Crisis Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy

[On Max Weber]

András Gedö

86 3. Philosophy and Apology

3. “Social technology” and positivism

Social technology and the crisis myth of life philosophy sometimes appear to be separate or even competing currents. Thus, one or the other may prevail in the work of a theoretician or group, perhaps influenced by national or regional peculiarities. From a broad perspective, however, and in the totality of bourgeois thought they can be seen to supplement each other in constituting crisis consciousness. Their complementarity may be revealed also in particular intellectual currents and in the ideas of individual ideologists.

Perhaps Max Weber’s conception, that prototype of the ideology of “social technology,” shows up this connection most clearly. Even Weber’s followers admit that his philosophical conception of society lacks the central idea the presence of which in Marx they cannot deny (and which they acknowledge in Freud). [144] Instead of a central idea, an intellectual effort permeates Weber’s thought. In the shadow of the universal crisis consciousness he seeks the possibility of a “rational” functioning of capitalism (and the knowledge needed for this). [145] The ideology of social technology has for Weber two interwoven aspects: the intellectual justification of bourgeois society, concentrating on an identification of capitalist “rationality” and technical rationality in general, and a theoretical guarantee for the practical “rational” functioning of capitalism, of monopoly-capitalist “planning,” and of state-monopoly regulation, which was just beginning to evolve.

The connection between these two aspects gives this “sociotechnological” thinking its peculiar apologetic character. It assumes the possibility of empirical knowledge, which is indispensable for the functioning of the capitalist economy (and politics) under the new conditions. Neo-Kantian epistemology, tending towards positivism, substantiates both aspects of “sociotechnological” ideology. Max Weber limits empirical scientific

3. Philosophy and Apology 87

knowledge of society to the function of discovering the “instrumental rationality” (Zweckrationalität) of means and thus justifies both the identification of capitalism with a rational economy and the possibility of empirical knowledge necessary for capitalist “rationality.”

The concept of instrumental rationality (assumed a priori in sociotechnological thinking) links up with the neo-Kantian positivist thesis in which the objective validity of knowledge is based on the subjectivity of categories and values. [146] This concept uses the idea of the intrinsic individual subjective nature of social and historical knowledge. Max Weber sharpened the idealist, as opposed to the Marxist, concept of science, and in his criticism of the materialist conception of history he claims: “Not the ‘objective’ (sachliche) connections of ‘things’ but the ‘thought’ connections of the problems is where the field of the sciences lies. [147] In line with neo-Kantianism, Max Weber confines knowledge of society—within the general subjectivity of all knowledge—to the boundaries of subjectivity. He reduces the subject of all knowledge of society to individual-subjective acts whose teleology is, in his opinion, the actual starting point of social knowledge, while the individual and the particular activity make up the lower and upper boundaries of sociological “understanding.” “Concepts, like ‘state,’ ‘cooperative,’ ‘feudalism,’ and others are for sociology, in general, categories for certain types of human common activity, and its task is to reduce them to ‘comprehensible’ acts, and this means, without exception, to the acts of the individuals concerned.” [148] According to Weber, knowledge of society cannot go beyond pure subjectivity because only the concept of the “ideal type” is capable of putting some order into the chaos of facts of experience; this concept of the “ideal type” does not reflect objective reality. “It is not a representation of reality, but it wants to lend unequivocal means of expression to the representation;” [149] it is an epistemological utopia. Social cognition—and within this, the concept of instrumental rationality—is often forced into the closed sphere of the Vaihinger “as-if” and it cannot break through to objectivity. For Max Weber instrumental rationality means above all the methodological assumption as if the acting individuals behaved according to a pattern which “is exclusively oriented to means seen as subjectively adequate for (subjectively) unequivocally understood purposes.” [150]

To compensate for the loss of objective truth, the concept of the “ideal type” promises unequivocalness, but it is certainly not unequivocal. It vacillates between a thought construction claiming empirical validity and a useful fiction, between a concept that can be related to reality and a mere “as-if” assumption.

