Overweening Generalist

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Sociology of Knowledge: A Perennially Hot Area For Generalists

Max Scheler coined the term in the 1920s, then Karl Mannheim fleshed out the idea. What "is" the sociology of knowledge? Thoughts and ideas are socially located. Anytime you hear someone talk or read about some idea about some phenomena, however abstract, the sociology of knowledge rejects the assumption that that idea could occur in some ideal abstract isolation, and rather: the social location and status, background, education, wealth...all these (and more) have something to do with what's being said or written about.

More basically, it can be summed up by the phrase, "Says who?"

The sociology of knowledge encompasses the sociology of science. So there's a lot there for the ardent, if not overweening Generalist.

As phenomenology cross-pollinated with the sociology of knowledge, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in their highly influential The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatiste In The Sociology of Knowledge (1966), talked about the evolution of the Soc of Know from Scheler and Mannheim and their antecedents (Marx, Nietzsche, Hegel, Dilthey and others), the related discipline of the History of Ideas, and up to their time, the mid-1960s, and said this:

"We would argue, however, that the problem of 'ideas,' including the special problem of ideology, constitutes only a part of the larger problem of the sociology of knowledge, and not a central part at that. The sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for 'knowledge' in society." (pp.14-15, italics in the original)

What a delightfully Tall Order! No excuses, no reason to ever be bored now...
British scholar Peter Burke and Unistatian counterculture erudite Robert Anton Wilson both made cases for Giambattista Vico, who died in 1744, as the first sociologist of knowledge, and I'm highly influenced by them, so fair warning.
"The world is not to be narrowed till it will go into the understanding...but the understanding is to be expanded till it can take in the world." - Sir Francis Bacon, who died in 1626, but I think he was on to this stuff...
How do we know we're thinking an "original" thought? The more I read, especially in the sociology of knowledge, the more I doubt any of my thoughts have ever been totally "original." There are times when I seriously doubt I've ever had one original thought that had anything to do with the social world, but turning inward, thinking about my personal idiosyncracies: probably something original has gone on there. But 'tis hard to say...especially if we read a lot of novels and poetry!

Contrary to how most people seem to react to these insights (or non-insights?), I find this whole non-originality thing oddly comforting. Do you think you have original thoughts?
Berger and Luckmann, mentioned above, have numerous things to say about what they call the "taken-for-granted" world we live in: that area of thought that remains unreflected, social aspects, ideas about how to "be" in the world, that a person seems to act as if those ideas - actually: unquestioned assumptions - were always there in the order of nature, like bacteria, mountains, insects, planets. This is a sense in which there are countless aspects of a person's world that are "seen but not noted."
"Every tradition is a collective memory." - Maurice Halbwachs
I think, rather than originality, each of us has a better chance at an articulation of our individuality, of letting that infinite spark of something divine within us to flourish in the world via: actions, humor and something mysterious and difficult to pin-down: our style. Our way of emotionally engaging with the world. Our personality.

I do not deny originality. I affirm it, am always on the look-out for it. I assert it's much more rare than most people assume it is...
Ideology is a major issue within the sociology of knowledge. The word "ideology" in one of its current senses had only been around for about ten years (Raymond Williams, in his wonderful Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society traces it to 1796) when the 2nd President of the U.S, John Adams, had decided it was a stupid idea. He thought of ideology as a hard-core set of "truths" about the world that one subscribed to, and then one became inflexible and intolerant of anyone holding different ideas. This semantic notion of ideology lasts to this day. In Mannheim's late 1920s fleshing out of the sociology of knowledge (esp. Ideology and Utopia), it seemed that people had at least one ideology, even if only by default. You're going to be more FOR these things and AGAINST those things...Adams wrote Thomas Jefferson letters in which he  railed agains the "Ideologians," and made fun of the word by calling it "idiotism." (See the Adams-Jefferson Letters [p.471 and 501])

The late novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace seemed to have a Mannheimian take on the semantics of "ideology." In an essay in Consider The Lobster he says that the idea that someone thinks he can transcend ideology "is simply to subscribe to a particular ideology, one that might aptly be called Unbelievably Naive Positivism."
I still don't have my mind made up about the semantics of "ideology," but have adopted a holistic, "listen-to-as-much-of-what-this-person-has-to-say-ishness." And note feelings about body language, etc. And I get ideas about their wants and general degrees of reasonableness.
I will have much more to riff on the sociology of knowledge, unless I die or suffer a massive stroke. 

Was any of this clear? If not, please write:

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1 comment:

Eric Wagner said...

I just reread Wilson's The Earth Will Shake. I found the discussions of Vico therein interesting.

I do think I have original thoughts.

Yes, your blog seemed clear and interesting. Thank you.