Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Skepticism and Faith: Max Weber's Anti-Utopianism in the Eyes of His Contemporaries1

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

Skepticism and Faith: Max Weber's Anti-Utopianism in the Eyes of His Contemporaries1

Article excerpt

"HEROISM OF THE AGE OF IRON"

Max Weber (1864-1920) holds a central place in the literature of twentieth-century cultural criticism, an honor that would have likely irked him had he lived to experience it. Trained as a lawyer and historian, he spent most of his short academic career as a professor of political economy. He never considered himself to be a philosopher and bristled at the suggestion that metaphysical laws or developmental tendencies guide the course of history.2 Yet in spite of these protestations, his scholarship continually generated questions of philosophical import. Weber often brushed them aside with a wave of the hand, disclaiming that "we are getting into the area of judgments of value and belief, with which this purely historical study should not be encumbered."3 However, for many German intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s, it was this aspect of his thought that fascinated more than any other. The sociologist Albert Salomon, one of Weber's great admirers, spoke for many of his contemporaries when he asserted that "it was ultimately philosophical questions that were historically investigated and presented in Weber's sociological analyses."4

In the immediate aftermath of World War I, the experience of combat, defeat and revolution transformed the longing for new sources of normativity - originally the idée fixe of the avant-garde before 1914 - into a broader cultural condition.5 "Stronger than before the war," the philosopher Eduard Spranger averred in 1919, "I am met by a psychic wave emanating from the lecture hall that I feel in all my nerves, and which can be captured in the words: We do not want scholarship - we want religious certainty, intuition submerged in beauty, we want sustenance and confirmation for our constructive instincts!"6 In this climate, Weber set himself apart from most German intellectuals by rejecting all calls for a fundamental transformation of scholarship. In his famous lecture, "Scholarship as a Vocation," first delivered in 1917 but published two years later, Weber insisted that "scholarship today is a 'profession' [Beruf] practiced in specialist disciplines in the service of reflection on the self and the knowledge of relationships between facts and not a gift of grace on the part of seers and prophets dispensing sacred goods and revelations. Nor is it part of the meditations of sages and philosophers about the meaning of the world. This is of course an ineluctable fact of our historical situation, one from which there is no escape if we remain true to ourselves."7 The "intellectualization and rationalization" characteristic of modern European civilization, he argued, had brought about the "demagification of the world [Entzauberung der Welt]": the end result of all our empirical knowledge was simply the conviction that we could, at least in principle, understand human and natural affairs without making recourse to magical forces or transcendent principles - that we could "control everything by means of calculation."8

Weber's anti-utopian attitude similarly extended to the social and political issues of his day. In opposition to pacifists who wished to divest politics of its coercive forces, Weber insisted that "conflict cannot be excluded from social life. One can change its means, its object, even its fundamental direction and even its bearers, but it cannot be eliminated."9 Moreover, in a challenge to radical socialists, he argued that capitalism and its attendant bureaucratic administration could not be abandoned without precipitating a catastrophic decline in the standard of living. "Increasingly the material fate of the masses depends upon the continuous and correct functioning of the ever more bureaucratic organizations of private capitalism," he declared, "and the idea of eliminating them becomes more and more Utopian."10 Weber was extremely critical of radical young students whose "ethic of conviction" committed them to pursuing their ideals without regard for the human cost. …

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