88 Philosophy and Apology

However, its epistemological lability remains within the framework of the positivist view insofar as the “ideal type,” and thus instrumental rationality, is not a reflection of the movement of reality (and also not a Platonic objective concept). This epistemological uncertainty of instrumental rationality ranges from the attribute of subjective action to the subjectivity of the knowledge that ascribes attributes to action; within this framework, ambiguity remains. The concept of “ideal type” and especially that of instrumental rationality serve as an alternative to the Marxist thesis of objective social laws, and therefore it is necessary for these concepts to reduce social events to individual-subjective action. Moreover, the idea of instrumental rationality implies the “rational” functioning of capitalism and attempts to deliver the knowledge of “rules” needed for this “rational” functioning. However, this demands concepts not derivable from the experience of individual-subjective action. Sociotechnological ideology defines capitalism through instrumental rationality and instrumental rationality through capitalism. At the same time, it is determined to make the “rational” functioning of capitalism possible in thought. It must contain, therefore, in the sociological and epistemological respect, individualistic subjectivism and also concepts related to society necessary to acquire knowledge of the “rules” for “rational” action. Max Weber does not solve this dilemma, but pushes it out of sight by maintaining the primacy of individualistic subjectivism, both epistemologically and sociologically, and, without limiting the former, introduces idealist categories for the social sphere.

Instrumental rationality can find room only in positivist epistemology that leans on general empirical “rules” and at the same time rejects social laws, or it assumes special causal relations and pushes determinism aside.

There is no rational action without causal rationalization of the section of reality considered as the object and the means of influence, i. e., without its integration into a complex of empirical “rules” which state what success is to be expected from certain behavior. [151]

Instrumental rationality (in particular, in the form of “objective instrumental rationality”) represents the apparent objectivity of the “rules” but in the field of subjectivity. As instrumental rationality is limited to the relation between means and ends, and the purposes appear in Weber simply in connection with the individual-subjective action, the objective social determination of the purposeful action remains from the beginning outside of his concept of science: the content of instrumental rationality always depends, says Weber, on the subjective decision. And whatever stands outside this instrumental rationality also stands

3. Philosophy and Apology 89

outside the range of scientific knowledge of society: science is capable only of stating whether the given means corresponds to the given ends (and it can judge the practical meaning of the ends merely through the means [152]). Max Weber realizes that this instrumental rationality assumes a certain teleological “evaluation,” that the element of necessity is also contained in the end-means relationship. The paradigmatic attitude of social technology is indicated by the fact that Weber, nevertheless, insists on rejecting scientific value judgments:

As this evaluation has a purely “technical” character, i. e., postulates merely on the basis of experience the adequacy of the “means” for the purpose wanted by the acting person, it by no means leaves the ground of analysis of the empirically given, despite its character of an “evaluation.” And this rational “evaluation” appears on the basis of knowledge of the real events and also merely as hypothesis or ideal-typical formation of concepts. [153]

This positivist category of instrumental rationality and this positivist concept of science can exist only because they are caught up in life philosophy. The presumption is that the aim, the choice, the act of decision, are facts of life which stand outside of any “rule,” the willing person “considers and chooses between the values concerned in accordance with his own conscience and his personal world view . . . The validity of such values is to be judged by faith, or perhaps it is a task for speculative consideration and interpretation of life and of the world for their meaning, but it is certainly not the subject matter of an empirical science.” [154] And the conclusion is that the concept of the “ideal type”—the knowledge of the “rules” needed for instrumental rationality—cannot provide any yardstick for choosing the “values,” for judging the aims. Thus in the field of faith, of “world view,” science is incompetent and useless.

