All posts by Hans Bakker

Basit Bilal Koshul, Max Weber and Charles Peirce: At the Crossroads of Sciences, Philosophy, and Culture (Lanham, Maryand: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, 2014)

This is an important book that would be easy to overlook. The main value of this book is that it makes an extended comparison between two very important thinkers who are rarely considered together: Max Weber and Charles Sanders Peirce. Weber is well-known for his “interpretive sociology” (verstehende Soziologie), while Peirce is well-known for his “Pragmaticism” and his triadic epistemology. Peirce is a founder of American Pragmatism, differentiating his version of William James’ Pragmatism by using the word “Pragmaticism” (he also said it was such an ugly word that no one would be tempted to steal it!).

Few thinkers have tried to connect Weber and Peirce. Even fewer have attempted to do that in such a brilliant fashion. I hope this book will provoke further discussion and debate. This is not a perfect book, but it is darned good. Unfortunately, this book is not likely to be on the radar for far too many scholars. The author is an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in Lahore, Pakistan. That is, he is not in a European or North American research-intensive university and he is not an academic philosopher or social scientist. But he writes well in English and makes a significant contribution (one is left wondering how many scholarly gems are ignored because of factors such as geography, affiliation or publisher!).

Koshul points out that many of the interpretations of Max Weber have not been based on thorough scholarship. Naturally his own interpretation could be challenged by Weber experts. But he is miles ahead of some authors who make a casual reference to Weber because they vaguely know a bit about the so-called “Protestant Ethic” thesis from secondary sources. In some ways Weber’s comparative historical sociology and political economy were ahead of his time. Koshul draws that out. If the book had only been about Weber that alone would have been enough to merit attention. But the value of this book is even greater.

Koshul makes it clear that American Pragmatist philosophy and Pragmatism generally are important to consider when thinking through Weber’s epistemological contributions. Koshul clarifies Weber’s insights concerning philosophy of social science questions that are still in dispute today. Weber’s work allows for a deep set of insights into institutionalized religious organizations and not just Christian ecclesia (e.g. Roman Catholicism in the 13th century) or contemporary Christian churches. Weber is also important for the world religions (including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism, etc.) and the “indigenous religions” that tend to be more localized (e.g. North American Plains Indians like the Lakota and the Cheyenne). The philosophy of physical science and the philosophy of religions are drawn together.

There is no indication that Weber ever read Peirce. But Weber was well-versed in German-language philosophy and historical research. Peirce was also well-read in that same body of knowledge. Weber’s mature epistemology involves the notion of interpretation involving “understanding”. He borrows the epistemological and ontological notion from Wilhelm Dilthey. Dilthey argued that it would be possible to have what we today tend to call a Cultural Science. He translated the term “moral sciences” from John Stuart Mill as “Geisteswissenschaften”.

The term “Geist” as a philosophical concept (rather than just an everyday language word) is associated with George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The German language word “Geist” is problematic and connotes many different things. But Dilthey was merely trying to emulate Mill and the idea of a “moral science” in Mill is a science that is not just restricted to the study of physical phenomena as natural and given. Another term that is often used today is “human sciences”. Indeed, in French it is common to speak and write of the sciences humaines. In the moral sciences (sciences humaines, Geisteswissenschaften) there is a need for interpretation of human “meaning”. In the physical sciences that is not necessary. One does not interview a rock or a star, a tree or a frog. Children’s books and just so stories anthropomorphize trees and animals, but no one would mistake a children’s fairy tale for a mature work in modern natural sciences.

The key similarity between Peirce and Weber is epistemological. Another major thinker who considered the epistemological differences between physical sciences of nature and human sciences is Wilhelm Windelband. He coined the terms “idiographic” and “nomothetic”. Weber was familiar with those terms. For Weber it was reasonable to consider a third, intermediate level. He referred to that third level as a matter of working with “ideal types” limited in time (t-n) and space (s-n). Ideal types are not completely idiographic but they are also not thoroughly nomothetic. Instead, if we conceptualize a continuum between the nomothetic and the idiographic then the use of ideal types is somewhere in between the two polar opposites.

A truly nomothetic law must be true for all relevant Times (T-u) and Spaces (S-u) for a particular “universe”. (That particular universe does not have to be the whole infinite Universe; it can simply be this planet earth as a “universe” relevant to certain kinds of laws having to do with, for example, biological sciences.) A truly idiographic description must be very specific, but few idiographic descriptions are limited to only one very specific time (t-1) and one extremely local place (p-1).

