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 SEVEN PROBLEM C: THE DEGREE OF SOCIAL DETERMINATION

(a) EXTENT AND INTENSITY OF SOCIAL DETERMINATION

THE subject-matter of the present chapter can briefly be described as the problem of human freedom in thinking, in face of the social determination of thought. 'Within human knowledge'--so Northrop has framed the question--'are all ideas conditioned by sociocultural facts, or only some?'1 To this must be added a further, though kindred, query: within human societies and subsocieties, are all members conditioned in their ideas by socio-cultural facts, or only some? In other words: to what degree do the substructural forces control ideas, and to what degree do they control thinking men?

By formulating the problem in this way, as a problem of the degree of social determination, we may appear to have begged a very large and even decisive question. For is it a foregone conclusion that there should be some degree of substructural control over every thought, however fantastic, and over every life, however deviant the person concerned from the established mode and mean? Should we not rather have spoken of the range or limitations of social determination and attempted to draw a borderline, on the one side of which it can be said to obtain and on the other not?

In the literature, the problem has very often been seen in terms of such a dividing line between an area of determined and an area of free thought, and the concrete questions asked have then been concerned with the correct placing of some given set of concepts in relation to this dividing line. For instance: are the categories of thought--time, space, causality--determined or free from determination? Does the determining influence of social forces extend so 'high' as that, or does it stop 'lower down', with social and economic ideas, or lower still, with political pleadings and party slogans? Such an approach is meaningful and even necessary where the basic conception is that the struggle for

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1
Preface to Maquet Sociologie de la Connaissance, 1949, 10 seq.

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