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On "De-Parsonizing Weber" Author(s): Talcott Parsons Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 40, No. 5 (Oct.,

On "De-Parsonizing Weber" Author(s): Talcott Parsons Source: American Sociological Review, Vol. 40, No. 5 (Oct., 1975), pp. 666-670 Published by: American Sociological Association Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2094201

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I frankly do not find this paperin which

WhitneyPope has associatedhimself with two coauthors any more acceptable than I did Pope's paper(1973) on my interpretationsof Durkheimon whichI wrote a recent comment (Parsons, 1975). The authorshave repeatedly accused me of "distortingWeber'smeaning." I'm afraidI must come back with a claimthat, howeverthat may be, they havedistortedmy meaning. They rely very heavilyon TheStructureof Social Action (Parsons,1949), my first book which was initially published38 years ago in 1937, and, on the whole, play down later writingson Weber.This, to be sure, did have an extended treatment of Weber's work, adding up to four chapters.I did, however, explicitly warn readersof that book that the treatment in it of the work of the four authors I considered-namely, beside Weber, Alfred Marshall,Vilfredo Pareto and Emile Durkheim-was not a general secondary account of their contributions to social science, but a study which focused on certain relatively specific problems. The authors of

the paperdo not mention this limitation,but it is crucialto understandingwhat I wastrying

do (Parsons, 1949:v). The main objective


of the book was to attempt to clarify certain

problems of the relation between economic theory andsociologicaltheory. It was this objective which justified the inclusionof Marshallat all since Marshallwas an economist, not a sociologist. Mytreatment of Marshallin the book was highly selective and that of the other three authorsnot quite so much so, but still to a very substantial degree. In the case of Weber, my most important starting point was Weber'sfamous

study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1958), in which he assumed what

has seemed to many to be the paradoxical position that certain categories of religious commitments have played a particularly important part in the genesis of the special type of modern capitalism, which he called

rational bourgeois capitalism,with which he, Weber,was concerned. Of course, I was not merely awareof the long-standingconception of economic self-in- terest,but indeed used this as my own starting point. I was particularly intrigued with Weber'shypothesis that a major component of what concretely would be calledeconomic behaviorwas not, however,to be understood only in quite the traditionaltermsof classical and neo-classicaleconomic theory. This also provided the principal, initial point of reference for my concern with the normative aspects of social action and the structureof social systems. The authors of the paperare quite right that I put a very strong emphasis on these normativeaspects. This is not in the least to say that I was unaware of other aspects of social action, particularly in Weber'swork, but I had specialreasonsin the design of that particularstudy to emphasize the importanceof the normative. Nearly at the beginningof their paper,the authors introduce what seems to me to be a truly egregiousmisinterpretationof my views. That is, they say that economically rational action is not normatively oriented but is oriented in terms of interests toward con- siderationsof what they call "practicality."It seems to me that nobody could have even an elementaryunderstandingof economic theory and take this position. Of course,the concept "economic rationality" involves a crucially

central normativeelement. It

tion of means to given goals on the part of either producersor consumersor both on the basis of normative standards of rationality which, in the economic case, have to do with

the balancingof utility on the one hand, cost on the other. (Of coursethe concept does not deal with broader meanings of rationality.)

Weber was entirely

and the authorsare simply wrong when they deny that there is a normativecomponent in

Weber's concept of Zweckrationalitat. Indeed,

Weber(1968:212-301) used the conceptionof economic rationalityas the point of reference for formulatingthis type; thoughhe extended its applicability beyond the economic sphere to include, above all, political rationalitybut


aware of these matters,




also cognitive and technologicalvarietiesand


In his study of the ProtestantEthic, Weber (1958) introducedanother component which had not played a partin the maintraditionof economic theory, namely a set of value-com- mitmentsanchoredin religion.He, of course, associated this with the religious movement which he called "ascetic Protestantism"and illustrated particularly with materials from English Puritanism and to some extent, American sources. This religiously based orientation valued economic rationality but

