Natural Science, Social Science, and Value Relevance

Weber rejected both the positivist contention that the cognitiveaims of the natural and the social sciences were basically the same andthe opposing German historicist doctrine that in the realm of Kultur andGeist (that is, in the domain of history) it is impossible to makelegitimate generalizations because human actions are not subject to theregularities that govern the world of nature. Against the historicistsWeber argued that the method of science, whether its subject matter bethings or men, always proceeds by abstraction and generalization. Against the positivists, he took the stand that man, in contrast tothings, could be understood not only in external manifestations, thatis, in behavior, but also in the underlying motivations. And againstboth these approaches Weber emphasized the value-bound problem choicesof the investigator and the value-neutral methods of social research.

According to Weber, differences between the natural sciences and thesocial sciences arise from differences in the cognitive intentions ofthe investigator, not from the alleged inapplicability of scientific andgeneralizing methods to the subject matter of human action. Whatdistinguishes the natural and social sciences is not an inherentdifference in methods of investigation, but rather the differinginterests and aims of the scientist. Both types of science involveabstraction. The richness of the world of facts, both in nature and inhistory, is such that a total explanation in either realm is doomed tofail. Even in physics it is impossible to predict future events in alltheir concrete detail. No one, for example, can calculate in advancethe dispersion of the fragments of an exploding shell. Predictionbecomes possible only within a system of conceptualizations thatexcludes concern for those concrete facts not caught in the net ofabstractions. Both the natural and the social sciences must abstractfrom the manifold aspects of reality; they always involve selection.

The natural scientist is primarily interested in those aspects ofnatural events that can be formulated in terms of abstract laws. Whilethe social scientist may wish to search for such lawful abstractgeneralizations in human behavior, he is also interested in particularqualities of human actors and in the meaning they ascribe to theiractions. Any scientific method must make a selection from the infinitevariety of empirical reality. When the social scientist adopts ageneralizing method, he abstracts from random unique aspects of thereality he considers; concrete individual actions are conceived as"cases" or "instances," which are subsumed under theoreticalgeneralizations. The individualizing approach, in contrast, neglectsgeneric elements and concentrates attention on particular features ofphenomena 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.

Whatparticular problem attracts a scholar, and what level of explanation issought, depends, Weber argues, on the values and interests of theinvestigator. 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 orunconsciously--they are selected, analyzed and organized for expositorypurposes." What is considered "worthy to be known" depends upon theperspective of the inquiring scholar. Hence there is no insurmountablechasm 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 causalsequences may be attained in the world of nature, but that the humanworld in not susceptible to rational explanation because of itsunpredictability and irrationality, Weber counters by turning thetables. Our knowledge of nature must always be, as it were, from theoutside. We can only observe external courses of events and recordtheir uniformities. But in regard to human action, we can do more thanwrite protocols of recurrent sequences of events; we can attempt toimpute motives by interpreting men's actions and words. With thismethod, he of course opposes the positivists as well. "Social facts arein the last resort intelligible facts." We can understand (verstehen)human action by penetrating to the subjective meanings that actorsattach to their own behavior and to the behavior of others. A sociologyof the chicken yard can only account for regularities of behavior--inother words, for a pecking order. A sociology of human groups has theinestimable advantage of access to the subjective aspects of action, tothe realm of meaning and motivation. Hence Weber's definition ofsociology as "that science which aims at the interpretativeunderstanding (Verstehen) of social behavior in order to gain anexplanation of its causes, its course, and it effects."

Thenotion of interpretative understanding did not originate with Weber. Itwas first advanced by the historian Droysen and was used extensively bysuch scholars as Dilthey. But for them the method was meant to extolintuition over rational-causal explanation. Weber, in contrast, saw init only a preliminary step in the establishment of causal relationships. The grasping of subjective meaning of an activity, Weber argued, isfacilitated 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 itis to reach the dignity of a scientific proposition. Verstehenand causal explanation are correlative rather than opposed principles ofmethod in the social sciences. Immediate intuitions of meaning can betransformed into valid knowledge only if they can be incorporated intotheoretical structures that aim at causal explanation.

