German-speaking Philosophers – Portraits

Max Weber – The Disenchantment of the World

Max Weber; © Lorenz ViereckeMax Weber; © Lorenz ViereckeMax Weber, economist and sociologist (1865-1920), is one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century. For Karl Jaspers, he was even the “greatest German of our age”. This is not only because Weber was one of the founding fathers of modern social science, but also because, along with painstaking sociological analyses, he always kept in view larger social developments.

In this spirit, for instance, he submitted probably the most important phenomenon of modernity, capitalism, not only to sociological analysis, but also asked what significance it had for the “fate of humanity”. The basis for such questions is Weber’s analysis of the “occidental rationalism” that has changed Western civilization down to its foundations and led to the momentous “disenchantment” of the modern world.

In the nineteenth century, western societies underwent a profound transformation, whose dynamics and intensity are historically unprecedented. The economic and political, social and cultural changes were immense. The history of the West has been shaped by a centuries-long process of rationalizing and “intellectualizing”, which has been propelled above all by the triumph of modern science. This has launched a very specific form of “progress”: progress in the sense of the “progressive technical rationality of means”. Western man has continually invented better means of mastering the world. Occidental rationalism is a rationalism of world mastery. The specific rationality of the West, represented in the sciences and technology, promotes the systematic, intellectual and sober comprehension of the world.

“The polytheism of values”

: Cover of a current edition of “Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus”; © Verlag C. H. BeckWestern rationalism is constantly inventing newer and better means; it has, however, ever less to say about goals and ends. This is not the only reason that Weber looks upon this development with ambivalence. Advisedly, he invariably places the word “progress” in quotation marks. Part of Weber’s diagnosis of modernity is an unmistakable pessimism about the possibilities of individual freedom. The “fateful forces” of modern life, scientification, bureaucratization and capitalism, seem more to threaten than to promote human freedom and autonomy. Weber’s somber words in his book on The Protestant Ethic are famous: “No one yet knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will arise or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals; or, if neither of these, then mechanized petrifaction, embellished by a sort of convulsive self-importance. For of the ‘last men’ of this final stage of cultural development, it might well be truly said: ‘Narrow specialists without minds, pleasure seekers without heart; in their conceit, these nullities imagine they have climbed to a level of humanity never before attained”.

Modern capitalist society threatens to engulf man. Neither philosophy nor science has access to that “truth” which could guide man’s actions authoratively and unequivocally. The unity of reason has been shattered nito a variety of rationalities, and the place once occupied by the one and only good or justice or certainty of the “ought” has been taken by the “polytheism of values”: the juxtaposition and confrontation of the different highest values and final ends by which man takes his bearings.

“Everywhere, however, this assumption, which I present to you here, follows from one basic fact: life, as long as it rests in itself and understands itself on this basis, knows only the eternal struggle of these gods with each other – in non-poetic words, the incompatibility and so the undecideabiltiy of the struggle of the final possible views on life, and the necessity therefore of deciding oneself between them.” Modern man is condemned to radical freedom, as a short time later existentialism was to propagate.

Value judgment-free political theory

Weber’s understanding of science consequently required him to adhere to a rigorous “abstaining from value-judgments”. Science cannot settle the conflict of values. What science can do, however, is to descriptively order this conflict and so enable people to make their own conscious decisions. Clarity and responsibility are the remaining guiding ethical principles of modernity. “We can thus [...] compel, or at least help, the individual to give an account to himself of the final meaning of his actions.”

Weber’s historical significance lies not in his having “discovered” this specifically modern world view, but rather in his having grasped it conceptually and made its consequences clear especially for the modern understanding of politics. Weber saw himself as a radical proponent of enlightenment. This became clear in the revolutionary winter of 1918 when he appeared before the Munich students to hold his famous lecture on “Politics as a Vocation”. He knw that his listeners were hoping for words of guidance, for some normative and binding statement amidst a world out of joint. Should not politics, after the horrors and moral ravages of the World War, now point the way to a better future? Weber opposes all these hopes. He holds out the prospect of nothing more than a “polar night of icy darkness and severity”. And he did this with a determination and sobriety that shapes his whole thought.

In the form of political enlightenment that Weber practiced throughout his life, moral appeal and value judgment-free political theory flowed together. Politics, according to Weber, cannot be based on universally valid values. It is rather in essence a struggle, a struggle for power, a struggle of interests and the highest values, which reason is incapable of reconciling. And for this sociological realist, the state is nothing more than “a relation of men dominating men, a relation supported by means of legitimate [...] violence”. To survive in this political struggle, one cannot be a naive “man of ethical convictions”; the political combatant must abandon all romantic idealizations, must bring passion, responsibility and sound judgment to the fight, but above all that “strength of heart which is a match for the failure of all hopes”.

Christian Schwaabe
Since completing his post-doctoral qualification, the author has been a lecturer in Political Philosophy at the University of Munich and author of several works, including the two-volume textbook “Politische Theorie” (UTB, 2nd ed., 2010).

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Internet-Redaktion
October 2011

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