Victims of a pandemic, critic of scientific rationality – On the 100 year death anniversary of Max Weber

In 1788 Friedrich Schiller wrote the poem The Gods of Greece. It is a lament against the mechanical philosophy and ontological coldness of modern science, and at the same time a song of praise for the magic and myth as expressed in the world of gods in antiquity. It says:

[…] A stranger made to all the joys she yields
Never to be enchanted by her grace
Never to see her magnificent fields
Never to be warmed by her pure embrace;
Unconscious of the magic of her arts
Like the droning of a lifeless pendulum
She must now serve only the strictest laws
Of Godless nature.

The „Law of Gravity“ was Newton’s law, with which he had given the world its first „world formula“, a first complete system of theories, from which natural science derived its radical claim to be able to derive and calculate all natural phenomena. To Schiller’s regret, this claim threatened to seriously change the relationship between scientific and spiritual thinking.

129 years later, in 1917 – the scientific revolution had meanwhile given rise to at least two technological and numerous other revolutions – Max Weber, the most famous social scientist of the 20th century, in his lecture „Science as a vocation“ blew the same horn:

„The increasing intellectualization and rationalization thus means […] that there are in principle no mysterious, unpredictable powers that play into this, that one can rather control all things – in principle – by calculation. But this means: the disenchantment of the world.“

In Weber’s view of the world, science with its rationality destroys everything mysterious and not directly experienceable, i.e. transcendental, and thus also every reference to spirituality. He countered the increasing confrontation of opposing religious values, spiritual believes, political ideas, economic interests and the ever-increasing explanatory power of physics, chemistry, and biology with a mixture of alienation, fascination, and cool rationality. It was his declared aim to grasp the driving forces of modern society. Like his compatriot Karl Marx 50 years before him, he found these in capitalism. But instead of overcoming it as a temporary episode in an already predetermined historical development as quickly as possible, Weber first wanted to understand capitalism more closely. In doing so, he arrived at his well-known and still controversial thesis of the birth of capitalism from Protestant ethics. In religion Weber saw a central driving force of society. In doing so, he wanted to explain the reasons for the different developmental paths of the cultures of the Occident and the Orient and thus identify the characteristic elements of Western civilization.

But he did not see the Protestant attitude as the only factor in this development. Among other things, he recognized the rationalism of scientific endeavor and the fusion of observation with mathematics as a characteristic part of Western culture, which for him, however, went hand in hand with a decline in the belief in magic, a process which he described and regretted in the spirit of Schiller as the „disenchantment of the world“. The fact that this has at the same time brought about a technological revolution, the products of which for his ancestors from only a few decades before are hardly distinguishable from magic, provides the context for his famous quote above which he amends with the followng:

„No longer, like the savage for whom such powers existed, must one resort to magical means in order to dominate the spirits or to entreat them. But technical means and calculation do that. This means above all intellectualization as such.“ 

At almost the same time, the most important of this guild, Albert Einstein, came to a completely different assessment of the work and creativity of the modern scientist. Einstein describes a deep feeling of reverence of the scientist for the magic, the mysterious of nature:

„The most beautiful and profound thing that man can experience is the feeling of mystery. It underlies religion and all deeper striving in art and science. Whoever has not experienced this, appears to me, if not as a dead man, then at least as blind. To feel that behind what we can experience there is something that is inaccessible to our spirit, whose beauty and sublimity only reaches us indirectly and in weak reflection, that is religiousness.”

In view of the field of tension between the sublimity and explanatory power of the laws of nature and the still mysterious nature of the unexplained in the world, hardly any scientist can assume, according to Einstein, that magic is banned from the modern world.

The assessments of the most important physicist and the most important sociologist of the 20th century could hardly be more different. In view of their two greatness, it can only seem presumptuous to make one’s own judgment. But does this fundamentally different assessment of the background of today’s science, which Einstein experienced subjectively and Weber claimed objectively and normatively, perhaps not reflect a good part of the contradiction between science and spirituality itself? Is this perhaps even based on a misunderstanding regarding their two natures, in the consequence of which science or rational thinking and spirituality are to be regarded as irreconcilable opposites?

It is astonishing: Albert Einstein, the figurehead of science, describes precisely the mysterious and the (subjective) feeling of sublimity that come with it as the source of scientific striving in general. Numerous other great natural scientists such as Niels Bohr or the Heisenberg student Hans-Peter Dürr expressed themselves in a similar way. This amazement unites natural scientists and people who call themselves spiritual. Without distinction, they feel deep awe and incited curiosity in the face of the beauty of nature, the variety of its forms and the power of its forces, but also about the richness of our own spiritual experience, the „phenomenology of our spirit“, as the philosophers express it. Weber, the sociologist, on the other hand, writes (further down in his essay)

„Salvation from the rationalism and intellectualism of science is the basic prerequisite of life in communion with the divine […] And not only for the religious, no for the experience in general.

Already the ancient philosophers Plato and Aristotle recognized that the origin of scientific and philosophical efforts lies in our deep astonishment (Greek θαυμάζειν). So writes Aristotle:

„For astonishment was the beginning of philosophizing for mankind now as before, in that humans were initially astonished at the nearest unexplained things, then gradually progressed and also raised questions about greater things, for example about the phenomena of the moon and the sun and the stars and about the origin of the universe.”

Plato himself said:

„Amazement is the attitude of a man who truly loves wisdom, indeed there is no other beginning of philosophy than this.“

And Thomas Aquinas wrote in the late Middle Ages:

„Marvel is a longing for knowledge.“

So it is the „wonders“ of nature that lead us to „wonder“. Only from there does the path lead to knowledge. There is no such thing as a „disenchantment with nature“. Today we know much more about the world than we did 100 years ago. And yet there are more rather than less secrets. Until today, we are not lacking reasons to wonder.

Max Weber died exactly 100 years ago, on 14 June 1920 – incidentally, and this is particularly remarkable in the midst of today’s corona crisis, by the Spanish flu.

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