Max Weber approves the main idea of life philosophy, according to which “‘world views’ can never be the product of progressing empirical knowledge”; he insists on the primacy of the “highest ideals,” which cannot be explained by any objectivity; he insists on their decisive role—and their plurality. [155] In this way he bases his view on an irrational voluntarism whose vulgar forms he wants to avoid. He polemicizes against the romantic naturalist conception of the individual which seeks the authentic holiness of the personal “in the dank, homogeneous, vegetative ‘underground’ of personal life,” [156] he vehemently opposes the “lies and self-deceit” of the new prophecies offering a surrogate for religion. [157] Yet, he himself accepts the domination of irrationality, while irrationality dominates below—if not in the psychophysical underground of the personality, certainly in the

90          3. Philosophy and Apology

psychic process of individual-subjective action—and above, in the consideration and choice of the “values,” i. e., in the sphere of world view. Weber wants to evade psychologization, and yet the concept of instrumental rationality does not go beyond the framework of the psychologizing view insofar as “technical correctness” belongs to the complex of subjective meaning (Sinnzusammenhang). Max Weber claims that instrumental rationality is of the ideal type—not only on the basis of his epistemological views, but also on the basis of his conception of the psychic nature of action: “The real action, in the great mass of cases proceeds in dull semiconsciousness or the unconsciousness of its ‘believed meaning.’” [158] And even if Weber does not consider instrumental rationality to be the only form of rationality, he does claim it to be the only rationality that a scientific “understanding” can grasp. On the basis of this instrumental rationality, the “value rationality”—by which Weber understands the realization of the “values” guiding the action—is irrational; [159] however, seen from the “values,” the “technical” character of the empirical sciences is considered subaltern. [160]

What this positivist view of science would grant is, first, merely the “knowledge of the technical, how to control life, the external things and human action through calculation,” and second, the “methods of thinking, the tools and the schooling for it,” and finally, clarity on the “value problem,” [161] although by no means a solution of it (in the absence of a “world view”). Positivism, which degrades the sciences into an instrument of social technology and sees rationalism only as a “methodological means,” is based on the ideas of life philosophy. Max Weber’s aversion to contemporary anti-intellectualism merely rejects a certain form of irrationalism: he also continues to maintain that the “meaning” of the world can be grasped only outside of science. For him, a precondition for experience (and not only religious) is liberation from the rationalism and intellectualism of science. In the case of “modern intellectual, romanticism of the irrational,” it is more the method, the argumentation that irritate him, than the result; he is concerned more about the inverted intellectualism of anti-intellectualism, (the intellectual intrusion into the inaccessible irrationality of the “personal world view”) than the rebellion against reason itself. “Disturbing is only the road that is taken: namely, the only thing which intellectualism had not touched up to then: just that sphere of irrationality is now raised into consciousness and examined by it.” [162]

The instrumental rationality category of social technology limits itself to the “technical” element. Here, this “technical” loses its materiality, is equated with the formal method of idealistically comprehended action and thought which has no social

3. Philosophy and Apology  91

or historical content whatever, and is interpreted in analogy to the machine and linked to the relation between means and end. The economy, says Max Weber, focuses on the concern “for useful performance,” on the “utilization purpose,” the technology, the “technological rationality,” but in doing so deals with the “problem of the means to be used.” [163] The money calculation represents the “technical,” formal “rationality” of the economy; the maximum of this rationality, however, consists in how to calculate capital. Thus, this formal rationality is bound to material conditions, as Weber states. [164] In this way, the “technological instrumental rationality” that is ahistorical when placed outside of the, socially concrete—as a principle of historical explanation—becomes embroiled in, such dilemmas. [165] Insofar as Max Weber investigates history, he links the “spirit” of capitalism with historical circumstances interpreted idealistically, but then he determines capitalism sociologically—through the socially neutral, ahistorical, instrumental rational economy. [166] And this dilemma cannot be eliminated by the fact that the merely “technological instrumental rationality” in Max Weber’s economy is implicitly capitalist. This view extrapolates capitalism as a hidden definition of the “technological” rationality into the ahistorical; on the one hand, it comprehends the historical experience of “modern” capitalism as the assertion of the unhistorical principle of “rational” economy that has come out into the open, and on the other hand, explains it in terms of the pseudohistoricism of life philosophy with particular intellectual and spiritual conditions.

