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Disenchantment and its discontents:

Weberian perspectives on science and


Ralph Schroeder


Weber's ideas about science and technology have largely been

neglected by comparison with his views of modern politics and eco-
nomics. Yet his notion of disenchantment is central to his conception
of modem society and to his comparative studies of the rise of
Western rationalism. This importance is underlined by the use to
which Weber's ideas have been put by two contemporary thinkers,
Ernest Gellner extends the notion of disenchantment in his account of
the cognitive style of industrial society, but argues that it does not
necessarily pose the threat which Weber's cultural pessimism suggests.
Randall Collins, on the other hand, develops a Weberian account of
the social basis for technological change, arguing that geopolitical cen-
tres give rise to technological innovation. In view of the urgency of
the question of the role of science and technology in modern society,
these Webedan perspectives provide an important theoretical tool
since they offer a framework in which this question can be addressed,

Weber's view of the modem world as an 'iron cage' (1930: 181),

increasingly subject to rationalization and bureaucratization, is
well-known. What is less often commented upon is his idea that
science plays a central role in bringing about this type of society,
and that 'disenchantment' is one of its most important character-
istics. This is all the more important since Weber's double-edged
stance towards science - recognizing its benefits and the
inevitability of progress, while at the same time condemning its
effect on modem culture and ominously waming of an age of
'mechanized petrification' (Weber 1930: 182) - presents a pointed
contrast to Marx's and Durkheim's more positive ideas of science
and its benefits to humanity, their heritage squarely within the
Enlightenment and 19th century positivism.

The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995. Published by Blackwell Publishers,
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Ralph Schroeder

It is therefore surprising to find that Weber's ideas about sci-

ence and technology have not been subject to systematic discus-
sion.' Part of the reason for this may be the way Weber has
entered the canon of sociological thought. He has been inter-
preted as dealing with the classical issues of sociology -
stratification, legitimacy, methodology - while the central aim of
his writings, which is to provide a comparative-historical sociol-
ogy of culture which ultimately seeks to establish the cultural
significance of the 'specific and peculiar rationalism of Western
culture' (Weber 1930: 26) has only more recently come to be
regarded as the focus of his thought (Breuer, 1991: 31; Scaff,
1989; Schroeder, 1992).
If the 'disenchantment of the world' (Weber, 1948: 155) is the
key concept within Weber's account of the distinctiveness and
significance of Western culture, then his ideas about the role of
science and technology must be essential to our understanding of
his writings. But there is more to Weber's conception of science
and technology than placing its effects in comparative-historical
perspective, and this essay shall examine them in turn. First,
there is his characterization of the modern scientific world-view,
its origins and inner logic. According to Weber, this world-view
has an autonomous significance for modern culture. Yet he also
shows how it translates into everyday conduct. At this stage tech-
nology will need to be brought into the discussion, since by this
term Weber means the application of the (technically) most
efficient means to given ends within the various spheres of social
life. The impact of technology, in turn, entails routinization, the
increasing rationalization and disenchantment of social life, and
these will lead us to consider Weber's response to these processes,
both in his refiections on the ethic of the scientist and on the fate
of human beings in a disenchanted world.
A separate issue is whether Weber's ideas are still useful to our
understanding the role of science and technology in modern soci-
ety. His ideas on this topic have rarely been put to use in subse-
quent sociological thought.^ There are two important exceptions
to this, however, and a discussion of these may provide an illus-
tration of the continuing relevance of his ideas. Ernest Gellner's
writings on the sociology of industrial societies draw extensively
on Weber's concept of disenchantment, and his attempt to iden-
tify the significance of the scientific mode of cognition within the
modern social world can be seen as a useful extension of Weber's
ideas - as well as giving an indication of their limitations, partic-

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Disenchantment and its discontents

ularly in rejecting Weber's cultural pessimism. Randall Collins,

on the other hand, has tried to give a Weberian explanation of
technological change and to analyze the relation between the
dynamics of technological and economic change. His account will
allow us to try to apply Weber's ideas to the broader question of
the social basis of technological innovation.

The rise of science in comparative-historical perspective

In the 'Author's Introduction' (Weber 1930: 13-31), which in the

original German version served to introduce his comparative
studies of the world-religions, Weber states the central problem
in his writings. This, to repeat, was to explain the cultural
significance of modern Western rationalism. He then describes
what he means by rationalism, beginning with science. While
there were great scientific achievements in the non-Western civi-
lizations, the 'rational, systematic and specialized pursuit of
science . . . only existed in the West in a sense at all approaching
its present dominant place in our culture' (1930: 15-16), bringing
with it a way of life dominated by the 'specialist' {Fachmenschen-
tum) (1930: 16, cf. 1920-1, vol. I: 3).
Why didn't this development occur outside the Western world?
Here as elsewhere in Weber's writings, this question can only be
answered by separately taking stock of two factors: the dominant
world-view and the resulting mode of conduct of its carrier
strata. Within social formations governed by a magical world-
view, rational science cannot emerge since magic, for Weber,
operates on the bases of a mistaken attribution of causality
(1968: 400).^ Magical beliefs rely on the idea, mistaken from the
viewpoint of modern science, that the natural or social environ-
ments can be directly manipulated by an extraordinary power -
whether in the form of a person or symbol - for the sake of
achieving practical results. Similarly, the conduct of the magician,
as the carrier of this type of belief, does not lend itself to a prac-
tical methodical (and in this sense 'rational') way of life since the
exercise of extraordinary magical powers is by definition bound
to be unsystematic and irregular. Science and its practical appli-
cation are thus impossible within the world of magic, although
there is a similarity between its practical aim of mastery over the
environment and Weber's view of modern science (Schroeder,

