Weber rejected both the
positivist contention that the cognitive aims of the natural and
the social sciences were basically the same and the opposing German
historicist doctrine that in the realm of Kultur and Geist (that
is, in the domain of history) it is impossible to make legitimate
generalizations because human actions are not subject to the regularities
that govern the world of nature. Against the historicists Weber
argued that the method of science, whether its subject matter be
things or men, always proceeds by abstraction and generalization.
Against the positivists, he took the stand that man, in contrast
to things, could be understood not only in external manifestations,
that is, in behavior, but also in the underlying motivations. And
against both these approaches Weber emphasized the value-bound problem
choices of the investigator and the value-neutral methods of social
to Weber, differences between the natural sciences and the social
sciences arise from differences in the cognitive intentions of the
investigator, not from the alleged inapplicability of scientific
and generalizing methods to the subject matter of human action.
What distinguishes the natural and social sciences is not an inherent
difference in methods of investigation, but rather the differing
interests and aims of the scientist. Both types of science involve
abstraction. The richness of the world of facts, both in nature
and in history, is such that a total explanation in either realm
is doomed to fail. Even in physics it is impossible to predict future
events in all their concrete detail. No one, for example, can calculate
in advance the dispersion of the fragments of an exploding shell.
Prediction becomes possible only within a system of conceptualizations
that excludes concern for those concrete facts not caught in the
net of abstractions. Both the natural and the social sciences must
abstract from the manifold aspects of reality; they always involve
scientist is primarily interested in those aspects of natural events
that can be formulated in terms of abstract laws. While the social
scientist may wish to search for such lawful abstract generalizations
in human behavior, he is also interested in particular qualities
of human actors and in the meaning they ascribe to their actions.
Any scientific method must make a selection from the infinite variety
of empirical reality. When the social scientist adopts a generalizing
method, he abstracts from random unique aspects of the reality he
considers; concrete individual actions are conceived as "cases"
or "instances," which are subsumed under theoretical generalizations.
The individualizing approach, in contrast, neglects generic elements
and concentrates attention on particular features of phenomena or
concrete historical actors. Both methods are defensible, provided
neither is alleged to encompass phenomena in their totality. Neither
method is privileged or inherently superior to the other.
problem attracts a scholar, and what level of explanation is sought,
depends, Weber argues, on the values and interests of the investigator.
The choice of problems is always "value relevant." "There
is no absolutely 'objective' scientific analysis of culture or .
. . of 'social phenomena' independent of special and 'one-sided'
viewpoints according to which-- expressly or tacitly, consciously
or unconsciously--they are selected, analyzed and organized for
expository purposes." What is considered "worthy to be
known" depends upon the perspective of the inquiring scholar.
Hence there is no insurmountable chasm between the procedures of
the natural and the social scientist, but they differ in their cognitive
intentions and explanatory projects.
When the objection
is raised that rational knowledge of causal sequences may be attained
in the world of nature, but that the human world in not susceptible
to rational explanation because of its unpredictability and irrationality,
Weber counters by turning the tables. Our knowledge of nature must
always be, as it were, from the outside. We can only observe external
courses of events and record their uniformities. But in regard to
human action, we can do more than write protocols of recurrent sequences
of events; we can attempt to impute motives by interpreting men's
actions and words. With this method, he of course opposes the positivists
as well. "Social facts are in the last resort intelligible
facts." We can understand (verstehen) human action by penetrating
to the subjective meanings that actors attach to their own behavior
and to the behavior of others. A sociology of the chicken yard can
only account for regularities of behavior--in other words, for a
pecking order. A sociology of human groups has the inestimable advantage
of access to the subjective aspects of action, to the realm of meaning
and motivation. Hence Weber's definition of sociology as "that
science which aims at the interpretative understanding (Verstehen)
of social behavior in order to gain an explanation of its causes,
its course, and it effects."
