Max Weber

From New World Encyclopedia

Max Weber

Maximilian Weber (April 21, 1864 – June 14, 1920) was a German political economist and sociologist who is considered one of the founders of the modern "antipositivistic" study of sociology and public administration. His major works deal with the sociology of religion and government, but he also wrote much in the field of economics. His most recognized work is his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which began his work in the sociology of religion. Weber argued that religion was one of the primary reasons for the different ways the cultures of the Occident and the Orient have developed. Weber stated that the modern world was devoid of gods, because we had chased them away, and he feared that loss of religious ideals and commitment had endangered human society, causing it to become a prison in which humankind would be trapped in a soulless existence.

While the twentieth century in many ways proved him correct, stronger personal faith in God might have allowed Weber to realize that God would not abandon humankind.

Life and career

Maximilian Weber was born in Erfurt, Germany, the eldest of seven children of Max Weber Sr., a prominent politician and civil servant, and his wife Helene Fallenstein. While both his parents came from Protestant families, it was his mother who held strong religious commitments and exemplified the Calvinistic sense of duty. His younger brother, Alfred, was also a sociologist and economist. Max grew up in a household immersed in politics, and his father received a long list of prominent scholars and public figures in his salon. At the time, Max proved to be intellectually precocious.

Max Weber and his brothers Alfred and Karl in 1879.

In 1882, Weber enrolled in the University of Heidelberg as a law student. Weber chose as his major study his father's field of law. Apart from his work in law, he attended lectures in economics and studied medieval history. In addition, Weber read a great deal in theology. In the fall of 1884, Weber returned to his parents' home to study at the University of Berlin. In 1886, he passed the examination for "Referendar," comparable to the bar examination in the American legal system. He earned his doctorate in law in 1889, writing his dissertation on legal history entitled The History of Medieval Business Organisations.

Max Weber and his wife Marianne in 1894.

Weber first became engaged to his cousin, Emmy Baumgarten, who was in ill health both physically and mentally. After six years, during which he suffered agonizing doubts and feelings of guilt, Weber finally broke the engagement. In 1893, he married his distant cousin, Marianne Schnitger, later a feminist and author in her own right, who after his death in 1920, was decisive in collecting and publishing Weber's works as books. In 1894, the couple moved to Freiburg, where Weber was appointed professor of economics at Freiburg University, before accepting the same position at the University of Heidelberg in 1897. That same year, his father died two months after having a severe quarrel with him. Following this incident, Weber was more and more prone to "nervousness" and insomnia. He spent several months in a sanatorium in the summer and fall of 1900.

After his immense productivity in the early 1890s, he finally resigned as a professor in the fall of 1903. In 1904, Max Weber began to publish some of his most seminal papers, notably his essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. It became his most famous work, and laid the foundations for his later research on the impact of cultures and religions on the development of economic systems.

Max Weber in 1917.

In 1915 and 1916, he was a member of commissions that tried to retain German supremacy in Belgium and Poland after the war. Weber was a German imperialist and wanted to enlarge the German empire to the east and the west.

In 1918, Weber became a consultant to the German Armistice Commission at the Treaty of Versailles and to the commission charged with drafting the Weimar Constitution. He argued in favor of inserting Article 48 into the Weimar Constitution. This article was later used by Adolf Hitler to declare martial law and seize dictatorial powers.

From 1918, Weber resumed teaching, first at the University of Vienna, then in 1919 at the University of Munich. In Munich, he headed the first German University institute of sociology. Many colleagues and students in Munich despised him for his speeches and left-wing attitude during the German revolution of 1918 and 1919. Right-wing students protested at his home.

Max Weber died of pneumonia in Munich on June 14, 1920.

Weber and German politics

Weber thought that the only way that German culture would survive was by creating an empire. He influenced German policy towards eastern Germany. In 1894, he proposed closing the border to Polish workers from Russia and Austria-Hungary. However, in 1895, impressed by the attitude of the Russian liberal party, which wanted to change Russian nationalism by accepting ethnic minorities as Russians, he reversed his position.

