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Max Weber and Positivism

The movement of methodology, as far as political science is concerned, ran to the end of its immanent logic in the person and work of Max Weber. A full characterization cannot be attempted in the present context. Only a few of the lines that mark him as a thinker between the end and a new beginning will be traced.

A value-free science meant to Weber the exploration of causes and effects, the construction of ideal types that would permit distinguishing regularities of institutions as well as deviations from them, and especially the construction of typical causal relations. Such a science would not be in a position to tell anybody whether he should be an economic liberal or a socialist, a democratic constitutionalist or a Marxist revolutionary, but it could tell him what the consequences would be if he tried to translate the values of his preference into political practice. On the one side, there were the “values” of political order beyond critical evaluation; on the other side, there was a science of the structure of social reality that might be used as technical knowledge by a politician.

In sharpening the issue of a “value-free” science to this pragmatic point, Weber moved the debate beyond methodological squabbles again to the order of relevance. He wanted science because he wanted clarity about the world in which he passionately participated; he was headed again on the road toward essence. The search for truth, however, was cut short at the level of pragmatic action. In the intellectual climate of the methodological debate the “values” had to be accepted as unquestionable, and the search could not advance to the contemplation of order. The ratio of science extended, for Weber, not to the principles but only to the causality of action.

The new sense of theoretical relevance could express itself, therefore, only in the creation of the categories of “responsibility” and “demonism” in politics. Weber recognized the “values” for what they were, that is, as ordering ideas for political action, but he accorded them the status of “demonic” decisions beyond rational argument. Science could grapple with the demonism of politics only by making politicians aware of the consequences of their actions and awakening in them the sense of responsibility.

This Weberian “ethics of responsibility” is not at all negligible. It was calculated to put a damper on the revolutionary ardor of opinionated political intellectuals, especially after 1918; to bring it home that ideals justify neither the means nor the results of action, that action involves in guilt, and that the responsibility for political effects rests squarely on the man who makes himself a cause.

Moreover, by the diagnosis as “demonic” it revealed that unquestionable “values” cannot be traced to rational sources of order and that the politics of the age had indeed become a field of demonic disorder. The accomplished smoothness by which this aspect of Weber’s work was, and is, ignored by those whom it might concern is perhaps the best proof of its importance.

If Weber had done nothing but revealed that a “value-free” political science is not a science of order and that “values” are demonic decisions, the grandeur of his work (that is more sensed than understood) might be open to doubt. The ascent toward essence would have stopped at the point at which the side road branches off which conventionally is marked as “existentialism”—an escape for the bewildered that in recent years has become internationally fashionable through the work of Sartre. Weber, however, went much further—though the interpreter finds himself in the difficult position of extracting the achievement from the intellectual conflicts and contradictions in which Weber involved himself. . . .

The “Ethics of Intention” and “Value-Free” Science

[Weber’s conception of science] assumed a social relation between scientist and politician, activated in the institution of a university, where the scientist as teacher will inform his students, the prospective homines politici, about the structure of political reality. The question may be asked: What purpose should such information have?

The science of Weber supposedly left the political values of the students untouched, since the values were beyond science. The political principles of the students could not be formed by a science that did not extend to principles of order.

Could it perhaps have the indirect effect of inviting the students to revise their values when they realized what unsuspected, and perhaps undesired, consequences their political ideas would have in practice? But in that case the values of the students would not be quite so demonically fixed. An appeal to judgment would be possible, and what could a judgment that resulted in reasoned preference of value over value be but a value-judgment? Were reasoned value-judgments possible after all?

The teaching of a value-free science of politics in a university would be a senseless enterprise unless it were calculated to influence the values of the students by putting at their disposition an objective knowledge of political reality. In so far as Weber was a great teacher, he gave the lie to his idea of values as demonic decisions.

To what extent his method of teaching could be effective is another matter. In the first place, it was a teaching by indirection because he shunned an explicit statement of positive principles of order; and, in the second place, the teaching even through direct elaboration of principles could not be effective if the student was indeed demonically fixed in his attitudes. Weber, as an educator, could rely only on shame (the Aristotelian aidos ) in the student as the sentiment that would induce rational consideration.

But what if the student was beyond shame? If the appeal to his sense of responsibility would only make him uncomfortable without producing a change of attitude? Or if it would not even make him uncomfortable but rather fall back on what Weber called an “ethics of intention” (Gesinnungsethik), that is, on the thesis that his creed contained its own justification, that the consequences did not matter if the intention of action was right?

This question, again, was not clarified by Weber. As the model case for his “ethics of intention” he used a not-too-well-defined Christian “other-worldly” morality; he never touched the problem whether the demonic values were not perhaps demonic precisely because they partook of his “ethics of intention” rather than of his “ethics of responsibility,” because they had arrogated the quality of a divine command to a human velleity.