Some authors use the term “thick description” to mean essentially the same thing as idiographic description. The idea of thick description is associated with Clifford Geertz’s work on Indonesia, especially Java and Bali. Geertz did excellent anthropological, ethnographic fieldwork. But very little of his work is really thick “idiographic description”. He actually often makes ideal-type generalizations. For example, his generalizations about the Balinese cockfight are relevant to many cockfights during several decades all over the island of Bali. He does not give us a detailed blow-by-blow of the cockfights, but quickly resorts to summary statements. That is well and good, but Geertz seems to not have fully realized that he was using a Weberian (or possibly Neo-Weberian) approach, albeit in anthropology rather than historical and comparative sociology.

Peirce did no empirical work in anthropology, psychology or sociology. That is, he was not a social scientist. Instead, he was a natural scientist, mathematician and philosopher. Weber, on the other hand, did no natural-science research and was not a mathematician. He borrowed ideas from academic philosophers like Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert. But he is not considered an academic philosopher. (He did, however, have epistemological insights which are very relevant to the philosophy of natural sciences and the philosophy of social sciences.)

One relatively minor deficiency in this book is that there is no detailed discussion of the Methodenstreit, or Windelband, Rickert and others therein involved. Geertz is also not mentioned. Nevertheless, I recommend this thought-provoking and intelligent book as a jumping-off point for continued study of the relationship between two giants who are not often thought of as having very much in common. Scholars in the sociology of religion and the sociology of science will enjoy aspects of this analysis. Weber scholars and Peirce scholars will no doubt find some minor (or perhaps even some major) flaws. But that would not be a bad thing. What would be bad is if this book got no recognition of any kind due to the fact the author may not be well-known in certain networks in North American or Europe.

The deficiencies could also be corrected in a new edition if the author pays some attention to G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx’s importance to philosophy and Marx’s relevance to Weber, It would also be worth making a deep analysis of the work of Wilhelm Dilthey on the Geisteswissenschaften generally. I myself have written quite a bit on a number of topics directly related to the questions Koshul raises and attempts to answer. For example, I have written about Dilthey and about Weber’s epistemology.

My own dissertation was about land tax policy during the so-called “cultivation system” in Java. The kultuurstelsel (1830-1870) was a policy of increasing cultivation of export commodities using indirect rule and traditional labor obligations (corvee). Marx commented on it in a letter. He saw the village system of collective responsibility as an old system, but it was in part reinforcement of the older system due to taxation policy (Other parts of the dissertation deal with my speculations concerning the applicability of Weber’s ideal type of Patrimonialism to Javanese civilization.) My Ph.D. advisor was Prof. Irving Zeitlin. (His brother Maurice Zeitlin is the more “Marxist” of the two.) Zeitlin taught us to see a clear relationship between Marx, the elder, and Weber, the junior scholar in the pair (because Weber was a boy when Marx died).

That is contrary to the thesis that Parsons tended to push about the two of them being opposed epistemologically. There is a grain of truth in Parsons’ views but the key factor (at least to my way of thinking) is that they have a great deal in common. For example, when Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that “men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past” he is saying the same thing echoed by Weber in when he writes about the switchmen who control the train tracks (cf. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism with Other Writings on the Rise of the West, 4th edition, tr. Stephen Kalberg, New York: Oxford University Press, 3-58).

C. Wright Mills (1958) echoes it again when he writes in The Sociological Imagination about private sorrows and public issues. Mills is another author worth considering in terms of the issues raised. If nothing else, I hope readers of this review will at the very least skim this excellent book and order it for their college or university libraries. Koshul’s book is indeed “at the crossroads of science, philosophy, and culture” in many important ways. Perhaps some will regard this book as overly ambitious. But others will see the merit in the suggestions made, even if some aspects of the problems raised could be further elaborated.

Steinar Imsen (ed.), The Norwegian Dominion and the Norse World c. 1100-c1400 & Taxes, Tributes and Tributary Lands in the Making of the Scandinavian Kingdoms in the Middle Ages (Trondheim: Tapir Academic Press, 2010 & 2011)

These two edited books constitute a set; they complement one another. Together they provide an excellent scholarly overview of much of the literature on the Vikings and Scandinavia. These will no doubt be standard sources for anyone interested in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Icelandic history. Fins will also benefit from this book, as will those in the United Kingdom interested in the early history of “the Danes” in Northumbria, Wessex, Essex and other Anglo-Saxon and Celtic lands. Irish, Welsh and Scottish historians will certainly want to be aware of this excellent body of work by pre-eminent scholars. A great body of literature is summarized and it would require someone extremely well versed in Scandinavian history to be able to discern if the proper emphasis is placed on contributions by leading academics of the past. I would definitely recommend that academic librarians order these books as key historical reference texts. Some of the twenty-six chapters involve some degree of cross-referencing, but by and large each chapter is relatively independent. Yet the books do “hang together.”

