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science and life

Theoretical Ideas in Sociology: science and life Throughout this course I have asked you to look at some pretty tough material and to ask some pretty tough questions. Questions about categories, about metaphors, about the shape of history, about how to describe the social world, about ideology, about power, about the self, and about the ways in which sociologists’ contributions to debates around these questions does or does not make them classics. In this final lecture I want to reflect on a problem that has hovered over or lurked beneath – choose whichever metaphor you prefer – our discussions of all of these problems. It is a problem that is put very well by Robert Musil –in fact almost everything was well put by Musil: If someone had asked him at any point while he was writing treatises on mathematical problems or mathematical logic, or engaged in some scientific project, what it was he hoped to achieve, he would have answered that there was only one question worth thinking about, the question of the right way to live.  Now, it might not be obvious to you that we have been anywhere near to this question in the course of this year. Aren’t these questions about categories and so on questions that haunt – or ought to haunt – the professional sociological theorist alone? Well, they are, but I would also say two things: firstly, quite a lot a professional sociologists don’t spend much time thinking about them; secondly, they are not necessarily academic questions alone – we have said constantly that we a social actors we all have to define a situation, make sense of what is going on here, orient ourselves in the social world somehow or other. And in so doing we do construct descriptions of things, and do so by using categories (think of Mary Douglas on everyday classification) and metaphors; we also have at least an implicit theory of the self, at least some sense of the past, and we often find ourselves wanting to know why things happen. Sure enough, some of the things we have talked about, like theories of ideology or theories of power, have perhaps seemed largely technical. But none of the things I have asked you to read have been pure statements of abstract theoretical principles. All have referred to some part of the social world that we all have to get about in – the modern city, doctor-patient relationships, free time, politics, table manners, schools, dreams, everyday conversation.  All this raises the question of what sort of knowledge we can have of these things. The professional sociologist may seek specialist knowledge, but how specialist is specialist when these are matters about which social actors themselves already have knowledge? To what extent are specialist and everyday knowledge in competition with one another? We have already seen, in the session on ideology last term, and on depth metaphor this term, that the sociologist may be tempted to say, be attracted by the idea, of knowing better than …than whom? Than the lay person? But if the lay person is already a knowledgeable agent rather than a complete ignoramus, then can we call them a lay person? Put another way, if we accept Musil’s claim that the only important question is the question of how to live, can the sociologist – possessed of a systematic and organised knowledge of the social - tell the non-sociologist how to live? Are you studying sociology because you want answers to the question of how to live better? Or because of its intrinsic intellectual worth, out of sheer curiosity? If curiosity, can that curiosity ever be the same for the social scientists as it is for the natural scientist?  Now as you might have guessed I am not going to give you any direct answers to these questions, just discuss three thinkers – two sociologists and a novelist – who have thought about them in interesting ways: Alfred Schutz (1899-1959), Robert Musil (1880-1940), and Max Weber (1864-1920) Now they all wrote in German, and here one might be tempted to recall the words of that very British political theorist Michael Oakeshott, who once said of the Germans that ‘they are the only European people who learned how to philosophize before they learned how to live’; but Musil and Schutz – like Wittgenstein - were both Austrians, so Oakeshott’s observation – though amusing - hardly applies. In any case, it was that very German German Goethe who anticipated this problem when he had Mephistopheles say to the student: ‘Dear friend, all theory is grey,
and green the golden tree of life.’  
