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Monday, May 30, 2011


With this post, I begin what will be an extremely lengthy discussion of ideological critique. In the course of a long series of posts, I shall first talk in detail about the theories of the great late nineteenth early twentieth century Hungarian/German/English theoretician Karl Mannheim. Then I shall undertake three applications of what we have learned from this discussion: First to a controversy involving a number of ethnographers of the South African inhabitants of the Kalahari Desert sometimes referred to as the !Kung; Second to a dispute between Edward Said and a number of scholars usually referred to as Orientalists; and Finally to a rather unusual interpretation of a Jane Austen novel found in a movie by the Canadian director Patricia Rozema. I had thought to include lengthy extracts from a number of works in my exposition, but it has been pointed out to me that I would, in doing so, violate the copyright laws, so instead I shall provide the URL with which readers can access the books online in Google Books, and read there the selections I recommend. I very strongly urge readers to follow those links and do the reading, as it will enrich and deepen their understanding of my exposition and analysis.

This new on-line blog course, or Bourse, as I have decided to christen it, comes after lengthy on-line tutorials on the Thought of Karl Marx and the thought of Sigmund Freud. Very quickly, it will become clear that Mannheim was deeply influenced by both authors. Indeed, the undertaking that Mannheim calls "The Sociology of Knowledge" can properly be viewed as the offspring of Marx and Freud. My own personal view is that the work of Mannheim, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, Friedrich Tonnies, Werner Sombart, and others in the Franco-German tradition constitutes a brilliant intellectual achievement that has not been equaled or surpassed -- indeed, that has in large part been lost to us by the distinctly inferior work of subsequent sociologists, political scientists, and philosophers. But you will have to judge that for yourselves.

First, a URL. If you will cut and pasted the following into your command line, it will take you to the Google Books on-line pdf version of Mannheim's great work, Ideology and Utopia, to which I shall be referring for the next several posts.

Mannheim begins with these words: "This book is concerned with the problem of how men actually think. The aim of these studies is to investigate not how thinking appears in textbooks on logic, but how it really functions in public life and in politics as an instrument of collective action." Writing in the aftermath of the First World War, Mannheim is deeply troubled by what he sees as the loss of broad common agreement among thoughtful people about what is true and false -- indeed, about what the criteria of truth and falsehood are. This loss, which he eventually traces back to the breakdown of a medieval consensus and the eruption of competing ways of thinking about the social world, is for him a terrible problem making it impossible to have reasoned public discussion and debate about how societies should active collectively.

Although Mannheim was writing almost a century ago, his concern has a disturbingly contemporary ring to it. We live today in a country [indeed, in a world] in which elementary objective scientific facts such as the evolution of life and the acceleration of global warming cannot command common agreement either in the general public or among those elected to make political decisions. It is not difficult to understand why Mannheim was so deeply troubled by this sort of shattering of rational consensus. Not surprisingly, writing when he did, Mannheim paid a great deal of attention to religious disagreements, but he was also living precisely at the time when fundamental economic premises were also no longer shared universally. Between communists and defenders of capitalism, as also between Christians and non-believers, it seemed that there could be no commonly accepted ways of seeing the world, or even of determining which way takes us closer to the truth.

Almost immediately, Mannheim put forward a very controversial thesis. "The principal thesis of the sociology of knowledge," he writes on the second page of his opening chapter, "is that there are modes of thought which cannot be adequately understood as long as their social origins are obscured." It would be easy to misunderstand this sentence as making a much less interesting claim. We might imagine that Mannheim is saying that we cannot understand why someone believes a proposition so long as its social origins are obscured, or even that we cannot know whether it is true so long as its social origins are obscured. But he is actually claiming that we cannot even understand certain modes of thought so long as their social origins are obscured. What can be possibly mean by this claim?

As is so often my practice, I shall start with a personal example before moving on to a more general explication of Mannheim's thesis. Those of you who have read my Autobiography may recall this story. Almost seventy years ago, when I was a little boy living in the Kew Gardens Hills section of Queens, New York, I started taking violin lessons with Mrs. Irma Zacharias, who lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on 71st street near Amsterdam Avenue. To get to my weekly lesson, I had to take the subway from the Union Turnpike Station. My parents were a trifle concerned about my traveling alone when only eight or nine, so it was arranged that I would go to my lesson with Beverly Rosenberg, an older girl from down the block who was studying the piano with Mrs. Zacharias' unmarried daughter, Dorothea. [It was rumored that Dorothea had, earlier on, dated Ira Gershwin, George's brother.] As the Q-44 bus had not yet started running from Main Street to Union Turnpike, we had to walk the mile or so to the subway station. On the way, Beverly undertook to instruct me in some elementary rules of courtesy, including the rule that a man, when walking with a lady, walks on the street side, closer to the curb. I dutifully learned this rule, along with other rules, such as that a man rises from his chair when a lady walks into the room, and that a man holds a door for a lady and allows her to go through it first. I did not ask why one did these things. I simply learned them along with all the other things I was learning at that age.

