>The Life of Max Weber

>I’ve just finished reading Joachim Radkau’s biography of Max Weber (Max Weber: A Biography. Polity, Cambridge, 2009.  German edition, 2005).  That is Max Weber familiar as one of the three usually said to be founders of sociology, along with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx.  Weber’s work covers history, economic history, comparative religion, political and legal theory, as well as large areas of the the discipline of sociology that he helped to define.  He certainly deserves to be read by philosophers, at least those who see philosophy as belonging with the knowledge of human history.  One major reason, though not the only reason to read the book is in regard to his influence on Foucault. not an issue Radkau says much about, and he quotes Bourdieu more often.  Another issue of interest to me, Nietzsche’s influence on Weber is not so well covered.  I do not get the feeling that Radkau is either a deep or sympathetic reader of Nietzsche.  He tends to reduce Nietzsche, to the most unpleasant stereotypes, and dismisses his influence on Nietzsche.  Towards the end of the book he does briefly recognise some relation between Birth Of Tragedy and Weber’s late thoughts on religion and mysticism.  However, he also misses other ways in which Weber may have been directly and indirectly influenced by Nietzsche, as in accounts of antique society, and of priestly classes.

The biography has a lot of detail about Weber’s private life, ‘nervous’ problems, difficulties with his family, particularly his mother and his wife.  His wife, Marianne was nevertheless a great intellectual partner and a famous feminist thinker in her own time.  There’s also plenty of material about German politics, academic life, the places Weber visited, and so on.

I certainly think this is a book anyone interested in Weber should read, and there are plenty of people who don’t know much about Weber who would be very interested if they studied him. 

 He was one of the great unifying thinkers about history, politics, social and economic life, the rational and less rational ways that humans deal with life.  As Radkau rightly emphasises, Weber’s approach os very passionate as well as very scholarly.  Radkau goes so far as to suggest that Weber identified with the Old Testament prophets as a passionate revealer of difficult truths.  Whether or not that is  justified claim, Weber writes from a point of view which aims for truth rather than value judgment, but in doing so creates a great passion of the search for truth, the conditions for truth to emerge, and the other values which may be linked with truth.

Radkau says  bit more than is necessary to my mind on the issue of whether Weber’s idea of the Charismatic politician pre-advocates Hitler in anyway, and the same for Weber’s form of nationalism.  As Radkau shows, there is no connection, but he gives the idea that there might be a bit too much tolerance to my mind, and a hasty reader might misunderstand this.

What I think would be really interesting is a discussion of Claus von Stauffenberg, the would be assassin of Hitler.  The brilliantly promising and culture colonel from an old aristocratic family, who moved from a romantic sympathy with Nazism, seeing it as something to do with his own Medievalising, classicist, aristocratic, aesthetic  and Catholic nationalism; and moved to a role in which he unified left and right, military and civilian opposition to Hitler,  almost single handedly killing Hitler, and leading a coup agains the Nazis in July 1944.  The assassination and coup did not succeed, but anyone who takes the trouble to study the history will see that Stauffenberg bore an impossible burden of responsibility for individual action and political leadership.  If we want to explore the complex combinations of Weber’s thinking, the meaning of charisma, and the ethic of responsibility, and in a deeply ambiguous situation where collaboration with tyrannical evil comes can switch to heroic self-sacrificing opposition, then Stauffenberg is the great instance.  Admirers and detractors of both or either men would I think learn a lot from working on this.

Some particularly interesting points for me

On a visit to the United States, Weber declined an invitation to meet President Theodore Roosevelt, but did meet W.E.B. DuBois, the author of The Souls of Blackfolk, a sociological classic and a classic of African-American self- reflection.

Weber sent a message to the German government during World War One criticising the use of indiscriminate submarine warfare, and may have had some success on this issue.

Weber was deeply impressed by the antique remains when visiting Italy, and it gave him some feeling of closeness to Ancient Roman society.

Weber’s reputation achieved its present status after World War Two, and there was a time when his brother Alfred was just as well known as a thinker.  His wife may have been better known than him in Germany for a while.

In World War One, Weber advised a nephew, quite seriously it would seem, to become a cavalry may.  This expresses one side of Weber, the emotional nationalist and romantic traditionalist, alongside and combined with the political liberal and rational scientist.  There is a rational side to the element of Medievalism in Weber, in his appreciation that Feudalism contains elements of freedom, and some important advances over Antiquity.

He also once challenged someone to a duel, but the dispute faded out.  Weber admired duelling over honour, and thought it would be adopted in America.

In World War One, he did not share the standard nationalist view that the USA was a nation with no martial spirit or capacity, and that therefore it could not make any difference to the war.  Weber’s observations while in America of the enthusiasm for sports and athletics, and his general observation of character, led him to a very different view.

Marianner Weber seriously believed her husband had a good chance of becoming Chancellor of Germany after World War One, during the period he was very active in the liberal Democratic Party of Germany (ancestor of today’s Free Democratic Party).


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