Max Weber

Max Weber
Max Weber 1894.jpg
Weber in 1894
Maximilian Karl Emil Weber

(1864-04-21)21 April 1864
Died14 June 1920(1920-06-14) (aged 56)
NationalityPrussia (1864–1871)
German Empire (1871–1918)
Weimar Republic (1918–1920)
Alma materUniversity of Berlin
University of Heidelberg
Known for
Scientific career
  • Economics
  • sociology
  • history
  • law
  • politics
  • philosophy
Doctoral advisorLevin Goldschmidt

Maximilian Karl Emil Weber (ər/;[5] German: [ˈveːbɐ]; 21 April 1864 – 14 June 1920) was a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist, and political economist. His ideas profoundly influenced social theory and social research.[6] Weber is often cited, with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx, as among the three founders of sociology.[7][8][9][10][11] Weber was a key proponent of methodological anti-positivism, arguing for the study of social action through interpretive (rather than purely empiricist) means, based on understanding the purpose and meaning that individuals attach to their own actions. Unlike Durkheim, he did not believe in mono-causality and rather proposed that for any outcome there can be multiple causes.[12]

Weber's main intellectual concern was understanding the processes of rationalisation, secularisation, and "disenchantment" that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity.[13] He saw these as the result of a new way of thinking about the world.[14] Weber is best known for his thesis combining economic sociology and the sociology of religion, elaborated in his book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he proposed that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major "elective affinities" associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state. He argued that it was in the basic tenets of Protestantism to boost capitalism. Thus, it can be said that the spirit of capitalism is inherent to Protestant religious values.

Against Marx's historical materialism, Weber emphasised the importance of cultural influences embedded in religion as a means for understanding the genesis of capitalism.[15] The Protestant Ethic formed the earliest part in Weber's broader investigations into world religion; he went on to examine the religions of China, the religions of India and ancient Judaism, with particular regard to their differing economic consequences and conditions of social stratification.[a] In another major work, "Politics as a Vocation", Weber defined the state as an entity that successfully claims a "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory". He was also the first to categorise social authority into distinct forms, which he labelled as charismatic, traditional, and rational-legal. His analysis of bureaucracy emphasised that modern state institutions are increasingly based on rational-legal authority.

Weber also made a variety of other contributions in economic history, as well as economic theory and methodology. Weber's analysis of modernity and rationalisation significantly influenced the critical theory associated with the Frankfurt School. After the First World War, Max Weber was among the founders of the liberal German Democratic Party. He also ran unsuccessfully for a seat in parliament and served as advisor to the committee that drafted the ill-fated democratic Weimar Constitution of 1919. After contracting Spanish flu, he died of pneumonia in 1920, aged 56.[7]


Early life and family background

Karl Emil Maximilian Weber was born in 1864, in Erfurt, Province of Saxony, Prussia.[7] He was the oldest of the seven children of Max Weber Sr., a wealthy and prominent civil servant and member of the National Liberal Party, and his wife Helene (Fallenstein), who partly descended from French Huguenot immigrants and held strong moral absolutist ideas.[7]

Weber Sr.'s involvement in public life immersed his home in both politics and academia, as his salon welcomed many prominent scholars and public figures.[7] The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Weber's 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled "About the course of German history, with special reference to the positions of the Emperor and the Pope", and "About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations".[16] In class, bored and unimpressed with the teachers—who in turn resented what they perceived as a disrespectful attitude—he secretly read all forty volumes of Goethe,[17][18] and it has been recently argued that this was an important influence on his thought and methodology.[19] Before entering the university, he would read many other classical works.[18] Over time, Weber would also be significantly affected by the marital tension between his father, "a man who enjoyed earthly pleasures", and his mother, a devout Calvinist "who sought to lead an ascetic life".[20][21]

Max Weber and his brothers, Alfred and Karl, in 1879


In 1882 Weber enrolled in the University of Heidelberg as a law student.[22] After a year of military service, he transferred to the University of Berlin.[17] After his first few years as a student, during which he spent much time "drinking beer and fencing", Weber would increasingly take his mother's side in family arguments and grew estranged from his father.[20][21][23] Simultaneously with his studies, he worked as a junior lawyer.[17] In 1886 Weber passed the examination for Referendar, comparable to the bar association examination in the British and American legal systems. Throughout the late 1880s, Weber continued his study of law and history.[17] He earned his law doctorate in 1889 by writing a dissertation on legal history titled The history of commercial partnerships in the Middle Ages. This work was used as part of a longer work On the History of Trading Companies in the Middle Ages, based on South-European Sources, published in the same year.[24] Two years later, Weber completed his Habilitationsschrift, Roman Agrarian History and its Significance for Public and Private Law, working with August Meitzen.[25][26] Having thus become a Privatdozent, Weber joined the University of Berlin's faculty, lecturing and consulting for the government.[27]