  1. Schutz on the well-informed citizen

Schutz’s essay is something of a neglected classic (if that is not a contradiction in terms): the subtitle is important: an essay on the social distribution of knowledge. Its interest lies in the distinction he makes between three characters or types of people: the expert, the man on the street the well-informed citizen Its interest for us is that this list looks almost like a choice; is the knowledge we are seeking in sociology an expert knowledge, a form of lay knowledge, or something else?  Now, to understand Schutz you have to know that he belongs to the movement known as phenomenology, and that in everything he writes he is trying to describe our orientation to the social world, the way that the social world is constructed ,the way we maintain a sense of reality. One of his favourite ideas was that there was more than one reality, and that for each reality – that of art, or religion, or science, or ethics, or dreams, or listening to music, and the most paramount reality of all, the one none of us can avoid, that of everyday life. In each, though, there was a particular way in which individuals were expected to ‘tune in’ to reality. He spoke for instance of a ‘tension of consciousness’ peculiar to each, of the different ways we are attention to reality in each case, the different ways in which we are expected to bracket out or suspend our belief in other realities. He spoke of the structures of time peculiar to different experiences; clock time may be important to some experiences rather than others, or to some types of people rather than others: The reality of dreams is clearly different from that of everyday life – or take music: when we listen to music at a concert, our sense of time passing has nothing to do with clock time (nobody says, ‘how long does Beethoven’s 4th piano concerto last?’; but if we are a technician involved in the manufacture of recordings, the time of a piece of music measured in minutes and seconds is crucial. So we can say that for the musician and for the technician different things are relevant, or that for each there is a different relationship between the things they take for granted and the things that they need to be attentive to. The essay on music is also about the distribution of knowledge, but there is, if you like, a division of labour between the musician, the listener and the technician, we would not ask one to adopt the attitude of the others.  But in the essay on the well-informed citizen things are different: we live in a culture that is increasingly pervaded by the results of scientific activity. If this is the case, what can and should the ordinary person’s attitude be? Do we leave science to the scientists and get on with our lives in the way we know how? Or is there scope for variation in our attitudes?  Schutz on relevance: Schutz says that our relationship to the world is defined by what he calls relevance structures: 4 ‘zones of relevance:i) the world within my reach – observable and changeable by our own actions, the object of our ‘projects’ii) fields not open to our domination but ‘mediately connected’ with the first zone – it is the zone in which tolls are produced with which we go about our projectsiii) zone of the relatively irrelevant, what for the time being has no connection with our interestsiv) the absolutely irrelevant: ‘for all practical purposes a mere blind belief in the That and the How of Things within this zone of absolute irrelevancy is sufficient’ (125) Or as that well-known phenomenologist, former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, put it: ‘As we know, there are known knowns. 
There are things we know we know. 
We also know there are known unknowns. 
That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. 
But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don't know we don't know.’ Now Schutz then complicates this picture by saying that the strength of the boundaries between these zones depends on the social relationships of which we are a part. We can say that anything we do is defined by what he calls intrinsic and imposed relevances. We want to do something, we define what is relevant ourselves, but the means at our disposal are caught up in a system of relevances that we have to accept as given. We decide that we want to be a lawyer, or a scientist, that is our project, it is defined by ourselves, it is our ambition, what we want to do. But in order to realise that ambition we have to accept that the law, or science, is defined by a set of relevances that have not been created by us but are laid down as ‘legal procedure’ or ‘scientific knowledge’. More mundanely, we want to contact a friend; but to contact them we need to use a phone; but the phone is itself the embodiment of a kind of knowledge – technical knowledge – which we don’t have. This discrepancy between what we need to know and what we don’t need to know is always there; moreover, different situations, different roles, are defined by different types of relationship between what we need to know and what we don’t need to know.  This the point of the distinction between the three types:i) man on the street – recipe knowledge; ‘he will not cross the bridge before he reaches it, and he takes it for granted that he will find a bridge when he needs it and that it will be strong enough to carry him’ (130) ii) expert – only the set of problems established as relevant in his field matters; and only this field is important. E.g. the scientist for whom ethics are irrelevant – ‘can we do this’, not ‘should we do this’. iii) well-informed citizen: restricts the zone of the irrelevant because what is irrelevant today may be relevant tomorrow. Has available an infinite number of possible frames of reference.  Two points:
  1. The 3 types are not 3 groups of people – depending on our activity, we need to take the stance either of the expert or the man on the street or the well-informed citizen.
  2. Most knowledge on which we depend is socially derived knowledge handed down by others, accumulated and stored; that is a technical point; but there is also socially approved knowledge. Problem for Schutz – we live in a society in which much of what we do depends on the knowledge arrived at by experts; but at the same time there is a large body of socially approved knowledge that is rooted in public opinion. And public opinion is not informed opinion but that of the man on the street, who is invited to have opinions without altering the boundary between his intrinsic and imposed relevances. So for Schutz, the anonymous expert and the man on the street form a curious alliance against the well-informed citizen. 
