The End of Truth? Different Ways of Knowing Modernity with Max Weber and Rudolf Steiner
By Aaron French
The term “Post-truth” emerged in the context of the 2016 United States presidential election, quickly gaining in popularity as a way to describe a crisis of authority regarding the production of legitimate truth claims. “Post-truth” suggests that truth is not attainable in any universal sense and is subject to the whims and predilections of individuals. But it also ambivalently acknowledges the possibility of different ways of knowing.
This situation is not exactly new. The idea of postmodernism was developed as a way of diagnosing the breakdown of consensus reality and to address the constructed nature of knowledge. In the past, scholars had introduced binary oppositional categories to make sense of these emerging positions—for example, modern and anti-modern, religious and scientific, progressive and conservative, pseudo-scientist and authorized scientist, academic thinker and popular thinker, esotericist and secularist, etc. This did not solve the problem of incongruous “thought styles” but instead only added to the proliferation of different types of knowledge.
As a scholar of the study of religions, my interest in the so-called end of “truth” has taken me back to the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe and to the question of what it meant to be “modern.” Modern Europeans were thought to have emerged from a superstitious past by adopting the modern scientific way of knowing en masse, finally acquiring truth. This arc of progress, it was argued, meant magical and supernatural forces (and by implication religion) no longer played a role in determining truth and would therefore disappear.
The German sociologist Max Weber famously referred to this historical process as the disenchantment of the world. Many historians and sociologists of the twentieth century interpreted Weber as a supporter of this process, characterizing him as a staunch rationalist and one of the founders of a rigorously sober form of social science. His work was canonized in the academy and his idea of disenchantment remains central to scholars in the humanities.
The problem is that in reality Weber was not the purely rational and scientific academic figure he is generally assumed to be. Scholars such as Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm and Joachim Radkau have made this clear. Among Weber’s friends and acquaintances were radical left-wing political anarchists, Bohemians, neo-romanticists, and occult esotericists, whose critique of bourgeois capitalist society informed his theory of disenchantment and influenced his ideas about religion and social science. Like so many of his generation, he was critical of conventional notions of social and sexual relationships and this helps to explain his two visits to Ascona and Monte Verità in Switzerland, a well-known haven for unconventional lifestyles (open marriage, nudity, vegetarianism) and spirituality (theosophy, spiritualism, neo-paganism) at the time.
My dissertation compared Weber with the popular alternative and esoteric thinker Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), who was Weber’s contemporary in Germany. While Weber’s ideas were accepted into the academic canon, Steiner’s spiritual scientific approach was largely rejected as a legitimate academic practice. I showed that Steiner was not the “occult crank” he is generally assumed to be, describing how many of his contemporaries rather viewed him as a radical individualist inspired by anarchists such as Max Stirner (1806–1856) and Benjamin Tucker (1854–1939). Some opponents even suspected him of working for, and sympathizing with, the Bolshevik Revolution. (For example, the US military intelligence department during World War One profiled Steiner as a cover agent for a revolutionary communist politics). Steiner promoted a popular Chinese author of the time, Gu Hongming (1857–1928), and agreed with Gu (and Weber) that Europeans needed to learn from the Chinese and adopt aspects of their culture or else they would continue along the current trajectory of Western history into a future of total disaster.
My comparative analysis of these German thinkers demonstrated that, while both men seem to occupy opposite ends of a binary spectrum of oppositional categories, they both acknowledged the legitimacy of “other” ways of knowing—aside from the modern European scientific one. This suggests that the boundary separating these two seemingly radically different thinkers is a scholarly construction obscuring the fact that there have always been different yet equally legitimate ways of knowing and accessing truth. It furthermore suggests that the modern Western world was always already “post-truth,” in the sense of its inability to produce universal truth claims. Kocku von Stuckrad has argued that two knowledge traditions competed with one another over the course of Western intellectual history: one current identified with esotericism, which is based on the belief that direct experience of the divine is possible, and the more skeptical current that considers the attainment of knowledge beyond rational demonstration impossible.
Weber and Steiner both acknowledged this problem. They also both thematized a “disenchantment of the world,” introduced as the inevitable outcome of a specific path of European development that privileged a narrow form of rationality and glorified technology. This was not a “good thing” because they both agreed that in the future European society would become so fragmented that individuals would assert truth solely out of themselves. Weber referred to this as the “polytheism of values,” whereas Steiner dubbed this the “war of all against all,” perhaps borrowing the phrase from Thomas Hobbes. Yet in both cases they agreed that insights from the non-Western cultures of “the East” offered solutions for this very European problem.
The situation facing Weber and Steiner’s generation is still with us, evidenced by the coining of the term “post-truth.” In a world increasingly forced to acknowledge the impossibility of universal knowledge forms, it remains to be seen whether other ways of knowing can be adopted (or created?) to help us reach a level of collective understanding. There is likely no absolute truth or truths, but there are more and less useful conjectures, as well as productive and unproductive forms of knowledge.
In this respect, it is interesting that Weber and Steiner came to many of the same conclusions, though by different routes, as this suggests that different ways of knowing might indeed be congruous. This would imply that those futures envisioned by Weber and Steiner and encapsulated in the terms post-truth and postmodernism must not represent the only or inevitable outcomes of human history. It would mean that collective understanding and agreement can be reached, even if respective positions appear—at least on the surface—to be at odds.
Aaron French received his PhD in the study of religion from the University of California, Davis. In addition, he earned a graduate minor in science and technology studies. His dissertation focused on the history of esotericism, secularization, and disenchantment in modern Europe by making a comparison of Max Weber (1864–1920) and Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925). He currently works as a Lecturer (Dozent) in religious studies at the University of Erfurt, Germany. His second project follows up on his dissertation research by focusing on modernity and sacred space and making a comparison of the contemporary European architects Le Corbusier (1887–1965) and Bruno Taut (1880–1938).
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Photo credits: Cabin at Monte Verità, © Aaron French 2021.