sometimes argued that, in tune with the German idealistic tradition,
Weber rejected the notion of causality in human affairs. This is
emphatically not the case. Weber firmly believed in both historical
and sociological causality, but--and this may have given rise to
misunderstandings--he expressed causality in terms of probability.
Such stress on chance or probability, however, has nothing to do
with an insistence on free will or the unpredictability of human
behavior. Weber argued, for example, that human action was truly
unpredictable only in the case of the insane, and that "we
associate the highest measure of an empirical 'feeling of freedom'
with those actions which we are conscious of performing rationally."
This sense of subjective freedom, far from being rooted in unpredictability
and irrationality, arises precisely in those situations that can
be rationally predicted and mastered. Hence, Weber's notion of probability
or chance is not based in some kind of metaphysics of free will
but derives from his recognition of the extreme difficulties in
making entirely exhaustive causal imputations. Objective empirical
certainty in social research seemed to him hardly ever attainable.
The best one can do, he concluded, is to follow a variety of causal
chains that have helped determine the object under study.
Weber uses the notion of probability in his definitional statements--for
example, in defining a relationship as existing "in so far
as there is a probability that" a certain norm of behavior
will be adhered to--he responds to similar considerations. Probability
is here taken to mean that in all likelihood men involved in a certain
context will orient their behavior in terms of normative expectations.
But this is always probable and never certain because it can also
be assumed that for some actors the chains of causality peculiar
to their unique social relationships will lead to departure from
the expected probability.
is convenient to distinguish two directions in Weber's view of causality--historical
and sociological. "Historical causality determines the unique
circumstances that have given rise to an event. Sociological causality
assumes the establishment of a regular relationship between two
phenomena, which need not take the form 'A makes B inevitable,'
but may take the form 'A is more or less favorable to B.' "
The quest for historical causality asks the question: What are the
causes of the Bolshevik revolution? The search for sociological
causality involves questioning the economic, the demographic, or
the specifically social causes of all revolutions or of particular
ideal types of revolutions.
quest for historical causes, Weber pointed out, was facilitated
by what has been called mental experiments. When we learn that two
shots fired in Berlin in 1848 started the revolution of 1848, we
must ask whether the revolution would have taken place had these
shots not been fired. If we conclude that it would have started
in any case, we can rule out these shots as causes of the subsequent
revolutionary development. When we ask whether the Battle of Marathon
was a major causal event for the subsequent history of Hellenic
civilization, we must perform the mental experiment of envisaging
Greece dominated by the Persians. Such an experiment will convince
us that had the Athenians lost the battle, a Persian Greece would
have been a basically different society. We can then conclude as
to the probability that the outcome of the Battle of Marathon, by
guaranteeing the independence of the city-states, was indeed a major
causal factor in the subsequent development of Greek civilization.
assessment of the historical significance of an historical fact
will begin with the posing of the following question: In the event
of the exclusion of that fact from the complex of the factors which
are taken into account as co-determinants, or in the event of its
modification in a certain direction, could the course of events,
in accordance with general empirical rules, have taken a direction
in any way different in any features which would be decisive for
To determine sociological causality, Weber argues, also requires
operating within a probabilistic framework. This type of generalization
attempts to establish, for example, that the emergence of capitalism
required a certain type of personality largely shaped by the preachments
of Calvinist divines. The proof of the proposition comes when, either
through mental experiment or through comparative study in other
cultures, it is established that modern capitalism could probably
not develop without such personalities; therefore, Calvinism must
be considered a cause, though emphatically not the cause, of the
rise of capitalism.
example calls attention to the fact that Weber's methodological
reflections served as a tool in his substantive investigations.
Yet he was not concerned with methodology for its own sake and,
like many another scientist, he did not always follow his own methodological
guidelines. Contrary to his nominalistic stress on the acting person
as the unit of analysis, he advanced a theory of stratification
based largely on structural explanations rather than on a subjective
theory of class distinctions.
explaining the decline of the Roman Empire, he focused on structural
changes in Roman agriculture. More importantly still, Weber's life-long
preoccupation with the increase of rationality in the modern world
was to a considerable extent based on structural considerations,
as witness his stress on the separation of the household from the
business enterprise as a harbinger of economic rationalization.
In all these instances, Weber also provides illustrations pointing
to changing motivations of historical actors, yet on balance, structure
seems more important than motivation.
a number of other examples could be cited where Weber did not apply
his methodological injunctions, many more instances in his work
reveal that he put his methods to brilliant use in his substantive