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1. From Weber To Weberianism
In portraits of individual thinkers, the adjective ‘Weberian’ is as widely used as ‘Marxian,’ ‘Durkheimian’ or ‘Freudian.’ The expression ‘Weberian Social Thought,’ however, is an awkward one if taken to imply the existence of a uniﬁed, coherent body of work, a determinate set of beliefs, or a group of committed followers. Weber’s admirers can be as jealous of his work as Marx’s are of the work of Marx. Despite Weber’s clearly enormous inﬂuence on twentieth century social and political analysis, there has never been a Weberian school of sociology comparable to that which grew up around Durkheim’s work. There has also never been a Weberian school of political science, or a Weberian movement to match the power and intensity of Marxism or psychoanalysis. The reasons for this are as follows: the immense range of Weber’s interests; the fragmented character of his work as a whole and the diﬃculty of reducing it to a small number of basic formulae; Weber’s own disdain towards intellectual hero worship; and the intellectual and political circumstances in which his work was made available after his death in 1920. His statement that science was tied to the course of progress, and his expressed hope that his own work would one day be made obsolete, merely add irony to an already complex and fragmented legacy.
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Weber’s social thought does not contain a speciﬁc ‘theory of’ the family, state, education, history, and so on, although these have been the objects of subsequent eﬀorts at reconstruction. It is rather a set of sensibilities, political commitments, and principles of analysis. These constitute the elements from which the various branches of ‘Weberian social thought’ are made up.
Politically Weber was both a liberal and a nationalist. His nationalism was the product of its time and has had little impact on his subsequent admirers, save as an embarrassing inconvenience. What Ralf Dahrendorf (1967) called his ‘strange liberalism’ expressed itself not in an explicit theory of human rights or justice—towards which abstractions he was skeptical—but in the search for those institutional arrangements which would ensure ‘individual freedom of movement’ and a politically educated citizenry in a rationalized, bureaucratized world, whose problems socialism threatened to exacerbate. Weber’s political commentaries combine a concern with parliamentary or party machinations, an analysis of the major social and economic groups of a society (considered in terms both of group interests and of group status), and the geopolitical situation of modern nation states. In these commentaries the value of freedom and the question of the qualities of human beings which a culture breeds are more important than the need to defend particular institutional arrangements on principle.
The focus of Weber’s substantive sociology is the economic and social history of Europe, the major world religions, and large scale civilization complexes. The principal tool for this is the ideal type, the one-sided exaggeration of empirical reality from the point of view of a phenomenon’s ‘cultural signiﬁcance.’ Weber’s ideal typical descriptions of social processes are notable for sure-footed shifts between levels of abstraction—achieved by the use of ideal types of varying degrees of generality—and for the deployment of the same type in a variety of historical settings without loss of nuance or speciﬁcity. His sociology knows neither rigid classiﬁcations of phenomena, nor social or historical laws, nor decisive individual events. He rejects holistic theories of society, anti-individualist or teleological philosophies of history, and cultural / political utopianism. The task of the social scientist is both to respect science’s limits and to fulﬁll its vocation by promoting culturally signiﬁcant historical knowledge and clarity concerning current conditions of political action, while oﬀering no prescriptions for action. The Weberian social scientist is thus not a public intellectual in the sense that he is a nation or a people’s or a class’s conscience, but rather one who possesses specialist knowledge and makes that knowledge available to government and to an educated public when circumstance permits. In Raymond Aron’s terms (1988), the Weberian social thinker is ‘isolated and available.’
Weber’s comparative study of civilizations and world religions convinced him that the secularization and rationalization of social relations in the West had not relieved individuals of the burden of previous religious struggles or conﬂicts, but had rather turned them inward. The centrality of ‘struggle’ in his work refers not merely to tragic and ineliminable conﬂicts between social and political interest groups or world views, but also to individually experienced conﬂicts between the demands placed upon modern human beings by a disenchanted world and their inward spiritual needs.