At the same time, the two books to some extent lack a coherent theoretical outlook. There is not much Comparative Historical Sociology (CHS) as opposed to idiographic history and “thick description.” Like many highly specialized works the editor and the authors assume quite a bit of previous knowledge so this is not likely to be a good set of books for an introductory course, except of course in Scandinavia itself (where students are more likely to have the background knowledge). The use of older letters for older words is appropriate but also presents a small obstacle to those who may not immediately want to have a detailed understanding. Nevertheless, separate chapters could be assigned in undergraduate and graduate history courses. For example, in a course in United Kingdom history the sections on Wales, Scotland and Ireland could benefit from several of the chapters in Steinar (2011).

If a CHS framework had been applied more rigorously then the distinction between “tribute” in ‘tributary lands” and “taxes” in taxation lands would have to be discussed in more detail. The definitions assumed by various authors are neither consistent nor entirely rigorous. For example Barbara Crawford writes about the skatts in the Orkneys and Caithness. In some parts of Norse Britain like the Hebrides and the Orkneys  (bordlands) a tribute was paid by the “earls” to the “kings” of Norway. But it is not entirely clear that the skatt system can be considered a “tax system” per se. Fifteenth century tribute systems were not necessarily tax systems in the narrow sense What Crawford discusses as “rentals” could equally be considered a kind of appanage system. In terms of sociological theory it might have been better to stick with the notion of a “tribute system” (Latin tributa). Of course there was a kind of evolution from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries, but the subtle shifts are not investigated as systematically as some might wish. Nevertheless, Crawford does deal with some of the changes that took place over several hundred years. It may be that the geographically compact nature of the Orkneys and Caithness made it possible to introduce a tribute system which was somewhat more “advanced” toward a taxation system. There were 3,670 “pennylands” in Orkney and 18 pennylands were one “ounceland” (urislands). The idea of a monetary assessment based on ploughlands comes closer to a true taxation system, but it is not clear that was something which took place on a regular basis, or only for the construction of a cathedral (Saint Magnus).

The lack of Indices makes is somewhat difficult to cross-reference ideas. One would not necessarily expect one index for the two books, of course, but each book individually could benefit from a detailed Index. So many technical terms are used that a word list would have been helpful for those readers who do not fluently read Norwegian, Danish, Swedish or Icelandic!

The editor, Steinar Imsen, has certainly done an excellent job in compiling first class, relevant essays by top ranking scholars. It is not easy to get this degree of focus on detailed subject matter. Overall there is much agreement, although there are not any papers devoted to a discussion of theoretical or methodological problems per se. (Methodological comments are incidental and mostly contained in footnotes.) The 2010 volume is the result of a workshop on the Norse world held in Røros, Norway, in 2008. The 2011 volume is the product of a workshop held in Visby, Sweden. Colleagues were enthusiastic in discussing a common Scandinavian-Norse-Swedish-Danish-Scottish-Irish-Welsh-British world that spanned several hundreds of years (approximately 8th – 16th centuries). Anyone who is not already deeply immersed in pre-Medieval and Medieval Northern European history is bound to learn a great deal. For example, while I had some general knowledge of Sweden as a nation the short chapter by Thomas Lindkvist (Imsen 2010, pp. 251-262) made me much more aware of the differences between Svealand and Götaland. The Svear and the Göta of Västergötland and Östergötland were not always united. Indeed, the Götland provinces were “Christianized” earlier and were seemingly more connected to events in continental Europe, including the emergence of full blown “patrimonial” feudalism (Weber 1968). The link between the Roman Catholic Church and the Europeanized kingdoms of Sweden and Norway is not fully understood. But the existence of a traditional bureaucracy (Bakker 2010) in the form of bishoprics and nunneries, etc., seems to have been a key to the emergence of the type of “feudalism” usually discussed in textbooks. It is interesting to note that the Geatas discussed in Beowulf may or may not have been the Götar and Beowulf may not be a reliable historical source for the sixth century.

