of society, adapting to cw needs. Through institurions
soci et i es preserve t he basi c el enrcnrs of t hei r st ocks of mcani ng.
They communi cat e meani ng t o rhc i ndi vi dual and t o t he commu,
nities of lifc in vhich
thc individual grows up, works and dies. l hey
determine subjective neaning in rvide areas of acrion, whilst the
objcctified meaning of these actions is dictated by the big institutions
of domination and the econorly. All dris gocs on in all socieries in
one way or another, but it occurs with diffcring degrees of succcss.
Vc therefore first pursued the qucstior whethcr there are gencral
reasons fbr these diffcrences.
Our first concern was wirh pcrson:rl identity, the individual refe-
rence point of the mcaning of action and life. The personal identity
of dre child is shaped through sccing its behavior mirrored in the
actions of those closc to it. A certin congruence in the actions of
these persons is thereforc the nrosr ir:rportant condition for the un
t roubl ed devel opment of pcrsonal i dent i t y. I f rhi s condi t i on i s not
nrct, the probabiiity of subjective criscs of meaning incrcases. Fur-
thermore, we have attcmpred to show rhat communities of life re,
quire a minimal
ovcrlap in intcrprctations of reality. Only under
this condition can conmunities takc on a supporting role in the gc-
neration and sustenance of rDcannrg in the life of their melrbcrs.
degree of congruencc betwccn the expected community of
mca ing ard the community actually rcalized appeared of particular
suggesr that the greatcr the degree of discrepancy,
the larger is the likelihood that intcr subjective crises of meaning
will result.
we turned our atrention to nrodern societies it became clcar
thxt it is those features which make them different from their prcd-
ecessors rvhi ch al so prevent t hc st abi l i zat i on of meani ng. t he mri n
tenance ol congruence ln thosc processes through which personal
identity is shaped bccomes morc difficult as docs the promotion of
shared meanings in life communitics. I'he frequency of both subjcc-
tive :rnd inter subjectivc criscs of nreaning is intelligiblc once we
considcr thc consequences of the structural charecteristics of nrodern
societies, in particular modern western societies. Taik of identity
crises and the mounting figurcs of the divorcc statistics confirm both
A gencral, fundamental feature of modern societies is the thorough
di f f erent i at i on of act i ons (t hat 1n ot hcr t ypes of soci et i es were st i l l
connect ed and rel at ed i n meani ng) i nt o t hei r own i nst i t ut i onal
spheres: each of drcse airls for, ancl is largely successful in achieving,
autonomy in setting its own orrls, i. e. enrancipation fronr super-
ordinate social valLres. Schernes r-,f actjon defined by these sets of
instinrtions (economy, political clourin:uion, reLigion) have an objec-
tificd meaning that is related tc, thcir main function. Since, with thc
except;on of rcLigion this 1rea[ing is instrumentaliy rtional, it must
bc uncouplcd from subjective schtrlcs for nrterpreting life. lndivid'
rrals nrust subordinate themselves to the goals of the organization
rat hcr t han adapt i ng t he demands madc on t hem t o t hci r own con-
ccpt i ons of
yal ue.
The st ruct ural di f f erent i at i on of modern soci ct i cs
i s t hus not compat i bl e ri t h t hc cont i nued exi st ence of superordi nat c
and generally binding systems of meaning and value. This is, how-
cver, the condition for a socially guaranteed congruence in the for-
malion of personal identity and fc,r a hi6h degree of shared meanings
1 lile comnunities.
To this rnust be added a furthcr characteristic of the structurc of
modern, above all western socictics, th:rt is ciosely related to thcir
basic characteristic. This is nrodcrn pluralism, a pluralism, in 'vhich
the protectivc fcnccs around the stocks of mcaning within commun-
i t i cs oI l i f c (t hc
' f ences
of t he 1aw' ) can no l onger be compl et el y
mai nt ai ned. Through t he gaps i n t he f ence peopl e pear at what l i es
beyond. l hi s l cads t o t he l oss of t he t akcn-f or-grant ed st at us i n cer'
t : ri n l ayers of rncani ng whi ch ori ent at e act i on and l i f e. \ Ve hope t o
have shown t har t hi s i s a t ypi cal cause of t he out break of cri ses of
are t\|o extremc allcl contradictory reactions to no-
dern pluralism.
