Sociology of Knowledge?

In my youth, I was very interested in Karl Mannheim’s attempt to develop a sociology of knowledge. Mannheim belongs to the tradition of classical German sociology, which was always much more philosophical than its American counterpart. As a young man in Hungary, he was close to Georg Lukács. Later, he taught at Frankfurt and interacted with members of the early Frankfurt school.

In his doctoral dissertation, Mannheim had argued that epistemology cannot be self-grounding, and suggested that what he at the time called “ontology” should come first. In “The Problem of a Sociology of Knowledge” (1925), he argued that the principal characteristic of modernity was a progressive “self-relativization” of knowledge, and attempted to generalize Marx’s concept of ideology into a theory of something like culture.

His most famous work, Ideology and Utopia (1929), was concerned with the fragility of democracy. His naive hopes that a “free-floating intelligentsia” would lead the way to social peace were severely criticized by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. While rejecting economic determinism, Mannheim saw general social-scientific value in the Marxist thesis that “being determines consciousness”. Like the Marxists, what Mannheim had in mind in speaking of “being” was mainly concrete social-historical circumstance. He spoke of thought as inseparable from such being, and sought to distinguish his own “dynamic relationism” from relativism. Later, as a refugee from the Nazis, he among other things proposed a broader “sociology of mind”, with some reference to Hegel.

(Mannheim did not much rely on the term “consciousness”, mentioned above. For a long time now, I have shied away from programmatic use of that term. It does vaguely refer to something, but that something can be more clearly discussed in other ways. Phenomenologists, existentialists, and Marxists tend to indiscriminately broaden the term “consciousness” to include all phases of the Hegelian phenomenology, but in Hegel, Consciousness refers in particular to the most primitive and inadequate phase, which posits a naive, unproblematic distinction between mind and world. In Brandomian terms, such indiscriminate references to “consciousness” imply a reduction of sapience to mere sentience. In common parlance, “consciousness” suggests a naive notion of a transparent mental substance or medium, or a container of mental objects. I’ve many times registered my objection to programmatic “being” talk, as well. See also Being, Existence.)

In spite of preferring to avoid reliance on terms like “being” and “consciousness”, I do still see an important real asymmetry that is loosely picked out by a phrase like “being determines consciousness”. Reality and thought are asymmetrically mutually determining (see Subject, Object). The real (never simply possessed by us, but rather as that which pushes back) always has an edge over thought, and at any given moment exceeds it, provoking further development. That (in conjunction with mutual recognition) is how a non-naive realism can be recovered, and relativism avoided.