What exactly is modernity? Most classical social theorists found themselves engaged in attempts to analyze and critique modern society. But nowhere is such analysis more clear than in the work of Durkheim, Marx, Weber and Simmel. Indeed, through their writings, whilst all of them displayed a remarkable awareness of the advantages of modernity, what distinguished them from their peers was their critique of the problems posed by modern society.
However, whereas both Durkheim and Marx sought to develop a general model of modern society by examining the problems caused by modernity for the integration of society as a whole, Weber and Simmel instead both focused on studying and understanding the meanings that social actions have on the individual. Indeed, both Simmel and Weber attempt, as shall be elaborated upon below, to frame the development of modern society around the concept of rationalization, money and the subsequent effect on modern culture.
Reason, economy, culture, and society The modern economic system In contrast to Marx, both Simmel and Weber question the notion of the economy being centered upon the ownership of property. For Weber, the social relationship which best expresses instrumental reasoning is that of exchange because social relations is the quickest way in which such a form of reasoning comes to guide our lives (Dodd, 1999).
Likewise, Simmel considers exchange to be the most important form of social form as it is the most common form of social relationship existing between individuals (ibid). However, where Simmel and Weber differ is that whereas Weber attempts to develop an understanding of rationalization as applied to values, means and ends, Simmel characterizes his perception of reason by economic calculation. Definition of reason As stated above, both Weber and Simmel attempt to use the concept of reason to explain their views of modern society.
This then raises the question – what exactly do they mean by reason? Simmel defines rational thought as the “ability to pursue goals in a conscious, strategic way” (as quoted in Dodd, 1999, p. 33) i. e. the individual makes choices based on the desirability of alternative ends in relation to the costs which each end involves. Simmel makes a clear distinction between the functions of reason (which he deems to be intellectual), from that of the passions (which he deems to be emotional).
However, Weber distinguishes between two forms of reason in his analysis – that of instrumental rationality (similar to Simmel’s definition of reason) and value rationality (whereby the individual makes choices based on his cultural values without taking into account the costs which the particular end involves) – which he suggests can be applied to both “matters of calculation and…questions of value” (as quoted in Dodd, 1999, p. 35). Role of reason in economy Having defined reason, how then does it fit into the exchange-based economy as depicted by Simmel and Marx? According to Simmel, the emergence of money in economy is a result of this.
Indeed, according to Simmel, money is the most advanced expression of rational purposive action, a “pure instrument which is open to a potentially limitless range of uses” (Dodd, 1999, p. 33), which hence has the ability to take on any meaning which society deems appropriate. Weber too sees money as the consequence of reason – the rational pursuit of profit emerged via the Protestant ethic which fostered a spirit of rigorous self-discipline, encouraging men to apply themselves rationally and methodically to the specific tasks they were “called” to perform (Coser, 1977).
Role of reason in objectification of culture & disenchantment However, once again whilst both men agreed that the emergence of money in the economy was initially a positive development, both also came to be critical of what they perceive to be the increasing narrowness of modern culture, in which rational means such as monetary exchange came to be viewed less as the most efficient basis for pursuing certain ends and instead more as goals in their own right.
Simmel sees the above as apparent in the objectification of culture when he notes that as a consequence of money bringing about fragmentation of subjective culture through the reification of objects (Ritzer, 2011), culture can no longer function to unify society as it is now impersonal and lacking universal values (Swingewood, 1998). Similarly, Weber argues that in modern society, instrumental rational thinking places too high a value on subjective and transient desires as opposed to morally informed needs, so much so that it begins to seem quite irrational (Dodd, 1999). Indeed, both too see the future of modern society as a bleak one.
Simmel predicts of the individual his fate of tragic resignation and passivity in the face of commodity fetishism and reification (Swingewood, 1998) while Weber warns that society and culture, dominated by the principle of instrumental efficiency and the logic of the division of labor, is in danger of creating an ‘iron cage’ from which man has no realistic hope to escape (Dodd, 1999). Missing pieces to the puzzle However, because both Simmel and Weber frame their arguments around the growth and subsequent predominance of reason in modern culture, what they predict of the modern world inevitably ends up flawed.
Indeed, because of the way in which both define reason as the ability of the individual to make choices based on the desirability of the ends with relation to the costs involved, it invariably leads to a narrow conceptualization of the economy and the predominance of economic values in modern life (Dodd, 1999). As such, could it then be argued that both Weber’s concept of the iron cage and Simmel’s theory of the tragedy of culture overstate the importance of instrumental reason? System, Life-world & The Potential of Modernity
Indeed, Habermas posits that the growth of reason has not, contrary to what Simmel and Weber suggest, overextended itself and has instead not been extended enough. To illustrate this, he argues that there is, not one, but two dimensions in society, system (corresponding to formal rationality) and life-world (corresponding to substantive rationality), each with its own operating logic which is determined by the form of reason corresponding to its existence. According to Habermas (as quoted in Ritzer, 2011, p. 38), the life-world is a “context-forming background of processes of reaching understanding” through communicative action. In other words, the purpose of the life-world is to facilitate communication by providing a common set of tenets that “allow people to interact, to continually weave their meanings, practices, and goals into a shared fabric of life” (Allan, 2011, p. 232). On the other hand, the system refers to institutions such as the economy and state which operate according to the rules of instrumental rationality.
According to Habermas, the life-world has not been allowed to develop as it should be in the modern society due the colonization of the life-world by the systems. One of the problems which Habermas sees as inherent in modern society is the merging of the boundaries between the system and the life-world. This, as he sees it, is because of the growth of reason in communicative action which means that action that is concerned with achieving a mutual understanding is increasingly unbound from tradition. This then results in the formation of consensus relying more and more heavily on the use of language.
Unfortunately, for Habermas, this eventually leads to language as a medium being overwhelmed, giving rise to the need for other media that can “fill the void and replace…language” (Ritzer, 2011, p. 541). In other words, similar to what Weber and Simmel postulates, money and power, which previously belonged to the system, are now becoming increasingly pervasive in the life-world. This, according to Habermas, is problematic because there is “something intrinsic” about the life-world that cannot be reduced to media “without sociopathological consequences” (as quoted in Allen, 2011, p. 37). As such, by imposing the media of the system on the life-world, the life-world is fundamentally altered and because the life-world is tied to the notion of value rationality, a social intercourse that is based on power and money results. This ultimately leads, as Habermas posits, to the decoupling of the lifeworld from the social system in terms of its integrative capacities. Conclusion In this paper, I have attempted to show how Weber and Simmel attempt to frame the development of the modern society around the concept of reason, money and its subsequent effect on modern culture.
However, as I have also elaborated upon above, there are a number of flaws within their conceptualizations of the modern world which have led to critiques that they have placed too large an emphasis on the importance of instrumental reason. Subsequently, I have also illustrated how such an issue can be resolved by adopting Habermas’ conceptualization of society as consisting of both the life-world and system and the forms of reason with which these two dimensions correspond to. Indeed, by doing so, it can be suggested, as Habermas did, that the modern society might not necessarily be beyond salvation.
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