Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1864-1920) German political economist and sociologist, originally trained in jurisprudence. Faculty member, for most of his life adjunct, at the University of Heidelberg, and from 1904 editorial director of the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik . Author of a prodigious corpus, including the essays The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism , originally published in 1904-1905 (Scribner 1930).

The main source of information on Weber's life is a biography by his widow, Marianne Schnitger Weber, written the year after his death and published in 1926 as Max Weber, ein Lebensbild . This work has been translated and edited in a 1975 English edition by Harry Zohn, Max Weber: A Biography (Transaction). Because Zohn has systematically researched many of Marianne's ellipses and euphemisms, it is in many ways superior to either the original German edition or its subsequent German edition. Although Marianne Weber was a scholar in her own right, the Biography is hardly all today's researcher might want. It is richly laced with Max Weber's own letters and notes, as well as ones Marianne wrote, but it also displays both the fidelity of a devoted widow to her husband's greatness and the Victorian tendency to say many things indirectly. Yet, we concur with Zohn when he says that there is "no comparable 'Life and Works' of Max Weber on the international book market" to equal the Biography .

Marianne's biography, however, is not the only source we have from contemporaries. In English, Paul Honigsheim, a student and friend of the Webers, has provided a valuable contribution in his On Max Weber (Free Press 1968). This work has the advantage of setting Weber somewhat more into the intellectual activity of the time. Also available in English are some personal recollections by Karl Loewenstein appended to his Max Weber's Political Ideas in the Perspective of Our Time (University of Massachusetts Press 1966). Additional personal recollections are available only in German. These include essays published along with Honigsheim's original piece in the Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie in 1963 and Eduard Baumgarten's book Max Weber: Werk und Person published in 1964.

To these accounts should be added the outstanding intellectual biographies by Reinhard Bendix, Max Weber: An Intellectual Portrait (Doubleday 1960), and by Julian Freund, The Sociology of Max Weber (Pantheon 1968). Although both of these works were published in the 1960s, few additions of significance have been made to the outlines they present. A more recent collection that tries to place Weber more clearly in juxtaposition to the intellectual currents of his own time is Wolfgang Mommsen and Jürgen Osterhammel's Max Weber and his Contemporaries (Allen & Unwin 1987). Also of importance for one slice of Weber's life is Mommsen's Max Weber and German Politics (University of Chicago Press 1984).

Finally should be mentioned Arthur Mitzman's The Iron Cage: An Historical Interpretation of Max Weber (Knopf 1970), a basically Freudian psychohistorical account of Weber's life and work. In keeping with this genre, Mitzman places heavy emphasis upon Weber's relationships with his mother and father, and subsequently his sexual relationship to his wife, as being critical to Weber's personality development. Beyond this, Mitzman also argues that this personality permeates—indeed, that it practically determines—Weber's theoretical structure and intellectual development. In this context, Mitzman also sees strong influences upon Weber's work by the thought of Friedrich Nietzsche. (Kivisto and Swatos, 1988:14-18, have indicated elsewhere the historiographic flaws of Mitzman's approach.)

Weber and Religion

Weber's self-description as religiously "unmusical" has become a catchphrase for many commentators. Like Marx's "opium of the people," however, this phrase is more often quoted than understood. Although probably only Weber could explain exactly what he meant by the term unmusical —which he used in a variety of circumstances, not only with regard to religion—the quote can be at least given in full and placed in context, namely, a letter of February 9, 1909: "It is true that I am absolutely unmusical religiously and have no need or ability to erect any psychic edifices of a religious character within me. But a thorough self-examination has told me that I am neither antireligious nor irreligious ." It is those last words, emphasized in the original, that seem often ignored. Marianne, by contrast, tells us that Weber "always preserved a profound reverence for the Gospel and genuine Christian religiosity," and scattered references in his discourse throughout the Biography show a vocabulary and mentalité steeped in religion. Just as Weber's applied sociology has been given short shrift by most later interpreters, so his Christianity is almost entirely ignored (see Swatos and Kivisto 1991a, 1991b). Several points from this aspect of his life bear noting.

First, Weber's extended family had strong, although temperamentally different, religious convictions. Weber was reared as a Christian in his mother's liberal, nondogmatic mode. He was confirmed in his teen years, and it is clear from his letters, both at the time and after, that this was an important experience for him.

Second, while Weber was always uncomfortable with Lutheran orthodoxy, he gave much of his time in the 1890s to the work of the Evangelical-Social Congress. In association with his cousin Otto Baumgarten, and such German "social gospel" leaders as Friedrich Naumann, Paul Göhre, Martin Rade, and others. Weber wrote and spoke for a whole series of sociopolitical agenda items. Contrary to claims of great differentiation between Weber and early American sociologists, Weber can be considered as involved in and committed to an applied social gospel as were his American colleagues. A careful reading of the Biography shows that much of Weber's strength in the 1890s up to his breakdown in 1898 was spent in speaking and writing projects, particularly at Naumann's behest, all over the country, for what in the United States would have been called projects of "Christian sociology." It was only when Naumann attempted to form a political party that Weber began to withdraw from these activities.

This involvement did not end with the conclusion of the acute phase of Weber's illness. Although his activity level diminished, he continued to attend Evangelical-Social Congresses at least as late as 1907. Almost immediately upon the Webers' return from their trip to the United States in 1905, Weber became a part of a newly founded theological discussion group (the "Eranos") at Heidelberg. Weber also was drawn to the mystical elements in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and had respect for "real religiousness." At one point, for example, he told Honigsheim (1968:100), after making something of a joke about one theologian's "proof" for the existence of God: "This should not be taken to mean that it is not very essential to me to stand in the right relationship to that Lord."

It is in this total life context, then, that the Protestant ethic essays, along with the rest of Weber's studies in world religions (inter alia The Religion of China, The Religion of India, Ancient Judaism , Free Press 1951, 1952, 1958), must be viewed. Weber did not take up The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism whimsically but because the Archiv itself had as its scope "a scholarly investigation of the conditions created by modern capitalism," which Weber chose to expand to include "the historical and theoretical recognition of the general cultural significance of the capitalistic development ." One part of this was the Protestant ethic, as he himself makes clear in several places. Likewise, his industrial sociology was precisely intended to take up "the other side of the problems that are at the center of the treatise on the spirit of capitalism."

Marianne best summarizes the whole Weber-and-religion complex in these lines (1975:335):

Unprejudiced investigation had taught Weber early on that every phenomenon of cultural life is also economically determined, but that none is only so determined. As early as 1892-93, when as a young scholar he inquired into reasons for the flight of farmers from rural regions in eastern Germany, he was struck by the insight that ideological impulses were just as decisive as the "bread-and-butter questions." And when he undertook his second inquiry into the situation of farm workers, together with the theologian Göhre, it was from the outset his intention to investigate, in addition to the economic situation of the rural population, the moral and religious situation as well as the interaction of the various factors. Evidently he concerned himself at an early age with the question of the world-shaping significance of ideal forces. Perhaps this tendency of his quest for knowledge—a permanent concern with religion —was the form in which the genuine religiosity of his maternal family lived on in him.

Weber's Sociology of Religion

At the outset of his study of religion, Weber notes that his point is not to seek "the essence of religion" but "to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social action." For Weber, "action" includes not only overt behavior but, most important, the understanding, meaning, or significance of an act to the person engaged in it. With respect to religion, specifically, he writes,

The external courses of religious behavior are so diverse that an understanding of the behavior can be achieved only from the viewpoint of the subjective experiences, ideas, and purposes of the individuals concerned—in short, from the viewpoint of the religious behavior's "meaning" (Sinn) . (1978:399)

The scholar of religions confronts religious constructions of reality as sociologically real constructions of reality to be studied objectively through the subjective accounts of the participants. "Not ethical and theological theories but the practical impulses toward action that derive from religion," Marianne writes, were the foci of Weber's studies in world religions. Yet, in his studies of religion, Weber chose aspects of the religious experience as selective foci for his research. Although he did not label the dimensions upon which he focused "the essences of religion," by the act of choosing them he gave high priority to them as important elements to understanding religions. Why and how did he take this approach?

