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Karl Mannheim

Birthplace: Budapest, Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
Death: January 09, 1947 (53)
Immediate Family:

Son of Gustav Mannheim and Rosa Mannheim
Husband of Julia Mannheim

Managed by: Randy Schoenberg
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Immediate Family

About Karl Mannheim

Mannheim, Karl [K%C3%A1roly] (1893–1947), sociologist, was born on 27 March 1893 at 19 Sas Street in Budapest, Hungary, the eldest child of Gusztáv Mannheim, a textile merchant, and Rosa Eylenburg. His father was Hungarian-Jewish and his mother German-Jewish. After attending a Gymnasium Mannheim enrolled as a student of philosophy at the University of Budapest from 1911 to 1915, though for much of the time he studied at German universities. In 1918 he took a doctorate of the University of Budapest summa cum laude. He mixed freely in various intellectual circles, but became most closely associated with a group around George Lukács, the Marxist literary critic, who was briefly a commissioner for education in a short-lived Communist–Social Democratic government. Although Mannheim declined to join the Communist Party, Lukács appointed him a lecturer at the college of education of the University of Budapest. After a counter-revolutionary government took over in Budapest Mannheim decided to leave for Vienna in December 1919.

Mannheim soon moved to Germany and many of his most formative intellectual experiences took place in exile in the Weimar Republic. He went initially to Freiburg and Berlin but settled in Heidelberg, where he became a member of the circle that had grown up around Max and Alfred Weber. There, on 22 March 1921, he married Juliska (Julia) Láng (1893–1955), a psychologist, also from Hungary. In 1926 Mannheim received a formal academic appointment in sociology at Heidelberg. In 1930 he became professor of sociology at the Goethe University of Frankfurt am Main. However, in 1933 he was ‘retired’ from this position by the Nazis and went via Amsterdam to England, where he was given a lectureship in sociology at the London School of Economics. He also lectured on a part-time basis for the University of London Institute of Education between 1941 and 1945. During the war he travelled frequently from his home in Golders Green to Cambridge and Nottingham, to where his two institutions were evacuated. In January 1946 he moved full-time to the chair of education at the institute.

Mannheim was about 5 feet 8 inches tall. His dark hair was receding by the time he was in his twenties and he had a distinguished bald dome well before he came to England. Assessments of his character vary. Some observers regarded him as highly approachable, while others saw him as a somewhat distant figure. Some described him as modest, but others felt he was dominating and opinionated. He seems to have been very popular with students at the LSE but his relations with colleagues, especially Morris Ginsberg, the professor of sociology, became decidedly strained. There, as elsewhere, he often felt denied the status and intellectual recognition he believed he deserved.

Internationally, Mannheim was probably best known as a sociologist of knowledge concerned with the social conditioning of thought and the role of socially unattached intellectuals. This work is particularly relevant to the problem of relativism. Many of his key publications were originally written in Germany in the 1920s, notably Ideologie und Utopie (1929). This he revised and expanded in the 1930s, and it was translated into English by Louis Wirth and Edward Shils at the University of Chicago. In his writings of this period, Mannheim took the view that sociology could help make people more aware of the nature of social relationships but should not make judgements.

As the 1930s progressed, however, Mannheim's work became increasingly concerned with the threat to democracy posed on the one hand by totalitarianism and on the other by unbridled individualism and competition. These concerns were reflected in Man and Society in an Age of Reconstruction, published in German in 1935 and in English in 1940, and in Diagnosis of our Time: Wartime Essays of a Sociologist (1943). Jean Floud, a student at the LSE in the 1930s who subsequently assisted Mannheim with his research, suggested that by the 1940s he had ‘turned from the fine points of the diagnosis [of the crisis] to the active political problem of controlling the descent into disaster’ (Floud, ‘Karl Mannheim’, 49). He proposed ‘Planning for freedom’—a third way between a laissez-faire society and total regimentation. Although Mannheim's obituary in The Times claimed that he himself always insisted that he was concerned with diagnosis only, it has been said by another of his former students that his denial of partisanship was ‘rather like Mr Roosevelt's claim to be neutral before Pearl Harbour’ (Stewart, 21).

Certainly Mannheim became passionately concerned to influence reconstruction after the Second World War. The International Library of Sociology and Social Reconstruction, which he founded, reflected his conviction that sociology could provide the basis for this. Indeed he increasingly saw his own destiny as helping to rebuild Europe on a sound democratic footing. This was one reason why he chose not to follow the well-trodden path of fellow Jewish sociologists to the USA. His Times obituary described him as becoming ‘more English than the English themselves’; in 1940 he had become a British citizen. His self-appointed role as both friend and critic of the British establishment was reflected in his deep involvement with the wartime Moot. This brought together predominantly Christian lay people and clergy at a series of residential weekends between 1938 and 1947 and came to focus on plans for the post-war social and political reconstruction. It included leading intellectuals such as J. H. Oldham, Adolph Lowe, J. Middleton Murry, Walter Moberly, A. D. Lindsay, and T. S. Eliot. Mannheim quickly became a key member of this group, as did Sir Fred Clarke, director of the Institute of Education, who helped to tease out the educational implications of Mannheim's general prescriptions about ‘Planning for freedom’. As a result some of Mannheim's ideas indirectly influenced the 1944 Education Act.

