During the current Summer Term, LMU’s Center for Advanced Studies (CAS) is devoting a series of events to the contemporary significance of the work of Max Weber. – Most of these events will be broadcast via video streaming – an interactive format that has come of age during this present stage of late capitalism, which now finds itself wrestling with a viral pandemic. It‘s a safe bet that Weber himself would have been intrigued by many aspects of our current predicament.
The CAS is located on Seestrasse 13 and, as it happens, the great sociologist spent the last months of his life just across the road, in No. 16. After a long absence from academia, Weber had come to Munich in 1919 as the newly appointed Professor of Sociology and Economics and successor to Lujo Brentano in that post.
It was not just the hope of ‘playing the professor’ again, nor was it the prestige of the University itself that brought him to Munich. His primary motivations were rather more tangled. First of all, he needed a regular income, having been dependent on the financial support of his mother and his wife since the onset of chronic health problems had forced him to give up his academic career.
The second – and much more important – reason for the move lay in his deep affection for Elisabeth von Richthofen, the wife of his friend Edgar Jaffé, and long-term partner of his own brother Alfred. The fact that von Richthofen now lived in Munich certainly played a crucial role in Weber’s decision to accept the offer of a professorship at LMU.
Weber continued to pursue the projects he had in hand after the move to Munich. Unfortunately, he was unable to complete either his opus magnum on Economics and Society or his book on the sociology of religion in the time left to him. Together, they would have rounded off a series of insightful investigations which have lost none of their relevance in the century that has elapsed since his death.
As an example, let’s take the question of why the Western hemisphere has continued to dominate the global economy, although other parts of the world – such as the Arab world or the civilizations of Eastern Asia – were once clearly more advanced than Europe in terms of innovation, sophistication and philosophical acumen.
According to LMU sociologist Professor Armin Nassehi, who is well versed in Weber’s work, “the decisive difference was that, in Europe, economic thought became distinct from the political realm, and scientific modes of thinking supplanted religious explanations of the world around us – and these distinctions continue to define Western societies up to the present day.”
One of grounds for these developments was the rise of rationalism in Europe. Rationalism was a central ingredient in the development of capitalism, and capitalism in turn replaced religion as the overarching organizational principle in all spheres of society. Among other things, rationalism radically questioned religious interpretations of the world – as a purely empirical view of life is essentially incompatible with belief systems that seek to endow life with meaning or purpose.
However, in his most influential work “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism”, Weber turned this interpretation on its head. He contended that the religiously motivated and essentially ascetic Protestant concept of the interior life was a crucial component of the formation of the modern personality, whose decisions are primarily based on rational and economic considerations. He argued that this personality type came to regard his profession as a secular vocation, and his success as a proof of divine favor.
He therefore intensified his efforts to improve his economic position and, in so doing, laid the basis for the incessant accumulation of profits that characterizes modern capitalism. Eventually however, the economy became an autonomous force, and religious motives no longer played any serious role – as the resulting social spheres became increasingly differentiated from each other.
Using the methods of sociology as an explanatory tool, Weber attempted to tease out the processes involved in this development and understand them in their respective historical contexts. He set out to understand how individuals acted in their own particular spheres, and to define what was distinctive about their choices. “This emphatically empirical approach is what distinguishes Weber’s contributions from those of his contemporaries, and it remains an indispensable component of sociology today,” says Nassehi.