Science Versus Politics
Weber's reflections on the relations of social science to public policy were worked out with reference to this model of political instrumentalities, structures, actors, functions, and conditions of efficacy and a similarly general model of social science. From these reflections two villains emerge: arrogant social scientists who overstep their role and pusillanimous politicians who do not live up to theirs. The essential thrust of Weber's arguments is not only to affirm a substantial role for empirical social science in responsible political action, but also to deny its sufficiency (or anything even approaching it) for the conduct of political affairs. In social scientists Weber wished to awaken mainly a sense of limitation vis-à-vis politics, indeed all "practical" life, and a sense of the distinctive demands of their chosen vocation; for politicians he emphasized responsibilities of which neither social scientists nor anyone else could relieve them; for both he wanted to define the distinctive characteristics of their callings and the dangers of identifying them too closely or separating them too widely.
To clarify why and how he proceeded toward these ends, the following matters now need discussion: (1) how Weber viewed the nature, capabilities, and limitations of social science; (2) what contrasts and strains he deemed to exist between the political and scientific roles; (3) at what points he considered these contrasts small enough to warrant the close identification of the roles; and (4) what perils he thought might follow from failure to grasp the nature of their differences and compatibilities.
Weber's social science was in most respects consistent with modern "behavioralism" in political and social studies. Many proponents of the latter indeed respectfully confess his inspiration in regard to their formulation of problems, modes of conceptualization, theoretical approaches, types of model building and hypothesizing, and the use of certain techniques for gathering and processing data. Just for this reason Weber is widely thought of as a man who glorified the work and capabilities of scientists and affirmed a close identity between the natural and social sciences. In fact, the contrary is the case. All of his writings on science are pervaded with a sense of its limitations, to a pitch occasionally verging on despair, and many of these writings are specifically concerned with drawing large contrasts between the natural and social sciences and pointing out the specially great limitations of the latter. To be sure, he did not revile science as do the professional antipositivists, and he most certainly did not glorify some nebulous unscientific "wisdom," "prudence," or "experience" as they do. But he was at the very least a positivist without illusions.
Weber, of course, did not think of the natural and social sciences as absolutely different. In many respects they were certainly similar, having substantially the same purpose (to discover trustworthy empirical generalizations about phenomena), using largely similar techniques (those of systematic observation, logic, and quantification), and requiring rather narrow specialization (if only because their methods demand hard and devoted work with voluminous minutiae: "brooding at one's desk" over "thousands of trivial calculations"). To this extent they also have similar power—and similar limitations.
The power of science is that it alone can provide valid knowledge of relations among phenomena, social or "natural." If one wishes to know what effects interest rates have on employment or productivity, whether and to what extent political campaign techniques affect voting turnout and voting preferences, whether upward social mobility creates mainly satisfaction or heightens perceptions of deprivation, in what ways changes in electoral systems may affect party systems, or any similar matters, "nomological" knowledge is indispensable. Men do have beliefs about such relations apart from scientific laws, based on individual common sense, folk wisdom, experience, intuition, or cosmological philosophies; but these beliefs are themselves nomological knowledge, in a cruder form and built on shakier foundations than those of science.
Weber summarizes the limitations of science in saying that it cannot, however much it may be perfected, discover "meaning" in life. Every epoch that tastes of the tree of knowledge is, in his view, fated to discover that the meaning of existence eludes it, except insofar as it creates such meaning for itself, in other ways; indeed, to the extent that life becomes "scientized" meaning recedes and men become "estranged" from the world. What did Weber mean by this?
