Weber On Disenchantment and Schmitt On Weber

In “Science as a Vocation,” Max Weber offers an analysis of what it means to engage in science, or intellectual activity, as a profession. In doing so, he makes the claim that the modern world is one that is “disenchanted.” In this essay I will discuss what Weber means when he says that the world is disenchanted, paying close attention to the potential political implications of this claim. I will argue that a disenchanted world has considerable implications in the political realm, in the form of both an increased importance of politics, and an increased difficulty in fulfilling the obligations which accompany this importance. In addition, I will consider how Carl Schmitt might react to Weber’s analysis and argue that his claims regarding the true nature of politics might offer a solution to the political problem posed by disenchantment.

Weber arrives at his claim regarding the disenchantment of the modern world during his analysis of a question concerning the practice of science. Why, he asks, would one devote one’s energies to a task whose end one will certainly never see – a task that is, moreover, theoretically infinite? Although the intellectual (i.e. increased understanding of the world) and technological payoffs brought about by this process do not constitute a satisfactory answer to the question, these consequences are nonetheless very important. Weber notes, perhaps surprisingly, that the average modern person is no more (indeed, even less) aware of and knowledgeable about the “conditions of life” under which they live than the average uncivilized person. A “savage knows incomparably more about his tools” than the rider of a streetcar does about the physics and technology which enable her or his movement. This is not what is important. What is important is that in principle the streetcar rider could, if she or he desired, come to understand the scientific basis of the conditions of their life. This potential is the root of the modern world’s disenchantment. By creating an intellectual environment in which anything can in principle be explained by scientific analysis and/or calculation, intellectual rationalization (as Weber calls it) has removed the possibility of metaphysical, spiritual – essentially nonscientific – explanations of the world and its features. And this, Weber writes, “means that the world is disenchanted.” (139)

Weber’s claim regarding the disenchantment of the world has consequences in many areas of human activity. One area in which intellectualization’s consequences are particularly important is the realm of the political. It seems that the consequence of disenchantment for politics is twofold. The primary consequence which might affect politics has to do not only with disenchantment but with a broader theme in Weber’s essay as well: confusion or loss of values. Along with this consequence comes a second potential effect: an increase in the importance of politics. Disenchantment therefore contributes to a confusion or loss of values in the political realm, and in doing so increases the pressure on politics to somehow fill the gap left by disenchantment.

In searching for the value of science, Weber examines what he calls a “tremendous” contrast between past and present valuations of science. He notes that in Plato’s Republic, the allegory of the cave demonstrates the firm link of the past between science and reality, interpreting the sun as science, “which alone seizes not upon illusions and shadows but upon the true being.” Now, however, “youth feels rather the reverse: the intellectual constructions of science constitute an unreal realm of artificial abstractions…” (140) Weber continues his analysis, debunking any claims according to which science points the way towards meaning or value in the form of true being, nature, art, God, happiness, etc. He sums up his analysis with a quote from Tolstoy: “Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’” (143)

Disenchantment becomes particularly important in this context. Prior to intellectualization, the solutions to problems now addressed by scientific analysis and calculation were drawn from metaphysical realms like religion. In discussing the relation between religion and science, Weber notes the following: “that science today is irreligious no one will doubt in his innermost being, even if he will not admit it to himself.” (142) Yet religion answered not only the questions to which science now addresses itself, but also the types of questions which Tolstoy claimed science is fundamentally incapable of answering – questions of value and meaning, “the only question[s] important for us.” It seems then that intellectualization, by replacing nonscientific means with scientific means of answering our questions, has left us with a problematic void. Scientific analysis and calculation may answer more accurately a great many of our questions about the world we live in, but since it cannot answer our most important questions, it leaves us spiritually unfulfilled and devoid of the faith by which we were once consoled.
This situation will manifest itself in many realms of human activity, but the political realm especially. Politics concerns itself in part with the regulation of the legal conditions under which individuals live their lives. Liberalism in particular emphasizes the importance of individual liberty – the liberal state exists more to guarantee the individual’s freedom to pursue her or his idea of a valuable and meaningful life than to actually lead the individual in living that life. This of course has not always been the case. The state’s relatively new role – that of protector instead of leader – has, perhaps ironically, come about at roughly the same time that the social conditions and lifestyles it is meant to protect have themselves fallen into confusion. This problem leads to the second political repercussion of disenchantment: the newfound importance of politics.

