Karl Mannheim and surrender-and-catch: An essay in autobiographical history of ideas

Kurt H. Wolff  Cahiers canadiens de sociologie, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Summer, 1994),

Karl Mannheim (1893-1947) was my most influential university teacher (cf. Wolff 1991: 57-79). I want what follows to be a salute of gratitude and recognition from one of the few of his many students who are still alive.

About twenty years ago, I tried for the first time to get clearer on Mannheim’s influence on my thinking:

The world of sociology [I wrote] had been revealed to me by Karl Mannheim at the University of Frankfurt in the first years of the thirties. Karl Mannheim has influenced my thinking in many areas —not only in sociology. I became aware of this long after I had studied with him, even after my introduction in 1939 to the United States and its sociology. (Wolff 1974a: 3)

Here, among my first efforts,

was the application to sociology [itself (Wolff 1946)] … of one of Karl Mannheim’s ideas, the need for a twofold interpretation of whatever one would seek to understand – Mannheim’s [1926] ideological … and sociological … interpretation [which I later came to call intrinsic and extrinsic interpretation]. (Wolff 1974a: 199)


Further thinking about this distinction led to the question of

how understanding and communication are possible in spite of unique experience …. Here, then, we have what will develop into two aspects of surrender. [“Surrender is an idea first formulated in 1950 and developed ever since. Most succinctly, it means the maximum bearable suspension of one’s socialization in a maximal effort to understand something or someone.] One [of these aspects] is [precisely this] suspension of received notions (“when he studies the unique [I wrote in 1948], the student drops as much of his scientific and general-cultural cloak as he can in order to expose himself [“surrender”] to his ‘subject matter.”‘ (Wolff, 1948, in 1974a: 493; 1983: 138) The other [aspect] emerges when I say that I will no longer speak of understanding in spite of unique experience but will rather insist that understanding (the “catch” [result, new structure] of surrender) cannot exhaust experience. (Wolff, 1974a: 452)


Thus far, then, we have two seeds of this surrender syndrome: interpretation in its double meaning, intrinsic and extrinsic, and the understandability of what is unique through the effort to suspend the impact of one’s socialization (as culturation, culture). A third seed is the idea of two kinds of truth, scientific and existential. Existential is the truth of surrender; its “criterion is agreement with the result of the most rigorously imaginable intrasubjective examination of … [one’s] most important experiences” (Wolff, 1974a: 45, 648).

I distinguished between two kinds of truth probably before I learned that, according to Paul Kecskemeti, this distinction also occurs in Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge. Kecskemeti argues

that Mannheim in effect distinguished between two kinds of truth, which are closely related to scientific and existential truth. These are the Aristotelian concept of truth as ‘speaking the truth,’ or the “truth of propositions…”; and the truth as “one’s response to reality,” “the existential concept of truth as ‘being in truth.'” We should remember, Kecskemeti writes, that truth has been conceived in these two ways throughout the history of philosophy. For the first, truth is predicative of sentences; it “has nothing to do with the things of the world as they exist in themselves. According to the other definition, ‘truth’ is first and foremost an attribute of existence, and only secondarily of discourse. One is or is not in the Truth; and one’s possession of Truth depends on being in communion with a reality which ‘is’ or embodies truth.” (Kecskemeti, 1952: 15, 31; quoted in Wolff, 1959; 1974a: 567; 1983: 212)


There is a relation between existential truth and ecstasy, a fourth component of surrender. Ecstasy is an exceptional state of being, a “being driven out of” one’s ordinary or routine life, out of the “everyday” world, the Lebenswelt or life- world, as Husserl was the first phenomenologist to call it (cf. Husserl, mid 1930s; also Schutz 1945: 208-29). It is the suspension of everyday, its replacement by another “world,” just as in surrender. As a student in Mannheim’s classes and seminars, I felt something in him that made me think that “he secretly was a poet, and I was thrilled by the idea” (Wolff, 1988; 1991: 65). As a young man, Mannheim himself wrote (as I discovered decades after suspecting him of trafficking with poetry)

that there is one unconstruable question the essence of which is that it can never be attained in a concrete form …. The confessions of the mystics and ecstatics seek to let this utterly unattainable philosophy appear… mysticism has always been the conscience of philosophy because it keeps on reminding us of the ultimate questions. For this reason, the philosophical specialist is so nervous about it. (Mannheim 1919, quoted from Karadi and Vezer, 1985: 254-55, Wolff; 1991: 66, 67)