The "why" can be answered, at least partially, in terms of the question he is asking: What can be learned about religions as a broad range of actions in relationship to the whole array of social actions? Despite his initial point of departure, Weber was not interested in interaction among a few individuals. At the core of Weber's sociology is the idea of Verstehen , understanding the meaning of social action. Weber was able to perceive new relationships from the reading and studying—both historical and contemporary—he had done. These implications were not a "personal experience" but were placed in the eye of the public for analytical testing. The critical questions concern the objectivity of his work and the usefulness of his analyses. Weber's analyses of religions sometimes take the form of sets of categories, sometimes of dimensions. For simplicity, we will treat them all as dimensions and consider them in a twofold aspect: (1) the dimension of social relationships , which involves the meaning of relationships of the leadership and of the laity of a religious group to a "concealed being," and (2) the ethical dimension, which Weber sees as peculiarly manifested in the problems of theodicy and soteriology.

Unlike Émile Durkheim, who was philosophically oriented and thus asked such questions as those surrounding the origins of different kinds of ideas of gods, Weber, in his "practical" historical orientation, accepted the idea that people believed in and acted upon the existence of them. For the participants involved in a religious action system, the evidence is "relatively rational" as "it follows the rules of experience" that a supernatural existence rests in the "extraordinary powers," the "charisma," present in those entities so endowed. The existence of charismatic units also implies the existence of a system of relationships between "certain beings," the "charismatically endowed," and some person or persons. General patterns of social relationships, based upon "symbolic activity," emerge that can be studied through the types of leaders within different religious organizational types. Finally, through the concept of "elective affinity," Weber focuses sharply and uniquely upon the meanings imparted to religion by the laity , inasmuch as any pattern of relationships is derived from the meanings of all the actors involved in the system of action. Thus Weber delineates a dimension of social relationships that can be termed religious as follows: (1) a belief in one or several of a wide-ranging variety of supernatural powers (2) that are evidenced in a variety of charismatic manifestations (3) articulated through symbolic expressions , (4) responded to in a variety of forms , (5) under the guidance of various types of leaders , (6) in a variety of patterns of relationships significantly determined by the patterned behavior of the lay people of the community.

For Weber, as was true of the social relationship dimension, ethics came in a wide variety of forms that changed with historical circumstances. As Weber analyzed religiously oriented behavior over time, he certainly saw an increasing prominence of ethics as part of the pattern, but he seems to say that in the earliest forms there was also an element of ethics present. This primitive form of ethics is most clearly manifested in the taboo . He argues that societies made increasing ethical demands upon the gods with the development of increased political organization, increased intellectual comprehension of an external cosmos, and increased complexity in social relationships—with an attendant necessity for oral or written contracts. The need for order intensified the need for a more orderly ethic, rather than the highly situational one found in the earlier magical period of religious development. It was the hiatus between the frequency of unethical human conduct and of uneven justice, whether humanly distributed or from external natural events, that led to perceptions of an ever "higher" god, hence to an enhancement of the ethical problem and its increased significance to religious behavior within limits set by human variance. Thus we come to the problems of theodicy and soteriology .

Weber's discussion of theodicy is brief, serving as the bridge to his discussion of salvation. Theodicy is defined as "the problem of how the extraordinary power of such a god may be reconciled with the imperfection of the world that he has created and rules over." This problem is particularly acute for those who understand their god as "a transcendental unitary god who is universal," but it is not found only there. He finds it in ancient Egypt, in Aeschylus, in Hinduism, in ancient China, and elsewhere; indeed, he writes, "this problem belongs everywhere among the factors determining religious evolution and the need for salvation." As to the variety of forms that the answers to this problem take, and thus to the variety of forms that religion itself takes, Weber denotes five: messianic eschatology, transmigration of the soul, a universal day of judgment, predestination, and dualism.

The second manifestation of the ethical dimension to which Weber turned was the problem of soteriology: salvation and how to achieve it. This problem occupies considerably more space in his work than theodicy. Nowhere does Weber specifically define salvation, but in speaking of such things as wealth and long life, he comments that "the crassest utilitarian expectations frequently replace anything we are accustomed to term 'salvation.'" By implication, then, salvation is to be perceived broadly; in any case, as social scientists, he writes, "our concern is essentially with the quest for salvation, whatever its form, insofar as it produced certain consequences for practical behavior in the world." There is ample evidence that Weber sees the problem of soteriology to have existed in the earliest forms of religion. In speaking of the first of his five major forms of the road to salvation—that is, ritualism—he notes the possibility of the superiority of magical relations. In speaking of his second—good works and attendant self-perfection—he mentions the importance of rebirth in "animistic" religion; in the third form, ecstasy, he acknowledges historically early activities. The other forms of soteriology he discusses are asceticism and mysticism, both this-worldly (inner-worldly) and other-worldly.