One might say that thcre $,hcre some desperately attcnrpt to close
the holcs in the protectivc fcncc, othcrs rvish to tear down trore of
the fence. These reactions are forrndcd i| trvo diffcrcnt attitudes, not
only in individuals, but also in institutions, cornmunities and social
movcments. The
position aims ro rcconquer all of
society for the old valLrcs and traditions. Politicians have again and
again attcmpted to exploit thc attitude link to this affect for their
own purpose, in westcrn socicties with little succcss. Prine Minister
Maj or wnh hi s
' back
t o basi cs" i s onl y t he rnost recent pol i t i -
cian to have discovered thrs to his cost. Ily
reiativist posi-
tions abandon the attempt to asscrt any kincl of common valucs and
stocks of meaning. Postnrodern thcorists nlake a virrue of necessity
and di spl ace t he pl ural i sm of soci ct y cvcn t o wi t hi n t he harassed i n-
Both reactions are wrong and may cven becontc dangerous. In irs
radi cal vari ant t hc f und; rnrent al i st posi t i on l cads t o sel f dest ruct i on
*' hen i t det ermi nes t hc act i on of weak groups. Thc' ot her' i s de-
st royed i f st rong groups put t hi s at t i t ude i nt i r act i on. I n i t s moder-
at ed f orm t hi s at t i mrl e l eads t o t hc ghct t oi zat i on of t he
' own'
wi t hi n soci et y rs a B, hol c. i hi s rs hard t o achi eve and i s associ at ed
l ' i t h vari abl e cost s, as t hc cxampl es of rhe Pcnnsyl vani a Ami sh, t he
Hassi di c
I ews
i n Nes, York, t he Al gcri ans
j n
l i rance, t he Turks i n
Berl i n-Kreuzberg et c. dcnronst rat c. Nei t her t hc
"f undament al i st "
nor the
position can bc rcconciled with practical reason.
But the
position is cvcn internally inconsistent. If it rvere
put i nt o act i on
j t
woul d l ead t o t hc i ndi vi dual l eavi ng soci ct y. A per
son who cqually accepts quite different mutually contradictory
norms will not be capablc of cohercnt acrion for which he or she
can assume responsi bi l i t y. Such a pcrson wi l l not be abl e t o gi vc rea
sons for acting in onc rvay r:lthcr thitn anodlcr; his or her actions
must appear compl et cl y arbi t rary al d no onc woul d be abl e t o
expect that hc or she *-ould not conrplctely change in character in
t hc next moment . l hcref ore, i ncl i vi dual s no l onger responsi bl e f or
t hei r ac! i ons cannot mai nt ai n rhc urut uaL obl i gat i on o{ soci al rel a-
tionships.'fhc nrinimum of nutual respect that is essential for thc
existetce of communities of life and therefore for the whole of a so'
cicty would be lost. Howevcr, whcreas
act on their
bel i ef s,
' rcl at i vi st s"
remai ned conf i ncd t o t at t <.
To considcr how the crisis of nreaning of modern societies may bc
count ered, i f at al l , i t i s essenri al t o rcal i ze t hat t wo qui t e di f f erent
strr.rctural characlcrislics of modern society have quite different con
scquences. Stmctural differentiation of function (and thcir instru-
mentaLly-rational organization in thc economy, administration and
La-r') ancl modern pluralism are amongst the preconditions
for the
long list of advantages which nrodern socicties are able to offer their
mcmbers: economic prospcrity and the not merely material, but also
psychic security of a law'bc,uud welfare state and parliamentary
denrocracy. The same structural charicteristics are however also rc_
sponsiblc for the co[dition drat nodern societies are no longer to
perfc,rm a basic anthropological function rvhich all societies havc
f ul f i l l ed, namcl y rhe generat i on of l reani ng, communi cat i on of
mcannrg and preservat i on of meanLng, or, at l east , modern soci et i es
no longer perfornr this fLurction in thc same, relatively successfrrl
rvay in which orher, earlier so.ial formations did. Modern societics
may havc spccialized institutions for the production and cornmuni-
cat i on of nreani ng, or have permi t t cd t he devcl opment of such i n-
' r ' . r r i or r . . bur , r e n" l ong, r ahl ( l u. or r r r r , uni ( al c or
Pr r \ cr vc
\ y_
tcnx of rneaning and valuc to all r-rf society in a gcnerally binding
fashion. The srructure c,f mcrdcm societics alongside
wealth and
othcr advantages also creates thc conditions for the enrcrgence of
snj c. t r ve r nd r r r r enubr r . r . c . r , '
uf n, r ; ni ng.
