The Function of Ideas

Weber's concern withthe meaning actors impute to relationships did not limit him to thestudy of types of social action. Rather, he used the typology of formsof social action to understand the drift of historical change. It willbe remembered that the problems posed by modern civilization wereforemost in his mind, and in this connections he conceived the shiftfrom traditional to rational action as crucial. He showed that rationalaction within a system of rational-legal authority is at the heart ofthe modern rationalized economy, that is, of the capitalist system. Only within the framework of a rationalized economy can activeindividuals weigh utility and costs in a rational manner. Webermaintained that the rationalization of economic action can only berealized when traditional notions about just prices or just wages arediscarded and a positive ethical sanction is provided for acquisitiveactivities aimed at maximizing the self-interests of the actor. Suchethical sanction, Weber argued, was provided by the Protestant Ethic,which broke the hold of traditionalism in the realm of economic behavioreven while it fostered a spirit of rigorous self-discipline, encouragingmen to apply themselves rationally and methodically to the specifictasks they were "called" to perform within the occupational world.

Weber's emphasis on the influence of religious ideas in the emergence ofmodern capitalism forced him into a running dialogue with the ghost ofKarl Marx. He was most respectful of Marx's contributions, yetbelieved, in tune with his own methodology, that Marx had undulyemphasized one particular causal chain, the one leading from theeconomic infrastructure to the cultural superstructure. Weber arguedthat Marx had presented an overly simplified scheme that could notadequately take into account the tangled web of causative influenceslinking the economy and the social structure to cultural products andhuman action. Weber refused to see in ideas simple reflections ofmaterial interests. He contended instead that developments in theintellectual, psychic, scientific, political, and religious spheres haverelative autonomy even though they all mutually influence one another. There is no preestablished harmony between the content of an idea andthe material interests of those who become its champion, but an"elective affinity" may arise between the two. Weber's examples aremany. In the seventeenth century, such an elective affinity developedbetween the ideas of the Calvinist divines and the concerns of certainbourgeois or petty-bourgeois strata, whether in England, Scotland or theLowlands. Confucian ethics did not "express the needs" of the Chineseliterati, but these men became the main carriers of Confucian ideas inso far as these were congenial to their life-styles. Or again: landowning warrior classes have an aversion to any form of emotionalreligiosity and to religions preaching salvation; instead, they are drawnto religious systems in which the gods are conceived as powerful,passionate beings who clash among themselves and are subject to cajolerythrough sacrifice or to coercion through magical manipulation. Peasantsare attracted to nature worship while urban bourgeois strata inclinetoward Christian piety.

Fascinated as he was by the dynamics ofsocial change, Weber endeavored to create a more flexible interpretativesystem than Marx had provided. He attempted to show that the relationsbetween systems of ideas and social structures were multiform and variedand that causal connections went in both directions, rather than frominfrastructure to superstructure alone. Weber's modification andrefinement of the Marxian scheme is likewise evident in his theory ofstratification.

From Coser, 1977:227-228.

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