How (and why) we should read Max Weber’s methodological texts today

How (and why) we should read Max Weber’s methodological texts today

By Erik Jansson Boström (Uppsala, Sweden)

It would be a mistake to focus on Weber’s most reasonable and straightforward arguments and take these as representative of his methodological views. Rather, I think we need to do the opposite and try to base an interpretation of his methodology on his most elusive and cryptic passages.

How (and why) we should read Max Weber’s methodological texts today
Painting by Erik Jansson Boström

Once the struggle to finish my dissertation on Max Weber’s notion of the ideal type, objectivity and the meaning of science came to an end on May 2020, I could look back on ten years studying his methodological texts. In this blog post I’ll share my view on how and why we should study Weber, and especially, why we should read Weber as a philosopher.

As many before me, I attempted to find a coherent methodology and philosophy of science in Weber’s oeuvre. Yet, just as many before me, I had to conclude that Weber’s thoughts didn’t seem to add up to a system without contradictions (Jansson Boström, 2020, pp. 161-178). In this text I will focus on one issue regarding objectivity in relation to what he calls the “cultural sciences”. The term “cultural science” stands for those “disciplines whose aim is to acquire knowledge about the culturally significant aspects of the manifestations of life.” [Wir haben als „Kulturwissenschaften” solche Disziplinen bezeichnet, welche die Lebenserscheinungen in ihrer Kulturbedeutung zu erkennen strebten.] (Weber, 2012, p. 116/MWG I/7, p. 181) What could objectivity mean in this context?

I could never have anticipated how hard it would be to combine his remarks on objectivity with his remarks on the fundamental aspects of the cultural sciences (his concept of culture at large and its relation to “Kulturbedeutung” – in the passage above translated as “culturally significant aspects” –, value ideas and the “qualitative coloration [die qualitative Färbung]” of cultural phenomena. In the end I had to accept that Weber’s arguments in the Objectivity-essay (Weber, 2012, pp. 100-138/MWG I/7, pp. 142-234) and the Roscher and Knies-essays from the same period (1903-1905, see, Weber, 2012, pp. 1-94/MWG I/7, pp. 41-101, 243-379) simply didn’t add up.

This conclusion might sound like a reason to stop reading Weber and move on to other thinkers. And yet I continue to read and reflect about all of Weber’s methodological essays I once discovered as a young student. Why is that? I would put it like this: I can feel that Weber is onto some really important insights with regards to the foundations, limitations and possibilities of the cultural sciences. And I believe that the reason why his methodological texts contain incomplete trains of thought and some apparent contradictions is that he wasn’t able to completely break free from certain naïve and problematic preconceptions regarding the goal of science and objectivity. That’s quite understandable since every great thinker – and everyone else for that matter – has to struggle with inherited notions and ideas. Many of these problematic ideas are still alive and kicking today, but if we pay attention to Weber’s hunches, we can get a better grasp of the fundamental aspects of science and the humanities.

If this is the case, that is, if I’m right in the conviction that Weber had a much deeper understanding of science and the humanities in general – and especially of the so called “cultural sciences” – than he managed to express clearly, it would be a mistake to dismiss his methodological texts because of their contradictions and other flaws. It would also be a mistake, however, to simply focus on Weber’s most reasonable and straightforward arguments and take these as representative of his methodological views. Rather, I think we need to do the opposite and try to base an interpretation of his methodology on his most elusive and cryptic passages. From a scholarly point of view, this approach might sound problematic to many; in this blog post, I will explain the reason why it is important.

Reading Weber as a philosopher

In his book Max Weber’s Methodologies (2002), Sven Eliaeson discusses three different exegetical approaches to classics. Based on Quentin Skinners famous article Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas (1969), Eliaeson distinguishes between three types of readings of Weber: a “textualist” reading puts too much stress on the text, while a “retrospective” reading looks to Weber to find an ally in contemporary debates and thus runs the risk of overinterpretation. Both types disregard the historical context (Eliaeson, 2002, p. 127ff.). Eliaeson instead favors a third “contextual” approach, which he rightly points out tends to have an “anti-innovative bias” (Eliaeson, 2002, p. 128). He thus concludes that there are “no clear choice among these three approaches” (Eliaeson, 2002, p. 129).

I agree with Eliaeson, and that is exactly why I suggest that we read classics such as Weber in a different way, i.e., through what I call the philosophical approach. Just what it means to read a classic thinker as a philosopher can be spelled out in a double-sense: first, as a reader I need to think like a philosopher; second, I need to believe in the author’s ability to have something philosophically important to teach me, that is, in the sense that Plato or Kierkegaard can teach us something about being human (naturally Weber himself despised philosophy, in the sense of system building, but that is not at all what I’m talking about here). To treat a classical thinker as a real philosopher requires that you trust that they have reached some fundamental insights regarding the nature of reality and what it means to be human which could be grasped by reading their texts. This approach would use both the textual and contextual approaches, but only as means towards the philosophical end of developing your own understanding of the fundamental aspects of existence. 

