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THE NEW WAVE OF WEBER STUDIES
by Brian Caterino
|The Barbarism of Reason:
Max Weber and the Twilight of Enlightenment. Eds. Asher Horowitz and
Terry Maley. Toronto, University of Toronto Press 1994, 312 pgs., $25.95.
The influence of postmodernism
has spawned a new wave of interpretations in social and political theory.
It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Max Weber’s work has been subject
to reexamination. Weber was a critic of the dominant rationality of western
society, and modernity, but he had a more complex and ambivalent relation
to that project than is often realized. His theory is neither a capitulation
to nor a rejection of modernity. In the hands of a new wave of critics,
however, Weber’s ambivalence is glossed over and his concerns assimilated
to a global critique of "enlightenment reason." This critique opposes
a prior line of interpreters, notably Wolfgang Schluchter and Jürgen
Habermas, who focused on Weber’s theory of rationalization as the key to
analyzing his analysis of modernity. Habermas and Schluchter, supposedly
misinterpret Weber because they are partisans of an enlightenment outlook.
They champion a version of enlightenment rationality which champions the
old ideas of subjectivity.
The contributors to Barbarism
(with the exception of two previously published essays form the 1980's)
generally contest the Habermas/Schluchter position though not very successfully.
The volume features some who would be considered postmodernist, but also
a number of these whose sympathies lie with the earlier generation of Frankfurt
theorists. Most share a notion of the insufficiency of "enlightenment"
Of course this is hardly
the only way to critically consider the legacy of Weber on modernity. It
‘s clearly not the direction that Habermas takes. Habermas follows those
who hold that the root idea of modernity is not simply instrumentality
or purposiveness, but self-determination. He develops this idea however,
in a way that challenges the philosophy of the subject. This idea can be
elaborated as a process of rejection of interpretations based first on
tradition and later on metaphysical world views. This too certainly has
a textual basis in Weber. Then the problem of modernity is taken up in
the search for an adequate elaboration of this self understanding first
as purposive self understanding and later as a form of intersubjective
recognition. In addition this conception of reason as self-understanding,
is used to exhume the more complex conception of rationalization that can
encompass both instrumental rationalization and more refined elaborations
of the ideas of self-consciousness and self understanding. These do not
according to Habermas necessarily have their telos in subjective reason.
Reason – especially modern reason -- is not the source or an inherent "barbarism".
What is Weber’s legacy to social and political thought? Is Weber is the end of liberal enlightenment thought or its supersession.
Perhaps the most interesting
contribution to this discussion is David Beetham’s previously published
contribution on Weber and Liberal Modernity (1989). He provides
a useful discussion of two strains in Weber’s political thinking.
Weber interpreted as a problem for liberalism, or as an analyst
of the problem of liberalism. In the first interpretation, Weber
is viewed as a theorist who, although he is ostensibly a liberal, holds
assumptions at odds with the liberal tradition. He rejects the natural
law basis of liberalism and its assumption of non social rights. Instead
Weber incorporates elements of both legal positivism and a Nietzschean
philosophy. Both of these are seen as hostile to the traditional bases
of liberalism. Seen in this way Weber is "symptomatic of a wider intellectual
challenge" to liberalism at the turn of the century. On the second interpretation
Weber is an analyst of problems intrinsic to liberalism and not to Weber
thought itself. He analyzed the decline of the social conditions of which
brought about liberals and of the inevitability of these changes, in short
to the conditions of advanced or industrial capitalism. Thus Weber revised
liberalism to take account of these changed conditions He revised the theory
of the relation of state and economy among other areas in order to account
for these changes.
Fred Dallmayr, in Weber and the Modern State, makes a similar contrast between Hegel’s "objective" theory of the state (as in the theory of objective spirit) and Weber’s subjective one. Dallmayr argues that central Weberian concepts of the state, such as his conception of legitimacy are linked to this subjective framework. The notion of legitimacy for example deals only with the subjective sense that participants have of the rightness of rule not of its objective good. Dallmayr goes on to criticizes Habermas’ notion of intersubjectivity. It places an veneer of objectivity on to Weber’s idea of legitimacy. His notion of spheres of validity are simply subjective. Sounding a theme of this collection, he argues that the separation and differentiation (i.e. rationalization) are really reification, the disjecta membra of a lost totality. Dallmayr considers in fact the whole system life world distinction to be little more than rehashed Parsons.
