Sociology of Knowledge
In an attempt to dissociate himself from the panlogical system of
his former master, Hegel, as well as from the "critical philosophy"
of his erstwhile Young Hegelian friends, Karl Marx undertook in
some of his early writings to establish a connection between philosophies,
ideas in general, and the concrete social structures in which they
emerged. "It has not occurred to any of these philosophers,"
he wrote, "to inquire into the connection of German philosophy
with German reality, the relation of their criticism to their own
material surroundings." This programmatic orientation once
established, Marx proceeded to analyze the ways in which systems
of ideas appeared to depend on the social positions--particularly
the class positions-- of their proponents.
the dominant ideas of his time, Marx was led to a resolute relativization
of those ideas. The eternal verities of dominant thought appeared
upon inspection to be only the direct or indirect expression of
the class interests of their exponents. Marx attempted to explain
ideas systematically in terms of their functions and to relate the
thought of individuals to their social roles and class positions.
We must go astray, he believed, "if . . . we detach the ideas
of the ruling class from the ruling class itself and attribute to
them an independent existence, if we confine ourselves to saying
that in a particular age these or those ideas were dominant, without
paying attention to the conditions of production and the producers
of these ideas, and if we thus ignore the individuals and the world
conditions which are the source of these ideas."
maintained, must be traced to the life-conditions and the historical
situations of those who uphold them. For example, it is not sufficient
to state that the ideas of bourgeois writers are the ideas of the
bourgeoisie. Distinctions must be made between those ideas that
emerge at the beginning of the bourgeois era and those that come
at it height. Utilitarian notions in the writings of Helvetius and
d'Holback differed from those that made their appearance with James
Mill and Bentham. "The former correspond with the struggling,
still undeveloped bourgeoisie, the latter with the dominant, developed
It is with revolutionary
ideas as it is with conservative ideas. "The existence of revolutionary
ideas in a particular age presupposes the existence of a revolutionary
class." "The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the
ideas of the ruling class. When people speak of ideas that revolutionize
society, they do but express the fact that within the old society
the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution
of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old
conditions of existence."
and the political representatives of a class need not share in all
the material characteristics of that class, but they share and express
the overall cast of mind.
One [must not]
imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers
or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education
and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven
from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie
is the fact that in their minds they do not go beyond the limits
which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently
driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which
material interest and social position drive the latter practically.
Moreover, Marx granted that particular individuals might not always
think in terms of class interests, that they "are not 'always'
influenced in their attitude by the class to which they belong."
But categories of people, as distinct from individuals, are so influenced.
In his more
polemical writings Marx used his functional analysis of the relations
between ideas and the social position of their proponents as a means
of unmasking and debunking specific opponents and specific ideas.
His aims were wider, however. Karl Mannheim perceived this when
. . . could reach its final goal only when the interest-bound nature
of ideas, the dependence of 'thought' on 'existence,' was brought
to light, not merely as regards certain selected ideas of the ruling
class, but in such a way that the entire 'ideological superstructure'
. . . appeared as dependent upon sociological reality. What was
to be done was to demonstrate the existentially determined nature
of an entire system of Weltanschauung, rather than of this or that
In Marx's later writings, and in particular in a remarkable series
of Engels' letters that date from the 1890's, some of the sharp
edges of earlier polemical writings were smoothed out. Marx and
Engels were now led to repudiate the idea that the economic "infrastructure"
alone determined the character of the "superstructure"
of ideas and only held onto the assertion that it "ultimately"
or "in the last analysis" was the determining factor.
the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determinant
element in history is the production and reproduction of real life.
. . . Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic
element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition
into a meaningless, abstract and senseless phrase. The economic
situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure
. . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical
struggle and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.
In their later writings, both Marx and Engels were led to grant
a certain degree of intrinsic autonomy to the development of legal,
political, religious, literary, and artistic ideas. They now stressed
that mathematics and the natural sciences were exempt from the direct
influence of the social and economic infrastructure, and they now
granted that superstructures were not only mere reflections of infrastructures,
but could in turn react upon them. The Marxian thesis interpreted
in this way gained considerable flexibility, although it also lost
some of its distinctive qualities.