Weber advocated democracy as a means for selecting strong leaders. He viewed democracy as a form of charisma where the "demagogue imposes his will on the masses." For this reason, the European left has been highly critical of Weber for, albeit unwittingly, preparing the intellectual groundwork for Adolf Hitler's leadership.

Weber was strongly anti-socialist, despising the anti-nationalist stance of the Marxist parties. He was surprised that the communists in Russia (who dissolved the old elite and bureaucracy) could survive for more than half a year.

Weber was very opposed to the conservatives who tried to hold back the democratic liberation of the working classes. Weber's personal and professional letters show considerable disgust for the anti-Semitism of his day. It is doubtful that Weber would have supported the Nazis had he lived long enough to see their activities.


Max Weber was—along with Karl Marx, Vilfredo Pareto, and Émile Durkheim—one of the founders of modern sociology. Whereas Pareto and Durkheim, following Comte, worked in the positivist tradition, Weber created and worked, like Werner Sombart, in the antipositivist, idealist, and hermeneutic tradition. Those works started the antipositivistic revolution in social sciences, which stressed the difference between the social sciences and natural sciences, especially due to human social actions. Weber's early work was related to industrial sociology, but he is most famous for his later work on the sociology of religion and sociology of government.

Max Weber began his studies of rationalization in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he showed how the aims of certain Protestant denominations, particularly Calvinism, shifted towards the rational means of economic gain as a way of expressing that they had been blessed. The rational roots of this doctrine, he argued, soon grew incompatible with and larger than the religious, and so the latter were eventually discarded. Weber continued his investigation into this matter in later works, notably in his studies on bureaucracy and on the classifications of authority.


Sociology of religion

Weber's work on the sociology of religion started with the essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and continued with the analysis of The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, and Ancient Judaism.

His three main themes were the effect of religious ideas on economic activities, the relation between social stratification and religious ideas, and the distinguishable characteristics of Western civilization.

His goal was to find reasons for the different development paths of the cultures of the Occident and the Orient. In the analysis of his findings, Weber maintained that Puritan (and more widely, Protestant) religious ideas had had a major impact on the development of the economic system of Europe and the United States, but noted that they were not the only factors in this development. "Disenchantment of the world" was identified by Weber as an important distinguishing aspect of Western culture.

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Weber's essay The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is his most famous work. Here, Weber put forward the controversial thesis that the Protestant ethic influenced the development of capitalism. Religious devotion had usually been accompanied by rejection of worldly affairs, including economic pursuit. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber addressed this paradox in his essay, finding his answer in the religious ideas of the Reformation.

Weber argued that certain Protestant ideas, particularly John Calvin's understanding of predestination that sinful people cannot know directly whether they are part of God's elect to whom the grace of salvation is offered, favored rational pursuit of economic gain and worldly activities. Resultant insecurity on the part of Protestants, and their fear of eternal damnation, led them to seek signs indicating God's direction for their lives and affirmation of their correct behavior. Thus, hard work followed by financial success came to be the hallmark of God's grace. Coupled with traditional religious asceticism, these ideas encouraged people to accumulate wealth. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct—the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them, both directly and indirectly, encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain.

According to Weber, this "spirit of capitalism" not only involved hard work and entrepreneurialism on the part of Protestants, but also a sense of stewardship over the resulting gains. For if money is not sought after for luxury or self-indulgence, but as moral affirmation, economizing and reinvesting in worthy enterprises become normal economic practices.

The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism

The Religion of China: Confucianism and Taoism was Weber's second major work on the sociology of religion. Weber focused on those aspects of Chinese society that were different from those of Western Europe and especially contrasted with Puritanism, and posed the question, why did capitalism not develop in China?

