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Chapter Two - Karl Mannheim and the Realism Debate in Political Theory

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 May 2018

Peter Breiner
Affiliation:
University at Albany
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Summary

Karl Mannheim is rarely understood as a contributor to political realism, let alone as a political theorist who redefined the very meaning of what it means to subject a political ideology or worldview to historical and political reality so as to give us a clearer picture of the whole field of political conflict in a particular historical moment than we would have if we relied merely on certain existential or sociological features of politics. But that is precisely what I want to argue here. Specifically, I argue that in his much- misunderstood work, Ideology and Utopia, Mannheim forges a new “realist” political science that avoids reifying the political reality against which political ideas are tested and instead views the relation of political ideas to political reality as informing the understanding of one another. That is, Mannheim introduces a realism that incorporates what I call “selfreflexive realism” based on the principle that we can only understand and evaluate political ideologies (and their interrelationships with each other) against a dynamically developing context the distinctive features of which we are only able to discern through the lens of those selfsame ideologies. The only durable element of politics is political will or initiative and routinization of that will. But the shape of this tension can never be understood from outside the relation of political ideas in conflict with each other and in tension with a political reality. Rather, we only have access to that reality through these ideas themselves. When Mannheim is read this way, I argue, he provides an answer to the many problems of the recent turn toward “political realism” in political theory that portrays itself as an answer to the analytical tradition in political philosophy with its emphasis on rights and “ideal” theories of justice or equality such as that represented by John Rawls.

I first discuss the general direction in the new turn toward realism in political theory, focusing on two of the central difficulties of this approach: first, the difficulty of banality—that this new realism gets caught in either a reified set of existential features of politics or the employment of sociological tendencies that themselves are not accounted for…

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Publisher: Anthem Press
Print publication year: 2017

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