Thus for Weber ethics is a variable to be confronted at all times and in all places when studying religion, especially in its two problematic circumstances, theodicy and soteriology. Furthermore, ethics as a variable generates many potential religious forms. We can thus say, very briefly, that for Weber religion is a patterning of social relationships around a belief in supernatural powers, creating ethical considerations . Weber thus pioneers among classical sociological theorists a substantive definition of religion (as distinct from Durkheim's functional definition based on social integration).

Weber's Reception

One puzzle that surrounds Max Weber's life is the waxing and waning of his popularity among different audiences (see, e.g., Mommsen 1984, Parsons 1980, Glassman 1983). How is it that this famous German of the 1890s and again of the period immediately after World War I seemed to become a relative "unknown" to be "rediscovered" by the American Talcott Parsons in the 1930s, then "returned" to Germany in the 1950s, to be the subject of a "renaissance" in the 1980s in the West as a whole?

Although Weber was invited to, attended, and spoke at the 1904 Congress of Arts and Sciences in St. Louis (on his East Elban research), his impact on sociology in the United States prior to the 1930s was almost nil. Although the early Protestant ethic essays must have been completed by the time of his visit—which he used to write the last major piece in that series—they seem to have had no part in his presentation to the Congress nor to have been taken up by American sociology during his lifetime (as were, by contrast, the contributions of Simmel and others, who are comparably ignored today).

The most important reasons that Weber was ignored have to do with the incompatibility between his understanding of the discipline and the conception of the science of society harbored by scholars in the United States. In the first place, Weber was not a system-builder, at a time when many American sociologists were intent on building a grand disciplinary system. Second, Weber's interdisciplinary proclivities did not resonate well with those concerned to establish a distinct niche in the academy for sociology. Third, perhaps of greatest weight, Weber was decidedly antievolutionary at a time when evolutionary thinking cast a spell over many prominent sociologists. Finally, the pessimism that colored Weber's work simply did not resonate with intellectuals participating in the optimism of the "American century."

As the "Chicago School" began to consolidate itself as the most important center for the discipline, the lack of interest in Weber was exacerbated. Their ahistorical tendencies were compounded with atheoretical and empiricist biases. Beyond this, the empirical concerns that preoccupied the Chicago School—the dynamics of the contemporary city and race relations—were not central to Weber. By contrast, the Weberian preoccupation with politics and religion did not strike a responsive chord with Chicago sociologist Robert Park and his colleagues—or his students. The Chicago School was remarkably apolitical, seen clearly in its ecological analyses of the metropolis. In terms of religion, Chicago-trained sociologists did not enter into the Protestant ethic debate, although other American theologians and historians were doing so just a few years after the initial German publication of Weber's thesis.

This situation changed by the 1930s. In part this was abetted by growing access to English translations of Weber's work, beginning with economist Frank Knight's production of the General Economic History in 1927 (Free Press) and then Talcott Parsons's translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism in 1930. Another reason for an evolving interest in Weber was the fact that Americans continued to study in Germany; although Weber was already dead, these students nonetheless came under the influence of his thought. Two notable instances are Howard Becker and Talcott Parsons. The former would return and produce a number of publications devoted to explicating the ideal-type and historical sociology; the latter would, in his watershed publication The Structure of Social Action (McGraw-Hill 1937), treat Weber as of paramount importance in Parsons's own effort to construct his grand theoretical synthesis.

If these were the only contributing figures, a distinctly American variant of Weberian sociology might have emerged. However, the ascendance of Hitler to power in 1933 resulted in the exodus of numerous German intellectuals to the United States. Collective settlements of these emigré scholars were established at the New School for Social Research and, to a lesser extent, at Columbia University. In terms of Weber scholarship, names of importance included, at the former institution, Emil Lederer, Adolph Loew, Karl Mayer, Albert Salomon, Alfred Schutz, and Hans Speier, and at the latter, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Paul Lazarsfeld, and Herbert Marcuse. Other figures who found academic homes throughout the country included Theodore Abel, Reinhard Bendix, Carl Friedrich, Hans Gerth, Paul Honigsheim, and Alexander von Schelting. The influence of some of these scholars was largely limited to the students they taught, while for others it extended well beyond their exilic institutions to the discipline at large.

