Wiese, Leopold von

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Wiese, Leopold von



Leopold Max Walter von Wiese und Kaiserswaldau, German sociologist, was born in 1876 in Glatz (Silesia), the son of a Prussian officer. He was first educated in a military academy but changed his plans about becoming an officer during his last year in school. He graduated from the Gymnasium of Gorlitz in 1898 and then enrolled in the law faculty of the University of Berlin in order to study the social sciences, especially social policy. In 1900 he was invited by Wilhelm Merton to work at the Institut fiir Gemeinwohl in Frankfurt, where he began to study modern social problems. He received his PH.D. in 1902 and became Privatdozent at the University of Berlin in 1905. He also taught at the academies of Posen and Diisseldorf. He spent some time traveling, especially in Asia, before becoming affiliated with the School of Commerce and Business Administration in Cologne (the school became a university shortly afterward, in 1919). Von Wiese has maintained his connection with this school ever since. He also taught in the United States, at Harvard University in 1934/1935 and at the University of Wisconsin in 1935. After his return to Germany, he held himself aloof from the official ideology of National Socialism and consequently experienced some difficulty in teaching and publishing.

Although his chair at Cologne had been established for economics and social policy, von Wiese concentrated more and more on sociology and became one of the outstanding German sociologists after World War i. He was the chief editor of the ölner Vierteljahrshefte fur Sozialwissenschaften, which in 1921 became the well-known Kölner Vierteljahrshefte fur Soziologie; its publication was ended in 1934 after the National Socialists came to power. He was a president of the German Sociological Association, which had been founded by Max Weber and others in 1909 and which was also dissolved in 1934.

When German sociology revived after World War ii, it was von Wiese who, despite his advancing age, reintroduced the systematic teaching of sociology into the universities of Cologne, Bonn, and Mainz. He fought for the immediate needs of scientific research and academic organization and re-established the German Sociological Association, which held its first postwar convention in September 1946. Early in 1947 the third edition of a prewar book (1926) of von Wiese’s was reissued and became the first postwar introductory textbook on sociology in Germany. The new series of the Kölner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie (from 1955, Kölner Zeitschrift fur Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie) began to appear under his editorship in May 1948.

One can best locate von Wiese in contemporary social theory by linking him with Talcott Parsons’ famous statement, “Spencer is dead.” Indeed, von Wiese started his academic career with a general critical review of Spencer’s system (1906). Like Parsons, he emphasized that it was Spencer’s social theory as a total structure that was dead, whereas some of the details might last. His critical stance toward Spencer’s system led von Wiese generally to reject historical and encyclopedic sociology. Instead, he believed the main task of sociology to be the systematic observation of the “social process.” He had therefore to develop both a systematic theoretical approach to the social process and a system of categories that would help him to analyze the social process empirically. Likewise, he had to overcome the tendency toward the excessive reification of social life that was so common in older sociological systems. Explaining his approach, von Wiese wrote:

Theoretical sociology, therefore, has but one object proper to itself, one proper subject matter: the “social.” There are only integrated occurrences which therefore have a mere verbal character, namely, influences of men upon men which take place within the human sphere of time and space, and which we might call “social” or “interhuman.” …Let us suppose that this constantly flowing stream of interhuman activity is halted in its course for one moment. We will then see that it is an apparently impenetrable network of lines between men…. The connections …are called …social[relationships] and the entire network is called the social system of relations. ([1931-1937] 1941, pp. 29-30)

Von Wiese’s “geometry of social relations” is similar to that of Georg Simmel. One may locate human beings in this complicated network of “mutual occurrences” by studying the processes of approach and withdrawal among them. These changes of distance between men, the basic process in the social dimension, can be systematically observed. Social structures arise when these social relations crystallize in such a way “that they are understood as units or substances in daily life.” Thus, the analysis of social structures means “reducing them to social processes.”

Whereas von Wiese was at first concerned mainly with systematic sociology as the analysis of “interhuman phenomena,” after 1940 he concentrated more and more on philosophical anthropology, in order to arrive at a deeper understanding of the human element in the social process. From about 1947 on, he began to concentrate on ethics for the same reason. Throughout his life he has been active in liberal causes, and his contributions to sociology have reinforced his efforts on behalf of liberalism.

RenĖ König

[Other relevant material may be found inInteraction, articles onSocial interactionandSymbolic Interaction; and in the biographies ofSimmelandSpencer.]


1906 Zur Grundlegung der Gesellschaftslehre. Jena:

Fischer. 1910 Einführung in die Sozialpolitik. Leipzig: Gloeckner. 1915 Gedanken iiber Menschlichkeit. Munich: Duncker

Humblot. 1917a Der Liberalismus in Vergangenheit und Zukunft.

Berlin: Fischer. 1917b Strindberg: Ein Beitrag zur Soziologie der Geschlechter. Munich: Duncker & Humblot. (1924-1929) 1932 Systematic Sociology: On the Basis of

the Beziehungslehre and the Gebildelehre of Leopoldvon Wiese. Adapted and amplified by Howard Becker. New York: Wiley. → First published as System der allgemeinen Soziologie.

(1926) 1967 Soziologie: Geschichte und Hauptprobleme. 8th ed. Berlin: Gruyter.

(1931-1937) 1941 Sociology. Edited by Franz Mueller. New York: Piest. → Contains an article first published in the Hanöwbrterbuch der Soziologie in 1931, an article first published in Volume 3 of the Wörterbuch der Volkswirtschaft in 1932, and a lecture delivered in London in 1937.

1940 Homo sum: Gedanken zu einer zusammenfassenden Anthropologie. Jena: Fischer.

(1947) 1960 Ethik in der Schauwveise der Wissenschaften vom Menschen und von der Gesellschaft. 2d ed. Bern: Francke.

1950 Gesellschaftliche Stdnde und Klassen. Bern: Francke.

1959 Philosophie und Soziologie. Berlin: Duncker & Hum-blot.


Abel, Theodore 1929 Systematic Sociology in Germany: A Critical Analysis of Some Attempts to Establish Sociology as an Independent Science. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

KÖnig, RenË 1958 Germany. Pages 779-806 in Joseph S. Rouĉek (editor), Contemporary Sociology. New York: Philosophical Library.

Stauffer, Ernest 1950 La Méthode relationelle en psychologie sociale et en sociologie selon L. von Wiese. Paris: Delachaux & Niestlé.