Max Weber - Legacy


The prestige of Max Weber among European social scientists would be difficult to over-estimate. He is widely considered the greatest of German sociologists and... has become a leading influence in European and American thought. — Hans Heinrich Gerth and Charles Wright Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, 1991

Weber's most influential work was on economic sociology, political sociology, and the sociology of religion. Along with Karl Marx and Émile Durkheim, he is commonly regarded as one of the founders of modern sociology. But whereas Durkheim, following Comte, worked in the positivist tradition, Weber was instrumental in developing an antipositivist, hermeneutic, tradition in the social sciences. In this regard he belongs to a similar tradition as his German colleagues Werner Sombart, Georg Simmel, and Wilhelm Dilthey, who stressed the differences between the methodologies appropriate to the social and the natural sciences.

Weber presented sociology as the science of human social action; action which he separated into traditional, affectional, value-rational and instrumental.

the science whose object is to interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and the effects which it produces. By "action" in this definition is meant the human behaviour when and to the extent that the agent or agents see it as subjectively meaningful the meaning to which we refer may be either (a) the meaning actually intended either by an individual agent on a particular historical occasion or by a number of agents on an approximate average in a given set of cases, or (b) the meaning attributed to the agent or agents, as types, in a pure type constructed in the abstract. In neither case is the "meaning" to be thought of as somehow objectively "correct" or "true" by some metaphysical criterion. This is the difference between the empirical sciences of action, such as sociology and history and any kind of a priori discipline, such as jurisprudence, logic, ethics, or aesthetics whose aim is to extract from their subject-matter "correct" or "valid" meaning. —Max Weber, The Nature of Social Action, 1922,

In his own time, however, Weber was viewed primarily as a historian and an economist. The breadth of Weber's topical interests is apparent in the depth of his social theory:

The affinity between capitalism and Protestantism, the religious origins of the Western world, the force of charisma in religion as well as in politics, the all-embracing process of rationalisation and the bureaucratic price of progress, the role of legitimacy and of violence as the offspring of leadership, the 'disenchantment' of the modern world together with the never-ending power of religion, the antagonistic relation between intellectualism and eroticism: all these are key concepts which attest to the enduring fascination of Weber's thinking. — Joachim Radkau, Max Weber: A Biography, 2005

Many of Weber's works famous today were collected, revised and published posthumously. Significant interpretations of his writings were produced by such sociological luminaries as Talcott Parsons and C. Wright Mills. Parsons in particular imparted to Weber's works a functionalist, teleological perspective; this personal interpretation has been criticised for a latent conservatism.

Weber has influenced many later social theorists, such as Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, György Lukács and Jürgen Habermas. Different elements of his thought were emphasized by Carl Schmitt, Joseph Schumpeter, Leo Strauss, Hans Morgenthau, and Raymond Aron. According to Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, who had met Weber during his time at the University of Vienna,

The early death of this genius was a great disaster for Germany. Had Weber lived longer, the German people of today would be able to look to this example of an "Aryan" who would not be broken by National Socialism. —Ludwig von Mises, 1940

Weber's friend, the psychiatrist and existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers, described him "the greatest German of our era" and his untimely death felt to Jaspers "as if the German world had lost its heart."

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