Colin Humphries


Categorically Thinking

(Autumn 1966)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.26, Autumn 1966, p.36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Sociology of Religion
Max Weber
Methuen, 30s.

Classes in Modern Society
T.B. Bottomore
Allen & Unwin, 16s.

Max Weber is one of the main inspirers of modern sociology. Only Durkheim competes with him for praise among sociologues. The claim of descent from him, particularly by American sociology, is, however, not fully justified. Certainly at least one of Weber’s methodological starting points – the attempt to establish the relational forms subsisting between different social elements – has been purified and carried to its logical conclusion by later thinkers. But in Weber there are also other tendencies. The divorce from, and lack of interest in history that characterises virtually all of his modern epigones was far from complete in his own work. Indeed this was often a conscious reaction against a certain presentation of historical materialism – and yet always seemed to be drawn back to materialist explanations at certain points.

The result is an ambiguity in Weber’s work which this volume, as much as any, brings out. Its aim is to discuss the relation between religious and other social – particularly economic – attitudes and institutions. Weber does not rest content, as his sociologue successors do, with reducing history to a set of abstract, formalised, often elaborate and always nonsensical suprahistorical patterns. There is always an awareness that the tremendous variety of concrete historical experience refuse to conform to any set of categories. But his methodological basis still demands that he moves in this direction. For he is striving, not to understand the dynamic producing development in one historical situation but to find causal relations between different social phenomena. The trouble is that religious and economic attitudes are not causally related at all. Both are integral parts of the single attempt of the individual living and working within society to give total expression to his relationship to the world. Their inter-relationship and development are only understandable in relationship to the developing practical interaction of men and the world. In this sense Weber’s whole effort is misguided. It involves dividing the historical development of human action within society up into artificially isolated objects and then trying to reunite them with causal relations. As such it tends to be more mechanical in its treatment of social reality than even the most mechanical of would-be Marxists. This inevitably diminishes the value of the author’s work. This is especially the case with this book. For the attempt to fit the complexity of history into mechanically related categories, if conscientiously carried out, can only result in seemingly endless elaborations, cautions, provisos and diversions. The work bristles with facts, insights, suggestions, original analogies – and is virtually unreadable. Readers of Bottomore’s other works – particularly of his translations and selections from Marx – will be disappointed with this one. Although the author’s sympathies tend to be in the right place and although some of his conclusions, for instance that classes still exist, will be welcome to IS subscribers, it is shallow and unoriginal. Most regrettable of all is the absence of the factual material that could transform such a book from a collection of vague reflections into an interesting and useful argument.

Last updated on 16 November 2009