Max Weber: Science and Disillusionment with the World

Max Weber: Science and Disillusionment with the World

After centuries of scientific and technical progress, people’s knowledge has diminished. This was the thesis, more objective than ever, of Max Weber (1864-1920), the most important German sociologist of the twentieth century, considered the “bourgeois Marx”.

In December 1917, a year after the end of World War I, Weber gave a lecture in Munich entitled Wissenschaft als Beruf (Science as a profession) from which emerges an enlightening description of scientific ethics in modern society, and the role, or rather the responsibility, that rests with those willing to pursue it. By the way, throughout his life Weber dwells on rationalism and rationalism. The first concept expresses the modalities and natura naturans inherent in human social actions. In fact, the four classical types of rationalism are his; Human action, according to the sociological perspective, can actually be:

  • Rational in relation to the goal = the subject works by selecting the best means to achieve the goal, seeking to evaluate all results.
  • Rational of value = acting justifiably in accordance with one’s moral and ethical beliefs and values, even at the expense of benefit calculated in material terms.
  • traditional = the subject acts out of habit; There is no real conscience or reason behind the ultimate daily routine.
  • Emotional = the subject is moved by feelings, emotions, or other irrational influences.

The second, on the other hand, represents for Weber this long process that shaped the modern world, i.e. the slow and gradual exit of mankind (West in Primis) of magical and traditional thought of classical medieval origin. From the very first pages of Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber very clearly describes what constitutes a scientific mind, the cause of the great cultural difference between Europe and the rest of the world. Because if scientific and artistic progress is developed in India, Egypt, China, Babylon and others, from which the ancient Europeans also drew inspiration, ” Only in the West has “science” in its development reached the stage at which we recognize “validity” today. [1] “.

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But, After thousands of years of scientific and technical progress, humanity has become more ignorantIn the sense that he denies as they say. Weber himself describes the process as anything but optimistic. Returning to the Wissenschaft lecture, he explains precisely how, in fact, The high-tech justification in no way abolished the use of magic and superstition : To give an example, anyone who takes a tram today, unless he is an expert in engineering or transportation, has no idea how it works technically; Everyone relies on habit and belief that the car is doing its job in one way or another. The same goes for the vast majority of things around us. A savage in a state of nature, on the other hand, has a real, complete, and personal knowledge of the techniques he uses to ensure his survival. The modern (ordinary) man, in contrast to the savage (but the same is true of a small European businessman of the 13th century), knows almost nothing about his world.

Herein lies the crux of the problem: Modern science, far from conquering the superstitions and magical idols of the past, is itself endowed with pure doctrines that contradict it. Or rather, new deities appear, who are raised over the dead body of Nietzsche’s god. The deified mind has put aside the Socratic dialogue with itself, the Logos. This is confirmation of Chesterton’s warning:

When people stop believing in God, it is not true that they no longer believe in anything: they believe in anything“.

The true religion analogue of the Augustinian memory is not the absence of religion or faith. It is the apotheosis of the Chimera (φάντασματα), the false idols of the cave As Plato called them. Thus the new scientific technocracy became the new clergy. Simple theories and expert opinionsWhether medical or economic, they are asserted with the same doctrinal charge as a papal bull, even if they often have nothing but scientific certainty.

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It must be said, as Weber explains, that exponential “thought and rationalization”, if they did not contribute to a better knowledge of the conditions of life, nevertheless allowed an important Copernican shift:

Consciousness or belief that, if we want to, we can know at any moment [qu’on peut] To master all things by rational calculation [2]. »

However, immediately afterwards, he adds: But it means disappointment to the world. Humanity has locked itself in an iron cage in which to protect itself from its ancient enemies. : astrology, magic, alchemy, mysteries of wisdom. Victims of its violent repression, since the days of the Reformation that massacred witches and shattered the moral standards that held the sacred. It is no coincidence that today we are witnessing the return of this kind of knowledge (See Giorgio Galli), Because Enlightenment rationalism was ultimately unable to give man the knowledge of knowledge, the ultimate goal of life, and the interrelated things. The hypothetical specialism (wertfrei) of which Weber is himself a conscious advocate presupposes the abandonment of the meaning of life and the complete explanation of phenomena.

Tolstoy, quoting Weber, confirms this Death no longer has any meaning for man, as much as technology and science presuppose infinite progress ; Man and Dasein are reduced to a simple, infinitesimal juxtaposition of a universe in perpetual self-transcendence. Death, for a universe that needs to progress, doesn’t make sense, it’s an awkward break. Likewise, we can no longer feel “alive”: The ex-peasant can take all that life has to offer him in its organic cycle and die without worrying about hanging something.. Today, on the other hand, the mind perceives only a fragmentary, insignificant and temporary part of it. So, since Death is meaningless, as is the life of culture as such [3] “.

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Finally, the Weberian disillusionment is evident in the inherent limitations of the science:

It is meaningless – quoting Tolstoy – because it does not provide an answer to the only question that matters to us as human beings: What should we do? [4] “.

A remedy to this problem could come from “science without assumptions”; However, no system in itself can do without it. Take, for example, doctors place a positive value on the permanent and inviolable preservation of life as such. There is (fortunately) no physician in the world who would let a life under his watch die; But the assumption is that Life as such deserves inexplicable eternal preservation in and of itself, and certainly not by “practitioners”. The problem then exists and is not related to the content, because it is true that life must be preserved and sacred, but who should take care of it and how? Because contemporary scientific disciplines, as has been said, are intrinsically incapable of accomplishing this task. And this is where the steel cage turns out to be icy.

Gordian knot will not be solved by the author. In fact, he died in 1920, at the age of 56, from the consequences of the Spanish flu, after participating as a delegate for Germany at the peace conferences in Versailles. Yet the echo of a barely whispered dilemma remains:

No one knows yet who will live in this cage in the future and whether it will be in the end … [il surgira] Revive old ideas and ideals. »

By Matteo Parigi for Geopolitika


  • [1] Mr. Webber, Protestant Ethics and the Spirit of Capitalism33, Por Rizzoli, 2016
  • [2] Mr. Webber, La scienza comes professione / La politica comes professione20, Einaudi, 2004
  • [3] Ibid., p. 21
  • [4] Ibid., p. 26

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