This respect for mystery is wholly compatible with the principle and the practice of undismayed and never ending analysis; in fact, the two entail each other: the mystery at the end of every effort to investigate, whatever it may be, challenges me to investigate further. This play between analysis and reverence of the mysterious is a fifth characteristic of surrender; it may be called its dialectic. It is a synthesis of two Mannheimian tenets, precisely the interminability of analysis and the unshakeable acknowledgement of mystery. As far as I know, Mannheim himself never brought the two together. I have just quoted him on the latter, mystery; now to the former, unflinchable investigation. It is from

his famous essay – with which the whole discussion of Mannheim, the [so called] “sociology of knowledge dispute,” [Meja and Stehr, 1990,1982] began, the paper he presented at the sixth German sociology congress in Zurich in 1928 – “Competition as a cultural phenomenon”… To adopt the sociological viewpoint, he wrote, “does not mean to say that mind and thought are nothing but the expression and reflex of various ‘locations’ in the social fabric and that there exist only quantitatively determinable functional correlations and no potentiality of ‘freedom’ grounded in mind; it merely means that even within the sphere of the intellectual, there are processes amenable to rational analysis, and that it would be an ill-advised mysticism which would shroud things in romantic obscurity at a point where rational cognition is still practicable. Anyone who wants to drag in the irrational where the lucidity and acuity of reason still must rule by right merely shows that he is afraid to face the mystery in its legitimate place.” (Mannheim 1928, in 1952: 229; also in Wolff 1971: 260- 261; 1993: 436-437; Wolff, 1971: xiii, xiv, lvi; 1978: 288-289.)1


A key component of Mannheim’s thinking was the attempt at understanding his time, which in significant respects, is our time. I must have caught this interest already as a student of his in the early thirties. Still in the thirties, it resulted in my preoccupation with a process I called “labilization” (Labilisierung), a term I may well have picked up from Mannheim, probably from a lecture, since I have not come across it in his publications. As the term suggests, it refers to the disappearance or weakening of any stable order of norms, principles, guidelines or traditions, which instead have become “labile.”

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity. (Yeats, 1921; in Wolff, 1991: 70)

I now see a connection between “undismayed and never ending analysis,” the “unshakable acknowledgement of mystery,” and the diagnosis of one’s time, Mannheim’s time, ours. Since traditions are unreliable, we must start afresh our search for what we can believe, and this is a fundamental characteristic of surrender, namely, the suspension of received notions. And we could not risk suspending our received notions, or engage in analysis while aware that analysis can never end, if we did not have the faith that mystery is inexhaustible, as inexhaustible as inquiry, that is to say, if we did not believe that there is a catch of surrender and that the catch entails further surrender. Thus the effort to diagnose our time, unending analysis and unending mystery, and surrender-and- catch are inextricably related. To recognize this, it appears that it was necessary to trace the roots of the idea of surrender-and-catch in Mannheim’s thinking.


The catch of surrender [(Bakan, 1993: 346)]… brings the one who surrenders back to oneself, in the sense, I suggest of “having oneself’: the topic, Wolff notes in the sixth entry [of Wolff (1991: 67- 69)] that Mannheim suggested to him so long ago when he was still Mannheim’s student.

It took this sentence by Mildred Bakan to make me realize the connection between the idea of surrender-and-catch and yet another idea of Mannheim’s, that of “Sich-Haben.” I had discussed this idea in the pages Bakan refers to, but the relation with surrender had escaped me; it is that in surrender one “has oneself’ as much as humanly possible -to the very point at which having oneself and losing oneself are one and the same: the distinction between having and losing vanishes, as do so many other everyday distinctions (which are among our received notions), and only retrospective reflection makes one aware of this.

