The Politics of Disenchantment: On Wendy Brown’s “Nihilistic Times”
By Kieran SetiyaApril 27, 2023
Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber by Wendy Brown
It’s hard to imagine that the students were uplifted by Weber’s lecture. His embrace of specialized knowledge—divorced from ethics, politics, and the search for meaning—portrays the advance of science as planned obsolescence. The scientist’s vocation lies in pursuing truth, knowing that the fate of her work is to be superseded. Weber’s advice to the would-be scientist was, more or less, “suck it up.”
Worse still, the upshot of technical progress is a disenchanted world. We no longer pray to spirits but “can in principle control everything by means of calculation.” And while science tells us how to achieve our ends, it does not tell us what our ends should be. For Weber, disenchantment lapses into nihilism:
And suppose that Tolstoy rises up in you once more and asks, “who if not science will answer the question: what then shall we do and how shall we organize our lives?” […] In that event, we must reply: only a prophet or a savior. […] [But] the prophet for whom so many of [us] yearn simply does not exist.
Since the scientist is not a prophet, “politics has no place in the lecture room.” But that does not mean we should give it up. Fourteen months later, in the aftermath of Germany’s defeat in World War I, Weber returned to Munich to lecture again. In “Politics as a Vocation,” he traced the effects of rationalization and bureaucratization on the modern state, laying out the consequent dilemma: machine politicians devoted to power on one side, uninspiring professionals on the other. What we need are democratic leaders who combine charisma with an ethics of responsibility, politicians for whom politics is a vocation. As to how they can be found, or made, Weber has little to say. Like the vocational scientist, the would-be politician is on her own.
In Nihilistic Times: Thinking with Max Weber (2023), distinguished political theorist Wendy Brown revisits Weber’s lectures, struck by the resonance between our present moment and the plight of Weber’s audience. Universities are menaced by political and economic forces, as corrupt but charismatic demagogues reshape the social sphere. Can Weber’s stringent inspiration be a guide?
Brown argues that it can, even when he got things wrong. About politics, she contends, Weber was largely right. Though it starts with a “dismal, intentionally tedious” history of political institutions, the politics lecture ends with durable insights. To begin with, politics cannot simply work on our beliefs; it must reshape desires: “[W]e need to surrender every variation on the notion that only false consciousness keeps the masses from knowing and acting on their true interests in equality and emancipation.” This calls for charismatic leadership, despite the risks: “For the Left to do without it while the Right milks it for advantage is to ensure defeat.” Our only hope is for politicians who are not so principled as to be politically feeble, yet not so ruthless that they have no limits.
For Brown, unlike Weber, the university has a vital role to play in democratic education. Weber is wrong about the place of politics in the classroom, where questions of value can and must be raised. But he is right to deny that values are matters of fact or truth: it’s through passion, not reason, that we will overcome nihilism. And he is also right to distinguish the vocation of politics, which is entangled with coercion, from that of the academy:
[F]aculty are obliged to help students understand why no value system is ever true, but why, far from bringing analysis and judgment to an end or casting us adrift in relativism, this condition heightens the importance, indeed the urgency, of examining and deciding values—what to affirm, what to oppose, what to seek to bring about in the world.
We should frame these “deliberately post-nihilist questions for our students,” though they “should not be expected to answer such questions but, rather, incited to ask them and assisted in exploring them.” Alas, Brown laments, “[T]hese are hardly the principles by which most university curriculums are designed.”
Reading Brown on Weber as a professor of moral philosophy is a disconcerting experience. What does not happen in universities, according to Brown, is supposed to happen routinely in our classrooms: we ask students “what to affirm, what to oppose, what to seek to bring about in the world.” But she isn’t making a plea for more philosophy, where “values tend to be reduced to norms, norms to opinions, and opinions to surveyable attitudes.” Nor does she favor “political theory of the pristine analytic variety.”
Brown wants values to be studied not “as normative positions with analyzable precepts and logical entailments” but in their affective dimensions and cultural homes. Fair enough, except that it is impossible to ask sincerely, “What world should I want to live in?” or, “How is a just society structured?”—Brown’s post-nihilist questions—without aiming for answers that present themselves as true: normative positions to be analyzed and argued for. There is no logical gap between thinking “rampant inequality is unjust” and thinking “it’s true that rampant inequality is unjust.” This is not to deny that affect and culture could figure in philosophy more explicitly than they often do, but they’ll figure in arguments that also aim at truth.
There are profound, elusive questions about objectivity in ethics. But you cannot bring them into view by making ethical claims whose truth you then deny. Nor does it help to capitalize “Truth” as Brown sometimes does: “[S]cience topples religion from the throne of Truth […] To take one’s own values as True is already to inhabit something of the absolute ethic Weber criticizes.” Typography will not substitute for theory. And it’s a fallacy to think that disavowing “Truth,” whatever it is, “abets the pathos of distance Weber seeks in responsible action.” One can be committed to a scheme of absolute values, an ethics of inflexible conviction, without regarding it as True—or maintain that Truth demands responsibility, proportion, and restraint.
