Max Weber is remembered as a founding father of sociology, as a major contributor to our sense of what distinguishes modern societies from earlier human cultures, and as a political theorist whose analysis of bureaucracies in particular remains fundamental to discussion of the functioning of modern states. But it is unlikely that he was thought of in his own lifetime as an exemplary stylist. What distinguished him from his contemporaries as a writer on human affairs was precisely his insistence that the rhetoric of persuasion should not be allowed to interfere with a clear sense of investigative method; for that reason he acquired a reputation for stylistic asceticism. His keen sense of methodology was related in turn to the interdisciplinary nature of sociological inquiry in his day, as well as to his awareness of the provisional nature of the assumptions on which the inquiries of the human sciences are inescapably based. It is this combination of features—the sense that Weber was working in the interstices between formal disciplines and his self-consciousness about proceeding on provisional terms—that makes it appropriate to regard him in retrospect as an important contributor to the genre of the essay. Indeed it was as “collected essays” on social and economic history, on the sociology of religion, and on the methodology of the humanities, that his best-known works have come down to us.
Weber studied law and economics, and did his early research on medieval business organizations and on the agrarian economy of ancient Rome. He was also active in liberal politics at various times of his life, and his mature writings present the reader with an oftnoted paradox: he was a man of action who nevertheless insisted that political value judgments should be excluded from academic writing, and he was an assiduous scholar who nevertheless expressed firmly-held convictions in his works. The origins of the paradox can again be found in the circumstances of his time. The methodological essays which Weber began to publish when he became one of the principal editors of the journal Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (Archive for social science and social policy) in 1903 show him to be fighting a battle on two fronts. On the one hand he was opposing those who believed it was possible for scholarship to be conducted from a position of “ethical neutrality” (which they tended to equate with their own world view); on the other hand he was opposing those who believed that it was possible for each academic subject to determine its own set of normative values from within its subject area. When he formulated his famous proposition that academic inquiry should be “value-free,” it was in order to draw a clear distinction between the specific tasks of investigation which an academic discipline can perform and the necessarily diverse perspectives which individual members of society, with their various cultural backgrounds and personal motives, bring to the evaluation of the results of empirical research.
For Weber it was axiomatic that there could be no absolute “objectivity” in the study of human societies because the nature of the analysis involved was dependent upon the material selected for investigation and on the perceptions of the investigator. The discipline of sociology, he argued, needed to proceed by a method of self-critique which moved from the initial construction of analytical concepts, through the expansion of horizons by empirical research, to the refinement and reformulation of theoretical premises. The form of explanation for human behavior that the sociologist was seeking to arrive at was concerned not only with a sense of the determining forces at work in the society in question, but much more with the effort to understand empathically the meaning that human beings attached to their actions in the historical circumstances of that society.
Weber’s most famous work, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (1904, revised 1920–21; The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism), has been subject to some misunderstanding in the Anglo-Saxon world, either because it is too readily assumed that Weber is working within a German idealist tradition and looking to explain material phenomena in terms of the agency of a spirit, or because he is interpreted (e.g. by translator Talcott Parsons) as conceiving of an attitude of Protestant asceticism as a necessary precondition for “modernization” processes in general. In reality Weber was seeking to describe the distinctive ethical principles by which leading capitalist figures of the post-Reformation period organized their lives and their trading opportunities, and the role these principles had played in shaping “the cosmos of the modern economic order” as it had established itself in Western Europe and North America. (In the original 1904 version of the text, incidentally, Weber’s scrupulousness on this point led him to put inverted commas around the word “spirit” in his title.) At the same time it is clear that what motivated his investigation of this theme was a strong personal sense that the moral demands of what a previous age had conceived as a “calling” had subsequently become manifest in the technical and economic conditions of an industrial age, and in doing so had imposed social constraints on the lives of those who came after.
By the standards of later scholarship, the range and scope of Weber’s projects no doubt appear exceedingly ambitious (the process of increasing specialization which he described as an irreversible feature of modern knowledge has continued relentlessly since his day). But his essays retain the vigor of a pioneering interdisciplinary inquiry conducted with a keen sense of methodological rigor. As he extended his inquiries into the social dimensions of the world’s major religions, he used his findings in one area to illuminate and qualify his view of another. Whether he was describing the emergence of the conditions of “modernity” for the European society of his own day, the economic organization of Mediterranean societies in antiquity, or the implications of oriental religions for social behavior and the economic role of individuals, Weber was using the flexibility of the essay form to express his differentiated sense of how the interaction between mentality and practice affected the specific circumstances of historical developments.