As in Europe, Chinese cities had been founded as forts or leaders' residences, and were the centers of trade and crafts. However, they never received political autonomy and its citizens had no special political rights or privileges. This is due to the strength of kinship ties, which stems from religious beliefs in ancestral spirits. Also, the guilds competed against each other for the favor of the emperor, never uniting in order to fight for more rights. Therefore, the residents of Chinese cities never constituted a separate status class like the residents of European cities.

Weber emphasized that instead of metaphysical conjectures, Confucianism taught adjustment to the world. "Superior" men (literati) should stay away from the pursuit of wealth (though not from wealth itself). Therefore, becoming a civil servant was preferred to becoming a businessman and granted a much higher status.

Chinese civilization had no religious prophecy nor a powerful priestly class. The emperor was the high priest of the state religion and the supreme ruler, but popular cults were also tolerated (however the political ambitions of their priests were curtailed). This forms a sharp contrast with medieval Europe, where the church curbed the power of secular rulers and the same faith was professed by rulers and common folk alike.

According to Weber, Confucianism and Puritanism represent two comprehensive but mutually exclusive types of rationalization, each attempting to order human life according to certain ultimate religious beliefs. However, Confucianism aimed at attaining and preserving "a cultured status position" and used it as means of adjustment to the world, education, self-perfection, politeness, and familial piety.

The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism

The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism was Weber's third major work on the sociology of religion. In this work, he dealt with the structure of Indian society, the orthodox doctrines of Hinduism and the heterodox doctrines of Buddhism, the modifications brought by the influence of popular religiosity, and finally with the impact of religious beliefs on the secular ethic of Indian society.

The Indian social system was shaped by the concept of caste. It directly linked religious belief and the segregation of society into status groups. The caste system consisted of the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaisyas (merchants), the Sudras (laborers), and the untouchables.

Weber paid special attention to Brahmins and analyzed why they occupied the highest place in Indian society for many centuries. With regard to the concept of dharma, he concluded that the Indian ethical pluralism is very different both from the universal ethic of Confucianism and Christianity. He noted that the caste system prevented the development of urban status groups.

Next, Weber analyzed Hindu religious beliefs, including asceticism and the Hindu worldview, the Brahman orthodox doctrines, the rise and fall of Buddhism in India, the Hindu restoration, and the evolution of the guru. He noted the idea of an immutable world order consisting of the eternal cycles of rebirth and the deprecation of the mundane world, and found that the traditional caste system, supported by the religion, slowed economic development.

He argued that it was the Messianic prophecies in the countries of the Near East, as distinguished from the prophecy of the Asiatic mainland, that prevented the countries of the Occident from following the paths of development marked out by China and India. His next work, Ancient Judaism was an attempt to prove this theory.

Ancient Judaism

In Ancient Judaism, his fourth major work on the sociology of religion, Weber attempted to explain the "combination of circumstances" that was responsible for the early differences between Oriental and Occidental religiosity. It is especially visible when the interworldly asceticism developed by Western Christianity is contrasted with mystical contemplation of the kind developed in India. Weber noted that some aspects of Christianity sought to conquer and change the world, rather than withdraw from its imperfections. This fundamental characteristic of Christianity (when compared to Far Eastern religions) stems originally from the ancient Jewish prophecy.

Stating his reasons for investigating ancient Judaism, Weber wrote that

Anyone who is heir to the traditions of modern European civilization will approach the problems of universal history with a set of questions, which to him appear both inevitable and legitimate. These questions will turn on the combination of circumstances which has brought about the cultural phenomena that are uniquely Western and that have at the same time (…) a universal cultural significance.

Weber analyzed the interaction between the Bedouins, the cities, the herdsmen, and the peasants, including the conflicts between them and the rise and fall of the United Monarchy. The time of the United Monarchy appears as a mere episode, dividing the period of confederacy since the Exodus and the settlement of the Israelites in Palestine from the period of political decline following the Division of the Monarchy. This division into periods has major implications for religious history. Since the basic tenets of Judaism were formulated during the time of Israelite confederacy and after the fall of the United Monarchy, they became the basis of the prophetic movement that left a lasting impression on Western civilization.