As Weber was inﬂuenced by, and integrated the thought of numerous predecessors—notably Machiavelli, Kant, Marx and Nietzsche—so the list of his successors is long and varied. Karl Mannheim, Carl Schmitt, Hans Morgenthau, Raymond Aron, Alfred Schutz, Ralf Dahrendorf or Barrington Moore may all be considered practitioners of ‘Weberian social thought’ in one form or another, though in each case key elements of Weber’s work are neglected or rejected. Many others, notably German neo-Marxists have accepted the broad terms of Weber’s diagnosis of the modern world—particularly his ‘disenchantment’ thesis—without endorsing either his response or the tools with which he constructs it. Signiﬁcantly, Catholic social thought has found nothing congenial either in Weber’s philosophy of social science or in his political writings, which decisively reject both holistic forms of social analysis and organicist social ethics.
2. Weberian Social Thought In Germany
The history of Weberian social thought is paradoxical and discontinuous, particularly in Germany and the USA. Following Weber’s death in 1920, the hasty attempts by Marianne Weber to make both his work and life more broadly available in Germany met with mixed results. While Weber’s work—in particular the lecture ‘Science as a Vocation’ of 1919—continued to be widely discussed, and many considered him to be the greatest of all German sociologists. However, in the intellectual climate of the Weimar Republic, Weber’s research program, which refused to attribute agency to social wholes, and which endorsed the comparative analysis of social structures and cultural systems, met with broad indiﬀerence. The attractions of dialectical, utopian or messianic grand narratives, exempliﬁed by Weber’s one time proteges Georg Lukacs and Ernst Bloch, or by Oswald Spengler, and of holistic sociological analysis, proved greater to the generation which matured after World War I. With the advent of national socialism in 1933, Weberian social thought met with open hostility in universities which were oriented to holistic, Volkish doctrine and practice, and in which analysis and the drawing of categorical distinctions was considered typical of ‘the Jewish intellect.’ In the quarter century following its publication in 1922 Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft, considered by many to be Weber’s magnum opus, had sold no more than 2000 copies.
After 1945 the advent of a Federal Republic oriented oﬃcially to a US image of democratic values, and the denaziﬁcation of German universities, further weakened the link between German sociology and its classical roots. The formal and substantive inﬂuence of the American occupying forces culminated in an intellectual climate combining two basic needs for an empirical and methodologically sensitive social inquiry; and for what Helmut Schelsky (1959) called ‘a neutral background ideology with a non-antagonistic character.’ Neither these, nor the widespread postwar belief that social science ought to be a direct participant in the planned reconstruction of European society, were conducive to a revival of Weberian social thought. Wolfgang Mommsen’s study ( 1984) then strengthened an association between Weber and an outdated, bellicose nationalism. A measure of redress came in Heidelberg in 1964 with the conference to mark the centenary of Weber’s birth, though notably all the keynote speakers were at the time working outside Germany. In the 1960s and 1970s, while Weber’s diagnosis of modernity—particularly the accounts of rationalization and disenchantment—remained an indispensable resource for second and third generation critical theorists, German social thought of the period was predominantly neo-conservative. This was exempliﬁed by the neo-Aristotelianism in political philosophy and Gehlen’s theory of institutions in sociology, neo-Marxist and neo-Freudian. The ‘left Nietzscheanism’ of the late 1960s did little to alter the predominant image of ‘Weberian social thought’ as a mode of cultural and political analysis within universities. In the year 2001 Weberian social thought in Germany is less a distinct style of thinking which rivals Marxism, rational choice theory or structuralism, than a set of analyticalconceptual tools or resources, a starting point, deployed by diﬀerent scholars in a wide variety of settings. For the rest, Weber’s work continues to be the object of hermeneutic puzzlement. Notable here are eﬀorts to reconstruct the meaning of his work as a whole (Tenbruck 1980, Hennis 1988) and to systematize it into a coherent developmental history of the West (Schluchter 1981), both of them expressions of uncertainty as to what ‘Weberian social thought’ is. Hennis’ interpretation, which plays down the developmental aspects in favor of Weber’s ‘vision of man,’ claims that at the center of Weberian social analysis lies the study of the way in which individuals in diﬀerent social locations conduct their lives. Though regarded as somewhat idiosyncratic in his native Germany, this has proved popular in Anglo-Saxon scholarship and has led to claims that Weber’s work has aﬃnities with contemporary diagnoses of postmodernity and even with some branches of cultural studies.
