Reading Notes on Theology and Social Theory by John Milbank (part 4)

Milbank now turns from the French stream of sociology culminating in Durkheim to the German stream culminating in Max Weber –  he who gave us the myth of the “Protestant work ethic.”

For Durkheim social structures explained everything, the Germans sought to bring individual acting subjects back into the picture. For Weber the question was how to explain the instances where individuals or groups failed to act according to the laws that govern social structures. For Weber these structures were essentially the market, the pursuit by rational actors of their self-interested ends. This was the governing logic behind all forms of society throughout history. Well, not actually, this logic was latent in all forms of society as they passed from their magic to their salvation-religious and then their final instrumental-rational stage. Sociology is the study of the process of this emerging market-shaped rationality.

For Weber, the interesting part of sociology was trying to understand why certain social organizations seems to pursue ends that eschewed the rationalities of the market, for example the early Christian community that held all of their goods in common. The answer rests in Weber’s notion of charisma. All religions have a charismatic founder who bucks the conventional norms of society and inspires his followers to do otherwise. But what happens in the succeeding generations when that charismatic leader and his vision of society are long gone? The answer for Weber is that the religious movement begins to act just like any other society, shifting its life to operate according to market principles. Thus, Christianity starts offering its self-interested adherents the product of eternal salvation.

The problem with this is that Weber makes the separation of religion and the social an a priori assumption. Religions must be founded on charisma, and their subsequent development must be shaped by market forces. Thus sociology becomes the study of how various societies emerge from their pre-rational origins into their truly rational selves governed by market forces and Machiavellian politics. For Weber, societies can develop along no other lines.

Milbank argues that Weber needlessly separated sociology and history. History was looked down upon as a less than pure science because it was highly selective and dealt not with general laws but specific, contingent events. Sociology on the other hand could explain specific events according to general laws of human behavior and principles of social organization.

This distinction doesn’t hold. Sociology as it conceives of itself is a pure fabrication, the unjustifiable imposition of foreign categories upon contingent societies that operate according to their own logic which eschews reduction or translation into the language of sociology. Sociology when properly conducted is no different than history, though perhaps it can justify itself as the search for relationships and patterns within particular societies without the attempt to hypostasize those into some kind of universal social laws.

Weber’s insights into the relationship between Christianity and various social arrangements certainly uncovered some new ground. His problem was that he situated those arrangements within a generalized schema that did violence to the particularities of the way Christian societies have organized themselves and the other non-Christian societies which were subjected to Weberian analysis.

The sociology that is created by Weber, isn’t a neutral, objective, and scientific description of the world as it is, nor is it a Kantian application of universal categories of social arrangements to the societies under scrutiny. Instead, Weber’s sociology is “nothing but a spurious promotion of what they study – namely the secular culture of modernity” (100).

Sociology doesn’t just describe the process of the differentiation of modern societies, it is an active catalyst in the process itself.

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