The Social and the Psychological in Weber’s Theory of Religions

Chuan Xu
2018-03-05 看过
读完《The Social Psychology of the World Religions》之后的读书笔记。写的较急,不少地方还欠深入思考。

To understand the limits as well as breakthroughs of Weber’s seminal article in 1915 on religion, we shall begin with the title. The three terms in the title, “social,” “psychology,” and “world religions,” are all modern concepts whose specific genealogies crisscrossed the landscapes of nineteenth-century European and global history. The “social” was a new category consolidated after the French Revolution that framed the thinking of scholars including Marx, who tried to understand the dynamic mechanisms of a new political and economic reality without fixed estates. “Psychology” was a new field of inquiry that aimed to systematically analyze the interiority of human beings, which was critical in the articulation of so-called “liberal subjectivity.” Finally, “world religion” was a creation of nineteenth-century Europeans who, as Tomoko Masuzawa has shown, tried to preserve the language of pluralism in an age of brazen imperialism. The following paragraphs will focus on how Weber conceived “the social” and “the psychological,” and how he related these two categories with each other as well as with the “rationality” of “world religions.”

Weber began his argument by critiquing Marx and Nietzsche, possibly the two foremost continental theoreticians of religion in the nineteenth century. Despite his critiques, however, he inherited from these two thinkers the categories of “the social” and “the psychological,” so it is important to understand where he agreed and disagreed with these two thinkers. Weber’s critique of Marx problematizes the unidirectional causality from base to superstructure. Weber wrote: “It is not our thesis that the specific nature of a religion is a simple ‘function’ of the social situation of the stratum which appears as its characteristic bearer, or that it represents the stratum’s ‘ideology,’ or that it is a ‘reflection’ of a stratum’s material or ideal interest-situation” (269-270). In a statement that would make Marx spin in his grave, Weber wrote: “However incise the social influences, economically and politically determined, may have been upon a religious ethic in a particular case, it receives its stamp primarily from religious sources, and, first of all, from the content of its annunciation and its promise” (270). In other words, ethics is primarily (“in the last instance”?) determined by the eschatological contents of religions. Weber’s critique of Nietzsche is more convoluted. Nietzsche, in his genealogical analysis of Christian morality, mentioned the psychological state of ressentiment. As Weber summarized, Nietzsche argued that “the moral glorification of mercy and brotherliness [is] a ‘slave revolt in morals’ among those who are disadvantaged, either in their natural endowments or in their opportunities as determined by life-fate” (270). As a result, Nietzsche believed that moralizing religions such as Christianity arose from a psychological need of the weak to overthrow the strong. Weber argued that similar to Marx, Nietzsche had oversimplified the causal relationships that led to religious ethics. But Weber’s engagement with Nietzsche, or with psychological issues in general, cannot be reduced to an accusation of oversimplification. Although Weber asserted that the formation of most ethics has “nothing whatsoever to do with resentment,” he did admit that Nietzsche’s theory on “the role of suffering in religious ethics” has a “certain justification” (271). It is, therefore, imperative to identify how Weber adapted Nietzsche’s theory of religion.

I argue that Weber’s main innovation upon Nietzsche is that he treated the “psychological” as a realm and a motor of gradual “rationalization.” In Nietzsche, as in Freud and Lacan, the psychological is a place full of raw emotions. In Weber, however, the psychological is the place where historical characters tried to “rationalize” their situations and make meanings out of the “senseless” world (281). Weber argued that at certain periods in history, these “rationalizations” often gave rise to religions. “Religion,” he wrote, “has psychologically met a very general need” (271). This need was the need for theodicy, which “rationalizes” the existence of evils despite the alleged goodness of the divine. For Weber, who was obsessed with “legitimacy,” the role of religion can be reduced to its function in “rationalizing” why bad people are rich and good people poor, why bad people are powerful and good people powerless. Whether a religion fulfills this function depends on whether the religion can give “rationally satisfactory” theodical answers, with “rationally satisfactory” meaning “rationally closed” (275). According to Weber, after several thousands of psychological development through history, only three systems of ideas had achieved this logical “closure”: the Indian doctrine of Kharma, Zoroastrian dualism, and the predestination decree of the deus abscondidus (275).

Weber argued that the last one of these three religiosities, derived from Protestantism, is the most “rational” because it is anchored in the promise of redemption. “The rational conception of the world,” he wrote, “is contained in germ within the myth of the redeemer” (274). This redeemer lacks any magical manifestations and never operates in this mundane world. This absence enabled a clean separation of the mundane from the divine, a separation that, Weber argued, helps introduce ethics to guide people’s daily actions. Protestants, for example, believed that the supra-mundane God had entrusted them with a “mission” to live ethically in the mundane world and follow the “methodical and rationalized routine-activities of workaday life in the service of the Lord” (291). Under this Protestant separation between the divine and the mundane, “the preferred religious attitude could become the attitude…of God-willed action nourished by the sentiment of being God’s ‘tool,’ rather than the possession of the deity…” (285) To use Weberian terminologies, “exemplary prophecy” was replaced by “emissary prophecy,” which encouraged the devout to experience themselves as “instruments of the god” rather than “vessels of the divine,” thereby disenchanting the mundane world (285, 290). Religions that do not feature a supra-mundane redeemer do not cause such disenchantment, thereby blocking the possibility of thoroughly “rationalized” mundane ethics.