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Ralph Schroeder

Weber describes Chinese popular religion as an enchanted

'magic garden' (Weber, 1951: 200) since the religion of the
masses in this case consisted of an extensive web of magical
beliefs. But the world-view of the Confucian literati, too, with its
doctrine of a magical heaven which reflected magical powers
within the creaturely world, did not allow for a systematic in-
vestigation of the law-like regularities of nature (1951: 151).
Furthermore, where important scientiflc and technological
advances were made, such as in astronomy and gunpowder, they
were not exploited as intensively as in the Occident (1951: 287,
note 9). The Confucian way of life, although it was suited to the
creation of an extensive bureaucratic apparatus, lent itself to an
adaptation to the world instead of mastery over it. Weber there-
fore concludes that no significant scientific or technological devel-
opments could occur under the Confucian bureaucracy (1951:
The cosmocentric world-view of Indian religion was based on
the idea that the world was made up of an underlying and eter-
nally unchanging essence. Insight into this cosmos took the form
of an inward state of illumination, rather than knowledge of the
empirical world. Weber therefore characterizes the way of life of
the Hindu Brahmans as being ultimately aimed at an other-
worldly goal of mystical possession. Whereas science in India
thus made great advances in the regulation of the body as an aid
to the technology {Technik) of ascetic self-mastery (1958: 164; cf.
1920-1, vol. 2: 168), again, scientific and technological achieve-
ments in other areas were limited as a result of the world-reject-
ing way of life of the Brahmans (1958: 161).
Weber does not comment specifically on the relation between
science and technology and the other world-religions, Islam and
Buddhism, but these faced similar obstacles." What is missing
outside of the Occident is the conception of a (secular) realm of
truth to which empirical reality corresponds. Such a world-view
emerged for the first time among the ancient Greeks, providing
the basis for a notion of a 'concept' embodying an 'eternal truth'
(1948: 141). To this world-view must be added what Weber calls
the 'rational experiment' of the Renaissance, introducing the
methodical investigation of the empirical world (1948: 141).
Instead of science as a way to god or to the meaning of the
world, the combination of these two elements led to the creation
of a systematic body of knowledge, a 'cosmos of natural causal-
ity' (1948: 355), in which 'there are no mysterious incalculable

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Disenchantment and its discontents

forces' and 'one can, in principle, master all things by calcula-

tion' (1948: 139).
The origins of the modern scientific world-view lie not only in
secular sources, however, but also within Occidental religion
itself. Thus, when Weber speaks of the disenchantment of the
world, he traces this development back to the ancient Judaic
prophets (1930: 105), for it is here that the meaning of the
world was systematically unified for the first time within a single
transcendent entity. Moreover, the god for the ancient Judaic
religion was an understandable one and the goal of believers
was to comprehend his all-encompassing design. This world-
view, with its attempt at rational mastery over the world, finally
became translated, according to Weber, into the practical and
methodical way of life adhered to by the monks of the Catholic
sects within the medieval monastery (1968: 1169). To this
affinity between world-view and way of life must be added the
empiricism of the Puritans, a paradoxical aspect of this world-
view given its ascetic rejection of sensual pleasures and thus of
an empirical reliance on the senses. This paradox can only be
reconciled by recalling that this belief-system was based on the
completely predetermined and incomprehensible will of god.
Such a belief, as has been documented elsewhere (Milton, 1981),
led precisely to the search for universal laws within god's all-
encompassing design that would apply to this world or to
The origins of the modern scientific world-view must then be
sought within the histories of both Western religion and philoso-
phy (including natural philosophy). The rise of technology, on
the other hand, required methodical conduct aimed at mastery
over the world. Such a way of life is prefigured in the monkish
ethic of the middle ages, but it only became part of everyday life
with the emergence of an urban bourgeoisie, a stratum with a
way of life that was predisposed to calculation and to the domi-
nation of the natural and social worlds (1948: 284). The relation
between the rise of modern capitalism and the emergence of sci-
ence and technology is therefore not a simple one: according to
Weber, modern capitalism alone was not responsible for the
emergence of the scientific world-view, and while the capitalist
pursuit of economic gain gave an added impetus to the techno-
logical use of'scientific knowledge, technological advancement
also provided one of the preconditions for the capitalist economy
(1930: 24-5).

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Ralph Schroeder

Before going on to describe the role of science in the modern

world, it may be useful briefly to recapitulate its significance
within Weber's comparative-historical project. It is not being
claimed that the rise of modern science should replace the rise of
capitalism as, Weber's central question. Both must be subsumed
within the more general framework of the rise of modern ratio-
nalism, a {phenomenon which created an iron cage of impersonal
political and economic relations. Apart from the political and
economic spheres, however, there is also the sphere of modern
culture or the 'intellectual sphere' (1948: 350), and this sphere is
dominated by the disenchantment of the world by science. But
here Weber's claim is that the modem scientific world-view had
origins that were independent of other social forces, and similarly
for Weber the contribution of technological change is irreducible
to economic or other forms of social change.

The scientific world-view and the disenchantment of the

modern world

The importance of the concept of disenchantment can be high-

lighted by pointing to what Weber saw as the central feature of
scientific knowledge - its meaninglessness. Other world-views, in
fact all world-views apart from the scientific one, endow the
world with meaning. Yet Weber asserts that 'under the technical
and social conditions of rational culture' (1948: 357), the intellec-
tual sphere becomes ever more meaningless, and 'culture's every
step forward seems condemned to lead to an ever more devastat-
ing senselessness' (1948: 357). The reason for this is that whereas
non-scientific world-views presuppose that knowledge has a
meaningful goal, scientific knowledge progresses without relying
on this or any other ultimate goal. Weber makes this clear in the
essay 'Science as a Vocation': In the 'historical sciences of cul-
ture' he says, it must simply be presupposed that there is a value
or meaning of the phenomena under investigation 'among a com-
munity of "cultural beings'", but that they possess value or
meaning can 'not "scientifically" be proven to anyone' (1982:
600; cf. 1948: 145). The same goes for the 'natural sciences':
'whether technical mastery has any meaning is left to one side or
simply presupposed' (1982: 600; cf. 1948: 144). That is, the pre-
suppositions of the natural or cultural sciences are empty, they
can never be given any content by the scientific world-view itself.

