Modernity, Meaning, and Cultural Pessimism in Max Weber
Author(s): Steven Seidman
Source: Sociological Analysis, Vol. 44, No. 4 (Winter, 1983), pp. 267-278 Published by: Association for the Sociology of Religion, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3711610
Accessed: 11/03/2009 01:53
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Sociological nalysis1983, 44, 4:267-278
State University f New Yorkat Albany
intellectual mporBeginning rom the assumptionhat classicalworksretaina contemporary f
tance,thispaperexamines eber's iewson modernitynd theproblem f meaning. hepaperaro t
gues that althoughWebermaintained hatneitherreligion orscience ieldsbeliefsystems f a soy o
antimodernismf cultural escially unifyingnature,he did not subscribeo the one-dimensional o
simistsor the existentialist ilemmaof an absurdexistence.Weber's erspective n modernitys d
shownto be a liberalversionof valuepluralism nd decisionism. a
Contrary to what the Whiggish notion of scientificprogresswould lead us to believe, contemporary sociological analysis has not so much superseded past sociological thought as elaborated,revised, and thereby sustainedits present importance.The classical tradition continues to structurecurrent theoretical and researchdebates. From this perspective,reading classicalworks takes on a new significance:the analysisof classical texts is not only of historical interest but is often an exercise in theoretical innovation or, at least, a practice embedded in present intellectualproblems (cf. Alexander, 1983; Seidman, 1983).
The contemporary intellectual status of the classical tradition is nowhere more evident than in recent theoretical reflection and researchon religion, values, identity, and freedom in modernity. It is hardly an exaggerationto say that the main theoreticalperspectivesthat inform currentresearchon problemsof meaning and freedomin modernity stem from the works of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber. We need only referto the revitalization of the sociology of religion which reflects,on the one hand, the incorporation of the Weberian viewpoint in the works, for example, of Peter Berger(1967), Thomas Luckmann (1967) and Bryan Wilson (1976) and, on the other hand, the reworkingof the Durkheimian legacy around the theme of civil religion (e.g. Bellah 1975; Parsons, 1974).
If the classical tradition is pivotal in contemporarysociology then why the need for this analysisof Weber'sviews on modernityand the problemof meaning?There are two t
justifications for examining Weber'sworks. First, although the "neo-Weberians"ake Weber'swritings as their point of departure,they have not elaboratedWeber'sconcept of modernity. Weberoffersa globalperspectiveon modernitywhich is more comprehensive and differentat crucialpoints from his successors.Weber'sworks contain untapped possibilities for theorizing and research. Second, the failure to detail Weber'sidea of modernity has allowed a misleading interpretationof Weber as a cultural pessimistto gain widespreadcurrency.The Weberianouevre is invoked to legitimatea one-dimensional critiqueof modernity (e.g. in the FrankfurtSchool). This essay examines Weber's perspectiveon modernity and the problemof meaning. Departingfrom customaryinterpretationsof Weber,I arguethat although Weberholds that neither religionnor science
can generate meaning systems of a socially unifying character, he did not succumb to cultural pessimismor to the metaphysicalpathos of an absurd existence. The Problem f Meaning
Weber's view of modernity presupposes a philosophical anthropology that has its roots in the German idealist tradition. Aside from defining human nature and motivation in terms of the hedonist materialistpsychology of the utilitariantradition, Weber asserts that humans have a "metaphysicalneed for a meaningful cosmos"(1946:281). The need for meaning derives from the universal condition of the experienceof senselessness. Senselessness refers to such events as death, innocent suffering,and the element of randomness in the distribution of wealth, power, and status. Weber submits that throughout history religion has functioned to satisfythe human need for meaning. "All religionshave demanded as a specificpresuppositionthat the course of the worldbe somehow meaningful"(1946:353). Humans need to make sense of those occurrences which appear unfathomable; religion elaborates theodicies and interpretationsof life which explain the extraordinaryand justify the routine orders of daily life. Modernity, Weber says, is characterized y the eclipseof a religio-cosmological orld view by a secuw b
lar one. The secular world view-what Weber sometimes calls the "cosmosof natural causality"-is antitheticalto the religiouspostulate of a meaningfulcosmos. "Inprinciple the empiricalas well as the mathematicallyoriented view of the world develops refutations of every intellectual approach which in any way asks for a 'meaning'of inner( worldly occurrences" 1946:351).Since Weber takes the experienceof senselessnessas a permanent existential predicament,the need for meaning persistsin the modern world. Thus the question arises:in so far as science cannot speak to the need for a meaningful cosmos, and religion has lost its cognitive preeminence,how and in what form is the individualto endow life with meaning and purpose.Weberconcluded that the modern individual faces a existential dilemma unknown in its intensity and clarity to previous epochs: the problem of meaning.
This essay is divided into two parts. In the first part, I review Weber'sargumentson the relationshipbetween religion, science, and meaning in modernity.In part two, I criticize interpretationsof Weber as a culturalpessismist.Weber'sperspectiveon modernity is shown to be a "liberal" ersion of value pluralismand decisionism. v
I. Religion nd Modernity
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an evolutionary perspectiveon religion prevailed.Defined largelyin cognitive terms, religion was viewed as a transitionalphase in the historical development of reason and humanity (Bellah, 1976). Although Weber repudiatedthe cognitive bias in evolutionary theories (Tenbruck, 1980), he retained an evolutionaryperspectivein that he arguedthat religion would decline as a sourceof personal identity and moral community in modernity. Weber'ssociohistorical account of secularizationis developed in his analysis of the twin processes of disenchantment and intellectualization.Disenchantment refersto a world without magical and supernaturalforces. Weber identified two main sources of disenchantment: the Occidental religiousrationalizationprocess culminating in Protestantism and the scientific revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The
MODERNITY, EANING, ND CULTURAL ESSIMISM MAXWEBER
rise of science was particularlysignificantas it projectsan autonomous world operating according to immanent natural forces. In the words of Alexandre Koyre, the scientific revolution brought forth "the destruction of the Cosmos, that is, the disappearance, from philosophically and scientificallyvalid concepts, of the conception of the world as a finite, closed, and hierarchicallyorderedwhole . .. and its replacementby an ... infinite...