The Role of Intrinsic Significance in Ferdinand Tönnies’ Epistemology

Eric Malczewski, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

Ferdinand Tönnies long has been renowned as a principal founding figure of sociology, yet his ideas receive scant attention in Anglophone scholarship. What is striking about the widespread omission of Tönnies from present day inquiry is that his work compellingly attends to foundational problems of sociological theory (e.g. problems such as defining the nature of human cognition and human relationships) whilst speaking directly to concerns currently of wide interest (such as characterizing the nature, conditions, and role of significance in human experience). My purpose is to illuminate the enduring general theoretical value of Tönnies’ thought. I advance this purpose first by expositing the master concepts constituting the center of Tönnies’ theory and then by bringing their implications to bear on how significance is conceptualized as a central element of human cognition and human relationships. In the course of this I introduce two new concepts, which I term “intrinsic significance” and “intelligent significance,” and demonstrate how they draw out crucial insights of Tönnies’ theory of human will pertaining to both the substance and the several capacities of cognition. My central contention is that Tönnies’ theory of human will illumines far-reaching differences between intrinsic significance and intelligent significance, and it identifies the several roles these two forms of significance play in constituting subjective human cognition and its apparent outward expression in human relationships. What is especially valuable here is that Tönnies’ arguments throw into sharp relief the special nature and conditioning force of immediate relationships. These arguments prompt reconsideration of how notions of significance are theorized and operationalized in certain corners of social thought by reasoning against normative determinism, blanket reduction of significance to ostensively-defined or atomistic units, and conceptions of human relationships that minimize the role of the immediate dimensions of experience and human relationships in constituting subjective human cognition.

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 Presented in Session 163. Meaning Making and Cultural Significance