lf there *'ere no proccsscs and structures in modern society that
coLrnt eract ed t he en)crgcncc and sprcad of cri ses of meani ng, t hen
t hese soci ct i cs woul d be t he most f crt i l e host s f or pandemi c cri ses of
nreani ng. l hat woul d cert ai nl y bc a hi gh pri ce whi ch rnodern soci
eties paid for thc blessings and securities that rest on the sxme causes
1s the criscs. lly focusing exclLrsiveiy on this high price and iSnoring
thc advantages achieved at thc same tirne, radical cures have been
6 l
proposed f or t hc supposedl y scri ous i l l ness of modern soci et y. l n
those cases in
such curcs l crc acnrally atternpted by regimes
of totalitarian rcgression, it turncd out that the cures wcre more
deadly than the discasc.
Ilouever, one nccd not ever'r attcmpt to
the advantages and
disadvantages of such a calcularion even handcdly, since its premises
are false. The reconstrction of prernodern structurcs with a singie,
generally valid and t:rkel for-grantccl stock of meanings and values
cannot be contrasted with a socicty whose material wcalth is washed
over by a general crises of nrcaning. The artenrpts to restore pre-
modern structures of socicry, which are possiblc only with modern
means of compulsion, havc all failed in the short- or long run. But
this point is less important in this contcxt than the fact that the
image of the character of modern socictics is distorted. Precisely, in
those societies rvhose basic strucnrre provides thc conditions for the
emergence of cri ses of mcani ng and t hc possi bi l i t y o{ t hese cri ses
spreading, specific countcracring processcs have produced structures
i vhi ch have prevent ed t he unhi ndcred spread of cri ses of meani ng
and prevent ed a cri si s of mcani ng af f ect i ng al l of soci et y. The most
i mport ant of t hese st rucmres sc havc at t cnpt ed t o underst and usi ng
t he concept of i nt ermedi ary i nst i t ut i ons . 1he previ ous sect i on di s-
cussed their strengths and weaknesses. To simplify: the basic struc-
turc of modern societies is thc causc of incipient criscs of meaning-
In nodern societies thcre are, howcvcr, also parrial srructures, above
all the
institutiorls" that prcvent these crises of mean
ing flaring up into criscs of the cntirc socicty.
are norc or less
successful depending on their quality and qLrantity in modern soci-
eties. Given similar basic stmi:tural conditions the failure of counter
ecting forces to develop or their dccisivc rveakening can lead to the
spread of crises of meaning, whereas strengthening these forces can
help to dam thc crisis.
Irronr this argunrent we can dcrlrrce one ofthe fcw, reasonably reaLis-
t i c met hods wi t h whi ch soci ct i cs can deal
' drcrapeut i cal l y"
wi t h
crises of meaning. One should have no illusions about the main
cause of crises of mcaning, i. e- the basic structures of modcrn so
ci et y.
' l herc
i s no ant i dot e t o di f f crent i at i on and pl ural i m whi ch
has not revealcd itself to be a deadly poison. Intermediary institu'
tions can only administer honrcopathic doscs. These cannot renrove
the cascs, however they may softcn the ppearance of the illness
and incrcase the po-er of resistancc to it. They kccp the crisis of
meaning 'n its incipicnt form and prcvcnt it from fLaring up. fhe pa
ticnt is kcpt alive in a state s'hich apart from the constant tendency
t o cri ses of mcani ng i s not part j cul arl y di sagreeabl e.