This theory of “technological” rationality is an element of crisis consciousness: it is both a basic concept of that “sociotechnological” world of ideas which claims the “rational” functioning of capitalism and the bridging of class antagonism, and it is also a main tenet of the crisis myth. The identification of capitalism with “rational economy” takes up the old motif of that bourgeois apology which “declared the relations of capitalist production to be eternal laws of Nature and reason” [167] during the first half of the last century. But it adapts this apology to monopoly capitalism: it explains the unavoidability of bureaucratization and thus the growing role of the capitalist state through “rationalizing”; it maintains an awareness of the working-class movement and tries to contain its activities within bounds that are acceptable to the capitalist state, [168] suggesting that “rationalization” of the economy is also in the interests of the working class. [169] Weber anticipates the theory of the industrial society when he claims that socialist changes are incapable of stopping the “irresistible march forward” of “rationalization” and bureaucratization, that eliminating “private capitalism”

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would merely result in the unlimited domination of state bureaucracy: thus, the socialist revolution (in Germany and in general) would merely give rise to a bourgeois economy. [170] The idea of social technology promises to bridge over the class antagonisms and also the “rational” functioning of capitalism, and yet—or by the logic of Weber’s social philosophy exactly because of this—it does not overcome the crisis consciousness, but fans, nourishes, and perpetuates it. As in Nietzsche, therefore, “rationality” is pregnant with the destiny of crisis. This destiny closes in on mankind from two sides: from intellectualization and from the united power of the machine and bureaucracy. “It is the destiny of our time with its rationalization and intellectualization, and above all, the disenchantment of the world, that the very last and most sublime values have retreated from public attention, either into the behind-the-scenes kingdom of mystical life or into the fraternity of direct relations between individuals.” [171] The bureaucratic organism, the “living machine” is working “together with dead machinery . . . to produce the shell of that bondage to the future in which the people, like the powerless fellahin of ancient Egypt, were forced to submit to a purely technological and rational authoritative administration and welfare system which makes decisions about the management of their affairs.” [172] Behind this possibility lies the destiny of “rationalization” which only the extraordinary, “charismatic” individual can successfully resist. That is why Weber’s pessimism (about the near, but also the more distant, future [173]) is so peculiarly intense: the crisis myth, hardened by the consciousness of the inevitability of social technology, of growing “rationalization,” leaves no way out.


144. R. Bendix, Max Weber, in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, ed. D. L. Sills, vol. 16, p. 500.

145. Here, certain bourgeois needs in monopoly-capital development appear in the mirror of concepts of capitalist “rationality” and universal bureaucratization. Max Weber’s is not a scientific view, either of the economic essence of the monopolies, nor of the tendency for monopolies and state to interweave.

146. “The objective validity of all empirical knowledge is based solely on the given reality being ordered into categories which in a specific sense are subjective” (M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre [Tübingen, 1922], pp. 212f). On the connection between Max Weber’s views and those of neo-Kantianism, see E. Baumgarten’s comments in: Max Weber: Werk und Person, ed. E. Baumgarten (Tübingen, 1964), pp. 391f.

147. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, p. 166.

148. Ibid., p. 415.

149. Ibid., p. 190. The concept of “ideal type” directed against Marxism and in particular against the Marxist category of social law, is at the same time the starting point for a reinterpretation of Marxism: Max Weber claims that “of course, all specially Marxist ‘laws’ and development constructions—insofar as they are theoretically without error—have a character of the ideal type.” (Ibid., p. 205.)

Notes for Chapter Three  237

150. Ibid., p. 404. “In order to be able to causally classify empirical processes, we need the construction of rational, empirical-technical or also logical ‘utopias’ which answer the question: what a state of affairs, be it an external connection of action or perhaps a thought-structure (e. g., a philosophical system), would (or actually does) look like where absolutely rational, empirical, and logical ‘correctness’ and consistency exist.” (M. Weber, “Gutachten zur Werturteilsdiskussion im Ausschuss des Vereins für Sozialpolitik,” in Max Weber: Werk und Person, p. 136.)

151. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, p. 127.

152. “Concretely, we want something either ‘for its own sake’ or as a means to serve an end. The question of the suitability of the means for a given purpose is definitely accessible to scientific knowledge. As we are capable (within the limits of our knowledge) of a valid decision as to which means are suitable or unsuitable for a specific purpose, we can also calculate the chances of achieving a certain end with the means at our disposal and can then indirectly, on the basis of the given historical situation, see the purpose as practical and sensible, or, depending on the situation, criticize it” (ibid., p. 149). See also Weber, “Gutachten zur Werturteilsdiskussion,” p. 113.

153. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, p. 129.

154. Ibid., pp. 150ff.

155. Ibid., p. 154.

156. Ibid., p. 132.

157. Ibid., p. 553.

158. Ibid., pp. 522. Since then, it has become commonplace to contrast the “model of rational economy” with the alleged reality of the “irrational human being” in capitalism. “One assumes a rationally thinking human being, whereas the real human being is irrational, illusionary and tortured by instincts and fears. From the market value a fictitious subjective value is derived in order to interpret the market metaphysically and ethically.” (E. Böhler, “Die Quellen der Mythenbildung in der Wirtschaftspolitik,” Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 5 Apr. 1972.)

159. “From the viewpoint of instrumental rationality, however, value rationality is always irrational, and what is more, the more the value is oriented by the action and is heightened to an absolute value, simply because the outcome of action is taken less into consideration, then the more alone its self-value (pure mind, beauty, absolute goodness, absolute duty) becomes the purpose.” (M. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriss verstehender Soziologie, ed. J. Winckelmann, I [Cologne, 1964], p. 18.)

160. M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolilik (Tübingen, 1924), p. 419.

161. M. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, pp. 549.

162. Ibid., p. 540.

163. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, pp. 43ff., p. 257. See also Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, pp. 497ff.

238                 Notes for Chapter Three

164. Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, p. 77.

165. U. Vogel, “Einige Überlegungen zum Begriff der Rationalität bei Max Weber,” Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, No. 3 (1973), 544ff.

166. M. Weber, Gesammelte politische Schriften (Tübingen, 1958), pp. 310f.

167. Marx, Capital, I, 528.

168. Weber thinks that “there is no way of getting rid of socialist conviction and socialist hopes. The labor force will always become socialist in some sense or another. The only question is whether this socialism will be such that it . . . will be bearable from the viewpoint of state interests.” (Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik, p. 517.)

169. Weber, Gesammelte politische Schriften, p. 239.

170. Ibid., pp. 319ff., 540f. Lipset derives the “postulate” from Weber and Michels that “the central problem of modern politics is not capitalism or socialism but the relationship between bureaucracy and democracy.” (Lipset, “Political Sociology,” p. 89.)

171. Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, p. 554.

172. Weber, Gesammelte politische Schriften, p. 320.

173. Ibid., pp. 547f.

SOURCE: Gedö, András. Crisis Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy. Translated by Salomea Genin; edited by Doris Grieser Marquit. Minneapolis: Marxist Educational Press, 1982. (Studies in Marxism; v. 11) [Original German edition: Philosophie der Krise. Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1978.] Chapter Three: The Structure of Late-Bourgeois Philosophy and Types of Apology; extract from section 3: “Social technology” and positivism; pp. 86-92, endnotes pp. 236-238.

©1982 Marxist Educational Press.

András Gedö — Vita (Bibliography)

Crisis Consciousness in Contemporary Philosophy by András Gedö:
Table of Contents
Chapter 2: "The Contemporary Crisis in Bourgeois Philosophy"
1. Neopositivism: Linguistic Philosophy and Critical Rationalism
2. Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie)
3. [On Karl Popper]

"The Contemporary Attack on Science" by András Gedö

"Why Marx or Nietzsche?" by András Gedö

"The Historical Character of the Concept of Nature" by András Gedö

Positivism vs Life Philosophy (Lebensphilosophie) Study Guide

Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide


Marxist Educational Press / Nature, Society, and Thought

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