Briefly, a few sentences from “The Form of Having Oneself in Rilke,” written at the time to which Bakan refers; they show anticipations of surrender:

… we think that only experience gives us the possibility to set up norms, which are the more valid, the more conscious we are of their conditionality. (Wolff, 1932 in 1988: 136)

Does this not foreshadow the conception that conceptualization must be the catch of surrendering to what one tries to understand, and that the catch is never definitive but can be surrendered to or invites surrendering to it (“undismayed and never ending analysis” and mystery never even threatened by it)?

Or: “having oneself is no static state, no satiating (saturierendes) but a calming (beruhigendes: pacifying) feeling (Wolff, 1932:240, 143).2 Some forty years later I speak of being “gathered” in surrender (Wolff, 1976) and of “the joy of being so gathered.” (Wolff, 1974b in 1976: 181).


What I first learned from Mannheim and worked at for a long time was the sociology of knowledge, which is inseparable from his name. He was its founder, or with Max Scheler, its cofounder. Unlike Scheler, however, he may well have anticipated by his own work the course taken by the sociology of knowledge since he wrote. He began it more as a philosopher than an sociologist with epistemological questions such as relativism and the problem of universal truth. But he soon moved to empirical, historical studies, e.g., of historicism, conserva- tism, the problem of generations. By the time of the essay on intellectual competition, the legitimacy of a sociological analysis of intellectual phenomena had been largely accepted, thanks above all to Mannheim himself, and he turned, already in Ideologie und Utopie (1929), to sociological analyses of his time. He thus anticipated the development of the sociology of knowledge from a socio- logical specialty to a sociological perspective, which it has been ever since; in Mannheim’s own case, it became ever more urgently a perspective on his time.

This perspective focused on our time also characterizes my own efforts in the sociology of knowledge as well as in the study of surrender-and-catch. The first mentions of a connection between the two go back twenty years (Wolff, 1974a: 449-453), but the least unsatisfactory formulation is half as old (Wolff, 1982). I can do no better, in this short paper, than to end by quoting its conclusion:

The reading of the sociology of knowledge here presented … like the reading of the idea of surrender- and-catch, derives from the reading of our time. [The] two readings may be distinguished as two responses to this time. Surrender-and-catch is a protest against it and an attempt at remembrance of what a human being can be. The sociology of knowledge is a protest against its hypocrisy and against unexamined social influences. Like surrender, the sociology of knowledge does not fear but passionately seeks what is true and thus, like surrender, is a remembrance, proclamation and celebration of the spirit. Both ideas, that of the sociology of knowledge and that of surrender, are critical, polemical, radical (cf. Wolff, 1977 and Ludes, 1977); so is the sociology of knowledge…. Using a previously mentioned distinction developed by Mannheim, we may also say that the sociology of knowledge is an extrinsic interpretation of its time, our time; surrender, an intrinsic one: the former is, advocates, and practises such an extrinsic (sociological) interpretation but needs the latter to overcome the relativism it encounters in its practice by its remembrance, rediscovery, reinvention, the catch, of what is common to all human beings, what is universally human (Wolff, 1982: 265-266).


Bakan, Mildred 1993. “About Survival and Sociology.” Human Studies 16(3): 341-52.

Curtius, Ernst Robert 1929 “Sociology – and its limits.” Trans. by Volker Meja and Denise Siemssen, in Volker Meja and Nico Stehr, eds., Knowledge and Power. London: Routledge, 1990: 113-20.

Feher, Judith 1984. “On surrender, death, and the sociology of knowledge,” Human Studies 7 (2): 211-26.

Husserl, Edmund 1970 The Crisis ofEuropean Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology. Intr. and trans. by [mid-1930s] David Carr. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Karadi, Eva and Erzsebet Vezer, eds. 1985 Georg -Lukdcs, Karl Mannheim und der Sonntagskreis. Trans. from the Hungarian by Albrecht Friedrich. Frankfurt a.M.: Sendler.

Kecskemeti, Paul 1952 “Introduction to Karl Mannheim.” In Karl Mannheim: Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. Ed. and trans. by Paul Kecskemeti. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ludes, Peter 1977 “The radicalness of surrender: Reflections on a significant concept.” Sociological Analysis 38: 401-8.

Mannheim, Karl 1993 “Competition as a cultural phenomenon.” In Kurt Wolff, ed., From Karl Mannheim, pp.  399-437. Second expanded edition. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers.