First and best known, he meant that science cannot provide any guides to personal conduct or any means of choosing among "ultimate" alternatives. Before Tolstoy's questions—"What shall we do and how shall we live?"—it remains silent. Even when desirable ends have been chosen, it cannot solve or reduce such problems of conduct as whether such ends sufficiently sanction undesirable but unavoidable means, or whether in choosing and pursuing desirable ends the possibility of undesired repercussions should be taken into account, or how to deal with conflicts among conflicting desirable ends. To the medical practitioner, for instance, it offers a highly developed technology for relieving suffering and extending life, but it cannot tell him whether to do so is good and in what cases it may be justifiable to end life as redemption from suffering. To the political scientist, it may offer technical knowledge of how to maintain a certain system of rule, but it cannot provide guides to whether that system is intrinsically valuable or more so than probable alternatives. In the most
general sense, science may tell us much about what the world is like, but says nothing about whether its nature is sublime or diabolic and whether it is sensible to live in it at all. Not only how to live but even whether to live are ineluctably questions for choice and compromise. And as science advances, the "meaning" of life, in the sense of a moral orientation toward it and moral understanding of it, may recede in several senses: as a result of an overestimation of the powers of science and the surrender of responsibilities for creative choice to its technicians; as a result of the fact that science continuously discovers new facts and relationships to integrate into moral conceptions of the world; and most of all, because science offers ever greater and more fateful technical means for working effects, hence for defining choices of ends and means. Weber could not foresee specifically the concrete possibilities that exist for us—to destroy virtually all life, to prolong almost all suffering, to uproot, incarcerate, coercively police, or indoctrinate whole peoples—but he certainly saw the principle of the thing and realized that every new technical possibility imposes new burdens. He foresaw also the likelihood of technology being increasingly relied upon to define choices lying beyond it, for the sake of the semblance of choosing wisely.
In saying that science does not discover "meaning" in life, Weber had in mind, second, a characteristic of the very nomological knowledge it provides: the intrinsic transience and tentativity of that knowledge and the extent to which, as a result, it makes all individual contributions to science fragmentary and ephemeral. To be a scientist means to belong to a devoted company that proceeds gradually and with painstaking labors toward the objective of absolutely dependable empirical knowledge of the world, but never attains that objective. There are no ultimate and absolute tests for generalizations about observed data. New data constantly present themselves as scientific technology itself makes possible wider and deeper observation; in any case, there is no way to know when data have been exhausted. The generalizations of science themselves generate new generalizations, themselves become new data and sources of new actions that constitute new data, and may always be made more general, simpler, or more powerful. Science, therefore, knows no rest, only continuous striving. The scientist's judgment must be always in abeyance, every new finding being doubtful or a source of new mysteries, and he, as individual, is merely a figure in an endless collective process which is itself only a fragment of the whole of mankind's intellectual activity. "It is the fate of every scientist to see his work surpassed," says Aron, following Weber, who himself holds out to scientists the biblical injunction, "thousands of years must pass before you enter into life and thousands more wait in silence," as especially pertinent to them.
The endless progressiveness of science seems to Weber to denude life
of meaning because he agreed with Tolstoy that it makes death senseless. For men chained to an infinite progress, "life should never come to an end; for there is always a further step ahead for one who stands in the march of progress. And no man who comes to die stands upon the peak which lies in infinity."
Weber especially contrasted this transience of science with the permanence of art. Both are creative, but the creations of artists stand in the march of progress in a very different sense. Technical progress may offer new possibilities to artists, and, in a sense, "enrich" their work; many artistic innovations (e.g., the Gothic style, evolving orchestral composition) have in fact originated in technological advances as much as in aesthetic inspiration. But no work of art is ever surpassed, in the sense of being made aesthetically less valuable by new artistic techniques. All works of art are legacies, all accomplishments of science merely episodes.
Science is estranged from life also because of its extreme specialization. Scientific progress carves up the world of phenomena into ever narrower fields in each of which progress itself makes work continuously more taxing and more life-absorbing. Hence the scientist must pay in growing ignorance of the whole for every increment of knowledge of its parts. Synthesis may be possible, but may only create new special fields carved out of the margins of old specialties (e.g., "political sociology") or be bought at the price of inadequate knowledge of what is synthesized.
