Weber, Max (1864–1920)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


Max Weber, the German sociologist, historian, and philosopher, was raised in Berlin. His father was a lawyer and National Liberal parliamentary deputy, his mother a woman of deep humanitarian and religious convictions. The Weber household was a meeting place for academics and liberal politicians. From 1882 to 1886 Weber studied law at the universities of Heidelberg, Berlin, and Göttingen, except for a year of military training. His doctoral dissertation (1889) was on medieval commercial law, and he continued his researches into legal history with a study of Roman agrarian law. In 1890 he was commissioned by the Verein für Sozialpolitik to investigate the social and economic plight of the east German agricultural worker. Between 1894 and 1897 he was professor of economics, first at Freiburg, then at Heidelberg. During the next four years, however, a severe nervous illness forced him into academic retirement and kept him from productive work. His health never recovered sufficiently for him to resume an academic career, and he spent the years preceding World War I mainly at Heidelberg as a private scholar, although he became associate editor of the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in 1903. During the war he was director of army hospitals at Heidelberg. As a consultant to the German armistice commission at Versailles he helped to draw up the memorandum on German war guilt; he also advised the commission that prepared the first draft of the Weimar constitution. Late in the war, Weber had accepted a temporary teaching post at the University of Vienna, and in 1919 he became professor of economics at Munich. He died shortly thereafter.

Sociology, Politics, Ethics, and Economics

Weber was attracted to practical politics as well as to scholarship, and he had a vivid sense of the political and cultural significance of historical and sociological investigations. Nevertheless, he insisted that these two "callings" must be kept apart, for both political and academic reasons. His east German agrarian studies had convinced him that the decline of the Junkers as a positive political force made it necessary to foster a professional class of politicians who could direct the German administrative machine. He condemned Otto von Bismarck for having failed to cultivate such a class and for thus paving the way for the political dilettantism to which Weber attributed most of the weaknesses of German diplomacy. He also argued that scientific and philosophical inquiries into social phenomena were not capable of settling disputes about ethical and cultural values, commitment to which was a sine qua non of worthwhile political activity. Empirical scientific investigation could lead to the discovery of the ultimate motives of human behavior, which would serve as a preliminary to an adequate causal explanation of historical events; it could demonstrate the means necessary to given ends; and it could show otherwise unsuspected by-products of alternative policies. Philosophical analysis could lay bare the conceptual structure of various evaluative systems, place them with respect to other possible ultimate values, and delimit their respective spheres of validity. But such studies could not show that any particular answers to evaluative questions were correct. Weber pointed out that an evaluative choice does not depend merely on technical considerations applied to given ends; it is inherent in the very nature of the criteria used to discuss such questions that dispute about those criteria is both possible and necessary. There would be something incoherent in the idea that such disputes could ever be definitively settled.

Weber argued that the blurring by academic writers of the distinction between fact and value characteristically led to two unwarranted prejudices. First, because of the academic's duty to examine all sides of any question, he was likely to develop a predilection for the middle course, although a compromise "is not by a hairbreadth more scientifically true than the most extreme ideals of the parties of the left or right." Second, because the scientific investigator's methods were peculiarly well adapted to discovering the probable results of policies, he was likely to think that a policy's value must also be settled by reference to results. But, Weber argued, policies could be rational, not merely in the sense of adapting means to ends (zweckrational ), but also in the sense that they consistently and genuinely express the attachment to certain values of an agent who is indifferent to the achievement or nonachievement of further ends (wertrational ).

Weber denied that any form of social activity could be purely economic. All activities have an economic aspect insofar as they face scarcity of resources and thus involve planning, cooperation, and competition. But economic considerations alone cannot explain the particular direction taken by any social activity or movement; for this, other values have to be taken into consideration. Further, the sociologist's own culturally conditioned values are already involved in the way in which he has isolated an intelligible field of study from the infinite complexity of social life. Hence, there is a certain subjectivity of value at the very foundations of social scientific inquiry, but this need not damage the objectivity of the results of such inquiry.

V erstehen and Causal Explanation

Social phenomena involve the actions of agents who themselves attach a sense (Sinn ) to what they are doing. Correspondingly, sociology requires an understanding (Verstehen ) of the sense of what is being studied. Without it, Weber argued, the sociologist would not even be in a position to describe the events he wants to explain. In this respect Weber was squarely in the tradition of G. W. F. Hegel, Wilhelm Dilthey, and Heinrich Rickert, but he developed these philosophical ideas into a methodology and applied it to a vast spectrum of empirical data.

Verstehen is particularly susceptible to the investigator's subjective bias, and the sense of unfamiliar forms of activity is likely to be interpreted by reference to what is familiar, but perhaps only superficially similar. Weber therefore thought that Verstehen must be supplemented by what he sometimes seemed to regard as a distinct method of inquiry, causal explanation. He argued that causal explanations in sociology are, as such, completely naturalistic and that the social sciences are distinguished by the addition of Verstehen. He did not always see clearly that a method which is to serve as a check on rashly subjective misinterpretations of the sense of an activity must itself be capable of producing more correct interpretations. Nor did he always understand that what he called causal explanation, therefore, must itself already involve the concept of Verstehen.

