Max Weber

By: Tim Carmody
April 21, 2010

Max Weber

MAX WEBER (1864-1920) was fascinated by cults and sects, small groups who set out to change the world. He was also one of the first and best interpreters of comparative religion and mass culture. If the standard reading of his The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is as an idealist rebuke of Marx’s materialist take on economic ideology, its deeper legacy may be in contemporary cultural studies. Instead of demographic data or high-profile philosophical debates, Weber used close readings of obscure theologians and popular prose like Pilgrim’s Progress and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. History (and literature) offer the sociologist “ideal types” — mental pictures of multiple societies that furnish a vocabulary for analysis. He loved reversals and historical ironies. Protestant Ethic reads like a triumphalist account of the economic might of Puritan thrift, until the end, when Weber reveals that modernity has become an “iron cage.” Socialism fails not because of capitalism’s control of the means of production but because it neglects the state’s monopoly on the means of administration (bureaucracy) and legitimate violence (police and warfare). Weber’s last writings focus on the relationship between politics and scholarship: if the politician is forced into the devil’s pact of using violence instrumentally, the scholar must relentlessly seek both the consequences of those means and any inconvenient facts. Both have a responsibility over the life and death of nations.

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What do you think?

  1. This is a great piece, Tim. Weber really stands out for the blend of abstract, generalizing theoretical analysis (viz. Protestant Ethic, etc.), *and* unbelievably precise technical analysis of social and institutional structures and processes (Economy & Society). His stuff on the nature of bureaucratic order and the differences between state apparatuses and non-governmental institutions is genius and still seems underread. Perhaps because of the muchness. Anyway, really great stuff Tim.

  2. Thanks, Tor! Weber talks about “ideal types” as “mental constructs”/”thought pictures” (Gedankenbild). And that’s what they are. In a pure state, they don’t really exist anywhere. But they show you a lot about any particular society when you look at how all the different variants get mixed together. So it’s abstract and concrete all at the same time.

    I want to make a case for Weber as a reader of literature, too — so much of his method is based on that.

  3. In the graduate school proseminars in anthropology, Weber generally was tossed aside after the “ideal type” concepts were discussed. Anthropology has become sufficiently focused on particularity, richness and irreducibility that his ideal types seem ham-handed — grouchy grad. students were eager to test out their new horns on it. At times he pushes them further than is warranted, I think, but they’re still worth the effort when used carefully. Seeing them as a kind of cultural literary analysis is useful — I remember reading some of Freud’s work in this same light. Of course, Geertz was the most prominent neo-Weberian in recent decades in anthropology (thus closing the loop back to our discussion from the Savage Readers blog).

  4. I want to make a case for Weber as a rock and roll machine – Canadian whackos (and perpetual Rush touring partners) Max Webster wouldn’t have existed without him!

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