  3. This raises against the question of why we want to study sociology – to swap one’s recipe knowledge for the knowledge of the expert, professional sociologist, knowing more but also accepting the imposed relevances of the discipline; or to become a well-informed citizen, perpetually unsure of where the boundary between the relevant and the irrelevant should lie/
Schutz had a pretty jaundiced view of the expert, or rather of a civilisation in which so much of what we do is dependent o the activity of experts we will never meet and whose technical mastery we can never aspire to…unless we ourselves decide to become one. Perhaps this is a bit of a dogmatic conclusion, and before I talk about Weber I want to add a remark about Musil’s Man Without Qualities . I do this because this great novel discusses questions about how to live in a more nuanced and extended way than Schutz
  1. Musil on three utopias:

i.Exact Living. ‘all the knowledge by means of which our species has advanced from dressing in skins to flying through the air – with its proofs, all complete – would fill no more than the shelves of a small reference library, whereas a bookcase the size of the earth itself would be utterly insufficient to hold all the rest.’ (chapter 61); therefore, ‘we carry on our business in an extremely irrational manner whenever we do not go about it as the natural sciences do’. This raises the question of whether there could be an equivalent in life for what Musil calls the great scientist’s three small treatises, pieces of work in which, for a time, an individual’s capacity for human achievement took on the maximum intensity. What would such a life look like? Musil’s somewhat stark conclusion is that it would involve only speaking when there was something to say, and ‘remaining indifferent whenever one has not that ineffable sensation of spreading out one’s arms and being borne upward on a wave of creativeness’. The consequence of this would be, to put it in the terms in which Schutz expressed it, a more rational distribution of individual self-knowledge, in which one would live morally only when the occasion demanded it and for the rest of one’s time attempted to follow the ideal of precision. The ideal here is one of exactitude being allowed to expand and develop, not by spreading out across the whole of a man’s life – for that would diminish the intensity it was capable of generating - but in such a way that that life becomes a combination of precision and indefiniteness, where precision is more than that of the pedantic orderer of facts or of the man who believes himself to be attached in some way to a higher order which he calls his ‘system’. This ideal of exactitude is held to be present today in the modern specialist. But it inhabits him, lives within him, only during that part of the day when he is at work. This is paradoxical because, as Schutz would say, it is part of the specialist – or expert - professional’s dignity to have ‘because motives’ rather than in-order-to-motives, to have well-defined boundaries between his zones of relevance, and hence to regard ‘the utopian idea of himself as an improper experiment carried out on persons occupied with serious business’.[1] Musil’s utopian ideal of exactitude implies that the professional would, so to speak, transcend the boundaries of his profession simply by applying the standards of exactitude which govern his own professional activity to an element of life to which it is not normally applied. This would not, again putting it in Schutz’s terms, turn him from an expert into a well-informed citizen, because for the well-informed citizen the boundaries between what is relevant and what is not have been declared open and fluid, albeit that it is not clear for how long such openness is possible. On the contrary, the ideal of exactitude entails that the professional would continue to display the expert’s exactitude in a new, and very possibly equally restricted domain. But the very fact that it was not his normal domain of expertise would be enough to qualify it as experimental, even if in the rest of his life he remained indifferent, inexact, content with the recipe knowledge of the man in the street. …there are really two kinds of outlook, which not only conflict with one another but, which is worse, usually coexist side by side in total non-communication except to assure each other that they are both needed, each in its place. The one is satisfied to be precise and stick to the facts, while the other is not, but always looks at the whole picture and derives its insights from so-called great and eternal truths. The first achieves success, the other scope and prestige. ii. Living Hypothetically. The second utopian ideal – again one which presupposes the exhaustion of collective utopian energies, and one which receives more sustained attention - is that of ‘living hypothetically’. These two utopian ideals, of exactitude and of living hypothetically, also occupy what we might call the implicative horizon of the kind of sociological theory which has been considered here. The relationship between them is largely a competitive one.  If exactitude is the ideal of the professional’s inner man, then living hypothetically is the ideal of the young person who is not yet fully formed, who is not yet able to say that he or she is on the way to becoming a professional; not just any young person, for these figures are never concrete individuals but shorthand terms for a kind of sensibility. Living hypothetically is characteristic for a young person who both desires large terms of reference – who thinks about the big questions – but who for that very reason ‘cannot say yes to anything without reservation, cannot believe in anything perfect, while at the same time everything that comes his way behaves as if it were perfect’.