232 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995

Disenchantment and its discontents

Here lies the key to the inner logic of the scientific world-view
- it robs the world of meaning while being unable to replace it.
The process of disenchantment is a product of the content of this
world-view which stipulates that everything is in principle know-
able and that the world is a causal mechanism, the workings of
which can ultimately be explained. The inner logic of this world-
view must therefore lead in a unidirectional manner to an ever-
growing stock of knowledge, a process which is by its very nature
open-ended. At this point, too, the relation between the scientific
world-view and technology is close at hand, since the content of
the former translates into the conduct and way of life suitable to
the latter; that is, the principle that everything is in principle
knowable leads to a practical orientation premised on the notion
that the social and natural worlds can be mastered by technical
Before discussing the impact of science on everyday life via
technical mastery, it is worth stressing that the scientific world-
view itself has thoroughgoing consequences; first because of the
growing number of 'believers' or human beings whose lives are
oriented towards this belief-system. Apart from supplying a
world-view of open-ended progress, the scientific world-view is
bound to become more widespread in an age in which the spe-
cialist plays an increasing social role, both within the sphere of
cultural or intellectual life as well as in those spheres in which
rational forms of organization demand expertise - especially the
economic and political ones.
This leads to a second point, which is that the scientific world-
view not only has an autonomous logic within its own, intellec-
tual sphere where rational knowledge grows inexorably, but also
encroaches upon the other spheres of life. Knowledge is increas-
ingly brought to bear on other pursuits, so that the intellectual
sphere not only pushes the sphere of religion into the realm of
private life, but also banishes irrationality into the personal realm
within the other spheres. Thus the spheres of economics and poli-
tics operate according to the demands of technical efficiency, con-
struing efficiency as a growing body of knowledge about the
means to achieve certain given ends. This incursion of the sci-
entific world-view into the non-intellectual spheres not only
extends the scope of the intellectual sphere within social life (at
the expense of the other spheres), but also translates into a cer-
tain way of life throughout these other spheres.

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Ralph Schroeder

Technology and everyday life

Modern culture is thus dominated by the world-view of science

but, despite its inescapable inner logic, Weber suggests that there
may be limits to its efficacy. He stresses on several occasions that
scientific knowledge can never dictate ultimate aims to human
beings, but only provides knowledge about the means to achieve
them (1948: 143). Moreover, in the sphere of politics, for exam-
ple, he tries to maximize the scope of charisma by arguing for
plebiscitary leader-democracy as a political system, despite his
recognition of an inevitable tide of bureaucratization (bureau-
cracy being the technically most efficient form of administration
since it is based on scientific knowledge) which is likely to limit
this scope.
There is a further difference between scientific and technologi-
cal progress and the limitations imposed upon them. Whereas sci-
ence governs thought, technology shapes the external conditions
of life, and the degree to which mastery over the latter can be
extended indefinitely is not subject to the same constraints which
govern knowledge. Whatever this difference may amount to in
practice, it points to the relation between science and technology
in Weber's writings: the former consists only of knowledge,
whereas the latter includes all processes whereby technically supe-
rior means are used to achieve certain ends. Both contribute to
disenchantment, but while science as a 'cosmos of natural causal-
ity' (1948: 355) remains separate from social life, technology
reshapes it.
The relation between technology and everyday life can be elab-
orated by reference to Weber's conceptions of means and ends
and of everyday life. Technical mastery over everyday life
emerged, as has already been mentioned, with the rise of a social
stratum with a practical-rational way of life (1930: 26; cf. 1920-1,
vol. 1: 12). This type of conduct initially revolutionized social life
by displacing traditional forms of conduct. It is important to
emphasize this point because here, for Weber, lie the social ori-
gins of technology. The scientific world-view, Weber surmises,
might have remained reconcilable with the traditional way of life
(1948: 284; cf. 1920-1, vol. 1: 256-7) characteristic of pre-modern
societies, had it not been for the processes whereby it was put in
the service of economic and technical rationalism by a social stra-
tum with a practical-rational way of life. In this way, 'technical

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Disenchantment and its discontents

and economic calculation and domination of man and nature . . .

became the basis of the existence' of the culture-carrying bour-
geois strata, 'conditioned by the separation of its way of life from
an economic nature-boundedness' (1920-1, vol. 1: 256, cf. 1948:
The implication, again, is that the rise of modern science and
technology takes place alongside the emergence of modem capi-
talism, neither being causally prior to the other. But once techni-
cal mastery over humans and nature is well-established as a way
of life, the technological use of scientific knowledge is determined
by economic gain (1930: 24-5). And with the spread of technical
mastery throughout social life, Weber argues, technology
'becomes decisive for the way of life of the masses' (1920-1, vol.
1: 10; cf. 1930: 25). That is, once instrumental rationality, or the
technique of using a minimum of effort to achieve a given end,
spreads throughout the various spheres of social life, the way of
life that had once been exclusively attached to culture-carrying
strata becomes an everyday way of life for all.
If this transformation of an ethic into the institutions of the
iron cage is the major theme of Weber's account of the origins of
modern social life, it may be useful briefly to recall the main (and
well-known) features which govern it. Political problems are
increasingly solved by applying means-ends technical mastery -
in other words, by bureaucratic means. Within the capitalist
economy, technical efficiency means minimizing costs in order to
maximize profits (1968: 65-6). And finally, in the sphere of
knowledge, technical expertise dictates that specialized knowledge
increasingly determines life chances (1968: 998-1002). Scientific
training creates an intellectual aristocracy (1948: 355) since spe-
cialists become a privileged stratum in a world in which science
increasingly 'lays claim to being the only possible form of intel-
lectual world-view' (1920-1, vol. 1: 569; cf. 1948: 355).