Benecn t hc i mpossi bi l i t y of t hc rcl at i vi st i c" react i on t o moderni y
and the frightening possibilitics of funrlamentalism'
there is an-
ot her posi t i on. As best one can, one reconci l es onesel f t o t he nega-
tive consequenccs of structural diffcrentiation and modcrn
ism. Onc opposes the dangcr of the destruction of modern socicty
by totalitarian rcgression, but sees no reason to
in thc celebrx_
ri on of , l odern pl Lrral i sm. Thi s programme i s modcst , but , wc f eel ,
real i st i cr i nt ermedi ary i nst i t ut i ons shoul d be support cd wherc t hey
do not cnrbody f undat rent al i st at t i t udes, $' here t hey support t he
' ' l i t t l e
l i f c *orl ds" (a t erm coi ned by Beni t a Luckmann nrAny ye{rs
ago) of conrmunities of meaning and faith and where thcy develoP
t hei r nrcrnbcrs as carri ers of a pl ural i st i c
ci vi l soci et y' . I n t he
"l i t t l e
life worlds" thc various meanings olfered by agcncies for commr.rni-
cating nlcanin8s arc not simply
rthcr they arc appro-
priated communicatively and selectively processed into elcments of
t he comnruni t y of meani ng and l i f c. Thi s unspect acul ar bnt by no
means passi vc basi c posi t i on al so has i mpl i cat i ons f or mcdi a pol i cy
rv: ry bcyond t he soci al and cuhural poi i ci es of t he st t c. l t i s t he
' , ' pon. l , r h
" I r h, l eaJer ' of t l . . ' gcr . , r ' . or nnr uni . r t i r r g
r r ' c. r r r i r r g.
the miss nredia, to supporr irtcrnrcdiary institutions within the
context r:f :r dcrcgulated market in mcaning. And this is a policy
which lics within the rcalm of the possible. In terms of content they
nus! stcl'r a middle -ay bctwccn the dogmatic collectivisnr of the
' ' f i rndrnrcnt al i st s"
ard dre l at ri l c sol i psi sm of
"post modcrni t y".
I n
nodern s, cst crn soci et i es soci al and cul t ural pol i cy have nrany, i n
part contradictory functions. If our considerarions are close to thc
mark, i t shoul cl be cl ear i n whi ch di rect i on t he mai n soci al and
culnrral policy efforts of the srate
and rcsponsibie and capable
non-st at e agenci es
shoul d be ci i rcct ed i n deal i ng wi t h t he i nci pi cnt
crlsis of meaning: to thc promotion and development of the intcr-
medi ary i nst i rut i ons of a pl urrl i st i c
"ci vi L
soci et y" and t owards sup-
port i ng t hem as sourccs of meani ng f or communi t i es of l i f e and
As was already said, thc idcntification of inrermediary institutions
is not aLways easy. Thcy can be rccognizcd in their effects, bur not
by thc way in which they refer to thcmsclves. Furthermore, thcrc is
no simple formula which tclls us how sLrch inslirtrtions can most ef-
fcctively be supported. Howcvcr, these twin problems seem open to
solution by empirical research. l(hcther there is the will to actually
support these intcrrnediary institttions is another matter. This de
pends on both the big ideologies and thc little day,today policics of
the parties and thc comfiercial interests of the agencies responsible
lor comnuricating rneanings. A.adcnlics can at best gcncrate rhe
rvill of politics and business, thcy cannot be responsible for actually
di rect i ng such a commi t ment .
/ -
(rut l ook
In the preceding discussion we have on a number of occasions
pointed to questions which could be ansvered only by extensivc
empirical research. Our discussion dealt with a many layered and
compl ex probl emat i c: t he st rLrct ure of meani ng i n modern soci et i es,
from the anthropological basis of the constitution of meaning in
human action and life ro the spccific conditions of crises of meaning
in thc modern world. It is, thercforc, hardly surprising that the statc
of research in most of the problern areas is characterized by
open rat hcr t han ansrvered quest i ons. That means t hat aPart f ron1
the rescarch questions \\,hich s'e havc already referred !o, a long
seri es of probl crns requi re cl ari f i cat i <, n t hrough emPi ri cal enqui ry.
