Theses on Weber

 by Jim Spickard

  1. Weber argued that society is no thing-in-itself, but the product of a huge number of individual actions. (Actions are behavior governed by motives).
  2. On a logical basis, the number of pure types of action is restricted. Weber identifies four chief types: goal-rational; value-rational; emotional; and traditional.
    1. Each pure type has certain logical consequences, which the social analyst may spell out to get an abstract picture of social action.
    2. Empirical actions are a combination of these types. A particular empirical analysis will assess which types of action are involved in a given setting.
    3. By combining the abstract analysis of the logic of pure types with the concrete analysis of a given situation, the analyst can make predictions as to the future course of events in that setting.
  1. Like Marx and Durkheim, Weber sought to understand the differences between traditional societies and those of the modern West. Unlike them, however, he saw the difference as a matter of individual motivation, not social structure. That is, the West's development was the result of unique culturally normative motivational structures, which lead individuals to act differently than in traditional societies.
  2. Historically, Weber identified religion as a source of changing motives.
    1. Weber saw the West as culturally favoring a rationalized style of life. Capitalism as a social system involves, for him, a goal-oriented ordering of one's personal life. Specifically it requires self-denial in pursuit of profit.
    2. This motivational style is structurally similar to Calvinist "inner-worldly asceticism", which prompted believers to rationalize their lives as tools of God in the world.
    3. Calvinism did not cause capitalism. Rather, it helped validate a motivational style (an ethic) that—-shorn of its religious content—-is remarkably like the capitalist spirit. Other societies which possessed potential capitalist classes lacked this ethic, and did not develop capitalism.
    4. Therefore—-contra Marx—-motivations and ideals have independent power to influence the direction of history.
  1. Western authority structures are also different from those of traditional societies.
    1. Individuals in traditional societies followed leaders because of their personal qualities (charisma) or out of tradition.
    2. Individuals in modern societies have these motives, but also follow leaders because they are duly constituted: they are legal. The dominance of rational-legal authority is new to the modern West.
  1. The social result of this dominance of rationality as a motive in the West is two-faced: on the one hand it has improved people's material lives; on the other hand it has undercut their individuality and their emotional ties to one another. Weber sees the increasing rationalization of life as inevitable, only broken occasionally by charismatic leaders, who—-for a moment—-restore a sense of personal qualities to the world.

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revised September 2001