The absolute which was once a means of entering into communion with the divine, has now become an instrument used by those who profit from it, to distort, pervert, and conceal the meaning of the present.
As translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils (1936)
When we attribute to one historical epoch one intellectualworld and to ourselves another one … we refer not to the isolated cases of thought-content, but to fundamentally divergent thought-systems and to widely differing modes of experience and interpretation.
There are spheres of thought in which it is impossible to conceive of absolute truth existing independently of the values and position of the subject and unrelated to the social context.
Humanthought arises, and operates, not in a social vacuum but in a definite social milieu.
We must realize once and for all that the meanings which make up our world are simply an historically determined and continuously developing structure in which man develops, and are in no sense absolute.
At this point in history when all things which concern man and the structure and elements of history itself are suddenly revealed to us in a new light, it behooves us in our scientific thinking to become masters of the situation…
Allknowledge is oriented toward some object and is influenced in its approach by the nature of the object with which it is pre-occupied. But the mode of approach to the object to be known is dependent upon the nature of the knower.
Relationism signifies merely that all of the elements of meaning in a given situation have reference to one another and derive their significance from this reciprocal interrelationship in a given frame of thought.
It has become extremely questionable whether, in the flux of life, it is a genuinely worthwhile intellectualproblem to seek to discover fixed and immutable ideas or absolutes. It is a more worthy intellectual task perhaps to learn to think dynamically and relationally rather than statically.
In general there are two distinct and separable meanings of the term "ideology" — the particular and the total. The particular conception of ideology is implied when the term denotes that we are sceptical of the ideas and representations advanced by our opponent. They are regarded as more or less conscious disguises of the real nature of a situation, the true recognition of which would not be in accord with his interests. These distortions range all the way from conscious lies to half-conscious and unwitting disguises; from calculated attempts to dupe others to self-deception. This conception of ideology, which has only gradually become differentiated from the common-sense notion of the lie is particular in several senses. Its particularity becomes evident when it is contrasted with the more inclusive total conception of ideology. Here we refer to the ideology of an age or of a concrete historico-social group, e.g. of a class, when we are concerned with the characteristics and composition of the total structure of the mind of this epoch or of this group. Although they have something in common, there are also significant differences between them.
Whereas the particular conception of ideology designates only a part of the opponent's assertions as ideologies — and this only with reference to their content, the total conception calls into question the opponent's total Weltanschauung (including his conceptual apparatus), and attempts to understand these concepts as an outgrowth of the collective life of which he partakes.
The particular conception of "ideology" makes its analysis of ideas on a purely psychological level. If it is claimed for instance that an adversary is lying, or that he is concealing or distorting a given factual situation, it is still nevertheless assumed that both parties share common criteria of validity — it is still assumed that it is possible to refute lies and eradicate sources or error by referring to accepted criteria of objective validity common to both parties. The suspicion that one's opponent is the victim of an ideology does not go so far as to exclude him from discussion on the basis of a common theoretical frame of reference. The case is different with the total conception of ideology. When we attribute to one historical epoch one intellectual world and to ourselves another one, or if a certain historically determined social stratum thinks in categories other than our own, we refer not to the isolated cases of thought-content, but to fundamentally divergent thought-systems and to widely differing modes of experience and interpretation.
The particular conception of ideology operates primarily with a psychology of interests, while the total conception uses a more formal functional analysis, without any reference to motivations, confining itself to an objective description of the structural differences in minds operating in different social settings. The former assumes that this or that interest is the cause of a given lie or deception. The latter presupposes simply that there is a correspondence between a given social situation and a given perspective, point of view, or apperception mass. In this case, while an analysis of constellations of interests may often be necessary it is not to establish causal connections but to characterize the total situation. Thus interest psychology tends to be displaced by an analysis of the correspondence between the situation to be known and the forms of knowledge.
As long as one does not call his own position into question but regards it as absolute, while interpreting his opponents' ideas as a mere function of the social positions they occupy, the decisive step forward has not yet been taken.
The general form of the total conception of ideology is being used by the analyst when he has the courage to subject not just the adversary's point of view but all points of view, including his own, to the ideological analysis. At the present stage of our understanding it is hardly possible to avoid this general formulation of the total conception of ideology, according to which the thought of all parties in all epochs is of an ideological character.
The thought of every group is seen as arising out of its life conditions. Thus, it becomes the task of the sociological history of thought to anlayse without regard for party biases all the factors in the actually existing social situation which may influence thought. This sociologically oriented history of ideas is destined to provide modern men with a revised view of the whole historical process.