Born 21 April 1864 in Erfurt, Thuringia. Studied at the Universities of Heidelberg, 1882– 83, Strasbourg, 1883–84, Berlin, 1884–85 and 1886–89, Ph.D., 1889, and Göttingen, 1885–86; called to the bar in Berlin. University lecturer in law, University of Berlin, 1892–94. Married Marianne Schnitger, 1893. Professor of economics, University of Freiburg, 1894–96, University of Heidelberg, 1896–1903, and University of Munich, 1919–20. Suffered a nervous breakdown, 1898, and unable to work until 1902. Coeditor, Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, from 1903; editor, Grundriss der Sozialökonomik (Outline of social economics), from 1907; cofounder, German Society for Sociology, 1910. Died (of pneumonia) in Munich, 14 June 1920.
Essays and Related Prose
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, 3 vols., 1920–21; parts as: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons, 1930; The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, edited and translated by Hans H. Gerth, 1951,
abridged version, as Confudanism and Taoism, translated by M.Alter and J.Hunter, 1984; The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, edited and translated by Gerth and Don Martindale, 1958; On Ancient Judaism, edited and translated by Gerth and Ned Polsky, 1949, and as Ancient Judaism, translated by Gerth and Martindale, 1952
Gesammelte politische Schriften, 1921; enlarged edition, edited by Johannes
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre, 1922; enlarged edition, edited by Johannes Winckelmann, 1951
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte, 1924; as The Agrarian Sociology of Ancient Civilizations, translated by R.I.Frank, 1976
Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik, 1924
Essays in Sociology, edited and translated by Hans H.Gerth and C. Wright Mills, 1946
Schriften zur theoretischen Soziologie, zur Soziologie der Politik und Verfassung, edited by Max Graf zu Solms, 1947
Aus den Schriften zur Religionssoziologie, edited by Max Graf zu Solms, 1948
The Methodology of the Social Sciences, edited and translated by Edward A.Shils and Henry A.Finch, 1949
Soziologie, weltgeschichtliche Analysen, Politik, edited by Johannes Winckelmann, 1955; revised, enlarged edition, 1960
Selections, edited by S.M.Miller, 1963
Staat; Gesellschaft; Wirtschaft, edited by Ludwig Heieck, 1966
Selections in Translation, edited by W.G.Runciman, translated by E.Matthews, 1978
Political Writings, edited by Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs, 1994
Other writings: works on sociology and economics (including Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society], 1922), and correspondence.
Collected works edition: Gesamtausgabe, edited by Horst Baier and others, 1984–(in progress; 33 vols. projected).
Murvar, Vatro, Max Weber Today—An Introduction to a Living Legacy: Selected Bibliography, Brookfield: University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Max Weber Colloquia and Symposia, 1983
Riesebrodt, Martin, in Prospekt der Max Weber-Gesamtausgabe, Tübingen: Mohr, 1981
Seyfarth, Constans, and Gert Schmidt, Max Weber Bibliographie: Eine Dokumentation der Sekundärliteratur, Stuttgart: Enke, 1977
Beetham, David, Max Weber and the Theory of Modern Politics, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1985 (original edition, 1974)
Butts, S., “Parsons’ Interpretation of Weber: A Methodological Analysis,” Sociological Analysis and Theory 7 (1977):227–41
Cohen, J., L.E.Hazelrigg, and W.Pope, “De-Parsonizing Weber: A Critique of Parsons’ Interpretation of Weber’s Sociology,” American Sociological Review 40 (1975):229– 40
Eldridge, J.E.T., “Introductory Essay: Max Weber—Some Comments, Problems and Continuities,” in The Interpretation of Social Reality by Weber, London: Michael Joseph, 1970; New York: Scribner, 1971
Green, Bryan S., Literary Methods and Sociological Theory: Case Studies of Simmel and Weber, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988
Hennis, Wolfgang, Max Weber: Essays in Reconstruction, London: Allen and Unwin, 1988
Kasler, Dirk, Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1988 (original German edition, 1979)
Kaye, H.L., “Rationalisation as Sublimation: On the Cultural Analyses of Weber and Freud,” Theory, Culture and Society 9, no. 4 (1992):45–74
Lepenies, Wolf, Between Literature and Science: The Rise of Sociology, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988 (original German edition, 1985)
Lichtblau, Klaus, and Johannes Weiss, Introduction to Die Protestantische Ethik und der “Geist” des Kapitalismus by Weber, Bodenheim: Athenäum/Hain/Hanstein, 1993
Mitzman, Arthur, The Iron Cage: A Historical Interpretation of Max Weber, New York: Knopf, 1970
Mommsen, Wolfgang J., Max Weber and German Politics, 1890–1920, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984; Cambridge: Polity Press, 1992 (original German edition, 1956)
Mommsen, Wolfgang J., The Political and Social Theory of Max Weber, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and Cambridge: Polity Press, 1989
Tribe, Keith, editor, Reading Weber, London and New York: Routledge, 1989
Turner, Bryan S., Max Weber: From History to Modernity, London and New York: Routledge, 1992
Wagner, Gerhard, and Heinz Zipprian, editors, Max Webers Wissenschaftslehre: Interpretation und Kritik, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1994
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