differed from

ment by not treating consumption as the primary given goal of economically rational

action. Rather,it held that productiveactivity

in the economic sense came to be treatedas a

moral obligation through the treatment of economicallyproductiveroles as "callings,"in the senseof a wordcommonlyusedin Puritan literature.In Weber'sformal classificationof

types of action, this component of the capitalisticeconomic behaviorwith which he was concerned would not be kept classified

whatever the goals of the activity may be (Merton, 1970; Parsons and Platt, 1973). There are other comparablefields of rational action which I have mentioned, such as Weber's own special concern with the political, but a veryimportantone happensto be the legal. A fact should be remembered here which the authors of the paper do not mention, that Weberwas originallytrainedin jurisprudenceand only further in his career became disciplinewisefirstan economist,then a sociologist.

There is

a relatedset of issues on which a

brief commentary needs to be made. This

starts with the authors'treatmentof Weber's

concept of

traditionalaction. It seems to me

that they

are guilty



confusion of

concepts. Both traditionalaction as a type of

action and traditional authority are ideal

types which specify types of action but do not specify motivation.Practicallythroughout

his formulation of a schema of ideal


Weber carefully avoids commitment to spe- cific correspondencesbetween type of action on the one hand, motivationon the other. It seems to me that the stresswhich the authors lay on habitationconfusesthis issue becauseI would think of habituation as primarily a

psychological category of motivation. Again -aiidagain,Weberstressesthat the motivesfor conformingto any giventype of ordermay be exceedingly varied.They may include factors of habituation;they may, however, approach

the pole of the fullest rationality. Whatthe motivation of the participant actors may happen to be is an analytically distinct question as compared to the typology of action or of types of politicalorder. Thereis one particularlyimportantexam- ple I should like to elaboratea little further. One of the categoriesWeberintroducesis that of Brauch which I translated as "usage" (Weber, 1968:29-31). The authors seem to think that it was one of the moreegregiousof


misinterpretations of

Weber that



category;I am very carefulto say component, not that the category as a whole is primarily normative.Thisseemsto me both intrinsically correctand a correctinterpretationof Weber's meaning. It applies in innumerablecontexts such as, for example,rules of etiquette. There is, however, one particular case which is very conspicuous and illustratesmy point admirably. This concerns linguistic usage. Indeed, one of the primary historic contexts in which the word "usage" has developed is in the English discussions of language.It seems to me that it would be a


normative component to


modernlinguisticanalysisto maintainthat in

the standard economic treat-






rather the other category of rational action







This case may, however, be used to

illustrate a very important point about

Weber's modes of

Though he formulated what he called "ideal

types" and the two types of valueorientation belong to this category, he never maintained that they could not occur empirically in combined form (Weber, 1968; Parsons, 1949:520). Indeed, the economic behavior which he focused on the Puritanswasboth to

a very high degree economically rational in the traditional sense and an attempt to implement a value commitment independent


notably in the utilities of consumption.

It is worthnoting that the mode of analysis which Weberfirst introducedwith respect to the relations between ascetic Protestantism and capitalism turned out to be of much broadersignificancethanits applicationto the field of economic action only. Robert Merton'sfamous work (1970) on science and

society in 17th

hints made by Weber himself about the

relevance of

considerations of personal advantage,

procedure as a theorist.

century England picked up

this value complex to concern

with scientificinvestigation.Here,the concept self-interest,in the relativelyspecificeconom- ic sense of it, becomes of secondary importance, but rationality of even more

accentuatedimportance,and clearlyincludes strange interpretation of the findings of

rationality which is normativelyoriented to

the proper selection of means to achieve the usage of languagethere is no normative



content whatever, though to be sure most of our actual choices of words and construction

lem. Weber (1958) gave an almost paradig- matic example of the necessary kind of

of sentences certainly contain a large element

analysis in




how the

of habituation.







