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The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) is the originator of the demand for freedom from value judgments in the social sciences, an ideal he referred to as Werturteilsfreiheit (value-freedom). Weber argued that there is a logical gulf—it is not a matter of degree—separating the causal hypotheses and empirical generalizations of science from value judgments, that is, one’s moral, political, and aesthetic preferences. The “truth” of a social scientific hypothesis is in no way a matter of these preferences. No preference is, in turn, “required” by any given set of facts. Since this is so, it behooves social scientists to keep the two realms—fact and value, is and ought, science and values—separate.
In Weber’s day, this separation was not observed by everyone. “Professorial prophets,” as Weber called them, preached worldviews (Weltanschauungen) from university lecterns as if from the pulpit. It was for Weber a matter both of personal integrity and professional duty that this propagation of practical political ideals be brought to a stop (although he found it immensely hard to persuade his colleagues, who represented a range of “human” disciplines, to accept this view). These self-appointed “prophets,” Weber argued, indulged in a form of showing off. Worse, their pronouncements impaired the clear perception of reality (Weber’s own scientific vocation): Ultimate questions were addressed “in the name of science,” which is a logical impossibility. Such professorial “prophets” were paid from state funds (unlike religious preachers), were unsupervised, and did not anticipate any debate; the student audience in the lecture hall could not answer back, so academic power was abused. According to Weber, scholars and teachers should stick to their scientific vocation, for they have a job to do that requires addressing in a businesslike manner. In Weber’s philosophy, meaning cannot be given to the whole of existence, as the “prophets” seemed to believe. The teachers’ task is instead to present facts, even ones they may find personally unpalatable, and to always see these facts as separate from their own evaluations.
Weber was influential because he called attention to the vocation of the scholar in the human sciences—a job that demands a professional approach—at a time when such a view was rare. What, he asked, is the responsibility of scholars to their discipline and to themselves, both as scholars and as political or moral beings?
Weber held that values influence the way in which research is conducted in the social sciences (in addition to other non-essential ways common to natural and social science) and that values themselves could be affected by the results of research. The holder of a value position may learn that a course of action is unworkable or that, if pursued, other values might, collaterally, be infringed or impeded. Facts can be brought to bear on values, potentially affecting one’s holding of them. However, this does not weaken by one iota a given value’s freely-chosen status. On the research side of the human disciplines, evaluations enter into the subject matter. Using verstehendes Erklaren (understanding explanation), that is, the subject’s evaluations seen in relation to the conditions of his or her action, the researcher can hope to sort out the decisive motives of the actor studied. In research, the scrutiny of values permits a discussion between investigators that can clarify the (evaluative) points of view each brings to bear.
Science is served, Weber believed, by an empirical, critical treatment of values. Ultimate values can come into view, and the implications of such values, when particular situations are judged in practical terms in their light, can be traced. In addition, the factual consequences of such judgments can be seen, and new ultimate values can be revealed (with their own implications) of which the maker of the judgment was not at the time aware. The choice of any given value is always, of necessity, “free,” that is, incapable of being determined by any fact. It is free because it is a value. It is a choice because there are many values and they are radically at odds, in Weber’s view (he called them “warring gods”), in the modern, areligious world.
Both the investigator and the investigated are caught up in culture. “We are,” Weber says, “cultural beings” (1968, p. 180). If culture is to be their object, social scientists must recognize that the precondition for a cultural science is that, as cultural beings, humans can take up an attitude to the world and give it meaning and significance—some part of the world becomes culture for them. It is “values” that permit this. And, of course, concrete cultural values and hence “problems” in cultural science change with culture, shifting over time. “Value-relevance” (Wertbeziehung was an idea Weber took from his friend Heinrich Rickert (1863-1936), a philosopher, although he modified it in the process. But his basic attitude to all of science is neo-Kantian in cast. Values are a component of human action and can be empirically investigated. Only their validity is unprovable empirically. It was Weber’s intense concern for reality that convinced him of the heterogeneity and historical nature of values, despite the teachings of the dogmatists who believed the world as a whole had but one meaning and of those philosophers who were striving to provide the means for finding such a meaning on the transcendental level. Weber believed that human beings must choose for themselves. Science must accordingly be kept value free. A concern for values underlaid Weber’s commitment to freedom from value judgments in science (and teaching).
The Value-Freedom Debate
Weber’s idea of value-freedom and value-relevance has been an object of continuous discussion since he formulated it. Critics have appeared in several guises. Analytical philosophers, for example, are concerned with the is/ought distinction; descriptivists maintain that all qualities of objects are assimilable to their factual properties; and some empirical sociologists argue that value-freedom is a conservative professional ideology. Given that society is dichotomously divided—between, for example, men and women, white and black, bourgeoisie and prole-tariat—and the dominant is biased, the sociologist must take sides; if the sociologist falls on the side of the weaker, he or she must be biased too. For critical theorists, Weber advocates “decisionism,” that is, he implies that value choice is blind faith and “private”; Weber is thus a (subtle) positivist. A public consensus on value matters (ideals and projects) is, however, possible via human action.
Similarly, but from the perspective of natural law theory, Leo Strauss (1899-1973) argued that Weber was ultimately a nihilist in moral matters, whereas a return to the tradition of classical political philosophy would make it possible to settle whether or not values are heterogeneous and in conflict, as Weber maintains. Weber provided a middle way between positivism and idealism that was itself a finely wrought solution to the key questions involved in the possibility of a “social” science. These questions continue to be asked, and Weber’s answers continue to be dissected by fresh generations faced with the conflict between reason and faith, science and values, theory and practice, and detachment and involvement. They share Weber’s insight that science “cannot save us” but believe, with him, that commitment alone is not enough.
- Bruun, Hans Henrik. 1972. Science, Values, and Politics in Max Weber’s Methodology. Copenhagen: Munksgaard.
- Gouldner, Alvin W. 1973. Anti-Minotaur: The Myth of a Value-Free Sociology. In For Sociology: Renewal and Critique in Sociology Today, 3–26. London: Allen Lane.
- Strauss, Leo. 1953. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Weber, Max.  1968. Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Wissenschaftslehre, ed. Johannes Winckelmann. Tubingen, Germany: Mohr-Siebeck.
- Weber, Max. 1949. Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Trans. and eds. Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
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