Max Weber's concept of rationalisation

Max Weber (1864 - 1920) conceived of modernisation as a universal process of rationalisation that occurs as humanity becomes disenchanted with religious worldviews.[1] Whereas Marx had seen the rationalisation of society taking place by the development of productive forces based on empirical knowledge Weber focused on social evolution. Habermas criticises them both for having only a vague concept of societal rationality and overly simple concepts of social action. He goes back to the establishment of the ideal of rationality in the Enlightenment with reference to the writing of The Marquis de Condorcet. In his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1794, London 1955) Condorcet had seen Newtonian physics's methodology of observation, experiment and calculation as a paradigm for the production of a knowledge which threatened to reduce previous philosophical knowledge to the status of opinion.

Habermas argues that Weber's basic theoretical assumptions with regard to social action prejudiced his analysis in the direction of the purposive rationality, which arises from the conditions of commodity production. This restricts his theory of action and the liberatory potential of his widely accepted idea of rationality.

If action is defined as human behaviour with intention, or with subjective meaning attached, then Weber's theory of action is based on the solitary acting subject and does not encompass the co-ordinating actions that are inherent to a social body.[2] This individuated concept of action does not adequately account for the complex concept of rationality that is implied from Weber's own cultural analyses.[3]

According to Weber, rationalisation creates three spheres of value as the differentiated zones of Science, Art and Law.[4] This fundamental disunity of reason constitutes the danger of modernity. This danger arises not simply from the creation of separate institutional entities but through the specialisation of cognitive, normative and aesthetic knowledge that in turn permeates and fragments everyday consciousness. This all-pervasive 'rationalisation' is argued to have profoundly negative effects on socialisation, social integration and cultural production.

This 'disunity of reason' implies that culture moves from a traditional base in a consensual collective endeavour to forms which are rationalised by commodification and led by individuals with interests which are separated from the purposes of the population as a whole. This 'purposive rational action' is steered by the 'media' of the state, which substitute for oral language as the medium of the co-ordination of social action. There is then antagonism between these two principles of societal integration - language, orientated to understanding, and 'media', which are systems of success orientated action.

The same 'disunity of reason' caused by the separation of science, morality and art means that cultural production moves from a collective basis to a commodified basis led by individuals orientated to their own success rather than to a collective well being. The Exploding Cinema collective is clearly in the language camp and keeps itself distanced from state 'media'. The point is that for Exploding Cinema to be understood as part of this area of 'language' it needs to be seen as part of oral culture rather than the literary culture of formal written discourse.

Following Weber, Habermas sees specialisation as the key historical development, which leads to the alienating, effects of modernity that 'permeates and fragments everyday consciousness'. Exploding Cinema can be a seen as a site of reintegration: an active audience; an MC as a live intermediary; an integration of live performance; a close alliance with other cultures of resistance.[5] But it also still sees itself within the separate category of 'film' even if this is marginalised. I have tried to reframe Exploding Cinema activity by relating it to 'amateur film', a category which breaks the professional envelop and reconnects the representation with everyday life - to make this connection, which is latent within Exploding Cinema practice, realised as discourse. However this implies that a full evaluation of Exploding Cinema may first require a radical legitimation of the realm of amateur film.

Habermas points out that the 'socio-psychological costs' of this limited version of rationality, which Lukacs calls reification, are in the last count borne by individuals. They surface as widespread neurotic illnesses, addictions, psychosomatic disorders and behavioural and emotional difficulties. Or they find  more conscious expression in criminal actions, protest groups and religious cults. [6] Lukacs thought that reification, although it runs deep, has a limit. This limit can be seen as the potential of rational argument to be self-reflexive and transcend its occupational use by oppressive agencies. Habermas agrees with this optimistic analysis in contrast to Adorno and Horkheimer, and thinks that freedom and ideals of reconciliation are ingrained in the mechanisms of the linguistically mediated sociation of humanity.



[1] TCA1 p143


[2] TCA1 p280


[3] Habermas looks for semantic theories that could be useful in developing a social theory of action. He briefly considers Reference Semantics then moves on to the Truth Semantics founded by Frege and developed by Wittgenstein. This "gives centre stage to the relation between sentence and state of affairs between language and the world". (TCA1 p276) This is a radical disengagement from the semantics that atomises the world into names and things.

J.L. Austin and John Searle extended these ideas to speech acts no longer limited to representations. The 'speech act' is opened up to the 'multiplicity of illocutionary forces'. Habermas thinks that this direction could be fruitful if taken along with Wittgenstein's concept of 'background knowledge' to construct a concept of the lifeworld. This could be used to help distinguish communications motivated by egocentric calculations of success from communications orientated to understanding. (TCA1 p286) Habermas then analyses the reception of Weber's ideas by the German Marxist tradition of the 'Philosophy of Consciousness' and particularly his intellectual family The Frankfurt School. The three main works discussed are George Lukac's, History of Class Consciousness (Orig. 1922, Cambridge, Mass. 1971), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer's Dialectics of Enlightenment (orig. 1945 NY 1972) and Horkheimer's Eclipse of Reason' (orig. completed 1946, NY 1974), which is an exposition of the main themes of The Dialectics of Enlightenment.

[4] TCA1 p340


[5] The illustration of these points will come later as I build a historical representation of Exploding Cinema activity.


[6] TCA1 p369