The Sociologyof Knowledge

In an attempt to dissociate himself from the panlogical systemof his former master, Hegel, as well as from the "criticalphilosophy" of his erstwhile Young Hegelian friends, KarlMarx undertook in some of his early writings to establish aconnection between philosophies, ideas in general, and theconcrete social structures in which they emerged. "It hasnot occurred to any of these philosophers," he wrote,"to inquire into the connection of German philosophy withGerman reality, the relation of their criticism to their ownmaterial surroundings."36 This programmaticorientation once established, Marx proceeded to analyze the waysin which systems of ideas appeared to depend on the socialpositions--particularly the class positions-- of theirproponents.

In opposing the dominant ideas of his time, Marx was led to aresolute relativization of those ideas. The eternal verities ofdominant thought appeared upon inspection to be only the director indirect expression of the class interests of their exponents.Marx attempted to explain ideas systematically in terms of theirfunctions and to relate the thought of individuals to theirsocial roles and class positions. We must go astray, he believed,"if . . . we detach the ideas of the ruling class from theruling class itself and attribute to them an independentexistence, if we confine ourselves to saying that in a particularage these or those ideas were dominant, without paying attentionto the conditions of production and the producers of these ideas,and if we thus ignore the individuals and the world conditionswhich are the source of these ideas."37

Ideas, Marx maintained, must be traced to the life-conditionsand the historical situations of those who uphold them. Forexample, it is not sufficient to state that the ideas ofbourgeois writers are the ideas of the bourgeoisie. Distinctionsmust be made between those ideas that emerge at the beginning ofthe bourgeois era and those that come at it height. Utilitariannotions in the writings of Helvetius and d'Holback differed fromthose that made their appearance with James Mill and Bentham."The former correspond with the struggling, stillundeveloped bourgeoisie, the latter with the dominant, developedbourgeoisie."38

It is with revolutionary ideas as it is with conservativeideas. "The existence of revolutionary ideas in a particularage presupposes the existence of a revolutionary class."39"The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas ofthe ruling class. When people speak of ideas that revolutionizesociety, they do but express the fact that within the old societythe elements of a new one have been created, and that thedissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolutionof the old conditions of existence."40

The ideologists and the political representatives of a classneed not share in all the material characteristics of that class,but they share and express the overall cast of mind.

One [must not] imagine that the democratic representatives are indeed all shopkeepers or enthusiastic champions of shopkeepers. According to their education and their individual position they may be as far apart as heaven from earth. What makes them representatives of the petty bourgeoisie is the fact that in their minds they do not go beyond the limits which the latter do not get beyond in life, that they are consequently driven, theoretically, to the same problems and solutions to which material interest and social position drive the latter practically.41

Moreover, Marx granted that particular individuals might notalways think in terms of class interests, that they "are not'always' influenced in their attitude by the class to which theybelong."42 But categories of people, as distinctfrom individuals, are so influenced.

In his more polemical writings Marx used his functionalanalysis of the relations between ideas and the social positionof their proponents as a means of unmasking and debunkingspecific opponents and specific ideas. His aims were wider,however. Karl Mannheim perceived this when he wrote:

[Marx's] undertaking . . . could reach its final goal only when the interest-bound nature of ideas, the dependence of 'thought' on 'existence,' was brought to light, not merely as regards certain selected ideas of the ruling class, but in such a way that the entire 'ideological superstructure' . . . appeared as dependent upon sociological reality. What was to be done was to demonstrate the existentially determined nature of an entire system of Weltanschauung, rather than of this or that individual idea.43

In Marx's later writings, and in particular in a remarkableseries of Engels' letters that date from the 1890's, some of thesharp edges of earlier polemical writings were smoothed out. Marxand Engels were now led to repudiate the idea that the economic"infrastructure" alone determined the character of the"superstructure" of ideas and only held onto theassertion that it "ultimately" or "in the lastanalysis" was the determining factor.

According to the materialist conception of history, the ultimately determinant element in history is the production and reproduction of real life. . . . Hence if somebody twists this into saying that the economic element is the only determining one, he transforms that proposition into a meaningless, abstract and senseless phrase. The economic situation is the basis, but the various elements of the superstructure . . . also exercise their influence upon the course of the historical struggle and in many cases preponderate in determining their form.44

In their later writings, both Marx and Engels were led togrant a certain degree of intrinsic autonomy to the developmentof legal, political, religious, literary, and artistic ideas.They now stressed that mathematics and the natural sciences wereexempt from the direct influence of the social and economicinfrastructure, and they now granted that superstructures werenot only mere reflections of infrastructures, but could in turnreact upon them. The Marxian thesis interpreted in this waygained considerable flexibility, although it also lost some ofits distinctive qualities.45

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 53-55.



  1. The German Ideology, p. 6.
  2. Selected Writings, pp. 79-80.
  3. Ibid., p. 164.
  4. Ibid., p. 79.
  5. Selected Works, I, p. 52.
  6. Selected Writings, p. 82.
  7. Ibid., p. 202.
  8. Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge (New York, Oxford University Press, 1952), p. 143.
  9. Selected Works, II, p. 488.
  10. In this section I have used a few sentences from my article "Sociology of Knowledge," in the International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (New York, Macmillan, 1968). For a comparison of Marx's sociology of knowledge with that of others, see Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (New York, The Free Press, 1968), Chapters 14 and 15.

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