Finally, science cannot invest life with "meaning" because it is necessarily abstract and in that sense "unreal," even though its abstractions may be intended to capture the true blood and sap of life. Weber's science is certainly not Plato's philosophic sun, the reality of which is poorly reflected in the shadows of concrete experience, but just the reverse. Its concepts, models, formulas, hypotheses, indices, and correlations are themselves shadows of reality through which men try to make experience intelligible, if not meaningful. The abstract "concept," argues Weber, appeared to the Greeks as the key to eternal truth as against transient opinion. Reformation scientists still believed in science as a way to God, hidden and remote from us but revealed in His creations (even "in the anatomy of a louse"). Now, however, science is recognized as consisting of no more than heuristic devices, helpful in interpreting life but separated from it by an insurmountable barrier between abstraction and concreteness. The specialization of scientists is relevant to this point, too, since all their laws and regularities, as well as being abstract, capture only aspects of the complexity of concrete configurations.
Reading through such passages, one may get the impression that Weber tried to glorify the scientist as a kind of antihero, willingly engaging in consuming labors that can come to no end, no fullness, no foreknowledge,
and no moral guides to life. Up to a point this is probably so, and it corresponds to the Protestant's gloomy sense of vocation. But it is as well to reemphasize also the other side of his view of science: his belief that, whatever may give life "meaning," science is indispensable to any sort of technical mastery over it, so that the effective attainment of any creative aspiration depends to a large extent upon scientific knowledge. In stressing the limitations of science, Weber tried to affirm that human life retains large areas of genuine liberty and creativity regardless of scientific progress, while at the same time stressing the large extent to which free, creative choices may themselves be senseless without the technical knowledge that science alone provides.
All this pertains to every kind of science. Even with regard to that small slice of intellectual life constituted by the sciences, however, Weber was a pluralist. The social sciences particularly seemed to him to require distinction from the natural because of two characteristics, both of which make them less powerful in achieving nomological knowledge and the technical mastery it provides.
First is the fact that human acts, individual or in social aggregates, have "meanings" to the actors which vary among individuals and cultures. These meanings include intentions, that is, goals toward which actions are directed, normative expectations, and culturally peculiar attributions of significance. In that sense, "social facts" were not conceived by Weber à la Comte as mere objects, or even quite à la Durkheim as ways of acting imposed by external constraints, but as behavior inextricable from subjective, internal meanings, despite the possibility of a purely objective observation of human action and the undeniable role of external forces in conditioning internal meanings.
How does this affect the nature and weaken the capabilities of the social sciences? In the first place, it makes them more complex than other sciences because it adds a distinctive variable—and "meaning" is a variable, since it is not deducible (not fully, anyway) from universal psychological traits. This variable is omitted only with the gravest consequences, since subjective orientations do not always closely reflect objective circumstances, may independently have causal effects, and always intervene as intermediary forces between objective conditions and their objective consequences. Such orientations must, therefore, always play a role also in attempts to use the social sciences technically, that is, in social engineering: the same "policies" in different cultures may have vastly different effects, not so much because objective conditions differ but because the meanings of the conditions and policies may be variously interpreted. At the same time, however, meanings are extremely difficult to get at and one's formulations of them difficult to test when one thinks that one has got at them. Verstehen , or empathy—the power of projecting oneself into the
object of study—is important in social study, but adds to it a special problem not fully soluble by standardized techniques of inquiry and hence an added source of arbitrariness that widens the gulf between reality and scientific constructions.
The second distinctive characteristic of social science limiting its powers is that its subject, according to Weber, and again contrary to Comte, is not fixed and static but inherently "developmental." This is not to say that it is "progressive"; Weber in fact attacked all "scientific" theories of progress as assuming value standards not determinable by science. It means only that human history brings forth ever new social forms and patterns of action rather then merely repeating old ones. The processes of historic change, moreover, are hardly predictable by deterministic historicist cosmologies, precisely because men can, by means other than science, invest life with meaning and make, even if within limits, creative choices on the basis of their orientations. Weber wanted, according to Aron, to preserve the "drama" of history—its irregularities, accidents, and purposive strivings—against any thoroughgoing mechanical determinism. Even more important, he wanted to stress that social science theories cannot be cumulative in the same sense that the theories of natural science are. In the social sciences all the possibilities for infinite process previously mentioned exist, but in addition to them old observations and the theories they support may become irrelevant (not just enlarged, improved, transcended) through historic processes of creative innovation. In that sense, the social sciences are sciences "to which eternal youth is given"; at any point in time, social scientists may find that history demands of them a virtually fresh start.