In attempting to expose the views of another, one is forced to make one's own view appear infallible and absolute, which is a procedure altogether to be avoided if one is making a specifically non-evaluative investigation. The second possible approach is nevertheless to combine such a non-evaluative analysis with a definite epistemology. Viewed from the angle of this second approach there are two separate and distinct solutions to the problem of what constitutes reliable knowledge — the one solution may be termed relationism, and the other relativism.
Relativism is a product of the modern historical-sociological procedure which is based on the recognition that all historical thinking is bound up with the concrete position in life of the thinker [Standortsgebundenheit des Denkers]. But relativism combines this historical-sociological insight with an older theory of knowledge which was as yet unaware of the interplay between conditions of existence and modes of thought, and which modelled its knowledge after static prototypes such as might be exemplified by the proposition 2 x 2 = 4. This older type of thought, which regarded such examples as the model of all thought, was necessarily led to the rejection of all those forms of knowledge which were dependent upon the subjective standpoint and the social situation of the knower, and which were, hence, merely "relative".
A modern theory of knowledge which takes account of the relational as distinct from the merely relative character of all historical knowledge must start with the assumption that there are spheres of thought in which it is impossible to conceive of absolute truth existing independently of the values and position of the subject and unrelated to the social context.
What is intelligible in history can be formulated only with reference to problems and conceptual constructions which themselves arise in the flux of historical experience.
Once we recognize that all historical knowledge is relational knowledge, and can only be formulated with reference to the position of the observer, we are faced, once more, with the task of discriminating between what is true and what is false in such knowledge.
The non-evaluative general total conception of ideology is to be found primarily in those historical investigations, where, provisionally and for the sake of the simplification of the problem, no judgments are pronounced as to the correctness of the ideas to be treated. This approach confines itself to discovering the relations between certain mental structures and the life-situations in which they exist. We must constantly ask ourselves how it comes about that a given type of social situation gives rise to a given interpretation. Thus the ideological element in human thought, viewed at this level, is always bound up with the existing life-situation of the thinker. According to this view human thought arises, and operates, not in a social vacuum but in a definite social milieu.
To-day, there are too many points of view of equal value and prestige, each showing the relativity of the other, to permit us to take any one position and to regard it as impregnable and absolute. Only this socially disorganized intellectual situation makes possible the insight, hidden until now by a generally stable social structure and the practicability of certain traditional norms, that every point of view is particular to a social situation.
It may indeed be true that in order to act we need a certain amount of self-confidence and intellectual self-assurance. It may also be true that the very form of expression, in which we clothe our thoughts, tends to impose upon them an absolute tone.
Conflicting intellectual positions may actually come to supplement one another. It is imperative in the present transitional period to make use of the intellectual twilight which dominates our epoch and in which all values and points of view appear in their genuine relativity. We must realize once and for all that the meanings which make up our world are simply an historically determined and continuously developing structure in which man develops, and are in no sense absolute.
At this point in history when all things which concern man and the structure and elements of history itself are suddenly revealed to us in a new light, it behooves us in our scientific thinking to become masters of the situation, for it is not inconceivable that sooner than we suspect, as has often been the case before in history, this vision may disappear, the opportunity may be lost, and the world will once again present a static, uniform, and inflexible countenance.
This first non-evaluative insight into history does not inevitably lead to relativism, but rather to relationism. Knowledge, as seen in the light of the total conception of ideology, is by no means an illusory experience, for ideology in its relational concept is not at all identical with illusion. Knowledge arising out of our experience in actual life situations, though not absolute, is knowledge none the less. The norms arising out of such actual life situations do not exist in a social vacuum, but are effective as real sanctions for conduct. Relationism signifies merely that all of the elements of meaning in a given situation have reference to one another and derive their significance from this reciprocal interrelationship in a given frame of thought. Such a system of meanings is possible and valid only in a given type of historical existence, to which, for a time, it furnishes appropriate expression. When the social situation changes, the system of norms to which it had previously given birth ceases to be in harmony with it. The same estrangement goes on with reference to knowledge and to the historical perspective. All knowledge is oriented toward some object and is influenced in its approach by the nature of the object with which it is pre-occupied. But the mode of approach to the object to be known is dependent upon the nature of the knower.