A truly philosophical reading would advance our understanding of what it means to be human without the pitfalls of the three approaches Eliaeson spells out. One central aspect of this approach would be to pay attention to the difficult passages, rather than seeking to fit the most obvious and simple pieces together. In order to illustrate this approach, the second part of this blog post deals with one such difficult passage in Weber’s Objectivity-essay. 

Objectivity and value ideas

Weber promisingly concludes the first part of the Objectivity-essay with the following words: “What does ‘objectivity’ mean in this context? That is the only question that will be addressed in the following discussion” (Weber, 2012, p. 108/MWG I/7, p. 161). Somewhat surprisingly, this is not at all what the second part is about. Rather, it deals with a vast range of issues regarding concepts (especially ideal types) and different aspects of the social and cultural sciences at large. The instances in which Weber does touch upon the essay’s alleged main topic consist mostly of fairly obvious points about what objectivity cannot consist of (see for example Drysdale, 2007, p. 34, 37–42, 51, Gunnell, 2007, s. 73). As a result, many commentators have highlighted the few clear passages assuming they express all there is to know about Weber’s view on objectivity. In this spirit, his positive account of the concept boils down to something along these lines: the cultural sciences are subjective in the sense that all scientific results are based on a value relation, that is, every account of reality has to be based on a selection of material and a perspective from which to look at the selected material (see for example Hans Henrik Bruun’s important interpretation of Weber’s methodology [2007, p. 22, 128, 132]). These choices will be based on values and interests. In this regard, this famous passage is often referred to as epitomizing Weber’s understanding of objectivity and how it ties in to value relations:

But obviously, it does not follow from this that research in the cultural sciences can only have results that are ‘subjective’ in the sense of being valid for one person but not for another. Rather, what varies is the degree to which such results interest one person but not another. In other words: what becomes the object of investigation, and how far this investigation extends into the infinity of causal relationships – that is determined by the value ideas that govern the scholar and are dominant in his age. (Weber, 2012, p. 121/MWG I/7, p. 193)

Daraus folgt nun aber selbstverständlich nicht, daß auch die kulturwissenschaftliche Forschung nur Ergebnisse haben können, die „subjektiv“ in dem Sinne seien, daß sie für den einen gelten und für den andern nicht. Was wechselt[,] ist vielmehr der Grad, in dem sie den einen interessieren und den andern nicht. Mit anderen Worten: was Gegenstand der Untersuchung wird, und wie weit diese Untersuchung sich in die Unendlichkeit der Kausalzusammenhänge erstreckt, das bestimmen die den Forscher und seine Zeit beherrschenden Wertideen[.] (Weber, MWG I/7, p. 193)

In addition to the infinity of causal relationships that he mentions here, a few pages earlier he has stressed:

Now, as soon as we seek to reflect upon the way in which we encounter life in its immediate aspect, [we see that] it presents an absolute infinite multiplicity of events […]. And, even if we focus our attention on a single, isolated “object” – a concrete act of exchange, for instance – the absolute infinitude of this multiplicity remains entirely undiminished in intensity; [this becomes apparent to us] as soon as we want to make a serious attempt just to describe this “single [object]” exhaustively, in all its individual components, let alone to comprehend it in its causal determination. Any knowledge of infinite reality acquired by the finite human mind is therefore based on the tacit assumption that, in any given instance, only a finite part of [that reality] should be the object of scientific comprehension – should be “important” [wesentlich] (in the sense of “worth knowing about”). (Weber, 2012, p. 114 [EB: All brackets with English terms are added by the translator. The part I have omitted is not essential for the point I want to make here, but I kept it in the German quote for anyone interested.])

Nun bietet uns das Leben, sobald wir uns auf die Art, in der es uns unmittelbar entgegentritt, zu besinnen suchen, eine schlechthin unendliche Mannigfaltigkeit von nach- und nebeneinander auftauchenden und vergehenden Vorgängen, „in“ uns und „außer“ uns. Und die absolute Unendlichkeit dieser Mannigfaltigkeit bleibt intensiv durchaus ungemindert auch dann bestehen, wenn wir ein einzelnes „Objekt“ – etwa einen konkreten Tauschakt – isoliert ins Auge fassen, – sobald wir nämlich ernstlich versuchen wollen, dies „Einzelne“ erschöpfend in allen seinen individuellen Bestandteilen auch nur zu beschreiben, geschweige denn es in seiner kausalen Bedingtheit zu erfassen. Alle denkende Erkenntnis der unendlichen Wirklichkeit durch den endlichen Menschengeist beruht daher auf der stillschweigenden Voraussetzung, daß jeweils nur ein endlicher Teil derselben den Gegenstand wissenschaftlicher Erfassung bilden, daß nur er „wesentlich“ im Sinne von „wissenswert“ sein solle. (Weber, MWG I/7, p. 174-175)

