Karl Mannheim Essay - Critical Essays

Mannheim, Karl


Karl Mannheim 1893-1947

German sociologist.

Mannheim is credited as one of the founders of sociology as a systematic, coherent, and unified science. He firmly believed that as a scientific discipline sociology could help resolve the conflicts of modern society through a "sociology of knowledge." Mannheim differentiated between two different areas of knowledge: the knowledge that derives from scientific data and class-based knowledge, such as religious, philosophical, and traditional forms of knowledge. Both his predecessor Max Weber and his contemporary Georg Lukacs exerted strong influence on Mannheim's work. His contributions also advanced the sociology of education, political sociology, and modern social structure.

Biographical Information

Mannheim was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 27, 1893, the only child of a German mother and Hungarian father. After the fall of the Hungarian Republic of Councils in 1919, Mannheim left Hungary for Germany. His academic career included studies at the universities of Budapest, Freiburg, Paris, and Berlin. In the early 1920s he moved to Heidelberg, where he earned his doctorate at the University of Heidelberg. By 1930 he was a lecturer at the University of Frankfurt. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Mannheim took a position at the London School of Economics, and in 1945 he was appointed to the chair of sociology of education at the University of London. He was a popular lecturer and public figure in his adopted country. Mannheim died on January 9, 1947.

Major Works

From 1910 to 1916 Mannheim corresponded with Hungarian philosopher and literary historian Georg Lukacs, an influence evident in Mannheim's key work, Ideologie und Utopie (Ideology and Utopia). In it he argued that although knowledge is integral to humankind's adaptation and survival in the world, it is the environment that determines the kind of knowledge people have. He labeled ideas that serve to protect the established élite "ideologies," and descibed as "utopias" those ideas that aim to better the lot of the less fortunate. Mannheim's decision to leave Germany for England prompted his collection of essays Mensch und Gesellschaft im Zeitalter des Umbaus (Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction), in which he argued against National Socialism as exploitative of a global crisis in the institutions that comprise liberal civilization. Diagnosis of Our Time, his subsequent collection of lectures and essays, expanded on the concepts of social planning introduced in his previous work while also arguing for a reevaluation of Christianity and the creation of a new system of values. In Freedom, Power, and Democratic Planning, Mannheim expanded on the ideas of his two previous books and added an analysis of power, which he viewed as the most pressing problem of the postwar period. Although he was a strong advocate of social planning, he believed in a "fundamental democratization" that would produce an informed public capable of demanding the dissolution of government when necessary.

Principal Works

Lelek es Kultura (nonfiction) 1918

Die Strukturanalyse der Erkenntnistheorie (nonfiction) 1922

Ideologie und Utopie [Ideology and Utopia] (nonfiction) 1929

Die Gegenwartsaufgaben der Soziologie: Ihre Lehrgestalt (nonfiction) 1932

Rational and Irrational Elements in Contemporary Society (nonfiction) 1934

Mensch und Gesellschaft im Zeitalter des Umbaus [Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction] (essays) 1935

Diagnosis of Our Time (essays) 1943

Freedom, Power, and Democratic Planning (essays) 1950

Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (essays) 1952

Essays on Sociology and Social Psychology (essays) 1953

Essays on the Sociology of Culture (essays) 1956

Systematic Sociology: An Introduction to the Study of Society (essays) 1957

An Introduction to the Sociology of Education [with W. A. C. Stewart] (essays) 1962

From Karl Mannheim (essays) 1971

Strukturen des Denkens [Structures of Thinking] (nonfiction) 1980

Konservatismos: Ein Betrag zur Soziologie des Wissens [Conservatism: A Contribution to the Sociology of Knowledge] (nonfiction) 1984


Kenneth Burke (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: "The Constants of Social Relativity," in The Philosophy of Literary Form: Studies in Symbolic Action, third edition, University of California Press, 1973, pp. 404-6.

[In the following essay, which was originally published as a review of Ideology and Utopia in 1936, Burke examines Mannheim's concept of a "sociology of knowledge. "]

Discouraged by the ways in which the perspectives of different people, classes, eras, cancel one another, you may decide that all philosophies are nonsense. Or you may establish order by fiat, as you bluntly adhere to one faction among the many, determined to abide by its assertions regardless of other people's assertions. Or you may become a kind of referee for other men's contests, content to observe that every view has some measure of truth and some measure of falsity. If they had asserted nothing, you could assert nothing. But in so far as they assert and counterassert, you can draw an assertion from the comparison of their assertions.

Professor Karl Mannheim's "sociology of knowledge" is a variant of the third of these attitudes. He would begin with the fact of difference rather than with a choice among the differences. But in erecting a new perspective atop the rivalries of the old perspectives, he would subtly change the rules of the game. For the new perspective he offered would not be simply a rival perspective; it would be a theory of perspectives. In so far as it was accurate, in other words, its contribution would reside in its ability to make the perspective process itself more accessible to consciousness.

Faction A opposes Faction B. To do so as effectively as possible, it "unmasks" Faction B's "ideology." Faction B may talk nobly about "humanity" or "freedom," for instance. And Faction A discloses the "real meaning" of these high-sounding phrases in terms of interests, privileges, social habits, and the like. Faction B retaliates by unmasking Faction A's ideology.

Each faction exposes, as far as possible, the conscious and unconscious deception practiced by the ideologists of rival camps. But in the course of exposing the enemy, a faction comes upon principles that could be turned upon itself as well. Hence, it can spare its own members from the general censure only by "pulling its punch." And precisely at this point there enter the opportunities for a "sociology of knowledge," if only the sociologist can so change the rules of the game that he finds no embarrassment in completing and maturing this "unmasking" process.


