Max Weber’s Birthday

by Henry on April 21, 2014

Max Weber was born 150 years ago today. People should read his two seminal essays, Science as a Vocation, and Politics as a Vocation (PDFs), if they haven’t already. Both are rambling, but with nuggets of genuine genius. To mark the occasion, the famous closing paragraphs of Science as a Vocation (these words carry a very different resonance after Nazism and the Holocaust than before)

The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’ Precisely the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations. It is not accidental that our greatest art is intimate and not monumental, nor is it accidental that today only within the smallest and intimate circles, in personal human situations, in pianissimo, that something is pulsating that corresponds to the prophetic pneuma, which in former times swept through the great communities like a firebrand, welding them together. If we attempt to force and to ‘invent’ a monumental style in art, such miserable monstrosities are produced as the many monuments of the last twenty years. If one tries intellectually to construe new religions without a new and genuine prophecy, then, in an inner sense, something similar will result, but with still worse effects. And academic prophecy, finally, will create only fanatical sects but never a genuine community.

To the person who cannot bear the fate of the times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his ‘intellectual sacrifice’—that is inevitable. If he can really do it, we shall not rebuke him. For such an intellectual sacrifice in favor of an unconditional religious devotion is ethically quite a different matter than the evasion of the plain duty of intellectual integrity, which sets in if one lacks the courage to clarify one’s own ultimate standpoint and rather facilitates this duty by feeble relative judgments. In my eyes, such religious return stands higher than the academic prophecy, which does not clearly realize that in the lecture-rooms of the university no other virtue holds but plain intellectual integrity. Integrity, however, compels us to state that for the many who today tarry for new prophets and saviors, the situation is the same as resounds in the beautiful Edomite watchman’s song of the period of exile that has been included among Isaiah’s oracles:

He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.

The people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate. From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone, and we shall act differently. We shall set to work and meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation. This, however, is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.

{ 24 comments }

1

LFC 04.21.14 at 7:14 pm

Out of curiosity I just checked my old copy of Gerth & Mills, eds., From Max Weber, and the quote in the post is from the end of ‘Science as a Vocation’, not ‘Politics as a Vocation’.

2

Henry 04.21.14 at 8:03 pm

Thanks – fixed. The two essays are linked in PDF form from the post.

3

james 04.21.14 at 9:36 pm

There was a very good in our time podcast on weber a couple of weeks ago just Google radio 4 in our time I’m not adept enough to link from my new handset

4

Mike Otsuka 04.22.14 at 4:50 am

These paragraphs have stuck with me since I first encountered them as an undergraduate. Most of us are more familiar with Marx than Weber, and Karl Löwith’s Max Weber and Karl Marx struck me, when I read it years ago, as an illuminating interpretation of each of their views in comparison with the other’s. Another classic essay on Weber I recall liking is Sheldon Wolin’s “Max Weber: Legitimation, Method, and the Politics of Theory” in Political Theory.

(It’s too bad that there’s no gender-neutral perfect synonym for “seminal”.)

5

hix 04.22.14 at 7:00 am

If you like a challenge, try the original German one. His writing style is brilliant, fun to read and uterly unecessary complicated. Wundering if Karl May or Weber would win the competition for the longest sentences.

6

Val 04.22.14 at 7:40 am

Ha! My supervisor insisted I read Weber some time ago as I had never done so, and the most interesting thing about him to me ( as sometimes happens with the authorities my supervisor recommends) is how much he is a Great White Man.

I think it’s in Politics as a Vocation (I don’t have access to anything much at present) that he wrote that the origin of the state is competition between men over cattle, land, slaves and women.

(Happy to come back in a week or so when I get home with quotes, etc)

He is a prime example of patriarchal thinking. Indeed he believed in patriarchy explicitly as I understand it – he thought it offered stability. His wife Marianne was not so sure though he may have convinced her.

