chapter  2
An Intellectual Sketch
Pages 30

Norbert Elias began his university studies in 1918, aged twenty-one, at the University of Breslau, which was then part of Germany. His major subjects were medicine and philosophy, with some of his philosophy semesters undertaken in Freiburg and Heidelberg, under Heinrich Rickert, Karl Jaspers and Edmund Husserl. It was in a seminar paper for the young Jaspers that he examined Thomas Mann’s discussion of the relation between ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’, a theme he would return to later. In Breslau his philosophy teacher was the neoKantian Richard Hönigswald, who later became his doctoral supervisor. Like many ambitious university students, he found he ‘could not ride two horses at once’1 and dropped medicinethe preferred choice of his father, who wanted him to become a doctor-to concentrate on philosophy. However, later he recollected that his medical studies had a profound effect on both his approach to philosophy and his subsequent turn to sociology. It was the contrast between the philosophers’ image of human beings as having an inner being of ideas and his medical experience of living tissue, brain structure and sense organs by which they constantly communicated with each other that led him to think of human beings as fundamentally interdependent. ‘The discrepancy,’ he wrote, ‘between the philosophical, idealist image of man and the anatomical, physiological one unsettled me for many years’.2