The German social scientist Max Weber (1864-1920) was a founder of modern sociological thought. His historical and comparative studies of the great civilizations are a landmark in the history of sociology.
The work of Max Weber reflects a continued interest in charting the varying paths taken by universal cultural history as reflected in the development of the great world civilizations. In this sense, he wished to attempt a historical and analytical study of the themes sounded so strongly in G. W. F. Hegel's philosophy of history, especially the theme, which Weber took as his own, of the "specific and peculiar rationalism of Western culture." Along with this emphasis on universal cultural history, Weber's detailed training as a legal and economic historian led him to reject the overly simplistic formulas of economic base and corresponding cultural superstructure that were so often used to account for cultural development and were a strong part of the intellectual environment of Weber's early years as student and professor. His historical and comparative
erudition and analytical awareness required that he go beyond both the Hegelian and Marxian versions of historical development toward a deep historical and comparative study of sociocultural processes in West and East.
Weber was born on April 21, 1864, in Erfaut, Thuringia, the son of a lawyer active in political life. An attack of meningitis at the age of 4 and his mother's consequent overprotectiveness helped contribute to Weber's sedentary yet intellectually precocious youth. He read widely in the classics and was bored with the unchallenging secondary education of his time, which he completed in 1882. He then attended Heidelberg University, where he studied law, along with history, economics, and philosophy.
After three terms at Heidelberg, Weber served a year in the military, which he found to be largely an "incredible waste of time" with its continued attempts to regiment the human intellect. Resuming his studies at the universities of Berlin and Göttingen in 1884, he passed his bar examination in 1886 and would later practice law for a time. He completed his doctoral thesis in 1889 with an essay on the history of the medieval trading companies, which embodied his interests in both legal and economic history. His second major work, a customary "habilitation" thesis that would qualify him to teach at the university level, appeared in 1891 and involved a study of the economic, cultural, and legal foundations of ancient agrarian history.
In 1893 Weber married Marianne Schnitger. The following year he received an appointment as professor of economics at Freiburg University; in 1896 he accepted a
professorship at Heidelberg. Shortly after his father's death in 1897, Weber began to suffer from a psychic disturbance that incapacitated him almost completely until 1902. By the next year he was well enough to join Werner Sombart in editing the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft and Sozialpolitik (Archives for Social Science and Social Policy), the most prominent German social science journal of the period.
Protestantism and Capitalism
Having assumed his full work load again, Weber began to write perhaps his most renowned essays, published in the Archivin 1904-1905 under the title The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In them he attempted to link the rise of a new sort of distinctly modern capitalism to the religious ethics of Protestantism, especially the Calvinist variety, with its emphasis on work in a calling directed toward the rational ascetic mastery of this world.
Weber argued that, when the asceticism of the medieval Catholic monastery, oriented toward salvation in a world beyond this one through self-denial exercised by a religious few, was brought into the conduct of everyday affairs, it contributed greatly to the systematic rationalization and functional organization of every sphere of existence, especially economic life. He viewed the Reformation as a crucial period in western European history, one that was to see a fundamental reorientation of basic cultural frameworks of spiritual direction and human outlook and destined to have a great impact on economic life as well as other aspects of modern culture. Within the context of his larger questions, Weber tended to view Protestant rationalism as one further step in the series of stages of increasing rationalization of every area of modern society.
In 1904 Weber was invited to attend the St. Louis Exhibition in Missouri and to deliver a popular sociological lecture. While in America, he had substantial opportunity to encounter what he saw as added evidence for his special thesis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, as well as for his more general philosophic and historical concerns. In the United States the religious foundations of modern economic life had seen perhaps their greatest fruition in the enormous "towers of capital, " as Weber called them, of the eastern industrial centers of the country. However, he also recognized that the contemporary American economic life had been stripped of its original ethical and religious impulse. Intense economic competition assumed the character almost of sport, and no obvious possibilities appeared for the resuscitation of new spiritual values from what appeared to be the extensive mechanization of social and economic existence.
Employing a method that isolated the similarities and differences between features of sociocultural development in different societies, Weber attempted to weigh the relative importance of economic, religious, juridical, and other factors in contributing to the different historical outcomes seen in any comparative study of world societies. This larger theme formed one of his central intellectual interests throughout the remainder of his life, and it resulted in the publication of The Religion of China (1915), The Religion of India (1916-1917), and Ancient Judaism (1917-1919). Although
he also planned comparable works on early Christianity, medieval Catholicism, and Islamic civilization, he died before they could be completed.
After the essays of 1904-1905, Weber took on an even heavier burden of activities than before his illness. His break with the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Union for Social Policy), a long-standing German political and social scientific organization, over the question of the relation of social scientific research to social policy led to the establishment in 1910, with the collaboration of other great social scientists of his day, of the new Deutsche Soziologische Gesellschaft (German Sociological Society).