[2]  The present for such a person is ‘nothing but a hypothesis one has not yet finished with’. The young person with an eye on the big questions is always seeking an answer, always sees his latest enthusiasm as a possible answer, the best thing, and always discards it in favour of the next…best thing. The young person who wants to live like this fears nothing so much as a vocational education, for ‘a character, a profession, a definite mode of existence – for him these are notions through which the skeleton is already peering, the skeleton that is all that will be left of him in the end’.[3]  Now the voicing of such fears, along with the suggestion that ‘young’ and ‘old’ refer to attitudes to conduct rather than age, might be seen as no more than a refusal to grow up. Musil is well aware of this and, anticipating such an objection, says that there is a ‘mature form’ of living hypothetically, one that he calls…‘essayism’! We have already referred to the essay as a form of writing in connection with the sociological theory of Simmel and Adorno. Musil asks whether the essay can be seen not only as a form of writing but as a way of living. For the essay, he says, is …not the provisional or incidental expression of a conviction that might on a more favourable occasion be elevated to the status of truth or that might just as easily be recognised as error…an essay is the unique and unalterable form that a man’s inner life takes in a decisive thought. Nothing is more alien to it than that irresponsibility and semi-finishedness of mental images known as subjectivity; but neither are ‘true’ and ‘false’, ’wise’ and unwise’, terms that can be applied to such thoughts…and yet the essay is subject to laws that are no less strict for appearing to be delicate and ineffable. There have been more than a few of such essaysists, masters of the inner hovering life, but there would be no point in naming them. Their domain lies between religion and knowledge, between example and doctrine, between amor intellectualis and poetry; they are saints with and without religion, and sometimes they are also simply men on an adventure who have gone astray… Now going out on an adventure and losing one’s way doesn’t seem like much of a philosophy of life, especially for today’s students, burdened as they are with the need to plan a career and make full use of the transferable skills that universities now pretend to teach them. Yet as Musil says, if there is any category of person for whom the adventure is likely to be attractive it is the young person whose personality is not yet full formed.  The idea of living essayistically, of the adventure, doesn’t receive much of an airing in books about classical sociological theory. This is hardly surprising because the sociological classics for the most part were, when they ventured to reflect on such things, interested in the question of how the human being achieves some sort of continuity between the elements of his life. That was one of the great themes of Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis; Durkheim, who described himself as a scientist of morality, saw biographical discontinuity as a manifestation of anomie in Suicide;[4] the disruptive character of trauma is a central theme in Freud’s writing; Goffman’s remarks on the ‘shameless game’ that self-presentation becomes in the mental asylum can be seen as a subtle endorsement of biographical stability. More recently, theories of narrative have sought to develop the idea of biographical continuity in a different direction. But as students moving towards adulthood it is by no means obvious that such continuity, which involves the domestication of life’s contingencies, should be any more attractive than discontinuity, which involves openness to contingency.  Nobody was more sensitive to these questions than Georg Simmel, and nor is it mere coincidence that one of this essayist’s essays is entitled ‘The Adventure’. In it he implies that the classical theorists just cited were pursuing a problem in ethics that obscures the fact that the different elements of the individual’s life process already display a mundane connection with one another, each having a relationship with what precedes and succeeds it that cannot be broken. The adventure by contrast is a discreet category of experience because it implies a beginning and an end that have no obvious connection with the events and elements that otherwise form a coherent whole. The adventure is a foreign body in the midst of our existence, determining out of itself the moment when it comes to an end. As such a discreet experience, it resembles a work of art or a dream. But the significance of the adventure is that it is more than this, for here, something marginal, isolated or accidental acquires an importance it would not otherwise possess, at the extreme turning into something with the character of necessity. The adventurer gives priority to the process of life over its contents. It is possible to see one’s whole life as an adventure, for example when we say that it is something impermanent when compared to a metaphysical order set over against it, as in the idea of the transmigration of souls. Here, one may take this life to be a work of art with its own beginning and end but precisely because of this bounded character, as something which is also fragmentary and accidental.  Simmel claims that the adventure is not possible in old age, because only youth can give priority to process over content, only youth can consider the objective significance of the material of life to be less important than the life which bears this content. The content of our life is, as we have heard Simmel say earlier, in the long run grasped by forms which weave themselves between one another: ethics, religion, art and so on. There is always a relationship between life’s contents and its forms such that the two cannot, in the course of our everyday life, be separated. But this is precisely what can happen in the adventure. For it [the adventure] consists not in the contents which are gained or lost, in pleasure or pain, this is accessible to us in other forms of life. But the fact that there is here a radicalism with which life is felt as a life’s tension, as the rubato of the life process, that the quantity of these tensions are great enough to separate life wholly from its contents, that is what makes mere experience into an adventure.