Mannheim’s Man and Society

Karl Mannheim Man and Society: in an age of reconstruction Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner 1940

Mannheim is one of the founders of ‘classical social science’ and this book’s insights are still relevant, if its conclusions and recommendations are dated. The main topic under discussion is the need for, and the possibilities of, democratic ‘planning for the maximum of freedom and self-determination’.

It is recognized that planning for others, even by a well-meaning democratic government, tends to have the same drawbacks as fascist rule, but that this tendency can be fought against, for example by encouraging the full range of credible opinions on any topic.

Mannheim use the term ‘epoch’ in much the same way as Whitehead, noting that not only does each have its own rules but it also tends to have its own terminology. I pick some highlights.


Every specialist is acting in good faith when he believes that his own method is the right one, for he is unconsciously confuses the section of reality on which he is working with reality itself, and if a method is the best means of dealing with his own subject, he urges its adoption in every field. (p 29)

The politician, if he is to gain a following is forced to draw up a clear and definite programme. He must behave as though he had the answer to everything. (33)

Part 1: Rational and Irrational Elements in Contemporary Society

It has suddenly become evident that our everyday, and often our scientific psychology as well, was unconciously based on assumptions which implied a well integrated and stable society. (39)

Of ‘rationality’:

Few words are used in so many contradictory ways.

Sociologists use the words “rational” and “irrational” in two senses, which we will call “substantial” and “functional” rationality or irrationality. (52)

We understand as substantially rational an act of thought which reveals intelligent insight into the inter-relationships of events in a given situation.

Whether or not a series of actions is functionally rational or not is determined by two criteria: (a) Functional organization with reference to a definite goal; and (b) a consequent calculability when viewed from the standpoint of an observer or third person seeking to adjust himself to it. (53)

The more industrialized a society is and the more advanced (sic) its division of labour and organization, the greater will be the number of spheres of human activity which will be functionally rational and hence also calculable in advance. (55)

It is clear that persons  who are confronted more frequently with situations in which they cannot act habitually and without thinking and which they always have to o0rganize themselves anew will have more occasion to reflect on themselves and on situations than persons who have adapted themselves once and for all. (57)

Increasing industrialization … implies functional rationality … . It does not to the same extent promote “substantial rationality” … .

[Functional] rationalization is … bound to deprive the average individual of thought, insight and responsibility and to transfer these capacities to the individuals who direct the process of rationalization. (58)

He … gradually gives up his own interpretation of events for those which others give him. When the rationalize mechanism of social life collapses in time of crisis, the individual cannot repair it by his own insight. (59)

Our contemporary world is one of large groups in which individuals who until no have been increasingly separated from one another are compelled to renounce their private interests and to subordinate themselves to the interests of larger social groups. [This] whole process tends to train the individual to take a progressively longer view: it tends at the same time to inculcate in him the faculty of considered judgment and to fit him for sharing responsibility in planning the whole course of events in the society in which he moves.  (69 / 70)

[On] the one hand we see that human reason and moral discipline are able to attain the level of planning and self-responsibility; on the other hand, we see how with the same dynamic drive the will to destruction becomes a public force. But this is by no means all. The worst aspect of this development is that the human type with the “handcart mind” which we portrayed as a symbol of the disproportion between intellectual and spiritual development, has learned how to use the press, radio, and all the other techniques which democratic society places at his disposal for the manipulation of the mass mind. As a result, he is able to form human beings according to his own ideas and in this manner multiplies his own human type a million-fold. (73)

Part IV: Thought at the Level of Planning

We will speak of planning and planned thinking … when man and society advance from the deliberate invention of single objects or institutions to the deliberate regulation and intelligent mastery of the relationships between these objects. (152)

The linear pattern of thought takes the form of a circular flow where the first elements in the causal chain are in our new model of thought supplemented by new elements, the movement of which tends towards an equilibrium, and in which all the factors act upon each other simultaneously instead of in an endless succession.

This new way of thinking is balanced by a new way of acting. For planning not only changes individual links in the causal chain and adds new ones but also tries to grasp the whole complex of events form the key position which exists in every situation. (153)

This form of thought [‘wait and see’ and ‘muddle through’], which is best adapted to the unregulated sphere of social struggle, is, however, marked by the fact that it only sees one step at a time as the occasion demands and does not systematize its conduct to far.
In the free unplanned sphere where an unregulated selection based on conflict and competition prevails, thinking which is too far in advance of the immediate situation may be dangerous.

This simple illustration [of traffic regulation] enables us precisely to see how the increasing dentisty of events … makes the possibility of a natural balance through competition or through mutual adaptation more and more hopeless (157) … it simply doesn’t emerge “by itself”. (158)

In pure theory and in empirical precision the scientific investigation of social phenomena has attained a high level. But as regards the technique of synthetic observation an intelligent journalist or a leading man of affairs often states the problem in a much more sophisticated way.(165)

[A] type of mind is at work which sees individual objects and individual relationships within the framework of a “world in general” but which does not at the same time, try to rebuild the actual framework in which these individual objects are expected to function. (168/9)

[Every] object exists not in a “world in general” but rather in a particular world with a structure that becomes more and more cramped and rigid, because it is built on unchangeable foundations. (173)

[Men] are forced even against their will to give their attention not merely to general laws, which must be known here, too, but also to the task of thinking out those special laws which hold good only in special spheres of society at a given p[lace and time. (175)

The single facts may vary; the framework and the system of co-ordinates into which they must be dovetailed remains more or less constant as long as the whole social situation is stable, and its development is continuous. (179)

The principia media are in a certain sense nothing but temporary groups of general factors so closely intertwined that they act as a single causal factor. (182)

The insecurity of modern man does not arise … from the occurrence of too much that is unexpected and novel. [It] is due rather to the fact that he has to transform the “principles” of his “horizon of expectations” at a very rapid rate. … Anyone who does not revise his principia media in time … will be overcome … .

An epoch is dominated not merely by a single principium medium but by a whole series of them. A number of related principia media, however, produce a structure, in which concrete patterns of factors are bound up with one another in  a multidimensional way. (183)

An interdependent change in a number of principia media constitutes a structural change. (184)

As a first approximation the problem is to make a qualitative analysis of these principia media, to distinguish various factors and tendencies and to translate the chaos of facts into a correct description of the complicated interplay of forces. IT would be quite wrong to renounce this qualitative analysis only for the reason that it does not or at least does not yet , come up to the ideal of measurability.
The forced imposition of mathematical and mensurative methods has gradually led to a situation in which certain sciences no longer ask what is worth knowing but regard as worth knowing only what is measureable. (185)

The task of really scientific observation is to describe those principia media as multiple possibilities. (189)

The essential attitude of the planning age … displays the courage to intervene in the interplay of fundamental forces [but] does not pretend to be act as a creator of these forces, but rather as a strategist, who only watches over the factors at work in society to detect the new possibilities which are coming to the surface at the proper moment, and to reinforce them at those points where vital decisions must be made. (190)

Although there is a healthy element in pragmatism … its limitations in its present form are that it has too narrow a conception of the context of action in which thinking arises.  (206)

[There] are just as many possible forms of abstraction as there are collective, active approaches to the handling of things in a historical community. … The community in its language and concepts builds up a store of experiences and abstractions, corresponding to approaches which were current in its history.  (208)

The individual, caged in by his mown private motives … sees nothing more in society than many other individuals similar to himself acting individually one against the other. (210) One can, it is true, think out an elaborate scheme by which these conflicting actions, contrary to appearance, form a self-equilibrating cycle of events [e.g. Adam Smith]. (211)

[A] new type of self-observation corresponding to the level of planning [is needed, in which] the individual is able to perceive not only all the relevant facts and the relevant ways of looking at them … but he also becomes capable of seeing his special position in the social process, and of understanding that this thought is shaped by his position. New possibilities of planning now arise which hitherto were difficult to conceive, even theoretically. The individual not only attains a knowledge of himself but he can learn to understand the factors that determine his conduct, and can thus even attempt to regulate them. (212/3)

As far as planning is concerned, behaviourism has limited itself from the start by renouncing the need for the real transformation of the individual and of society.
Once this essential feature of behaviourism has been perceived, its resemblance to Fascism is unmistakable. (215)

In its external co-ordination [Fascism] it reaches the highest stage of functional rationalization without even beginning to approximate to any ort of substantial rationalization. (216)

Planning means fitting the isolated fact into place, so that individual research workers realize the often latent connections between their discoveries. (223)

[Elites / leaders should] maintain their personality and stability of character even in an uncertain environment and in completely unpredictable situations. (226)

