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. (September 2018)
The Enlightenment movement ought not to be underestimated in its influence upon the social sciences. When these philosophers worked towards a scientific analysis of society, they were engaged in a sociology of ideas and values, albeit their own commitment was to critical rationalism. The Enlightenment strove for progress, change, secularism, but above all, to freedom, the freedom for individuals to decide their own fate. There was a commitment to practical science with humankind at the centre (as opposed to God or gods) and this is the real source of social science. This new science was not interested in revealed knowledge or a priori knowledge but in the workings of humanity: human practices, and social variety and regularities. Western thought, therefore, received a significant movement towards cultural relativism, where cross-cultural comparison became the dominant methodology. Importantly, social science was created by philosophers who sought to turn ideas into actions and to unite theory and practice in an attempt to restructure society as a whole.
Sociology of knowledge requires a certain viewpoint which was first expounded by Giambattista Vico in his New Science, written in the early 18th Century, a great deal before the first sociologists study the relationship between knowledge and society. In this book, a justification for a new historical and sociological methodology, the main point is that the natural world and the social world are known in different ways. The former is known through external or empirical methods, whilst the latter can be known internally as well as externally. In other words, human history is a construct. This creates a key epistemological distinction between the natural world and the social world which is a central concept in the social sciences. Primarily focused on historical methodology, Vico asserts that in order to study a society's history it is necessary to move beyond a chronicle of events by examining the cultural elements of the society, what was termed the "civil world". This "civil world", made up of actions, thoughts, ideas, myths, norms, religious beliefs, and institutions, is the product of the human mind. Since these elements are socially constructed, they can be better understood than the physical world, understood as it is in abstraction. Vico highlights that human nature and its products are not fixed entities and therefore necessitate a historical perspective which emphasizes the changes and developments implicit in individuals and societies. He also emphasizes the dialectical relationship between society and culture as key in this new historical perspective.
Vico's ideas, whilst permeated by his own penchant for etymology, and a theory of cyclical history (corsi e ricorsi), are significant nonetheless for the underlying premise that our understanding and knowledge of social structure is dependent upon the ideas and concepts we employ and the language used. Vico, mostly unknown in his own time, was the first to establish the foundations of a sociology of knowledge even if his concepts were not necessarily picked up by later writers. There is some evidence that Montesquieu and Karl Marx had read Vico's work. However the similarities in their works are superficial, limited mainly to the overall conception of their projects, characterised by cultural relativism and historicism.