How a sad, anal polymath came to be praised by both left and right

The Cambridge Companion to Weber
November 10, 2000

Max Weber (1864-1920) is the one undisputed canonical figure in contemporary sociology. Wherever you look at undergraduate curricula you find his works. Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Talcott Parsons are likely to be alongside, but not too many eyebrows will be raised if any of these is absent. Not so with Weber.

This uniformity is striking, not least because Weber was scarcely a wholehearted sociologist. He trained initially in law, had a lifetime's fascination with politics, and for a while was even a professor of economics. His writings are also strikingly historical in approach, making him eligible for a chair in history had he so desired.

Another odd thing is that so many different contemporary sociological schools claim him as their own, by inserting their priorities and premises into his writings. Thus the interactionists stress the concern for subjectivity in his work, rational-choice theorists centre on his methodological individualism and grand theorists emphasise his interest in the decline of religion and the development of science.

Taking from Weber what one wants is not a current phenomenon. Over the years he has been radically reworked.

When I was a student in the early 1970s, he was presented as an opponent of Marx, but also as a well-meaning social democrat who foresaw the convergence of all industrial societies for reasons that overrode ideology.

During the 1980s, the surprise was that Weber began to be captured by the Thatcherites. We were reminded of his admiration of capitalism, his nationalist support for Germany and his enthusiasm for charismatic entrepreneurs whose qualities defied bureaucratisation. When that fashion waned, along came the postmodernists to claim Weber. An influence of Nietzsche was discerned in a few phrases at the close of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1906), Weber's relativism was resurrected and an amoral grandeur discerned in his writings.

About the same time, a group of historical sociologists, including Perry Anderson and Michael Mann, suggested that Weber had much to offer their work, something that indicated that he was not so very different from Marx when it came to accounting for the rise of the West.

This amenability to such disparate thinkers has to be a factor in Weber's continued canonical status.

But just what is one to make of a thinker so open to different interpretations? It is tempting to suggest that he was just a confused and confusing intellectual, someone whose own internal anguish and penchant for qualification let him be anything to anyone. I think there is something to this, although it is heretical to say so. What seems to be indisputable is that Weber was an exceedingly sad individual, with little life outside writing, reading and worrying about the state of the world.

Above all, he is admired because he was so obviously learned. There is nothing more certain to get academics fawning than a thinker who has read everything on his subject. Weber ranged from ancient Judaism to the Russian revolution (and he learnt Russian just to be able to understand the East that bit better). It helped that he came from a privileged family, which allowed him to spend his time researching. But this did not make him a good writer - not at all.

Weber's tormented psyche is evident in everything he wrote: anal in the extreme, every nuance agonised over, nothing freely given, no bold arguments offered without immediate qualification. Even his greatest essay, "Politics as a vocation", is characterised by ambivalence, indecisiveness and hesitancy. Whenever I read him, I yearn for the startling directness of a Karl Marx.

Stephen Turner's edited collection brings together original contributions from a dozen of the world's leading Weber scholars. It is a triumph to collect essays from scholars scattered around the globe. As ever, Cambridge University Press has produced a volume to admirable standards, with notes at the bottom of each page, not a single typographical mistake, and high-quality printing. Articles in English by the likes of Wilfried Nippel, Wolfgang Schluchter and Peter Lassman are to be treasured, and I have no hesitation in saying that the book should have a place in all self-respecting university libraries.

That said, there is a noticeable lack of unity in the volume, which will diminish its value for undergraduates. The individual essays are just that: stand-alone contributions to a widely diverse Weber industry. As a result, readers will be unable to move through the text and develop knowledge of Weber. In part, this is because the editor acknowledges that there is no essence to Weber's thought. Conceding these ambiguities, Turner pragmatically divides the book into four parts: essays on rationality and rationalisation, politics and culture, religions, and law and economics. Even these divisions appear somewhat idiosyncratic, because they contain highly divergent contributions.

In addition, the editor is determined that contributors should not just describe what Weber has to say on a given topic, but that they should also critically engage with his thought. An unfortunate outcome of this ambition is that some essays are excellent expositional reviews, while others are excessively recondite.

However, scholars will delight in, for example, Schluchter's fascinating piece on Weber's under-appreciated interest in "psychophysics" or Guenther Roth's account of global capitalism and multi-ethnicity in Weber's Germany. The latter highlights that Weber, living in an epoch of remarkable world market openness, resigned himself to its imperatives and welcomed the cosmopolitanism it encouraged, while expressing concern about the migration of "uncivilised" peoples from the East. Present-day parallels are hard to avoid. Weber specialists will also enjoy Sven Eliason on Weber's attraction to "Caesarist" democracy. This, better understood as leadership democracy from its military roots of direct election from the troops, makes some, notably Wolfgang Mommsen, uncomfortable about Weber's affinity with policies that led to Nazism. As Weber played a part in drafting the post-1918 German constitution that allowed the election of Hitler, this is significant.

For advanced undergraduates, two essays stand out. First, Lassman reminds readers that Weber's ideas on politics are much described but little understood by commentators, who oversimplify through ignorance of Weber's still untranslated thought and insensitivity towards the context in which his views were developed. Lassman gives an erudite and accurate exposition of Weber's political thought, something that hinged on his resignation to the inevitable inequalities of power.

Second, Alastair Hamilton succinctly describes Weber's influential "protestant ethic" thesis and the mountain of debate it stimulated. This is a gem of a piece, although we are no nearer agreement on the question of whether values stimulated industrialism or whether the dull compulsion of economics was the determinant.

Frank Webster is professor of sociology, University of Birmingham.

The Cambridge Companion to Weber

Editor - Stephen Turner
ISBN - 0 521 5614 9 and 56753 X
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £37.50 and £13.95
Pages - 288

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