OBJECTIVITY AND THE SILENCE OF REASON:
WEBER, HABERMAS, AND THE METHODOLOGICAL DISPUTES
IN GERMAN SOCIOLOGY
This work examines the methodological and philosophical debates in nineteenth- and
twentieth-century German sociology as it focuses on the writings of Max Weber and Jürgen Habermas. Both sought to study the
nature of the historical and social sciences (Geisteswissenschaften) and their relationship to the natural sciences (Naturwissenschaften).
To this end, they inquired into the nature of objectivity, empirical reality, concept formation,
methods of science, and the relationship between values and science. In the early part of the twentieth century, Weber wove
together the competing strands of epistemology in his famous series of methodological essays, known as the Wissenschaftslehre, with his integration of the German idealism
and existentialism of Kant, Lange, and Schopenhauer, the neo-Kantianism of Windelband, Simmel, and Rickert, the radical Kantianism
and nihilistic critique of reason and decadence of Nietzsche, and the Historical School of Economics of Roscher, Knies, and Schmoller. At the
other end of the twentieth century, Habermas in his philosophy of social science integrated the systems theory of Parsons and Luhmann,
the hermeneutics of Heidegger and Gadamer, the historical structuralism of Weber, the functionalism of Marx and Freud, and the critical
theory of Adorno, Horkheimer, and Marcuse.
As the perception and knowledge of the phenomena and external reality (nature and society) are mediated and transformed by consciousness, language,
culture, and values, analysis of the role of objectivity in the social sciences becomes more complex and problematic. The application of Kant's theory of
subjectivity and consciousness to sociology has potentially placed the latter on a slippery slope towards historicism and relativism. Since reality is a subjective construct and constituted by means of linguistic and
cultural concepts, knowledge of what lies behind the concepts -- the thing-in-itself -- is inaccessible and meaningless. There is no longer a neutral arbiter, no third party mediating
between conflicting claims to truth, no original or objective source of knowledge, and, therefore, no God's eye-view of the world. There is no privileged access to reality through empirical facts (empiricism) or natural or predictive laws (rationalism), and, thus, no scientific
justification for any particular conceptual framework or theoretical paradigm. The traditional views of epistemological, ontological, and methodological objectivity have collapsed. Weber's neo-Kantian theory of consciousness and values leads to the conclusion that there is no objective knowledge and no objective reality, although, at times, he appears not to want to go that far. The words of Richard Rorty regarding the philosophy of science of Willard van Quine and post-analytic philosophy are quite relevant here for understanding Weber's theory: "Epistemology and ontology [concepts and reality]
never meet." Facts and laws are social constructions and cannot ground experience and knowledge, especially knowledge of culture, history, and social action. This helps explain Weber's turn to an alternative sociological method using the conceptual tools of "ideal types," "objective possibility," and "adequate causality"
found in the writings of Johannes Kries, Gustav Radbruch, and Eduard Meyer. According to G. Wagner and H. Zipprian, with interpretive social science the meaning of nineteenth-century historical causality and sociological explanation is grounded in the ideas of German civil and criminal law, judicial hermeneutics, and the rules for legal culpability and causality, not positivistic science.
The epistemological basis for truth claims in empiricism -- comparison of concepts to reality -- and its justification of science become difficult, if not impossible, to maintain.
The traditional notions of objective truth and an independent, external reality are discarded. By rejecting Hume's empiricist theory of impressions and causality, as well as the rationalist's (neoclassical economics)
theory of explanation and prediction, Weber begins his epistemological analysis of objectivity in the cultural and historical sciences by turning instead to the neo-Kantian theory of historical consciousness of
Heinrich Rickert and the relativism and perspectivism of Friedrich Nietzsche. Weber's methodological reflections in his Wissenschaftslehre permit him to develop his own critical epistemology,
rethink the value of Kant's critique of pure reason for a philosophy of social science, and respond to the deficiencies of both empiricism and rationalism. His theory of knowledge anticipates in exciting ways many of the
epistemological discussions in the late twentieth century.
Some have noticed that there is an apparent tension between the early methodological writings of Weber with their emphasis on interpretive science, subjective
intentionality, cultural meaning, and historical significance and his later works which stress issues of explanatory science,
natural causality, social prediction, and nomological laws. There appears to be an unresolved and unresolvable clash between
Weber's neo-Kantian epistemology and his later positivistic methodology. His goal was to develop a sociological method that joined together
these apparently different and conflicting approaches -- understanding and explanation -- without falling into a positivist
metaphysics of realism (belief in an objective reality) or naturalism (general method and laws of natural science). That is, Weber rejected the distorted and reified objectivity
of positivism in ontology (existence of an objective reality), epistemology (objective truth mirrored in theories and concepts), and methodology (application of natural science
and value neutrality). However, he failed to develop and integrate fully his alternative ideas. The tensions between interpretation and explanation, consciousness and objectivity, and social meaning and historical causality always remained in his works.
Also at the methodological level, there is an unexplained and unexamined difference between Weber's earlier sociology of religion and his later structuralist and historical analysis of
rationalization. Finally, there is some confusion over the relationship between his theory of value relevance (Wertbeziehung) and value freedom
(Wertfreiheit) in social science. At times, he appears to argue for a value-free and objectively neutral science; at other times, he accepts Kant's theory of subjectivity and Rickert's
theory of value as he criticizes the disenchanted and meaningless world of technical reason and the iron cage. The inconsistency is resolved when we realize that "value freedom" does not mean neutrality or technical objectivity, but "freedom from" the unconscious metaphysical values and unarticulated assumptions of natural science itself (Herrschaftswissen). With his neo-Kantian critique of positivism and rejection of science as domination, Weber challenges the traditional separation of values and science, emphasizes the importance of values in constructing sociological concepts and research
methods, and rejects the silence of positivist reason and objectivity in the face of economic rationalization, political domination, and modern bureaucracy. In modern society, positivism becomes just another form of formal reason and political ideology.
