By Steven Gimbel, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The Industrial Revolution that started in the mid-19th century, changed the fabric of society. Reality took on a new shape and sociological changes affected human lives to such an extent that social thinkers began writing commentaries about the new reality. What were the different views about the new reality?
Plato’s View of Reality
In the famous allegory of the cave from The Republic, the Greek philosopher Plato tells a story of people chained in a cave looking only at the back of the cave all their lives. Between them and the back of the cave is a low wall. Behind the wall is a fire and people walking with objects over their heads. The light of the fire causes the objects to cast shadows on the wall. Since the people in the cave have seen nothing their whole lives but these shadows, they believe that the shadows are what is real.
After a while, one man figures out how to unchain himself. He sees a low wall and peeks around, discovering the truth—that there are objects making the shadows. He discovers that the objects are what are real; the shadows are imperfect representations of them. To Plato, this meant that what is real is only what is perfect, and that which is perfect has reached its goal and will therefore never change.
According to Plato, all material objects can be changed and so the material world is not real. Material objects are imperfect representations of that which is real—the forms. Forms, for Plato, are idealized essences of things which one sees not with one’s eyes, but with the eye of the mind. It’s through philosophical contemplation that one reaches truth, not observation.
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Max Weber’s Perception of Reality
Unlike Plato, Max Weber believed that the material world is the real world. According to him, the real world is the world one sees and lives in. He argued that the perfect is never real, but one needs to use it to get to what is actually real—the complicated material world. Weber believed that the world is too complex and the only way to make sense is to oversimplify, to cut out real elements, and focus on some finite subset of what is left. According to him, reality is multifaceted, and one needs to look at its complex happenings using a number of ideological tools, which he called “ideal types”.
One example of an ideal type is the notion of an economic man used in classical economics. Human beings are considered to be perfectly rational and perfectly self-interested. If a seller wants nothing more than to maximize his profits in selling his wares and a buyer wants nothing more than to purchase the goods he needs at the lowest possible cost, then one can develop a scheme by which there will be a natural price for that object, one that balances these interests.
No one believes that humans are perfectly rational, and no one believes that humans are purely self-interested. But by making this oversimplification, one can create an idealized version of the situation where the observed effects are approximated by the ideal ones. Ideal types let us give explanations, and we can judge how good the explanation is based on how well the ideal type matches up with the complicated reality.
This is a transcript from the video series Redefining Reality: The Intellectual Implications of Modern Science. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
How is Stability in Society Achieved?
When one looks at society, what is the ideal type one should use to explain its most basic dynamics? What is the internal principle by which stability in society is achieved? The answers proposed at the end of the 19th and the first half of the 20th century were strongly tied to pre-existing economic and political beliefs. On one side, there were those who thought society was designed to create harmony, but required competition.
According to this school of thought, society must pit interests against interests. Society consists of inherently unequal elements. People are not equal; some are superior to others. Society ought to create a stage where the superior can lead, and the inferior can follow. A stable society is not a static society. It can improve itself, can adapt and grow. However, for this to happen, the internal arrangements must be properly arranged to foster fair and ongoing competition.
In his essay The Gospel of Wealth, American industrialist Andrew Carnegie explicitly claims that as culture advances, when progress is made, “human society loses homogeneity”. The ideal type that Carnegie makes use of is the law of competition. According to Carnegie, society is comprised of individuals with unequal abilities and ambition. He believes in creating a fair playing field for the winners to emerge because those winners are the ones who will drive the culture to a better future, both by creating more wealth and through philanthropic works.
The view of human groups as essentially competitive derived much of its support through an analogy with evolution. If adaptation is healthy for biological species, the same should hold true for cultures. This Social Darwinism differs from biological Darwinism in that evolution for Darwin is non-teleological. In this case, there is no goal, no end that evolution is seeking. Adaptation is not progress, species are not getting better, they are merely changing.
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Common Questions about an Ideal Society
According to Plato, all material objects can be changed and so the material world is not real.
According to Andrew Carnegie, the ideal society should be driven by the spirit of competition.
Social Darwinism differs from biological Darwinism in that evolution for Darwin is non-teleological.