Discuss and contrast Weber’s notion of discipline and Freud’s concept of repression

In this essay I shall first concentrate on Weber’s [1864–1920] writing on discipline, in particular ‘The Protestant Ethic’ and ‘The Meaning of Discipline’ [Gerth & Wright Mills, 1970] before looking at Freud’s idea of repression which resulted from his psychoanalytic theory and the structure of personality that he developed and deciding the main criticisms, differences and similarities between the two theorists work.

In Max Weber’s work ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’, Weber studies the connection between the increase of particular kinds of Protestantism and the progress of Western industrial capitalism. In the first part of his argument Weber attempts to show that a particular form of Protestantism, ascetic Calvinist Protestantism, preceded the growth of capitalism. Weber also attempts to demonstrate that capitalism grew at first in vicinities where this religion was important. Weber described how the rational quest of profit that was motivated by certain kinds of Protestantism helped to develop the rationalisation of the modern world. This work has been reinterpreted so that it considers the ideas of both body discipline and rationalisation. In particular, the ‘iron cage’ had much significance when applied to the body, as an instrument of the world. B.S.Turner [1982; as cited in Whimster & Lash, 1987], argues that alongside the history of mentalities in Weber’s work, there is the history of the rationalisation of the body. Turner makes the proposition that Weber’s description of rationalisation as being a historical process can be considered to be a discourse on the materialisation of a particular kind of consciousness, and because of the examination of the appearance of further methods of discipline that controlled and ordered the forces of the human body. Weber saw contemporary rational ways appearing from the monastery and the army and extending outward toward the factory, the hospital and the home. Weber’s view of rationalisation is a extensive theory that makes the implication that an inescapable progression of rational tradition and takes it further to suggest that there is no resistance to these processes is feasible. From this, the correct position to the rule of rationality is one of ‘fatalistic’ surrender [Smart, 1983; as cited in B.S.Turner, 1982: ibid].

In ‘The Meaning of Discipline’, Weber made the argument that out of all of those powers in their entirety that reduce the significance of ‘individual action’, the one that is the most convincing is ‘rational discipline’.’ For Weber, the strength of discipline eliminates individual charisma and stratification by status groups — at least one of its results is the rational alteration of status stratification. What discipline contains is the unchangingly rationalised, systematically instructed and precise realisation of the accepted order, where all individual commentary is interrupted and the actor is solely set for carrying out the order. In addition, for Weber, this behaviour ‘under orders uniform’. Its property as the common action of a mass association conditions the explicit results of such ‘uniformity’. Those who adhere are not ‘necessarily a simultaneously obedient or an especially large mass, nor are they necessarily united in a specific locality’. What is resolute for discipline is that the ‘obedience of a plurality of men is rationality uniform’ [Gerth & Wright Mills, 1970]. Weber viewed discipline as not being hostile to charisma or status group honour.

Discipline, generally, much like the more rational bureaucracy, is impersonal and neutral — it positions itself to be used by every power that makes a stake on its service and is aware how to put it forward. This does not deter bureaucracy from being essentially foreign and adverse to charisma, as well as to honour, especially of a feudal kind. The conflict between discipline and individual charisma has been full of obstructions to progress and requires great effort to overcome. It has its typical base in the growth of the structure of warfare, in whatever realm the hostilities are to a certain extent measured by the system of warfare. The discipline of the army is the father of all discipline. The large-scale economic organisation is the second considerable means that instructs men for discipline. According to Weber, no special proof is required to show that military discipline is the ideal model for the modern capitalist factory, as it was for the ancient plantation. The constantly broadening scope of discipline advances relentlessly with the rationalisation of the provision of economic and political requirements. This common phenomenon increasingly confines the weight of charisma and of individually marked actions [ibid]. There are also comparisons that are made between Weber and Foucault made due to their studies of forms of domination and techniques of discipline.

For Freud, repression (the first ‘mechanism of defence’) is the process where an unwelcome motivation is forced into the unconscious (repression was instrumental in the use of hypnosis). Freud identified both primary and secondary repression. In primary repression, the original idea does not even materialise completely before it is repressed; in secondary repression, exhibitions of the motivation remain unconscious. According to Freud, one main thought is ‘the return of the repressed’ where ideas that have been forced underneath the surface keep returning to the conscious mind. Without repression, we could not adjust to our surroundings and the ego (the part of the personality that represents reason, good sense, rational control — and operates according to the reality principle) could not come about and which would mean we would be continually gratifying our instinctive drives. Following on from this, this would lead to human conditions such as lust, violence and mayhem restricting our energy and hindering the building of societies. In ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’, Freud argued that the accomplishments of civilisation required repression, but human beings pay the price for this due to feelings of unfulfilment and other troubles. Freud still believed in the value of repression despite such negativity. Later theorists, such as H.Marcuse, argued that capitalism required surplus repression to keep the workers sufficiently oppressed; in this way, they would not have the energy to demand a fair share of the spoils [Cohen, 1990; Hall & Gieben, 1992].

As H.Marcuse [1956] sees it, Freud tracks the growth of repression back to the instinctual structure of the individual. The fate of human freedom and happiness is battled out and judged in the struggle of the instincts — which is truly a struggle of life and death. This biological and sociological element is at the centre of Freud’s ‘meta-psychology’. Marcuse argued that Freud opened these firm hypotheses with endless indecision and conditions — and then left them to remain in suspension. Everywhere within the diverse levels of Freud’s theory, the mental materials emerge as a forceful order of opposites of the unconscious and the conscious structures, of primary and secondary processes, of innate, “constitutionally fixed” and obtained energies, and of soma-psyche and the external reality. This dualistic explanation continues to dominate, even in the later ideas of id (the part of the personality containing inherited psychological energy, particularly sexual and aggressive instincts — it operates according to the pleasure principle), ego (as defined earlier), and super-ego (the part of the personality that represents conscience, morality, and social standards) — the middling and “overlapping” elements have a tendency towards the two positions. For Marcuse, they find their most prominent voice in the two ultimate principles which control the mental equipment: pleasure principle (the principle guiding the operation of the id which seeks to reduce tension, avoid pain, and enhance pleasure) and reality principle (the principle guiding the operation of the ego which seeks to find socially acceptable outlets for instinctual energies). The quest for the origin of repression takes its roots back to the origin of instinctual repression, which happens during early childhood. The superego is the inheritor of the Oedipus complex, and the repressive order of sexuality is mainly directed against its ‘pregenital and perverse manifestations’. Marcuse combines a Marxian idea with the Freudian claim, he concludes that industrial society extracts an unnecessary payment, a ‘surplus repression’ of individual yearnings such that the life processes of individuals are diverted into the accumulation of material rewards of a doubtful or damaging character.

In ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ Freud identifies the point of hostility towards civilisation as something that was built up through certain, specific historical events, he tackles the lack of expected gains from technological advances in modern civilisation, he regarded civilisation as oppressive though necessary for man to survive, because he saw it as imposing more restraints upon instinctual fulfilment than most human beings could cope with without developing at least some neurotic symptoms, forms of mental distress that are milder than that of ‘madness’ or psychoses but that still produce unhappy states of mind or of the body. For Freud, civilisation is the opponent of instinct and an initiator of repression. Freud’s use of the unconscious in his writing caught the significance of the irrational, the two central elements of unconscious desire were sexuality and destructive aggression, he developed the ideas of loss of meaning, of estrangement, in a way which addressed the pains and discontents of modern-day individuals [Marcuse, 1956; Hall& Gieben, 1992].

In criticism of Weber, it has been argued that rationalisation as a world-wide theory makes the implication of an unavoidable growth and allows very little in the way of space for opposition or reversal, another criticism is that the deliberation of consumption and asceticism is wanting and that the historical reconstruction of asceticism is not secure. Unlike Freud’s appeal to causality, Weber’s work cannot give an explanation of social change in the sense of specifying the causal role of ideas in the testable and presuppositionless way that contemporary social science has come to expect [Schroeder, 1992, p162–163]. Also, a reason why social scientists have moved beyond Weber’s work is its ambitiousness — of what he thought his science of culture could achieve. It is Schroeder’s [1992] claim that his central question concerning the cultural significance of Occidental rationalism derives from such a large-scale perspective that it is difficult to imagine at which point a final answer could be reached [ibid]. Weber has also been criticised by philosophers and by the phenomenological school in modern sociology [Winch; Schultz, 1967; as cited in Sahay, 1971] for having attempted to scientise the concept of meaning and by the positivists [Lazarsfield & Oberschall, 1965; as cited in Sahay, 1971] for having hung on to unprovable metaphysical concepts [Rex; in Sahay, 1971, p23]. A final general criticism of Weber is made by British historians, it is their claim that he is historically naive and adopts a simplistic approach to the question of the relations between religion and social change — but R.Moore [Sahay, 1971, p82] gives this no weight and argues that it cannot be substantiated, and is based largely on an ignorance of Weber’s work in its entirety.