The exaggerated consistency of one-sided logical systems of thought tears out of their context thing which if reconciled in action, can be gradually united into a more and more appropriate pattern of conduct. The solution of these theoretical paradoxes is always possible in practice if the carefully thought out alternatives are use not as final formulae but as signposts to indicate the possible trends of events. (228)

[The] tendency towards formal systemization can be harmful if it diverts research workers  and theorists from independent thinking. (230)

Certain types of events … reflect the transformation of the older principia media into new ones. These are the facts which must be sought out in any empirical investigation. … The greatest danger is a certain lack of o0peness of mind which is apt to treat statements about the principia media as axioms, instead of flexible hypotheses, always ready to be checked by the smallest contradictory fact. (231)

It is essential, not only in practical life but in science itself, to know how to fit together in one’s mind the different series of events, and to see how the individual events, institutions, and attitudes of mind are determined by each other.

The possibility and necessity of certain modes of thought at a certain period of history are defined primarily by the nature of the problems to be solved and by the level of reality to which it is necessary to penetrate. (233)

The real danger in planned thinking is that instead of constantly experimenting, it tends to turn into a rigid system. “Dogmatism” on the planning level is nothing but a mistaken view of planning as being a purely theoretical scheming. … [Planned] thinking … has to take up the questioning, searching attitude. (234)

Part V Planning for Freedom

[Thought] adapts itself to the needs of the social process and the new and difficult problems which [it faces]. (239)

Instead of the passive and contemplative outlook which takes people and things at their faces value … the functionalist type of thought … gradually supersedes the traditional method of thinking. Functionalism made its first appearance in the field of the natural sciences, and could be described as the technical point of view. … In looking at an object the unspoken question  … is … “How is it to be produced?”.

[This] new and managing attitude tends to become inhuman, because it forces personal relationships into mechanical categories. (241)

The more we come to realize that the swift dynamics of modern society produce not only community disorganization, but also disintegration of the other social groups and institutions, the more important it is to study the technique of elastic organization on a large scale. Skilful reconstruction is essential, but it is essential, but it cannot be effected without a sounder knowledge of the principles of a healthy community life. (245)

We are not far from  a multidimensional conception of society, in which a dynamic survey of social history must be prepared to reckon with several focal points of influence … . Every real theoretical advance consists in discovering that a phenomenon which was once believed to be an independent variable, only seemed to be such because we had failed to take into account the special historical circumstances which gave it such extra-ordinary importance. (249)

The great theme of social dynamics is the continuous mutual adjustment between the basic institutions of society. Even if the centre of gravity temporarily shifts from one sphere to another, it involves the re-arrangement of all the different spheres. (250)

It has always been the task of scientific thinking to discover the fundamental principles which determine the framework of events. (251)

[The] disadvantage of treating one group of factors as though it were the only possible combination is that this hypothesis becomes worthless when other configurations come into prominence. (252)

Social co-ordination [(e.g. of family, school, work, leisure) may be] used to produce uniformity or a many-sided individuality … . … Even a social order which is built on firm foundations and is sound in aim and function will in time fall a victim to bureaucracy through the institutional surrender of its citizens to the technicians who run the social machine,  unless it becomes aware in time of the dangers inherent in the situation. (263)

The central authority would only make its influence felt when it was forced to to modify the rules of the game in order to prevent results which might be injurious to society or the central plan democratically agreed upon. Such a solution would stimulate the creative impulses of acting individuals without leaving every social activity in a state of chaos. (298)

One of the greatest merits of a free and democratic civilization is its readiness to draw on the resources of public talent.

Once fundamental social conformity has been assured, it is doubly necessary to provide for plasticity, foresight, enterprise, vitality and a new sense of reality.  (354)

[We] must make a clear distinction between those instituions and programmes which refere to the very structure of society and involve a long-range policy, and those which reflect merely temporary and fluctuating changes.  (355)

[It] is decisive for future events whether or not sound thinking goes on to-day and reaches the ruling elites.  (366)

Part VI Freedom on the Level of Planning

[We] shall understand by freedom, not so much freedom of action as freedom of self-expression. (371)

An organized group can only function if its members have become accustomed to certain institutional attitudes from the outset. [Education] and training have produced certain permanent attitudes of mind , and therefore in some directions at any rate, have suppressed this freedom. (372)

[No] sooner has technique made me independent of nature than it subjects me in the same measure to the inevitable social coercion which co-operation entails. (373/4)

