My old friend The Yalie, who I’ve known since we were in university together back in Newfoundland, used to comment pretty regularly in the early, clunkier days of the blog. I remember in those early days, he’d compare my own thinking and perspective to Max Weber, one of the innovators of sociology.
I didn’t know Weber’s work well at the time, so I didn’t really know what The Yalie saw of Weber in me. I’ve read a little of his work since then, mostly the Vocation lectures and a few critical essays about Weber’s theories and character.
I'd like to get his opinion on this again, now that it’s been nearly three years since I started this bloody project. Because I’m not sure that my ideas and Weber’s are really all that close.* Maybe it’s because I’m reading him with a particular intent of my own, that I focus on some ideas but not others. So here’s what I see and why I see it.
|Max Weber and his piercing eyes.|
* I have a lot in common with his ideas about bureaucracy and the culture of state organizations. But that’s not really what I’m thinking about when I read Weber.
Weber seems to have a lot of pessimism because he could see Europe’s growing popular collapse of belief in religious authority about moral and spiritual truths. And he thought this was a bad thing, because it undercut people’s beliefs about whether there were universal moral truths.
It’s based on his reading of Nietzsche, which understood him mostly as a nihilist. In this sense, Weber was among the first generation of postmodernists. Here’s another oversimplified story about how this idea works.
The liberal ideas of secularism and cultural pluralism had worn away the ability for reasonably educated people to think that their religion was better or more true than anyone else’s. Pluralism about the nature of God is incompatible with religious belief in a simple, popular sense, because religious belief is authoritative and exclusive.
And loss of faith in a religion corrodes people’s moral sense – again, according to this really simple but very popular view about what God is for. God’s purpose is to underwrite our moral beliefs so that they’ll be valid. God is the transcendent authority whose stamp of approval makes a moral principle universal.
This is a popular view. It’s Oprah’s view. The idea that atheists can’t be moral people, because they don’t have a transcendent authority underwriting moral principles. Far be it from me to say that a moral principle can be justified immanently, through their pragmatic effects and the constants of human nature. I might contradict Oprah.
But Weber was in a less condescending form of the same trap in thinking. Without a society’s unity and faith in a godly authority underwriting their morals, social harmony would be under serious threat. He was still trying to wrap his head around what atheism was. Thinking of Nietzsche as a pure nihilist is a sign that Weber couldn’t even catch up to the moustachioed one in his own lifetime.
I’m looking into Weber because he was one of the major creative figures in philosophy of this clique of thinkers who were trying to figure out the end of modernity in the shadow of the First World War. They could see that the dream of modernity was coming to an end, that it was going to be disastrous, and that nothing modernity promised us was going to work out, or work out well for people.
Some embraced it and some were afraid. Some who embraced it were the reactionaries of this generation – Martin Heidegger, Carl Schmitt. The scared ones – Weber, Walter Benjamin, Edmund Husserl – were afraid of more terror if industrial technology was used with a nihilist attitude.
When I sit down to write Utopias, it can’t be a typical academic-style book of philosophy. Not only am I not in academia anymore, but I don’t even have access to the same resources. I can’t use a lot of the paywalled journals as resources. So I’m going to try to write some valuable philosophy using only primary sources.
The idea isn’t to make the book’s goal about providing commentary on specific thinkers. Instead, I’ll discuss some broader social and political concept by – in part – thinking along with different primary, creative thinkers from the whole tradition.
So the ideas of that first postmodern generation will supply my framework for understanding a world without the moorings and foundations of an authority to give you your laws. Facing the prospect of such a world, you can react with fear, reaction and restoration, enthusiasm, or a kind of redemption.