Karl Mannheim and the Sociology of Knowledge

David Kettler & Volker Meja. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Max Scheler coined the expression ‘sociology of knowledge’ [Wissenssoziologie] in 1924, and Karl Mannheim appropriated it almost immediately, in 1925, applying the term to his own proposed alternative to Scheler’s approach (Mannheim, [1925] 1993; Scheler 1924). The critical differences between them carry forward to present-day disputes about the point of uncovering ‘the relations between knowledge and other existential factors in the society and culture’ (Merton, [1945] 1957). For Scheler, the sociology of knowledge bears on the ‘knowledge’ it studies only insofar as it explains the time and circumstances of its emergence, acceptance, or obscuration. Its sad lesson is the ‘impotence of the human spirit.’ Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, in contrast, has a dual program. On the one hand, it may limit itself to Scheler’s questions, although, in contrast to Scheler, it draws on Marxist ideas about ideology formation rather than Scheler’s micro-sociological analyses of knowledge institutions, and, most important, Mannheim’s empirical sociology of knowledge specifies its subject matter in a Weberian rather than Platonic manner. Knowledge, for the purpose of sociological study, is what is considered to be knowledge. Alongside of this ‘value-free’ conception of relations between organized claims about the truth of things and the social activity environing such cultural productions, Mannheim contends that sociological understanding of knowledge stands as a ‘massive fact’ that any philosophical theory of knowledge must recognize, and that the sociology of knowledge consequently comes upon central epistemological and metaphysical problems of knowledge, even if it begins with the more modest ambitions in the manner of academic sociology. Writing in the last year of his life, long after his work seems to many commentators to have abandoned unduly ‘speculative’ philosophical extrapolations from empirical sociology, Mannheim told Kurt H. Wolff:

[What] happens is that in our empirical investigation we become aware of the fact that we are observing the world from a moving staircase, from a dynamic platform, and, therefore, the image of the world changes with the changing frames of reference which various cultures create. On the other hand, epistemology still only knows of a static platform where one doesn’t become aware of the possibility of various perspectives and, from this angle, it tries to deny the existence and the right of such dynamic thinking. There is a culture lag between our empirical insight into the nature of knowing and the premises upon which the traditional idealists’ epistemology is built. Instead of perspectivism, the out-of-date epistemology wants to set up a veto against the emerging new insights, according to which man can only see the world in perspective, and there is no view which is absolute in the sense that it represents the thing in itself beyond perspective. (Wolff, [1959] 1974: 557-8; Mannheim, [1925] 1993; [1931] 1936)

The present chapter will not retry the philosophical case frequently made against Mannheim’s undertaking. We are content to note that the case has in fact been dramatically reopened, most recently in the name of post-structuralist and postmodernist movements of thought. We proceed to a reconstruction of Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge secure in the belief that he is exemplary in his honesty about difficulties encountered in the attempt to distinguish his unfinished philosophical project from an uncritical surrender to mere relativism or rhetoric. In this respect, if no other, Mannheim offers a sobering partner for the negotiations that a commentator has recently placed on the agenda of the sociological profession, the confrontation with the ‘radical Weimar posture regarding the reflexivity and situatedness of all knowledge,’ which is, in his view, currently given vital expression, ‘by feminist standpoint epistemology, constructivist science studies, and Bourdieu’s reflexive praxeology of culture’ (Pels, 1996a: 1776; cf. Pels, 1996b). Going beyond this, we suggest that proponents of these and similar current movements would also do well to open themselves to conversations with Mannheim’s own attentively reflexive writings, so lacking in arrogance towards Marx, Weber and their successors.

Mannheim’s project can indeed be likened to postmodern questioning of the premises of his own knowledge—including the concept of a project—but we argue here that this does not make him a prophet of the end of modernism. Few writers, after all, fit most models of modernism more closely, certainly in the last decade of his life. When Martin Albrow writes, ‘[T]he modern is the abstract quality of a historical period, in which the rational and the new form a dynamic alliance,’ he could be summarizing Mannheim’s claims on behalf of ‘thinking at the level of planning.’ Yet Albrow might also be recapitulating Mannheim’s design for a sociology of knowledge when he writes, in the same context, that his own ‘post-modern’ proposal for a kind of thinking appropriate to the global age ‘tends to identify the way new experience recasts our understanding of old concepts and encourages us to develop new ones,’ characterizing it as a ‘pragmatic universalism which remains skeptical about the possibilities of ever discovering timeless truth in human or natural affairs, while recognizing the necessity to affirm truths on the best understanding available to our own time.’ Mannheim, in fact, attempts to incorporate an even thicker—less ‘modernist’—slice of skeptical complexity. We treat Mannheim as one of the important figures whose work calls into question the stereotyped—and frequently ideologized – present-day confrontation between modern and postmodern.