Weber noted that Judaism not only fathered Christianity and Islam, but was crucial to the rise of modern Occident state, as its influences were as important to those of Hellenistic and Roman cultures.

Sociology of politics and government

In the sociology of politics and government, Politics as a Vocation is considered to be Weber's most significant essay. Therein, Weber unveiled the definition of the state that has become so pivotal to Western social thought: the state is that entity which possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, which it may elect to delegate as it sees fit. Politics is to be understood as any activity in which the state might engage itself in order to influence the relative distribution of force. A politician must not be a man of the "true Christian ethic," understood by Weber as being the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, that is to say, the injunction to turn the other cheek. An adherent of such an ethic ought rather to be understood to be a saint, for it is only saints, according to Weber, that can appropriately follow it. The political realm is no realm for saints. A politician ought to marry the ethic of ultimate ends and the ethic of responsibility, and must possess both a passion for his avocation and the capacity to distance himself from the subject of his exertions (the governed).

Weber distinguished three pure types of political leadership domination and authority: charismatic domination (familial and religious), traditional domination (patriarchs, patrimonialism, feudalism), and legal domination (modern law and state, bureaucracy). In his view, every historical relation between rulers and ruled contained elements that can be analyzed on the basis of this tripartite distinction. He also noted that the instability of charismatic authority inevitably forces it to "routinize" into a more structured form of authority.

Many aspects of modern public administration are attributed to Weber. A classic, hierarchically organized civil service of the continental type is called "Weberian civil service," although this is only one ideal type of public administration and government described in his magnum opus, Economy and Society (1922). In this work, Weber outlined his description of rationalization (of which bureaucratization is a part) as a shift from a value-oriented organization and action (traditional authority and charismatic authority) to a goal-oriented organization and action (legal-rational authority). The result, according to Weber, is a "polar night of icy darkness," in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in an "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control.

Weber's studies of bureaucracy also led him to his accurate prediction that socialism in Russia would, due to abolishing the free market and its mechanisms, lead to over-bureaucratization (evident, for example, in the shortage economy) rather than to the "withering away of the state" (as Karl Marx had predicted would happen in a communist society).


While Max Weber is best known and recognized today as one of the leading scholars and founders of modern sociology, he also accomplished much in the field of economics. However, during his lifetime, economics was not nearly as developed as it is today.

From the point of view of economists, Weber is a representative of the "Youngest" German Historical School. His most valued contribution to the field is his famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. This seminal essay discussed the differences between religions and the relative wealth of their followers. Weber's work paralleled Werner Sombart's treatise of the same phenomenon, which, however, located the rise of capitalism in Judaism. Weber acknowledged that capitalist societies had existed prior to Calvinism. However, he argued that in those cases, religious views did not support the capitalist enterprise, but rather limited it. Only the Protestant ethic, based on Calvinism, actively supported the accumulation of capital as a sign of God's grace.

Weber's other main contributions to economics (as well as to social science in general) is his work on methodology: his theories of Verstehen (known as "understanding" or "interpretative sociology") and of antipositivism (known as "humanistic sociology").

Max Weber formulated a three-component theory of stratification, with "social class," "status class," and "party class" (or political class) as conceptually distinct elements.

  • Social class is based on an economically determined relationship to the market (owner, renter, employee, etc.).
  • Status class is based on non-economic qualities like honor, prestige, and religion.
  • Party class refers to affiliations in the political domain.

All three dimensions have consequences for what Weber called "life chances."

Weber felt that economics should be a broad science covering not only economic phenomena, but also non-economic phenomena that might influence the economy ("economically relevant phenomena") and non-economic phenomena that, to some extent, had been influenced by economic phenomena ("economically conditioned phenomena") (Weber 1949: 64–66). The name that Weber gave to this broad type of economics was “social economics." Weber’s thought in this area provided a platform for productive interdisciplinary dialogue between economists and sociologists. To understand Weber’s perspective, one cannot ignore the value he placed on economic history and economic sociology in the study of economic theory.