A discussion of such questions would have been possible only on the level of a philosophical anthropology from which Weber shied away. Nevertheless, while he shied away from a discussion, he had made his decision for entering into rational conflict with values through the mere fact of his enterprise.

The rational conflict with the unquestionable values of political intellectuals was inherent in [Max Weber’s] enterprise of an objective science of politics. The original conception of a value-free science was dissolving. To the methodologists preceding Max Weber, a historical or social science could be value-free because its object was constituted by “reference to a value” ( weitbeziehende Methode ); within the field thus constituted the scientist was then supposed to work without value-judgments. Weber recognized that there was a plurality of conflicting “values” current in the politics of his time; each of them might be used to constitute an “object.”

The result would be the aforementioned relativism, and political science would be degraded to an apology for the dubious fancies of political intellectuals, as at the time it was and as to a very considerable extent it still is. How did he escape such degradation? — for escape he certainly did. If none of the conflicting values constituted for him the field of science, if he preserved his critical integrity against the current political values, what then were the values that constituted his science?

. . .  The “objectivity” of Weber’s science, such as there was, could be derived only from the authentic principles of order as they had been discovered and elaborated in the history of mankind. Since in the intellectual situation of Weber the existence of a science of order could not be admitted, its content (or as much of it as was possible) had to be introduced by recognizing its historical expressions as facts and causal factors in history.

While Weber as a methodologist of value-free science would profess to have no argument against a political intellectual who had “demonically” settled on Marxism as the “value” of his preference, he could blandly engage in a study of Protestant ethics and show that certain religious convictions rather than the class struggle played an important role in the formation of capitalism.

Introducing Principles Through the Back Door

. . . [It] has been repeatedly stressed that the arbitrariness of method did not degenerate into complete irrelevance of scientific production, because the pressure of theoretical traditions remained a determining factor in the selection of materials and problems.

This pressure, one might say, was erected by Weber into a principle. The three volumes, for instance, of his sociology of religion threw a massive bulk of more or less clearly seen verities about human and social order into the debate about the structure of reality.

By pointing to the undisputable fact that verities about order were factors in the order of reality—and not perhaps only lust for power and wealth or fear and fraud—a tentative objectivity of science could be regained, even though the principles had to be introduced by the back door of “beliefs” in competition, and in rationally insoluble conflict, with Weber’s contemporary “values.”

Again, Weber ignored the theoretical difficulties into which this procedure involved him. If the “objective” study of historical processes showed that, for instance, the materialistic interpretation of history was wrong, then obviously there existed a standard of objectivity in science that precluded the constitution of the object of science by “referring” facts and problems to the “value” of a Marxist; or—without methodological jargon—a scholar could not be a Marxist.

But if critical objectivity made it impossible for a scholar to be a Marxist, could then any man be a Marxist without surrendering the standards of critical objectivity that he would be obliged to observe as a responsible human being?  There are no answers to such questions in Weber’s work. . . .

The time had not yet come to state flatly that “historical materialism” is not a theory but a falsification of history or that a “materialistic” interpreter of politics is an ignoramus who had better bone up on elementary facts. As a second component in the “demonism” of values there begins to emerge, not acknowledged as such by Weber, a goodly portion of ignorance. And the political intellectual who “demonically” decides himself for his “value” begins to look suspiciously like a megalomaniac ignoramus. It would seem that “demonism” is a quality that a man possesses in inverse proportion to the radius of his relevant knowledge.

Stopping Short of a Science of Order

The whole complex of ideas — of “values,” “reference to values,” “value-judgments,” and “value-free science” — seemed on the point of disintegration. An “objectivity” of science had been regained that plainly did not fit into the pattern of the methodological debate. And, yet, even the studies on sociology of religion could not induce Weber to take the decisive step toward a science of order. The ultimate reason for his hesitation, if not fear, is perhaps impenetrable; but the technical point at which he stopped can be clearly discerned.

His studies on sociology of religion have always aroused admiration as a tour de force, if not for other reasons. The amount of materials he mastered in these voluminous studies on Protestantism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Israel, and Judaism, to be completed by a study on Islam, is indeed awe-inspiring. In the face of such impressive performance it has perhaps not been sufficiently observed that the series of these studies receives its general tone through a significant omission, that is, of pre-Reformation Christianity.

The reason of the omission seems to be obvious. One can hardly engage in a serious study of medieval Christianity without discovering among its “values” the belief in a rational science of human and social order and especially of natural law. Moreover, this science was not simply a belief, but it was actually elaborated as a work of reason. Here Weber would have run into the fact of a science of order, just as he would if he had seriously occupied himself with Greek philosophy. Weber’s readiness to introduce verities about order as historical facts stopped short of Greek and medieval metaphysics.