The notion of
interpretative understanding did not originate with Weber. It was
first advanced by the historian Droysen and was used extensively
by such scholars as Dilthey. But for them the method was meant to
extol intuition over rational-causal explanation. Weber, in contrast,
saw in it only a preliminary step in the establishment of causal
relationships. The grasping of subjective meaning of an activity,
Weber argued, is facilitated through empathy (Einfuehlung) and a
reliving (Nacherbleben) of the experience to be analyzed. But any
interpretative explanation (verstehende Erklaerung) must become
a causal explanation if it is to reach the dignity of a scientific
proposition. Verstehen and causal explanation are correlative rather
than opposed principles of method in the social sciences. Immediate
intuitions of meaning can be transformed into valid knowledge only
if they can be incorporated into theoretical structures that aim
at causal explanation.
objection that this manner of interpretation is subject to the danger
of contamination from the values held by the scientific investigator,
Weber countered that interpretations can be submitted to the test
of evidence. This, he argued, is to be distinguished from the fact
that the choice of subject matter--as distinct from the choice of
interpretation--stems from the investigator's value orientation,
which may be the case with the natural scientist as well.
that a value element inevitable entered into the selection of the
problem an investigator chooses to attack. There are no intrinsically
scientific criteria for the selection of topics; here every man
must follow his own demon, his own moral stance, but this in no
way invalidates the objectivity of the social sciences. The question
of whether a statement is true of false is logically distinct from
that of its relevance to values. Wertbeziehung (value relevance)
touches upon the selection of the problem, not upon the interpretation
of phenomena. As Parsons put it, "Once a phenomenon is descriptively
given, the establishment of causal relations between it and either
its antecedents or its consequences is possible only through the
application, explicitly or implicitly, of a formal schema of proof
that is independent of any value system, except the value of scientific
proof." Hence, the relativity of value orientations leading
to different cognitive choices has nothing to do with questions
of scientific validity. What are relativized in this view are not
the findings but the problems.
must be distinguished from value-neutrality, since they refer to
two different orders of ideas. In the first place, ethical neutrality
implies that once the social scientist had chosen his problem in
terms of its relevance to his values, he must hold values--his own
or those of others--in abeyance while he follows the guidelines
his data reveal. He cannot impose his values on the data and he
is compelled to pursue his line of inquiry whether or not the results
turn out to be inimical to what he holds dear. A geneticist of liberal
persuasion, for example, should not abandon his line of inquiry
if his findings suggest that differences in intelligence are associated
with biological traits. Value neutrality, in this first meaning
of the term, refers to the normative injunction that men of science
should be governed by the ethos of science in their role as scientists,
but emphatically not in their role as citizens.
value neutrality refers no less importantly to another order of
considerations; the disjunction between the world of facts and the
world of values, the impossibility of deriving "ought statements"
from "is statements." An empirical science, Weber contended,
can never advise anyone what he should do, though it may help him
to clarify for himself what he can or wants to do.
treatment of value judgments may not only understand and empatically
analyze the desired ends and the ideals which underline them; it
can also "judge" them critically. This criticism can.
. . be no more than a formal logical judgment of historically given
value judgments and ideas, a testing of the ideals according to
the postulate of the internal consistency of the desired end. .
. . It can assist [the acting person] in becoming aware of the ultimate
standards of value which he does not make explicit to himself, or
which he must presuppose in order to be logical. . . . As to whether
the person expressing these value judgments should adhere to these
ultimate standards is his personal affair; it involves will and
conscience, not empirical knowledge.
Weber was fundamentally at odds with those who argued for a morality
based on science. In this respect he was as opposed to Durkheim
as he would be to those psychoanalysts today who claim they have
a scientific warranty to counsel "adjustment" or "self-actualization,"
as the case may be, to their patients.
qua scientist can evaluate the probable consequences of courses
of action, Weber believed, but he cannot make value judgments. Weber
had an austere view of science. "Science today," he wrote,
"is a 'vocation' organized in special disciplines in the service
of self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is
not the gift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values
and revelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages
and philosophers about the meaning of the universe." The realm
of moral values, Weber believed, was a realm of warring gods demanding
allegiance to contradictory ethical notions. The scientist qua scientist,
therefore, could have no answer to the Tolstoian question, "What
shall we do?" "Academic prophecy . . . will create only
fanatical sects," Weber believed, "but never a genuine
community." The scientist should not hanker after leadership
over men; he finds dignity and fulfillment in the quest for truth.
When Weber was once asked why he undertook his wide-ranging studies,
he replied: "I wish to know how much I can take."