Max Weber Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: A German social scientist and theorist widely acclaimed as the “father of sociology,” Weber is best known for his thesis of the Protestant ethic, which links the psychological effects of Calvinism with the development of modern capitalism.

Early Life

Max Weber was the first child of Max and Helen Fallenstein Weber. His father was a prominent lawyer and aspiring politician whose family had attained considerable wealth in the German linen industry. An ardent monarchist and Bismarckian within the German Reichstag, the elder Weber was to his son the epitome of a patriarchal, amoral creature-of-pleasure who knew real politics and the art of compromise. His mother, on the other hand, was a highly educated, moralistic woman, intensely preoccupied with religious and social concerns, particularly with charity work for the poor. The hedonistic father and humanitarian mother shared little in common, and Weber grew to maturity in a household charged with open tension and hostility.

Weber received an excellent early education in select German private schools. In addition, because of the political prominence of his father, a considerable circle of famous personalities—such as Wilhem Dilthey, Heinrich von Treitschke, Levin Goldschmidt, and Theodor Mommsen—frequented the Weber household. Meeting and engaging in political discussion with such men of prestige not only stimulated young Weber’s intellectual curiosity but also provided him with contacts who would help promote his career in later life.

Weber began his university studies in 1882 at Heidelberg—his mother’s home during her youth—taking courses in law, history, and theology. At his father’s suggestion (and against his mother’s wishes), he also joined the student fraternity, an activity which consumed much of his time in drinking bouts and duels. In 1883, Weber moved to Strasbourg to fulfill his one-year military obligation in the National Service. There, Weber visited and developed a close attachment to his aunt and uncle: Ida Baumgarten, an intensely devout woman much like his mother, and Hermann Baumgarten, a professor of history who, unlike his father, was highly critical of the Bismarckian empire.

Hoping to extricate young Weber from the influence of the Baumgartens, the elder Weber encouraged his son to resume his studies back home at the University of Berlin. Weber returned to Berlin, and, except for one semester in school at Göttingen and several months away on military exercises, Weber spent the next eight years at home. In 1889, Weber was graduated magna cum laude and then began preparing for his Habilitation (a higher doctorate required to teach in German universities), which he received in 1891. While pursuing his advanced studies, Weber worked intermittently as a lawyer’s assistant and a university assistant—two unremunerative apprenticeships. Hence at age twenty-nine, Weber was still residing in his parents’ home, financially dependent on their income and continually subject to their conflicting claims on his loyalty.

In 1893, Weber married his second cousin, Marianne Schnitger, an intelligent woman who later achieved some prominence in the German feminist movement. The marriage lasted until Weber’s death but never was consummated. Although their marriage was without affection, Weber and Marianne were intellectually compatible. Following Weber’s death, Marianne published a seven-hundred-page biography of her late husband that contained not a negative word regarding their union.

Life’s Work

A workaholic with strong academic credentials and political contacts, Weber rose rapidly in the teaching profession. After a brief appointment in Berlin, Weber in 1894 became a full professor in economics at the University of Freiburg. Two years later, he was called to the University of Heidelberg to succeed the preeminent professor of political economy, Karl Knies. As a professor, Weber advocated what he called “freedom from value-judgment” in lecturing. This doctrine demanded that teachers present to their students the established empirical facts without expressing their evaluations as to whether the facts were satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Weber also was an avid researcher and writer. During these years, however, his research interests focused on rather mundane economic issues of immediate application.

Weber’s academic career, however, was cut short in 1898 when he suffered a severe mental and physical breakdown that virtually incapacitated him for four years and prevented him from returning to the classroom until 1918. The symptoms of the illness included insomnia, inner tension, exhaustion, bouts of anxiety, and continual restlessness. Biographers have speculated that familial problems triggered this neurosis. In 1897, Weber had a violent dispute with his father over the authoritarian way his father treated his mother. Following the argument, his father stormed away from Weber’s Heidelberg home, promising never to return. Shortly thereafter, the...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)