Understanding how society ticks

12 Jun 2020

Max Weber was a pioneer of sociology, and his writings have had a huge influence. He spent the last year of his life at LMU – closely attuned to the social upheavals that followed the First World War. He died in Schwabing 100 years ago.

Max Weber (rechts) mit seinen Eltern Max und Helene sowie seinen Geschwistern (1888)

Max Weber (right) with his parents Max and Helene and his siblings (1888) | © akg-images

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.

Academic research should be free of value judgments

Porträt von Max Weber als Professor in Heidelberg (1918)

Max Weber as Professor in Heidelberg (1918) | © akg-images

Weber‘s scientific studies were inevitably marked by the political, economic and sociological conditions of his time, which would dominate the second half of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th. This period witnessed the rapid development of the capitalist economic model and its ever broader role in society, the rise of the bourgeoisie, political events such as the unification of Germany – and catastrophes such as the First World War. But his own background also played a significant part in determining his choice of problems to study. He came from a politically conservative, well-to-do Protestant family, and his deeply religious mother was his most important role model. His father represented the National Liberal Party in the Reichstag, and strongly influenced Weber’s image of the professional politician. However, while Max Weber did have political ambitions of his own, he would never have an opportunity “to get his hands on the spokes of history’s wheel” (as he put it himself) – in spite of the fact that he was one of the founders of the German Democratic Party (DDP).

“Weber’s life reflects the changing schools of thought of his time, which were characterized by abrupt discontinuities, and his biography allows us to trace the evolution of a consciously conservative middle class into a more open-minded and liberal segment of society,” says Armin Nassehi. As a young lawyer, Weber was a convinced nationalist, whose views were by no means free of racist undertones. In an early study of the great landowners and agricultural capitalists east of the river Elbe, he explicitly warned of the supposed threat of being ‘overwhelmed by foreigners’ (“Überfremdung”), as increasing numbers of Polish workers were joining the workforce on these estates.

However, in the course of his life, his views became much more nuanced. Indeed, Weber was always prepared to question and, if necessary, alter his own positions – in accordance with his intense interpretative engagement with sociological issues and his lifelong interest in politics and politicians.

He was nevertheless always aware that genuine scholarship had to be free of preconceived value judgments of a political, religious or otherwise ideological nature. He emphasized that “approaching a scientific question with a preconceived idea of what the answer should be is doing the devil’s work.” Armin Nassehi concurs that the avoidance of value judgments is a basic tenet of research, but goes on to underline what this implies. “Of course, Weber was not naive enough to assume that science can ever be solely a matter of stringing facts together,” he says.

“What he actually said was that the obstinacy of science differs fundamentally from the obstinacy of prejudice. The first insists on how things are, while the second invokes how things should be. It was perfectly clear to him that the very choice of what to study depends on value judgements of one sort or another.” Weber therefore had the greatest respect for scholars whose findings led them to reject their initial value judgments, Nassehi adds. Indeed, that was the outcome of many of Weber’s own investigations.

A brilliant academic career

Max Weber im Gespräch auf Burg Lauenstein im Frankenwald (1917

Max Weber at Lauenstein Castle in the Franconian Forest (1917). In the background: the writer Ernst Toller, one of the protagonists of the Munich Räterepublik. Weber´s intercession during the subsequent trials probably saved Toller from the death penalty. | © akg-images

Weber’s study of the structure of the agricultural economy east of the Elbe was the beginning of a brilliant academic career. At the age of only 30, he was appointed Professor of Economics at Freiburg University, and two years later he took up a professorship at the University of Heidelberg. However, his mental health began to deteriorate, and he was eventually forced to leave the university. He fell into a state of severe depression, which persisted for years. But by the end of the First World War his condition had begun to improve, and he felt well enough to make a new start in Munich – where a revolution was in progress.

In November 1918, demonstrations had forced the King to abdicate, and a Socialist Council declared Bavaria a Republic. If the Council had had its way, there is little doubt that Weber, as a typical member of the bourgeoisie, would never have become Brentano‘s successor at LMU. But the University won the argument. In January 1919, following a general election which his own party decisively lost, the leader of the Council and de facto Prime Minister of the new Republic, Kurt Eisner, was assassinated by Count Anton Arco-Valley.

Notably, Weber never condemned the murder, perhaps because he regarded Eisner as a politician who was led by his personal convictions alone, lacked charisma, and had no sense of proportion or responsibility. In his classification of political leaders, Weber attributed the latter set of qualities to the ‘charismatic’ type.

At all events, in a lecture given in LMU’s Audimax during the Winter Semester 1919/20 (his second term in his new position), Weber argued that it would have been politically more prudent to have tried (and convicted) Eisner’s assassin. This would have turned not Eisner, but his murderer into a political martyr – instead of ‘the coffee-house celebrity’ that Graf Arco-Valley subsequently became, according to a contemporary.

Weber continued to teach and write in Munich for several months after this lecture. But he too would fall victim to the influenza virus, which killed far more people around the world than did the horrendous war that preceded it. He died of viral pneumonia on June 14, 1920 in his rented apartment in Schwabing, during a summer thunderstorm. The house is still standing, but there is no monument in Munich that honors the work of one of the founding fathers of sociology. – There is a Max-Weber-Platz in the center of the city, which however already bore that name during his lifetime (having originally been named after a local politician). It was later rededicated to commemorate the great sociologist.

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