1990 “Problems of sociology in Germany.” In Volker Meja and Nico Stehr, eds., Knowledge and Power, pp. 121-8. Trans. by Kurt H. Wolff. London: Routledge.

1985 “Ernst Bloch: Geist der Utopie.” In Eva Karadi and Erzs6bet Vez6r, eds., Georg Lukdcs, Karl Mannheim und der Sonntagskreis, pp. 254-59. Trans. from the Hungarian by Albrecht Friedrich. Frankfurt a.M.: Sendler.

1971 “The ideological and the sociological interpretation of intellectual phenomena.” In Kurt Wolff, ed., From Karl Mannheim, pp. 244-59. Trans. by Kurt Wolff. New York: Oxford University Press. 1971: 116-131.

1952 Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. Ed. and trans. by Paul Kecskemeti. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Meja, Volker, ed. 1986 Newsletter, International Society for the Sociology of Knowledge 10(1 & 2). Meja, Volker and Nico Stehr, eds. 1982 Der Streit um die Wissenssoziologie. Frankfurt a.M.: Suhrkamp.

1990 Knowledge and Politics: The Sociology of Knowledge Dispute. London and New York: Routledge.

Schutz, Alfred 1952 “On multiple realities.” In Collected Papers I, pp. 207-59. Ed. Maurice Natanson. The Hague: Nijnoff.

Wolff, Kurt H. 1988 “Die Form des Sich-Habens bei Rilke.” In Das Unumgangliche: Gedichte, Prosa, Theater, Essays, pp. 136-44. Darmstadt: Gesellschaft Hessischer Literaturfreunde.

1946 “Towards a sociological interpretation of American sociology.” In Kurt H. Wolff, Trying Sociology. New York: Wiley.

1948 “The unique and the general: Toward a philosophy of sociology. In Kurt H. Wolff, Trying Sociology. New York: Wiley.

1959 “The Sociology of Knowledge and Sociological Theory,” in Kurt H. Wolff, Trying Sociology. New York: Wiley.

1971 From Karl Mannheim. New York: Oxford University Press.

1974a Trying Sociology. New York: Wiley.

1974b “Surrender and the body.” In Kurt H. Wolff, Surrender and Catch: Experience and Inquiry Today, pp. 179-215. Dordrecht/Boston: Reidel.

1976 Surrender and Catch: Experience and Inquiry Today. Dordrecht/Boston: Reidel.

1982 “The sociology of knowledge and surrender-and-catch.” In Kurt H. Wolff, Beyond the Sociology of Knowledge:An Introduction and a Development, pp. 256-67. Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America.

1983 Beyond the Sociology of Knowledge: An Introduction and a Development. Lanham, New York, London: University Press of America.

1977 “Towards understanding the radicalness of surrender.” Sociological Analysis 33: 397-401.

1988 “The idea of surrender-and-catch applied to the phenomenon Karl Mannheim.” Theory, Culture & Society 5: 710-34.

1991 Survival and Sociology: Vindicating the Human Subject. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

Wolff, Kurt H., ed., with an intr. by Volker Meja and David Kettler

1993 From Karl Mannheim, second expanded edition, New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.

Yeats, William Butler 1991 “The second coming.” In Kurt H. Wolff, Survival and Sociology: Vindicating the Human Subject. New Brunswick and London: Transaction Publishers.


1. A variant a year later, from Mannheim’s controversy with Ernst Robert Curtius (Curtius, 1929): “… he who today means to offer the transcendence of his being in ultimate seriousness must have subjected it to the ultimate self-examination, just because the ultimate fate of mankind is at stake” (Mannheim, 1929, in Meja, 1986: 11, and Mannheim, 1993: 447). Is this “ultimate self-examination” not surrender, and is it not, like surrender, imposed on us by our historical condition – which since Mannheim wrote this, has become imcomparably more explicit, as it were? See the next section of this paper.

2. “When Rilke has himself, he has not only himself but everything; if he does not have himself, then not only he does not exist but nothing at all does” (Wolff, 1932; 1988: 142). This is to become the notion of surrender as the “world in which we feel the threat of Nothing because All is at stake – the threat of death: (Wolff, 1991: 62; Feher, 1984).

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