There is simply no way in which I, or anyone else, could have reconstructed the social meaning of these rules by examining the thought contents of my mind, or of Beverly's mind, or even, perhaps, of my parents' minds. To make sense of these apparently arbitrary rules of conduct, one would have to reach back fix or seven hundred years, when the elaborate rules of courtoisie or courtly conduct were developed and elaborated by the upper classes of the late Middle Ages in Europe. These rules of conduct were part of the myths and practices of Courtly Love that supposedly regulated the behavior of knights and their ladies in an even earlier period, and which were then articulated and celebrated in court practices, secular music, dress, and other cultural manifestations of a specific time and place and class in the history of Europe. These practices played a number of social roles. They helped to civilize and humanize the rather barbaric social behavior of the time. They glorified and idealized the ruling classes, thereby justifying their dominant [and exploitative] position in society. And they even played a role in justifying the political dominance of the descendants of the Carolingian imperium at a time when it was being challenged. I knew none of this, of course, nor did Beverly, or perhaps even my parents, educated as though they were. But, as Mannheim says, these "modes of thought" can not be adequately understood so long as their "social origins" are obscured.


Disgruntled Goat said...

I had started reading Mannheim's book because you recommended it a few months ago, then set it aside. I'm glad for the opportunity for a walk-through of the parts that you consider important. I've read Edward Said's work, of course, including Orientalism. And I shall watch both the Rozema version of Mansfield Park, and the BBC version, for comparison. Looking forward to the rest of this bourse (why not "b'course?").

formerly a wage slave said...

Not having read Mannheim, but having just quickly read your post, it seems to me that it should not be controversial that s o m e "modes of thought" have such a social-historical feature; rather, the question is whether all or most concepts (or perhaps some very important/central ones) have such a feature.

I seem to recall that some philosophers make heavy weather of the idea that ethics is not just about being polite; so, someone thinking along those lines might want to say: well, etiquette might be social-historical in that way, but right and wrong?

--just a quick reaction.... for what it's worth....
Mark L.

Chris said...

This sounds to me as if Manheim is adding something of upmost importance to Marx. Marx said roughly, it is not our consciousness that determines our social surroundings, but our social surroundings that deeply determines our consciousness. And now Manheim is saying, it's not just your social surroundings, but the afterglow of surroundings centuries prior to. Sort of like Hegels idea that a synthesis retains parts of the thesis and anthithesis after it's transformation?

Chris said...
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Chris said...
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formerly a wage slave said...
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formerly a wage slave said...

I wonder if I can put the major/interesting/important Mannheim claim in my own words--now influenced by your examples: There can be features of my own thoughts of which I am unaware. Those features can be noticed by me if I happen to meet a new language or culture. So, in your example: I go to a restaurant in a foreign country and I discover assumptions which I'd been making, previously unknown to me. The natural next question is something like this: noticing them I've not yet understood them fully, or have not yet been able to determine how true or accurate they are.....So some further step or even method seems needed.

Apart from that attempt to fairly represent what's being said, I find myself with a recurring discomfort: you say the problem of needing cultural/historical input occurs prior to the assessment of truth/falsity.

And I keep thinking: can you really partition off two stages: understanding what's been said and knowing whether it's true? Or is there a process of coming to know which can't be chopped up neatly into stages?

lsauve said...

The book copyright is expired and a full downloadable pdf format is availble at:

lsauve said...

The full book (copyright expired) is available at:

Laurent Sauve

adamvs said...

Dear Prof.Wolfe,

A little ironic, referring to your online course as a bourse "stock market" en français? Thank you none the less for your work. I just completed my M.A.(Art History) using your advice about completing a dissertation.

Please keep writing, as I now have time to read your blog(bourses)regularly during my 'gap year'.

Best wishes,
Adam van Sertima