Psychology Disenchants the Human World

Lecture 10.  September 23 and 29.


Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted [de-magified]. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means. This process of disenchantment, which has continued to exist in Occidental culture for millennia, and, in general, this ‘progress,’ to which science belongs as a link and motive force.

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1918)


Weber was one of the most important social thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was very concerned about the effects of the application of reason to all spheres of life, an application resulting in what he elsewhere called the “iron cage” of reason and bureaucracy.  The talk I just quoted was given by Weber to German college students in 1918.  Members of his audience felt especially disenchanted just then.  What had started for them as a romantic, noble, cause — World War 1 — had ended in European horror and German defeat.  Their newly unified (1871) empire had been replaced by what seemed to many a bland, bourgeois, unexciting, unambitious democracy, known now to history as the Weimar Republic.

Weber was addressing an important theme in the history of science, the creation of a new social role, that of scientist, and what might and should be expected of scientists and their new institution, science.  Organized science is the epitome of the application of reason, and the Scientific Revolution had created a triumphant picture of the world as a machine knowable by reason, whose movements could be precisely calculated and technically controlled.  The problem for many people, including especially, as he notes several times, the youth in Weber’s audience, was that science was invading human relations, too, reducing them to rational calculation and technical adjustment.  They deeply resented this, and Weber discussed what science can and cannot offer as a replacement for religion, feeling, and mystery — enchantment — in living a flourishing life.  The answer was, very little.

The profound questions raised by Weber are of great importance for the history of psychology as an institution, because psychology (especially in the United States) is the central science through which the discipline of reason and technocracy have been brought to bear on everyday life.  Your life has been sorted by numbers from the Apgar test applied when you were but seconds old, to the SAT test you took in high school, to usage data collected from your most recent Google search, and conclusions about your behavior and life’s prospects calculated by equations.  Priests used to offer guidance on negotiating life’s vicissitudes, now scientifically-trained psychologists do.  This is Weber’s iron cage.

Forethoughts.  Science will make its move from the heavens to the earth, from the planets to people, during the 18th century and the Enlightenment Project of the philosophes, the topics of the next 2 lectures.  All will question, some will reject, and a few will seek to erase, what they see as the irrational institutions that had controlled Europe up to then, unreflective aristocratic tradition and revelatory religion. 

Published in: on October 6, 2008 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: