Gabriel Cohn – “Criticism and resignation”

Jose Resende. Sculpture José Resende /“O Passante”/ Rio de Janeiro/ photo: Christiana Carvalho


Comments on the book, considered a classic of Brazilian sociology

Criticism and resignation – Fundamentals of Sociology by Max Weber (WMF Martins Fontes), by Gabriel Cohn, is an indispensable book, what is usually called a “classic”: it is permissible to disagree, in part or even in whole; but it is impossible to ignore the mastery in composing the argumentative chain in its context, giving a life of its own to the work once written.

It is worth, firstly, for the erudition in its content, when (re)constructing Weberian sociology instead of reporting Weber's sociology. This perspective, of a history and not of a historiography of sociology, remains, despite all the subsequent bibliography, which I am unable to follow.

In addition, its importance lies in the way of approaching authors and themes according to an original formative trajectory, supported by a sophisticated positioning of counterpoints and tensioning of concepts and meanings, which dissolve to be available again later, towards the thought of Weber and Marx. Gabriel follows the thought in the course of each author, without modulation by presupposed perspectives. Take in this sense the last chapter, whose title – “The Pitfalls of Coherence” – foreshadows the difficult place in the world of a thought aimed simultaneously at knowledge and action.

There develops what can be called the “philosophical architecture” of social thinking. The way in which he reveals how the abandonment of criteria of universal validity does not lead to relativism is exemplary, insofar as Weber highlights the responsibility of agents for the consequences of their actions, which, in turn, evolves in the context of the opposition between autonomy and determination, which finally leads to deciphering “two different meanings of determination”: that of Weber and that of Marx.

It is worth asking: wouldn't there also be two distinct meanings of “society” here to differentiate the two authors? Weber's seeks to apprehend society as established, in an external relationship with its determining moment, which does not share society's plan. Marx's is based on society as a process in its entirety, including its internal determinants: a society dynamically apprehended in the process of its own production.

Finally, perhaps the most memorable is a language that, in addition to being an instrument or means, constitutes a sociological prose to be expressed in precise, refined and powerful formulations, coined with delicate subtleties, through which the categories with the their meanings. Proceed according to a spirit of finesse which constitutes – or should be – a fundamental part of sociological practice itself, always attentive to the terminological difficulties of social thought and the conceptual elaboration to suspend them. It imposes a reading that cannot be “literally”, as the author warns, as it must account for the dynamics of categorical construction conditioned by an era, with its ideas and reflection, formed by capitalist society and its liberal-bourgeois thinking .

Resignation acquires clarity in opposition to criticism and vice versa; thus Adorno is present as an interlocutor. But there is more: in a very enlightening interview with Ricardo Musse and Stefan Klein, published in the magazine Social Time, an old suspicion is confirmed: Criticism and resignation is an Adornian book about Weber.

Best to go along with Gabriel's own words. “In my personal perspective, Adorno's main contribution in what concerns societies like ours consists in valuing fine thinking, capable of surprising trends where they are most hidden, sometimes in unexpected corners of social life, but no less effective (...) is the best incentive to carry out in reflection and research a motto that for me is becoming imperative. Namely, that the more brutal the society we are interested in knowing, the finer the analysis must be. This, provided that our purpose is to add new and eventually unforeseen knowledge, rather than the mere reproduction of the object with an inverted sign in the discourse”.

The aforementioned converts the author, for Criticism and resignation and other works, in the most sophisticated living intellectual expression of theoretical elaboration in sociology in Brazil.

The author and his work

I got to know the work long before the author, when I was poring over the “youth” writings of Georg Lukács, in the work that would result in my thesis “The Formation of Theory in History and Class Consciousness”, in which Gabriel participated. As the formation of the Hungarian passed through Weber, I looked for supporting works to guide this search. From the outset, I sympathized with his refusal to see indications that made something like a “Weberian Marxism” possible. It seemed like something forced, which since that time I attributed to a certain later reading of Lukács – which would seek to involve Habermas, for example – than to intellectual kinship. But the book made me realize that, although unrelated, there was nevertheless an “elective affinity” between categories and their position in social reality, albeit with a distinctly different character. This happened between rationalization and reification, strictly speaking two meanings of “rationalization” as a social and historical category. One with the end of the subject of knowledge in Weber and another with the operational objective of the historical subject for Lukács, whose target was precisely a theory that would unify both.

Since then, I've been with Gabriel Cohn at various academic events. One in particular helped move my core interest from Lukács to Critical Theory. In a seminar at Unicamp dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the publication of History and Class Consciousness– published under the title Lukács: a Galileo in the XNUMXth century. XX (Boitempo) – In the discussion at a table in which he exposed reservations to Critical Theory and Adorno for what he considered to be an abandonment of the issue of social work, he warned of the need to deepen the theme.

It was the passage from social work to the formation of historical subjects that was in question, a context that required differentiating between different trends in the critical strand of Marxism regarding what could be called objective reason and subjective reason. It took me a while to follow this problem in all its dimensions. My next text, “The centrality of social work and its charms” in the seminar “Horizons of Sociology in the XNUMXth century. XXI”, also published by Editora Boitempo, is a reckoning that, from then on, guided my concerns and intellectual elaborations.

A social and social thinker of the stature of Gabriel Cohn presents himself in all his relevance when asking the questions that organize reflection and investigation. In the written opening for the Introduction to Sociology by Adorno, published by Editora UNESP, there is a gem that sums up this perspective. How to qualify thinking? What should be on the agenda is not just maintaining the craft of thinking, but characterizing it as “thinking beyond”, ahead. This motto must be understood in two ways: at the same time as an anticipation of trends and their inflections through the intellectual path, of course; however, with a lot of emphasis on categorical elaboration, on the necessary dynamism to demand the withdrawal of the conceptual context of an explanatory function already consolidated and fixed, frequently somewhat exhausted and demanding adjustments. Criticism only starts to play a role in negating what is in force when we do not resign ourselves to its own already established form. This is the true sense in which Gabriel Cohn and Adorno identify.

Even fundamental, however, is the point of view that, after all, is ultimately responsible for distinguishing resignation and criticism. Perhaps that is, in his view, the highest praise deserving. The point of view that our author names as a plebeian sociology, committed to the popular perspective, such as that of Florestan Fernandes, Octavio Ianni, Chico de Oliveira. And Gabriel Cohn...

*Wolfgang Leo Maar is a retired full professor at the Department of Philosophy at the Federal University of São Carlos (UFSCar).

Originally published on the blog of Virtual Library of Social Thought.


Gabriel Cohn. Criticism and resignation – Fundamentals of Max Weber's Sociology. Sao Paulo, WMF Martins Fontes.



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