Alfred Weber

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Weber, Alfred



Alfred Weber (1868-1958), German economist and sociologist, was the second son of a National Liberal politician and Prussian deputy, and the younger brother of Max Weber. He was born in Erfurt and grew up in Berlin, where his father became a city magistrate. From early youth, Alfred Weber and his brother had regular contact with the many distinguished liberal politicians and scholars who visited their home.

Weber attended the University of Berlin, where, as a student of Gustav Schmoller, he was trained as a Kathedersozialist; but even then he was preoccupied with sociological ideas. In 1895 he obtained his doctor’s degree from Berlin, and four years later he began to teach economics there. In 1904 he moved to the University of Prague, and in 1907 to Heidelberg, where he remained for the rest of his academic career.

His Theory of the Location of Industries (1909) was perhaps the most original and permanent contribution to economic theory written in German since von Thunen’s Der isolierte Staat (published part by part between 1826 and 1863). Weber planned a second part of his 1909 work, but it never appeared. In this early work he showed that inclination toward sociological analysis which later became the core of his writings.

In the Theory of the Location of Industries, Weber partially adopted von Thunen’s concept of agricultural production and transformed it into an analysis of the factors influencing the location of industry during times of development and growth. The study is based on historical research into German data after 1860. First establishing certain general conditions of location, the theory then develops the concepts of transport orientation and labor orientation, and concludes with an analysis of the laws of agglomeration. According to these laws, the social factors conducive to development may be either economic-rational or social-historical. Clearly, such a theory of location is neither “pure” nor “general,” since it is too closely tied to particular resources and energy sources, which have changed unpredictably in the past and will do so again in the future. If its limitations are understood, Weber’s theory can be used as a guide to the proper location of industries in underdeveloped countries.

During World War i, Weber worked as an expert in the treasury; and, after the German defeat, he tried unsuccessfully to become the leader of the new democratic party (Staatspartei). Although this failure marked the end of his brief political career, it gave him a comprehension of practical affairs that was invaluable in his intellectual pursuits during the second half of his life. His interests had shifted increasingly toward sociology in the period around World War i, a time when a concern with sociology was not quite respectable intellectually; speaking and writing about the “problems of civilization” were generally left to the Marxists. But for Weber, sociology provided the concepts necessary to clarify the “constellations” of cultural phenomena that he had arrived at intuitively. Weber accepted the designation of his sociology as “synoptic sociology,” a term that served to distinguish it from his brother’s systematic and rational approach.

In the two books Deutschland und die europdische Kulturkrise (1924) and Die Krise des modernen Staatsgedankens in Europa (1925) Weber developed his sociology of politics. He saw the German defeat of 1918 as a European as well as a German catastrophe, caused by the breakdown of an old political tradition coincident with the end of European political predominance. Again, in Das Ende der Demokratie? (1931) he was concerned with the problem of political change and, more specifically, with the problem of leadership in the context of parliamentary democracy and of a society in which public opinion was liable to be managed. Even more than Burckhardt, Tocqueville, or Nietzsche, he emphasized the dynamic aspects of history, culture, and civilization: their essence is “movement,” “action,” and “progress.” But he limited the notion of universal progress, accepted without question in the nineteenth century, to the single but vital sphere of modern technical civilization.

In 1933 Weber asked to be retired. Having fought against Nazism for years, he lived in complete isolation after his retirement and kept on writing. Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie (1935) had to be published in Holland. It is a survey of the entire history of man, in which Weber attempted to isolate the sociopolitical, the economic-technical, and the moral-cultural manifestations of social life. It is rather doubtful whether the sharp separation between culture as the realm of creativity and civilization as the realm of technical progress really applies to all the various phases of human history.

Das Tragische und die Geschichte (1943) was printed in Hamburg, but the German public was forbidden to buy it. It is considered Weber’s most important work, because of the way in which it combines history and sociology, and because of the contribution it makes to the understanding of Hellenism.

After the Nazi collapse, Weber, nearly eighty years old, began lecturing again. In the 13 years before his death, “the grand old man of Heidelberg” (as the Americans called him) reached the peak of his influence, both as a politician—he was highly esteemed, especially by the leaders of the new Social Democratic party and the new trade unions—and as a scholar. The titles of some of the books he published in the last decade of his life, Farewell to European History: Or, the Conquest of Nihilism (1946) and Der dritte oder der vierte Mensch: Vom Sinn des geschichtlichen Daseins (1953), indicate that Weber had wrung meaning from the history of Germany and of Europe in the preceding years.