We can summarize the two paragraphs above with this: the “psychological” development of theodicy eventually gave rise to a thoroughly “rationalized” religion characterized by divine redemption and mundane ethics. This argument, as Weber himself admitted (294), is a-historical. It views human history as a teleological series of purposive actions aimed at thorough “rationalization.” Contrary to prevalent historiographical opinions today, Weber viewed “rationality” as a fixed state rather than a dynamic process.

At this point, I want to take a one-paragraph digression to note an under-appreciated feature in Weber’s understanding of “rationality.” In this article on religion, Weber repeatedly emphasized that there can be multiple “rationalities.” These statements can be surprising because we typically regard Weber as a teleological thinker who tried to orient everything toward one predetermined goal. It is certainly correct that Weber was a teleological thinker, but such teleology did not mean that Weber thought there was only one goal. The multiplicity of telos is possible because Weber used the word “rational” to refer to a logical self-sufficiency not unlike that of Euclidean geometry. His argument that the religiosity of redemption is “rationally closed” (275) demonstrates that he understood rationality as logical self-sufficiency. When asking himself what “rationality” was, Weber wrote there can be multiple answers. One type of “rationalization,” he wrote, refers to the work of systematic thinkers, who displays “increasing theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise and abstract concepts” (293). Another type of “rationalization” refers to “the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means” (293). Weber then cited the difference between English Physics and Continental Physics to illustrate how equally valid “rationalizations” can “assume unusually varied forms” (293). There is even a trace of Thomas Kuhn in these lines.

To return from this digression, we must note that the multiplicity of telos does not in the least erode the teleological nature of Weber’s argument. This nature is clear not only in his treatment of “the psychological,” but also in his treatment of “the social.” Human history, for Weber, was a history leading to the establishment of “pragmatic rationalism.” The process here mirrors the process in “the psychological.” Before the separation between the mundane and divine enabled the banishment of all irrationality from the mundane world, “the various great ways of leading a rational and methodical life have been characterized by irrational presuppositions, which have been accepted simply as ‘given’ and which have been incorporated into such ways of life” (281). Weber proceeded to argue that these “presuppositions” have been “historically and socially determined,” often by one stratum with the power to influence other strata (281). The Indian Brahmans, for example, gradually imposed their ways of life on every other stratum. The European ecclesiastical stratum, similarly, did the same in European societies. Both the Brahmans and the Catholic priests still preserved an enchanted world as part of their ways of life. Weber argued that something different happened with the emergence of Europe’s civic stratum. Unlike the peasantry, the civic stratum was not “bound to nature” or dependent upon its “elemental forces” (283). He wrote: “The tendency towards a practical rationalism in conduct is common to all civic strata; it is conditioned by the nature of their way of life…Their whole existence has been based upon technological or economic calculations and upon the mastery of nature and of man” (284). The civic stratum, in other words, has a “way of life” that is both peculiar (because it is “historically and socially determined” by the stratum’s unique situation) and universal (because it is “rational” and “practical”). With the advent of the civic stratum, we are witnessing both the organic outcome of history and the predestined end of history. Just as how psychological development led to thorough “rationalization,” social-historical development also led to thorough “rationalization.”

All of the expositions above shed light on how categories such as “the social” and “the psychological” relate to “rationality.” There are two facets of this relationship. First, Weber regarded both “the social” and “the psychological” as stages on which “rationality” gradually manifested itself. With the advent of Protestantism and the civic stratum, this manifestation was finally complete. Second, Weber regarded both “the social” and “the psychological” as motors that power this teleology towards “rationality.” In a theoretical departure from both Marx and Nietzsche, Weber enlisted both “the social” and “the psychological” as factors in the shaping of religious ethics. I would like to end my inquiry with two quotes from Weber’s article, which illustrate a causal structure that involves both “the social” and “the psychological”:

“These comments presuppose that the nature of the desired sacred values has been strongly influenced by the nature of the external interest-situation and the corresponding way of life of the ruling strata and thus by the social stratification itself. But the reverse also holds: wherever the direction of the whole way of life has been methodically rationalized, it has been profoundly determined by the ultimate values toward which this rationalization has been directed.” (286-287)

“Partly, the social environment exerted an influence, above all, the environment of the stratum that was decisive for the development of such religion. Partly, however--and just as strongly--the intrinsic character of Christianity exerted an influence…” (290)

Weber, Max. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mill trans. (New York: Oxford University Press).
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