Rationalization and Disenchantment

The world ofmodernity, Weber stressed over and over again, has been deserted by thegods. Man has chased them away and has rationalized and made calculableand predictable what in an earlier age had seemed governed by chance,but also by feeling, passion, and commitment, by personal appeal andpersonal fealty, by grace and by the ethics of charismatic heroes.

Weber attempted to document this development in a variety ofinstitutional areas. His studies in the sociology of religion weremeant to trace the complicated and tortuous ways in which the gradual"rationalization of religious life" had led to the displacement ofmagical procedure by wertrational systematizations of man'srelation to the divine. He attempted to show how prophets with theircharismatic appeals had undermined priestly powers based on tradition;how with the emergence of "book religion" the final systematization andrationalization of the religious sphere had set in, which found itsculmination in the Protestant Ethic.

In the sphere of law, Weberdocumented a similar course from a "Kadi Justiz," the personalizeddispensing of justice by wise leaders or elders, to the codified,rationalized, and impersonal justice of the modern world. He traced thedevelopment of political authority from kings endowed with hereditarycharisma and thaumaturgical powers, to cool heads of state, rulingwithin the strict limits of legal prescriptions and rationally enactedlaw. Even so private an area of experience as music, Weber contended,was not exempt from the rationalizing tendencies of Western society. Inhis writings on the sociology of music Weber contrasted the concisenotations and the well-tempered scale of modern music--the rigorousstandardization and coordination that governs a modern symphonyorchestra--with the spontaneity and inventiveness of the musical systemsof Asia or of nonliterate tribes.

In his methodological writings,as we have seen, Weber strenuously objected to any interpretation ofhuman history that subjected such history to an ineluctable drivingforce. He argued that society must be considered as a delicate balanceof multiple opposing forces, so that w war, a revolution, or even anheroic leader might succeed in throwing the total balance in favor of aparticular outcome. This is why he almost always made his statements inprobabilistic terms. Nevertheless, when it came to the trends towardrationalization and bureaucratization of modern society, Weber tended tothrow much of his usual analytic caution to the winds and to assert thatthe chances were very great indeed that mankind would in the future beimprisoned in an iron cage of its own making. In this respect, hismessage is thus fundamentally at variance with that of most of hisnineteenth-century forebears. He is not a prophet of glad tidings tocome but a harbinger of doom and disaster.

It would be pointlessto attempt to summarize a work that is as amazing in its diversity as itis overwhelming in its breadth. It suffices to state explicitly whatmust already be apparent: Weber's work is a crucial landmark in thehistory of the social sciences.

There is a pre-Weberian and apost-Weberian sociology. All contemporary or near-contemporarysociology shows the impact of his genius. Even those who cannot sharehis pessimistic prognosis or his somewhat romantic beliefs in the savinggrace of charismatic heroes can profit from the fruits of his powerfulanalytical labors.

From Coser, 1977:233-234.

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