Contribution and Legacy

Weber's sociological theories had a great impact on twentieth-century sociology. He developed the notion of "ideal types," which were examples of situations in history that could be used as reference points to compare and contrast different societies. This approach analyzes the basic elements of social institutions and examines how these elements relate to one another. His study of the sociology of religion allowed for a new level of cross-cultural understanding and investigation.

Through his celebrated work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber was one of the first scholars to emphasize the moral and spiritual dimensions of economic behavior. His analysis of the spiritual and moral conditions for successful economic productivity continues to be a source of inspiration to modern social scientists and other thinkers.

His insights and understanding concerning the weaknesses of capitalism have also had long-lasting impact. He concluded that the capitalist spirit was born more from psychological tensions that Calvinist theological obligations tended to create in the minds of the faithful, than as a result of pure religious devotion. According to Weber, the anxiety and inner loneliness resulting from the Calvinist doctrine of predestination created an all-consuming, driving force in the minds of believers, compelling them to essentially enslave themselves with materialistic pursuit while simultaneously creating an unprecedented increase in economic development.

However, he also observed that once capitalism became divorced from its religious sentiment, it developed into a secular ethic with "inexorable power," leading him to denigrate capitalists as "specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart."

Weber was fiercely independent, refusing to bend to any ideological line. Although he repeatedly entered the political arena, he was not truly a political man, one who is able to make compromises in the pursuit of his aims (according to Weber's own definition).

Weber regarded the world of modernity as having been deserted by the gods, because man had chased them away—rationalization had replaced mysticism. He saw the future world as one without feeling, passion, or commitment, unmoved by personal appeal and personal fealty, by grace and by the ethics of charismatic heroes. In many ways the twentieth century fulfilled his deepest fears, yet it also saw the birth of incredible development in all areas of human life.

Weber's last words were reported to be: "The Truth is the Truth" (Coser 1977: 242–243). This intellectual giant, suffering from deep tensions caused by his relationships with his family, and by the oppressive political atmosphere, was finally limited by circumstance in how much truth he could uncover.

Major Works

  • Weber, Max. 1922/1968. Economy and Society. Edited by Max Rheinstein. Translated by Edward Shils and Max Rheinstein. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Weber, Max. 1946/1958. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. Oxford University Press, USA. ISBN 0195004620
  • Weber, Max. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. New York: Free Press.
  • Weber, Max. 1962. The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism. Free Press.
  • Weber, Max. 1967. Ancient Judaism. Free Press. ISBN 0029341302
  • Weber, Max. 1968. The Religion of China. Free Press. ISBN 0029344506
  • Weber, Max. 1993. Basic Concepts in Sociology. Translated and with an introduction by H.P. Secher. New York: Citadel Press (original work published 1962). ISBN 0806503041
  • Weber, Max. 2001. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 2nd ed. Routledge (original work published 1904). ISBN 041525406X
  • Weber, Max. 2004. The Vocation Lectures: Science As a Vocation, Politics As a Vocation. Hackett Publishing Company. ISBN 0872206653

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bendix, Reinhard. 1978. Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait. University of California Press. ISBN 0520031946
  • Coser, Lewis. 1977. Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context. Harcourt. ISBN 0155551302
  • Kaesler, Dirk. 1989. Max Weber: An Introduction to His Life and Work. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226425606
  • Mommsen, Wolfgang. 1974. Max Weber und die Deutsche Politik 1890–1920. J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck). ISBN 0226533999
  • Roth, Guenther. 2001. Max Webers deutsch-englische Familiengeschichte. J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck)
  • Swedberg, Richard. 1999. “Max Weber as an Economist and as a Sociologist.” American Journal of Economics and Sociology October 1999.
  • Weber, Marianne. 1929/1988. Max Weber: A Biography. New Brunswick: Transaction Books.

External links

All links retrieved November 8, 2022.


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