Weber’s synoptic sociology thus culminated in metaphysics. His later works can be compared only with the works of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee. The depth and permanence of the influence of Spengler and Toynbee may perhaps be attributed to the relative simplicity of the concepts behind their studies of history. Spengler saw the history of peoples and nations as governed by an organic process: antiquity and Christianity have gone through the stages of birth, maturity, and death; and our own civilization is facing the last stage of decline prior to dissolution. Although Toynbee had a much wider knowledge of history and civilization than Spengler did, he also saw the life cycle of every culture as determined by the rather simple process of challenge and response. Weber is more profound than either of them: he has deeper insight into the variety of mankind and more understanding of all of man’s cultural achievements. But his creativity and his faith in intuition nevertheless make his book more a work of art than of science, and tie it to the sentiments and the philosophical beliefs of his country and of his generation.

Edgar Salin

[See alsoCentralPlace; Sociology, article on TheField; SpatialEconomics; SpecializationAndExchange; and the biographies ofSpengler; Thunen.]


(1909) 1957 Theory of the Location of Industries. Univ. of Chicago Press; Cambridge Univ. Press. → First published as “Reine Theorie des Standorts,” part 1 of Ùber den Standort der Industrien.

1920 Prinzipielles zur Kultursoziologie: Gesellschafts-prozess, Zivilisationsprozess und Kulturbewegung. Archiv fùr Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik 47:1-49. → Issued in 1939 as “Fundamentals of Culture-sociology: Social Process, Civilizational Process and Culture-movement.” A mimeographed report of the Works Progress Administration and the Department of Social Science, Columbia University.

1924 Deutschland und die europische Kulturkrise. Jena: Fischer.

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

1931 Das Ende der Demokratie? Berlin: Junker & Diinn-haupt.

(1935) 1950 Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie. 2d enl. ed. Munich: Piper.

1943 Das Tragische und die Geschichte. Hamburg: Govert.

(1946) 1948 Farewell to European History: Or, the Conquest of Nihilism. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press; London: Routledge. → First published as Abschied von der bisherigen Geschich Überwindung des Nihilismus?

1951 Prinzipien der Geschichts- und Kultursoziologie. Munich: Piper.

1953 Der dritte oder der vierte Mensch: Vom Sinn des geschichtlichen Daseins. Munich: Piper.

1955 Weber, Alfred (editor) Einführung in die Soziologie. Munich: Piper. → A collection of addresses, essays, and lectures by Weber and others.


Kepeszczuk, Josef (compiler) 1956 Alfred Weber: Schriften und Aufsätze, 1897-1955. Munich: Piper. → A complete bibliography up to 1955, verified by Weber himself.

Niederhauser, Elisabeth 1944 Die Standortsiheorie Alfred Webers. Weinfalden (Switzerland): Neuen schwander.

Salin, Edgar (editor) 1948 Synopsis; Festgabe für Alfred Weber: 30. Vii. 1868 bis 30. Vii. 1948. Heidelberg: Schneider.

Salin, Edgar (1958) 1963 Alfred Weber. Pages 58-74 in Edgar Salin, Lynkeus: Gestalten und Probleme ausWirtschaft und Politik. Tübingen: Mohr. → First published in Volume 11 of Kyklos.

Wald, Salomon 1964 Geschichte und Gegenwart im Denken Alfred Webers: Ein Versuch über seine soziologischen und universal-historischen Gesichtspunkte. Zurich: Polygraphischer Verlag.

Willi, Viktor 1953 Das Wesen der Kulturhöhe und die Kulturkrise in der kultursoziologischen Sicht Alfred Webers. Paris: Sirey.

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Weber, Alfred (1868–1958) German economist, brother of Max, who contributed to theories which explain patterns of industrial location as the outcome of competition for the most advantageous (cost-minimizing/profit-maximizing) locations; and, through this, to the development of geography as a social science. However, he is perhaps best known to sociologists for his cultural sociology (see Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie, 1935
), in which he analyses the relationship between the growth of knowledge (especially science and technology and the ‘culture’ (or ‘soul’) of civilizations.