In light of these two passages, we could interpret Weber’s ontological and epistemological stance as follows: reality is like an endless puzzle where every individual piece is itself made up of tinier, but distinct and predefined pieces; we cannot hope to describe all the pieces of the puzzle at the same time but we can choose a perspective and see what the puzzle looks like from there. Furthermore, we cannot hope that everyone would be interested in the selection of pieces we have made from our point of view, but scientists can and should strive toward an account of the selected pieces of reality that everyone would agree upon if they took that perspective. That would amount to objective validity based on subjective value ideas: the ideas determine the perspective but not how the world is described from that point of view. From my understanding, this is in line with how influential interpreters such as Bruun understand Weber’s view on objectivity and value relations in the passages mentioned above (Bruun, 2007, p. 22, 128, 132).

Now, consider the following passage, which we find on the pages in between the two quotes above:

Empirical reality is ‘culture’ for us because, and to the extent that, we relate it to value ideas; it comprises those, and only those elements of reality that acquire significance for us [uns bedeutsam werden] because of this relation. Only a tiny part of the individual reality that we observe at a given time is colored [gefärbt] by our interest, which is conditioned by those value ideas [durch jene Wertideen bedingten Interesse gefärbt], and that part alone has significance [Bedeutung] for us; it has significance because certain of its relations are important [wichtig sind]to us by virtue of their connection to value ideas. (Weber, 2012, p. 116)

Die empirische Wirklichkeit ist für uns „Kultur“, weil und sofern wir sie mit Wertideen in Beziehung setzen, sie umfaßt diejenigen Bestandteile der Wirklichkeit, welche durch jene Beziehung für uns bedeutsam werden, und nur diese. Ein winziger Teil der jeweils betrachteten individuellen Wirklichkeit wird von unserm durch jene Wertideen bedingten Interesse gefärbt, er allein hat Bedeutung für uns, er hat sie, weil er Beziehungen aufweist, die für uns infolge ihrer Verknüpfung mit Wertideen wichtig sind; nur weil und soweit dies der Fall, ist er in seiner individuellen Eigenart für uns wissenswert. (Weber, MWG I/7, p. 182)

Taken by itself this passage might look completely in accordance with the two passages above. However, I think this is one we should pay closer attention to.

First of all, Weber stresses that reality is culture to the extent that we connect it to value ideas. To me, this sounds like Weber is saying that the value relation not only plays a part in what “pieces of the puzzle” we choose to focus on. Rather, it seems to express the idea that the value relation affects how we perceive reality. In that case, the value relation plays a role in constituting certain elements of reality as cultural elements. Thus, the “Bedeutung” these phenomena have for us, thanks to the value relation, should not merely be understood as a kind of “significance” in the sense of being of “importance” (wichtig sein). Rather, if our values turn certain parts of reality into culture, I would say that the value relation makes them bedeutsam in the sense of meaningful: the value relation is what gives them their meaning (Bedeutung) (see Hans Henrik Bruun’s and Sam Whimster’s reflection on the difficulties of translating this term in Weber, 2012, p. 476).

Furthermore, Weber says that only a tiny part of our surrounding reality is colored [gefärbt] by those interests which are ultimately conditioned by our value ideas. If this “color” or “coloration” (or perhaps “hue” or “tint” – the exact associations this metaphorical characterization should raise could be discussed) is what is given to the phenomena via the value relation, one could therefore say that the “Bedeutung” (meaning/significance) is the color (or coloration) of the phenomena. This is interesting because Weber stresses right before this passage that there is a difference between quantitative and qualitative aspects of events and that the “qualitative coloration” is what the social sciences (that is, the kind of social science he calls “cultural science”) wants to understand:

From the point of view of astronomy, only the quantitative relationship of the celestial bodies, which can be measured with precision, engage our interest; [but] what matters to us in the social sciences is the qualitative aspect of events. Moreover, the social sciences are concerned with the influence of process in the human mind; and the re-experiencing “understanding” of such processes is of course a task that is specifically different from that which the formulas building on the exact knowledge of the natural world are at all able, or designed, to solve (Weber, 2012, p. 115/ MWG I/7, p. 178).

