ELEMENTARY FORMS OF EVERYDAY LIFE.
MAX WEBER AND GERMAN SOCIAL SCIENCE IN THE END OF XIXth AND THE BEGINNING OF XXth CENTURY
The Introduction deals with the turnabout caused over the past 20 years by the fact of what is referred to as everyday life becoming an insurmountable agency from the perspective of sociological thought, regardless of whether scientific interest in it is seen as necessitated by a desire for a better understanding of the social world, of the researcher’s own point of view on the world, or by an aspiration to expand the power potentials of sociology (respectively, through sociology). The picture revealed from such a perspective is a multi-dimensional one, yet the emphasis here lays on one of its defining characteristics: the systematic erosion of the boundary between sociological research and specific everyday practices, with far-reaching consequences for both sides. In any event, as a result of that, some serious doubt is cast upon the widespread ‘romantic’ concept of sociology, one that regards the non-coincidence between scientific practice and everyday reality as an irrefutable axiom. Posing the question regarding the conditions of possibility of such a situation calls for a serious theoretical re-definition of the sociology-everyday life relationship.
Hence the key category that is distilled to serve as title of this book: ‘elementary forms of everyday life’. The significance ascribed to it as a device for deciphering the situation of late-modern sociology arises from the hybridity of the so-called ‘modern form’, which is neither a scientific construct nor a crystallization of human relationships free from scientific control. Placing the emphasis on this category (which is not the same as its empirical ‘fulfillment’, the latter remaining a genuine challenge to contemporary researchers) at the same time allows the concept of everyday life to be treated as an important constructive principle within 20th century social science while comparing seemingly incomparable sociological situations. Form this perspective, it seems quite reasonable to shift the focus towards late 19th c.-early 20th c. German sociology, and more specifically, to the sociological insights of Max Weber who, according to one of the hypotheses of the present study, has de facto identified all significant aspects of the form of everyday life in his own time. More importantly, however, it is Weber’s style of ‘doing’ sociology that confronts us with the challenge of formulating a question of principle: that of the elementary form of everyday life.
There is, however, an ontological justification for such a shift in focus. For all the incommensurateness of the social worlds of the late 19th and early 21st century, a major reason for their comparability is the fact that then, as now, some profound economic, technological and political transformations, ones that had occurred or were occurring in the meantime, made their impact on everyday life, gradually and increasingly pre-forming everyday perceptions. Then, as now, sociological knowledge was both an element of the vortex of changes and a sensitive tool for their interpretation. In both cases the password is: self-problematization of everyday life.
Chapter One presents, above all, a specific cross-section of Max Weber’s methodology through the prism of self-problematized everyday life. An issue, long canonized in Weberology, such as the question of ‘objectivity’ of social science, is interpreted here in terms of the tension between ‘evaluative’ and ‘causal-analytical’ interpretation, between ‘Realgrund’ and ‘Erkenntnisgrund’, and in the final analysis, in terms of the relationship between ‘objects’ controllable by scientific ‘methods’ and objects already constructed in the realm of ‘pre-scientific’ thought. This series of oppositions indicates not so much the emergence of an obtrusive metatheoretical problem, one whose solution is to be sought in the realm of pure methodology, as it provokes the feeling that the methodological problem is an indication of uncertainty of the routine research practice, and thence of the de-synchronization between the researcher’s point of view and the reality researched.
Such zigzagging of Weber’s thinking necessitates a timely fine-tuning of the reconstructive optics in Chapter One. Thus, the initially more general methodological perspective refocuses into a microscopic view of the two main fields that had repeatedly drawn young Weber’s attention with the dynamics of change within them: agrarian relations (the so-called East Elbian question) and the stock exchange. While in the former instance, the change of economic relations is analyzed in terms of a transformation of relationships of power and domination, in the latter instance the actual domination of economic abstractions is subject to interpretation. In this chapter, the sphere of agrarian relations is regarded as a natural laboratory for investigating the disintegration of traditional communal relations while examining the centaurial configurations of pre-reflexive and rational ties that had come to replace them; ties that, albeit otherwise lost or hidden in an urban context irreversibly mediated by economic factors, continue to exert a considerable impact on the cultural form of economic relations. Weber’s studies on the stock exchange are perceived as a theoretical elaboration on his interest in agrarian history and politics during the 1890s. The reality of the stock exchange attracted his attention as an emblematic phenomenon of modern capitalism, and hence as a possibility to gain access to some of the key operational mechanisms of modern social life which had remained invisible in the realm of agrarian relations.
