In response to:

Max the Fatalist from the June 11, 2020 issue

To the Editors:

We appreciate Peter E. Gordon’s thoughtful review of Charisma and Disenchantment, our edition of Max Weber’s “vocation lectures” [NYR, June 11], but of course we’re not writing simply to say thank you. For all the care and precision his essay displays, Professor Gordon is too quick to level the charge that X has missed Y, stating, for example, that in our introduction, we don’t “capture” an important irony that seems awfully close to a point we take pains to stress. We present Weber’s modern scholar as a paradoxical figure who becomes a source of value when she acknowledges the fact of the relativity of all value, and, accordingly, consigns herself to a limited role in values education. This is what we mean where we say that for Weber, “the moral purpose of the university is to inculcate character by forging…scholarly asceticism.”

More importantly, Gordon accuses Weber himself of failing “to grasp the crucial point that a rationalized society is not necessarily a rational one.” It is a curious claim, since Weber impressed upon his listeners that science can tell a society how to build things but not what it should do with them. He just didn’t share the belief of his neo-Hegelian critics, both in his own day and ours, that reason or history will finally reveal which values are right or rational. Like the gods of ancient polytheism, modern values are always in conflict. To think otherwise requires a faith that Weber couldn’t muster.

For Gordon, that position carries political dangers: “If our value commitments lie at a level of pure decision beyond rational deliberation, then we are robbed of any prospect for genuine consensus.” Here, as elsewhere in his essay, Gordon widens the divide Weber posited between facts and values. He writes of a “questionable” trust in facts, asserting that Weber saw them as “a hard and obdurate reality that intrudes upon the latticework of our value-commitments as if from the outside.” Yet Weber emphasized the transience of facts and also the social character of scientific knowledge—both are in their way as delicate as values and beliefs in an age of disenchantment. So contrary to what Gordon suggests, effective teaching, as Weber saw it, involves much more than pitting students’ opinions against adamantine facts. It involves the work of critical mediation, or getting students to consider the likely consequences of their value commitments—in other words, rational deliberation over values that stops short of telling a student which values to adopt or what to do.

It’s ironic that an essay that portrays Weber as “Max the Fatalist” ends on a note of grim resignation much more than Weber’s vocation lectures did. As he concludes his piece, Gordon writes that we shouldn’t blame Weber for failing to foresee our “tilt into the relativity of facts,” or for clinging to a “heroic ideal of work as a calling” that seems quaint now that politicians and professors chase “fame” rather than merit. We can argue about whether these problems are in fact worse than they were in Germany a century ago. But they certainly existed then, and they disquieted Weber, who worried about the effects of war propaganda on political discourse and protested the appointment of opportunistic hacks to coveted academic jobs by a government looking to give its policies a sheen of scholarly validation. Indeed, for today’s readers, perhaps the most bracing paradox in the lectures is the suggestion that professionalism derives higher significance from precisely the inhospitable character of its context.

Beruf, the word Weber uses in his titles, can be translated as “calling” or “vocation”—hence “vocation lectures.” The problem with those translations is that they lose an important double connotation: Beruf also means “job,” whereas if “vocation” still signifies a “trade” or “profession,” it does so dimly. This matters because the paradox Weber put before his listeners is that amid modern disinformation machines, the recrudescent privileging of charismatic authority, and hostile treatment from the corrupt and those seeking to re-enchant rationalized institutions, the sober, everyday work of journalists, scholars, scientists, and politicians is elevated to something higher, something that can lay claim to a kind of spiritual mission—work in the sense of “the artist’s work” or “a life’s work.” A century after Weber’s death, and in the face of egregious obstruction and intimidation from the Trump White House, honest professionalism has never seemed more inspired or inspiring.