One may ask how it is possible to be a social scientist at all when one holds such views about meaning and creative development in human affairs. Weber could be a committed social scientist despite these views because he believed in the plain necessity of science for efficacious creative action and because the special characteristics of social behavior seemed to him only to restrict the capabilities of social science in certain senses, not to make it futile. To an extent, one can indeed avoid all cultural and historical peculiarities in social science by developing very abstract and general theories (like models of "rational" optimizing actions or theories of the universal functional imperatives of social life), but only at the unavoidable costs of widening the gulf between theory and reality and being uninformative in regard to less general, possibly more important questions. These costs Weber himself would not incur; hence his own broadest generalizations are always middle-range theories pertaining to concrete historic processes and cultural systems of meaning. At the same time, he believed that a modicum of human experience could be grasped by universal scientific "laws" independent of history, such as those of psychology, and a larger portion by the study of proximate causality, even if still another
portion was amenable only to "interpretative understanding"; and he believed also that systematic comparative historical study, aided by psychological theory as well as a more nebulous empathy, could make motives and meanings understandable by tracing them to their origins (as he himself traced the motives of modern capitalists to Protestant beliefs). Social science to Weber consisted, in essence, of an admixture of laws, hypotheses about proximate causes and trends, and empathetic understanding, corresponding to the combination of determinism, probability, and choice—of necessity, circumstance, and creativity—that constitutes social life.
On the basis of these sketches of what is involved in being a politician or social scientist, one can readily see huge contrasts between their roles. Let us list only the most general and important.
First, since choice is the essential business of politics—choices of ultimate goals that require moral commitments and of immediate means that cannot be purely technical since they may have to be selected upon inadequate technical knowledge and may pose moral problems of their own—politicians need, and generally develop, passionate convictions and a sense of certainty, even personal infallibility. The social scientist's vocation, per contra, is morally silent and implants a zealous uncertainty, dispassion, and tentativeness, and a deep sense of the fallibility of all personal beliefs and labors.
Second, political work must always be done with reference to concrete, extremely complex social wholes, whereas social scientists work with abstract and simplified conceptions that concern only fragments of social experience. Both may be highly specialized, but they are specialized in different senses. Political specialization involves the distribution and coordination of tasks that are themselves highly complex, whereas scientific specialization involves splitting concrete complexity into abstract fragments. Scarcely a single special political task does not involve psychological, economic, administrative, and sociological considerations in complicated combination, but these are just what scientific specialization disjoins.
Third, political work is always done in large, substantially routinized organizations that must be moved and jockeyed if anything is to be achieved. The organizations, moreover, are not merely instrumental facilities to be adapted at will to any purpose, but to an extent ends in themselves, in that the politicians' careers may be bound up entirely with maintaining their positions in them and preserving their routines. Consequently, adapting means to political ends is not just a matter of impersonal calculations but entails also a host of personal stakes and considerations, large and petty. In contrast, social scientists work mainly as individuals, have to endure only a minimum of routine, and see the relations of ends and means principally as abstractly logical problems—not
least when pronouncing on political matters, with which their own incomes, safety, and deference are not bound up.
Fourth, political and scientific space and time have very different dimensions that make for contrary perspectives. Political space is parochial, tied to specific societies, whatever visions there may be to the contrary; scientific space is inherently ecumenical. The politician's time perspective is inherently constricted; the social scientist's is expansive and indeed, in a sense, infinite. Politicians must generally act expeditiously even if that entails making commitments upon little or no preparation; in any case, their work lies in the present moment or immediate future. Social scientists, on the other hand, may sit long and patiently making their myriads of trivial calculations, safely knowing that nothing will be impaired by the ticking away of time, except possibly self-esteem; and their work is free of temporal constriction also in that its end is always infinitely remote.
