Authoritative Knowledge and Heteronomy in Classical Sociological Theory



This article traces the impact of philosophical questions regarding the grounds of moral autonomy and heteronomy (rule-from-another as opposed to rule-from-oneself) on classical sociological theory, arguing that both Weber and Durkheim understood sociology to have a contribution to make in the debate with Kant over the grounds of ethical action. Both insisted that the only possible ethical action was one within the bounds of rational knowledge that was inherently authoritative, but this sat uneasily with their focus on the relation between concrete social authority and the authoritativeness of beliefs in the sociology of religion. In rejecting Comte's explicit avowal of the embodiment of moral authority in the secular priesthood of sociologists, Weber and Durkheim had to paper over the social authority supporting the formulation of this rational knowledge. Each then produced a sociology of knowledge without a well-specified mechanism, in turn encouraging the development of the sociology of knowledge as a flawed sub-discipline.