Während für die Astronomie die Weltkörper nur in ihren quantitativen, exakter Messung zugänglichen Beziehungen für unser Interesse in Betracht kommen, ist die qualitative Färbung der Vorgänge das, worauf es uns in der Sozialwissenschaft ankommt. Dazu tritt, daß es sich in den Sozialwissenschaften um die Mitwirkung geistiger Vorgänge handelt, welche nacherlebend zu „verstehen“ natürlich eine Aufgabe spezifisch anderer Art ist, als sie die Formeln der exakten Naturerkenntnis überhaupt lösen können oder wollen. (Weber, MWG I/7, p. 178)

Bruun made the choice of translating “die qualitative Färbung der Vorgänge” into “the qualitative aspect of events” rather than “the qualitative coloration of events” or something along those lines. Translations are always difficult and I don’t intend to question his choices here, but it makes the connection to the “color” reference in the other passage invisible to the English reader. Anyhow, this passage seems to expresses the idea that the qualitative coloration is an aspect of the phenomena themselves and if this “qualitative colorationis the “Kulturbedeutung” (cultural “significance” or perhaps “meaning”, cf. Weber, 2012, p. 116 [MWG I/7, p. 182]), then this supports the interpretation that Weber thinks that our values play an important role in creating cultural reality.

One could, of course, argue that Weber thinks along the lines of Alfred Schütz: cultural scientific accounts of reality are second-order understandings of peoples first-order understandings (Schütz, 1953). In that case one could argue that the studied first-order understandings are colored by values, but that the scientific accounts of the selected first-order understandings could be objective in the sense of being valid for everyone. But, if values not only determine which parts of reality are of interests on the first-order-level but how we perceive phenomena on that every day level, they surely have to affect our perceptions as scientists too. (Weber, 2012, p. 121/MWG I/7, p. 193). We cannot stop perceiving as humans when we do research. Our values would thus also affect the scientific results themselves. Of course, this is not a novel idea per see (many social scientists and humanists have argued for different versions of this kind of relativism), but if Weber holds this view, he cannot at the same time hold that it does not follow from this that research in the cultural sciences can only have results that are ‘subjective’ in the sense of being valid for one person but not for another” (Weber, 2012, p. 121/MWG I/7, p. 193) without contradicting himself. In this case there cannot be any “objective validity” in the sense that “what varies is the degree to which such results interest one person but not another”. At least not in the sense presented above.   

It might look like I’m presenting a quite radical relativistic interpretation of Weber, but that is not my point at all. My point is that if we read Weber from the philosophical point of viewneither the standard interpretation nor this relativistic suggestion would be a satisfactory conclusionRather, this would merely be the beginning of the philosophical reading which raises in turn many interesting questions: is there a way to combine this seemingly relativistic idea with the demand for objective validity? Is Weber perhaps onto something more complex than what he expresses in the passages quoted aboveIf we philosophize together with Weber, could we reach a deeper understanding of how cultural scientific research can have subjective results in this more radical sense and still be objectively valid in another sense? Addressing these questions means putting the difficult passages of the methodological texts in focus, while leaving those that express the most coherent and simple ideas asideThis would be a first step toward a philosophical reading of Weber.  

Uppsala, 1 October 2021

References:

Bruun, Hans Henrik (2007). Science, values and politics in Max Weber’s methodology. New expanded ed. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Drysdale, John (2007). Weber on Objectivity: Advocate or Critic?, in Max Weber’s ’objectivity’ reconsidered, edited by Laurence H. McFalls, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 31–57.

Eliaeson, Sven (2002). Max Weber’s Methodologies: Interpretation and Critique, Cambridge: Polity.

Gunnell, John (2007). The Paradoxes of Social Science: Weber, Winch, and Wittgenstein, in Max Weber’s ’objectivity’ reconsidered, edited by Laurence H. McFalls, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 58–88.

Jansson Boström, Erik (2020). Max Weber och idealtypernas nödvändighet. Diss. Uppsala: Uppsala University.

Schütz, Alfred (1953). Common-Sense and Scientific Interpretation of Human Action, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research (14:1), pp. 1-38.

Skinner, Quentin (1969). Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas, History and Theory (8:1), pp. 3-53.

Weber, Max (2012). Max Weber: Collected Methodological Writings, edited by Hans Henrik Bruun and Sam Whimster, translated by Hans Henrik Bruun, London: Routledge.

Weber, Max (2018). MWG I/7: Gesamtausgabe Abt. 1 Schriften und Reden. Bd 7: Zur Logik und Methodik der Sozialwissenschaften. Schriften 1900–1907. Edited by Gerhard Wagner in cooperation with Claudius Härpfer, Tom Kaden, Kai Müller och Angelika Zahn, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck).

Whimster, Sam (2006). Understanding Weber. London: Routledge.