Books / Digital Text

2. Sociology and History

6. Universal History and Sociology

Max Weber did not want merely to outline a program and methodology for a science of social phenomena. In addition to excellent treatises on history, he himself published extensive works that he termed sociological. We, of course, cannot recognize their claim to this designation. This is not meant as an unfavorable criticism. The investigations collected in Weber's posthumously published major work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, belong to the best that German scientific literature of the last decades has produced. Yet in their most important parts they are not sociological theory in our sense. Nor are they history in the customary meaning of the term. History deals with one town or with German towns or with European towns in the Middle Ages. Until Weber's time it knew nothing like the brilliant chapter in his book that deals simply with the "town" in general, a universal theory of town settlement for all times and among all peoples, the ideal type of the town in itself.

Weber, who did not realize that there is a science that aims at universally valid propositions, considered this sociology. If we were to acquiesce in this usage and to seek another name for what we understand by sociology, we should cause hopeless confusion. Therefore, we must maintain out distinction and attempt to give another name to what Weber regarded as sociology. Perhaps the most suitable would be: universal teachings of history, or more briefly, universal history.

The fact that one usually designates by this name attempts at presenting comprehensively the history of all ages and nations need not prevent us from employing it to denote what Weber undertook to do. For such presentations are unable to proceed otherwise than by joining to the history of the development of one culture or of one people the history of the development of another. Consequently, universal history in this sense signifies only a series of works that do not lose their original character and independence in being thus subsumed under a common category. Universal history in our sense—sociology in Weber's sense—would consist in bringing into relief and treating individually the ideal-typical constructions employed by history. It would correspond approximately, but only approximately, to what Bernheim, in his thematic division of the province of history, designates as universal history, or cultural history in the wider sense. To specialized history he contrasts universal history, within which he differentiates two subdivisions:

1. Universal history, or cultural history in the wider sense; also called world history: the history of men in their activities as social beings at all times and in all places, in consistent continuity of development.
2. Universal political history (Allgemeine Staatengeschichte); also called world history, and previously universal history as well: a compendium-like joining together of the history of all important nations.73

It need certainly not be especially emphasized that the point in question is, of course, not the terminology, but only the logical and conceptual distinction.

The situation is analogous in the treatment of economic problems. Between economic theory, on the one hand, and economic history and descriptive economics?which must also be economic history?on the other, lies universal descriptive economics, which serves for the special treatment of the ideal-typical constructions employed by economic history.

The boundaries between these domains are not always observed in actual scientific work and in its presentation for the public, and, indeed, there is no necessity for such a separation. The creative mind yields what it has to offer, and for this we are indebted to it. Nevertheless, even one who would never think of overstepping the boundaries that separate the individual domains of subject matter must be acquainted with what is happening on the other side of the boundaries. No sociologist can do without history, and no historian can do without sociology

Historicism declared the historical method the only one permissible and appropriate for the treatment of the problems posed by the sciences of human action. One group of the proponents of historicism considered a theoretical science of human action altogether impossible. Others did not want to deny completely the possibility of such a science in the distant future, which would have at its disposal the fruits of more ample spadework on the part of historians. The opponents of historicism, of course, never challenged the justification, the logical admissibility, or the usefulness of historical investigation. What was called into question in the Methodenstreit was never history, but always only theory. From the point of view of economics and political science the fateful error of historicism lay precisely in its rejection of theory. Indeed, the tenor of the attack upon theory was essentially political and was directed toward protecting from disagreeable criticism economic policies that could not withstand scientific examination. From the point of view of science, the failure to recognize the truth that all historical investigation and every description of social conditions presuppose theoretical concepts and propositions was more serious than the misconception that history and descriptive economics could be pursued without theory. The most pressing task of the logic of historical science is to combat this error.

  • 73. Bernheim, op. cit., p. 53. Kracauer (op. cit., pp. 24 ff.) speaks of comparative social history and comparative cultural history.