Paul Reitter
Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio

Chad Wellmon
University of Virginia
Charlottesville, Virginia

Peter E. Gordon replies:

When considering a thinker as nuanced as Max Weber, differences of interpretation are inevitable. In their helpful introduction, Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon portray both the politician and the scholar as “moral agents in a world where meaning was always questioned and contested.” But this characterization underplays a crucial difference. According to Weber a politician must balance sober realism with unwavering conviction, and at some point must have the courage to say (in a phrase attributed to Luther): “Here I stand; I can do no other.” A scholar, however, does not exhibit such absolute commitment to a social good but instead recognizes the relativity of all such goods. Because Weber describes both of these tasks as “vocations,” this difference is easily overlooked. But scholarship and politics on his view are not simply two ways “to lead a meaningful life” (as Reitter and Wellmon write). He saw the social scientist as the final embodiment of our disenchanted world, who is poised in suspension above the value-commitments that all other social agents consider absolute.

In his “Intermediary Reflection” to his Economic Ethics of the World Religions, Weber argues that a “tension” arises when the intellectual begins to question the meaningful structure of the cosmos. For the modern intellectual, once the world has shed the appearance of objective meaning, this tension is heightened to an extreme. This is why it may be misleading to suggest that the modern scholar simply inhabits one value sphere among others. Reitter and Wellmon are right to mention the “asceticism” of the scholar in connection with the principle of value-freedom: a professor must refrain from promoting values at the lectern. But the pedagogical question of how we conduct ourselves in the classroom is analytically distinct from the meta-ethical question as to what status the social scientist assigns to values themselves. The scholarly ideal of value-freedom for Weber is not freestanding; it rests on his singular conception of intellectual life as a paradoxical practice, where recognizing the relativity of value becomes the sole source of value. No politician could possibly be expected to sustain such an unusual posture.

Regarding the cleavage between fact and value, matters are no less complicated. Weber was allied with the then-dominant school of neo-Kantianism at Heidelberg, and its distinction between theoretical and practical reason informed his own understanding of the relation between fact and value. He saw values much like Kantian transcendental conditions: when a social scientist is confronted with an infinite array of facts, values assist us in selecting which facts are significant. Values in this sense are prior to facts, while facts impinge on our values from the outside.

This epistemology, though hardly uncontroversial (see, for example, Hilary Putnam’s well-known critique), informed Weber’s view that our value-commitments are available for assessment only as regards their internal coherence. He denied the other aspect of Kant’s legacy, namely that we possess shared, universally valid criteria by which we can reflect on our values and move beyond mere contestation to rational consensus. Without this second but no less vital strand of the Kantian tradition, Weber was left with a decisionist theory of value, in which the rightness of a value-commitment is ultimately a matter of one’s refusal to subject that commitment to further scrutiny. A fallibilistic and rationally derived consensus of the kind we aim for in our democratic deliberations does not require a “neo-Hegelian” faith. It can emerge from little more than the ongoing practice of giving and taking reasons. It is only because we orient ourselves toward such a consensus, however fragile or rare, that we engage in deliberation at all.

Weber’s notion of value-relativity, however, portrays the modern conflict over social goods not as reasonable discussion but as a contest among worldviews or “warring gods.” In his “Objectivity” essay, he writes: “Every meaningful value-judgement about someone else’s aspirations must be a criticism from the standpoint of one’s own Weltanschauung; it must be a struggle [Bekämpfung] against the foreign ideals from the standpoint of one’s own.” This agonistic version of the fact-value distinction leaves us with an impoverished ideal of social interaction. Despite my enormous admiration for Weber, in this crucial respect I am not a Weberian. The charitable reconstruction of Weber’s thought is of great importance. But so too is the critical assessment of its merits.

Translation is a difficult business, and I commend the translator Damion Searls for his achievement. The debate over how to translate Beruf will no doubt continue, though for the reasons discussed in my review I cannot see how “work” is adequate. But nowhere do I describe Weber’s ideal of a calling as “quaint.” On the contrary, I see it as courageous, though I fear that a hundred forces are now conspiring to diminish its prestige. There is indeed true heroism in the labor of journalists, artists, scholars—and even some politicians. On this point Reitter and Wellmon and I are fully in agreement.