If philosophical insight implies a distinctive distance from natural or lived experience, the relationship between this form of knowledge and the conditions fostering social change presents an important thematic for study. This paper investigates this thematic by considering the ambivalences between detachment and social immersion found in works of phenomenology, and in the social philosophy of intellectuals from the early 20th century. Reflecting on the similarities and divergences between their methodological approach to distance and detachment, I show the way, in which phenomenology and critical sociology of intellectuals can supplement each other’s understanding of the social responsibilities entailed by theoretical knowledge.
I begin with a treatment of distance and detachment in the phenomenological tradition, highlighting the latter’s ambivalence. On the one hand, phenomenologists since Husserl have treated the reduction as a bracketing of the natural attitude, and a separation of this attitude from philosophical inquiry. Phenomenological methodology, as exemplified in Eugen Fink’s and Merleau-Ponty’s later elaborations, for example, begins by taking distance from natural and scientific attitudes. At the same time, this mode of philosophical inquiry is also conceived as a departure from contemporary scientific thinking specifically due to the latter’s rigid separations and methodological objectifications, whether exemplified in psychologism, behaviorism, or positivism. While phenomenological methodology demands a critical distance, it also offers a perspective, from which apparently similar forms of separation in other fields may be criticized. I suggest in this section that we understand this ambiguity through a recollection of the constant crisis conditioning phenomenology’s mode of inquiry.
In the second section, I bring these insights to the field of sociology of intellectuals, beginning with Karl Mannheim’s reflections on intellectuals. In these texts, intellectuals are characterized both by the way, in which they are able to take distance from their social and political history, and by their simultaneous embeddedness in the social world. In some of Mannheim’s experimental essays from the early 1920s, this connection is conceived in explicitly phenomenological terms. In these texts, I suggest, we find an important account of the paradoxical position of intellectuals with regard to social and political commitments, with a morphological similarity to the ambivalence noted in the first section. I close with some reflections on the problems this similarity opens up in the realm of intellectual and political life, with some reflections on Merleau-Ponty’s “The War Has Taken Place” and Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.