3. Weberian Social Thought In Britain And America
Paradoxically, Weberian social thought has ﬂourished as readily in the English-speaking world as it has in Germany. Responsibility for this is frequently attributed to Talcott Parsons. Parsons contributed the ﬁrst English-language monograph devoted to Weber’s work as a whole, volume 2 of The Structure of Social Action (Parsons 1937) and also published a translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1930, and part of Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft in 1948. But this would be to ignore the role of numerous German emigre scholars in the USA in the 1930s and 1940s, such as Alexander von Schelting and Albert Salomon, and the presence of Karl Mannheim in the UK after 1933. The most accessible general collection of Weber’s writings, From Max Weber (1946), was translated and edited by the emigre Hans Gerth with C. Wright Mills, and was followed in 1949 by Edward Shils’ translations of three pieces on the philosophy of social science and culture, The Methodology of the Social Sciences (Weber 1949).
Nevertheless, more than one scholar loyal to European traditions of social thought has observed that in the course of the twentieth century the ideas of German thinkers in particular—one thinks here of Heidegger, Nietzsche and Freud—have been trivialized as they have been transferred to North America, and that that those of Weber are no exception. Hence the claim that the Weberian social thought which ﬂourishes in the Anglo-American world might be interpreted as a bloodless version of the original which inspired it. This is certainly the view of Wilhelm Hennis (1988), who has laid responsibility for this at the door of Talcott Parsons. Parsons’ functionalist account of institutions, scientist account of the nature of action, and evolutionary conception of history represent, so it is alleged, a misuse of Weberian ideas. In particular, it blinds us to the tragic sensibility that animates both Weber’s conception of Western history and politics and his relationship to his own scientiﬁc activity. The Americanized Weber is, it is claimed, a Weber to whom the grand historical dramas and passions that unfold on the pages of Marx and Nietzsche meant little.
Yet against this charge, it may be recalled that Weber himself was an admirer of both the political and cultural achievements of three Protestant cultures outside Germany, the Netherlands, the UK and the USA. Weberian social thought in North America, which has ignored the tragic element in Weber, may be seen with caution as a partial reciprocation, an acknowledgment of how Weber’s own thought might have appeared in North American conditions, freed of the speciﬁcally European burdens which Weber took it upon himself to bear. A central Weberian motif is after all, the need of the social scientist to face up to ‘the demands of the day,’ whatever they may be.
In addition, in should be noted that more than one Weberian baton has passed through the hands of Anglo-Saxon scholarship. As well as Salomon, Schelting and Gerth, versions of Weberian social thought have been promoted by Hans Morgenthau, Gunther Roth and Reinhard Bendix in the USA, and by John Rex and other conﬂict theorists in the UK. Morgenthau’s realist theory of international relations, in which priority in political analysis is given to the power political interests of large nation states and the conduct of statesmen, bears the imprint of Weberian thought throughout. Secondly, Weber’s historical sociology of domination, mediated by Bendix and Roth, has exerted a major inﬂuence on the analysis of the pattern and dynamic of development in Western and non-Western societies alike. The work which has grown up around Barrington Moore, Theda Skocpol, Bendix, and, arguably, Perry Anderson, owes a good deal more to Weber’s own sociology of domination than to Parsons’ version of it. These writers, however, unlike Weber, have generally organized their material according to a theme, pattern or formula—dictatorship or democracy, Kings or people, the Absolutist State, the priority of external over internal pressures in revolutionary situations. And these historical sociologists have only ﬂeetingly employed the distinctively Weberian rhetorical device—to be found even in his most antiquarian studies—of making implicit reference to current political circumstance. In the UK, the version of sociology which came to be known as conﬂict theory, and associated in particular with the work of John Rex and Ralf Dahrendorf, may be taken as a conscious eﬀort to deploy Weberian categories in the analysis of industrial labor and race relations. A characteristically Weberian feature of such work was that it combined empirical inquiry, theoretical and methodological self-consciousness, and a sense of the social and political urgency of the problem addressed.
