The German sociologist Max Weber died in 1920, but only with the 1930 publication of Talcott Parson’s translation of Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism did he first become widely known in the United States, primarily as the proponent of the famous thesis that the Protestant work ethic and the emergence of modern capitalism are causally linked. By mid-century, Weber was studied in America primarily as a social action and systems theorist who had made brilliant contributions to technical academic sociology. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, Weber has attracted commentators as a diagnostician of modernity, a prophetic voice of warning, a moralist—or, for some, an immoralist—in a disenchanted and alienated world. From his role as whipping-boy in Alistair McIntyre’s popular After Virtue (1981), to the critical appropriation of his work in the philosophy of the German thinker Juergen Habermas, Weber’s influence has spread far beyond the field of technical sociology.
It is in this last vein that John Patrick Diggins’ rich interpretation aims further to expand Weber’s influence. While not a strictly biographical treatment, his book is guided by the principle that since Weber’s life and work are of a piece, each work must be carefully placed in its historical and biographical context. Central to Diggins’ presentation, however, is the claim that Weber, while writing as a German for Germans, nevertheless was a European who, in the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, maintained a lifelong fascination with American life and history, and in 1904 even traveled to the United States in order better to learn its lessons. Like his French predecessor, Weber has many lessons to teach Americans about themselves. At the center of these lessons, Diggins argues, is one central theme: Modern political life is inherently and inescapably tragic, and American political life will prove—and has proven—to be no exception to this observation. America’s progressive liberalism, its belief in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, its democratic traditions, its capitalism, its relative freedom from the feudal encrustations that created centuries of bloody struggle for Europeans—none of these apparent advantages will provide an escape from the tragic dimension of modernity. In Diggins’ view, Weber understood and faced the dark side of modern liberalism without rejecting either modernity or liberalism. “With Max Weber,” he argues, “liberalism prepared itself for modernity.” Grappling with Weber, Diggins argues, can help Americans prepare themselves as well.
In Diggins’ account, what Weber understood were the “antinomies” that attend the making of moral decisions. The problem for Weber was not that one should be committed to values. As a passionate moralist—“the last Puritan”— Weber took that as a given. For Weber, the real travail of modernity emerges from at least three interconnected sources. First, we must confront the tensions—indeed, outright contradictions—between the values to which we are to commit ourselves. Science, rather than offering a unifying vision for our time, has in fact further fragmented our lives by revealing the value incoherence previously concealed by the firmly convinced monotheism of the Middle Ages. The old gods who struggled in antiquity, Weber proclaimed, have now ascended from their graves to resume their struggles, only this time as impersonal social, economic, and political forces in a disenchanted secular world. Second, in common with the earlier German philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx, Weber had a keen eye for the manner in which every ethically grounded institutional initiative, having been matched up with means and put into practice, seems inevitably to contain the seeds of its own unraveling. Thus Weber showed how the administration of a well-intentioned initiative nearly always becomes itself the bureaucratic end instead of the means. In a different vein, Weber’s work on the historical origins of modern capitalism demonstrated the ironic manner in which the otherworldly aspirations of one generation can ultimately produce the thoroughly this-worldly economic systems that ensnare their children. Finally, unlike Hegel and Marx, Weber assumed no “cunning of reason” progressively working itself out for the human good through the unintended consequences of human deeds. Rather, these perpetual tensions form primary and permanent features of our lives. Values obstruct each other, the requirements of ends and means rarely coincide over time, and there seem to be no guidelines by which to mediate between these competing claims. Values alone cannot guide human beings, and hence moral seriousness brings inevitable risk, struggle, and guilt.
In ever-expanding circles of analysis, an obsession with this apparent anarchy of values, the unintended consequences of value struggle, and the responsibilities that face the morally serious person in the modern world, forms the ethical core of Weber’s perspective on modernity. Weber’s own brand of liberalism is infused with the conviction that freedom in its most profound sense consists in taking responsibility for ourselves in this moral context. His call for value-free social science is likewise rooted in a commitment to the preservation of this freedom, to the maintenance of a clearing for morally responsible decision-making. For Diggins, Weber is a moralist for our time, a lonely prophet calling for discipline, realism, responsibility, and a clear-eyed outlook for the unintended consequences...
(The entire section is 2282 words.)