His work is illuminating in this respect. I am trying to write an article on this but not making much progress so far,

7

js. 04.22.14 at 6:11 pm

I’m moderately embarrassed to admit that I know almost nothing about Weber (read “The Protestant Ethic” a couple of times, didn’t like it — really didn’t like it — or maybe didn’t get it). But “Science as a Vocation” is amazing! Thanks!

8

CarlD 04.22.14 at 7:14 pm

Thanks for this. I’ve often taken vocational comfort in this little gem, also from SaaV:

Consider the historical and cultural sciences. They te
ach us how to understand and
interpret political, artistic,
literary, and social phenomena in terms of their origins.
But they give us no answer to the question, whether
the existence of these cultural phenomena have been and
are worth while. And they do not answer the further
question, whether it is worth the effort required to kno
w them. They presuppose that there is an interest in
partaking, through this procedure, of the community of
‘civilized men.’ But they cannot prove ‘scientifically’
that this is the case; and that they presuppose this inte
rest by no means proves that it goes without saying. In
fact it is not at all self-evident.

HA!

9

Henry 04.22.14 at 7:36 pm

Val – yep, there are lots of problems with Weber – The Feminist Max Weber would likely be a very short book. His writings on “East Prussia” too. That said, I think your supervisor is right – he’s very much worth reading.

10

Corey Robin 04.22.14 at 7:42 pm

Mike Otsuka: That Wolin essay on Weber is indeed wonderful. I highly recommend it to everyone.

11

LFC 04.22.14 at 8:31 pm

Rather than writing a long comment (which I could, but it would be boring and solipsistic), I’ll just mention the (oft-quoted) ‘ideas-as-switchmen’ sentence in “The Social Psychology of the World Religions” (the title of the piece as translated in Gerth & Mills). I’m sure a search engine will produce the passage quickly for anyone interested.

12

AJtron the Invincible 04.23.14 at 6:09 am

The last four paragraphs you have extracted sound a bit puzzling, but the puzzle quickly resolves itself as you read the essay in its entirety. It is an interesting sort of unravelling of the mystery.

Three comments:
* Weber is good in the first 4 pages.
* Very weak in the last 3 pages.
* Very poor in his analysis of theology versus science and, in fact, gets some of it wrong.

13

LFC 04.23.14 at 2:52 pm

js.@7
I’m moderately embarrassed to admit that I know almost nothing about Weber (read “The Protestant Ethic” a couple of times, didn’t like it — really didn’t like it — or maybe didn’t get it).

Speaking of things one might be embarrassed to admit, I don’t think I knew until five minutes ago that “elective affinities” was taken by Weber from Goethe’s novel of the name. (Btw, the linked Wikipedia entry, below, contains a couple of refs to relevant articles in sociological journals, one from 1978, the other from 2010.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elective_Affinities

14

AJtron the Invincible 04.24.14 at 5:45 pm

> I’m moderately embarrassed to admit that I know almost nothing about
> Weber (read “The Protestant Ethic” a couple of times, didn’t like it — really
> didn’t like it — or maybe didn’t get it).
It is useful to think of it as a work for its time. As Europe moved from a primarily agricultural society to an industrial one, the Protestant Ethic seemed, to Weber, the reason why Western Europe “ticked” while Asia didn’t. Now, it is clear that it hadn’t nothing to do with the Protestant Ethic and everything to do with the design of a good society. Just my take on Weber.

And while we are on the topics of Weber, patrimonialism, dystopian societies and modernity, you would be pleased to know that my handle on Crooked Timber (AJtron the Invincible) is exactly the same as my handle on Clash of Clans. (Troops, your chief will be back soon! :))

15

LFC 04.25.14 at 1:09 am

What stuck with me from The Protestant Ethic is the well-known argument that Calvinism saw wealth as an outward sign of ‘election’ and hence sanctified, so to speak, money-making, a previously often denigrated activity. But ‘the disenchantment of the world’ then stripped money-making of its religious aura or sanction. The decline of the PE also seeded, for those who accepted the argument, what D. Bell referred to decades ago as the cultural contradictions of capitalism, a notion btw taken up, as C. Robin has pointed out, by some disgruntled neocons in the 1990s.