The dominant recent school of linguistic

engage in economically productive activity.

theory, revolving around the name of

The authors

are quite right in stressing that

Chomsky, is completely unequivocal on this point. To put it in Chomsky's terms, the "deep structures" of a language are unable alone to generate very large numbers of specific utterances-at what Chomsky calls "surface levels" (Chomsky, 1957; 1972). The deep structures are utilized through a series of what he explicitly calls rules of transforma- tion. Surely the concept rule is a normative concept and is so meant by Chomsky in this

there had to be a concern with the problem of personal salvation as well as the special set of religious beliefs which originated in Calvinism. There is a subtle and continuing tendency when such a term as "interests" is used to imply that the "really" important interests are so-called "material interests" or belong in the sphere of what the authors call practicality. It was clearly Weber's position, however, that this was far too restricted a formulation of the

context. This is not simply habituation in the psychological sense. Indeed Chomsky himself has some very sharp critical remarks about the

concept of interest. Indeed, as a sociologist of religion, Weber made enormous contributions to the clarification of the relevance to

attempt to reduce linguistic phenomena to

concrete action


quite other categories of

phenomena of habit by, for example, such





initial statement


behaviorist psychologists as Skinner (1957). The above considerations lead directly to another topic on which I feel the authors have taken an altogether untenable position. This concerns a concept which figures very prominently in the Cohen, Hazelrigg and Pope article, namely that of interest. In their discussion of the economic case, as I have noted, they use the concept of interest to obliterate the normative component of

should, I think, be clear that I had special reasons in the design of The Structure of Social Action for being particularly concerned with this phase of Weber's work. My relative underplaying of Weber's political sociology was not a simple function of failure to understand it, but rather of selective interest in a certain limited set of problems. The total neglect by the authors of the paper of this consideration seems to me to be one of the

economically rational action, denying that it exists or plays any part in Weber's thinking. However, they also generalize far beyond this case. Indeed, they quote from Weber's own work the phrase "material and ideal in- terests." They quote a famous passage of Weber's which I myself have quoted with approval, I think, a number of times. This is to the effect that it is not "ideals which determine courses of action, but the interests of actors." Weber's conception of the range of such interests, however, far transcended the usual categories of economic and political interests. Notably, under such headings as ideal interests, he included very explicitly the interest in religious salvation, the interest in the growth of knowledge through scientific research and many others. It might help clarify this much vexed problem area if I introduce the phrasing used by W. I. Thomas (1931). I think it would be a

main defects of their treatment. At this point, a brief statement on my views of Weber's political sociology seems, however, to be essential. My reading of the Cohen et al. paper gives me the impression that none of the three authors possesses a thorough command of the German language. This impression persists; though they do, from time to time, quote certain German words which Weber used, notably, in the present context, the word "Herrschaft." As they note, a few years ago I had a certain discussion in a review (Parsons, 1972) of Reinhard Bendix's work (Bendix and Roth, 1971) about the translation of that word. The authors follow Bendix in uniformly translating it as "domi- nance." I made a careful distinction, which Weber also makes (1956:122-4), between legitimate and non-legitimate Herrschaft. Where legitimate Herrschaft was involved, I used the term "authority," reserving other

correct interpretation of Weber's position that

modes of


for the non-legitimate

ideas serve, to quote Thomas, "to define the situation." For action defining the situation in this sense, however, does not by itself motivate actors to attempt to implement implications of this definition of the situation. Additional components of the complex of action must be taken into account in order to solve the motivational-implementation prob-

cases. It seems to me that the authors seriously misinterpret the significance of the concept of legitimacy in Weber's theoretical structure. As the authors clearly recognize, Weber was far indeed from believing in a single factor view of the determination of human action. They are quite correct in quoting him as saying



that, once a normative order has been

too obscure. I, for example, do not find their paperparticularlydistinguishedfor specificity

established,motives of conformingbehavior,


reference,to my own workin particular.