Mark Warren’s Nietzsche
and Weber: When Does Reason Become Power, introduces a the second theme
of recent Weber interpretation, the relation between Nietzsche and Weber.
He does not however, view either Weber through a postmodern lens, but tries
to make Nietzsche’s thought more compatible with critical theory. Warren
argues that both Nietzsche and Weber criticize "naive" versions of enlightenment
reason in which freedom and power (as domination) can be kept apart – an
argument that derived from Kant’s notion of the "transcendental subject."
While Warren unlike others accepts the truth in the "Kantian" idea that
truth is revealed in public and open discourse and hence that Kant’s notion
is not just an "enlightenment" trope, he also thinks that Kant’s theory
was unable to account for the ways in which autonomy and freedom become
caught up with domination in late modern society. Kant’s theory could not
explain the way that reason becomes domination. He interpreted freedom
as self given law.
Tracy Strong follows up on the Nietzschean theme in his essay Weber and the Bourgeoisie. Strong’s focus is not really bourgeois culture but Weber’s notion of "historicity". Strong goes awry, though when he reads Weber’s as a postmodernist skeptic about "grand narratives". For Strong, Weber wants to literally dis-illusion us from any higher ideals. He follows a Nietzschean conception of action, "beyond good and evil." Echoing Foucault as much as Nietzsche here, Strong asserts that the disillusioned actor who follows Nietzsche’s dictum, is a purely "ontic" being, who creates the world out of his own actions. Actors creates themselves as a works of art.
Barbarism is at its
weakest when it takes on the challenge of Habermas. None of the articles
provides satisfactory examinations of Weber’s reception by critical theory
or of its contemporary significance -- though Ray Morrow’s article
is a start (2). The anti-Habermasian thrust of the collection is well illustrated
in Asher Horowitz dismissive critique The Comedy of Enlightenment.
As the title indicates Horowitz aims to put down Habermas, but lacks the
skill or the understanding to pull it off. The main object of Horowitz’
ire is Habermas’ reformulation of reification. He contends that Habermas’
attempt to separate rationalization and reification is an absurd error,
and follows Dallmayr’s view that it reaffirms the enlightenment project.
Alkis Kontos, takes up themes raised by Strong but with contrary intentions. He believes Weber was a heroic political figure who intends to "reenchant the world". He interprets this through a combination of Nietzsche and Camus. Here Camus’ notion of creative rebellion counters the loss of meaning and the false assurances of a transcendent mooting for action. Kontos, however, writes in the mooring he claims to leave out, setting up a contrast between reason and rationalization. While Kontos agrees that Weber’s notion of rationalization is "complex", he in fact reduces that complexity to one dimension. Rationalization is always instrumental rationalization, always reifying. It is opposed by an ontologically grounded Reason which has been exiled from the world by the reification of instrumental reason. Kontos too rejects the Habermasian notion that modernity contains the potential for non-reifying forms of rationalization. He equates the recovery of meaningful action with the recovery of a totality in this case with a human nature that apprehends it. "Re-enchantment", Kontos argues, "is the human awakening , the recovery of our true genuine being". It is less than clear however, that Weber held that we could recover a "human essence" or a true human nature.
Gil Germain also considers
the re-enchainment of nature (Revenge of the Sacred: Technology and
Re-enchantment) through a comparison of Weber’s conception of disenchantment
with that of Jacques Ellul. Germain equates rationalization with the loss
of meaning of the world, and analyzes the responses to this loss. Ellul,
in opposition to Weberian individualism employs a Durkheim’s conception
of the social collective which is independent of individual purposes and
values. Ellul interprets this notion is a fashion similar to Parson’ notion
of system: the social becomes a cybernetic organism which reproduces itself.