At t he begi nni ng of t hi s enqui ry *e cl escri bed t hc const i t ut i on of
meani ng, f rorn t he separat i on of i ndi vi dual experi ences i n t he gen-
eral strcam of consciousncss to thc process through which they are
related to othcr experiences. \Ve have said thet thc meaning of indi-
vi dual expcri cnces l i es i n schcrres of expcri cnce, t hat t he mcani ng of
schemes of cxpcri ence l i es i n pat t crns of act i on and t he mcani ng of
pat t erns of act i on i s l ocat ed i n gencral cat egori es of t he conduct of
l i f e. Vc have seen t hat drc meani ng of t he di f f erent schemes,
Pat -
terns and catcgorics is located et different distances
from thc super
ordinatc configuration of vaiues. One can say that the meaning of all
expericncc and action and certainly the meaning of lifc conduct is
deternrincd rvith reference to supcrordinate values, i. e. that it is
moral l y rel evxnt . l l owever, t hc ureani ng of some schemes of ex'
peri encc and act i on i s expl i ci t l y and di rect l y rel at ed t o vxl ues, whi l st
i n oer cases t hc rcl at i on t o supcrordi nat e val Lres i s i ndi rect and i m
pl i ci t - Thc moral rel evance of t hc l at t er can onl y be madt cl e: rr by
anaLyzing the links n'hich leall from the scheme to the suPerordinxte
vaLr.res ancl by makilg the inplicit relations of valuc expLicit. The
moraL ciraracter of an action which is in breach of the maxnl
find a wallct on the street I hand it in at the lost property office" is
obvious. Ily contrst, if someone nrakcs the comment
soup is
hot thc (rroral) implication is clcar only if one knorvs that the
speakcr has not cooked t hc soup and t he cook i s wi t hi n earshot l he
i ssue woul d be cl earer i f t he speakcr had sai dr
"You' ve
gi ven me my
soup roo hot agai nl "
Such dLstinctions with rcgard to thc moral connotations of differ-
cnt schees of expcrience and action are useful 1f one wishes to ana_
lysc systcms of rneaning and valuc and one is centrally concerned
with thc moral aspecls of meanint. These distinctions are useful in
allowing one to trace the transformation of superordinate configura-
tiols of value into norrns of :rctions and maxinr, step lor step down
to the level of ordinary, cvcrlday action.
The analysis of systcnrs of valuc and meaning in rnodern societies
has t o overcome part i cui ar di f f i cul t i cs. We have seen t hrt i t i s not
possible to speak in modern socicties of a single and generally bind-
i ng order of val ues. k may be t rue t hat beyond t he l egal i zed syst enl
of behavi oral norns t here are st i l l cl cnl ent s of a general moral i t y.
careful research it is not easy to decide -hat
these might consist of and whetlrer togcther they make up a frame-
work of established morality. lt ccrtainly seerns that there are a
multiplicity of moralities, distributed across different communities
of lifc ancl faith, which can bc iclcntified in the form of
echisms" and particularistic idcological programmes. To what extcnt
these diffcrent moralitics
we spcak here not o{ the ethics of par
ticular functional sphercs (medical ethics, business ethics etc.), which
*c h rve ; l ready di ' cu*. d
r. rre cl crrrenr. i n c, rmmon rr an open
qucstion, to vhich the existing research has not given a satisfactory
answer. Even i f rhere were no such comnron el ement s: i t does not
follon' that people in modern socictics do not orientate their action
antl conduct of life towards supcrordinate values, values which havc
validity in their communities of Iife anct faith. Lven those acting
will generally conform to the prevailing morality by
attempting to hide or make excoscs for their breach of the noflIs
(hypocrisy is hotrage paid by vice to virtue).
