Damn Sociology III: That Universal Reason Grounds Freedom, Research Time, 25/03/2015

Continued from last post . . . What reveals Friedrich Hayek’s fear of the implications of sociological studies of knowledge and its production are all those references to Karl Mannheim. Mannheim was an advocate of government social planning, and considered the sociological work of Marx as an intellectual predecessor. He was friends in his early Hungarian career with the Marxist scholar György Lukács. He was clearly a man of the left.

Weimar Germany is a fascinating period
of European history for its artistic and
intellectual creativity existing at the same
time with growing social movements of
barbarism and violence. The image is
Hannah Höch's Cut with the Dada Kitchen
Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly
Cultural Epoch in Germany
And he was a relatively popular sensation as a social theorist, as his 1929 book Ideology and Utopia was widely discussed throughout the Weimar Republic. If Hayek wanted a visible target for his rhetoric to support his social theory, Mannheim was the best one. 

We can learn a lot from this, because Mannheim’s most influential single idea is a central idea in sociological theory: the cultural environment in which we live and were raised deeply influences our personalities, values, desires, and ways of thinking.* For Hayek, this amounts to the conclusion that reason is not universal, but that our very logics diverge according to social contexts like class, gender, and culture.

* In some of the Facebook discussions about earlier parts of this series of posts, my old colleague Krazee Eyez mentioned Leo Strauss’ critique of Mannheim’s ideas, accusing him of cultural relativism. This is another seed of modern new liberalism that I plan to look into for the Utopias project.

Sociology analyses the many ways in which the way we think changes through our interactions with our social environment. Hayek describes this, both in 1944’s Road to Serfdom and in essays he wrote as early as 1933 on the rise of National Socialism in Germany, as an outright attack on reason itself. 

Reason, goes the argument, is universal, and what is rational will be the same to anyone anywhere at any time. Hayek considers Mannheim a relativist about the faculties of humanity itself. If you relativize reason, then you should no longer call it reason, but sentiment, letting your desire be driven by your feelings. 

Through his attack on Mannheim, Hayek makes one of the central concepts of all sociology out to be a dangerous lie that will drive irrationalism, witless sentiment, and the barbarity of animal instinct into politics. The falsehood is that when Mannheim describes these variable phenomena, he calls them reason. The danger is that people, including Mannheim himself, believed his mistake was a discovery.

Of course, discovering variation in reason doesn’t cause its breakdown. It just complicates things. Reason isn’t about the content of what you believe, but the ability to think critically. It’s a process more than substantive rules. The ability to reason is universal, but your culture affects a lot of your moral and political beliefs. It doesn’t determine them. Our reason is the ability to develop different ways of thinking that can do different things than what we’ve inherited from our culture, and spreading these new ideas and powers is political activism. 

Karl Mannheim, another villain for the
founders of neoliberalism.
Hayek and the new liberals should be best suited to accept this variability, since the Austrian School’s argument against the usefulness of statistical knowledge is that it obscures the idiosyncratic differences between individuals in their thoughts. That sounds similar to the sociological point, until you realize that there’s an important difference.

For the libertarian perspective,** the content of each individual’s desires are idiosyncratic, arrived through chains of reasoning that arise from rational contemplation on its own personal history. His mind and person are irreducibly, atomically singular. Sociology, meanwhile, interprets each individual’s desires as a product of environmental causes. These causes are general, applying to many individuals across classes, cultures, and communities. 

** As far as my readings of Hayek and some intellectual advice from more experienced critical philosophers lets me understand and generalize a little. 

The libertarian believes that the idiosyncrasy of the individual is irreducible to any general cause for its beliefs. And the libertarian believes that sociology promotes a concept of reason and individuality that reduces that idiosyncrasy to its general causes. At least this is the paradigm that I see in Hayek’s writing, and the contemporary attitude of hostility and contempt that remains in modern neoliberal conservatism.

I actually arrive, in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, at a conception of the singularity of the individual personality that is very similar, in its specific substance, to what Hayek describes. But I disagree with him that the singularity of each person makes any attempt to learn about human individuals through general causes an exercise in falsehood. 

Sociological knowledge has and can teach us much about how each of our singular personalities and histories affects and is affected by where and how those histories happen. Sociological knowledge stays in the realm of the general. There is no longer the belief in the discipline that the general patterns they discover constitute the whole of the human mind. Sociological investigation discovers general, aggregate affects. 

Some sociologists may once have believed that social causes constituted the entirety of an individual’s personality. Some historians have interpreted Auguste Comte as thinking this way, and Ian Hacking’s The Taming of Chance charted how this belief spread across popular culture in the 19th and early 20th century as sociology was first developing as a discipline. 

But that belief was disappearing from the discipline by the time Hayek wrote, and it’s completely disappeared now. Again, Hayek has already won, and sociology continues to function, having absorbed the substance of both major neoliberal critiques. The question that still mystifies me is why so many people still read Road to Serfdom and take on the same enemies Hayek did, even though those battles are long over.

Don’t expect me to answer that question anytime soon. This series of posts is over, and I have absolutely no fucking idea what the answer to that question might be.

No comments:

Post a Comment