Although he had shown some interest in education as early as the 1920s, it became the main focus of Mannheim's work only towards the end of his life. He became particularly concerned about social education and the development of the techniques necessary for the creation of the democratic personality (see Kudomi). His ‘profound reflections on the problems of human society had led him to a conviction of the importance of education’ (minutes of academic board, Institute of Education, Sir Fred Clarke Archive), so his move to the Institute of Education was not merely an escape from a difficult situation at the LSE. However, Mannheim's actual influence on British education was cut short by his premature death at the age of fifty-three. He had had a heart condition from birth and was generally in poor health throughout his life. In early 1947, during one of London's coldest winters, he contracted pneumonia, ignored medical advice to take total bed rest, and died from a heart attack at his home, 5 The Park, Golders Green, Middlesex, on 9 January 1947. His funeral was held at Golders Green crematorium, where there is a memorial to him and his wife, who had become a practising psychotherapist and outlived him until 1955. The couple had no children.

Much of Mannheim's work, including that on the sociology of education, was published after his death. From the 1960s, however, his contribution to both sociology and education was relatively neglected. Although Kettler and Meja suggested that his project should be ‘irresistible to reflective people at the end of the twentieth century’ (Kettler and Meja, 1), and there are certainly some fascinating resonances with contemporary sociological concerns in his work, he would probably have had little sympathy with postmodern theorists. His intellectual roots predisposed him towards a ‘grand narrative’ approach to theory and his solutions to the problems of ‘new times’ were profoundly modernist ones. However, it is not always easy to understand just what Mannheim was saying. Even though one of his posthumous volumes was entitled Systematic Sociology (1957), he was hardly a systematic thinker. Loader charitably termed his work a ‘dynamic totality’, but even the books compiled during his lifetime under his own supervision are full of inconsistencies and repetitions.

Floud implied that Mannheim would have done better to continue ‘to try to understand and diagnose, rather than to plan and legislate’ (Floud, ‘Karl Mannheim’, 62). She also claimed that, within a decade of his death, it was universally recognized that ‘Mannheim's “planning for democracy” … was not “democratic planning”; and people were beginning to think in any case that “democratic planning” was a contradiction in terms’ (Floud, Functions, Purposes and Powers in Education, 8). Yet it is quite possible that, after the experience of deregulation and political hostility to planning in Britain and elsewhere in the 1980s, Mannheim's commentary on the damaging effects of atomization and a laissez-faire society will become relevant again. There would certainly be some poetic justice in Mannheim's ideas becoming fashionable in the aftermath of the Thatcherite era, as his views were one of the main targets of his LSE colleague Frederik Hayek's Road to Serfdom (1944), which hurt him badly at the time of its publication and later became one of the key texts of the new right revolution of the 1980s.

Geoff Whitty Sources H. E. S. Woldring, Karl Mannheim: the development of his thought (1986) · [K. Mannheim], Mannheim Karoly levelezése, 1911–1946, ed. E. Gábor (Budapest, 1996) · G. W. Remmling, The sociology of Karl Mannheim (1975) [incl. bibliographical guide] · C. Loader, The intellectual development of Karl Mannheim (1985) · D. Kettler and V. Meja, Karl Mannheim and the crisis of liberalism (1995) · Y. Kudomi, ‘Karl Mannheim in Britain: an interim research report’, Hitotsubashi Journal of Social Studies, 28/2 (1996), 43–56 · J. Floud, ‘Karl Mannheim’, The function of teaching, ed. A. V. Judges (1959), 40–66 · J. Floud, Functions, purposes and powers in education (1977) · W. A. C. Stewart, Karl Mannheim on education and social thought (1967) · W. Taylor, ‘Education and the Moot’, In history and in education: essays presented to Peter Gordon, ed. R. Aldrich (1996), 159–86 · U. Lond., Fred Clarke MSS · E. Shils, ‘Karl Mannheim’, The American Scholar (1995), 221–35 · The Times (11 Jan 1947) Archives Keele University Library, corresp., papers and lecture notes | BLPES, letters to E. Rosenbaum · Bodl. Oxf., Society for Protection of Science and Learning file · Lukács Archivum, Budapest, Hungary, Magyar Tudományos Akadémia Könyutára · U. Lond., Institute of Education, discussion papers · U. Reading, Routledge and Kegan Paul Archives · U. Reading L., letters to the Isotope Institute · University of Chicago, Louis Wirth MSS Likenesses Elliott & Fry, photograph, 1943, NPG [see illus.] · portraits, repro. in Woldring, Karl Mannheim Wealth at death £4283 15s. 7d.: probate, 31 Oct 1947, CGPLA Eng. & Wales © Oxford University Press 2004–14 All rights reserved: see legal notice Oxford University Press

Geoff Whitty, ‘Mannheim, Karl (1893–1947)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [, accessed 27 March 2014]

Karl Mannheim (1893–1947): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/53147

[Previous version of this biography available here: September 2004]

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Karl Mannheim's Timeline

March 27, 1893
Budapest, Budapest, Budapest, Hungary
January 9, 1947
Age 53