The cultural significance of science and technology

For Weber, the advancement of science and technology is

inescapable. The task thus imposed on the scientist is to meet the
everyday demand of the scientific enterprise and engage in a
detached manner in the pursuit of specialized, objective know-
ledge. A similar demand applies throughout the rest of social life,
but whereas the scientist is inescapably tied to progress, within

The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995 235

Ralph Schroeder

the other spheres of social life these demands take the form either
of adapting to the external conditions of everyday life - in other
words, routine political administration and the routine economic
pursuit of material aims - or escaping these within the realm of
private life, or finally transcending this adaptation by reshaping
social relations through non-everyday conduct. Weber does not
want to exclude the possibility of an escape from the iron cage, a
possibility which is inherent throughout his writings by virtue of
his conception of the individual and of personality (Schroeder,
1991). Yet his pessimistic outlook on the modem world and the
social processes within it point to the fact that the world is
increasingly shaped by disenchantment. The 'conquest of life by
science' thus leads to an 'external uniformity of life-style' (Weber,
1980: 64) which ultimately constitutes the cultural significance of
science and technology for the modern social world.

From the 'big divide' to the 'rubher cage'

Although the term 'disenchantment' is often invoked by social

scientists, its implications have not (to my knowledge) been sub-
ject to systematic discussion. The exception to this is Ernest
Gellner, and a consideration of his view of science will both
enable us to draw out the implications of Weber's ideas and con-
sider their shortcomings.^
Like Weber, Gellner places central importance on the unique-
ness of the modern scientific world-view and its consequences.
For Gellner, in pre-industrial societies cognition was inextrica-
bly tied to the other sp)heres of social life such that a separation
of belief from its role in the social fabric was inconceivable.*
With the rise of the world-religions, however, an attempt was
made to codify the world within a single, unified conceptual
schema. The cosmologies of the world-religions, safeguarded by
an elite stratum of bookish clerics, fitted the general pattern of
stratification and the division of labour in pre-industrial soci-
eties which set specialists in coercion and cognition apart from
the rest of society.
Within industrial societies, however, with their requirement for
a high degree of social mobility and for the diffusion of knowl-
edge-based skills, an exclusive and stability-engendering world-
view is no longer feasible. Instead, the cosmology of industrialism

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Disenchantment and its discontents

must fit the needs not only of a steadily expanding output of eco-
nomic goods and the openness of the political system, but also
refiect the social situation of a bourgeois stratum with its affinity
to open-ended progress rather than traditionalism.
The emergence of the modern scientific world-view was helped,
according to Gellner, by its predecessor. A world-view which
subsumed reality within a single conceptual schema based on a
transcendent reference-point could, particularly in its Occidental
form with a 'jealous god', 'flip over' (1988: 83, 79) into a single-
aim conceptual schema, this time with empirical reality as its ulti-
mate reference-point. For Gellner as for Weber, science is one
belief-system among others, yet what sets it apart from other
world-views is that scientific knowledge leads to mastery over the
world, and thus to social change.
The transformative capacity of the scientific world-view, for
Gellner, derives from its tension with the world. He identifies two
features as central to science: empiricism, which breaks down the
evidence provided by sense data into its smallest isolable parts
and allows this evidence to arbitrate between rival theories; and
mechanism which establishes impersonal, symmetrical and trans-
parent models which impose order on this evidence (1974, esp:
206-7). The point of singling out these features of science - apart
from arguing that they constitute the basis for objective knowl-
edge in the social sciences (1979: 164-81; 1985: 101-27) - is that
they explain how science has led to the unprecedented and spec-
tacular growth of knowledge which is characteristic of industrial
society. Empiricism and mechanism are normative inasmuch as
they impose order on the world, and the single-minded and sys-
tematic effort to subject ever more parts of the social and natural
worlds to these two norms accounts for the dynamic unleashed
by science. The scientific world-view is thus bound to remain in
conflict with the world as long as there are aspects of nature and
of the human environment which elude the orderliness and regu-
larity which are sought within the realm of objective knowledge,
a realm which operates according to its own rules (ie those of sci-
entific knowledge).^
Disenchantment is an immediate corollary of this view of
science. Scientific knowledge undermines not only 'traditional'
systems of belief, with their supra-sensible reference-points, evi-
dence-evading mechanisms and the social stability that these and
other features engender, but also the traditional beliefs and prac-
tices which govern our everyday lives. As Hall puts it:

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Ralph Schroeder

Mechanism and empiricism are reliable tools for increasing

knowledge, but their mode of operation makes it hard for us
to rely on taken-for-granted moral assumptions. Modem
science undermines our day-to-day customary beliefs by
providing alternative, more powerful explanations for natural
and social phenomena. Traditional wisdoms become attenu-
ated; expertise increases its social role. (1987: 175)