As for Freud, the standard criticisms of his psychoanalytical theory will always apply, he generalised about human nature from a biased sample of neurotic upper-class women which sheds some serious doubt over his work. Another problem with Freud is that every phenomena is uncompromisingly decided by the principle of cause and effect and — he wanted to increase the scope of phenomena liable to reason interpretations, under causal laws, finally his concentration on biology, that psychological processes should be devised in terms of their “indispensable organic foundation” — to treat it as forces and states as they are considered in the natural sciences. Problems generally for Freud’s theories manifest themselves, according to Eysenck [1985], due to his obsessive need to find a sexual explanation for every item of behaviour that occurs. Freud also applied his own neurotic troubles and sufferings to the way all men behave — leading there to be very little in the way of any evidence to support his claims. For Eysenck, Freud and psychoanalysis must be regarded as a failure and is illogical and inconsistent with unacknowledged borrowings from predecessors. This relentless attack goes on to state that Freud was a genius of propaganda, persuasion and of literary art — which means his place is not as he claimed [with Copernicus and Darwin] but, continues Eysenck, with Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm…as tellers of “fairy tales”! [Eysenck, 1985, p208]. As far as Freud’s idea of repression is concerned, the idea that the mind can be partitioned at all has often been held to be incomprehensible because it gives the appearance of having the need that thoughts, desires and actions can be assigned to something less than, and distinct from, the whole person. Also, this permits him to concentrate social beings as solitary individuals who may or may not find ways of exempting their instinctive impulses instead of holding that ‘impulses’ or desires are socially generated and that we make ways of disposing of them as we create them. Freud’s concept of libido (the psychic energy that fuels the life or sexual instincts of the id) is also difficult to define because it is not a specific object [Wade & Tavris, 1993; Haralambos & Holborn, 1995; Storr, 1989].

In drawing to my conclusion, the main difference between Weber and Freud is that Weber does not believe in the partitioned self, or the biological aspect, though the concept of personality for Weber is effectively that of a socialised person [Whimster,1987, p261]. For Freud, repression involves processes such as rationalisation and reflexivity, these are also covered in Weber’s work, this was called ‘rational action’ and involves a clear awareness of a goal, in other words: ‘the methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of means’. This is the dominant system of action in modern industrial society, he made reference to this dominance as the ‘process of rationalization’ [Weber, as cited in: Haralambos & Holborn, p.271, 1995]. For Freud, the ego was the rational and reasonable aspect of his work, and the reality principle in enabling this part of the personality to operate. Rationalisation could also be said to be in existence within civilisation as well, in the technological advances people resented so much, especially as Freud did concede by saying in ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ that: ‘we ought not to infer from it that technical progress is without value for the economics of our happiness’. With regard to reflexivity, (showing that the action of the verb is performed on its subject; A relation R is said to be reflexive if and only if for any individual x, Rxx. — for example, being equal to itself is a reflexive action) Freud shows some evidence of it in the language of his work, as does Weber. The biological elements that Freud retains in his work is lacking in Weber’s, it is depicted as a necessary, referring to purposiveness and functional development, rather than an open-ended, negotiated, unintended and perhaps dysfunctional process [Freud: as cited in Hall & Gieben, p.273–274, 1992].

What was perhaps more interesting was the relationship between the two theorists, Weber considered the Freudian ideas to be a jumble of worthy, though still imprecise, psychiatric wisdom with an ethic of crude pride in ‘healthy nerves’. He was not willing to support healthy nerves as being an absolute end, or to estimate the moral merit of repression in terms of its cost to one’s nerves. Weber thought that the therapeutic system of Freud was a rekindling of the oral confession, he contested a theory that is, in principle, levelled against asceticism and that sees ends only in pragmatic terms. With this in mind though, Weber did believe that Freud’s ideas can become a source of considerably important constructions of a whole chain of cultural and historical, moral and religious phenomena [Gerth & Wright Mills, 1970]. Freud may be accused of excessive generalisation, but his techniques (or aspects of them) have been used widely, even if not entirely accepted. Both theorists undeniably have their uses academically in understanding particular elements of society, and how the body is represented and understood, no matter how much question is placed on their works — for the most part it is based on interpretation.


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S.Freud, Civilization and its Discontents, The Hogarth Press, London, 1975.

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[Eds] S.Hall & B.Gieben, Formations of Modernity, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1992.

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A.Storr, Freud, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1989.

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[Eds] S.Whimster & S.Lash, Max Weber, Rationality and Modernity, Allen & Unwin, London, 1987.

[Eds] R.Wollheim & J.Hopkins, Philosophical Essays on Freud, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1982.

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