insofar as it exists, may be exceedingly variant, including commitment to legitimacy


The issues in this controversy,as was true the controversy with Whitney Pope over

of the order, but also various aspects of self-interestand the like. The question of the

Durkheim (Pope, 1973; Parsons, 1975), and Pope'srejoinderclearly,however,are serious.

range of possible motives for conformity,


do not think it is a question of simple

however,should be clearlydistinguishedfrom

"alternativeopinions" about Weber'swork. I

the question of the institutionalgroundingof

have, of course, stressed the

senses in which


system of normative order. Here, in the

my initialstudy of Weberwasnot meantto be

lattercontext, it seemsto me that the concept of legitimacy is far more crucial than the authors of the paper will concede. I believe that Weberknew what he was doing whenhe used modes of legitimation as the primary basis of his famous classificationof types of

authority. (I prefer the

"dominance.")This, of course, is not in the least to say that empirically, dominance without legitimation historically has not played an extremely important role. This, however, is not the issue with which I am concerned. To me, the question of the balanceWeber drew between the factors involved in the legitimationof normativeorderin society and the factors of self-interest in ignoring or defying such legitimationis an empirical,not a cruciallycentraltheoreticalquestion.Weber certainly went very far in emphasizingthe latter set of factors, but this does not, as I have just said, dispose of the theoretical significanceof the concept of legitimacyin his conceptual scheme. I should again call attention, which the authors do not, to the fact that Weber was in the first instance

trained in jurisprudence and was deeply imbued with the importance of law. To be sure, his personalexperiencewas mainlywith law in the Prussiantradition, which we may conclude was a rather special and extreme case among modernsystemsof law. Neverthe- less, for example,in my addressin Heidelberg on the occasion of the GermanSociological Association'scelebrationof the centenaryof Weber'sbirth, I stressedthe centralityof the sociology of law in Weber'sthinking(Parsons, 1965), whereas Professor Bendix (1965)

stressed the centrality of the political sociology. It is perfectly clear that the three authors of the present paper follow Bendix

in this respect. I do not, however,think they

make the case that this must be the primary model. This commentaryclearlydoes not coverall the points which might have been discussed relative to the Cohen, Hazelrigg and Pope paper. I think, however, that it covers a sufficient range so that the grounds of my objection to their point of view shouldnot be

word "authority"to

andwas not a generalassessmentof evaluation of Weber'ssociological theory. However,the chargeof distortion, which the authorsof the paper have leveled against me is certainly applicable to them, I think, both in their interpretationof Weber'sown work and of my own commentarieson it. At any rate, I hope I have made clear that the problems which Weber's work presents to the social scientist are far more complex than the authors of this paper adequately take into account.

Perhaps I may be conclusion, a note of

accused of being an "old fashioned evolu- tionist." I certainlyam an evolutionistin the field of human action. My evolutionism, however, is quite different from that of the late 19th century, of which, perhaps,Herbert Spencer (1925-9) may serve as the primary example.This point is barelymentioned,with no attempt at grounding,but I think it is a symptom of the polemicalorientationof the authors rather than of their criticalresponsi- bility andacumen. Also, I may call attention, as the authors do not, to the fact that, nearlytwenty years

permitted, in the final

wondermentthat I am

after publication


The Structure of Social

Action in 1937, my own orientation to the focal problemof the latterbook-the relations between economic and sociological theory- underwent a major transformation. This is

documented in

Society (Parsonsand Smelser,1956).



Economy and

Talcott Parsons

Harvard University



1965 "Contributionto the Proceedingsof the German Sociological Association's cele- brationof the Centenaryof MaxWeber." Pp. 184-91 in Otto Stammer(ed.), Max Weber und die Soziologie Heute.



