Sociology of Knowledge

Sorokin's sociology of knowledge rejects any attempt to root ideas in theexistential conditions of thinkers and their audiences. This contrasts sharplywith most other sociological attempts to understand the rise and fall of ideas inrelation to social structures, and is specifically in opposition to the theories ofMarx, Weber and Mannheim, which have been examined earlier in this book.Although Sorokin has occasionally indicated that such an endeavor may beworthwhile, he himself did not take this route. Instead, his sociology of knowl-edge attempts to establish connections between concrete philosophical, religious,artistic, and scientific thought and the overall cultural mentalities in which thisthought appears and flourishes. As has already been discussed, he attempts todocument, for example, that in Sensate periods, scientific ideas tend to be basedexclusively on sense experience and empirical proof and validation, whereas inperiods of Ideational ascendancy, empirical science fails to develop, being re-placed by varieties of Naturphilosophien that purport to attain intuitive insightsinto the nature of the universe.

Such attempts to link systems of ideas to supersystems and to drive everyaspect of intellectual production from varying cultural mentalities, are open tothe charge of tautological reasoning. As Merton has remarked, when Sorokinargues that "in a sensate society and culture the sensate system of truth basedon the testimony of the organs of senses has to be dominant," he plainlyargued in circles, "for sensate mentality has already been defined as one con-ceiving of reality as only that which is presented to the sense organs.' "Sorokin's answer to such charges has not been very convincing. But even if hisoverall idealistic and emanationist explanation seems open to serious objections,this is not to say that his sociology of knowledge has been sterile. One needonly dig beneath some of his grandiose characterizations of cultures to be re-warded by significant and worthwhile sets of concrete ideas.

Take, for example, Sorokin's discussion of the question which culturalvalues penetrate and diffuse more easily when imported into an alien culture?In an effort to answer this question he does not simply refer to the overallcompatibility of values between donor and recipient cultures, though he doesthis also; rather he points to the character of the human agents that first comeinto contact with the donor culture. "The kind of values," he says "that pene-trate first depends, primarily, upon the kinds of human agents that first comeinto contact with the other culture. If they are merchants . . . then variouscommercial commodities penetrate first; if they are missionaries . . . then the ideological values' penetrate first. If they are conquerors and soldiers, then partlymaterial, partly non-material values penetrate simultaneously. If they are stu-dents of philosophy or social science then they bring back and spread thetheories and ideologies they studied." This is a significant insight worth fur-ther elaboration, an insight, moreover, which points to the connection of ideaswith the existential conditions of their carriers, and is hence not subject to thecharge of tautology that must beset all emanationist theories in the sociology ofknowledge.

Or consider Sorokin's first adumbration of a sociological theory of scientificdiscovery and technological invention, namely the idea that "any importantnew invention . . . or any important new discovery in the natural sciences. . . is the result of a long process, with a multitude of small discoveries madestep by step, [so that] the really new element in any important invention ordiscovery is comparatively a very modest one." In this case, Sorokin, to besure, does not refer to the existential basis of scientific thought, yet he departsfrom his programmatic endeavors to link specific ideas to their matrix in over-all cultural mentalities. He engaged, in fact, in an attempt to trace cumulativetrends within scientific communities and to link specific innovators to thescientific tradition within which they operate.

Many of Sorokin's usable ideas in the sociology of knowledge do not comein his programmatic magnum opus but in a more modest companion volume,Sociocultural Causality, Space, Time, published a few years later. Here, in amanner reminiscent of Durkheim and his school, Sorokin shows that the waya specific culture conceives of causality, space, and time is not identical withnatural science conceptions and must be understood in relation to the specificsocio-cultural context. Also following the Durkheimians, he argues moreoverthat even the space of the geometricians, for example, is "greatly conditionedand stamped by the sociocultural traits of the respective society and culture. Thevery units of the geometric distance--such as 'foot,' 'yard,' 'meter,' 'sajen,''finger,' 'rod,' and so on--bear the imprint of these [socio-cultural] conditions.''Sorokin shows further how, with the increase in communications between localsocieties and the wider world, parochial systems of thought recede before moreuniversal representations of space." 'To the right of Jones's house, about twentyrods' serves the purpose for a village where everyone knows where Jones's houseis situated. But for the whole human population, such a point of spatial refer-ence becomes indefinable and therefore unserviceable." The difference be-tween universalistic and particularistic codes of communication, which hasbeen highlighted in our days by Basil Bernstein and other scholars, can al-ready be found in nuce in Sorokin's work.

It is worth noting Sorokin's observation that "the emergence of uniform. . . space of classical mechanics itself, with its system of reference, was con-ditioned by the sociocultural process of growth of cosmopolitan and interna-tional society and culture"; or his discussion of the fact that "when inter-course extends over many groups with different rhythms of socioculturalactivities, and time indications, the concrete and local systems of socioculturaltime cease to perform satisfactorily the functions of coordination and synchro-nization of their activities. Hence the urgent need to establish such a standard-ized system of time reckoning . . . as would serve equally all the groups as theuniform point of time reference for the coordination and synchronization oftheir activities." Here Sorokin succeeds in showing in convincing detail thatnotions such as time and space do not simply emanate from overall mentalitiesbut are rooted in the concrete exigencies of human communities; that the~ arewith apologies to Sorokin the emanist, existentially determined.

One further quotation will illustrate the great subtlety of Sorokin's socio-logical imagination. After having shown that in the modern world univer-sal time-reckoning has largely replaced the community-rooted parochial waysof dealing with time, Sorokin turns around and makes the acute observationthat the older qualitative time measures have by no means been fully replacedby quantitative time. In line with the art historian Wilhelm Pinder and remi-niscent of what Mannheim called the "contemporaneity of the noncontempora-neous," Sorokin argues: "Within the same territorial aggregate composed ofdifferent religious, occupational, economic, national, and cultural groups, thereare different rhythms and pulsations, and therefore different calendars anddifferent conventions for the sociocultural time of these groups. . . Compare. . . a Harvard calendar with one operating, say, among factory workers. . . . The calendar of the Roman Catholics in Boston--in part, at least--is differentfrom that of the Protestant Bostonians. . . . Side by side with quantitativetime (which itself is in a degree a social convention), there exists a full-bloodedsociocultural time, with all its 'earmarks': it is qualitative, it is not infinitelydivisible . . . , it does not flow on evenly . . . ; it is determined by social con-ditions, and reflects the rhythms and pulsations of the social life of a givengroup . . .

One ventures to think that this set of observations provides leads for severalPh.D. dissertations, even though the great French Durkheimian MauriceHalbwachs, probably unaware of Sorokin's work, has elaborated some of theseideas in his seminal work The Social Framework of Memory and elsewhere.Despite the fact that his ambitious overall scheme, like all closed total systemsof sociological thought, may be found wanting, it should be apparent by nowthat Sorokin was a major force, a major thinker. Or, as a whimsical buttonworn by some graduate students at a recent convention of the American Socio-logical Association put it, "Sorokin lives."

From Coser, 1977:469-472.


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