A research project, by now almost forgotten, to investigate the press as a ‘mass phenomenon’ is used as a device for elaborating this point of view in Chapter One. This was a project that Weber never actually pursued in practice, yet one that can be seen as evidence of his undying interest in the very ‘machinery’ (his own term) of modern social life and the simultaneous ‘shrinking and expanding of the horizons, enrichment and schematizing of human thought’. Ultimately, young Weber’s studies on agrarian relations and the stock exchange indicate an aspiration on his part to identify these configurations of the political and the economic which flash behind the rapidly changing social fabric, necessitating a redefinition of ‘logical forms’ in conformity with the problematized forms of everyday life.
The very last paragraph of Chapter One tackles, by means of their mutual mirroring, two instances of the explicit use of ‘everyday life’ in Weber’s work: firstly, in the phrase ‘everyday economic life’, used to denote the penetration of a certain type of rationality into the remotest pockets of social existence; and secondly, in the sociology of domination where, by opposing ‘Charisma’ to ‘Alltag’ he managed to highlight the otherwise near-invisible common element between traditional and bureaucratic structures: consistency, repetitiveness, economic involvement. In the former instance we have a case of what seems to be a purely empirical usage of the term ‘everyday life’, behind which, however, stands the rather unorthodox theoretical conception that such a style of existence only becomes visible, through its expansion, in the Modern Age. In the latter instance there is an apparent case of an intrinsically theoretical usage of the ‘Charisma–Alltag’ opposition for purposes of comparative analysis. Yet in both cases the introduction of this concept has been motivated by an acute sensitivity to the radically changed image of ‘social meanings’.
Chapter Two presents yet another change of optics, following closely the as yet implicit ‘dialog’ between Weber and Carl Menger, a leading figure in the Austrian school in economics of the 1880s and 90s. Menger’s influence on Weber, though not unnoticed, is usually overshadowed by Weber’s indebtedness to the so-called ‘historical school’ in economics. It is generally believed that, so long as Weber did not dabble in economic theory per se, his use of certain categories of the ‘marginal utility theory’ has remained largely inconsequential to the conceptual apparatus of his sociology. Chapter Two challenges such an assumption while preparing the reader for the detailed analysis contained in Chapter Three, where the quite substantial impact of Menger’s ideas on Weber is highlighted exactly in view of the possibility of identifying significant aspects of modern everyday life and the corresponding sociological insight. The reconstruction of Menger’s beliefs (and, by extension, of the Menger-Weber dialog) takes place along two parallel lines: 1) through Menger’s understanding of economics as an interpretative and self-reflexive science affording a specific perspective of the totality of social processes, and 2) through the so-called ‘theory of the subjective value’, centered around the value-assigning activity of the ego. From such a perspective Menger’s economic theory is interpreted as shifting the focus from the ‘petrified’ object-like structures of economic life towards the way in which the individual, as a consumer, exerts a considerable influence on the principles of structuring of the material world of goods. The second aspect of this interpretation emphasizes, first and foremost, the role of ‘knowledge’ in Menger’s theory of economic action, including the role of incomplete, false, or misleading knowledge. In general terms, knowledge as stylized, that is, desubjectivized experience mediated the subjective attitude of the modern individual to his artifactual environment. It is this knowledge that the individual uses as the basis for his evaluative capacity; it is this knowledge that enables the individual to produce ‘rational’ results imitating the prescripts of theoretical rationality.
True to the classic teleological pattern of exposition development, Chapter Three bears the main theoretical burden of the study, for which it can be seen as constituting ‘a book within the book’ in its own right. Its first section presents specific ‘documentary’ evidence of Menger’s impact on Weber’s thinking, namely the synopsis of a course of lectures in economics which Weber delivered at the Universities of Freiburg and Heidelberg in the mid- to late-1890s. The more important conclusion that can be drawn from analyzing this manuscript, however, is that it reveals the original context of Weber’s unfinished work Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft and, respectively, of the unprecedented project of ‘social economy’. Discussed here are three principal aspects of the idea of social economy: 1) the universal rationalization of social life as the heart of the matter, against which economic reality is but a ‘partial’, albeit privileged, sphere; 2) the study of economic reality in terms of its ‘cultural meaning’, as an essential perspective towards the rationalization processes (straddling the borderline between different social sciences); 3) the style of investigation, which requires that all phenomena that have fallen into the focus of the research be taken not as ‘objectively’ extant, but as objectifications of social meaning, subject to deciphering from an ‘understanding’ rather that ‘registrative’ attitude (specific direction of ‘our cognitive interest’). The social economics project is interpreted here as a unique attempt of drawing a practical correlation between the point of view of the researcher and the crystallizing form of everyday life. This also applies to the role of sociology, which is identified as the actual ‘nerve’ of social economics, inasmuch as it is interested primarily in the subjective validity of the practical orientation towards different social orders.
