Tuesday, 10 April 2018

On Max Weber

This blog has been idle for a couple months. The reason is that towards the end of January, I accepted the executive directorship of the Lonergan Research Institute in Toronto, Ontario, and the work of transitioning from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia to Regis College in Toronto has occupied more of my attention than I would have preferred. And I find myself increasingly thinking about how the LRI might contribute to developing and implementing Lonergan's thought, and this has me returning more and more to my first love: social and cultural theory. I find myself increasingly thinking about how Lonergan and those who have built upon his work can help us integrate the genuine insights achieved by what we might call the "great traditions" of the social sciences (a term somewhat misleading, as the social sciences deal not only with the social but also with the cultural and the personal, but we will work with what we have), which I would identify broadly as the Marxian, the Weberian, and the Freudian (or psychoanalytic).

In thinking about this, I have the good fortune of being able to build upon the work of one of my predecessors in the directorship of the LRI, Robert Doran, whose Theology and the Dialectics of History remains the most thorough synthesis of the social sciences from a Lonerganian perspective. As it is precisely synthesis with which I am concerned, this is a salutary contribution. The work is chock-full of insights, of which three are particularly relevant: culture is that which mediates between society and the person; the Marxian tradition speaks most fully to the matter of society; the psychoanalytic tradition speaks most fully to the matter of the person. There is much of value here, and I would affirm all these insights as necessary and indispensable for thinking synthetically about the social sciences. As a movement towards fuller synthesis in my own articulation, I would perhaps say that the Marxian tradition starts with the social and moves towards the personal; the psychoanalytic starts with the personal and moves towards the social; and the cultural is where they meet each other halfway. Articulated as such, we would very much want to complement the Marxian and the Freudian traditions with a third tradition that starts from culture and moves towards both the social and the personal. I would suggest that this is precisely what we find in the Weberian tradition.

Of course, Max Weber is not unproblematic: for instance, many of his particular historical arguments—advanced over a century ago, by a synthesizer often working outside his primary area of specialization—have hardly withstood the test of time, and his advocacy of empire raises legitimate questions about his morality. Yet, what interests me is the way in which Weber seeks precisely to account for the dynamic between economic development on the one hand and the person on the other. The best-known example of this is his justly famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he argues that modern European capitalism emerged from a specifically Calvinist ethos that sought worldly affluence in order to demonstrate to self and other that one is among the elect of God. The pursuit of divine grace was translated into the pursuit of worldly goods. Although this is the best-known example, the dynamic between economic development and the person resounds throughout Weber's work. We see it in his subsequent studies of the relation between economics and world religion—The Religions of ChinaThe Religions of IndiaAncient Judaism (at the time of his premature death in 1920 from the Spanish flu--a belated and indirect casualty of the First World War--Weber planned to continue this series, with studies of early Christianity, rabbinic Judaism, and Islam, among others; one of the great tragedies of modern knowledge is that he never was able to produce these volumes)—and his unfinished Economy and Society (which includes the three or so hundred pages excerpted as the monograph known as Sociology of Religion). We can quibble about whether or not Weber’s interpretation of Calvinism, capitalism, and their relationships, or of other any particular, historical matter holds up empirically. What interests me is the way in which Weber situates culture at the centre of his analysis, rather than as the secondary consideration that it constitutes in both Marxian and psychoanalytic thought. Weber, I think, significantly contributes to thinking foundationally about the “third term” between society and the person, and more crucially about how that third term functions precisely as mediator. It allows us to adopt a multi-faceted strategy for building the synthesis of social-scientific insights: two flanks moving towards the middle, and a middle moving towards the flanks. The dynamic intersection of these movements moves the entire discussion to a new level, one where the seemingly intractable dispute about whether to foreground the personal or the social dissolves into the need to foreground precisely the relationship between the two.

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