Put differently, science revolutionizes industrial society inasmuch

as it uproots previous modes of legitimating the social order and
replaces them with a constantly shifting and inherently unstable
world-view (see also Crone, 1989: 196-7). At best, science merely
provides legitimation for open-ended economic growth and con-
stant pragmatic readjustment of political management - them-
selves open-ended processes. In this, the piecemeal but steady
growth of scientific knowledge refiects piecemeal social engineer-
Whereas the transition between pre-industrial and industrial
societies was a radical or revolutionary one, in its cognitive as
well as its coercive and productive dimensions, the subsequent
steady progress of scientific knowledge becomes itself part of the
social order. The transition from one to the other represents, in
Gellner's view, a 'big divide' (1974: 167) which is essential to any
understanding of the nature of industrial society. Equally impor-
tant as this transition, however, is the new cognitive basis of
industrial society which provides it with a cold - indeed 'icy'
(1974: 184; 1987: 164) - but nevertheless pervasive cosmology.
If science is separate from and in tension with the rest of social
life, it is also set apart - and this is unique to industrial society -
from the rest of culture. Hence Gellner can say that 'culture has
now become conceptualization minus cognition proper' (1988:
206). Thus (scientific) knowledge can never fill out the world, or
again it cannot create values but only undermine them. There
may be attempts by intellectual strata to reenchant the world, but
from a sociological perspective these can be seen as attempts to
rival science with alternative accounts of the world which endow
it with meaning, a world which is in fact increasingly subject to
impersonal and certainty-eroding scientific knowledge.
The distinction between knowledge and other belief-systems in
the modern world thus not only allows Weber and Gellner to
characterize the powerful impact of science on social life, but also
to identify those 'ersatz' belief-systems which seek to mitigate or

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Disenchantment and its discontents

obscure this impact. Reenchantment can be found wherever intel-

lectuals or other groups reject the idea of scientific progress
(including its corollaries of economic growth and political open-
ness) in an attempt to legitimate their position by proclaiming
the validity of extra-scientific 'truth'' or revelation (for example,
1974: 191-200). Weber's hopes for charismatic leadership could
itself be counted among these attempts since it has become
widely accepted that political legitimation in late capitalist soci-
eties derives not from the 'extraordinary' qualities of personalities
on the political stage, but more pragmatically (and, one might
add, disenchantedly) from what Gellner calls the 'bribe' (1979:
280) of continued economic growth. But although the sphere of
politics and its everyday workings are likely to continue to be
organized along pragmatic or utilitarian lines which rely on an
efficient bureaucratic administration, and charisma is unlikely to
undermine this central feature of coercion, Gellner points out
that at the apex of political decision-making, politics in the era of
mass communications can take the form of indissoluble packages
- and in this sense charismatic world-views (as Weber might put
it) may be inescapable in the decision-making process, even if
they do not provide the bulk of modern political legitimation.
While agreeing with the thrust of Weber's account of the
impact of science then, Gellner has reservations about his cul-
tural pessimism. This pessimism seems to be related to Weber's
focus on the cultural significance of disenchantment (' "specialists
without spirit, sensualists without heart . . ."' (Weber, 1930:
182)), whereas Gellner has more room for its economic and polit-
ical benefits. Moreover, while thinkers such as Habermas oppose
the progressive disenchantment of the 'public sphere',*" Gellner
points out that there is ever more scope for a 're-enchanted
world' of private life with 'expanding leisure time' (1987: 164)
while there may be good reasons for avoiding attempts to reen-
chant the public sphere by means of 'expressivism' (1979: 39).
Even so, Gellner has recently noted a further limitation of
Weber's ideas, namely that the pace of disenchantment may be
coming to an end in the late industrial era. As the skills of mas-
tering the environment become second nature to human beings -
Gellner uses the example of the highly skilled and technical activ-
ity of driving a car (1987: 154-5) - they do not therefore require
taking on board the impersonal world-view that comes with
such a sophisticated piece of machinery. In this way, he suggests,
the disenchanting consequences, the discontinuity of skilled

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Ralph Schroeder

knowledge from everyday life and from conflict with other

sources of meaning, may also be avoided. Secondly, in terms of
the skills typically required at the workplace, there may also be a
shift away from the depersonalizing effects of rational organiza-
tion. The service industries which have gained ground are those
in which subordination to impersonal rules recedes into the back-
ground while the 'human use of human beings' itself becomes a
skill. And finally, the success of disenchantment in manipulating
the natural and social worlds may free up the time to pursue
other activities, leisure and education among them. What the
relation between the 'iron cage' and the 'rubber cage' will be -
whether, 'if we leave the Iron Cage and move to the Rubber
Cage, do we not risk losing the former altogether?', or 'live your
daily life in an incoherent, indulgent, facile Rubber Cage . . . the
Iron Cage will still be there to deliver the goodies' - is, he con-
cludes, impossible to weigh up or predict (1987: 165)."

Geopolitics and technological innovation

Gellner, as we have seen, wants to follow Weber in identifying

the significance of the growth of scientific knowledge for the cog-
nitive or cultural spheres, as well as the economic and political
ones inasmuch as they are affected by science. Scientific knowl-
edge, for both thinkers, disenchants the world, but although they
both adduce some of the reasons for the emergence and growth
of scientific knowledge in modern capitalist or industrial society,
they do not examine the more specific institutional or organiza-
tional preconditions for scientific discoveries.
This issue is addressed in Collins' essay 'A theory of technol-
ogy'.'^ Collins notes that 'in general, there is considerable evi-
dence that science and technology are not closely linked, even in
the mid-1900s' (1986: 113), and the same goes for the industrial
revolution, a period in which great technological achievements
are often thought to have resulted from a series of major sci-
entific discoveries. If there is such a link, he argues, it is rather
the other way around in that technological innovation provides
the organizational preconditions for the sustained growth of sci-
entific knowledge - and not only during the middle of the nine-
teenth century. Among these organizational preconditions,
according to Collins, are new technologies for scientific instru-
ments, for measurement and for experimental apparatus which.