[In] man’s direct struggle with nature [he] is in full possession of his freedom as long as he is confronted by absolutely chance conditions, but if anyone prevents him carrying out his own experiments with the situation he feels thwarted. [In a social setting] this primary freedom will remain, in spite of a more complicated structure, as long as men are bent on carrying out their immediate wishes and on finding spontaneous forms of self-expression. At the stage of invention the test of freedom is not merely spontaneity, but the desire to create conditions where social adjustment is possible instead of simply accepting things as they are. … For the sake of this freedom men are willing to forego their primary liberty of action. (369)

[Men] will find a higher form of freedom in allowing many aspects of their individual lives  to be determined by the social order laid down by the group, provided that it is an order that they themselves have chosen. (377)

[Freedom] can only exist when it is controlled by planning. It cannot consist in restricting the powers of the planner, but in a conception of planning which guarantees the existence of essential forms of freedom through the plan itself. (378)

Wherever it is possible and the plan is not endangered every effort must be made to maintain the primary form of freedom – freedom for individual adjustment. (379)

[Planning] under communal control, incorporating safeguards of the new freedom, is the only solution possible at the present stage of social technique. (380)


Freedom  and the avoidance of crises would seem to depend on critical thinking. This comes in two types. The first is ‘functionality rationality’, where critical thinking is a skill than can be taught and tested as an academic discipline. The second is ‘substantial rationality’, where one thinks for ones self, seeking to develop capability and capacity, and does not rely on established ‘authorities’ or methods.

Often functional thinking is adequate, but Mannheim argues that in the long run it is typically inadequate, leading to disaster. Instead, substantial thinking is needed. Such substantial thinkers challenge the status quo, and current institutions tend to discourage them. But Mannheim is optimistic that – within a suitably planned framework – such thinkers could usefully contribute to a more secure, resilient and ‘better’, albeit less predictable, future.

It seems to me that mathematics as a field of endeavour particularly lends itself to a substantial approach, such as advocated by Gigerenzer. It is a rare area where one can experiment unsupervised with no special equipment and without any particular experience of ‘life’ and the world, and the result can often be easily checked. But mathematics is mostly taught and understood from a functional perspective, and their are severe practical constraints on organized support for substantive mathematical investigations.

But it does seem to me that:

  • Where criticisms of mathematics have been made, they are often valid if taken as criticisms of mathematics employed functionally, but often point to the need for more substantial mathematics, or more substantial use of existing mathematics.
  • Historically, the ‘British way’ has been to encourage and identify substantial thinkers, and to co-opt them into what are seen to be the appropriate institutions.
  • British institutions have been more fluid and more heterogeneous than in many other nations, and this contributed to our character and success.
  • Even now, those who have been best at dealing with crises and other complex situations are typically substantial thinkers and have often resisted the overly functional aspects of their schooling.
  • Politicians and leading entrepreneurs have been seen as substantial thinkers, and hence well placed to plan and to lead. But how are we to judge? They may be of Mannheim’s ‘handcart mind’.
  • Ideally, the electorate would be substantial thinkers themselves, but at least they need to be able to judge who is thinking substantially, who functionally (ideologically).
  • What is needed is a debate on the indicators of ‘handcart minds’ and inappropriate functional thinking.

Substantial mathematics could help here. Mannheim’s approach to conceptualising the world is much like Whitehead’s, with both taking in terms of epochs, each of which has its own ‘rules of the game’. Turing shows how a combination of relatively structured development and ‘noise’ leads to critical instabilities and hence changes in epoch. Functionality rationality is only approiate to an epoch. More generally, one needs to consider what possible epochs may emerge, and what the critical factors may be.

We can see the normal behaviour within an epoch as being functional, and which is undermined by the emergence of new factors and details as brute facts. Recognizing this, we may characterise that the following is inappropriate:

Functional thinking that is not ‘guarded’ by a substantial effort to identify possible new epochs and warning signs, factors and details, and genuine debate around broader theories that could be reliable through epochal change.

 The key to resilience of systems such as societies and economies, then, is resilience of conception, which must be substantial.

In practice, new epochs rarely have totally new rules. Typically, as Mannheim describes, various factors will interact in various patterns. A change in pattern will result in a change in epoch, but these are often piece-meal. For example, a new interaction or the inhibition of an old interaction may change some self-regulating cycle. In some cases there may be cascading effects and these could happen increasingly rapidly, so that a new situation could look very different from the old. But in practice one can re-use a lot of the old understanding in the new epoch: the difficulty is knowing what to re-use, what to reject.

Dave Marsay 

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