Distrust of science? No, aware of its limitations: Weber’s lesson

Distrust of science?  No, aware of its limitations: Weber’s lesson


a job Max Weber There is unresolved tension between The need for knowledge Which he imposes on his discourse, and the recognition of the limits that the typical rationality of science faces when a person sets out to determine the ultimate meanings on the basis of which he organizes his life.

It follows, on the one hand, Scientific optimism On the other hand, the acute Weberian awareness that scientific progress in recent centuries constitutes the root of a certain type of rationalization that characterizes the societies of the industrial West. It is this awareness of the difficulty of attempts to precisely define rationality that makes Weber more important than ever.

And not just Western rationalism

We can immediately notice that the German thinker adopts a certain point of view from the beginning: he is interested, precisely, in determining what are the distinctive features that allow us to talk about Western rationality, which means that he is willing to admit that they exist “Other” forms of rationality.

The consequence of such an assumption is twofold. On the one hand, it allows him to identify the development of science (and technology) as one of the main features – and perhaps the main feature in general – of Western societies, while, on the other hand, it allows him to point out that the social system can develop Even in the absence of scientific progress As we understand it today.

It’s about a A pluralistic visionIt is undeniable that Western rationalism has produced much more abundant practical results than those achieved by different types of rationality. At the same time, he is interested to point out that the idea of ​​the best “practical” outcome is ambiguous, because it depends on the point of view the observer chooses. Indeed, who can deny that an alternative way of organizing individual and social life could, in principle, allow us to achieve fewer practical results, but allow us greater collective and internal harmony?

Weber recognizes Diversity of the idea of ​​rationalityBut he often uses the term “rational” without explaining its exact meaning, and this causes confusion.

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The rationality of capitalism

An example of rationalism is his view presented by capitalism. In this context it is rational (meaning “deliberate”). The pursuit of profit; Rational (meaning “systematic” and “calculable”)organization of work; It is rational (meaning “impersonal” and “useful”). Market exchange; The political and legal structures that support the capitalist economic system are equally rational (in the sense of “regulatory” and “predictable”).

It is therefore legitimate, at this stage, to ask What do you mean When the term “rational” is used: systematic? Calculable? passive? Helpful? Organize? predictable? In fact, reading his writings provides evidence for a positive answer to each of the previous questions.

One of Weber’s great innovations in the study of historical and social disciplines is… The collapse of the Enlightenment scheme Which calls for unlimited confidence in the practical and theoretical justification of reality. In fact, he states that material well-being results from scientific progress Not always, not necessarilyIt coincides with the spiritual well-being of the individual and the social system of which he is a part.

The myth of the ideal society

There is no doubt that this is a distinction that is difficult to define from both a linguistic and conceptual standpoint: what does it actually mean, “Spiritual well-being”To what extent can it actually be separated from the physical? To clarify the meaning of the question, pre-established diagrams are of no use, instead it is necessary to examine concrete cases.

Weber takes capitalism into account above all, noting that it has certainly allowed for a tremendous development of material well-being and a growth in the quantity and quality of goods available to citizens; On the other hand, in his opinion, the capitalist system also gave rise to a kind of… “iron cage”Able to define the lives of individuals through a Somewhat disguised coercion.

One can respond to that “any” The economic, social and political system in which the individual finds himself involved at a given historical moment is destined to produce “iron cage” Which directs life individual through coercion of some kind.

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Care must be taken when discussing this problem, because if human history is examined according to its actual course, and not using invented schemes DedicatedIt soon becomes easy to realize that only utopians can seriously assert their existence Societies completely free of coercionWhere men live in perfect harmony. The recovery of this (supposed) lost happiness constitutes, precisely, the foundation on which utopians have always built their dream. “Ideal society”.

Weber is certainly not a utopian: what prevents him from adopting utopian schemes is his depressing realism and apparent pessimism about the negative limits of human nature. However, one can feel it here and there in the pages of his works A hidden nostalgia for the pre-industrial world Where people live happily.


Even from a legal and administrative perspective, Needs for rationality and efficiency Typical of capitalism leads, in his opinion, to “Dehumanizing a person” Tasks: The bureaucrat acts by excluding love and hate, and in general all purely personal emotional elements, from the sphere of his interests. Moreover, Weberian’s masterful characterization of the bureaucrat reduced to a mere cog in a complex mechanism, working without interruption and respecting strictly binding timetables, is well known.

There is debate as to whether this analysis of modern bureaucracy is actually comprehensive; Ludwig von Mises He believes that the negative aspects of the functioning of the bureaucratic apparatus should not be attributed to the special nature of capitalist organization, but to the fact that in the last two centuries, the original inspiration for capitalism was Contaminated by increasing state interventions In the economy, and through the increasingly widespread control of political parties over the economic and social sphere.

livability standards

Weber adopts a more “tragic” concept than the liberal one. For him, the division between formal rationalism and materialism leads to Value conflicts Which proved insoluble by the free rules of democratic dialectics. However, one should not be too pessimistic about human ability Judging the reality that surrounds him. Even those who adhere to a well-organized system of values ​​and beliefs are able to understand, at a given moment in historical development, whether or not these values ​​and beliefs gave rise to a political, economic, and social system. “livable”.

The stability of some values, which seem absolute in a certain period, can suddenly collapse in a later period thanks to the comparison that can no longer be postponed with Different social systems. I deliberately underlined the adjective “livable”Preferably so “sane”. Indeed, if we begin to formulate judgments about a given society based on criteria of rationality, we risk quickly falling into the dilemmas that Weber himself identified as unsolvable.

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On the contrary, if we replace the strong requirement of conformity with rational schemes with the weaker requirement of being able to live, we can avoid these dilemmas by specifying A set of general conditions By which society is organized.

The tragic nature of the Weberian concept somewhat prevents the application of its methodological criteria. When he says that life knows only the incurable struggle between final positions, and when he insists on freeing the world from illusion, Weber seems to be Prisoner of mental patterns Very popular in its time.

The German sociologist often uses expressions such as “The fate of our time” (Who will be without gods and without hope). Like Heidegger – remember his famous phrase “Now only God can save us” – He assumes that only new prophets are able to rid our societies of the instrumental rationalism that prevails in them. It is better to abandon such expressions for identification livability standards Which, although modest, allows individuals to build social systems in which material and spiritual well-being are effectively compatible.

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