Given the situation outlined above, it seems clear that some new sort of value-orientation must arise. Science is unable to provide a clear set of values according to which individuals can structure their lives and activities, and the plurality of inconsistent values found in the separate realms of human activity leads to further confusion and conflict. Having once played such a prominent role in this domain, it is clear that politics has the capacity for shouldering such a responsibility. In addition, the liberal state (in part because of its monopoly on violence as discussed in “Politics as a Vocation”) already plays the central role in the regulation and often management of other realms of activity, such as economics. It seems then that the solution to the problem of disenchantment may lie in politics. How exactly this solution can be worked out doesn’t seem clear, however. Devising a program according to which the political realm can restructure and realign the values of the society it also serves to protect is no small task. Some of the ideas of the political theorist Carl Schmitt, however, may offer a possible solution to this problem.

In The Concept of the Political Schmitt claims that liberalism and its conception of politics are inherently flawed. Arguing that it is founded upon unrealistic and problematic ideas about the nature of politics, Schmitt claims that liberalism depoliticizes politics by asserting that differing and conflicting values and ideologies can coexist without clashing. In truth, the nature of politics resides in the distinction between friends and enemies. Political interactions are those and only those which occur between enemies whose interests are so polemical that they each seek the other’s eradication. Schmitt believes that the existence of such enemies plays a crucial role in a satisfactory human life. In masking over this distinction, liberalism denies individuals a psychologically important and socially unifying aspect of life.

Although there are important parallels between Schmitt’s ideas and those of Weber, certain differences exist as well. The world Weber describes as disenchanted is quite similar to the world Schmitt observes – one of conflicting values in which individuals lack an important aspect of life. But while Weber attributes this state of affairs to intellectualization, Schmitt attributes it to the dogmatism of liberalism. It seems unclear to what extent Schmitt might acknowledge intellectualization as having a role in the current state of society. He might instead criticize Weber’s analysis insofar as it concentrates on intellectualization instead of the real problem – liberalism. According to Schmitt, Weber’s analysis may be of little worth practically, as it can offer little, if any, help in suggesting an authentic solution to the problem, having mistaken its cause. But while he may disagree with Weber’s causal theory, Schmitt certainly believes, like Weber, that something must be changed at the state level. It is here that Schmitt’s theory might offer a solution to the problem posed in Weber’s discussion of disenchantment. If Schmitt is correct about the importance of true political interaction, then by eliminating liberalism and its theoretical mistakes a true political community in the Schmittian sense might be created. Were this to happen, the unifying effect on the individuals of the community may be sufficient to overcome the problems created by intellectualization. Recall the problems discussed earlier: confusion of values and lack of a sufficient means of addressing life’s most important questions. According to Schmitt’s analysis, both of these problems could be addressed by bringing true politics back into the conscious sphere of human activity. In uniting against a common enemy (in the Schmittian sense), the community affirms its own values by denying or opposing the values of its enemy, thereby resolving any confusion of values. In such a case, political unification serves also as the means of addressing the questions which science cannot answer and liberalism ignores. In this way politics may successfully deal with its increased importance. It seems then that Schmitt’s analysis offers a potential solution to the problems associated with disenchantment. Although he may criticize certain aspects of Weber’s argument, Schmitt might conditionally accept Weber’s general statement of the problem – a problem to which he believes he has a solution.

Although the actual cause of what Weber terms disenchantment might be disagreed upon, the general problem seems to remain the same for both Weber and Schmitt. Whether a Schmittian solution to the problem is also a realistic solution depends on whether or not his own analysis of the nature of politics and humanity are also correct. While Schmitt’s analysis has its advantages, the actual adequacy of the solution he proposes remains controversial, and it seems unlikely that Weber – a liberal himself – would endorse Schmitt’s analysis.