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Wednesday, June 1, 2011


Before I continue, let me remind you that you can find Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia at the following place:

Also, with the kind assistance of a Reference Librarian at Duke University, I have now been able to put on my 1990 essay, "Narrative Time: On The Inherently Perspectival Structure of the Social World," which deals with some of the issues I am raising in this bourse.

Elaborating on the thesis that he advances at the beginning of his first chapter, Mannheim writes: "Strictly speaking, it is incorrect to say that the single individual thinks. Rather it is more correct to insist that he participates in thinking further what other men have thought before him." [page 5]

By the time Mannheim was writing, it had become a commonplace that every element of the culture of a people is a collective product, passed along from generation to generation, always evolving, but always experienced by each generation as something they have inherited from their ancestors. Ethnographers and Sociologists were busily engaged in studying the ways in which peoples wrest a living from the earth -- their "material culture" as it came to be called -- as well as their kinship relations, their religion, their art, their modes of dress, their practices of war, indeed the ways in which they arrange their bodies as they walk and sit and sleep. But even the most sophisticated students of the human comedy [excluding Marx] clung to the belief that in our thought processes, in our study of nature and of society, we are capable of extricating ourselves from our social matrix and thinking rationally, as Minds. Mannheim is denying that assumption. In this book, he is advancing the radical thesis that alongside a Sociology of Religion, a Sociology of Art, a Sociology of Politics, and a Sociology of Economics, we must also undertake a Sociology of Knowledge itself.

We are only at the beginning of a long and complex story, but it may help you to see where we are going if I remark that Mannheim is slowly moving toward the notion of a socially embedded and determined conception of the entire social world, an historically and socially determined "world view" or, as the German has it, a Weltanschauung.

After a good deal more development of these opening ideas [a development that it is well worth your while to read, by the way -- see Chapter One, "Preliminary Approach to the Problem," in Ideology and Utopia], Mannheim advances what I think of as the second major thesis of his book. [See pages 38-39]

"Political discussion possesses a character fundamentally different from academic discussion. It seeks not only to be in the right but also to demolish the basis of its opponents' social and intellectual existence. ... Political conflict, since it is from the very beginning a rationalized form of the struggle for social predominance, attacks the social status of the opponent, his public prestige, and his self-confidence. ... Physical repression is, it is true, harder to bear externally, but the will to psychic annihilation .. is perhaps even more unbearable." The tearing away of the facade of reasonableness, and the revealing of the "social-situational roots of thought, Mannheim says, takes the form of an "unmasking."

Let us take just a moment to reflect on this claim, which is, I believe, both true and very profound. Academic debates between acknowledged experts can be extremely vigorous, even contentious. Whether they take place between philosophers or mathematicians or physicists or economists, they often involve heated arguments and counterarguments. But the social legitimacy of one's opponent is not called into question in the course of the argument. One's opponent is assumed to be, so to speak, an honorable man or woman who genuinely believes what he or she is saying, however wrong one may think that is. By contrast, in political debates, especially those that we now have learned to call "ideological," the aim is to destroy the opponent, not merely to rebut his or her arguments. If I call my opponent a "mouthpiece for the pharmaceutical industry" or a "running dog of imperialism" or an "apologist for international capitalism," I am not just saying that his arguments are incorrect or unsupported by the evidence. I am attempting to destroy him, strip off his mask of ostensible objectivity and reveal him to be something else, something shameful and worthy of contempt. My goal, for all that it is only rarely achieved, is to drive him from the field of combat, his tail between his legs, ashamed and humiliated, unable hence forward to show himself in polite company. Sometimes, of course, I may attempt to achieve this objective by accusing him of abusing women or being on the take, but it is a far deeper thrust to say of him that he is in the grip of a self-serving self-justifying rationalization of which he himself is unaware. This is the nature of "ideological critique."

"At first," Mannheim observes, "those parties who possessed the new 'intellectual weapons,' the unmasking of the unconscious, had a terrific advantage over their adversaries." [Note that this is the use to which some people put the insights of Freud, trying to embarrass and humiliate those whom they dislike by purporting to reveal their actions and statements as nothing more than the eruptions of repressed and shameful wishes. Mannheim continues: "It was stupefying for the latter [i.e. the adversaries] when it was demonstrated that their ideas were merely distorted reflections of their situation in life, anticipations of their unconscious interests." This new mode of argument "must have filled [the adversary] with terror and awakened in the person using the weapon a feeling of marvelous superiority."

Sound familiar, anyone?

But the victory is short-lived, for it takes very little time for those against whom this new weapon is deployed to appropriate it for their own uses. This is, by the way, the pattern of all developments in the technology of warfare, whether physical or mental. The first person to demonstrate with the irresistible rigor of formal logic that the premises of an argument entail its conclusion had a weapon of seemingly god-like power. He or she could force an opponent who has granted the premises to accept the conclusion, no matter how unappealing. Thus the bow begets bows, the lance lances, tanks tanks, and nuclear weapons nuclear weapons. But, Mannheim, concludes, "in the measure that the various groups sought to destroy their adversaries' confidence in their thinking by this most modern intellectual weapon of radical unmasking, they also destroyed, as all positions came to be subjected to analysis, man's confidence in human thought in general." [p. 41.]

1 comment:

Michael said...

So, out of curiosity, how would you characterize Mannheim's project? Is it a fundamentally skeptical one, or does it try to overcome skepticism to find a firmament on which ideas can rest?
Also, am I wrong to think about him as doing something similar to what Kuhn, Bachelard, and Foucault would do later?