Ideology, Utopia, Dystopia: a Crisis of Mutual Respect

November 11, 2009

A common strategy used by politicians is to subvert debates by simply claiming that their opponents’ world-views are based on ideology or utopia. Karl Mannheim (1929-31 [1997]) hoped to transcend the confusion and irrationality of empty arguments that he claims led to the crisis of mutual distrust, political poisoning and organized disorientation in Weimar Germany. He developed a Sociology of Knowledge to explore what was being done in the name of knowledge in political debates. Paul Krugman seems to be exploring similar themes in his New York Times Op-Ed article entitled “Paranoia Strikes Deep.”

“In its Mannheimian form, the concept of ideology juxtaposed situationally-contingent knowledge with situationally non-contingent knowledge. Where, if at all, that boundary could be drawn has been the subject of an ongoing debate within the discipline Karl Mannheim founded when he wrote Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge (1929-31). The startling and subversive claim of his position was that knowledge has a sociology, that is, it is socially located and therefore contingent (pp. xxiii, 36,68-9, 185, 269). This undermined the notion that knowledge could be like natural science was supposed to be: neutral, objective, above the contending forces in society and culture. In the end, Mannheim believed that the sociologist of knowledge could find an interest-free vantage point. He adopted a position of ‘relationalism’ which eschewed the toughest epistemological questions (pp. 70, 71, 77, 166, 253). (cited in Young, Robert Cyborgs)”

“Mannheim developed his sociology of knowledge in a series of writings culminating in Ideology and Utopia, (1929, 1997) a volume of connected essays first published in Germany in 1929 (Mannheim 1929, 1936a). Through his sociology of knowledge, Mannheim attempts a social-scientific way of encountering and partly transcending the irrational elements in all thought bearing on social constitution. The hidden integrative force of such elements in structures of thinking, he argues, is evident from the disorientation effected by political strategies that expose the world-views of opponents as nothing but ideologies or utopias. While this subversive insight was first loosed on the political world by Marxism, it soon became common property among all parties in Weimar Germany, according to Mannheim, generating a crisis of mutual distrust and poisoning political processes dependent on self-confident reflection, inquiry, debate, and settlements that could be defended in public. The sociology of knowledge promises to break through the impasse by fostering among the parties a realistic assessment of the social situation common to all, paradoxically beginning with a sociological neutralization of the insight into ideology and utopia. If sociology can disinterestedly show how contrasting styles of practical social knowledge are without exception grounded in unacknowledged wishes derived from diverse social locations, the common consciousness among politically active strata about this piece of highly interesting theoretical social knowledge-itself based on a commitment to synthesis sociologically imputable to the intelligentsia as stratum-can gradually expand to grasp the wider social diagnosis that it implies. Universal awareness of ideology and utopia would undergo a decisive change in function, from a paralyzing political poison to organon for a knowledge-oriented but not conflict-free politics (Kettler).”

Keywords: Karl Mannheim, Robert Young, Marxism, liberalism:crisis of, ideology, utopia, world-views, sociology, consciousness, mutual distrust, Weimar Germany, transparent public inquiry, transparent public debate, political strategies, social constitution, social cohesion, situationally-contingent knowledge, situationally non-contingent knowledge, Sociology of Knowledge, Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, SSK, Sociology:Knowledge, society and culture, knowledge and power, power and everyday life,

Webliography and Bibliography

Kettler, David. Karl Mannheim and the crisis of liberalism: the secret of these new times.

Krugman, Paul. 2009-11-9. “Paranoia Strikes Deep.” New York Times.

Young, Robert. Cyborgs


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