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Nigel Harris

The Sociology of Knowledge

(Spring 1963)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.12, Spring 1963, pp.7-14.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Fundamental Forms of Social Thought
Werner Stark
Routledge and Kegan Paul. 32s.

The publication of one of Dr Stark’s numerous books is always a welcome event.

He combines an astonishing erudition with ease pf style and lucidity which is enviable. In the current volume, he is concerned to prove that only three basic-conceptions of society have been employed by social theorists – an organic model (society is a sort of animal, the individual merely a cell), a mechanistic model (individuals alone are real, society is hypothetical or merely an aggregate) and a cultural model (individual and society are equal and necessarily inter-dependent within a cultural whole). This may appear recondite? and obscure, but Dr Stark succeeds in recounting his case with humour and clarify which makes the subject interesting and absorbing.

However, whatever the merits of his classification, there are important criticisms to be made. Firstly, Dr Stark is more a philosopher than historian or sociologist: that is, he is less concerned with understanding why certain theories were put forward and what social function they played, and almost wholly devoted to assessing how far such theories ‘correspond’ to ‘the real world’. This is, in itself, philosophically a very clumsy approach, and also abstracts entirely from history – Rousseau’s interest lies rather more in what he represented in his ag« and for the French Revolution than in whether in fact there ‘really’ is a ‘General Will’. Dr Stark does not agree that ‘knowledge’ is part of ‘ideology’. Correlatively, he accuses theorists with whom he does not agree with all varieties of ‘prejudice’ and ‘stupidity’, which in a somewhat fruitless approach – for example, the major theorists of classical capitalism were certainly neither of these two things in general, although they may be wrong. The accusation of stupidity usually serves to illuminate the rightness of the accuser: and that rightness needs a solid justification which Dr Stark does not give; his assumption of a cosy world of common-sense chaps who have at last got things sorted out just will not do instead. Secondly, given the somewhat barren nature of the pursuit (Dr Stark relaxes momentarily and fruitfully on pages 101-2, 196-7, and 264, on the relationship of organicism to long-term economic changes), it is not clear whether his thesis is proved. For example, his treatment of Rousseau seems selective; Hegel is almost completely ignored, and his treatment of Marx is unfair to the point of scholarly irresponsibility. In addition, the analytic clarity he employs in his categories ill accords with the wider complexity of the writings he examines.

Dr Stark then ignores the vital dimension of society – and in doing so, he cannot see the role which his theorists play in society, and therefore their importance. It is very welcome that there is a writer in this field who spreads his view so wide (cf. his fascinating digression on classical economics) – it is a pity that this erudition could not have been applied to really extending our horizons and illuminating the social function of doctrine.

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Last updated: 8.8.2007