Sociology as Cultivation

Born in 1893, the son of prosperous Jewish parents, Karl Mannheim spent his first twenty-six years in Budapest, where he graduated in philosophy and precociously participated in the intellectual life of the remarkable Hungarian ‘second reform generation’ born a decade earlier (Gluck, 1985; Horvath, 1966; Kadarkay, 1991; Káradi and Vezér, 1985; Kettler, 1971). The advanced thinkers of the time were divided between proponents of modernization oriented to French and English social thought and prophets of radical cultural rebirth inspired mainly by Russian and German models. Like many others, Mannheim did not think that his dedication to the latter group, led by the philosopher Georg Lukács, entailed a blanket rejection of the former, under the sociologist Oscar Jászi. Lukács’ wartime ‘Sunday Circle’ in Budapest may have devoted its meetings to Dostoevsky and Meister Eckhardt, with Mannheim in eager attendance, but Lukács was also proud of his acceptance in the Max Weber Circle when he was in Heidelberg. Analogously, Mannheim, during a visiting semester in Berlin in 1914, selected as his master the sociologist Georg Simmel, a subtle mediator between cultural philosophy and sociology. Mannheim’s intellectual location at the time is well captured by an essay on Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister by Lukács. The task that confronted—and confounded—the great German classicist, Lukács maintained, was to transcend the opposition between the modern Idealism epitomized by Kant and the new counter-current of Romanticism. Lukács decided in 1918 that the Communist revolution represented the fulfillment of this classical mission. Mannheim never accepted Lukács’ solution, but he was eventually inspired to a selective appropriation of Lukács’ Marx, and he was politically compromised in the aftermath by Lukács’ patronage during the brief months of the Hungarian Soviet regime. His early apprenticeship to Lukács was fateful.

Mannheim lived in Germany from 1919, when he fled the counter-revolutionary regime in Hungary, until 1933, when National Socialist decrees forced him out of the university. Within a few years of his transfer from the Budapest intellectual scene to German university life, and notwithstanding the rapid publication of several philosophical writings derived from his Hungarian doctoral dissertation on the structure of epistemology, Mannheim began work in Heidelberg on a habilitation thesis in cultural sociology under Alfred Weber. In that year, he also married a fellow-exile, Juliska Láng, a graduate in psychology, whose interests and ideas influenced Mannheim, although the extent of her collaboration cannot be reconstructed. Mannheim’s sociological interpretation of the rise and self-differentiation of conservatism, accepted by the faculty in 1925, was subtitled ‘A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge,’ and its submission coincided with Mannheim’s publication of an article devoted to his critical encounter with Max Scheler, whose Problems of a Sociology of Knowledge (1924) had, as noted, brought the concept into discussion during the preceding year. Mannheim’s inaugural address as habilitated university instructor set out the parameters of ‘the contemporary state of sociology in Germany’ as he saw them: he dealt with Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch and Max Scheler. His opinion of the weight of these sociological thinkers in German intellectual life can be judged from the fact that he planned to publish his three essays on their work in a volume he wanted to call ‘On the State of Contemporary Thought.’ Sociology, he believed, provided the frame of reference for twentieth-century thinking as a whole.

His aloofness, however, from the specialized ‘state of sociology’ question as it was debated by the German Sociological Association, as well as his equation of the main currents of all contemporary thought with the leading sociological theories, indicate that his move from philosophy to sociology cannot be understood as a simple change of academic specialization. Sociology, in his view, was a more comprehensive undertaking than the academic discipline taking form under leading professors like Leopold von Wiese at Cologne. Goaded in 1929 by a charge of ‘sociologism’ against Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952) made by the noted literary scholar Ernst Robert Curtius ([1929] 1990), Mannheim invoked the heritage of Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch and Max Scheler against the literary scholar’s accusation of treason to humanism. Mannheim speaks of the sociologists’ writings as modern German classics, characterizing them as ‘a great heritage, a tradition that must be built upon’ (Mannheim, [1929a] 1993). Mannheim’s hope of persuading proponents of humanistic education that his broad conception of sociology represents a timely adaptation of the older ideal of Bildung is also documented in his occasional correspondence with Eduard Spranger, a popular philosopher active in the controversy about the reform of secondary education in Weimar (Spranger Papers; Loader, 1985: 19, 234-5). In January 1929, Mannheim had visited Spranger to solicit a book for Mannheim’s new series of books on topics lying in boundary regions between philosophy and sociology, a series initiated by Scheler. Mannheim wrote to Spranger a few months later to thank him for his promise of cooperation and to urge Spranger to read the forthcoming Idéologie und Utopie. Contrary to the denigration of the spirit found in naturalistic sociology, he assures Spranger, his own work is designed to complement the understanding of spiritual development that is provided by the cultural studies Spranger is promoting. The social is a mode of the spiritual, Mannheim argues, and a sociological view is not identical with Marxism: ‘It is not Marxism but a thoroughgoing sociological approach that alone is capable of bringing to full consciousness the situation which breeds the crisis—I would say, with you, the generative crisis—which you have so brilliantly characterized at the level of world views (Spranger Papers).’ Mannheim closes by invoking their close, even fraternal, affinities, and he throws himself on Spranger’s judgement, however stern. Unpersuaded, Spranger harshly denounces the ‘sociologism’ of Mannheim’s thought when he reviews Idéologie und Utopie a year later (Meja and Stehr, 1990: 239-40), using the same pejorative as Curtius.

