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.)