(The entire section is 1078 words.)

Louis Wirth (essay date 1936)

SOURCE: Preface to Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge, by Karl Mannheim, translated by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils, Harcourt Brace & Company, 1936, pp. viii-xxx.

[In the following essay, Wirth outlines the central ideas in Ideology and Utopia in the context of modern sociological thought.]

The original German edition of Ideology and Utopia appeared in an atmosphere of acute intellectual tension marked by widespread discussion which subsided only with the exile or enforced silence of those thinkers who sought an honest and tenable solution to the problems raised. Since then the conflicts which in Germany led to the...

(The entire section is 7517 words.)

T. S. Eliot (essay date 1940)

SOURCE: "Man and Society," in The Spectator, Vol. 164, No. 5841, June 7, 1940, p. 782.

[In the following review of Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, Eliot praises Mannheim's insight and intellectual honesty.]

Dr. Karl Mannheim is a sociologist, indeed, one of the most distinguished of living sociologists; and this massive work [Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction] has the inexorable formality and complete apparatus (with seventy-three pages of bibliography) that one expects of continental scholarship. It is also difficult reading; though the difficulty of Dr. Mannheim's style is not due to any imperfection of English, and not, as with...

(The entire section is 1243 words.)

John Middleton Murry (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "Karl Mannheim," in Katherine Mansfield and Other Literary Studies, Constable, 1959, pp. 152-62.

[In the following essay, Murry evaluates Mannheim's contribution to modern social thought.]

One thing was certain to those who had the privilege of direct contact with Karl Mannheim: that his was an eminent mind. It stood above others; it comprehended more; saw the great issues of our time in a wider perspective. More than this, he was pervaded with the sense of their urgency. The degree of his detachment was balanced by the degree of his identification. If he had stood aloof in order to understand, it was only in order that he might participate in the struggle with...

(The entire section is 3982 words.)

Helmut R. Wagner (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Mannheim's Historicism," in Social Research, Vol. 19, No. 3, September, 1952, pp. 300-24.

[In the following essay, Wagner analyzes the concept of a "sociology of knowledge" as developed in Ideology and Utopia.]

With increasing recognition of the need for broader theoretical orientations, American sociologists have become increasingly interested in the problems of a sociology of knowledge. In pursuing this interest they have not fallen back on earlier American "armchair" traditions—on such heritages, for example, as Summer's theory of ethnocentricity, Keller's evolutionary extensions of it, Veblen's combination of class interpretation with a theory of...

(The entire section is 6722 words.)

Theodor W. Adorno (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "The Sociology of Knowledge and Its Consciousness," in Prisms, translated by Samuel Weber and Sherry Weber, The Mit Press, 1981, pp. 35-49.

[In the following essay, Adorno focuses his discussion on Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction.]

The sociology of knowledge expounded by Karl Mannheim has begun to take hold in Germany again. For this it can thank its gesture of innocuous skepticism. Like its existentialist counterparts it calls everything into question and criticizes nothing. Intellectuals who feel repelled by 'dogma', real or presumed, find relief in a climate which seems free of bias and assumptions and which offers them in addition something of...

(The entire section is 5388 words.)

Edward Shils (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: Review of Ideology and Utopia, in Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 103, No. 1, Winter, 1973, pp. 83-9.

[In the following essay, Shils discusses the social and historical circumstances under which Mannheim wrote Ideology and Utopia.]

Karl Mannheim was extraordinarily sensitive to his national and continental environment and to his own time. He read widely; he had a lively curiosity and a quickly moving imagination which enabled him to respond to many kinds of events. From 1914 until his death in 1947 at the age of fifty-four he had only about a decade of relative calm: 1925 to 1929 in Germany and 1933 to 1939 in Great...

(The entire section is 3139 words.)

Bhikhu Parekh (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Social and Political Thought and the Problem of Ideology," in Knowledge and Belief in Politics: The Problem of Ideology, Robert Benewick, R. N. Berki, Bhikhu Parekh, eds., George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1973, pp. 57-87.

[In the following essay, Parekh provides an outline of the place of rationalism in the history of philosophy and examines Mannheim's approach to the "crisis of rationality" that is often identified with the modern era.]

The most influential conception of rationality in Western thought, a conception that is prima facie highly plausible and has a good deal of attraction for intellectuals, goes back to the pre-Socratics and finds its noblest...

(The entire section is 11611 words.)

David Kettler, Volker Meja, and Nico Stehr (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Politics as a Science," in Karl Mannheim, Ellis Horwood Limited, 1984, pp. 14-32.

[In the following excerpt, Kettler, Meja, and Stehr focus on the political aspects and implications of Mannheim's sociological writings.]


Karl Mannheim often commented on the social condition of the outsider, who stands on the margin of an integrated social field, or on the boundary between two or more. No condition could have been more familiar to him. While the position of a Jewish student and young intellectual in the Budapest of 1910 may have been 'marginal' only when viewed from the nationalist perspective easy...

(The entire section is 6096 words.)

Further Reading


Baum, Gregory. Truth Beyond Relativism: Karl Mannheim's Sociology of Knowledge. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1977, 83 p.

Argues for applying Mannheim's theory of the sociology of knowledge to theological method and ecclesiology.

Bauman, Zygmunt. "Understanding as the Work of History: Karl Mannheim." In his Hermeneutics and Social Science, pp. 89-110. New York: Columbia University Press, 1978.

Views Mannheim's work as an outgrowth of Max Weber's. Bauman concludes that unlike Weber and Karl Marx, Mannheim sought objective truth outside the "logic of history."

Bogardus, Emory S. "Mannheim and...

(The entire section is 646 words.)