240 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995

Disenchantment and its discontents

in turn, owe their development to the capitalist economy. Collins'

interpretation of Weber is that the 'essence' of the capitalist econ-
omy lies in 'an application of the spirit of calculation and sys-
tematic measurement' (1986: 115).'^ This dynamic impetus which
the capitalist 'spirit' contributes to technological innovation is
unique to the capitalist economy with its competitive market. Yet
the economic basis merely intensifies technological innovation,
over and above the factors which are always and everywhere at
work in furthering this process.
What then, apart from the capitalist 'spirit' and outside of the
capitalist economy, accounts for technological innovation?
Collins argues, from an organizational perspective, that innova-
tion cannot be divorced from the social context in which new
techniques can spread. Technological change is not just a matter
of invention, since inventions can sometimes remain left on the
shelf, so to speak - or conversely, they can fail to occur even
when they are, in principle, possible and the social demand is
there. Hence Collins prefers to use the term 'innovation', and
here the principle applies that 'diffusion produces innovation'
(1986: 110):

Given the embeddedness of technology in a social context, and

the fact that technical development and diffusion are always
linked in some geographical area, what we need . . . is a model
of different forms of social organization, including some very
long-distance components. From this viewpoint, the famous
(but rather distorted) instances of historical diffusion (eg,
gunpowder, printing) are to be explained not as ad hoc but as
results of a particular state of social organization of the . . .
geopolitical network or world-market. Social organization,
both local and long-distance, becomes the key to all phenom-
ena of technological change. (1986: 84-5)

Such a theory is Weberian in the sense that a theory of social

change which links the internal and external behaviour of states -
a geopolitical theory, which he discusses in greater detail else-
where (see 1986: 2-3, 145-209 and 1981: 71-106) - is implicit in
Weber's work.
Collins illustrates the theory with a wide range of historical
examples, focusing mainly on military technology, but also briefly
examining agricultural and construction techniques. What these
cases illustrate is that 'the crucial aspect of [technological - R.S.]

The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995 241

Ralph Schroeder

development, its being made "socially real" by becoming part of

a form of organization, generally seems to happen in areas of
greater geopolitical importance' (1986: 93). This principle, he
claims, can be applied to technological change generally, whereas
the emergence of modem capitalism in Europe - which, as we
have seen, provides an additional stimulus to innovation through
the competitiveness of the market - cannot itself be explained by
reference to the 'superiority of new technologies' (1986: 92), espe-
cially military ones, but is a product of more fundamental set of
social changes that he discusses elsewhere (1986: 19-44).
This relationship between technological innovation and geopol-
itics can be traced, according to Collins, to the very beginnings
of human history.'" Technological innovation in tribal societies
(or what in Weber's and Gellner's terms would be societies
dominated by a magical world-view and pre-agrarian societies
respectively) already follow a geopolitical pattern. Collins gives
examples of what he calls the 'geopoHtics of tribes' (1986: 101),
which consists of military competition and the ensuing emulation
among previously isolated groups as well as the spin-offs from
military techniques. In doing this, he wants to draw attention to
the fact that innovation (and resistance to it) play a part not only
within modern capitalism, but among the earliest forms of society
- the more so, the more diffusion becomes possible when geo-
graphically dispersed populations come into contact with one
The same applies to what he calls 'command economies' or
'agrarian state societies' (1986: 102). Here, too, technological
innovation is far from absent, the most striking example being
the 'Hellenistic arms race . . . from about 800 B.C. to A.D. 500'
(1986: 104). Again, Collins' point is that 'the authoritarianism of
a command economy . . . is compatible with technological inno-
vation; it does not require the freedom and market competitive-
ness associated with independent merchants and craftsmen'
(1986: 107). But although he gives examples of the vast construc-
tion projects of the great empires and dynasties, nevertheless the
main impetus for technological innovation is once again geopolit-

The pressure of the market is not a necessary factor. But there

is something analogous to the market in the military sphere:
that is, an active period of military competition among rivals
that are relatively well matched and hence not capable of

242 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995

Disenchantment and its discontents

overwhelming competition at a single stroke. This allows the

time period for the successive technological improvements of
an arms race. Balance-of-power situations may be crucial in all
such innovations. (1986: 94)

Technological innovation within modem capitalism, finally, is

qualitatively different from that in tribal societies and in com--
mand economies in that here the logic of the market is added to
geopolitical pressures. At this point Collins' theory of technology
links up with his Weberian characterization of capitalism, the
essence of which, again, lies in an 'application of the spirit of cal-
culation and systematic measurement' (1986: 115).
Thus the element which, for Collins, increases the scope for
innovation is the competition of the capitalist market, which he
explains by reference to Schumpeter's sociology of capitalism. To
the geopolitics of state competition must be added the role of the
entrepreneur, which 'is to introduce . . . the processes of change
in technology and in productive organization that have been the
most notable characteristics of modern capitalism . . . the entre-
preneur is the person who finds new ways of organizing existing
factors of production' (1986: 124-5). Sustained technological
innovation that goes beyond the military sector, and hence
beyond the principle of geopolitics, derives in capitalist societies
from the social pressure of the market. The difference between
capitalist and other societies, then, is that although innovation
occurs throughout history wherever the (geopolitical) organiza-
tional bases for it exist, within capitalism, 'systematic calculation
[is] applied to all economic factors' (1986: 111) - or, to combine
Collins' theory with the Weberian conception that was explicated
earlier in this essay - when diffusion becomes a way of life
throughout all spheres of social life.
It remains to be added that Collins, like Weber and Gellner,
also places within a social context those intellectual strata who
react against this dynamic by rejecting the impersonal world of
capitalism in favour of a reenchanted (although Collins does not
use this term) version of 'traditional' society with its 'human
warmth and . . . meaningfulness' (1986: 253). It may be true, he
suggests, that on a macro-level the development of capitalism has
brought about alienation from nature and from traditional social
relations. Yet not only does capitalism possibly afford more
leisure time (1986: 254), but if we allow that there is a disjunction
between the macro-level on which this alienating process is taking

