U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Fighting Words?

Things have been quiet on the blog of late, so I thought I might mix it up a little bit. Recently I’ve been rereading Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966). The book contains multiple points of interest for intellectual historians, including this little nugget from early in their argument:

The sociology of knowledge must concern itself with everything that passes for ‘knowledge’ in society. As soon as one states this, one realizes that the focus on intellectual history is ill-chosen, or rather, is ill-chosen if it becomes the central focus of the sociology of knowledge. Theoretical thought, ‘ideas,’ Weltanschauungen are not that important in society. Although every society contains these phenomena, they are only part of the sum of what passes for ‘knowledge.’ Only a very limited group of people in any society engages in theorizing, in the business of ‘ideas,’ and the construction of Weltanschauungen. But everyone in society participates in its ‘knowledge’ in one way or another. Put differently, only a few are concerned with the theoretical interpretation of the world, but everybody lives in a world of some sort. Not only is the focus on theoretical thought unduly restrictive for the sociology of knowledge, it is also unsatisfactory because even this part of socially available ‘knowledge’ cannot be fully understood if it is not placed in the framework of a more general analysis of ‘knowledge.'” [Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), 14-15.]

Three points stand out to me. 1) They seem to accept the definition of intellectual history that some of you were making earlier in the year when we were debating. 2) But at the same time, they seem to suggest that that definition commits us to study elites who are not necessarily all that relevant. If we adopt their definition, their second point seems true to me, but 3) what strikes me most is how close their definition of the sociology of knowledge is to my definition of intellectual history. They suggest that elite theorizing constitutes only one form of knowledge, which cannot be understood unless placed in the wider framework of knowledge that exists in a society. To me, that suggests that cultural and intellectual history cannot be separated, without peril to both. To try to pursue intellectual history without placing the knowledge generated by theorists in the wider cultural realms in which they are understood is an impossible task that will only produce thin, probably distorted intellectual historical works. Thoughts? –DS

One Thought on this Post

  1. I think that what David is writing about and what Berger and Luckmann are writing about are not the same thing. Their concern is fundamentally about epistemological method, about the best way to investigate what knowledge actually is. Is it something we learn about through observation, or analysis? They answer that since everyone has knowledge, we can learn a lot more about it from the former method than the latter. Thus the point in the quoted passage is not only that “elite theorizing constitutes only one form of knowledge.” (This is, btw, a confusing formulation; does anyone really think anymore that “the cat is on the mat” does not count as knowledge?) Additionally, it is a potshot at the latter method, the one practiced by Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, etc.; these figures have generated the observations that would be the subject of the intellectual historians mentioned in the passage. This argument, then, is exactly what it promises, an argument for the “sociology of knowledge,” over epistemology itself.

    I don’t really have a dog in the fight of whether intellectual history is the best way to find out what knowledge itself actually is. Rorty, I think, successfully took the insights of Berger and Luckmann, Kuhn, Wittgenstein, etc. to their logical conclusion, which is to ask, “Who cares what knowledge is?” Rather than arguing about whether a given statement qualifies as knowledge, we should argue about whether it is true, a more fruitful and tangible discussion.

    On a separate issue, however, the argument quoted in the passage above contains a major logical flaw: the leap from “only a few people care about certain ideas” to “therefore, they are not ‘that’ important.” They may not be important, but their relative popularity doesn’t seem to be the reason why. Only a few people concern themselves with nuclear physics or global finance, but those things do affect the lives of many people. To equate popularity with importance is to claim that American Idol is really important. A definition that leads to such conclusions, I think, could be further refined.

    Unlike Berger and Luckmann, however, David seems to have less interest in epistemology than in questions of historical accuracy. But I don’t think the premises of Burger and Luckmann lead to the conclusion that David adopts. When David writes “elites who are not all that relevant,” the question is, “relevant to what?” Berger and Luckmann would reply, I think, “relevant to the understanding of what knowledge truly is.” I am not sure that any such argument has a great deal of import on the issue of which subjects are necessary for a complete historical understanding. David may very well be right that intellectuals cannot be property understood outside of their cultural context, but the best argument for this claim is, in my view, historical rather than theoretical.

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