Early work

In the years between the completion of his dissertation and habilitation, Weber took an interest in contemporary social policy. In 1888 he joined the Verein für Socialpolitik,[28] a new professional association of German economists affiliated with the historical school, who saw the role of economics primarily as finding solutions to the social problems of the age and who pioneered large scale statistical studies of economic issues. He also involved himself in politics, joining the left-leaning Evangelical Social Congress.[29] In 1890 the Verein established a research program to examine "the Polish question" or Ostflucht: the influx of Polish farm workers into eastern Germany as local labourers migrated to Germany's rapidly industrialising cities.[7] Weber was put in charge of the study and wrote a large part of the final report,[7][28] which generated considerable attention and controversy and marked the beginning of Weber's renown as a social scientist.[7] From 1893 to 1899 Weber was a member of the Alldeutscher Verband (Pan-German League), an organization that campaigned against the influx of the Polish workers; the degree of Weber's support for the Germanisation of Poles and similar nationalist policies is still debated by modern scholars.[30][31] In some of his work, in particular his provocative lecture on "The Nation State and Economic Policy" delivered in 1895, Weber criticises the immigration of Poles and blames the Junker class for perpetuating Slavic immigration to serve their selfish interests.[32]

Max Weber and his wife Marianne in 1894

Also in 1893 he married his distant cousin Marianne Schnitger, later a feminist activist and author in her own right,[7][33] who was instrumental in collecting and publishing Weber's journal articles as books after his death, while her biography of him is an important source for understanding Weber's life.[34][35] They would have no children.[23] The marriage granted long-awaited financial independence to Weber, allowing him to finally leave his parents' household.[21] The couple moved to Freiburg in 1894, where Weber was appointed professor of economics at the university,[26][27] before accepting the same position at the University of Heidelberg in 1896.[26][27] There Weber became a central figure in the so-called "Weber Circle", composed of other intellectuals such as his wife Marianne, Georg Jellinek, Ernst Troeltsch, Werner Sombart and Robert Michels.[7] Weber also remained active in the Verein and the Evangelical Social Congress.[7] His research in that period was focused on economics and legal history.[36]

In 1897 Max Weber Sr. died two months after a severe quarrel with his son that was never resolved.[7][37] After this, Weber became increasingly prone to depression, nervousness and insomnia, making it difficult for him to fulfill his duties as a professor.[17][26] His condition forced him to reduce his teaching and eventually leave his course unfinished in the autumn of 1899. After spending months in a sanatorium during the summer and autumn of 1900, Weber and his wife travelled to Italy at the end of the year and did not return to Heidelberg until April 1902. He would again withdraw from teaching in 1903 and not return to it till 1919. Weber's ordeal with mental illness was carefully described in a personal chronology that was destroyed by his wife. This chronicle was supposedly destroyed because Marianne Weber feared that Max Weber's work would be discredited by the Nazis if his experience with mental illness were widely known.[7][38]

Later work

After Weber's immense productivity in the early 1890s, he did not publish any papers between early 1898 and late 1902, finally resigning his professorship in late 1903. Freed from those obligations, in that year he accepted a position as associate editor of the Archives for Social Science and Social Welfare,[39] where he worked with his colleagues Edgar Jaffé [de] and Werner Sombart.[7][40] His new interests would lie in more fundamental issues of social sciences; his works from this latter period are of primary interest to modern scholars.[36] In 1904, Weber began to publish some of his most seminal papers in this journal, notably his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which became his most famous work[41] and laid the foundations for his later research on the impact of cultures and religions on the development of economic systems.[42] This essay was the only one of his works from that period that was published as a book during his lifetime. Some other of his works written in the first one and a half decades of the 20th century—published posthumously and dedicated primarily from the fields of sociology of religion, economic and legal sociology—are also recognised as among his most important intellectual contributions.[7]

Also in 1904, he visited the United States and participated in the Congress of Arts and Sciences held in connection with the World's Fair (Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in St. Louis. A monument to his visit was placed at the home of relatives whom Weber visited in Mt. Airy, North Carolina.[43]