In any case, individuals in modern society have to overcornc both
insecurity of meaning and uncertainty in moral
thcy cannot assume that t hat they consider good and right is con-
sidcred good and right by others; sccond, individuals do not always
knov what i s good and ri ght cvcn f or t hemsel ves. The i nst i ,
t ut i ons have t hei r i nst rument al l y rat i onal organi zat i on whl ch obj ec-
tively dctermines action and pcrhaps some kind of specific cthics.
of life vith diffcrcnr stocks of meaning are not divided
from onc another by high protcctive walls and communities of faith
run, so to spcak, crisscross across society. Furdrermore, through thc
means of mass communication thc different stocks o[ rneaning have
h" . ^ - " " " " " , . . , . " " . . i h1"
Research nrust be directed towards three levels c'f the production,
\ or nmuni cr l i on ; r r J r e. epr i or of r r l eani nS: m, l \ \ Lonr Dl uni cr l i on:
day-t o' day conrmuni cat i on Ri t hi n communi t i es; i nt ernedi ary i n-
, r i r r r . on' whr , h r r ' cdr r r e b. r w. r n t l r " b, g i r . r . r l i on. . commur , r . " '
and t he i ndi vi t l ual .
he ievelof m:lss conrmunication: the cofltents of mass communica-
tion arc morally chargcd, in part implicitly
g. in advertising and
news reporting), sometimes more direcdy (e. g. in police films and
nature films), ancl sometirnes moral :spects of individual life and so'
ci et y arc consci ousl y addressed (c. g. t el evi si on sermons, pol i t i cal
con1mentary). In this respcct there are some differenccs between
public" media organizations and purely private media, but we do
not yet kno{'how big this differencc really is. It is, however, clcar
that the nredii of nrass communicatioo are employed explicitly by
moral cntreprerrerrrs of different dcgrees for thcir own purposes, by
the state, by churches, by voluntary associations as rcpresentatives of
cornmunities of opinion *'ith qLrite diversc progranrmes
mentalism, protcction of cthnic, sexual or other mi11oritics).
The levci of the individual in thc daily life of commr.rnities of vari-
ous kinds: in evcryday verbal conrmunication (in thc family, at the
bar, in conversations betl'een ncighbors, at the workPlace and in
commLl ni t i cs of opi ni on t o t hc ext ent t hat t hese are not al ready i n_
t ermedi ary i nst i t ut i ons of a hi gher l cvcL of organi zat i on and t herc-
fore to bc treated xt the next state) thcre is constant moralizing: in
conrpLaints, apologics, references to specific sets of norms, gossip ctc.
The moral aspccts of conmunication may refer to thosc present
(e. g. in munral rccrimination) or may be directed towerds absent
(e. g. in gossip) or nray rcfer rn a general
way to examples
(e. g. in argunrcnts bet*-een mcnrbcrs of a famiiy ovcr a case on tele-
vi si on, e. g. Maradona).
The lcvcL of intermediary institlrtions: this qucstion is, as was af
rcady argued, particularly problcnlatic since one must first answer
the qucstion as to what belongs to this category, but c:nnot do so
unct l ui vocal l y pri or t o bcgi nni ng rcsci rch. Vi t h somc conf i dence
onc can say t hat t he i nt crnedi ary i nst i t ut i ons i ncl ude communi t i cs
of opinion organized locally, e. g. ecological groups; institutions
srrch as the church, to the cxtcnr that they have local roots strong
cnougll to serve as sources of mcaning for communities of lifc; pos-
sibly loctl party organizations; associations of various kinds. Vhich
of thesc organizations deservcs the title intermediry institution can
onLy be decided when their local mode of operation has been ex-
ami ned. I f t hcy do not mcdi at e bct rvccn t he bi g i nst i t ut i on of soci et y
and t he i ndi vi dual s i n t hei r l i f e communi t i es rhen rhey ere nor t rue
intcrnrediary institutions.
