Weber, Alfred (1868–1958)

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The German sociologist and philosopher of history Alfred Weber, like his older brother Max, studied law and political economy in preparation for a legal career and later changed to sociology and university teaching. Alfred Weber's academic career began in 1899 at the University of Berlin and continued at the University of Prague (1904), where he came into contact with Tomáš Masaryk, then professor of sociology. From 1907 to 1933, Weber held a professorship at Heidelberg; in 1933 he resigned at the rise of the Hitler regime. It was due largely to him that the Heidelberg Institute of Social Sciences became one of the chief centers of sociopolitical research during the Weimar Republic, and under his direction it regained its renown after World War II.

Having established his reputation as an economic sociologist by the publication in 1909 of his work on the location of industry (Über den Standort der Industrien ), Weber turned to historical and cultural-sociological studies, culminating in his main work, Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie (1935). In this work he attempted to discover by sociological analysis the chief structural constituents of the historical process. These constituents he distinguished as the social process, the civilization process, and the culture process; although he distinguished between them, he emphasized their relatedness within the diverse constellations of a given historical continuum. By "social process" Weber understood the reoccurrence of certain societal sequences that, notwithstanding individual variations, reveal sufficient uniformity to provide the basis for a comparative study of different peoples. As an example of such a social process, Weber cited the succession from kinship organization to territorial groupings in diverse sociohistorical entities. The "civilization process" was for him essentially the growth of knowledge concerning the techniques of controlling natural and material forces. Weber regarded the discovery of these techniques as a continuous and cumulative progress permitting, by virtue of the transferability of such knowledge, an element of homogeneity amid the otherwise heterogeneous sociohistorical circumstances.

Weber's main attention was focused on the "culture process," which he did not regard as transferable. Culture can be understood only by recognizing the historical uniqueness of each case, since culture derives from the creative spontaneity of man, which in turn is the expression of an "immanent transcendence" that is not susceptible to the generalizing methods of science. There can therefore be no causal laws in the domain of culture. To assert their existence seemed to Weber no less mistaken than Herbert Spencer's "wrong-headed social evolutionism" (Farewell to European History, p. 49). Like Johann Gottfried Herder, for whom he had a profound admiration, Weber deplored what he called the Enlightenment's "dogmatic progressivism" as a "dangerous sort of optimism" (loc. cit.). The progressivist, evolutionary thesis stemmed, in Weber's opinion, from confusing the culture process with the civilization process, thus misconceiving the nature of culture, for culture does not follow any definite or lineal order of development but occurs sporadically, defying the causal determinism that operates in the realms of science and technology.

Weber's theory of immanent transcendentalism also colored his political views. In place of state socialism (whether of the Bismarckian or the Marxist-Leninist kind), he advocated a "debureaucratized" form of "free socialism," under which man's functional role within the social system would never be that of a mere functionary whose inner sense of right and wrong could be made subservient to reasons of state.

Weber's insistence on viewing the historical world of man as a realm where transcendental but (in contrast to G. W. F. Hegel) immanent determinants are at least as decisive as empirical or material factors reveals not only his fundamental disagreement with the Marxist school of historical determinism but also his most significant point of departure from the sociological methodology of his older brother. Unlike Max Weber, Alfred Weber could not conceive of a meaningful sociological interpretation or explanation of human thought or action that aimed to dispense with a value-oriented perspective.

Alfred Weber may possibly have exaggerated the difference between his methodological approach and that of his brother; it may well be true to say with Arnold Brecht that it is a difference of degree rather than of kind, that Alfred Weber was a latent and partisan relativist and Max Weber an overt and neutral one (Political Theory, Princeton, NJ, 1959, p. 278). Be that as it may, Alfred Weber's stress on a specifically historicocultural approach to sociology, no less than his denial of the validity of the naturalistic method in the sphere of human affairs, contributed to the relative lack of understanding of his theories by many contemporary sociologists.

Whatever the ultimate assessment of Alfred Weber as a sociologist, his penetrating insight into the forces that shape human history and his uncompromising adherence to the principle of individual social responsibility place him high in the tradition of thinkers of integrity in scholarship and in action.

See also Enlightenment; Functionalism in Sociology; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Masaryk, Tomáš Garrigue; Philosophy of History; Weber, Max.


works by weber

Über den Standort der Industrien. Tübingen, 1909. Translated by C. J. Friedrich as Theory of the Location of Industries. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1929.

Gedanken zur deutschen Sendung. Berlin: Fischer, 1915.

"Prinzipielles zur Kultursoziologie." Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 47 (19201921): 149. Translated by G. H. Weltner and C. F. Hirschman as Fundamentals of Culture-Sociology. New York, 1939.

Die Not der geistigen Arbeiter. Munich, 1923.

Deutschland und die europäische Kulturkrise. Berlin: Fischer, 1924.

Die Krise des modernen Staatsgedankens in Europa. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1925.

Ideen zur Staats- und Kultursoziologie. Karlsruhe: Braun, 1927.

Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie. Leiden: Sijthoff, 1935.

Das Tragische und die Geschichte. Hamburg: Govert, 1943.

Abschied von der bisherigen Geschichte. Hamburg: Claassen and Goverts, 1946. Translated by R. F. C. Hull as Farewell to European History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1948.

Der dritte oder der vierte Mensch. Munich: Piper, 1953.

Einführung in die Soziologie. Munich: Piper, 1955.

works on weber

Barnes, H. E., and Howard Becker. Social Thought from Lore to Science, 2 vols. New York: Heath, 1938. Vol. II, Ch. 20.

Colvin, Milton. "Alfred WeberThe Sociologist as a Humanist." American Journal of Sociology 65 (1959): 166168.

Neumann, Sigmund. "Alfred Weber's Conception of Historico-Cultural Sociology." In An Introduction to the History of Sociology, edited by H. E. Barnes, 353361. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948.

Salomon, Albert. "The Place of Alfred Weber's Kultursoziologie in Social Thought." Social Research 3 (1936): 494500.

Frederick M. Barnard (1967)

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Weber, Alfred (1868–1958)

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