The Sociology of Knowledge: An Essay in Aid of a Deeper Understanding of the History of Ideas

By W. Stark | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
THE CONSEQUENCES OF THE SOCIOLOGY
OF KNOWLEDGE

(a) THE SO-CALLED HISTORICAL RELATIVITY OF TRUTH

THE sociology of knowledge is concerned in the first place with the origin of ideas, and not with their validity. It tries to understand why people have thought as they have, not to test whether what they have thought was the truth. As De Gré has well expressed it, it 'is relating ideas to persons, and not . . . to the objects to which they may refer'. 'The type of reality about which the ideas attempt to enlighten us does not concern the gnosio-sociologist on an epistemological or ontological level of analysis. It may be real or illusory, material or spiritual, sacred or profane, empirical or transcendental; with regard to these distinctions gnosio-sociology strives to be non-evaluative, and makes every effort to avoid passing value judgments . . . "Knowledge" in the context of gnosio-sociology is a non-evaluative term and carries with it no implications as to the truth or falsity of that knowledge.'1 The sociology of knowledge investigates neither the coincidence of mind-contents with the appropriate facts, nor yet the co-ordination of the various ideas among themselves: neither the material truth of individual statements, nor the formal truth of inclusive systems of ideas. In other words, it is a positive-descriptive-historical discipline rather than a philosophical and epistemological one.

Yet though the sociology of knowledge as such is not concerned with the problem of truth, it has consequences which bear upon that very problem and imperatively demand attention. Indeed, its whole origin as an interesting and independent study was connected with, and occasioned by, a situation in which the truth had become deeply problematic. So long as a society is well integrated, fairly uniform within itself and relatively closed to outside influences, whatever happens to pass for the truth will be willingly accepted as such by the community concerned.

____________________
1
"The Sociology of Knowledge and the Problem of Truth", in the Journal of the History of Ideas, 1941, 114.

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