Causality and Probability

It is sometimes arguedthat, in tune with the German idealistic tradition, Weber rejected thenotion of causality in human affairs. This is emphatically not thecase. Weber firmly believed in both historical and sociologicalcausality, but--and this may have given rise to misunderstandings--heexpressed causality in terms of probability. Such stress on chance orprobability, however, has nothing to do with an insistence on free willor the unpredictability of human behavior. Weber argued, for example,that human action was truly unpredictable only in the case of theinsane, and that "we associate the highest measure of an empirical'feeling of freedom' with those actions which we are conscious ofperforming rationally." This sense of subjective freedom, far frombeing rooted in unpredictability and irrationality, arises precisely inthose situations that can be rationally predicted and mastered. Hence,Weber's notion of probability or chance is not based in some kind ofmetaphysics of free will but derives from his recognition of the extremedifficulties in making entirely exhaustive causal imputations. Objective empirical certainty in social research seemed to him hardlyever attainable. The best one can do, he concluded, is to follow avariety of causal chains that have helped determine the object understudy.

When Weber uses the notion of probability in hisdefinitional statements--for example, in defining a relationship asexisting "in so far as there is a probability that" a certain norm ofbehavior will be adhered to--he responds to similar considerations. Probability is here taken to mean that in all likelihood men involved ina certain context will orient their behavior in terms of normativeexpectations. But this is always probable and never certain because itcan also be assumed that for some actors the chains of causalitypeculiar to their unique social relationships will lead to departurefrom the expected probability.

It is convenient to distinguishtwo directions in Weber's view of causality--historical andsociological. "Historical causality determines the unique circumstancesthat have given rise to an event. Sociological causality assumes theestablishment of a regular relationship between two phenomena, whichneed not take the form 'A makes B inevitable,' but may take the form 'Ais more or less favorable to B.' " The quest for historical causalityasks 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 orof particular ideal types of revolutions.

The quest forhistorical causes, Weber pointed out, was facilitated by what has beencalled mental experiments. When we learn that two shots fired in Berlinin 1848 started the revolution of 1848, we must ask whether therevolution would have taken place had these shots not been fired. If weconclude that it would have started in any case, we can rule out theseshots as causes of the subsequent revolutionary development. When weask whether the Battle of Marathon was a major causal event for thesubsequent history of Hellenic civilization, we must perform the mentalexperiment of envisaging Greece dominated by the Persians. Such anexperiment will convince us that had the Athenians lost the battle, aPersian Greece would have been a basically different society. We canthen conclude as to the probability that the outcome of the Battle ofMarathon, by guaranteeing the independence of the city-states, wasindeed a major causal factor in the subsequent development of Greekcivilization.

The assessment of the historicalsignificance of an historical fact will begin with the posing of thefollowing question: In the event of the exclusion of that fact from thecomplex of the factors which are taken into account as co-determinants,or in the event of its modification in a certain direction, could thecourse of events, in accordance with general empirical rules, have takena direction in any way different in any features which would be decisivefor our interest?

To determine sociological causality,Weber argues, also requires operating within a probabilistic framework. This type of generalization attempts to establish, for example, that theemergence of capitalism required a certain type of personality largelyshaped by the preachments of Calvinist divines. The proof of theproposition comes when, either through mental experiment or throughcomparative study in other cultures, it is established that moderncapitalism could probably not develop without such personalities;therefore, Calvinism must be considered a cause, thoughemphatically not the cause, of the rise of capitalism.

Thisexample calls attention to the fact that Weber's methodologicalreflections served as a tool in his substantive investigations. Yet hewas not concerned with methodology for its own sake and, like manyanother scientist, he did not always follow his own methodologicalguidelines. Contrary to his nominalistic stress on the acting person asthe unit of analysis, he advanced a theory of stratification basedlargely on structural explanations rather than on a subjective theory ofclass distinctions.

When explaining the decline of the RomanEmpire, he focused on structural changes in Roman agriculture. Moreimportantly still, Weber's life-long preoccupation with the increase ofrationality in the modern world was to a considerable extent based onstructural considerations, as witness his stress on the separation ofthe household from the business enterprise as a harbinger of economicrationalization. In all these instances, Weber also providesillustrations pointing to changing motivations of historical actors, yeton balance, structure seems more important than motivation.

Thougha number of other examples could be cited where Weber did not apply hismethodological injunctions, many more instances in his work reveal thathe put his methods to brilliant use in his substantive analysis.

From Coser, 1977:224-226.


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