In order to be transmuted into knowledge, every perception is and must be ordered and organized into categories. The extent, however, to which we can organize and express our experience in such conceptual forms is, in turn, dependent upon the frames of reference which happen to be available at a given historical moment. The concepts which we have and the universe of discourse in which we move, together with the directions in which they tend to elaborate themselves, are dependent largely upon the historical-social situation of the intellectually active and responsible members of the group.
It has become extremely questionable whether, in the flux of life, it is a genuinely worthwhile intellectual problem to seek to discover fixed and immutable ideas or absolutes. It is a more worthy intellectual task perhaps to learn to think dynamically and relationally rather than statically.
In our contemporary social and intellectual plight, it is nothing less than shocking to discover that those persons who claim to have discovered an absolute are usually the same people who also pretend to be superior to the rest. To find people in our day attempting to pass off to the world and recommending to others some nostrum of the absolute which they claim to have discovered is merely a sign of the loss of and the need for intellectual and moral certainty, felt by broad sections of the population who are unable to look life in the face.
It may possibly be true that, to continue to live on and to act in a world like ours, it is vitally necessary to seek a way out of this uncertainty of multiple alternatives; and accordingly people may be led to embrace some immediate goal as if it were absolute, by which they hope to make their problems appear concrete and real. But it is not primarily the man of action who seeks the absolute and immutable, but rather it is he who wishes to induce others to hold on to the status quo because he feels comfortable and smug under conditions as they are.
We are faced with the curiously appalling trend of modern thought, in which the absolute which was once a means of entering into communion with the divine, has now become an instrument used by those who profit from it, to distort, pervert, and conceal the meaning of the present.
When the empirical investigator glories in his refusal to go beyond the specialized observation dictated by the traditions of his discipline, be they ever so inclusive, he is making a virtue out of a defense mechanism which insures him against questioning his presuppositions.
Every bureaucracy, therefore, in accord with the peculiar emphasis on its own position, tends to generalize its own experience and to overlook the fact that the realm of administration and of smoothly functioning order represents only a part of the total political reality. Bureaucratic thought does not deny the possibility of the science of politics, but regards it as identical with the science of administration. Thus irrational factors are overlooked, and when these nevertheless force themselves to the fore, they are treated as "routine matters of state."
Mannheim also realized that the enlarged concept of ideology in Marxism raises a fundamental problem of knowledge. By denouncing something as "ideological," one takes an ideological position. Mannheim sees this as a spiritual and intellectual crisis in what is now a "Post-Marxist world". Our world is a polemical conflict between different worldviews, each labeling the other as "ideology." There are no criteria common to all with which to arbitrate the validity of one cultural perspective versus another. Even the class consciousness of the proletariat becomes one perspective among many.
Mannheim notes that utopia not only shares with ideology a noncongruence with reality, but that utopia offers a perspective critical of the given reality, thus exposing the gap between what is and an ideal of what should be. Utopia, in challenging the existing order, is always a projection into possible futures; whereas, ideology, in legitimating the existing order, is directed toward perpetuating the past. Utopia tends to be the tool of social groups seeking ascendancy; while ideology tends to be the tool of dominant groups seeking to assuage their own sense of failing and justify the inadequacy of the status quo. Ideology and utopia are about power.
William Grassie, founder of the Metanexus Institute
In Mannheim’s post-Enlightenment, post-Romantic conception of democratization, social machinery that is maximally emancipatory, both over time and at any given historical moment, comes into being in a sustainable way only in a permanently revolutionary situation. That situation is one in which groups negotiate for power in a manner that continuously brings new leadership into positions for influencing or making choices for the community. The political process that Mannheim advocates in response to Fascism admits and institutionalizes the need for perpetual instability and uncertainty in order to make freedom possible; without uncertainty, or what Iser calls indeterminacy, is no freedom. Mannheim's political process is a democratized version of Trotsky's idea of "permanent revolution"…
Mannheim established no school. His preferred literary form was the essay and, collectively, his works contain many inconsistencies and, in places, a certain vagueness. Mannheim, himself was clear about these characteristics but appealed to his readers to see in them a sign of the provisional and experimental nature of his thinking. Of all the classical sociologists, Mannheim is the one whose biography and mode of questioning connects him most directly to the problems of our own time. Although he formulated his politics in relation to a historical situation from which we feel increasingly distant, the questions he posed in the diagnosis of conflict, on the role of the intelligentsia, on education and on democratic planning remain as pertinent as ever.
Lloyd Spencer, in The A-Z Guide to Modern Social and Political Theorists (1997) edited by Noel Parker and Stuart Sim