In the ideal case intermcdiaq, insrirutions areJanus faced.
to the big institutions and
downwards' to rhe cxisrence
of the individual. lhen rhcy comrnunicatc not
srocks of
meaning frorn thc
to drc
but also, as is suggestecl by
t he i dca of
"ci vi l
soci et y' , f ronr t hc
"bonom" ' up' .
k appears as
t hough t hi s i s qui t e rare; an exami nat i on of t hi s sphere shoul d be
able to conclude r','hether thc general skepticisn is
in diffcrcnt societies. An answer to this qucsrion would bc inrporr-
art. On the basis of sorne rcscarch and prior considerations it seems
that onc nrust assume there arc usually large discrepancics between
t he moral i t i es of f cred by t hc st at e, t he church and ot hcr' moral
entrcpreneurs', which reach dre individual via the nr:rss nlcdia, and
t he val ucs hcl d by t he i ndi vi cl ual s t hemsel ves- On t he l evel of dy ro
day conrnruni cat i on, e. g. i n f anri l i es, rhcse
moral opt i ons' are not
nerely consumcd . They arc processed conrmunicativcly, selected,
rejectecl and adaptcd to individual's own circumstances. Still the gap
that ya\,Ds between the moral recornmendations of thc media and
day to day rcality should not bc nderestimated. If tolcrance is
above" it rarely bccomes significant in thc attitucles
of indivicluals if it has not been absorbed inro the shared mcanings of
conmunity through cc'nrmon communicative effort.
Wi t h rcf crence t o i nt ermedi ary i nst i rut i ons t he i mport ant qucst i on
is, as was already said: do they really mediate xnd do they mediate in
both dircctionsl fhc empirical anss,/er to this question will deter-
rrrinc whcthcr, on thc whole, rnodern societies can reign-in the ever
Iatcnt crisis of mcaning, as wc suspect they probably can. Only if
intcrmediary institutions cnsurc that the subjective patterns ofexperi-
ence and action of the individuals contribute to the social negotia-
tion and objectification of meaning, will individuals not find thcm'
selves in the modern world as complete strangcrs; and only then will
it be possible to avoid the identity of the individual person and thc
intcr-sr.rbjcctive cohcrcnce of socicty being threatened or even de-
stroyed by crisis ridden modernity.
The authors
Pcter L. Berger
llronr 1955 56 Research Dircctor, Acadenry of the Protestant
Church, Bad Bo1l, Germany; fron 1956 58 ?rofessor at thc
\(oman's College, University of Nordr Carolina; frorn 1958 63
Director at the Institute of ChLrrch and Community, Hartford
Theological Instilutc of Church anrl Conrmunity, Hartford Theo-
logical Senrinary; frarn 19637a Professor at thc Graduate Faculty,
Ncw School for SocialResearch, Ncw York; from 1920-79 Professor
at thc l{utgers University; from 1979-81 Prolessor at the Boston
Col l egc; si ncc 1981 Prof essor at t he Dost on Uni versi t y; si nce 1985
I)irector of the Institute for the Snrdy of Economic Cul!re, Boston
Publ i crt i ons:
Invitation to Sociology: A Llumarristic Perspectivc, 1963; The Social
Construction of Reality (with Tironras Luckmann), 1966; The Se'
crcd Canopy: El ement s of a Soci ol ogi cal l heory of Rel i gi on, 1967i A
Rt rmor of ngel s: Modern Soci ct y and t he Rcdi scovery of t hc Su-
pernat ural , 1969; The I l omel ess Mi nd; Moderni zat i on and Con-
sciousncss (with Brigitte Berger and Hansfried Kellner), 1973;
Pyramids of Sacrifice: Pc,litical Uthics and Social Change, 19l5;
Heretical Imperative, 1979; Sociolc,gy Reinterpreted
I Iansfried Kellner); The l(ar Over the Family (with Brigitte
Bergcr), 1983; The Capi t al i st Rev<. rl ut i on, 1986; A Far GLory, 1992.
Thomas Lucknann
I : ro r 1958 60 Prof essor at t he I I obart CoLl ege, Depart ment of An-
thropology and Sociology, Gencva, N.Y.; from 1960-65 Professor at
the Graduate Faculty, Departnrcnt of Sociology, New School for
Social Rescarch, New York; lrom 1963 65 Co-Director of thc
N.l.M.H. Fellos'ship l'rogram; from 1965-/0 ?rofessor for Sociolo-
gy and Director of the Departrncnt of Sociology, from 1966-68 Man'
aging Director of the Departmcnt of Sociology at the
\f olfgang Goethe-University, FrankfLrrt/Main; since 1970 Professor
of Sociology, Univcrsity of Konstanz.
