Max Weber On The Ubiquity Of ‘Meaning’ In ‘Social Life’ And ‘Nature’

In “The Concept of ‘Following a Rule'” (Weber: Selections in Translation, ed. W. G. Runciman, Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 107) Max Weber writes:

If we separate in our minds the ‘meaning’ which we find ‘expressed’ in an object or event from those elements in the object or event which are left over when we abstract precisely that ‘meaning,’ and if we call an enquiry which considers only these latter elements a ‘naturalistic’ one, then we get a broader concept of ‘nature,’ which is quite distinct from the previous one. Nature is what is ‘meaningless’ – or, more correctly, an event becomes part of ‘nature’ if we do not ask for its ‘meaning.’ But plainly in that case the opposite of ‘nature,’ in the sense of the ‘meaningless,’ is not ‘social life’ but just the ‘meaningful’ – that is, the ‘meaning’ which can be attached to, or ‘found in,’ an event or object, from the metaphysical ‘meaning’ given to the cosmos in a system of religious doctrine down to the ‘meaning’ which the baying of one of Robinson Crusoe’s hounds ‘has’ when a wolf is approaching.

In ‘The Concept of ‘Following A Rule’ Weber was concerned to provide an extended critique of the notion put forward by Rudolf Stammler that–roughly–‘social’ life could be demarcated from ‘nature’ on the basis of the criteria that social life was characterized by rule-following; it is this ‘following a rule’ which generates the meaning attached to social events; Robinson Crusoe, bound ‘only’ by nature and his own desires and constraints follows no such rules; his is not a social life; it is life lived in ‘nature.’ As Weber went on to argue, such a distinction was not enough; Crusoe’s existence on his isolated island could be interpreted to be bound by ‘rules’ too; the curious social scientist just had to look farther afield, perhaps at the laws of nature that Crusoe was bound by, perhaps the rhythms of a daily routine that best served his continued existence and survival. The boundaries between the ‘social’ and the ‘natural’ cannot be so easily drawn; the social cannot so easily be described by a logic different from that used to describe nature.

In the passage above, Weber notes that ‘meaning’ is far too loose a notion to do the work that such a distinction would seek to make it do; ‘meaning’ is ubiquitous depending on the perspectives and interpretations at play; we can read meaning into and out of natural events just as easily as we do with social ones. If we are determined to describe ‘nature’ as ‘meaningless’ we will not obtain ‘social life’ as its converse, but rather, just the ‘meaningful,’ which will not map on precisely to what we understand in normal practice by ‘nature.’ This is a point that should be familiar to those who struggle to provide theories of meaning in the philosophy of language; far too much is found ‘meaningful’–using explicitly linguistic units or otherwise–for one all-encompassing theory to do do justice to the concept.

Work Ain’t Working For Us (And Hasn’t Been)

‘Work’ is a four-letter word, variously used to describe an activity for which a bewildering array of pejorative adjectives have been deployed over the years. Slogans abound, on bumper sticker and office cubicle alike: we’re working for the weekend; thank God it’s Friday; a bad day fishing is better than a good day working; and so on. We all hate Monday mornings; hump days signal relief lies ahead; Sunday evening gives us the blues. When we do enjoy that which brings home the bacon, we rush to reassure others that ‘it’s so much fun, it doesn’t feel like work.’ And yet, peculiarly, our moral values and sensibility are fully imbued by precisely those qualities that make us better workers: thrift, industriousness, patience being but a few. We are praiseworthy if we have a ‘good work ethic.’ We are told that ‘early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ The worst abuse that can be directed against a the consumption of a psychotropic substance is that it makes you ‘unproductive’ and induces ‘amotivational syndrome.’ Apparently, we are to be instructed that we are good if we consign ourselves to the bad. Something seems amiss. Sure, work is described as ‘virtuous’ in order to make the above stipulations of our moral ordering work, but the irony and perversity remains: we are good if we find the boring and pointless and tedious fulfilling and engaging and worthy of devoting one-third or more of our lives to.

This clash of the ideology of work with our lived experience of actual working situations is seemingly as old as the hills, as are the litanies of protests–practical and theoretical–directed against it. (For the latter, we may consider as historical examples provided by the dual, converse critiques to be found in Karl Marx‘s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts and Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; for the former, we need only consider the long and troubled history of labor relations.) But we continue to work, harder and harder, afraid that if we stop poverty, and what’s worse, moral approbation, will come crashing down on our heads.

Ideologies are powerful, and so we are resigned to this state of affairs: we need all that we are working toward, we cannot give up the comforts work provides us, the fate of our civilization, our world, depends on out work. Nose and shoulder back to the grindstone and wheel, please. Periodic irruptions remind us that this resignation is sometimes an uneasy one; the intolerable can only be tolerated for so long. We murmur uneasily at the deluded troublemakers, casting quick glances at them, before returning to work; their rabble-rousing threatens to disrupt our work. You know, the thing we despise and cannot wait to be done with.

Man is a curious creature, capable of tolerating many contradictions and ironies, material and formal. Here is another one; a daily presence in our lives. We’ve learned to live with it; we teach our children how to.

On Voting ‘Yes’ On The CUNY Strike Authorization Vote

Yesterday, like many of my colleagues at the City University of New York I voted ‘Yes’ on our union’s strike authorization vote. (The voting period ends May 11th; at that time, the PSC-CUNY will be able to inform CUNY administration of the extent of faculty and staff support for a strike.) A strike is serious business; it is a high-risk political tactic; in the current political and economic climate, a strike invites serious rhetorical and material blow-back. A strike shuts down services, sometimes essential ones; a strike causes economic damage and hurts livelihoods; a strike inconveniences many. Why strike?