When Mannheim projects a sociology that will partly displace philosophy and literature as a foundation of the cultivation (Bildung) that German cultural writers carefully distinguished from science (Wissenschaft), he clearly does not mean to transfer sociology to academic secondary schools, the traditional site of cultivation. Nor does he mean to deny all legitimacy to the more narrowly defined university discipline. He published a number of professional papers, after all, that accepted the conventional academic constraints. At its highest level, however, he thought, sociology must address the puzzles about the historical diversity and variability of knowledge—specifically social and political knowledge—that philosophy alone can no longer hope to unriddle. He states his case for the multiple levels of sociology most extensively in the introductory course he offered during his first semester after assuming the professorship at Frankfurt in the spring of 1930 (Mannheim, [1930] 2000). Mannheim focuses on the modern experience of distantiation from direct participation in collective moral or cognitive norms, and he contends that all sociology expresses and exacerbates the condition of living an ‘experimental’ life. Only cultivated sociology, to paraphrase Hegel, can heal the wounds that popular sociology inflicts. Rather than disqualifying human groups from action, as distantiation threatens to do, sociology—and specifically sociology of knowledge—constitutes a mode of encountering life in terms of a new, reflective practice. He rejects the forms of ‘reprimitivization’ that attempt to deny distance—instancing fascism and orthodox Marxism (in both socialist or communist variants), but he acknowledges the need, from time to time, to reach a conditional accommodation with one or the other of these socio-cognitive eruptions. The common current of distantiation interconnects sociology as comprehensive attitude, sociology as method for historical and similar studies, and sociology as specialized academic discipline. Enabling reflective persons to participate in sociology as comprehensive practice is the new cultivation (Bildung).

German Ideologies

The novelty in Mannheim’s approach to the sociology of knowledge is neither the social interpretation of political ideas nor its extension to a wide range of cultural productions not usually considered political. These he accepts as the achievements of a line of thinkers, culminating in Marx and Weber. Mannheim makes three distinctive claims, epitomized in his later Idéologie und Utopie in the concept of total ideology. First, and perhaps most controversial, is the contention that boundaries between manifestly ideological and ostensibly scientific modes of explaining the cultural as well as the social world are porous, with sociology of knowledge emerging in the border region, as a reflexive therapy for both domains. Second, is the concomitant conception of ideologies as cognitive structures. They are variously flawed, limited, perspectivistically one-sided, subject to drastic correction from other perspectives, and nevertheless productive of knowledge. The third original claim, then, is that the sociology of knowledge bears on the answers to substantive questions addressed by ideologies and that it consequently contributes directly to political orientation. It does so, in Mannheim’s view, not because knowledge of social genesis can in itself determine judgements of validity, but because the systematic pursuit of such knowledge will foster a synthesis of the valid elements in the ideologies, relocating them in a developmental context that will not so much falsify particularistic ideologies as cognitive structures as render them obsolete—displacing them with a new comprehensive vision. Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge, at its most ambitious, is a method for attaining social and political knowledge (that is, a way to such knowing). By requiring sociological thinkers to explicate the diverse intellectual formations competing in the ideological field, correlating them with one another and with the social situation within which the ideological field is located, the study carries inquirers through the topics they must consider before they can realistically diagnose their own time. And inquirers who pursue this course gain a new readiness for comprehensive knowledge. They are freed from illusions about ideologies—and liberated from the disorientation bred of distantiation. They experience a new form of mastery that is, in turn, incapable of domination.

Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge strategy involves two steps. First, the variety of ideas in the modern world is classified according to a scheme of historical ideological types, few in number, in keeping with Mannheim’s thesis that the ideological field has moved from a period of atomistic diversity and competition to a period of concentration. Liberalism, conservatism and socialism are the principal types. Second, each of these ideologies is interpreted as a function of some specific way of being in the social world, as defined by location within the historically changing patterns of class and generational stratification. Liberalism is thus referred to the capitalist bourgeoisie in general, and various stages in its development are referred to generational changes. Similar analyses connect conservatism to social classes harmed by the rise to power of the bourgeoisie, and socialism to the new industrial working class. Approaches in the human sciences (Geisteswissenschaften)—and notably the social sciences among them (Sozialwissenschaften)—have their own ideological lineages, albeit in more sublimated form.

Each of the ideologies is said to manifest a characteristic ‘style’ of thinking, a distinctive complex of responses to the basic issues that systematic philosophy has identified as constitutive of human consciousness, such as conceptions of time and space, the structure of reality, human agency and knowledge itself. The political judgements and recommendations on the surface of purely ideological texts must be taken in that larger structural context. Not every ideology elaborates such a philosophy, and the elaborated philosophies associated with an ideology may not provide an adequate account of the underlying ideological structures. Such philosophical statements are ideological texts like others, and require structural analysis and sociological interpretation to be fully comprehended. The style of thinking is most apparent in the way concepts are formed, according to Mannheim, and in the logic by which they are interlinked. These are the features that must be uncovered to identify the distinctive style.

Each of the styles, in turn, expresses some distinctive design upon the world vitally bound up with the situation of one of the social strata present in the historical setting. Mannheim is emphatic in his original German texts, but not in his later English revisions, that this design cannot be simply equated to a group ‘interest,’ not least because he disavows the theory of motivation and the indifference to social psychological group processes associated with the stress on interest. The sociologist of knowledge has no direct authoritative information about the formative will he or she postulates as the principle of integration and immanent development in ideological wholes. The self-explanations offered by groups in their ideologies and utopias are the starting points for knowledge about underlying styles and principles, along with such social theories as may be available to expound the logic of their social location, not excluding theories of interests. It is the view of the ‘totality’ that is the objective. Sociology of knowledge seeks to give an account of the whole ideological field, in its historical interaction and change, together with an account of the historically changing class and generational situations that the ideologies interpret to the groups involved. To have a method for seeing all this, according to Mannheim, means to be able to see in a unified and integrated way what each of the ideologically oriented viewers can only see in part. It is to have the capacity for viewing the situation at a distance and as a whole, without its losing the quality of being a situation in which actions matter. Choice gains in importance as a central feature of the experimental life, which is the epitome of the sociological attitude.

Mannheim draws on Marxism for a conception of politics as a process of dialectical interplay among factors more ‘real’ than the competing opinions of liberal theory. But neither the proletariat nor any other sociopolitical force is bearer of a transcendent rationality, historically destined to reintegrate all the struggling irrationalities in a higher, pacified order. The contesting social forces and their projects in the world are complementary and in need of a synthesis that will incorporate elements of their diverse social wills and visions. Syntheses in political vision and Sozialwissenschaften are interdependent. Sociology of knowledge presages and fosters both.

Despite the distance Mannheim put between his position and Marxist politics, as such, two of his three promoters, Alfred Weber and Carl Brinckmann, assailed him as a ‘historical materialist’ at major professional meetings shortly after his habilitation; but the patronage of the third, Emil Lederer, helped Mannheim to a successful start as habilitated instructor in Heidelberg and then, in 1930, to a professorship at Frankfurt. Mannheim’s call to Frankfurt would not have been possible, of course, without the remarkable recognition earned by his further work in sociology of knowledge. A presentation on ‘Competition’ at the Sixth Conference of German Sociologists in 1928 overshadowed the conceptual explication of competition as social mechanism by the most influential proponent of sociology as a specialized discipline, Leopold von Wiese (Mannheim, [1929b] 1993; von Wiese, 1929). Mannheim audaciously used the value- judgement controversy in recent sociology to illustrate his theses about the connectedness to existence (Seinsverbundenheit) of social thought and the operations of socially grounded competition to generate syntheses that transcend intellectual conflict. Mannheim emerged as the ‘star’ of the meetings, even if many senior sociologists remained distrustful. When a publisher chose Mannheim as Scheler’s successor in the editorship of a series on Philosophy and Sociology, Mannheim seized the opportunity. The first book he brought out in the series was his own Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952), consisting of an essay on ‘politics as a science,’ possibly intended for the now abandoned collection on Weber, Troeltsch and Scheler, an essay on Utopian consciousness, written for Alfred Weber’s sixtieth birthday in 1928, and a new essay to explicate the concepts of ‘ideology’ and to tie it, however loosely, to the concept of ‘utopia.’ Only the first reviews had appeared when Mannheim received the Frankfurt appointment, but the excitement generated by the book launched Mannheim in his new setting, recognized in the wider intellectual community as a significant and controversial personality.