This list of contrasts could certainly be enlarged. For example, one could, and probably should, add to it contrasts between scientific and political communication, such as those entailed in teaching as against persuading and those between the religious openness and honesty of scientific communication and the compulsive mystifications and flimflam of politics. What has been said, however, should suffice to make the essential point, which is that the contrasts between the scientific and political callings are such that they will produce considerable strains when their practitioners encounter one another or cross vocational boundaries. Because they evolve different orientations—different vocational systems of meaning—professional politicians and social scientists are likely to be mutually unreceptive and antipathetic, as well as highly ineffective when engaging themselves outside of their accustomed spheres, although one should immediately add that this is so only insofar as they properly understand and practice their vocations. There certainly have been politicians who felt more at ease among scientists and scholars than in politics itself (Balfour, for example) and even more scientists and scholars who took readily to politics; but they have rarely been notable politicians or accomplished scientists.
Strain, however, does not imply irrelevance and the desirability of utter separation. Weber's thought about the relations of social science to policy making was certainly not intended to construct an elaborate rationalization for indulging that "craving of his soul for failure" which Leo Strauss has somehow detected in him. His aim, as I understand it, was just the opposite: to promote the potency of both social scientists and politicians by clarifying for the one what he can do in public affairs and for the other what he must do; by identifying clearly areas of overlap and complementarity between the two roles and equally clearly corrupting dangers that may arise when they are joined; and of course, by stating explicitly factors
that may make for strains in any case but all the more so when they are unrealized.
Certainly Weber's claims for the contributions social scientists can make to policy qua social scientists are far from inconsiderable. Although they cannot provide scientifically ultimate value standards, there is much they can do, at least potentially (i.e., to the extent that they actually possess scientific knowledge and can adjust themselves sufficiently to the ways of the political world). Given an explicitly stated goal, they can supply knowledge of technical means for its attainment. Even if they cannot measure the intrinsic ethical value of a goal, they can assess its "meaningfulness" in a given setting, that is, whether it makes sense to pursue the goal at all. They can help determine with precision the impact on other spheres of pursuing any special goal and hence the overall costs of a policy. Through logical analysis they can also make explicit the more general values implied by clusters of goals and judge the consistency of goals with one another. They can elucidate what data and theoretical knowledge are ideally required to choose among alternative means to ends. And they can study values and goals as empirical givens—for example, expose the preconditions and consequences of their being held and thereby help men to decide whether to hold them at all.
It is true that all this is only instrumental and that the political decision maker must take into account factors in no sense scientific, in ways not purely technical, in making even instrumental choices. But it is also true that social scientists can be especially useful in policy making precisely because their orientations are so different from, and complementary to, those of politicians. They can, for instance, serve to dampen passions where coolness may be essential, detect self-serving pettiness in political purposes and calculations, induce a sense of uncertainty where false conviction may be self-defeating, help politicians to see through comfortable but dysfunctional routines, provide a larger sense of space and time where narrowness and haste may have bad consequences—in short, help politicians to avoid the faults of their own virtues, always provided that they achieve rapport with them without assuming the politician's own distinctive orientations.
However, in stressing the complementarity of the scientific and political vocations, Weber was also necessarily insisting on their essential separateness. Most important, he saw two serious dangers in a too close identification of them, one pertaining to social science, the other to politics, but both expressed a single, more general fallacy, that of "scientism"—which means literally what it says, regarding science as an "ism."
The chief danger social scientists should avoid in regard to political activity is to play at being moral teachers, agitators, demagogues, and
"prophets" in their professional capacities, most of all in the classroom (although by no means only there). The fundamental reason for this is, of course, Weber's conception of the limits of empirical science. Weber did not accept Comte's vision of a scientistic ethics: the belief that as there is no room for free judgment in physics so there will be none in social life once the sciences pertaining to it are perfected. That view seemed to him simultaneously to misunderstand science and morality and to endanger human dignity. Nor did he subscribe to the attitude Jacques Ellul considers inherent in the technician's approach to decision making: the belief that all problems have unique solutions deriving from purely technical considerations, so that as technology advances the necessity for moral choice diminishes. Even in regard to instrumental decisions, let alone commitments to ultimate ends, scientific calculations leave room for other considerations and creative choices because of the inherent uncertainties, abstractness, finitude, simplifications, and fragmentation of science. For "values," then, science is irrelevant, for "evaluations" insufficient, even though its adequacy for the latter grows with technological advance.