The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995 243

Ralph Schroeder

place and the micro-level on which human beings experience it,

then, he points out, there may be good reason to suspect that
human beings increasingly take the macro-level for granted and
find ways (again, putting it in terms that Collins does not use) of
reenchanting their lives on a micro-level. Or, as Collins puts it,
'that we are not continually alienated by the macro world in
which we live is largely because most of the time we don't think
about it; we take the world locally, one micro encounter at a
time' (1986: 261).
If Collins identifies the Marxist theme of alienation as a char-
acteristic of intellectual strata, he has more recently turned his
attention to the contemporary concerns of these strata (1992a,
1992b). He attributes the current scepticism about the growth of
knowledge, particularly within what comes under the label of
postmodernism, to the enormous post-war increases in academic
output and the markets for this output. Postmodern ideas, he
argues, are notable for their self-referentiality and divorce from
social reality, mirroring in this sense the increasing autonomy of
academic production from the wealth-creating role of knowledge
in society. But such 'free-fioating' output also results in intellec-
tual stagnation and fragmentation among a proliferation of spe-
cialisms without a central focus or aim. This is particularly true
within sociology, where there has been an inability to build on
and contribute to the accumulation of social scientific knowledge.
But while he forecasts that the social preconditions of such a pes-
simistic attitude towards knowledge are likely to persist, over the
longer term it is inevitable that the main contribution of socio-
logical knowledge will be in what he calls the scientific 'mode',
which will become incorjjorated within - or fit into the 'encom-
passing frame' of - the growth of scientific knowledge as such
(1992b: 197).
At this point, Collins' analysis of technology can be added to
Gellner's reservations about Weber's cultural pessimism and the
disenchanting effects of the scientific world-view. Not only do the
dynamics of science and technology have their own 'inner logic'
or separate 'genealogy', which is itself a cause for scepticism
about the all-encompassing effects of disenchantment, but neither
of these processes need necessarily impinge on the 'life-world' of
individual human beings, even if the dynamic of both seems
(according to all three) to be moving in the direction of relentless
and inescapable progress - in the sense of advancement rather
than of improvement.

244 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995

Disenchantment and its discontents

'Vorsprung durch 'Technik'?*^

What do Weberian ideas contribute to an understanding of sci-

ence and technology? In the first place, they provide insight into
the world-views that have emerged as a counterforce to the disen-
chanting effects of the scientific world-view and of the spread of
technology throughout social life. These attempts to reenchant
the world by endowing social life with meaning can be under-
stood as a response to the impersonality and meaninglessness of
the realm of cognition. The degree to which emotional resources
are mobilized on behalf of all-encompassing and meaningful
world-views can be seen as an important signpost of the extent to
which 'anomie' has been created by disenchantment.
Moreover, unlike the sociologies of science and technology in
the more narrow disciplinary sense, which are concerned with
establishing the relation between specific social contexts and the
types of scientific knowledge and innovations produced by them,
the importance of the ideas examined here is that they apply to
macro-social change. That is, they provide explanations not only
of the social processes within industrial society, but of the nature
of industrial society itself and of the dynamic which characterizes
it as such. For Weber and Gellner, if the market dominates the
economic sphere and the nation-state the political, then science -
in the sense which they give it, namely as a cosmology which
allows human beings to make sense of and master the world -
governs the intellectual (Weber) or the cognitive (Gellner) sphere.
The implication is not just that this is a feature which sets indus-
trial society apart from others, but that this is the way in which
cognition shapes the social organization of industrial society as
such. That is, this cosmology, to the exclusion of all others, is the
organizing principle of cognition in industrial society, and thus
also the organizing principle of its political and economic institu-
tions - with all the attendant features that result from this for
Weber and Gellner. Yet at the same time, this cosmology
remains autonomous from social life and therefore unaffected by
it, perhaps until such a time as there is a shift from industrial
society to a different type of social order altogether. In this sense,
the scientific world-view must be treated as an inescapable fea-
ture of this type of society which provides a (given) framework
within which the specific processes taking place within it must be

The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995 245

Ralph Schroeder

Finally, and again with regard to industrial society (or in this

case capitalist society) as such, Collins allows us to specify the
mechanism of technological change by reference to geopolitical
rivalry and its sources. In other words, within all societies, and in
a redoubled sense within capitalism, we can trace the historical
development of technological advancement not by 'reading it ofP
geopolitical competition - since there is a reciprocal relation
between geopolitical and technological advantage - but by recon-
structing the pattern whereby these two are intertwined.
Weber himself mainly focused on world-view and ways of life,
and the outlook he derived from his account of the role of sci-
ence was a pessimistic one, Gellner allows us to put this view
into a more balanced perspective: if science is the mode of cogni-
tion within industrial society, we need to take stock not only of
the pervasiveness of the consequences of this world-view, which
are on the whole those that Weber identified, but also notice its
limitations. Disenchantment sets the modern world apart from
traditional societies, but there are domains which may yet elude
its icy grasp. These limitations, however, can only be recognized
against the background of an appreciation of the role of reason
in creating the 'iron cage' in the first place. Similarly, Weber's
understanding of technological advance as the application of
instrumental reason needs to be supplemented by a specification
of the institutional conditions in which this process is most likely
to take place. While capitalism adds to these, even here, accord-
ing to Collins, the pattern of the diffusion of technological inno-
vation still depends on the geopolitical context.
To show how a Weberian perspective goes beyond existing
approaches to science and technology within the social sciences
would require a further essay. Its importance can nevertheless be
hinted at by pointing out that for some time now the central con-
cern within the sociology of science has been with the causes of
scientific knowledge. And within economics and economic his-
tory, the main focus has been on the relationship between inno-
vation and economic growth. Weber and Gellner, by contrast,
are concerned with effects of scientific knowledge, not only on
economic growth but also on modem culture and on social rela-
tions generally.
Weber and Gellner are unique in this respect since they deal
not only with the philosophical or methodological issues in rela-
tion to the growth of scientific knowledge (although these are
related), but also with the fact that this growth leads to the dis-

