Biography

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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...

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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 elder Weber died of a gastric hemorrhage. His mother quickly recovered from her grief, but Weber harbored intense feelings of guilt. Throughout his life, Weber had been intellectually torn between the moralistic idealism of his mother and the practical realism of his father. Outwardly, he resembled his father; inwardly, he aspired for the moral certitudes of his mother. Perhaps the tragic circumstances of his father’s death locked the two sides of his personality in a paralyzing symbiosis.

Whatever the cause, Weber’s neurotic breakdown had a dramatic impact upon his future thought and career. The prolonged agony of his personal crisis led him to develop insights into the relationship between religious ethics and social and economic processes that would distinguish his subsequent scholarship. His illness also freed him from the burden of the classroom. After a lengthy leave of absence, in 1903 Weber resigned from his university position and accepted the editorship of Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik (social science and social political archives). This position provided Weber with a place to publish his own materials without passing an outside review. It also provided him with the leisure to write at his own pace. Except for a brief tenure as a German military hospital administrator during World War I, from the time of his partial recovery in 1903 until his return to academe in 1918, Weber was not obligated to any duties other than the editorial work he took on himself. All of Weber’s most important works were written during these years between the worst part of his illness and his death. As tragic as his personal crisis was, without it he would not have achieved the greatness for which he is remembered.

Weber published his most famous piece, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus (The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1930), in the journal he edited during the years 1904 and 1905. In this work, Weber noted the correlation in German communities between the expansion of capitalism on the one hand and Protestant ideology on the other. He attributed this relationship to accidental psychological consequences of the Puritan doctrine of predestination. This doctrine, Weber postulated, produced an extreme condition of anxiety among Calvinist believers, which served to motivate them to discipline their lives in every respect. Calvinists worked hard, avoided idleness and waste, and, as a consequence, accumulated considerable wealth. Ironically, however, as capitalism grew and Calvinists became rich, puritanism began to fade. The Protestant ethic, in the end, transformed the world but in so doing eventually undermined itself.

After completing his study of Protestant ethics, Weber focused attention upon other world religions: Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. In all of his works on the sociology of religion, Weber emphasized the “universal historical relationship of religion and society.” His studies attempted to show how different religious worldviews have affected the development of their cultures. In contrast with Karl Marx, who viewed religion as simply a reflection of the material basis of society, Weber argued that religious beliefs have significant impact upon economic actions and, in the case of Protestantism, were themselves the basis for the emergence of modern capitalism.

In 1909, Weber agreed to edit a new edition of an academic encyclopedia intended to cover every area of economics. In addition to arranging other contributors for the project, Weber planned to write for the volume a section on the relationship between economy and society. Although he never finished this work, Weber’s involvement in the project provided him with the occasion to work out a comprehensive sociology. At the time of his death, he had written nearly fifteen hundred pages of text, but the work still was incomplete. The disordered and fragmentary manuscript was edited and published posthumously under the title Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (1922; Economy and Society, 1968). This book contains many of Weber’s thoughts on politics, law, bureaucracy, and social stratification.

Perhaps Weber’s greatest impact on his contemporaries came near the end of World War I when he crusaded against Germany’s annexationist war goals and policy of submarine warfare. His journalistic attacks at this time frequently placed him in conflict with the military censors. After Germany’s defeat, Weber assisted in the drafting of the new constitution and in the founding of the German Democratic Party.

Weber briefly returned to the classroom, accepting in 1918 a professorship at the University of Vienna and the following year at the University of Munich. In early summer of 1920, Weber became ill with influenza, which soon turned into pneumonia. Weber died at his home in Munich on June 14, 1920.

Summary

In a strictly scientific sense, Max Weber did not develop a new sociological theory. His works instead consisted of a cloud of axioms, hypotheses, suggestions, and a few theorems—the details of which generally have been discredited by specialists in their respective fields. Weber also did not discover any new problematic area which had not been discovered by others before him. Sociologists previous to and independent of him, for example, had delved into matters relating to the origins and effects of modern capitalism. Moreover, largely because little of his work was published in book form while he was alive, Weber did not stand in the center of sociological discourse during his own life. Much to his dismay, few of his peers welcomed his “freedom from value-judgment” doctrine, which was Weber’s major methodological contribution to social science disciplines.

Yet, today Max Weber is almost the canonized saint of sociology who is widely acclaimed as the most influential and, perhaps, the most profound of twentieth century social scientists. His greatness does not lie in cerebral consistency, for much of his work is ambiguous and inconclusive, if not contradictory. Instead, Weber’s fame is a result of his multisided, far-reaching intellect. Weber was a genius whose work crossed all the boundaries of sociology, law, economics, history, and religion. His multidimensional works influenced thinkers as diverse as C. Wright Mills, H. Richard Niebuhr, György Lukács, and Carl Schmitt. Weber’s works remain “classic” because they call scholars away from the narrow perspectives of their individual disciplines to ask the grand questions about the meaning of human culture for which there are no easy answers.

Bibliography

Bendix, Reinhard. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1960. An older, but still one of the better single-volume portraits in English on the work of Weber.

Collins, Randall. Max Weber: A Skeleton Key. Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1986. An excellent brief introduction to Weber’s life and thought. Beautifully written. Highly recommended for readers interested in a concise synopsis of Weberian thought.

Giddens, Anthony. “Marx, Weber and the Development of Capitalism.” Sociology 4 (September, 1970): 289-310. An interesting summation of the works on the origins of capitalism of these two great thinkers.

Kasler, Dirk. Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work. Translated by Philippa Hurd. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. This English translation of Kasler’s Einfuhrung in das Studium Max Webers is a scholarly interpretation of the work of Weber. Balanced and insightful, but definitely intended for the advanced reader. Includes an extensive bibliography of Weber’s works listed in chronological order.

MacRae, Donald G. Max Weber. New York: Viking Press, 1974. A 111-page volume in the Modern Masters series edited by Frank Kermode. A very readable and informative work which briefly analyzes the components of Weber’s genius and suggests some reasons for Weber’s overrated reputation.

Weber, Marianne. Max Weber: A Biography. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Wiley, 1975. A biography written by the wife of Weber. Although not to be taken at face value, this work is an interesting and sometimes entertaining volume that sheds considerable light on the humanness of this academic giant.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Translated by Talcott Parsons, with an introduction by Anthony Giddens. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1976. A translation of Weber’s most famous work. Required reading for all students interested in the thought of Weber.