The extensive Excurse contained in this Chapter is focused on a rarely discussed section of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: “Basic Sociological Concepts of Economic Action”. The attention devoted to it in this case is motivated by the conviction that this section represents an important aspect of the analytical network of Weberian social economics. Its analysis evidences not only the ‘selective affinity’ of categories used to those of the ‘marginal utility theory’, but above all the original way in which Weber applies them to interpret the economic reality in a sense broader than the one usually ascribed to it. Considerable significance in this context is assigned to Weber’s ‘modalizing’ of economic categories referring to the concept of abilities of the economic agent. Thus modern economic life appears as a medium of uncertainty, of risky steps, of fulfillment and frustration of intentions, of operating with constructs as if they were physical objects, of building one’s own while frustrating others’ possibility spaces, of re-enacting phantasms in one’s imagination, often prejudicing in a decisive way an actor’s relations with the others.
Prominent within the Excurse is the theme of the disruption between transcendent meanings and worldly ends, which predetermines the dynamics of the relationship between means and ends, as well as between ‘technique’ and ‘economic action’ in modern economic life. Special attention is given here to the figure of the entrepreneur, one that began to emerge already in The Protestant Ethics, which is an embodiment of a structural constellation of persons, physical objects and social processes, for which he has found no ready-to-use pattern in the surrounding world. The entrepreneur is undoubtedly a charismatic figure (although possessing a ‘weak’ charisma), one that cannot represent an emanation of formal rationality, so long as formal rationality is about the automatism of a certain type of economic everyday life, while Weber’s modern entrepreneur does not belong to the everyday life even though he himself defines its structures. Further in the chapter, the question is raised of the relationship between formal and material rationality, as polar categories only in the final analysis, otherwise bearing evidence of a strong, in-depth link between them, the breaking of which, according to Weber, is a sign of the ‘fundamental irrationality’ of economic life. The final conclusion of the Excurse in reference to the ‘economic everyday life’ as a significant variable in deciphering the processes taking place in late-modern society is that so long as everyday life is regarded as economic, it describes the domination of formal-rational structures and the trajectories they chart for the development of social relationships; inasmuch as it is regarded as everyday life, however, crystallized within it are the qualitative elements of human interactions, which in turn represent a ‘cultural’ precondition for one type of economic structuring or another.
From this point onwards, the remaining two sections of Chapter Three contain a detailed analysis of these two aspects of modern everyday life, in the form, respectively, of subjective ‘qualitative’ rationality and of ‘objective rightful rationality’ (objective Richtigkeitsrationalität). These analyses are centered round a category which Weber discusses at some length solely in his article published in the journal Logos, “On Some Categories of Interpretative Sociology”: ‘consensual action’. This category is introduced in juxtaposition to the ‘prescribed’ social order and finds its expression within the ‘as if’ (als ob) predicate: even in the absence of a ‘purposive rationally negotiated order’ individuals consider their own expectations of the conduct of others and act ‘as if’ the negotiation has actually taken place. Consensual action is interpreted here as the everyday fabric of even highly rationalized purposive communities. The second aspect of the Richtigkeitsrationalität mentioned above, that of the so-called ‘objective rationality of rightful action’ refers to a specific ‘teleology’ of rationality within which modern everyday life appears to be functioning merely as a form of reproduction of anonymous, depersonalized and rationalized social structures. A careful analysis, however, is bound to identify those structures as autonomized institutional expressions of embodied patterns of action; in this sense, the Richtigkeitsrationalität is to be seen as the practically valid position, towards which the ‘subjective purposeful rationality’ must tend if it is to be interpretatively rendered as a diversion from it (a kind of ‘pre-established harmony’ between both types of rationality). This development (which, undoubtedly, becomes possible owing also to the particular role of scientific knowledge and its habitualized modifications) is seen in the book as an expansion of everyday experience in the form of both rationalized and rationalizable practices in late-modern society.
The Conclusion gives a brief consideration to some difficulties of reconstructive work, having to do with the danger of ‘hindsight distortion’. The focus, however, is placed above all upon two utterly tense social processes, both occupying Weber’s attention while, on the other hand – from a present-day perspective – making it possible to speak of an expansion of everyday life into late-modern society: 1) the emancipation of everyday regularity from its subjection to meanings lying beyond it; and 2) the radical ‘socialization’ of everyday mechanics, which is tantamount to self-operation of the formal-rational structures of sociality, regardless of the material-rational relationships which have caused them.