Weber and his collaborators argued that social science could not be simply subordinated to political values and policies. Rather, there was a logical distinction between the realms of fact and value, one which required a firmly grounded distinction between the analyses of the social scientist and the policies of any political order. Social science must develop "objective" frames of reference, ones "neutral" to any particular political policies and ethical values. This ever-renewed tension between particular ethical stances and "objectivity" in the sciences remained a central part of Weber's concerns in his political activities during and after World War I as well as in his academic writings and lectures.
Economy and Society
In 1909 Weber took over the editorship of a projected multivolume encyclopedic work on the social sciences entitled Outline of Social Economics. It was to contain volumes authored by prominent social scientists of the time. Although he was originally to contribute the volume Economy and Society to this effort, difficulties in obtaining completed manuscripts from some participants led Weber to expand his contribution into what became a prodigious attempt at the construction of a systematic sociology in world historical and comparative depth, one which was to occupy a large portion of his time and energies during the remainder of his life. He published his first contributions in 1911-1913, other still unfinished sections being published after his death.
Economy and Society differed in tone and emphasis from Weber's comparative studies of the cultural foundations of Chinese, Indian, and Western civilizations. This massive work was an attempt at a more systematic sociology, not directed toward any single comparative, historical problem but rather toward an organization of the major areas of sociological inquiry into a single whole. Weber never believed it possible to write a truly systematic sociology that would have separate analytical sections on each area of interest and that would form a general system of theory. Containing large sections on sociological analysis, the economy and social norms, economy and law, domination, and legitimacy, and still unsurpassed sections on religion, the city, and political rulership, Economy and Society remains today perhaps the only systematic sociology in world historical and comparative depth.
Despite time spent in the medical service during World War I, Weber's efforts were largely devoted from 1910 to 1919 to the completion of his studies on China, India, and ancient Judaism and to his work on Economy and Society. Many younger as well as more established scholars formed part of Weber's wide intellectual circle during these years. Always desirous of championing the cause of scholars whose work was judged unfairly because of religious, political, or other external criteria, Weber on numerous occasions attempted to aid these young scholars—despite sometimes substantial intellectual differences with them— by securing for them the academic appointments they deserved. Often these attempts were unsuccessful and led Weber into bitter conflicts with many established scholars and political figures over the relation of science to values and the application of extrascientific criteria to the evaluation of a writer's work.
In 1918 Weber resumed his teaching duties. One result was a series of lectures in 1919-1920, "Universal Economic History, " which was published posthumously from students' notes as General Economic History. Along with this lecture series, Weber delivered two addresses in 1918, "Science as a Vocation" and "Politics as a Vocation, " in which he voiced ethical themes that had occupied him in his scholarly work and in his numerous discussions of social policy. In these two addresses he contrasted the ethic of unalterable ultimate ends so characteristic of uncompromising religious and political prophets with the ethic of consequences so necessary in political life, in which possible outcomes of actions and policies are agonizingly weighed and the least undesirable course determined in light of a plurality of given goals. Variants of this distinction pervaded much of Weber's own view of political and religious life and formed a central aspect of his ethical philosophy.
Thus, Weber sounded ethical themes that have become a central part of the "existentialist" philosophical orientation of our time. Understanding the dilemma of modern men caught between the older religious systems of the past and the cynical power politics of the present, he gave no simple solutions and was willing neither to wait for new prophets nor to abdicate all ethical responsibility for the conduct of life because of its seeming ultimate "meaninglessness."
Weber died in Munich on June 14, 1920. His work forms a major part of the historical foundation of sociology.
Further Reading on Max Weber
Biographical background on Weber as well as an analysis of his major intellectual orientation can be found in the "Introduction" to From Max Weber:Essays in Sociology, edited by Hans H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (1946). An interpretation of Weber's life and work, emphasizing analytical motifs derived from Freudianism and the sociology of knowledge, is provided by Arthur Mitzman, The Iron Cage: An Historical Interpretation of Max Weber (1970).
There are a number of readily accessible general treatments of Weber's sociology. Volume 2 of Raymond Aron, Main Currents of Sociological Thought (2 vols., 1965-1967), contains an excellent treatment of Weber, recommended for beginning
students. Julien Freund, The Sociology of Max Weber (1966; trans. 1968), is overly systematic, yet chapters 1 and 2 are helpful as an introduction to Weber's vision of society and his method. Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (1960), gives a depth analysis of Weber's historical works but is recommended for more advanced study. Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action (1937; 2d ed. 1949), gives a penetrating and difficult treatment of some elements of Weber's theoretical perspective.
In addition to Mitzman's study, helpful insights into the social, political, and intellectual background of the period are in Koppel S. Pinson, Modern Germany: Its History and Civilization (1954; 2d ed. 1966), and Walter M. Simon, Germany: A Brief History (1966).