246 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995

Disenchantment and its discontents

enchantment of culture, and consequently to impersonal forms of

domination and of economic organization. Collins, although he
argues for the reciprocal influence between technology and
geopolitics, nevertheless complements this conception of science
since he provides an example of how, once the connection
between scientific advance and technological innovation is made,
again, it is not just the causes of technological innovation but
also its consequences, in this case geopolitical ones, which
deserve consideration.
Brunei - TheUniversity of Received 25 May 1993
West London Accepted 16 November 1993

1 The exceptions to this omission are Scaff (1989) and Brubaker (1984) on the
side of interpreting his works; while Gellner's (especially 1974, 1988) and
Collins' (1986) attempts to apply them will be discussed below. Merton's writ-
ings on science and technology (see esp. 1970) are sometimes regarded as fol-
lowing on from Weber. Tenbruck (1974) has argued convingly, however, that
Merton's sociology of science does not represent a Weberian viewpoint.
2 Although a number of writers in various theoretical traditions, such as Merton,
Shils, and Polanyi, have drawn on Weber's ideas about science, the fact that
they do not develop a distinctively Weberian perspective is demonstrated by the
complete absence in their works of the concept of disenchantment, which, it is
argued here, is the key to Weber's and Gellner's understanding of science. Even
Habermas, who does discuss disenchantment, develops this idea in the direction
that science should be challenged as an ideology. This leads him to conclusions
that are diametrically opposed to Weber's ideas (on this point, see Hall 1982).
3 For the rest of the discussion in this paragraph, see Weber (1968: 399-421).
4 But see Turner (1987) on Weber's underestimation of non-Occidental scientific
and technological achievements, particularly in the Chinese and Islamic cases.
5 Compare Weber's comment that 'the empiricism of the seventeenth century was
the means for asceticism to seek God in nature' (1930: 249, note 145).
6 The similarity between Weber and Kant on this point are striking: if we want
to obtain valid knowledge, Kant argued, certain categories (synthetic a priori)
must be presupposed. Otherwise, without these presuppositions, the world is
unknowable. These categories themselves, however, are meaningless.
7 My understanding of Gellner's ideas, such as it is, has benefited from Hall's
(1981, 1987) exposition of them. A discussion of some of the links between
Weber's and Gellner's thought can now also be found in an essay by Anderson
(1992). No attempt will be made to give a comprehensive account of Gellner's
ideas about science, the focus being on those ideas that are relevant to Weber's
conception of science. Moreover, the emphasis will be on the continuity
between their views, thus ignoring the many differences both between their con-
ceptions of science and their accounts of industrial society in which it is embed-

The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995 247

Ralph Schroeder

8 For what follows, see Gellner (1988, especially chapters 2, 3).

9 As with Weber, this epistemology derives from Kant inasmuch as Gellner
argues for dualism in the sense of a distinction between objective knowledge
and the reality to which it refers. In other words, he thinks it is necessary to
accept the positivist presupposition of an underlying reality about which sci-
ence provides us with objective knowledge - although he points out that the
truth of this realism itself has not and perhaps cannot itself be affirmed as a
substantive theory (1985: 16-17). Nevertheless, he distances himself from a
Popperian account of science since, among other things, it fails to take
account of the uniqueness of the social conditions which make this type of
knowledge possible.
10 In his recent writings (1984), Habermas has made Weber's disenchantment
thesis his own, yet his attempt to reenchant the public sphere or the 'social
system' through a revitalization of the 'life-world' contrast sharply with
Weber's pessimism and with Gellner's ideas. On the contrast between Gellner
and Habermas, see Hall (1982).
11 Gellner speculates about the future possibility of a new level of disenchant-
ment being ushered in with the scientific manipulation of human beings them-
selves by means of genetic or other forms of altering human material (1988:
266-8). For an overview of his ideas about the role of science in contempo-
rary social life, see now also the chapter entitled 'Rationality as a Way of
Life' in Reason and Culture (1992: 136-56).
12 Again, no attempt is made to give a full account of Collins' theory, although
it should be mentioned that his overall interpretation of Weber is very differ-
ent from that presented here. But although Collins' focus is on institutions
rather than world-views and ways of life, he nevertheless suggests that Weber's
'analysis makes technology itself part of the realm of the spirit' and that his
theory is 'in sympathy with this idea' (1986: 11).
13 In this way Collins reverses the widespread idea that technology consists in
the application of science - an idea to which Weber, as we have seen earlier -
is prone. Instead, again, for Collins, technology constitutes the basis for sci-
entific advancement.
14 Technological innovation from earliest times onwards, Collins argues, is sub-
ject to the 'principle' that 'the smaller and more spread out the populations,
the longer it takes for innovations' (1986: 98), illustrating this principle with
examples of early tool-making and food-gathering and producing techniques.
15 Or, 'taking the lead through technology', as the advertisement of a German
automobile manufacturer put it.


I would like to thank Randall Collins, John Hall and two anony-
mous referees of this journal for helpful comments on an earlier
version of this essay.

248 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995

Disenchantment and its discontents


Wherever reference is made first to the German original of Weber's texts, I have
used my own translation.

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250 The Editorial Board of The Sociological Review 1995