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Friday, June 3, 2011


To Continue:

Note too that this world view may come to be, indeed most often is, accepted by the entire society, including those who suffer as a consequence of its acceptance. The peasants see the world in much the way that their feudal lords do, albeit from a different perspective. As Marx showed us, it requires a considerable socio-economic development and a great deal of deliberate effort for the workers to penetrate the ruling bourgeois ideology and begin to see their capitalism as exploitative.

Let me repeat for emphasis one of Mannheim's central claims by quoting a pregnant passage from the opening pages of the second chapter:

"If we confine our observations to the mental processes which take place in the individual and regard him as the only possible bearer of ideologies, we shall never grasp in its totality the structure of the intellectual world belonging to a social group in a given historical situation. Although the mental world as a whole could never come into existence without the experiences and productive responses of the different individuals, its inner structure is not to be found in a mere integration of these individual experiences. ... Every individual participates only in certain fragments of this thought-system, the totality of which is not in the least a mere sum of these fragmentary individual experiences." [p. 58] This was the profound idea that I attempted to illustrate in a preliminary way with my little story about Beverly Rosenberg teaching me to walk on the curb side of a lady.

With the universal appropriation of the powerful weapon of ideological critique, a problem arises to which Mannheim devotes a good deal of anxious thought, albeit unsuccessfully, in my judgment. The problem is this: So long as I alone deploy ideological unmasking against my opponents, I can maintain the conviction that my thought processes are objective and non-ideological, that my reasoning is grounded in principles of logic and scientific observation. But once I am forced, by the responses of my opponents, to confront the previously unacknowledged and inevitable ideological distortions of my own world view, I seem ineluctably drawn to the conclusion that objectivity is impossible, indeed that truth itself is an illusion. The Feudal and the Bourgeois worldviews fight to the death, and when the bourgeois worldview conquers, the feudal world view is not proved incorrect but is simply extinguished, consigned, in that great trope of Leon Trotsky, to the trash heap of history. So too, if Marx is correct, the bourgeois worldview will eventually [deo volente!!] be defeated by the socialist worldview, after which, a suitable period of adjustment having elapsed, it will appear simply incredible and incomprehensible to ordinary people that the means of production should ever have been privately owned.

This conclusion, which the logic of his analysis seemed to require, was to Mannheim utterly unacceptable. In a desperate effort to avoid the relativism and hermetic situationalism to which he was being driven, he put forward the idea that in modern society there are certain people whose social location lies outside any of the major socio-economic classes. These "marginal men," or grenzmenschen, are capable, he suggested, of achieving something like an objective perspective on their own society. Who are these "marginal men?" Not the homeless or the permanently unemployed, not the mad, not even the artists, but -- "free-floating intellectuals."

It would be too easy to mock Mannheim for this blatantly self-serving rationalization of his own social position. Instead, I ask you to reflect on how deeply wounded he, and many others of his generation, felt by this mortal threat to their principles of objective inquiry and wissenschaftlichkeit. Since I devoted many years of my life to the unsuccessful quest for objective principles of morality, I can sympathize with him. By the way, one of Mannheim's many brilliant apercus is that the it was the breakdown of the medieval consensus that gave rise to epistemology in the early seventeenth century! Those of you who have a good command of the history of philosophy might meditate on that idea for a while. It is extraordinarily suggestive.

In an attempt to introduce some order into his discussion, Mannheim distinguishes two classes of systematically interest-driven worldviews. Ideologies are worldviews that exaggerate the stability of the existing order and deny the possibility that it will ever fundamentally change, in an unacknowledged attempt to shore up that order. The bourgeois worldview, for example, by representing laisser-faire capitalism as the endpoint of a long process of the rationalization of economic activity, denies the very possibility of anything "beyond capitalism," and thus contributes to the stabilization of the capitalist order, just as the feudal order was rationalized and stabilized by its representation as the will of God. In interesting, although trivial, example of this sort of ideological buttressing of the existing order is Francis Fukuyama's famous 1989 essay, "The End of History," which claims that Western liberal [which is to say capitalist] democracy is the endpoint of human social evolution, and hence the end of history. [Take that, Socialism!]

Utopias, by contrast, are worldviews that exaggerate the weakness of the existing order and represent as possible, or even as inevitable, its replacement by an alternative social and economic order that the proponents of the utopia long for and see as preferable to the current social order. Mannheim views Marxism as an example of a utopian weltanschauung, as you might have guessed.

At this point, we have before us enough of Mannheim's analysis to allow us to proceed to our three case studies of ideological critique. But before we move on to Wilmsen and the Kalahari, I shall devote a day to discussing one particular piece of analysis offered by Mannheim that I consider to be among the most brilliant passages ever penned by a sociologist. Let me prepare the way with a few words of explanation.