In order to degrade the politics of Plato, Aristotle, or Saint Thomas to the rank of “values” among others, a conscientious scholar would first have to show that their claim to be science was unfounded. And that attempt is self-defeating. By the time the would-be critic has penetrated the meaning of metaphysics with sufficient thoroughness to make his criticism weighty, he will have become a metaphysician himself. The attack on metaphysics can be undertaken with a good conscience only from the safe distance of imperfect knowledge. The horizon of Weber’s social science was immense; all the more does his caution in coming too close to its decisive center reveal his positivistic limitations.

Hence, the result of Weber’s work was ambiguous. He had reduced the principle of a value-free science ad absurdum. The idea of a value-free science whose object would be constituted by “reference to a value” could be realized only under the condition that a scientist was willing to decide on a “value” for reference. If the scientist refused to decide on a “value,” if he treated all “values” as equal (as Max Weber did), if, moreover, he treated them as social facts among others—then there were no “values” left that could constitute the object of science, because they had become part of the object itself.

This abolition of the “values” as the constituents of science led to a theoretically impossible situation because the object of science has a “constitution” after all, that is, the essence toward which we are moving in our search for truth. Since the positivistic hangover, however, did not permit the admission of a science of essence, of a true episteme, the principles of order had to be introduced as historical facts.

When Weber built the great edifice of his “sociology” (i.e., the positivistic escape from the science of order), he did not seriously consider “all values” as equal. He did not indulge in a worthless trash collection but displayed quite sensible preferences for phenomena that were “important” in the history of mankind; he could distinguish quite well between major civilizations and less important side developments and equally well between “world religions” and unimportant religious phenomena. In the absence of a reasoned principle of theoretization he let himself be guided not by “values” but by the auctoritas majorum and his own sensitiveness for excellence.

Disenchantment and De-divinization

Thus far the work of Weber can be characterized as a succesful attempt to disengage political science from the irrelevances of methodology and to restore it to theoretical order. The new theory toward which he was moving, however, could not become explicit because he religiously observed the positivistic taboo on metaphysics.

Instead, something else became explicit; for Weber wanted to be explicit on his principles, as a theorist should be. Throughout his work he struggled with an explication of his theory under the title of construction of “types.” The various phases through which this struggle passed cannot be considered on this occasion.

In the last phase he used types of “rational action” as the standard types and constructed the other types as deviations from rationality. The procedure suggested itself because Weber understood history as an evolution toward rationality and his own age as the hitherto highest point of “rational self-determination” of man.

In various degrees of completeness he carried this idea out for economic, political, and religious history, most completely for the history of music. The general conception obviously derived from Comte’s philosophy of history; and Weber’s own interpretation of history might justly be understood as the last of the great positivistic systems.

In Weber’s execution of the plan, however, there can be sensed a new tone. The evolution of mankind toward the rationality of positive science was for Comte a distinctly progressive development; for Weber it was a process of disenchantment (Entzauberung) and de-divinization (Entgöttlichung) of the world.

By the overtones of his regret that divine enchantment had seeped out of the world, by his resignation to rationalism as a fate to be borne but not desired, by the occasional complaint that his soul was not attuned to the divine (religiös unmusikalisch), he rather betrayed his brotherhood in the sufferings of Nietzsche—though, in spite of his confession, his soul was sufficiently attuned to the divine not to follow Nietzsche into his tragic revolt. He knew what he wanted but somehow could not break through to it. He saw the promised land but was not permitted to enter it.

The End of Positivism and the Restorative Analysis

In the work of Max Weber positivism had come to its end, and the lines on which the restoration of political science would have to move became visible. The correlation between a constituent “value” and a constituted “value-free” science had broken down; the “value-judgments” were back in science in the form of the “legitimating beliefs” that created units of social order.

The last stronghold was Weber’s conviction that history moved toward a type of rationalism that relegated religion and metaphysics into the realm of the “irrational.” And that was not much of a stronghold as soon as it was understood that nobody was obliged to enter it; that one simply could turn around and rediscover the rationality of metaphysics in general and of philosophical anthropology in particular, that is, the areas of science from which Max Weber had kept studiously aloof.

The formula for the remedy is simpler than its application. Science is not the singlehanded achievement of this or that individual scholar; it is a cooperative effort. Effective work is possible only within a tradition of intellectual culture. When science is as thoroughly ruined as it was around 1900, the mere recovery of theoretical craftsmanship is a considerable task, to say nothing of the amounts of materials that must be reworked in order to reconstruct the order of relevance in facts and problems. Moreover, the personal difficulties must not be overlooked; the exposition of apparently wild, new ideas will inevitably meet with resistance in the environment. An example will help to understand the nature of these various difficulties.

