Fleeing the Iron Cage: Culture, Politics, and Modernity in the Thought of Max Weber
Max Weber Briefe 1906–1908 (Max Weber Gesamtausgabe, Abteilung II, Band V)
Max Weber, born in 1864 as the child of a well-to-do Berlin family, began his scholarly career at the end of the 1880s. It was a time of crisis and turbulence in European thought. The great age of liberalism was coming to an end with the rise of mass politics and new kinds of leaders, popular tribunes with charisma (to use a Weberian term) like Georg von Schönerer and Karl Luager and other precursors of Mussolini and Hitler. Among intellectuals, there was a widespread repudiation of the former faith in historical progress, as well as a tendency to turn away from liberal rationalism to neoromantic forms of philosophical and artistic expression. Characteristic of the crisis, above all, was a deep cultural pessimism, a sense of being trapped in a world of degeneration and decline, of disenchantment with old ideals and a frenetic search for new forms of self-realization—free love movements and youth cults, nature worship and vegetarianism. From the very beginning the young scholar was preoccupied with what he called “the fate of our times,” and the unifying theme of both his scholarship and his life was the prevailing cultural crisis and the destiny of humankind in the contemporary world.
At least, this is the view of Lawrence A. Scaff in his absorbing new critical study of Weber’s life and writings. Mr. Scaff believes that the familiar characterizations of Weber’s work, and descriptions of him as the founder of sociology, or the leader of the revolt against positivism, or the theoretician of Machtpolitik, and the like, are incomplete and inadequate. He writes:
As one turns from the comfort of the old and familiar to the life and thought as a whole…one cannot fail to sense a dissonance between interpretive generalizations long since take for granted and the record of actual work and accomplishment…. Even to conceive [Weber’s] essential questions arrayed along a single axis between “science” and “politics” is already to risk missing what is most important
—namely, what both Karl Jaspers and Karl Löwith sensed, Weber’s fundamental philosophical impulse, his search for knowledge of self and the specific historical character of his time. “In my judgment,” Mr. Scaff writes, “if we follow Weber’s lead in this direction—that is, toward the culture and politics of the modern age—we should be rewarded with the recovery of a much more challenging and unusual body of thought than has generally been encountered before.”
The direction taken by Weber’s early career clearly supports Mr. Scaff’s approach. In her biography of her husband, Marianne Weber tells us that the young jurist’s decision in 1894 to leave the University of Berlin, where he seemed likely to receive Levin Goldschmidt’s chair in commercial law when Goldschmidt retired, and to accept a chair in political economy at the University of Freiburg was caused not only by his indignation over the disingenuous manner in which the Prussian minister of education, Friedrich Althoff, tried to under-cut the Freiburg offer but also by his conviction that his interests…
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