Karl Mannheim: Theoretical Content
In his attempt to explain ideology, Mannheim identified two distinct meanings: the particular and the total. The first of these refers to the common conception of ideology as distortion. The particular conception of ideology ranges in meaning from a more or less conscious attempt at manipulating others to unwitting self-deception. Those who employ it analytically seek to uncover only a part of an opponent's assertions. The particular conception also focuses on a purely psychological level, perhaps accusing the opponent of deception, but always assuming that both parties share common criteria of validity. Finally, the particular conception seeks to uncover the hidden interests or motivations of the opponent.
The total conception of ideology is far more inclusive. It refers to thought systems associated with an age or specific sociohistorical group (such as a class). It focuses on the "total structure of the mind" as it occurs for an epoch or a group. (Hence, it is not the mind of an individual or association of individuals but the constellation of ideas and their processing that reflects a period or group.) The total conception of ideology will call into question the opponent's "total Weltanschauung," including the mode of thought. (Thus, the opponent is not seen as an individual or concrete group as much as a perspective that reflects a collective life.) From this total conception, it follows that there may exist essentially different intellectual universes, each with a distinctive set of criteria by which truth is judged. Finally, the total conception is not concerned with "motivations" or "interests" at a psychological level but rather seeks the relationship between social forces and worldview.
While the meaning of particular ideology is self-evident, the total conception is more troublesome. However, it becomes clearer when used analytically to understand a class-based conception of reality. For Mannheim, the owning and working classes represent different worldviews, different modes of thinking, and different criteria for "truth." Hence, their ideologies are not to be understood in terms of individuals or motivations.
For example, the individual proletariat does not necessarily possess all of the elements of the working class Weltanschauung. Each may participate only fragmentally in the whole outlook of the group. What then of the "motivations" that are "behind" a particular view? For Mannheim, idea systems (or any specific piece of one) are rather the function of different social categories, situations, or settings. The interests reflected in ideas are those of the larger spheres of age, class, and other sociological forces ( 1968:55-75).
It should be clear from the foregoing discussion that Mannheim's sociology of knowledge will employ a total conception of ideology ( 1968:265-266). But it does something more. It advances a distinctly sociological conception of epistemology, a way of understanding the relationships between historical and social structure and the very grounds by which knowledge is judged. Mannheim did this by making the critical distinction between relativism and relationism.
To argue that knowledge is relative today is to say that "all historical thinking is bound up with the concrete position in life of the thinker" ( 1968:78-79). In an older sense, relative thought was the knowledge that came from the purely subjective standpoint of the knower. But whether considered alone or in combination, these forms of relativism mean either (1) that subjective knowledge is untrue, or (2) that certain historical and biographical events "taint" the knowledge of an era. Both conceptions of relativism assume that there is an absolute "truth" that is being compromised.
In order to free thought from relativism, Mannheim introduced the concept of relationism. By "relationism" he meant that the grounds for knowledge are not invariant, continuing form age to age. Hence to argue that knowledge is relational is to say 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" ( 1968:79). However, this does not mean that "anything" goes, for once one understands the historical knowledge is relational, one must discriminate between what is true and false. In other words, "which social standpoint" (with its corresponding perspective) comes closer to the truth? (In this case, Mannheim's conception of the "perspectivization" factor is clearly informed by the work of Lukacs...)
Truth seeking for Mannheim, is obviously not an asocial process. But there is more. The questions of knowledge and truth are often bound up in political forms of struggle ( 1968:36) and their corresponding views of the world. (Hence, the title of the book, Ideology and Utopia.) By "ideology" Mannheim meant those total systems of thought held by society's ruling groups that obscure the real conditions and thereby preserve the status quo. "Utopian" thinking signifies just the opposite. Here, total systems of thought are forged by oppressed groups interested in the transformation of society. From the utopian side, the purpose of social thought is not to diagnose the present reality but to provide a rationally justifiable system of ideas to legitimate and direct change.
Thus, for Mannheim, "ideology" means the ruling groups become blind to knowledge that would threaten their continued domination, whereas "utopia" means that oppressed groups selectively perceive "only those elements in the situation which tend to negate it" (1968:40). Remember that Mannheim was not arguing that both sides are simply biased. And there is more to his position than the argument that there are different truths. (Admittedly, it is not unusual for those interested in the preservation of the existing order to have a different agenda of questions, thus different answers, than do those interested in change.) To be clear, because of its structural position, one "side" may be closer to a specific truth than another. However, when both sides address the same question, then judgments still must be made concerning the truths of their answers.