Due to the multiplicity of interpretations of Weberian thought, no one assessment came to dominate American sociology's understanding of Weber. In addition, because the translation of Weber into English occurred slowly, also in fits and starts, it is not surprising that Weberian sociology is less identified with a specific American "school" than, for example, Durkheim is with functionalism. What is clear is that aspects of his work began to be used during the 1950s and 1960s, and indeed, a rapidly expanding body of literature devoted to Weberian themes was produced. The three topics that received by far the most attention were bureaucracy, charismatic authority, and the Protestant ethic thesis. In each instance, however, but perhaps most evidently in the last, much of this research was conducted in an ahistorical manner quite at variance with the thrust of Weber's own work on these themes. Ironically, the hegemony achieved in American sociology by Parsonian functionalism both advanced and retarded Weber scholarship, despite efforts by such figures as Bendix and C. Wright Mills to offer an alternative view. The publication of a complete translation of Weber's Economy and Society in 1968 (University of California Press 1978) began a major rethinking as well as a flurry of new scholarship (see Kivisto and Swatos 1988).

Recovering Weber:
Interpretive Conflicts and Quandaries

Whatever critique may be made of Parsons and his use(es) of Weber, it is nevertheless true that Weber's General Economic History was available in English in the United States several years before Parsons's translation of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and a full decade before Parsons's own Structure of Social Action . A number of scholars in the 1980s—encouraged by an admirable effort by Randall Collins to systematize Weber's argument on the appearance of Western rational capitalism—have attempted to make the case that the General Economic History , which was compiled posthumously by his students and his wife from Weber's scribbled notes, and which in his lifetime he termed "an improvisation with a thousand defects," is to be given intellectual priority over The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism .

Because the Protestant ethic essays are one of the core texts of the sociology of religion, this thesis needs careful examination and encounters several problems: First, Weber himself revised the final version of the Protestant ethic essays from which Parsons made his translation. The "Author's Introduction" to the collection of Weber's essays on religion as a whole that Parsons placed at the front of the English translation of the PE essays provides quite explicitly the interpretive context that Weber intends for them. This may well have been the last thing Weber wrote and saw to almost final form in 1920. Should this material about which he was most satisfied be relegated to a secondary position vis-à-vis that of which he was most critical?

Second, the General Economic History received little attention in Anglo-America compared with that accorded The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . If the General Economic History is actually better than the Protestant ethic essays, why was it not more well received earlier or offered later in criticism of Parsons's subsequent use of the Protestant ethic essays? Surely its temporal priority should work in its favor rather than against it, and at the time, its translator, University of Chicago economics professor Frank H. Knight, had far more prestige than the young Parsons.

Third, it is now clear that Parsons misrepresented the Protestant ethic essays in tracing his evolutionary functionalism back to them. As a result, the General Economic History may well provide welcome relief from the many misinterpretations that have been heaped upon The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism over the years—by both friends and enemies, so to speak. Nevertheless, caution needs to be exercised in regard to the claim that the General Economic History represents "more accurately" the "real Max Weber" than the last words that Max Weber himself brought to publication.

Fourth, in view of the lack of prior attention to the General Economic History , careful consideration must be given to the possibility that the General Economic History permits a conflict-theoretical, quasi-Marxist reading of Weber more consistent with the left-liberal predilections of one current of contemporary Anglo-American sociological theory than is warranted by Weber's corpus as a whole. Such an approach would warp Weber no less seriously than that which Talcott Parsons has been accused of doing in The Structure of Social Action .

See also Talcott Parsons, Protestant Ethic Thesis

William H. Swatos, Jr., Peter Kivisto, and Paul M. Gustafson


R. Collins, Max Weber (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1986)

R. M. Glassman, "The Weber Renaissance," Current Perspectives in Social Theory 4(1983):239-251

P. Kivisto and W. H. Swatos, Jr., Max Weber (New York: Greenwood, 1988)

W. Mommsen, Max Weber and German Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)

T. Parsons, "The Circumstances of My Encounter with Max Weber," Sociological Traditions from Generation to Generation , ed. R. K. Merton (Norwood, N.J.: Ablex, 1980): 31-43

W. H. Swatos, Jr., and P. Kivisto, "Beyond Wertfreiheit," Sociological Focus 24 (1991a):117-128

W. H. Swatos, Jr., and P. Kivisto, "Max Weber as 'Christian Sociologist,'" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 30(1991b):347-362.

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