It is an interesting feature of our modern social discourse that a strike has come to be regarded with as much antipathy as it has. Such a development would not have been surprising to anyone familiar with the kind of analysis that theorists like Max Weber or Max Horkheimer gave us of our developing understanding of work: work for the sake of work, work as a deliverance, work as a blessing, the desire to work as evidence of rationality, “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling”–these all would come to signal the refusal to work as a kind of moral failing. As Horkheimer noted in The Eclipse of Reason, “The deification of industrial activity knows no limit.” Or as Weber had noted in The Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism, “modern labour has an ascetic character.” Unsurprisingly, we find moral abuse directed at those who strike: striking workers are lazy, they are parasites, they are selfish, they are thuggish, and so on.

But workers can, will, and should only work–surprisingly enough–if they are adequately recompensed for their labor. Their relationship with their employers should be underwritten by a respect for this basic postulate of the employment relation. Otherwise, it is no longer enjoys such a status and  merely devolves to some variant of older, exploitative models of hiring and firing (indentured labor, feudal serfs, and so on). The failure of the City University of New York administration to sign a contract with their staff indicates that such basic respect is not forthcoming: the staff of this university have been expected, for six years now, to continue working under the terms of a contract that expired six years ago. In this nation’s most expensive city, such salary and wage conditions amount to a steadily increasing pay cut.

Such a cut in wages sends several signals, none of them respectful to the most important constituencies of the university. First, it tells students that the university does not care how their teachers are compensated for their work; second, it tells students that the university is willing to suffer shortfalls in services that might result from the lack of fair compensation (loss of staff, strikes etc); third, it tells faculty, responsible for instantiating the university’s core mission, that they are not important enough to have their reasonable demands listened to. The final result is a diminishing of the university, a member of a cohort of institutions that now finds itself increasingly under attack from a political and economic sensibility that would destroy as many public goods as possible.

A strike by the faculty and staff at the City University of New York would not just showcase workers laying down their tools; it would also signal to the rest of the polity that attacks on public education will not be tolerated.

Strikes are reviled and abused because interestingly enough, they find their grounding and motivations in firmly and passionately held political convictions that might, as Georges Sorel noted (in Reflections on Violence,) attain the status of myth. In writing of the ‘general strike’ Sorel commented on the common understanding of its supposed irrationality, but as he went on to note, this was in part because of the strong social desire to return to a more quiescent state, one that would not be possible once “the myth of the ‘general strike’ is introduced.” And such reactions were especially understandable: “It is because the theory of myths tends to produce such fine results that so many seek to dispute it.”

A strike is as feared and as despised as it is because very often, a strike–the denial of a worker’s labor, his ultimate weapon, only to be exercised in the direst of circumstances–is effective. The administration of New York City and the City University of New York and its faculty and staff will soon find out–if no contract is forthcoming–how matters will turn out in this domain.

Max Weber’s ‘Iron Cage’: Who Will Bend Its Bars?

Yesterday morning, as the students in my Social Philosophy class and I discussed an excerpt from Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism, we ran out of time. As my students got up and started to head out for their next commitment (work or the next class), I began reading out loud the following passage:

The Puritan wanted to work in calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into everyday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt. In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the ‘saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.’ But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.

I’m glad to say that at least two or three students halted in their tracks and were visibly moved (by Weber’s writing, not by my sonorous reading.) This remarkable conclusion to Weber’s classic work has not lost any of its power to amaze over the years: it is–as the Wikipedia entry for the book notes, “prescient”–it is poetic, it is wistful, it is also, I think, angry.

The “last ton of fossilized coal” is not yet burnt, the last barrel of oil is not yet extracted, so much damage remains to be done. Many rivers remain to be choked with waste and refuse, many mountainsides are still to be devastated by strip mining, many seas–and their denizens–are not fully clogged with plastic; the temperatures of the worlds oceans and atmosphere are still inching upwards; many communities remain to be immiserated. Meanwhile, our lives become ever more machinic, controlled and administered by Big Data and Big Banks, while fascists and corporate lackeys compete for the highest echelons of power.

Vacations and leisure time shrink, we spend less time with our families; to ask for more, for another bowl, is to ask for a resounding blow about our ears with the boss’ ladle. Nose to the grindstone, shoulders to the wheel: that is where our salvation awaits. We will find deliverance in an office cubicle, the modern zone of spiritual connection with the higher powers that control our lives. When evening rolls around, the iron cage is unlocked and we are let out on furlough, with the reminder that ‘early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.’ Do not tarry too long with the family; hurry back soon; they cannot give you what work can.

Who will bend the bars of this cage? Not the jailers.

Note: Erez Maggor, a doctoral student in sociology at New York University, has pointed me to an essay by Peter Baehr titled “The “Iron Cage” and the “Shell as Hard as Steel”: Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse Metaphor in the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” the abstract for which reads:

In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the “iron cage.” This article examines the status of Parsons’s canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the “shell as hard as steel”: a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which “steel” becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the “element” iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a “shell” suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons’s “iron cage” as a rendition of Weber’s own metaphor, it has become a “traveling idea,” a fertile coinagein its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator’s imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.