Saturday 21 June 2014

Max Weber's casuistic style of writing

As student in Berlin, I always struggled with texts by Max Weber, the German sociologist. I found his style of writing impenetrable at best. It was not so much what he was trying to say, but how he said it that caused me headaches. His train of thought often seemed to meander, sometimes combining several disgressions from the topic at hand within one sentence. It was easy to understand why he employed such a style. Weber was engaged in defining a new science, and the terminological and conceptual uncertainties forced him to describe the new subject matter through analogies rather than through direct naming. This meant however, that one could at best make sense of what he was saying without ever gaining a critical distance to his texts. In other words, to a certain extent, his style made his writings immune to criticism. The best you could do as a reader is to absorb yourself in the impressionistic style.

Whoever reads Weber quickly notices that the key to unlocking Weber's enigmatic writings lies in analysing his style. Yet, it is less clear why anybody should put in extra hours to study linguistics to understand the writings of a 20th century sociologist.

Fortunately, the division of labour in science (and the humanities) relieves you of the need to expand your knowledge into literary theories. Other people do in elaborate detail what you can only grasp in its contours and so I was not too surprised recently to finally stumble over a linguistic study of Weber's writings. Bryan S. Green published his book on Simmel and Weber a while back but I only read it now and it was, without exaggeration, a bit of a revelation (Bryan S. Green, Literary Methods and Sociological Theory. Case Studies of Simmel and Weber, Chicago London 1988).

Green conducts a textual analysis of Weber's style in admirable detail and argues that Weber's writings are discursively based on the legal tradition of casuistic case examination, where lawyers are circling the 'facts' by describing them in ever more accurate detail. Whilst they are moving ever closer to the facts, they peg their progress by creating consensus at every point of the way. The ultimate indisputableness of a 'fact' therefore is supported by a gradual improvement in description that is painstakingly evidenced through step by step consensus.

Green says that 'casuistry is the inner form and intrinsic genre of Weberian sociology' (p.264). As with so many linguistic studies, the form becomes the content of the message and this may be the point where Green (just as other linguists) stretch the analytical method to make it the production facility for meaning. Yet, for all its linguistic aspirations, Green's book reveals how useful it can be to look carefully at the way we say something if we want to understand what we actually say.