The debate about Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952) was mainly philosophical and political, with the focus, first, on Mannheim’s hope of overcoming both ideology and political distrust through sociology of knowledge; second, on his conception of the intelligentsia as the social stratum uniquely equipped and even destined for this task; and third, on his activist conception of sociological knowledge, its inherent mediation, as a mode of public consciousness-raising, between theory and practice. Almost all commentators recognized the special importance of Mannheim’s essay on Max Weber, ‘Is Politics as Science Possible? (The Problem of Theory and Practice) [1st Politik als Wissenschaft Möglich? (Das Problem der Théorie und Praxis)}’ (Mannheim, [1929] 1952). In it, Mannheim argues that the comprehensive social knowledge capable of diagnosing the historical situation and grounding a scientific politics is generated by social interpretation of the clashing ideologies rending the political terrain.

In his lecture on ‘Science as a Vocation’ (1922), Max Weber distinguishes between words in politics and in science, likening the former to weapons for overpowering opponents and the latter to ploughshares for cultivating knowledge. Mannheim offers the sociology of knowledge as a way of bringing about the biblical transformation of swords into pruning hooks prophesied by Isaiah. He claims that the sociology of knowledge constitutes the ‘organon for politics as a science.’ It provides an instrument for operating on the ideological views active in politics so as to give them a new character, constituting a field of knowledge with a structure appropriate to this dimension of reality and to the work that knowing performs in it. Although Mannheim nominally defers to Weber’s conception of politics as a sphere governed by choices no knowledge can dictate, his conception of the political involvement implicit in gaining insight into political situations shifts the meaning of the Weberian formulas he invokes. Political knowledge takes on elements of Hegelian consciousness. Mannheim credits Weber with uncovering that the Marxist method for exposing the social provenance and function of political ideas applies no less to the proletarian view of the world. But rendered non-partisan, the method can now reveal its constructive powers. While the disillusioning discoveries of the earlier generation have to be preserved, they gain new positive functions. When Weber quotes Isaiah’s admonition to watchmen in the night, he intends to reproach those who wait in vain for prophets of salvation instead of soberly meeting the demands of the day. Mannheim uses the same passage to call intellectuals to a mission of guardianship (Mannheim, [1929] 1952: 140; Weber, 1922: 613). Mannheim’s proposals were widely canvassed in the leading periodical reviews and subjected to intense criticism, but his reading of the intellectual situation was almost universally applauded. In the cultivated Weimar public for political-literary topics, as among the participants in what has been labeled the ‘Weimar conversation’ about the situation of social thought after Nietzsche and Marx, Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952) figured as the representative book of its time, whether as symptom of cultural crisis or as promise of a way out.

During his five semesters as professor in Frankfurt, Mannheim in effect declined the role of public intellectual. He separated the professional aspects of his activities from his public reputation. Only one of his critics received an answer, and then only a rejoinder to the charge of trespassing beyond the bounds of sociology. While he drew close to Paul Tillich and his circle of religious socialists in private discussions, his publications and organizational efforts concentrated on strengthening his legitimacy in the sociology chair. His classes attracted a large and comparatively diverse audience, including many women students and male students of diverse but active political commitments. Mannheim’s strategy in his courses was to build on the generalized popular ‘sociological’ attitude he expected them to bring with them, but to argue the need for a move towards rigor in method and specificity in research work. Celebrated and embattled as an ‘intellectual,’ he defined himself ever more as a professional sociologist. His 1931 article on ‘Sociology of Knowledge’ in a professional handbook was philosophically more cautious than Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952), hiving off speculations about political or philosophical implications from problems of empirical enquiry. In 1932, he found himself providing a comprehensive guide to the ‘present tasks of sociology’ for teachers. While expanding the boundaries of the field to include contemporary political studies and cultural approaches that might have been left out by others, he took great care to respect the territorial rights of the major figures in the discipline and avoided anything like his earlier polemics against Positivism. In conjunction with his friend, the economist Adolf Lowe, he organized an interdisciplinary research seminar on Liberalism, and together, as is evident from coordinated presentations they made in the Netherlands in 1933, they began an enquiry into planning as a counter to the evident crisis of liberalism. Mannheim clearly did not want to become a man of one book.

Mannheim was caught unawares by the Nazi measure that deprived him of his professorship on grounds of his foreign birth and Jewish ethnicity. He had not exposed himself politically. Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952) had been generously treated in the Socialist periodical Die Gesellschaft, but the four articles published there were all more critical than the reception that his work received in Die Tat, a periodical of the activist right. The hard left treated him as a betrayer of Marxism. In advising a young Communist about the conditions of matriculating for study with him, he wrote, two weeks before Hitler became Chancellor, that the student would find ‘a rather intensive study group, close contact with the lecturers, but little dogmatic commitment, we do not think of ourselves as a political party but must act as if we had a lot of time and could calmly discuss the pros and cons of every matter’ (OJP: Letter to G. Jászi, 16 January, 1933). Three months later, Mannheim was a refugee in Amsterdam. Neither his sociology nor his politics had anything to do with his exile from Germany.

Sociology in an Age of Reprimitivization

In the summer of 1933, Mannheim was appointed to a special lectureship at the London School of Economics, the beneficiary of a fund for exiled scholars. He was selected by the political theorist Harold Laski, and the sociologist Morris Ginsberg, above all for his well-known work on sociology of knowledge, which Ginsberg saw as a continental version of the evolutionary sociology of rationality associated with his own mentor, Leonard Hobhouse. Mannheim soon concluded, however, that neither the times nor his situation were conducive to pursuing sociology of knowledge studies. It was necessary to compact with a less than fully reflective public knowledge. He saw it as his mission to diagnose the general crisis he held responsible for the German disaster and to promote prophylactic and therapeutic measures in Britain. His sense of urgency and his grand theoretical ambitions enthused many students, but they rapidly estranged the beleaguered small core of professional sociologists led by Morris Ginsberg, who were engaged in a difficult fight to found the academic respectability of a discipline widely dismissed by the English university establishment as a dilettante pursuit. Although Mannheim was marginalized at the London School of Economics, the only British institution with a chair in Sociology, he was able to make a place for himself as a public intellectual, especially after his acceptance by a circle of Christian thinkers whose periodic discussions and publications centered on a theme of cultural crisis hospitable to Mannheim’s sociological interpretations (Kettler and Meja, 1995; Loader, 1985).

Mannheim continued to focus on the relationship between knowledge and society, his lifelong topic. The core problem, however, is no longer presented as a conflict among hypostatized partial views vainly competing to monopolize the definition of a social situation that can only be adequately grasped as socially diverse and intellectually multifaceted. Writing in Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction (1940), a work that was no less influential in the postwar years than Ideology and Utopia (1936), he claims that the sociology of knowledge has lost its strategic centrality with the demise of ideological competition (Mannheim, 1940). Mannheim asks for ‘a new experimental attitude in social affairs,’ in view of the ‘practical deterioration of the ideals of Liberalism, Communism, and Fascism.’ He continues:

But one can only learn if one has belief in the power of reason. For a time it was healthy to see the limitations of ratio, especially in social affairs. It was healthy to realize that thinking is not powerful if it is severed from the social context and ideas are only strong if they have their social backing, that it is useless to spread ideas which have no real function and are not woven into the social fabric. But this sociological interpretation of ideas may also lead to complete despair, discouraging the individual from thinking about issues which will definitely become the concern of the day. This discouragement of the intelligentsia may lead them to too quick a resignation of their proper function as the thinkers and forerunners of the new society, may become even more disastrous in a social setting where more depends on what the leading elites have in mind than in other periods of history. (Mannheim, 1940: 365)

The theory of the social determination of ideas properly applied to the age of war and dictatorship, Mannheim continues, shows that everything depends on ‘whether or not sound thinking goes on today and whether it reaches the ruling elites.’ When these passages are read in the light of his continued eagerness to see the sociology of knowledge project carried forward, as expressed in his 1946 letter to Kurt H. Wolff (Wolff, [1959] 1974: 557-8), it is difficult to escape the conclusion that his wartime statements represent the sort of conditional bargain with the least harmful forms of reprimitivized thought that he acknowledged in 1930 (Mannheim, [1930] 2000) as necessary whenever unconditional action was imperative.