This point can be illustrated by Weber's treatment of authority (Herrschaft ). As a prelude to a causal treatment, he tried to define authority naturalistically in terms of statistical laws expressing "the probability that a command with a given specific content will be obeyed by a given group of persons." The presence of expressions such as "command" and "obeyed" in this definition shows that it already presupposes Verstehen. This continues to hold for Weber's further treatment of the various types of legitimation in terms of which he classified authority: the traditional, the rational (bureaucratic), and the charismatic (involving attachment to the person of a powerful individual leaderWeber regarded charismatic authority as a principal source of social change). Here, as elsewhere in his work, the appeal to statistical laws must be understood as ancillary to the process of arriving at an adequate Verstehen and not as belonging to a distinct method of causal inquiry.

The "Ideal Type"

Both Verstehen and causal explanation are again involved in Weber's account of the use of "ideal types" in historical and sociological inquiries. Whereas a purely classificatory concept is reached by abstraction from a wide range of phenomena with differing individual characteristics, an ideal type is intended to illuminate what is peculiar to a given cultural phenomenon. Its most characteristic use is in connection with types of rational behavior. The ideal type is a model of what an agent would do if he were to act completely rationally according to the criteria of rationality involved in his behavior's sense. On the one hand, the ideal type facilitates Verstehen in that, although not itself a description of reality, it provides a vocabulary and grammar for clear descriptions of reality. On the other hand, although the ideal type is not itself a causal hypothesis, it is an aid to the construction of such hypotheses for the explanation of behavior that deviates from the ideal-typical norm. Weber regarded the three forms of authority (traditional, rational, and charismatic) as well as the theory of the market in economics as ideal types. The most succinct and celebrated application of the concept, as well as of most of his other methodological ideas, is to be found in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In this work Weber argued that the development of European capitalism could not be accounted for in purely economic or technological terms but was in large part the result of the ascetic secular morality associated with the twin emphases in Calvinistic theology on predestination and salvation.

See also Authority; Determinism, A Historical Survey; Dilthey, Wilhelm; Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich; Philosophy of Social Sciences; Rickert, Heinrich.


works by weber

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie. 3 vols. Tübingen: Mohr, 19201921. Vol. I, Part 1, translated by Talcott Parsons as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Allen and Unwin, 1930.

Gesammelte politische Schriften. Munich: Drei Masken, 1921.

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre. Tübingen: Mohr, 1922.

Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Tübingen: Mohr, 1922. 2nd ed., 2 vols. Tübingen, 1925. Part 1 translated by A. M. Henderson and Talcott Parsons as The Theory of Social and Economic Organization. Glencoe, IL, 1947. Vol. II, pp. 735ff., translated by Don Martindale and Gertrude Neuwirth as The City. New York: Free Press, 1958. Selections (chiefly from Ch. 7) in Max Weber on Law in Economy and Society, translated by E. A. Shils and Max Rheinstein. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1954.

Wirtschaftsgeschichte. Munich: Duncker and Humblot, 1923. Translated by F. H. Knight as General Economic History. London: Allen and Unwin, 1927.

Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik. Tübingen: Mohr, 1924.

From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

Schriften zur theoretischen Soziologie, zur Soziologie der Politik und Verfassung. Frankfurt: Schauer, 1947.

On the Methodology of the Social Sciences. Translated and edited by E. A. Shils and H. A. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1949.

works on weber

Antoni, Carlo. Dallo storicismo alla sociologia. Florence, 1940. Translated by H. V. White as From History to Sociology. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 1959.

Aron, Raymond. Essai sur la théorie de l'histoire dans l'Allemagne contemporaine. Paris: Vrin, 1938.

Aron, Raymond. La sociologie allemande contemporaine. Paris: Alcan, 1935. Translated by M. Bottomore and T. Bottomore as Modern German Sociology. London, 1957.

Beetham, David. Max Weber and the Theory of Modern Politics, 2nd ed. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity Press, 1985.

Behnegar, Nasser. Leo Strauss, Max Weber, and the Scientific Study of Politics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber. An Intellectual Portrait. London: Heinemann, 1960.

Diggins, John P. Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy. New York: Basic, 1996.

Henrich, Dieter. Die Einheit der Wissenschaftslehre Max Webers. Tübingen, 1952.

Käsler, Dirk. Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Translated by Philippa Hurd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Lennert, Rudolf. Die Religionstheorie Max Webers. Stuttgart, 1935.

Mayer, J. P. Max Weber and German Politics. London: Faber and Faber, 1944.

Parsons, Talcott. The Structure of Social Action. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1937.

Scaff, Lawrence. Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics, and Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Swedberg, Richard. Max Weber and the Idea of Economic Sociology. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Weber, Marianne. Max Weber. Ein Lebensbild. Tübingen: Mohr, 1926.

Peter Winch (1967)

Bibliography updated by Philip Reed (2005)