I don’t really know the secondary literature on The Protestant Ethic, so I don’t know whether anyone still accepts the thesis or not. But it’s the kind of argument that could conceivably have been extended to Asia — via some other religious tradition, if indeed an analogue to Calvinism in that respect existed (which it might have[?]). He no doubt says something about this, but I forget what.

On another pt, no one has mentioned the famous ‘objectivity’ essay, considered by one person I know as among the most important of W’s contributions, though to say it’s not esp. easy reading might be an understatement. But clearly what Weber wrote about methodology and verstehen and all that is seen as important, apart from his ‘substantive’ work.

For someone who once exercised, and in some ways continues to exercise, a big influence on significant chunks of Western (esp. perhaps American) social science, esp. sociology, not to mention social and political theory, to attract so relatively few comments on a thread here is a bit surprising, at least to me.

16

Ronan(rf) 04.25.14 at 1:35 am

afaik Confucianism has been used to explain Chinese growth (in part – but then it was also used to explain Chinese lack of economic development in previous decades)

17

Ronan(rf) 04.25.14 at 1:37 am

Needless to say I dont know anything Confucianism (but Ill say it anyway)

18

LFC 04.25.14 at 2:05 am

@Ronan
yeah, I was sort of thinking Confucianism — now that you’ve said it, I can say it ;) — but like you I don’t know too much about Confucianism.

(Notwithstanding that as a college freshman almost 40 years ago I took a lecture survey course on China (with J.K. Fairbank and B. Schwartz); if I had to write an essay on Confucianism right now, I doubt I could pass to save my life; whatever I wrote would be mostly gibberish.)

19

LFC 04.25.14 at 2:14 am

too many semi-colons. time to turn off computer.

20

js. 04.25.14 at 5:46 am

What stuck with me from The Protestant Ethic is the well-known argument that Calvinism saw wealth as an outward sign of ‘election’ and hence sanctified, so to speak, money-making, a previously often denigrated activity. But ‘the disenchantment of the world’ then stripped money-making of its religious aura or sanction.

And this is certainly an interesting argument — one well worth thinking about. It’s the fact that he seemed to link this to a story about the origins of capitalism that I really couldn’t get past. It’s the Marxist in me of course, but that one could tell what sounds like a story about the origins of capitalism without really any mention of expropriation, enclosure, the creation of the landless proletariat really — even granting that the latter isn’t the whole story — was just incomprehensible to me. I do of course realize that I’m outlining my intellectual limitations rather than Weber’s.

21

js. 04.25.14 at 5:59 am

Look, it was a while back. Maybe I should reread it.

22

LFC 04.25.14 at 3:22 pm

@js.
that one could tell what sounds like a story about the origins of capitalism without really any mention of expropriation, enclosure, the creation of the landless proletariat really … was just incomprehensible to me.

Fair enough, I guess, and my reading of PE was a long while back also. I don’t want to get into a discussion of the origins of capitalism rt now, but if I were going to read (which, frankly, I’m probably not) something recent that at least sounds relevant, it might be Philip Gorski, The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe (2003) (mentioned here before by Dan Nexon, who cites it in his The Struggle for Power in Early Modern Europe (2009)). Of course, “the rise of the state” and “the rise of capitalism” are not the same, but at least on some tellings they are fairly closely connected. Older but possibly interesting: Randall Collins, Weberian Sociological Theory (1986) (on Weber and capitalism, chs. 2 and 3).

23

LFC 04.25.14 at 4:26 pm

Collins’ (see comment above) ch.2, “Weber’s Last Theory of Capitalism,” says PE is “only a fragment of Weber’s full theory” of capitalism (p.19) and “in the mature Weber, the [PE] thesis is greatly transformed. Protestantism is only the last intensification of one of the chains of factors leading to … capitalism” (p.33).

24

js. 04.25.14 at 8:52 pm

Thanks for the references, LFC.

Comments on this entry are closed.