Category Archives: Eschatology

Optimization and the Gulag: A brief tour of certain 20th-century intellectual anxieties

Optimized labor?

Optimized contruction? Prisoner laborers constructing the Baltic Sea-White Sea canal

In her recent New York Times Magazine essay, “A Sucker is Optimized Every Minute,” Virginia Heffernan posits that an increasing infatuation with “optimization” in our society is leading to cultural, economic, and political harms. Her themes and some of the topics she examines are very much in this blog’s wheelhouse, so I thought it would be useful to take a look at some of the ideas in her piece. First, I’d like to point out that, if we stand back and think about the various associations Heffernan draws, they should seem bizarre. A good example is her concluding line, “Right there in my Apple Watch: a mini Gulag, optimized just for me.” Suppose she chose a slightly different metaphor, say comparing Spotify music-selecting algorithms to Auschwitz. The obvious distastefulness of the comparison would make it immediately apparent that the former and the latter simply exist in totally different moral, intellectual, and institutional universes. Let’s leave aside the question of why it seems to be OK to rope Soviet forced-labor camps into clever cultural critiques. The fact is it is actually perfectly possible to follow Heffernan’s argument without undue bafflement. The reason has to do with our various inheritances from intellectual history. Continue reading

Max Weber on Rationality in Social Action, in Sociological Analysis, and in Modern Life

Max Weber (1864–1920)

Max Weber (1864–1920)

For my first post on Rational Action, I’d like to offer a summary of Max Weber’s classic analysis of rationality and social action in his posthumously published Economy and Society (E&S, 1922).1 This subject has not exactly wanted for attention. Weber’s discussion is unquestionably an important reference in twentieth-century thinking about rationality, and we will no doubt have ample opportunity to link back to this post in the future.

A central feature of Weber’s sociology was his belief that sociological inquiry should be grounded in the analysis of how individuals attach “meanings” to their “social actions.” For Weber, an action was social and subjectively meaningful to the actor insofar as it embodied some consideration concerning how others had acted and would act. Individuals’ social actions collectively gave rise to observed forms of social organization.

Rationality and Social Action

In Weber’s view, social actions could be classified into four types: “instrumentally rational (zweckrational),” “value-rational (wertrational),” “affectual,” and “traditional,” though he noted that this list was not necessarily “exhaustive” (E&S 1.1.2).

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