Thursday, June 2, 2011

Earthbound Thoughts

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Karl Mannheims Conservatism is the first significant implementation of the methodology which he called the sociology of knowledge. A dissertation Mannheim submitted to the Faculty of Arts of the Ruprecht-Karl University of Heidelberg, Conservatism won him a venia legendi in 16. In 17, he published two rather lengthy sections of that dissertation, somewhat revised, in Archiv f¨¹r Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, under the title Conservative Thought. To this day, it is considered a major primary source for any work on the history of conservatism as an ideology. The present Hungarian translation, by Endre Kiss, is of the original text of the dissertation, the relevant parts supplemented with Mannheims emendations to the version published in the Archiv.

The sociology of knowledge is a particular approach to the history of ideas, one that started out as a critique of the Neo-Kantian approach still dominating the discipline at the turn of the century, which, proceeding on the assumption that the history of ideas unfolded as one coherent argument, sought to reconstruct the development of the various disciplines internally, through analyzing their immanent logic.

The sociology of knowledge was not the first to question the viability of the internalist approach to the history of ideas. Its most significant antecedent was Marxism, more exactly, Marxs concept of ideology. Grossly simplified, Marx saw ideology as a distinctive form of consciousness determined by ones class membership. Ideology, on Marxs view, included politics, law, ethics, and even economics - which he otherwise considered to be one of the sciences - if it was mistaken on some issue of significance (if it assumed the effective operation of the free market, for instance). Neither Marx, nor Luk¨¢cs, who made use of Marxist theory in his critique of the Neo-Kantians, ever really clarified what was meant by ideas being determined by class membership. What kind of relationship did this determination imply? Was it a causal relationship? If so, how did it work? How could there be a causal relationship between two things as abstract as ideas and class membership?

Mannheims sociology of knowledge was a step toward an externalist history of ideas in two respects. For one, he did not regard class position to be the only relevant social determinant of ideology, but allowed for much finer distinctions social strata, profession, and even, in certain cases, ones personal biography. His Conservatism provides examples of all of these. For another, Mannheim tried to give a more precise definition of the relationship between social position and the content of belief or knowledge, outlining the mechanism through which social position determines ideas or theories. The first part of Conservatism is devoted, in part, to clarifying this particular methodological issue.

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Mannheim distinguishes two kinds of sociological ascription. Borrowing from Max Weber, he calls the one kind meaningfully adequate, the other factually-causally adequate. Weber, however, had applied this distinction to explanations of behavior, not of systems of thought the understanding of action in a factually-causally adequate way, Weber maintained, relies on empirical regularities; the meaningfully adequate understanding of action, on the other hand, proceeds intuitively, relying on custom. Mannheim used both terms in a somewhat different sense. To understand something in a meaningfully adequate way is to understand/ interpret the meanings of the terms of a particular system of thought correctly, and thus take the first step toward their sociological ascription. The second step is to examine the historical context in which these terms evolved, this being the only way to identify the fundamental intentions of their authors.

None of this, of course, brings us much closer to understanding how the relationship between ideology and social conditions is established. Mannheim himself was aware of this, and emphasized that for that, one needed to look at concrete historical examples. The trouble is that what Mannheim had set out to do was to give a comparative analysis of various systems of thought, not analyses of the views of specific thinkers. The mechanisms, however, which allow for sociological ascription, operate only at the level of particular cases. The result is the perceptible duality that permeates the book at times Mannheim speaks of conservative thought or German conservatism in general; at other times he speaks of specific German thinkers, the peculiarities of their systems of thought, and how these related to their social positions.

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