[5] He writes that in old age, by contrast, life is either rigidly centralised, with no possibility of peripheral or marginal interests taking centre stage, or marked by the collapse of the centre and the occupation with everyday trivialities.  In the essay on the adventure he says that the adventure is driven forward by a separation of life’s rhythm from its contents. I do not think that it is stretching interpretation too far to say that here we have the basis for a deprofessionalised sense of sociology I referred to near the start of this book. The adventure, a youthful attitude in which the process of life is separated from its content, implies a capacity for movement, an orientation to unfinishedness, that can be the basis for the scientific attitude in which forms of sociation are isolated from life’s contents. And because, as Simmel says, the art of distinguishing form and content is not one that can be taught or institutionalised, it is an art that can never free itself from its roots in the adventurous attitude to life. Indeed, in so far as it is practised – and practised in the form of the essay - it is a constant reminder of that attitude. The essay is neither a systematic treatise nor a research report. It is, as Musil says, sometimes the result of someone’s having set out on an adventure and gone astray. But nor does this mean that it is mere subjectivity, and so Musil was puzzled by the question of what the utopian ideal of essayism would look like as a way of living: ‘a man who is after the truth sets out to be a man of learning; a man who wants to give free play to his subjectivity sets out, perhaps, to be a writer. But what is a man to do who is after something that lies in between?’iii Everyday Life. Later, towards the half way point - if an unfinished novel can have a half way point - Musil introduces a third possibility, that ‘even ordinary life is of a utopian nature’. This idea occurs in the course of one of the great set-piece conversations between Ulrich and his friends Walter and Clarisse. It begins with Ulrich elaborating ‘the programme of living the history of ideas instead of the history of the world’. It ends with Clarisse interpreting even this idea of letting what happens happen as an ideal, a utopia, a principled attitude to the world. She even has a phrase for it: ‘the active passivism of which one must be capable in certain circumstances’. 
  1. Weber
“Science cannot tell us what to do and how to live’.  Why? 
  1. Weber on modernity:
    1. from monotheism to secular, rational society? NO! 
    2. from monotheism to polytheism.
a modern world dominated by scientific rationality b science as one ‘cultural value sphere’ among others a: external position of science: scholarship v research; big science; progress, scientific freedom, qualification inflation etc. b: a. significance of science: disenchantment (there are in principle no incalculable forces – science can know everything), cultural drift (but science has no cultural anchorage – it has freed itself from the fetters that both restricted it and legitimated it), competition between science and other cultural spheres as sources of meaning (science is just one force among others – ‘the old gods ascend from their graves’, ‘you cannot prove or disprove the sermon on the mount’, ‘truth, goodness and beauty are different things, e.g. Baudelaire, Les Fleurs du Mal) b. consequences of science’s external position for the individual: the modern Kulturmensch and the meaning of progress (science chained to the course of progress – progress technical not moral); choice, ambiguity of ‘Beruf’: calling (religious)/profession (secular). c. Ambiguity of Wissenschaft: science cannot tell us what to do or how to live, so what is the point of it? Scientist’s fate (and politician’s in Politics as a Vocation) as exemplary (‘we want our work to be surpassed’; science can provide clarity – about the good society? about right and wrong? NO! About the situation of choice, of hard choices that the individual faces; science can confront the individual with the state of our culture at the present time, it can say to the individual if on the basis of these values you choose this path then these consequences may well follow (e.g. ‘Chinese ossification of intellectual life’ as a consequence of growth of bureaucracy) Science can say: face up to reality: how do we face up to it? By ‘finding the demon that holds the very fibres of your life’.  Question: Weber-Musil: In Weber, when the specialist transcends the limits of his activity he does so not in order to throw a pebble into the pond of life and create a few ripples, or to modify the terms in which an activity bordering his own is conducted, but in order to discover some point of view from which life as a whole might have meaning. In addition, the connection between intellect and soul is far more explosive in Weber: whereas Musil’s utopia of exactitude takes soulless specialism into other areas, including perhaps matters of the soul, Weber’s specialist scientist is incapable of genuine achievement of any sort unless he is driven by a passion, unless he has worked out his relationship with or become open to ‘the demon that holds the very fibres of his life’. ‘Soul’ here is not one of a number of possible objects of intellect, as it is for Musil, but the basis of all intellect. If for Musil there was ‘too little intellect in matters of the soul’, for Weber there was too little soul in matters of the intellect. 

Weber-Schutz: Is the point of sociology to help us find the demon that holds the very fibres of our life, or to make us well-informed citizens?


[1] ibid. p.293.
[2] op cit. p.296.
[3] ibid. p.297.
[4] See the great passage where he describes life in the anomic state as ‘a series of hastily experienced stages’. 
[5] ibid. p.109.