Mannheim, like all the great German social theorists of his era, was a student of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. If I may steal a line from George Harrison in Hard Day's Night, Kant "loomed large in their legend." [Another brief autobiographical aside: German intellectuals of the mid-twentieth century held Kant in the same high esteem as did French intellectuals Descartes. It was because I am an expert on Kant's philosophy that such emigré(e) scholars as Herbert Marcuse and Hannah Arendt looked kindly on me, and were willing to forgive my ungetoverable Amerikanischkeit.] Kant taught us all that space, time, and causality are the most fundamental organizing concepts of empirical knowledge. What Mannheim does in Chapter IV of Ideology and Utopia, "The Utopian Mentality," is to undertake nothing less than an ideological analysis of forms of time-consciousness as such [or an sich, as we Kant scholars like to say.] Tomorrow, we shall see how he does this.


Chris said...

Maybe this is off topic, but why is Descartes held in such high regard? I just re-read him for the third time two weeks ago, and was...underwhelmed. I just don't see how he holds a candle to Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hume, or Spinoza...

I mean the cogito is impressive yes. But it's the pinnacle of his work, and could be expressed in a simple 1 page essay. The additions to Philosophy that Plato, Hume, and Kant made, fill up vastly more text, and cover vastly wider fields of analysis. I'm not trying to belittle Descartes, but I don't see him as someone who needs to be praised either; let alone read over and over.

Chris said...

Oh and his arguments for the existence of God, so far as I could tell, were just atrocious. I imagine numerous atheist were fuming at that paltriness of his proofs, while simultaneously unable to decimate them for fear of being a social pariah.

Michael said...

But Chris, none of the philosophers you mention are French. I agree that Descartes is overrated as a philosopher, by the French and nearly everybody else. (As a mathematician and scientist, he's in somewhat better shape.) But he's certainly the best known French philosopher, at least.

Sartre is a clear alternative, but he probably came too late to attain the entrenched status Descartes has. Rousseau is the other obvious alternative, I suppose. (I like Abelard myself, but he's probably a long shot as a Descartes usurper.)

Chris said...

That's true. I just don't pick my favorites upon nationality, and I suppose I hoped others followed in that path.

And you're right, I'll read Sartre quite a bit more than Descartes if given the choice.

Michael said...

I think (the other) Michael's point was that those nations have historically a great deal of pride in their philosophers, and the association of those philosophers to the nation. It might also be that Descartes and Kant can both, according to a simplified narrative of the history of philosophy, can be considered to have begun debates which set the tone for much later work in a way few philosophers ever do. It certainly doesn't seem like Satre, Abelard, Rousseau--and this is by no means meant to belittle their talent--were as influential. I mean, there has to be a reason most Modern Phil. classes start with Descartes and end with Kant.

Also, try reading Anselm's proof of the existence of God. I've read it--or selections from it--a few times and it just makes my head spin.

Andreas Baumann said...

The great invention of Descartes was "the turn to the subject" - his firm ground is the famous cogito, but 'tis not the proof itself that is so fascinating: rather, it is the fact that Cartesian philosophy places the subject at the center of philosophy. Every philosophy so far was concerned with devising the grand structure of the universe, and Descartes comes along and says "The foundation of philosophy is the human subject". BANG. Here comes modernity, because that is essentially what the modern is all about, placing the subject solidly in a priviliged ontic status in the centre of the universe.

That being said, the Frenchies do have a lot of great philosophers. The only rival, I think, is the Germans...


Robert Paul Wolff said...

All of this takes us off on a tangent, but I did want to nod in and say a word or two about these comments. Andreas has it exactly right. This turn to the subject, sometimes called the Epistemological Turn, had the effect of making questions of knowing prior to questions of being. One need only look at the writings of Aristotle, which were the dominant influence for two meillennia, to see what a revolution this was. It is striking to look at the titles of some of the major books written in the century and a half between Descartes and Kant: Essay on Human Understanding, Treatise of Human Nature, Principles of Human Knowledge, Critique of Pure Reason. None of those is a title that one would have expected from the philosophers writing before Descartes. The privileging of epistemology over metaphysics continued for two centuries, and although the work of Sayl Kripke and others has somewhat reversed this order of priority in analytic philosophical work, it continues to be important.

Magpie said...


Only now I've come to your tutorial on Mannheim and I find it fascinating.

First, let me explain in my own words (please, bear with me and remember that I'm not a philosopher): In Mannheim's views, "free-floating intellectuals" seem to be characters who, by virtue of their superior knowledge and lack of class attachments, manage to overcome the influence of ideologies. That's why they can see things clearly. Therefore, they can judge what theories are right (or are closer to be right) and can presumably take decisions for the general good.

A few questions about the "free-floating intellectuals":

Aren't they the modern day equivalent to Plato's Philosopher-King?

And don't contemporary economists see themselves in similar ways?