Weber, as has just been set forth, still conceived history as an increase of rationalism in the positivistic sense. From the position of a science of order, however, the exclusion of the scientia prima from the realm of reason is not an increase but a decrease of rationalism. What Weber, in the wake of Comte, understood as modern rationalism would have to be reinterpreted as modern irrationalism. This inversion of the socially accepted meaning of terms would arouse a certain hostility. But a reinterpretation could not stop at this point. The rejection of sciences that were already developed and the return to a lower level of rationality obviously must have experientially deep-seated motivations.

A closer inquiry would reveal certain religious experiences at the bottom of the unwillingness to recognize the ratio of ontology and philosophical anthropology; and, as a matter of fact, in the 1890s began the exploration of socialism as a religious movement, an exploration that later developed into the extensive study of totalitarian movements as a new “myth” or religion.

The inquiry would, furthermore, lead to the general problem of a connection between types of rationality and types of religious experience. Some religious experiences would have to be classified as higher, others as lower, by the objective criterion of the degree of rationality that they admit in the interpretation of reality. The religious experiences of the Greek mystic philosophers and of Christianity would rank high because they allow the unfolding of metaphysics; the religious experiences of Comte and Marx would rank low because they prohibit the asking of metaphysical questions.

Such considerations would radically upset the positivistic conception of an evolution from an early religious or theological phase of mankind to rationalism and science. Not only would the evolution go from a higher to a lower degree of rationalism, at least for the modern period, but, in addition, this decline of reason would have to be understood as the consequence of religious retrogression. An interpretation of Western history that had grown over centuries would have to be revolutionized; and a revolution of this magnitude would meet the opposition of “progressives” who all of a sudden would find themselves in the position of retrogressive irrationalists.

The possibilities of a reinterpretation of rationalism, as well as of the positivistic conception of history, were put in the subjunctive in order to indicate the hypothetical character of a restoration of political science at the turn of the century. Ideas of the suggested type were afloat; but from the certainty that something was badly wrong in the state of science to a precise understanding of the nature of the evil there was a long way; and equally long was the way from intelligent surmises about the direction in which one had to move to the attainment of the goal.

A good number of conditions had to be fulfilled before the propositions in this case could be translated into the indicative mood. The understanding of ontology as well as the craftsmanship of metaphysical speculation had to be regained, and especially philosophical anthropology as a science had to be re-established.

By the standards thus regained it was possible to define with precision the technical points of irrationality in the positivistic position. For this purpose the works of the leading positivistic thinkers had to be analyzed with care in order to find their critical rejections of rational argument; one had, for instance, to show the passages in the works of Comte and Marx where these thinkers recognized the validity of metaphysical questions but refused to consider them because such consideration would make their irrational opining impossible.

When the study proceeded further to the motivations of irrationalism, positivistic thinking had to be determined as a variant of theologizing, again on the basis of the sources; and the underlying religious experiences had to be diagnosed. This diagnosis could be conducted successfully only if a general theory of religious phenomena was sufficiently elaborated to allow the subsumption of the concrete case under a type.

The further generalization concerning the connection of degrees of rationality with religious experiences, and the comparison with Greek and Christian instances, required a renewed study of Greek philosophy that would bring out the connection between the unfolding of Greek metaphysics and the religious experiences of the philosophers who developed it; and a further study of medieval metaphysics had to establish the corresponding connection for the Christian case.

It had, moreover, to demonstrate the characteristic differences between Greek and Christian metaphysics that could be attributed to the religious differences. And when all these preparatory studies were made, when critical concepts for treatment of the problems were formed, and the propositions were supported by the sources, the final task had to be faced of searching for a theoretically intelligible order of history into which these variegated phenomena could be organized. This task of restoration has, indeed, been undertaken; and today it has reached the point where one can say that at least the foundations for a new science of order have been laid . . . .


This excerpt is from Modernity Without Restraint: The Political Religions, The New Science of Politics, Politics, Science, and Gnosticism (Collected Works of Eric Voegelin 5) (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999)

Eric VoegelinEric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin

Eric Voegelin (1901-85) was a German-born American Political Philosopher. He was born in Cologne and educated in Political Science at the University of Vienna, at which he became Associate Professor of Political Science. In 1938 he and his wife fled from the Nazi forces which had entered Vienna and emigrated to the United States, where they became citizens in 1944. He spent most of his academic career at the University of Notre Dame, Louisiana State University, the University of Munich and the Hoover Institution of Stanford University. More information about him can be found under the Eric Voegelin tab on this website.

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