The National Socialist dictatorship, he now argues, exploits a socially unconscious mass response to a worldwide crisis in the institutions of liberal civilization, involving the obsolescence of its regulative social technologies—from markets to parliaments to elitist humanistic education. Mannheim pleads for a preemptive move to a planned social order that strategically utilizes, instead of vainly resisting, the new social technologies that undermine the spontaneous self-ordering of the previous epoch. A discriminating, consensual reconstruction could save many human qualities and diversities earlier privileged by liberalism, unlike the violent homogenization imposed by Communist or National Socialist control through command. Without anachronistic confidence in obsolete forms of liberalism, planning for freedom would rely as far as possible on manipulated field controls (more recently known as steering by induced self-regulation) and other unbureaucratic techniques for coordinating activities that proceed best when experienced as spontaneous. Timely action guided by awareness of the impending crisis taken by leading strata whose positions are still sheltered from the full force of the devastating changes under way, notably the English elite of gentlemanly professionals, can tame the processes that would otherwise destroy the old liberal civilization and condition mass populations for dictatorial domination. Planning for freedom presupposes a reorientation among traditional elites, their acceptance of a sociological diagnosis of the times and their willingness to learn prophylactic and therapeutic techniques. Mannheim now claims for sociology the ability to ground and coordinate interdisciplinary approaches to the problems encountered in planning. If British sociologists were skeptical about this proposed redirection of their discipline, Mannheim’s lectures and writings on ‘planning’ won him an interested audience, especially during the war and immediate postwar years, and his conception of a post-ideological age was never altogether submerged by the Cold War. As his wartime slogan of ‘militant democracy’ justified German measures against leftists during the middle decades of the century, his slogan of the ‘Third Way’ is heard at the turn of the millennium in support of political designs he would have found quite familiar.

Sociology as Science: Losing the War

Among sociologists, however, Mannheim’s standing was defined by the reception of Ideology and Utopia ([1931] 1936), a redacted translation of Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952) published in collaboration with the American sociologist Louis Wirth (and his assistant, Edward Shils), framed by a new beginning and a new end: a new justification of the enterprise by Mannheim and a republication of his 1931 sociological handbook article. In his preface, Wirth casts the work primarily as a contribution to objectivity in social science. By systematizing the work of discounting for the effects of interests in social judgements, the sociology of knowledge can rebuild a working agreement on the facts among social scientists divided by conflicting social values. Mannheim’s program for understanding action through socially grounded motivations, moreover, provides a framework for objective study of phenomena that cannot be understood without empathy with the human actors under examination. This does not entail an abandonment of the determinism that is integral to a usable science, Wirth maintains, but merely the elaboration of disciplinary techniques, sketchy as Mannheim’s psychology might be, appropriate to the comprehension of a determination through motives. Wirth’s emphasis on the methodological bearing of Mannheim’s work inadvertently contributed to the result that he and Mannheim were especially eager to avoid. Ideology and Utopia was debated among American sociologists first of all as a challenge to value-free and empirical sociology.

The original terms of American discussion were set by reviews in the principal sociological journals by German sociologists in America. Most influential—and most disappointing for Mannheim—was an essay by Alexander von Schelting, who had already assailed the philosophical ambitions of the original German publication on the basis of neo-Kantian epistemological teachings, and who once again charges Mannheim with lapsing into a relativist vicious circle by virtue of an elementary confusion between the meaning and the validity of the ideas he subjected to sociological interpretation. Although Mannheim thought that he could counter such objections with the help of John Dewey’s pragmatism, Louis Wirth chose instead, when confronted with this argument at a session on Mannheim’s book at the 1937 meeting of the Sociological Research Association, to deprecate the attention paid to Mannheim’s peripheral philosophical speculations in assessing the work. Wirth insists, quoting Ideology and Utopia, that for Mannheim the ‘principal problem’ of the sociology of knowledge is ‘the purely empirical investigation through description and structural analysis of the ways in which social relationships, in fact, influence thought’ (Mannheim, [1931] 1936: 239). By this time, Wirth had already abandoned ‘sociology of knowledge’ as the name of his course at the University of Chicago, in favor of ‘sociology of intellectual life.’ Wirth’s shift in emphasis anticipated the terms on which Mannheim was ultimately recognized as a contributor to American sociological discussion.