4. Weberian Social Thought In France
Weberian social thought has never taken root in France, as is made clear by the late appearance of French translations of Weber’s work: Science as a Vocation and Politics as a Vocation in 1959, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1964, The City in 1982, The Sociology of Law in 1986. Economy and Society, while translated into Spanish in 1944 and Italian in 1961, has yet to appear in full in a French edition. This is partly explained by the entrenchment of national intellectual traditions in the ﬁrst half of the twentieth century, exempliﬁed by the oft-noted mutual indiﬀerence of Weber and Durkheim. Within sociology, the Durkheimian School remained important in the 1920s, and the reception of Weber’s work was sporadic. Maurice Halbwachs reviewed Weber’s Protestant Ethic thesis in 1925, and Raymond Aron’s German Sociology of 1935 devoted a chapter to Weber. But the former remained a committed Durkheimian while Aron’s text did no more than make a French audience aware of Weber’s existence. The other potential conduit for Weberianism in France in the 1920s, Georges Gurwitch, knew German social and political thought primarily via the legal philosopher Emil Lask, and following World War II became openly hostile to what was seen as Weber’s interpretative arbitrariness, nominalism, and lack of dialectical acumen.
Paradoxically, the role of the USA in postwar France, and doubts about the scientiﬁc status of sociology and attendant search for new voices appeared to make possible a revival of the fortunes of Weberian thought, with many younger French sociologists spending time in America and encountering both Weber and survey research. Yet the prestige of Durkheimian sociology gave way not to Weberianism but to Hegelian Marxian and later Heideggerian and Nietzschean philosophy, an exclusion reinforced by the notorious intensity and intimacy of a French intellectual life dominated by Paris. With the exception of Raymond Aron and Julien Freund, no major French intellectual of the postwar period could be described as a Weberian social thinker, and even Aron, who maintained a constant dialogue with Weber and whose public role was the Weberian one of political educator oriented to ‘the demands of the day,’ oﬀered the French public only a restricted version of Weberian social thought. Oriented primarily to the relationship between ethics and politics in the lives of political actors, it largely avoided the sociological analysis of the dynamic of material interest that found its way even into Weber’s most journalistic political commentaries. And where Weber’s political commentaries emphasized the tragedy of individual choice, Aron sought to reconcile conﬂicting values. It may be argued that in the 1950s this Weberian social thought for statesmen found its way into the thinking of many who passed through Aron’s hands at the Institut des Sciences Politiques and Ecole Nationale d’Administration.
In the 1960s a more social, less overtly political form of Weberianism developed around the work of ﬁgures such as Alain Touraine and Jean Marie Vincent, who deployed Weberian categories in the study of industry and organization, and of new forms of social conﬂict. This work also allowed for a Weberian critique of the bureaucratizing tendencies within the French State. Since 1980, with an increasing awareness of the importance in Weber’s work of the themes of life conduct and style of life, the work of ﬁgures such as Pierre Bourdieu and Michel Foucault has been held to display aﬃnities with that of Weber. However, while Bourdieu’s theories of ‘cultural capital’ have some aﬃnities with Weber’s account of status and prestige, his work as a whole owes as much to Marx and Durkheim. Michel Foucault’s work on power, discipline, and the conduct of life bears thematic comparison with Weber but his archaeological and genealogical historical method, and libertarian conception of politics, diﬀer from Weber’s in basic respects.
