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Karl Mannheim : Privacy and Inwardness in the Modern World

Edvard Munch

Moonlight-Night in St. Cloud (1895)

Karl Mannheim

Diagnosis of Our Time


The Problem of Privacy in the Modern World

"In this sphere I should like to discuss as one of the changing attitudes the gradual fading out of the meaning of privacy and the emergence of the habit of mass enjoyment and the tendency towards mass ecstasy. By choosing this example I do not want to belittle the deplorable effects of the weakening of shared experiences in small groups and the evaporation of meaning from communal activities. They have frequently been discussed, whereas the problem of privacy versus mass ecstasy needs further exploration.

By privacy and inwardness we understand the desire of the individual to withdraw certain inner experiences from the control of the outer world and to claim them for himself. Privacy and inwardness are perhaps the strongest means of individualization and one of the greatest assets in the growth of an independent personality. It is in this realm of seclusion and partial isolation that our experiences gain in depth and that we become spiritually different from our fellow-men. In those spheres where we are continually exposed to social contacts and where an exchange of ideas incessantly takes place, we tend to become like each other through mutual adjustment. This process of socializing our experiences is a healthy one as long as it is balanced by a sphere of privacy. Without it there is no power left in the self to resist continual change and the individual develops into a bundle of uncoordinated patterns of adjustment.

It is not only the individual who needs this sphere of seclusion and mental privacy into which he can always withdraw and cultivate traits of his personal differentiation as the most valuable parts of the self. Dynamic society itself ciannot cope with the great variety of problems as they emerge from the ever-changing scene without drawing upon a great reservoir of individuals who have developed beyond conformity, and who are always apt to produce unexpected responses when traditional forms of adjustment become obsolete. It is no wonder, then, that primitive societies did not know the phenomenon of privacy, and that even in a village of our own time one can hardly make a clear distinction between home and public affairs. As in a village neighbourly help is essential, one’s door is, so to speak, always open and public control penetrates into every hidden nook of family and individual life.

It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the sources of our modern desire for privacy are to be found in the gradual emergence of the bourgeoisie. It was in the world of industry and commerce that for the first time the workshop and office became separated from the home, and as the merchants grew richer it became possible for members of the family to have a room of their own, thus setting up the external framework for the differentiation of our attitudes and feelings into private and public.

England was the country in which this cult of privacy was most fully developed, so that solitude became a virtue desired not only by the bourgeoisie but by all social strata. No doubt it is due to Protestantism that religion became a private relationship between the soul and God. The exclusion of the mediating services of the Church between man’s conscience and God is just another expression of the very same process of making the most significant experiences the exclusive possession of the person. Early mediaeval Catholicism corresponds to an agrarian world in which primary tribal cohesion is still strong and community feeling so intense that the climax of human experience can be reached in communal experience. The Holy Mass is the spiritualized expression of group ecstasy and the ancient striving for the fusion of souls, and it is only by a gradual process that the whole performance becomes symbolical to most of the worshippers.

The idea of having one’s deepest experiences in public without profaning them becomes strange to the world of the bourgeois, in which not only ecstasy but any deeper emotion is a personal and private affair. The monks were the first people in the mediaeval world who not only realized the significance of the inwardness which flourishes in privacy, but planned the environment in which it would grow.. They mastered the art of social isolation. Total and partial isolation combined with work, prayers and psychological exercises produced a mental state which would never occur in the world of affairs.

Contemplation, spiritualization, sublimation and religious ecstasy became an art and the privileged possession of a new kind of specialist. Thus an elite of inwardness was deliberately created — a new nobility or caste system in which those were considered leaders who advanced furthest along the path of inner experience, shared only by a few, and not those who showed the greatest skill in worldly adjustment. This pride in inwardness, privacy and asceticism cultivated by the monks was, so to speak, secularized by the Protestants, who expected their leaders to show the virtues of asceticism, inwardness and self- discipline.

Thus the tradition of privacy and inwardness was religious and at the same time closely linked up with the urban environment. As long as handicrafts prevailed, the social conditions under which they were carried on only added to the dissemination of the same mental attitude. Working in small workshops, very often alone, encouraged contemplation and day-dreaming. It was no mere chance that Jacob Bohme the mystic was a cobbler, and that religious sects spread among artisans.

These pre-conditions favourable to privacy and contemplation were first threatened by the Industrial Revolution with its big factories, mechanical work and the growth of big cities with their crowding, mass amusements, mass excitement and political demonstrations. The existence of intimacy, privacy, contempla¬ tion and inwardness is threatened wherever modern mass society develops, whether here or in America, Germany or Russia. Despite political differences the very same trait prevails. The sense privacy and contemplation is supplanted by a striving for movement, excitement and group ecstasy. Andre Gide, in his Back from the U.S.S.R., writes:

“The kolkhosian takes all his pleasures in common. His room is merely a place to sleep in; the whole interest of his life has passed into his club, his park of culture, his various meeting-places. What more can be desired ? The happiness of all can only be obtained by disindividualizing each. The happiness of all can only be obtained at the expense of each. In order to be happy, conform."

If England and France do not yet show these new features completely, it is only on account of the fact that the bourgeois background is still strong enough to keep the balance against the growing influence of mass existence. The department stores .and factories cater for people who are fed on mass entertainments such as the cinema and the dance-hall, who thus acquire habits of mind to which in politics the mass meeting with its excitement and group ecstasy corresponds. In the midst of an advanced civilization we are reaching a stage which reinstates group attitudes that formerly belonged to primitive ecstatic religions.


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