Vierkandt, Alfred

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VIERKANDT, ALFRED (18671953), was a German sociologist. His early work focused on anthropology and social psychology. Born in Hamburg, Vierkandt studied at the University of Leipzig, where he was awarded the Ph.D. degree in 1892. He began teaching at the University of Berlin in 1900. In 1921 he was given the newly founded chair in sociology at Berlin, and he was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1932 by the University of Würzburg. Forbidden by the Nazis to lecture and give examinations, he was forced into retirement in 1934. After 1945 he took over the leadership of the Kant Society, and in 1946 he resumed teaching at the University of Berlin. He died in Berlin in 1953.

The influence of his teacher at Leipzig, Wilhelm Wundt, can be seen in Vierkandt's first major anthropological work, Naturvölker und Kulturvölker (1896), in which his differentiation between "primitive" and "civilized" peoples reflects Wundt's distinction between association and apperception. In his lectures Vierkandt dealt with the psychology, religion, art, and social conditions of "primitive people" with special attention to ethics and the philosophy of religion. Vierkandt focused upon the impact of a culture upon the individual through language, myth, and custom in his idea of the determining influence of the group on the individual's character development. In Die Stetigkeit im Kulturwandel (1908) Vierkandt not only presented a theory of cultural continuity and cultural change but also attacked the mechanical theories of diffusionism then prevalent.

After World War I Vierkandt shifted his focus and sought to outline the contents and methodology for the discipline of sociology. In Gesellschaftslehre: Hauptprobleme der philosophischen Soziologie (1923; 2d ed., 1928), he described sociology as the study of the "ultimate facts" of society, which, for him, were manifested in the specific properties of the group and in the characteristics of group life, the group being the carrier of interaction between its members. He further proposed a phenomenological method for this study. Vierkandt also acted as editor for a comprehensive dictionary, the Handwörterbuch der Soziologie (1931; reprint, 1959), to which most of the leading German sociologists of his day contributed. His study Familie, Volk, und Staat in ihren gesellschaftlichen Lebensvorgängen (1936) received little attention during the Nazi period but was republished in 1949 under the title Kleine Gesellschaftslehre.

Vierkandt's focus on the group as having an identity in itself instead of just being the sum of its individual members suggested a new approach to understanding the phenomena of religious life. Although his attempt to introduce phenomenology as a methodology for sociology has been rejected as not acceptable if sociology is to be a science, his view of religion as a distinctive phenomenon to be studied has been taken up and developed by historians of religions. Vierkandt understood culture as a historical phenomenon, something that gradually develops with its own inherent dynamism, and thus he advocated a nonreductive approach that does not seek to explain the phenomenon by some outside "key" but rather looks at the inner essence of the thing itself. This has been the basis for most approaches to the study of religions.


The most recent appraisal of Vierkandt's work in English is Paul Hochstim's Alfred Vierkandt: A Sociological Critique (New York, 1966). Hochstim's work focuses primarily on a critical evaluation of Vierkandt's significance in the history and development of sociological thought, but it is more comprehensive and moves beyond the negative criticism of Vierkandt's phenomenological methodology found in Theodore Abel's Systematic Sociology in Germany (1929; reprint, New York, 1965). A brief treatment of Vierkandt's contributions to cultural sociology is found in Social Thought from Lore to Science, 3d ed., vol. 3, by Howard S. Becker and Harry Elmer Barnes (New York, 1961). A more philosophical appraisal of Vierkandt's contributions is Dora Peyser's "The Sociological Outlook of Vierkandt," Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy 15 (1937): 118136. Finally, more biographical details on Vierkandt's life and work can be found in the Handwörterbuch der Sozialwissenschaften, edited by Erwin von Beckerath et al., vol. 11 (Stuttgart, 1961).

Wallace B. Clift (1987)