The Social Construction of l{eality (with Peter L. Berger), 1966; The
Invisible Religion, 1970; Ihc Structurcs of the Life-\orld I (with
Alfred schtz), 1973, II, 1984i sociology of Language, 1975; LebeDs-
wclt und Gesellschaft, 1980; Theorie cles sozialen Handelns, 1992.
The proj ect
The Bertekmann lourulation ts targeted to be an operative, con-
cepnral l y norki ng f oundat i on. l t i s obl i ged by i t s st at ut es and i t s
mandat c t o promot e i nnovat i on, rai se ncw i dcas t o t he l evel of prac
t i ce, hel p t o i dent i f y sol rui ons t o pressi ng probl ems of our t i me.
' l
proj ect s are bei ng conccpt ual i zcd and i nrt i at ed by t hc f oundat i on i t -
se1f . St art i ng f ronr t hc dcf i ni t i on of t he probl em t o t he pract i cal i m-
pl ement at i on t he f oundat i on runs i t s proj ect s i n cl ose cooperat i on
l , i t h compet ent part ners i n acadcnri c, st at e and pri vat e i nst i t ut i ons.
Followint rhis intcntion the Berrelsn)ann Foundation has initiated
the project Cuhrral Orientation.h wrll rnake efforts to elaborate so
Irrtions and conccpts in repll to thc crises of modern societies which
can be summariz-cd as a decline of orientation. It will be one of the
questions decisivc for our firture how we can overcome these crises
related to the transition of values nLl the loss of patterns of
mcani ng.
Certainties of oricntation are erodrng, identities are being ques
tioned- Thc increasing velocity of social dcvelopmenr gives rise to
this tendcncy by an intensifiecl changc of familiar structures and
experience-bascd ccrtainties. Traclitional k'rowledge, which is being
passed on from one generation to thc next by the church, the state,
' . hool . or f unrl i c. . bc. orn. . . rrrrJat cJ i r rn evert rowi ng pr. e.
' f he
t radi t i onal i nst i t ut rons of ori ent at i on are bei ng suppl ement ed
by recent l y cnrcrgcd ones. Conf l i ct s bct rvccn compet i ng ori ent a
t i ons on t hc suppl y si de are rcsol vcd at t he
"market ",
di f f erent
definitions of one's lives may Lrc incompatible. Functional elites are
being called upon to contributc their share to dre stabilization of
social funrre. Effective orientation has to master the challenge of
reconciling individually meaningful concepts for life and necessities
to maintain the cohesion of socicty.
The Bertelsmann Foundation is ainrilg at responses to three
crucixl questions:
\fhat can bc an cxplanation of this dcclinc of orientation?
$(hich instiutions contribute to coherent and stable oricntations?
How can a solution to dre oricntation crisis be designed)
As a first step in thc field of projects on
orientation" the
volum on
loss of oricntation the cohesion crisis in modern
soci et y" (i n German l anguage onl y) was rel eascd t o open a seri es of
publications. The next phase consistcd of a series o{ expertises of
which the present snrdy by Pctcr L. Ilerger and Thomas Luckmann
was completed in the first instancc. \farnfried Detding (Munich)
will present his concept of thc immediate social environment and
orientation in cornmLrnication with ncighbors in a few months time.
Other sub-projec* consist of a study by Gerhard Schmidtchen
(University of Zurich) on oricntation in intra-firm communication,
an expertise by Martin Grciffcnhegen (University of Snrttgart) on
political legitimation and thc liurits of strte control and an investiga-
tiofl of the episte[rological conclitions of orientation under condi-
tions of an increased complexity of knowlcdge and information by
cerhard Schulze (University
of anrberg).
The Bert el snann Foundat i on publ i shes t hi s vol ume i n t he i nt en-
tion to provide a forum for a dcbate on the future of modern society
and perspectives of developnlent.