5. Weberian Social Thought In Other Countries
Outside the European mainstream ‘Weberian social thought’ has been enormously inﬂuential without gaining a distinct foothold or producing signiﬁcant modiﬁcation or extension. In Italy, those elements of Weber’s work which are of importance have been grafted on to an already established tradition of realist social and political analysis which overlaps with Weber’s approach at numerous points. In the Soviet Union before World War II and in state socialist countries after it, Weberian social thought did not ﬂourish. In the 1920s, while Russian historians such as Neusychin discussed Weber’s account of feudalism and of the origins of capitalism with some sympathy—albeit through aligning Weber with Marx— the ethical and political dimension of Weber’s thinking—exempliﬁed by Science as a Vocation—remained a closed book. This state of aﬀairs, in which Weber’s work was either shown to have aﬃnities with Marxism or rejected for its combination of neo-Kantianism and undialectical positivism, prevailed throughout the Soviet bloc, and to a considerable extent in the West too, until the mid-1970s, until renewed interest among Western scholars in Weber’s work as a whole began to have an eﬀect in state socialist countries. In countries such as Poland—which before 1945 had a strong indigenous tradition of non-Marxist social thought— Weber’s work has exerted a growing inﬂuence since the 1970s, ﬁrstly on discussions of ethics and politics, and since 1989 on discussions of the ethical and religious signiﬁcance of economic conduct in rapidly transforming societies. One of the more remarkable episodes in the history of Weberian social thought concerns Japan. The opening of Japan following the Meiji restoration led to numerous intellectual exchanges with an imperial Germany that was rapidly developing while retaining many elements of a feudal traditional ethos. Weber’s co-editor Emil Lederer spent two years in Tokyo in 1923–1925, as did Karl Lowith in 1936–1941. The eﬀect of these, was that the Protestant ethic thesis was discussed as early as 1910 in Japan, and Japanese translations appeared of the General Economic History (1927), of Science as a Vocation, The Meaning of Ethical Neutrality (both 1937), and Politics as Vocation (1939) before they appeared in English.
6. Weberian Social Thought After 1989
The history of Weberian social thought since the end of World War II has been largely one of the way in his work has been mediated and refashioned to suit changing political, economic, and intellectual circumstance. The fruits of those eﬀorts have been ambiguous, the elements of Weber’s own thought being developed in diﬀerent directions and not always to Weberian purposes. Parsonian functionalism and Schutzian phenomenology are notorious cases in point, along with the fragmented appearance of Weber’s work in anthologies, and the concentration of empirically informed Weberian social thought in the areas of industry and organization. Yet following the collapse of communism in 1989, with the geo-political tensions in Europe which gave rise to nationalist wars and the uniﬁcation of Germany, and the rapid development of capitalism and the trappings of democracy in China and East Asia, there may be grounds for arguing that the history of Weberian social thought has come full circle. Also, that the current problems and dilemmas facing Europeans and non-Europeans alike are more directly Weberian than they have been at any time since his death.
Questions asked via Weberian categories during the cold war—are Western societies evolving towards a rationalized and disenchanted ‘modernity’? What are the appropriate terms in which to understand the nature of human action? Has ideology come to an end? What are the main dimensions of power and authority within industrial enterprises and bureaucratic organizations?—may begin to yield to ones which recall the atmosphere of political and social urgency which animates Weber’s own texts, is a united Germany with its capital in Berlin a threat to its Eastern neighbors, or for that matter its Western ones? What social consequences follow a state of aﬀairs in which the European community confronts its poorer neighbors as a land of seasonal opportunity and as a fortress? Is there a diﬀerence between Protestant and Catholic social thought on European integration? What eﬀects do new forms of commerce and enterprise have on relationships between urban and rural areas in societies with large peasant populations? What of the relationships between majority and minority populations? Do the institutional arrangements in the new democracies foster or hinder the political education of their citizens? What are the consequences of the rapid transition to a market economy for family structures, welfare provision and, above all, for the manner in which individuals are able to conduct their lives? What is the relationship between religion, ethics, and economic or political conduct? Can these questions be posed in the same way in Europe and the rest of the world, or is it still necessary to take into account the diﬀerent religious and civilizational parameters through which they are addressed?
It would be un-Weberian to predict the future of Weberian social thought, but one might surmise that until 2020 the search for the core elements of Weber’s own world view will wane as its protagonists reach the end of their careers. At the same time, the questions which Weber asked of his own time, questions which twentieth century social and political science have been either able to avoid or reluctant to address, may cast a well-deﬁned shadow over the social and political world of the ﬁrst half of the twenty-ﬁrst century.
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