There is an additional reason for ruling moral preaching and policy recommendations especially out of the classroom. This is the inherent asymmetry of the teacher-student relationship. After all, the teacher's authoritative position can easily be used to stifle discussion and contradiction on controversial matters. Students and teachers in any case do not enjoy "equal time" if they disagree on matters eminently subject to disagreement. Teachers can permanently harm students who make themselves obnoxious to them through examination marks and other means. Students tend to be respectful and impressionable anyway and to crave leaders and guardians rather than teachers, as well as being unaware of the fallibility of the petty gods who reveal themselves on the lecture platforms. And on the other side, teachers may be tempted to court easy popularity by generating sentimental excitements rather than demanding exacting empirical work and ruthless analysis, of both themselves and their students. Should teachers nevertheless wish to preach, plenty of less asymmetric channels are available to them for doing so.
It was said in Weber's time, and still is today, that moral teaching and the closely related academic concern with policy questions are justified because the end of higher education is the whole cultivation of men rather than specialized training. Weber, however, was strongly for the latter, not just because the specialized society requires specially trained experts, but, more important, because for him cultivated men do not surrender or fail to realize their moral autonomy, the right and duty of resolving problems of conscience in their own way. Moral men may, after all, be cultivated in two ways. One may teach them a particular version of morality; or one may sternly refuse to interfere with and lessen their sense of a creative
liberty of choice, which is the essence of moral personality. So strongly was Weber for the latter approach that he greatly preferred the heated moral histrionics of Treitschke and Schmoller to teachers who believed that it was permissible to parade values and policy judgments on the lecture platform provided they were presented with cool detachment; he preferred the outright demagogues because they were less likely to deceive anyone about what they were doing.
Contrary to common belief, these views do not connote that Weber was an ethical "relativist." Partly they stem from his ethical pluralism, that is, his belief that different realms of activity impose varying imperatives, the scientific vocation demanding a certain ascetic self-control in sentimental matters. Mainly, however, they reflect his fear of encroachment upon men's moral autonomy, without which no ethical life exists at all and which he considered the creative motor of human development. He saw the complete life as combining knowledge (science), conscience (morality), and will (passion), much as did Freud, and wished to keep each integral and intact.
His own reaction to the reception of Freudian theory by friends who used it to justify sexual promiscuity in the name of "healthy living" illustrates his position. Weber greatly admired Freud's scientific work but considered it potentially dangerous to moral life: (1) because there is no reason to consider healthy nerves a moral absolute as against other values, like self-constraint and heroic suffering; (2) because he foresaw, with rare prescience, the possibility that psychoanalytic clinicians would encroach on personal responsibilities by becoming a new species of directeurs d'âme; and (3) because he considered Freudian theory to be as transient and inadequate as any other scientific theory. He also feared that transforming it into a moral code would rigidity it in a still highly inadequate form, preventing the realization of its scientific promise and thus threatening both morality and science.
"Scientism" might also take a second form. If the need for choice is especially pressing and decisions are especially difficult to make, politicians, including bureaucrats, may become not too resistant to social scientists but just the opposite, too susceptible, abdicating to scientists their own responsibilities. They may themselves come to regard scientific knowledge and techniques as a surrogate "ism," a kind of revelation that obviates fateful choices. Weber loathed the surrender of moral responsibility in all men, but most of all in those who had chosen a vocation the very essence of which is decision making. He foresaw, however, that with the advance of political expropriation, with the growing complexity and momentousness of rule, a powerful tendency toward the "scientification" of politics and administration might arise, especially since scientific advance would occur simultaneously with "political development." This possible tendency he regarded simply as yet another kind of routinization of spheres in which
liberty and creativity had prevailed. He also regarded science as another potent weapon of mystification with which bureaucrats might overwhelm their supposed masters, especially if successfully joined to the already highly developed weapon of the "state secret."