I don’t agree with Brown that values must “be framed by responsible teachers as without foundations” or that “faculty are obliged to help students understand why no value system is ever true.” Instead, I’d expect responsible teachers to place among the questions they frame for students whether value systems can be true or have foundations—and what those questions mean.
One of the arguments they would discuss is found in “Science as a Vocation.” On reflection, there’s a lot to second-guess in Weber’s lecture. It runs together disenchantments literal and figurative. There’s our exit from the “enchanted universe” of prehistory into the “Axial Age,” as divinity recedes from the natural world. There’s the subsequent path of secularization. And there’s the rise of modern science, which has “no answer to the only questions that matter to us: ‘What should we do? How shall we live?’” It is crucial to Weber’s distinction of fact and value that “science” here—the subject of his lecture—is not just the natural and social sciences, but systematic knowledge as such (in German, Wissenschaft). For Weber, there is no knowledge of value, only the play of noncognitive forces, affect embedded in structures of power.
Although she criticizes Weber, Brown does so by denying that science can be value-neutral, not by doubting the excision of values from the realm of knowable facts. On that front, she basically agrees with him: “With its promise that we can, in principle, understand the workings of everything, science bleeds spirit from its objects, depleting what it studies not only of mystery but of intrinsic value or meaning.”
But as an answer to the question “Are there facts about value or meaning?” the reasoning Brown and Weber share is specious. Their argument confuses science in the narrow sense—the natural and social sciences, which cannot tell us how to live—with science in the broader sense of systematic knowledge. And it conflates literal disenchantment, in which the world is drained of spirits, with the metaphorical disenchantment that drains it of value or meaning. These elisions were gently mocked by The New Yorker icon E. B. White in a 1950 “Comment” on the weather:
The most startling news in the paper on February 13th was the weather forecast. It was “Rainy and dismal.” When we read the word “dismal” in the Times, we knew that the era of pure science was drawing to a close and the day of philosophical science was at hand. (Probably in the nick of time.) Consider what had happened! A meteorologist, whose job was simply to examine the instruments in his observatory, had done a quick switch and had examined the entrails of birds.
We don’t need divination to determine that the day is dismal: we make such mundane value judgments all the time, without recourse to magic. And while they do not lie within the remit of “pure science,” that doesn’t mean that philosophical knowledge—including knowledge of value—is impossible.
Of course, there’s widespread disagreement about values; but there’s disagreement, too, about what we should believe, what constitutes good scientific practice, and what the objects of science ought to be. The moral is not that science is noncognitive, but that scientific knowledge coexists with affective influence and obstinate dissent. Why not ethical knowledge too?
None of this invalidates Brown’s conclusions. The central insight she draws from her reading of Weber survives: “Weber’s distinction between the pursuit of value codified as a cause and the submission of value to relentless intellectual scrutiny is ultimately far more important than his fact-value distinction in differentiating academic and political life.” If professors should not indoctrinate their students, that’s not because science is value-free (it isn’t), because values lack foundations (though they might), or because “no value system is ever true” (we should hope otherwise), but because of a social division in labor in which the university functions as a nonpartisan institution, aimed at knowledge, of which political change is a potential side effect.
The problem we face today is that systematic knowledge in both history and the natural and social sciences has become a partisan issue. But the problem was always there, since “nonpartisan” could never mean “neutral.” If nothing else, values play a role in decisions about what is worth teaching or studying, decisions that teachers are bound to make.
In a formulation I admire, the critic Gayatri Spivak called humanistic education “a persistent attempt at an uncoercive rearrangement of desires.” Against Weber, education cannot be confined to a domain of facts from which values are excluded. And while it should respect our students’ intellectual autonomy, there is no value-neutral way to articulate what that means. That education should be noncoercive is a moral ideal, and what it comes to is the subject of moral argument—contested in debates about academic freedom, and the subordination of research and education to the needs of the economy.
In whatever sense we should keep politics out of the classroom—a certain kind of political activism has no place there—we cannot keep the classroom out of politics. It is a matter of political controversy just how far, and in what ways, the university should be apolitical. To ditch the idea of ethical truth, as Brown does, is to give up on knowing the answer to these questions. I see no stable way for us to do that.
When Weber calls it “irresponsible for a lecturer to exploit [his] situation […] [by] imposing on [students] his personal political opinions,” that is a political opinion, ventured by a lecturer. When Brown asserts that we should teach our students to deny that value systems can be true, she is telling us it’s true that we should teach them that. This is not to dismiss her arguments. Instead, it is to say about them what Weber said of political life, “that what is possible could never have been achieved unless people had tried again and again to achieve the impossible in this world.”
Kieran Setiya teaches philosophy at MIT. He is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide (2017), Life Is Hard: How Philosophy Can Help Us Find Our Way (2022), and a Substack newsletter, Under the Net.
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