Despite his partial recovery evident in America, Weber felt that he was unable to resume regular teaching at that time and continued on as a private scholar, helped by an inheritance in 1907.[27][39] In 1909, disappointed with the Verein, he co-founded the German Sociological Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie, or DGS) and served as its first treasurer.[7] He would, however, resign from the DGS in 1912.[7] In 1912, Weber tried to organise a left-wing political party to combine social-democrats and liberals. This attempt was unsuccessful, in part because many liberals feared social-democratic revolutionary ideals.[44]

Political involvements

Max Weber (foreground) in 1917 with Ernst Toller (facing)

At the outbreak of World War I, Weber, aged 50, volunteered for service and was appointed as a reserve officer and put in charge of organizing the army hospitals in Heidelberg, a role he fulfilled until the end of 1915.[39][45] Weber's views on the war and the expansion of the German empire changed during the course of the conflict.[44][45][46] Early on he supported the nationalist rhetoric and the war effort, though with some hesitation as he viewed the war as a necessity to fulfill German duty as a leading state power. In time, however, Weber became one of the most prominent critics of German expansionism and of the Kaiser's war policies.[7] He publicly attacked the Belgian annexation policy and unrestricted submarine warfare and later supported calls for constitutional reform, democratisation and universal suffrage.[7]

Weber joined the worker and soldier council of Heidelberg in 1918. He then served in the German delegation to the Paris Peace Conference and as advisor to the Confidential Committee for Constitutional Reform, which drafted the Weimar Constitution.[39] Motivated by his understanding of the American model, he advocated a strong, popularly elected presidency as a constitutional counterbalance to the power of the professional bureaucracy.[7] More controversially, he also defended the provisions for emergency presidential powers that became Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution. These provisions were later used by Adolf Hitler to subvert the rest of the constitution and institute rule by decree, allowing his regime to suppress opposition and gain dictatorial powers.[47]

Weber also ran, unsuccessfully, for a parliamentary seat, as a member of the liberal German Democratic Party, which he had co-founded.[7][48] He opposed both the leftist German Revolution of 1918–1919 and the ratification of the Treaty of Versailles, principled positions that defied the political alignments in Germany at that time,[7] and which may have prevented Friedrich Ebert, the new social-democratic President of Germany, from appointing Weber as minister or ambassador.[45] Weber commanded widespread respect but relatively little influence.[7] Weber's role in German politics remains controversial to this day.

In Weber's critique of the left, he complained of the leaders of the leftist Spartacus League—which was led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg and controlled the city government of Berlin while Weber was campaigning for his party—"We have this [German] revolution to thank for the fact that we cannot send a single division against the Poles. All we see is dirt, muck, dung, and horse-play—nothing else. Liebknecht belongs in the madhouse and Rosa Luxemburg in the zoological gardens." [49] Weber was at the same time critical of the Versailles Treaty, which he believed unjustly assigned "war guilt" to Germany when it came to World War I. Weber believed that many countries were guilty of starting World War I, not just Germany. In making this case, Weber argued that "In the case of this war there is one, and only one power that desired it under all circumstances through its own will and, according to their political goals required: Russia. ... It never crossed [my] mind that a German invasion of Belgium [in 1914] was nothing but an innocent act on the part of the Germans."[50]

Later that same month, in January 1919, after Weber and Weber's party were defeated for election, Weber delivered one of his greatest academic lectures, Politics as a Vocation, which reflected on the inherent violence and dishonesty he saw among politicians—a profession in which only recently Weber was so personally active. About the nature of politicians, he concluded that, "In nine out of ten cases they are windbags puffed up with hot air about themselves. They are not in touch with reality, and they do not feel the burden they need to shoulder; they just intoxicate themselves with romantic sensations."[51]

Last years

Weber's grave in Heidelberg

Frustrated with politics, Weber resumed teaching during this time, first at the University of Vienna, then, after 1919, at the University of Munich.[7][27][39] His lectures from that period were collected into major works, such as the General Economic History, Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation.[7] In Munich, he headed the first German university institute of sociology, but never held a professorial position in sociology. Many colleagues and students in Munich attacked his response to the German Revolution and some right-wing students held protests in front of his home.[44] Max Weber contracted the Spanish flu and died of pneumonia in Munich on 14 June 1920.[7] At the time of his death, Weber had not finished writing his magnum opus on sociological theory: Economy and Society. His widow Marianne helped prepare it for its publication in 1921–22.

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