Againstthe objection that this manner of interpretation is subject to thedanger of contamination from the values held by the scientificinvestigator, Weber countered that interpretations can be submitted tothe test of evidence. This, he argued, is to be distinguished from thefact that the choice of subject matter--as distinct from the choice ofinterpretation--stems from the investigator's value orientation, whichmay be the case with the natural scientist as well.

Weberinsisted that a value element inevitable entered into the selection ofthe problem an investigator chooses to attack. There are nointrinsically scientific criteria for the selection of topics; hereevery man must follow his own demon, his own moral stance, but this inno way invalidates the objectivity of the social sciences. The questionof whether a statement is true of false is logically distinct from thatof its relevance to values. Wertbeziehung (value relevance)touches upon the selection of the problem, not upon the interpretationof phenomena. As Parsons put it, "Once a phenomenon is descriptivelygiven, the establishment of causal relations between it and either itsantecedents or its consequences is possible only through theapplication, explicitly or implicitly, of a formal schema of proof thatis independent of any value system, except the value of scientificproof." Hence, the relativity of value orientations leading todifferent cognitive choices has nothing to do with questions ofscientific validity. What are relativized in this view are not thefindings but the problems.

Value relevance must be distinguishedfrom value-neutrality, since they refer to two different orders ofideas. In the first place, ethical neutrality implies that once thesocial scientist had chosen his problem in terms of its relevance to hisvalues, he must hold values--his own or those of others--in abeyancewhile he follows the guidelines his data reveal. He cannot impose hisvalues on the data and he is compelled to pursue his line of inquirywhether or not the results turn out to be inimical to what he holdsdear. A geneticist of liberal persuasion, for example, should not abandonhis line of inquiry if his findings suggest that differences inintelligence are associated with biological traits. Value neutrality,in this first meaning of the term, refers to the normative injunctionthat men of science should be governed by the ethos of science in theirrole as scientists, but emphatically not in their role as citizens.

In addition, value neutrality refers no less importantly to anotherorder of considerations; the disjunction between the world of facts andthe world of values, the impossibility of deriving "ought statements"from "is statements." An empirical science, Weber contended, can neveradvise anyone what he should do, though it may help him toclarify for himself what he can or wants to do.

Thescientific treatment of value judgments may not only understand andempatically analyze the desired ends and the ideals which underlinethem; it can also "judge" them critically. This criticism can. . . beno more than a formal logical judgment of historically given valuejudgments and ideas, a testing of the ideals according to the postulateof the internal consistency of the desired end. . . . It canassist [the acting person] in becoming aware of the ultimate standardsof value which he does not make explicit to himself, or which he mustpresuppose in order to be logical. . . . As to whether the personexpressing these value judgments should adhere to these ultimatestandards is his personal affair; it involves will and conscience, notempirical knowledge.

Weber was fundamentally at oddswith those who argued for a morality based on science. In this respecthe was as opposed to Durkheim as he would be to those psychoanalyststoday who claim they have a scientific warranty to counsel "adjustment"or "self-actualization," as the case may be, to their patients.

Thescientist qua scientist can evaluate the probable consequencesof courses of action, Weber believed, but he cannot make valuejudgments. Weber had an austere view of science. "Science today," hewrote, "is a 'vocation' organized in special disciplines in the serviceof self-clarification and knowledge of interrelated facts. It is not thegift of grace of seers and prophets dispensing sacred values andrevelations, nor does it partake of the contemplation of sages andphilosophers about the meaning of the universe." The realm of moralvalues, Weber believed, was a realm of warring gods demanding allegianceto contradictory ethical notions. The scientist qua scientist,therefore, could have no answer to the Tolstoian question, "What shallwe do?" "Academic prophecy . . . will create only fanatical sects,"Weber believed, "but never a genuine community." The scientist shouldnot hanker after leadership over men; he finds dignity and fulfillmentin the quest for truth. When Weber was once asked why he undertook hiswide-ranging studies, he replied: "I wish to know how much I can take."

From Coser, 1977:219-222.


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