Habermas attempts to resolve these apparent epistemological and methodological tensions found in Weber's writings by showing the interrelationships in his critical theory between the methods of subjective
interpretation and objective causal explanation. According to Habermas, sociological methods develop not on the basis of a universal or transcendental philosophy of science, but rather,
they develop in response to critical questions raised within social theory. The theoretical perspective comes first and the methodology follows thereafter. Although sociologists may want to study the subjective intentions
and cultural meanings of social action, this may not be possible in a society characterized by technocratic utilitarianism, administrative rationality, and ideological repression. The individual reasons and intentions behind social action maybe neither rational nor intentional.
Functionalism is thus a method required by sociologists in order to explain social action within the reified and unconscious structures of alienation and rationalization in modern industrial society. Methodology and theory are intimately linked in this
discourse on modernity.
Habermas begins his earliest methodological writings by continuing the "positivist dispute" of the 1960s with his criticism of the empirical-analytic method of critical rationalism
(Popper and Albert). He views positivism not as the epistemological standard of science and truth, but as a product of the social process of reification (Marx), rationalization
(Weber), and repression (Freud). At stake in these interesting questions is nothing less than the nature of our knowledge of the social world and whether social science can make
evaluative judgments about it. Habermas believes that science cannot remain silent in the face of the social pathologies of modernity: alienation, false consciousness, the oppression of technological
and administrative rationality, and the loss of existential meaning and individual freedom.
As the culture of narcissism and decline of the public sphere intensifies; as the market economy and monopoly capital are
uncoupled from the cultural lifeworld and unrestrained by the values of social justice and fairness; as science and technology legitimate and direct the institutions of capitalism and the social system as a whole; as substantive reason
(Wertrationalität), with its political ideals and social dreams, is emptied of all critical and normative content and, in the process, repressed; and as the political concepts of "democracy," "freedom," and "social justice" are split-off and
separated from their original meanings and cultural traditions, a new iron cage is created. The result is a cultural wasteland depleted of all social meaning and without a collective memory. Positivism creates a science that is methodological unable
to explore these social changes or reflect upon their implications. This form of science can only blindly reproduce the given conditions of power and formal rationality (Zweckrationalität) within society. It can measure only what is, not what was or what could be; it is itself a
product of rationalization and alienation, and cannot think beyond them. On the other hand, a critical science must incorporate a variety of methodological approaches, such as historical, interpretive, explanatory, and emancipatory sociology in order to examine and evaluate the complex
system of modern society and the functional interconnections among its key constitutive elements --
LABOR (economy and production), POWER (bureaucracy and welfare state),
and LANGUAGE (communications, self, cultural lifeworld).
Epistemology, philosophy of social science, and methodology are all interconnected to the broader ethical and political questions of the day.
How we form our concepts, verify our empirical findings, justify our research methods, and articulate reason help expand or limit the
manner in which we define and act in our socially constructed lifeworld. Assess to the structures of labor, power, and language -- the economy, state, and lifeworld (culture, personality, & society) -- requires the use of different sociological methods, including functionalism, historical sociology, symbolic interactionism, hermeneutics,
psychoanalysis, and critical theory. Habermas develops a comprehensive and critical theory of modernity by explaining and expanding upon the functionalism and systems theory of Talcott Parsons using the theories of social pathology and structural crises of Marx, Weber, Freud, and Durkheim.
He replaces analysis of the conditions and norms of social action, institutional roles, cultural pattern maintenance, social solidarity, and systems stability with a structural and functional examination of the following: internal colonization of modern consciousness and culture, systems uncoupling of the political economy from the socio-cultural lifeworld, transformation of the public and private spheres, displacement of class conflict through the welfare state,
and evolution of economic and legitimation crises in advanced capitalist society.
In Habermas's social theory, methodological issues are fundamentally
political and ethical as they involve specific normative and social interests. The instrumental and technological assumptions of a positivist theory of objectivity and science are rejected
since they can only result in a silencing of reason -- reason without history and an understanding of the meaning of social action, reason without philosophy and an appreciation of the
epistemological discussions about knowledge and truth, and reason without social justice and the ethical possibilities of a free society. Positivism does not permit sociological inquiry into these types of structural, historical, ethical, and hermeneutical questions.
Reason cannot speak to them, reason cannot reflect upon them, and reason cannot evaluate them.
Issues of objectivity and rationality, as well as issues of methods and logics of inquiry, are intimately connected with issues of labor, power, and political oppression. Different methods give voice to alternative ideas, multiple
views of science, forgotten dreams, the potential hidden in exploited social structures, and repressed human needs. Consideration of the institutional and historical nature of reification, unconscious repression,
distorted communication, and economic exploitation requires different methodological procedures which Habermas investigates in Knowledge and Human Interests (1968) and in On the Logic of the Social Sciences (1967 and 1970). But, it is in his major metatheoretical and
methodological work, The Theory of Communicative Action (1981), that Habermas, leaving behind his earlier Kantian and transcendental approach to sociology, attempts a comprehensive integration of theory and methods by borrowing from the diverse literature of classical and contemporary sociology through his phenomenological reconstruction of the history of
Western social thought from Marx to Parsons.