1971 Scholarshipand Partisanship:Essays on

Weber. Berkeley: University of






that we were wrongto rely so heavily on his

The Structure


Social Action



gives no evidence of any interpretation of Weberthat differsfundamentallyfrom that in The Structureand his reviewof Bendix'work (1960). Although we allegedly distorted his views on Weber, Parsons demonstrates no specific distortions except for our failure to weigh the emphasis of his (1964) Heidelberg address(Parsons, 1971) against the emphasis of his numerous other works on Weber. Insteadof citingsupposedlyneglectedchanges in his viewpoint, he devotes much of his commentary to a reaffirmationof his early argument-most importantly,his "verystrong

emphasis on

Weber.Parsonssayshe had "specialreasonsto emphasizethe importanceof the normative."

The question is whether this emphasis can accuratelybe attributedto Weber.


normative aspects" of



SyntacticStructures.The Hague:Mouton.


Language and Mind. Enlarged Edition.



1970 Science, Technology and Society in SeventeenthCenturyEngland.New York:




The Structure of Social Action. New


York: [McGraw-Hill.] FreePress.


"Wergebundenheitund Objektivititin den Sozialwissenschaften.Eine Interpretation der BeitrageMax Webers."Pp. 39-64 in Otto Stammer(ed.), Max Weberund die Soziologie Heute. Tubingen, Germany:



"Review of Reinhard Bendix and GuentherRoth. Scholarshipand Partisan- ship: Essays on Max Weber." Con- temporarySociology1 (3):200-3.


"Commenton 'Parsons'interpretationof Durkheim'andon 'Moralfreedomthrough understandingin Durkheim."'American

SociologicalReview40 (1):106-11. Parsons,TalcottandGeraldM.Plattin collaboration withNeil J. Smelser

1973 The American University. Cambridge, Mass.:HarvardUniversityPress.

Parsons,TalcottandNeilJ. Smelser

1956 Economy and Society. New York: Free Press.


1973 "Classicon classic:Parsons'interpretation

of Durkheim." American Sociological Review38 (4):399-415. Skinner,BurrhusFrederic

1957 Verbal Behavior.New York: Appleton- Century-Crofts.



The Principlesof Sociology. 3 vols. New






1931 Introduction to

The Unadjusted Girl.


Weber,Max [1922a] Wirtschaft und

Gesellschaft. 2


1956 Tfibingen,Germany:Mohr(PaulSiebeck).

[1904-5] The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of

1958 Capitalism. Tr. Talcott Parsons. New York:Scribner's.

[1922b] Economy and Society. 3 vols. Guenther

1968 Roth and ClausWittich(eds.).New York:



Parsons' commentary is disappointing inas- much as it fails to advance the discussion substantially beyond the points made in our article. Apparently, Parsons' thinking about Weber has not changed, for although he states

Weber, chiefly by systematically overplaying

normative and

understating nonnormative

elements in Weber'ssociology. Webeganwith

Weber'sfour types of action orientationand three types of subjective meaning. Parsons leaves the bulk of our analysisunchallenged; we considerthose points where he takesissue with us. Weber(1968:25) definedtraditionalaction as action "determinedby ingrainedhabitua- tion." Parsons asserts that our analysis confuses the issue by stressingthe "primari-


motivationalpsychological category" of

habituation. However, the emphasis on habituationis not ours,but Weber's(1968:25;

see also 31, 312, 333). Parsons'quarrelis with Weber, not with us. Our originalpoint was


normative.Parsonsdoes not challengeus on this-the centralissue. Parsonscontinuesto misreadWeber'susage category. Weber'sdefinition (1968:29, 333) did not mention norms nor does Parsonscite passagesin Weber including any such refer- ence. Whereas in The Structure Parsons (1949:678) cited "standardsof 'good taste' " as an example of usage,he now addsa second example, namely, "rules of etiquette." In neither instance, however,does Parsonslocate his example in Weber.Rules'of etiquette are

typically guaranteed by sanctions; conse- quently, they more closely approximate Weber's category of "convention" (viz. Weber'sreference [1968:34] to "the rules



Weber's category was not


.social intercourse"as an example