The professional consensus is formalized in Robert K. Merton’s authoritative essay on ‘The Sociology of Knowledge’ (Merton, ([1945] 1957). Merton includes Mannheim in a group of social theorists from Karl Marx to Pitirim Sorokin, whose diverse approaches to ‘the relations between knowledge and other existential factors in the society and culture’ he relates to a syllabus of questions and alternative answers, which lays down, in turn, an agenda for the theoretical clarification and empirical research required to build a proper subdiscipline of sociology. Merton’s ‘Paradigm’ for the Sociology of Knowledge sets out five key issues: the existential basis of mental productions, the varieties and aspects of mental productions subject to sociological analysis, the specific relationship(s) between mental productions and existential basis, the functions of existentially conditioned mental productions, and the conditions under which the imputed relations obtain. Crediting Mannheim with having ‘sketched the broad contours of the sociology of knowledge with remarkable skill and insight,’ Merton nevertheless found his theory very loose, needlessly burdened with dubious philosophical claims, and strikingly unclear in identifying the range of mental productions considered seinsverbunden- notably with regard to the exact sciences—as well as imprecise and inconsistent in specifying the exact character of this relationship. Merton was unpersuaded by Mannheim’s speculations about the bearing of sociology of knowledge on epistemological issues, and, more importantly, he was convinced that the question only arose for Mannheim because of confusion about the principal philosophical import of his own theses. In substance, Merton contends, Mannheim’s arguments about the social sciences, logically imply nothing more, despite his denials, than Max Weber’s neo-Kantian awareness of the value-relevance (Wertbezogenheit) of problem choice. ‘Mannheim’s procedures and substantial findings clarify relations between knowledge and social structure which have hitherto remained obscure,’ Merton concludes in 1941, but only after they are ‘shorn of their epistemological impedimenta, with their concepts modified by the lessons of further empirical inquiry and with occasional logical inconsistencies eliminated’ (Merton, [1941] 1957: 508; cf. Swidler and Arditi, 1994).

Despite some uncertainty in the matter, the condition for Mannheim’s acceptance as a deserving pioneer of sociology was the discarding of the concept of total ideology, his way of calling into question both social science and social knowledge, the epitome of the problem constellation which had energized Mannheim’s engagement with sociology of knowledge and the prime stimulus for the excitement following the original publication of Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952). Mannheim had reserved the empirical option that was taken up and he had given it added prominence in the changes introduced in Ideology and Utopia ([1931] 1936), but he always considered it a mere temporizing with an inevitable problem; and he was seemingly content to let matters rest while he pursued, until his premature death in 1947, his more urgent advocacy of planning, which presupposed confidence in an unproblematic sociological science. In editing and introducing three posthumous collections of Mannheim’s essays, his intimate friends, the noted social scientists Paul Kecskemeti and Adolph Loewe, reinforced the consensus view. As Mannheim became better acquainted with Anglo-American social science, they argued, empirical social psychology had steadily displaced the stimulating but misleading continental philosophies as the theoretical framework for his thinking about knowledge and society, and his early writings merit consideration primarily as brilliant anticipations of these promising developments, cut off too soon. In Robert Merton’s sociological theory classes during the 1950s, Ideology and Utopia often followed Machiavelli’s Prince in the syllabus, as source material for an exercise in transmuting suggestive ideas into testable propositions.

Taking Counsel with Mannheim

Shall we master the globe’s inner stresses, or
are we shipwrecked upon our own history?

~ Karl Mannheim, 1930

Stretching Thomas Kuhn’s concept of a scientific paradigm, as was commonly done by optimistic social scientists in the years after the publication of his Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1970), it could be said that Mannheim’s work had joined the list of historical authorities celebrated in stereotyped simplicity as legitimating precursors of a settled way of defining and doing sociology. Yet Kuhn also called attention to the critical reassessment of historical texts when a dominant paradigm is unsettled by inassimilable findings or unorthodox novelties. If we accept Kuhn’s language of scientific paradigm as metaphor for a broader range of related cultural configurations, we can trace the renewal of attention to the historical social thinker Karl Mannheim to the renewed conflicts about the subject matter, method and attitude of sociology that erupted in the 1960s. The connection is not simple, since the attack on the disciplinary consensus, where historical models were involved, was more likely to call on Marxist writers or on figures like Theodor W. Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse, who had been among Mannheim’s harshest contemporary critics. The effect, nevertheless, was to relegitimate questions about the historicity of social knowledge, the problem of relativism, and the paths of reflexivity open to social thinkers—the issues filtered out of Mannheim’s thought in his American reception—and to provide a new point of connection for Kurt H. Wolff and some other sociologists, who had quietly continued puzzling over the issues debated when Idéologie und Utopie ([1929] 1952) first appeared. In this newly fluid state of questions appropriate for sociological theory, Mannheim’s famous book no longer stands alone among Mannheim’s writings and his insistence on its essayistic experimentalism is no longer ignored. And Mannheim is considered more as a bargaining partner than as a model, with recent theoretical interlocutors finding value in bringing him into conversations with Rorty, Foucault, Bakhtin or Bourdieu. There are no propositions to be distilled out of Mannheim’s work; there is just the thoughtful encounter with it. Mannheim’s prediction about the consequences of uncovering the ‘massive fact’ of knowledge in society and society in knowledge has been borne out. Yet we are not beneficiaries of any ‘progress’ in thought, as postmodernists paradoxically often suppose: we may well have to think deeply about old texts, however we class them.