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Monday, May 11, 2015


Almost exactly four years ago, I began a lengthy tutorial on Ideological Critique that eventually extended to more than twenty thousand words.  [A version of it is archived at, accessible from the link at the top of this blog.]   The tutorial began with an exposition of one of the truly great works of the classical period of sociological theory, Karl Mannheim's Ideology and Utopia.  My principal purpose in the exposition was to introduce the reader to Mannheim's important theory of ideological critique, but along the way, I took the time to expound his brilliant analysis of utopian forms of time consciousness.

As I explained in the Tutorial, Mannheim shared with his fellow German intellectuals a deep respect, indeed a reverence, for the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, in which, of course, time consciousness plays a central role.  Space and time, Kant tells us in the first part of the Critique of Pure Reason, are the pure forms of sensuous intuition that lie ready in the mind, which is to say in logical [though not causal] independence of experience.  Kant simply assumes, without argument, that all human beings share identical pure forms of intuition, a fact he uses to demonstrate the otherwise mysterious and inexplicable truth that the theorems of Euclidean Geometry are at one and the same time synthetic [i.e., not mere logical tautologies] and yet are knowable a priori.

I read Ideology and Utopia for the first time almost sixty years ago, when I was deep in the writing of my doctoral dissertation on the theories of knowledge of Hume and Kant.  It occurred to me then, and has occurred to me many times since, to wonder whether it would be possible to do an ideological analysis of our consciousness of space modeled on Mannheim's stunning and deeply disturbing ideological analysis of our consciousness of time.  On several occasions, in one thing or another that I was writing, I tried out this notion in a fragmentary and preliminary way.  Now, I should like to attempt a somewhat more systematic treatment of the problem.  Although I am by nature inordinately pleased with my own writings [thereby exhibiting, as I have from time to time remarked, a socially acceptable sublimation of the infant's fascination with its own feces], I do not for a moment imagine that I can match the depth, incisiveness, and encyclopedic breadth of Mannheim's story, but the subject is an important one, and it is my hope that those of you who read this blog will find it worth your while to follow me over as many days as it takes to set out my thoughts in an orderly fashion.  I promise that I shall return soon enough to my caustic remarks about the contemporary political scene.

Space, in classical Newtonian physics, is isotropic.  [Whether that is true of modern physics is somewhat beyond my understanding.]   That is to say, space for a Newtonian is everywhere the same.  No region of space is distinguishable from any other save with regard to what is filling it.  Hence when representing a Newtonian space by a system of axes perpendicular to one another, it is arbitrary where one locates the origin of the system -- the point at which the three axes intersect.  Any consistent transformation of the system -- by relocating the origin or altering the size of the units used -- leaves every important proposition about the space invariant.   [Assuming the truth of the so-called Big Bang Theory of the origin of the universe, the same cannot of course be said for time, inasmuch as one moment in time -- the moment of the big bang -- is different in its properties and significance from all other moments.]

This conception of space corresponds to, and in a way underlies, the political ideology of Internationalism, or, as it was called when I was young, One World, a phrase used by the internationalist and 1940 Republican presidential candidate Wendell Willkie as the title of a book.  Internationalism is the political program that sets itself against the divisiveness of the nation-state system, with its proneness to war, tariffs, and other interruptions of business as usual.  Internationalism is the ideological orientation toward space itself of modern transnational capitalism, for which national boundaries are merely irritating obstacles to the frictionless flow of labor, capital, and commodities.  For modern international capitalism, national borders, national constitutions, language differences, and their associated religious and ethnic articulations are impediments that it seeks, wherever possible, to sweep aside.  Even the time zones associated with different spaces are, wherever practicable, superseded by a seamless isotropy.  Thomas Friedman, the NY TIMES columnist and cheer leader for the advanced sector of the capitalist world, sought to capture this characteristic of modern capitalism in the title of his 2005 book, The World is Flat.

The ideological interpretation of the world as spatially isotropic is, of course, quite modern, and in complete contradiction to all the traditional and competing interpretations of space.  Perhaps the oldest conception of the meaning of space itself is the idea of the homeland, rendered quite often, with all the freight of associated meanings, as motherland or fatherland.  To be at home is to be in the one place in the world that is familiar, safe, valued, privileged, to be defended at all cost.  During my time in South Africa I frequently encountered a peculiarity of linguistic usage that expressed this notion nicely.  If I asked an African South African [but not a White English-speaking South African] "Where do you live?" she would tell me where she had been born and raised.  If I wanted to know where her current residence was, I had to ask "Where do you stay?"  The implication was clear:  you only live where you were born and raised, regardless of where life may have taken you.

Deeply intertwined with this conception of the privileged place of one's origin is the myth of the golden past, most dramatically rendered in the story of the Garden of Eden in the Book of Genesis.  The Garden is uniquely distinguished as the place where man and woman walk with God, converse with Him easily, and see Him face to face.  When Adam and Eve disobey God, they are driven from the Garden, forbidden to enter it again, and condemned to a life of labor and misery.  The entire complex Judeo-Christian story is an endless quest to return to that Garden.  Heaven is figured in this tradition as the place where once again, and forever, one shall abide in the presence of the Lord.  [I leave to one side the variant according to which the devout in Heaven have sex repeatedly with virgins.  When I was young, I was puzzled by this lust after virgins, as it seemed to me that it would be infinitely preferable to take one's pleasure with experienced lovers, but as I have grown old, I have, in this as in so much else, gained new insight. I now understand that sex with virgins reduces the probability that one's partner will be disappointed with one's performance.  Perhaps the Muslims are on to something.]


Jerry Fresia said...

The African South African distinction between where one "lives" and where one "stays" is wonderful and important.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

It took me a while to understand it. It is very striking.

Will said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
classtruggle said...

Was there some sort of conflict between Marcuse/Horkheimer and Mannheim? I reviewed some of my notes on the Frankfurt School after reading your post and came across this quote from Marcuse's Negations with a note next to it suggesting it was directed at Mannheim:

“sociology that is only interested in the dependent and limited nature of consciousness has nothing to do with truth. While useful in many ways it has falsified the interest and goal of any critical theory” (Marcuse p. 152).

Marcuse criticised the relativist nature of Mannheim's sociology of knowledge and from what I remember, so did Adorno, Jay, and Lukacs because they felt Mannheim's sociology of knowledge undermined the critical force of a Marxist analysis of ideology.

Later in his life, I believe Mannheim also rejected to a small extent his former writings, and started adopting a new, orientation (Anglo-saxon science).

Perhaps the interest in Mannheim in the 21st century has something to do with his idealist, revisionist and relativist deviations (read heretical) which some from his 'camp' saw as dangerous?

Chris said...

Classtruggle, Horkheimer's sympathetic but also somewhat critical essay on Mannheim is found in here:

classtruggle said...

Thanks for this Chris. My reading of his work has been cursory at best. I don't even pretend to be a fan. I believe the works of the Frankfurt theorists have been read too often (when they have been read) outside their historical context i.e. WWII, holocaust, etc. The same is true with Marx's writings in a different sense though (some written when he was in his late 20s and early 30s i.e. very young and still in the process of elaborating his theories).

And I also think the theories they developed have more to do with other thinkers and scholarly cultures (like Freud and psychoanalysis, even in the case of Zizek now) than with Marx and the history of the workers' movement.