It exhausts and excluded all externally generated or purposive conceptions
of meaning and yet one in which all is explicit. This has ironic consequences.
Ellul, argues that humans can’t exist without a source of mystery and taboo
that leaves something hidden. Thus in a move that recalls Horkheimer and
Adorno’s notion of the revenge of the sacred, we must Ellul argues, invest
technology with mystery. Weber rejected these illusions. The political
leader has to be courageous and face up to the disenchantment of the world.
Germain argues that Weber does hold out the possibility of a recovery of
meaning. He thinks that political leaders have the capacity to re-enchant
the world by creating values and patters that will dictate proper ends
Susan Hekman in her essay on the Max Weber and Post-Positivist Social Theory, argues that Weber’s methodology of social science is a failed attempt to extend the philosophy of the subject. "Despite his objections to positivism", Hekman claims, "Weber was [...] unable to break free from the epistemology of his time". While Hekman recognizes that Weber anticipates post-positivist approaches to social sciences, he does not overcome the subject object model inherent in the enlightenment "episteme". The only adequate post-positivist perspective is Foucault’s.
The collection ends with
a reprint of Sheldon Wolin’s well known essay, Max Weber: Legitimation,
Method and the Politics of Theory. Elaborating on his political interpretation
of a ‘paradigm’, Wolin argues that Weber has to be understood as a "founder"
of social science (and not as an "originator"). Wolin uses the analogy
to the Greek founders and to political founders who set down the laws or
constitution of a political order. In a similar way founders of social
science set down the "constitutive" principles of a field of action or
In spite of, or perhaps because of its perspectives, Barbarism, fails to provide a compelling basis fore rethinking Weber’s relation to the enlightenment project, or his legacy for political thought. Too often the essays rest on assumptions simpler then Weber’s own. His ambivalence toward modernity is in the end more productive than the pat dismissals of enlightenment reason found in Barbarism. In the end this dismissal is more radical gesture, than critical analysis of the complexities and contradictions of modernity.
The task of a critical analysis
seems to me to have two aspects.
Second, it’s only on the basis of the reformulated conception of intersubjective rationality that the debate over rationalization and reification, and a adequate analysis of modernity, can begin. First of all it would have to recognize that Weber himself sometimes employed a more complex conception of the rationalization of society, even if he was unable to follow out his insight. As Wolfgang Mommsen has demonstrated, Weber’s later work on rationalization recognized two dimensions of radicalization: instrumental reason and value rationality (3). Rationalization of value spheres was not simply a matter of greater cognitive mastery of nature or greater powers of mastery oriented organization, but meant elaboration of cultural value spheres such as scientific knowledge, moral and aesthetic values. Weber didn’t argue that the rationalization of society, that is the splitting of the economy and the state from the overarching control of religious or metaphysical system, was itself reifying since it was a condition of the elaboration of value rationality, thought ironically, it was also a condition of it’s potential reification. Weber’s diagnosis of the iron cage, did not view reason as pathological, but rather saw the pathology of rationalization in later modernity as problem within modernity, that is to say with the transition from traditional forms of action to modern ones based on self-understanding. Modernity in Weber’s analysis undermined its own achievements.
Weber was wrong in his assessment
of he potentialities of modern society an in his diagnosis of the loss
of meaning, however, he did point us in the direction of an analysis of
reification in which the potentials for value rationalization are inhibited
by forms of instrumental rationalization.
2) Mannheim and the Early Frankfurt School in Barbarism
3) Wolfgang J. Mommsen: The Two Dimensions of Social change in Max Weber’s Sociological Theory in The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber: Collected Essays. Chicago, University of Chicago Press 1989, 145-65.
|The author ...
... is independent scholar and academic dissenter who has studied philosophy and political theory. He holds Ph.D. from the University of Toronto, and had taught at SUNY-Brockport, The university Rochester and has been on the faculty of the DIAL Program at the New School for Social Research.
His main work ...
He currently holds the Walter Benjamin Folding Chair ...