Weber, Max

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Max Weber (1864–1920) was arguably the most important social and political theorist of the twentieth century, as well as the unwilling father of modern sociology (a role he unknowingly shared with Èmile Durkheim). The eldest of six children (with a brother Alfred, who also became a famous sociologist and cultural analyst), Max Weber was born in Erfurt, Prussia, on April 21, grew up in a suburb of Berlin, and spent his entire adult life in German university towns. He pursued law, economics, and philosophy at Heidelberg, Strassburg, Berlin, and Göttingen (1882–1886), served in the army reserve for two years during college, returned home, and studied law in Berlin, graduating in 1889. He won academic appointments in Berlin and Freiburg, but was forced to retire from teaching after suffering a nervous breakdown that immobilized him between 1897 and 1903—an almost pure example of what Sigmund Freud at precisely the same time had labeled the Oedipus complex. Finally recovered enough to take an extended, transformative trip to the United States in 1904, and freed of teaching duties by an inheritance, Weber spent the next sixteen years producing an unrivalled body of sociocultural, economic, and sociological analyses that is second to none in the history of modern social science. He died unexpectedly on June 14 at the age of 56, a victim of the global influenza pandemic. Weber had married his cousin, Marianne Schnitger, in 1893, and it was her tireless work between 1920 and 1924 as editor of his many posthumous books that fixed Weber's rightful place in the social science pantheon, because during his life he had published only a small percentage of what he wrote.

Weber's common fame rests on his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–1905), originally published as two articles in a scholarly journal. Here he demonstrated why northern European Protestant behavior was more conducive to the formation of early capitalism than were southern European Catholic beliefs and practices, a hypothesis that has given rise to thousands of commentaries and critiques. But he also contributed fundamental works to the sociology of law (which he virtually invented), the sociology of music (also a first), the sociology of the economy, the philosophy of social science method, the comparative sociology of religion (also his creation), social stratification, the sociology of bureaucracy, and of power and charisma (his term), and so on. His major work is Economy and Society (1922), a massive study assembled by his wife (herself an important feminist public intellectual), and translated into English for the first time in 1968. Weber's importance grows with time, and he is the only classic social theorist for whom in the early twenty-first century an entire scholarly journal is named. A recent bibliography of works in English concerning Weber numbers more than 4,900 items, and as Karl Marx and Freud become increasingly less tenable as the major analysts of the modern world, Weber's ideas become ever more pertinent and revealing.

Weber's thoughts about science and ethics are neatly summarized in two of the most famous lectures ever given by a social scientist, "Science as a Vocation" (November 1917) and "Politics as a Vocation" (January 1919). Both were delivered at the University of Munich before large audiences of returning veterans and other students (among them, Rainer Maria Rilke) in a highly politicized atmosphere, with Weber expected to take a strongly nationalistic stance similar to many of his colleagues. Instead he spoke in contrarian terms by insisting that science requires objectivity and value-freedom from its practitioners, who must be motivated by a selfless Beruf (vocational calling) dedicated solely to the discovery of truth, and never by mundane self-aggrandizement or political values. He warned against the cult of personality and the seductive weakness for selling a worldview that interferes with proper scientific work. Weber drew on Friedrich Nietzsche, Leo Tolstoy, the Sermon on the Mount, Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, Immanuel Kant, and his young friend, Georg Lukács (1885–1971) in making a strong case for scientific research as a single-minded search for the unprettified truth, and nothing else.

In the companion lecture, "Politics as a Vocation," Weber continued in this vein, introducing one of his most famous distinctions, between an ethic of ultimate ends and an ethic of responsibility. The former defines the bailiwick of scientists, while the latter belongs to politicians and other activists, whose raison d'être is the strategic furthering of an ideological program. Weber warned that when these two ethics are joined within a single person, they inevitably lead to the degeneration of both roles, and to cultural calamity. As Weber explained in one of his most famous and controversial paragraphs:

We must be clear about the fact that all ethically oriented conduct may be guided by one of two fundamentally differing and irreconcilably opposed maxims: conduct an be oriented to an "ethic of ultimate ends" or to an "ethic of responsibility." This is not to say that an ethic of ultimate ends is identical with irresponsibility, or that an ethic of responsibility is identical with unprincipled opportunism. Naturally nobody says that. However, there is an abysmal contract between conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of ultimate ends—that, is in religious terms, "the Christian does rightly and leaves the results with the Lord"—and conduct that follows the maxim of an ethic of responsibility, in which case one has to give an account of the foreseeable results of one's action ("Politics as a Vocation" in From Max Weber, p. 120).

Within a very few years, the scientists and ethicists of Nazi Germany experienced the dire consequences of ignoring the thrust of Weber's speeches—which accounts in part for the Nazi government's interest in discrediting the memory of Weber after his death. Interestingly Weber is one of few German intellectuals of the twentieth century whose reputation was never threatened by world memory of the Third Reich.


SEE ALSO Axiology; Durkheim, Émile; Ethical Pluralism; Marx, Karl; Secularization; Sociological Ethics; Spenser, Herbert.


Eliaeson, Sven. (2002). Max Weber's Methodologies. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Käsler, Dirk. (1988). Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work, trans. Philippa Hurd. Oxford: Polity Press; Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Sica, Alan. (2004). Max Weber: A Comprehensive Bibliography. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Weber, Max. (1930). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons. London: Allen and Unwin; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Weber, Max. (1946). "Science as a Vocation"; "Politics as a Vocation." In From Max Weber, trans. and eds. Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York: Oxford University Press.

Weber, Max. (1968). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology, 3 vols., ed. Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich. New York: Bedminster Press. Reissued, University of California Press, 1978, in 2 volumes.

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