Some parts of these books are also directly relevant to German, Estonian and Russian historians. For example, the 12-13th century Danish “empire” in the Baltic is discussed in Chapter 12 by Jens Osesen. Apparently the Battle of Bjornhöved in Holstein in 1227 was a crucial watershed. The Danish expanded into Mecklenberg and Pomerania in what we now think of as Deutschland. (The Roman term Germania would have also included what we now consider the nation-state of Denmark.) Danish expansion also included a set of conquests to the East. The city of Reval was important to the sea route to Novgorod and was sold by King Valdemar IV Atterdag to the Teutonic order in 1346.

In a longer review I would want to go into detail concerning each chapter. Chapter 2 by Randi B. Woerdahl (in Imsen 2010: pp. 35-57) provides an excellent, detailed discussion of the historiography of the Norse world and the discussion about “Medieval history and the legitimization of nations and nation states” goes some distance toward starting to address sociological questions. He also briefly discusses alternative perspectives. There is a certain degree of conflict involved in studying nations retrospectively and once can easily fall victim to a kind of Whig History Fallacy, where what exists today is presumed to have been what would most likely evolve. Norman Davies (2014) has done a good job studying those “invisible” political realms in mainland Europe and Britain that we have now forgotten (e.g. the seventeen varieties of Burgundy/Burgundia). To some extent the Davies’ thesis about invisible kingdoms holds for many of the state systems discussed in these two volumes. They are “invisible” to the orindary educated person, who is usually better acquainted with the histories of “countries” that exist today as nation-states (e.g. Deutschland, Italia) but may not know much about pre-Medieval sub-regions (e.g. Angle-land, Saxonia, Batavia). The national history approach has little to offer for those interested in an objective reading of the evolution of societies from pre-modern capitalist to modern capitalist relations, much less from truly traditional to postmodern conditions.

Overall, I recommend these two volumes as solid intellectual contributions, with the minor caveats that: (1.) some more overview material would have been beneficial for class room use (including more and better quality maps) and (2.) a Comparative Historical Sociological (CHS) based on Weberian and Neo-Weberian sociological theories would have been useful. (Imsen 2010: Chapter 4 by Ian Beuermann has excellent maps, but in some chapters the quality is not 100% clear.) Perhaps there will be additional volumes and perhaps such new work might integrate the historical material a bit more directly with social science theories of the state, including political sociology, political studies, political science, comparative international relations studies, agrarian history, rural sociology and political economy (including Marxian political economy). These are not books that will be read by very many non-academic readers and yet some of the chapters would usefully be summarized in popular publications in various languages, not just English.

Perhaps Steinar Imsen sand some colleagues will write an introductory book which utilizes the abundant historical resources on which the twenty four other authors base their arguments. The volumes taught me a great deal but it took a certain amount of effort to get past the sometimes overly technical discussions of Scandinavian terms. (There is no glossary in either book.) The whole idea of Skattlands is not well known to those who are not specialized in “North Sea” and “Baltic” history, yet the concept of military tribute and corvee labour is directly relevant to many theories of pre-modern state systems. The main focus historically is the 12-15th centuries and it would most certainly be valuable to have another volume in the series that covers the earliest archaeological discovered (before the 9th century) and a fourth volume on the period that starts with the 16th century. I remember as a young boy wondering how it was possible for three tiny countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark) to continue to exist. In the Cold War Era it seemed that only superpowers mattered. But now I more fully grasp the fact that the current nation-states which are small relative to other significant players on the world stage were at one time themselves small scale world super powers. The Netherlands had its Golden Age in the early seventeenth century. To some extent these volumes celebrate a kind of Scandinavian Golden Age  in the 12-15th centuries. Most of this history, unfortunately, is not widely taught. Perhaps the television series on the Vikings will help to promote more interest. We are inundated with books on the histories of England, Scotland, Ireland, and English-speaking parts of the world. But the importance of Norway, Denmark and Sweden is under-appreciated outside of Scandinavia.

References

Bakker, J. I. (Hans). 2010. “Deference and Democracy: Traditional and Modern Bureaucracy.” In Bryant (eds.) Festschrift for Irving Zeitlin. Lanham, Maryland (MD): Lexington Books (Roman and Littlefield).

Davies, Norman. 2014. Invisible Kingdoms. New York: Peguin?

Weber, Max. 1968 [1920]. Economy and Society. Tr. and ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. Berkeley, California (CA): University of California Press.