School of
Social Sciences
___Introduction to Sociology
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Max Weber -
The Person - Introduction

 


The Person The Years of Mastery 
Introduction An Exemplary Moralist
The Early Academic Career  
   
The Work  
Introduction The Function of Ideas
Natural Science, Social Science, and Value Relevance Class, Status and Power
The Ideal Type Bureaucracy
Causality and Probability Rationalization and Disenchantment
Types of Authority  

The Person

Max Weber was continually beset by psychic torment. It is impossible to understand his work without reference to the inner conflicts that attended his intellectual production. But it would be inadvisable to focus here on all the details of Weber's psychic turmoils. The commentator should discriminate; otherwise he will succumb to what Hegel once called the "psychology of the valet," the detailed analysis of small human particularities that do not touch upon a man's historical and intellectual significance.

Weber's inner tensions stemmed largely from the tangled web of his relations with his family, as well as from his attempts to escape from the stultifying political atmosphere of the Kaiser's Germany in which he lived and worked. His ambivalence toward authority in his personal life and his fascination with the topic in his writings, his double concern with rationality and with the ethic of responsibility, his attraction to innerworldly asceticism and his partial identification with the heroic life-styles of charismatic leaders--these and many other themes in his work have their source in his biography.

In The Father's House

Max Weber was born on April 21, 1864, the eldest of seven children of Max Weber and his wife Helene. Both parents descended from a line of Protestants, who had been refugees from Catholic persecution in the past but had later become successful entrepreneurs. Weber's paternal grandfather had been a prosperous linen dealer in Bielefeld, where the family had settled after being driven from Catholic Salzburg because of their Protestant convictions. While one of his sons took over and expanded the family business, another, Weber's father, worked for a while in the city government of Berlin and later as a magistrate in Erfurt (where Max was born) but then embarked upon a political career in the capital. In Berlin he was first a city councillor and late a member of the Prussian House of Deputies and of the German Reichstag. He was an important member of the National Liberal Party, the party of those liberals who had made their peace with Bismarck and now supported most of his policies. Very much a part of the political "establishment," the older Weber lived a self-satisfied, pleasure-loving, and shallow life. He was a fairly typical German bourgeois politician, at home in the wheeling and dealing of political affairs and not given to engage in any "idealistic" ventures that might undercut his solid anchoring with the established powers.

Weber's mother, Helene Fallenstein, came from a similar background but was made of wholly different cloth. Her father, who descended from a line of school teachers, had been a teacher himself, a translator, and romantic intellectual. After having fought in the war of liberation against Napoleon, he settled down to the rather prosaic life of a Prussian civil servant. When his first wife died, he married Emilie Souchay, the daughter of a prosperous merchant in Frankfurt. His financial position now assured, her retired to live in Heidelberg where he endeavored to be a kind of patron of the resident academic community. The Souchays descended from Huguenot emigrants who had been driven from their native France after Louis XIV had outlawed French Protestantism. They became very wealthy in Germany but continued the cultivation of an intense Calvinist religiosity.

The young Weber grew up in a cultured bourgeois household. Not only leading politicians but leading academic men were among its frequent house guests. Here Weber met, at an early age, historians Treitschke, Sybel, Dilthey and Mommsen. But his parents' marriage, though at first a seemingly happy one, was soon to show signs of increasing tension, which could hardly be hidden from the children. Weber's mother, with her strong religious commitments and her ingrained Calvinist sense of duty, had little in common with a husband whose personal ethic was hedonistic rather than Protestant.

Max Weber was precocious, yet sickly, shy, and withdrawn. His teachers complained about his lack of respect for their authority and his lack of discipline. But he was an avid reader. At the age of fourteen, he wrote letters studded with references to Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Livy, and he had an extended knowledge of Goethe, Spinoza, Kant, and Schopenhauer before he entered university studies.

The parental household was ruled with a strong authoritarian hand by his father, who may perhaps have compensated for his flexibility in things political by being an inflexible disciplinarian at home. Although his mother made efforts to draw Max to her side and to cultivate in him the Christian piety she prized so highly, Max tended in his youth to identify with his father rather than with her. This identification may explain why the previously withdrawn and encapsulated young Weber suddenly became very much "one of the boys" when he went to the University of Heidelberg at eighteen. He joined his father's duelling fraternity and chose as his major study his father's field of law. He became as active in duelling as in drinking bouts, and the enormous quantities of beer consumed with his fraternity brothers soon transformed the thin and sickly looking young man into a heavy-set Germanic boozer proudly displaying his fencing scars.

These distractions did not keep Weber from his studies. Apart from his work in law, he attended Knies' lectures in economics and studied medieval history with Erdmannsdoerffer and philosophy with Kuno Fischer. Immanuel Bekker introduced him to Roman law and Roman institutions. In addition, Weber read a great deal in theology in the company of his elder cousin, the theologian Otto Baumgarten. After three terms, Weber left Heidelberg for military service in Strasbourg. Here he came under the influence of his uncle, the historian Hermann Baumgarten, and his wife Ida, Helene's Weber's sister.

The Baumgartens soon became a second set of parents for Weber. Their influence on his development proved decisive. Hermann Baumgarten had been a liberal comrade-in-arms of his father, but unlike him, had never made peace with the Bismarckian Reich and still adhered to the unalloyed liberalism of his youth. He refused the compromises that had advanced the political career of Weber's father. Baumgarten was content with a maverick role as an unreconciled 1848 liberal, one who was basically at odds with the dominant tendencies of the day and preferred the role of a German Jeremiah. His wife Ida was in many ways like her sister, Weber's mother, sharing her deep Calvinist piety and a thorough devotion to religious principles. She differed from her, however, in being forceful, even dominant, rather than withdrawn.

Unlike his father, who treated young Weber with patronizing authoritarianism, the uncle regarded the nephew as an intellectual peer. From the Strasbourg days to the time of Baumgarten's death in 1893, as Weber's letters eloquently testify, the uncle was his main mentor and confidant in matters political and intellectual. The influence of his aunt was equally strong. Contrary to his mother, who had not succeeded in stirring his interests in religion, his aunt led him to immerse himself in religious reading, especially in her favorite theologian, the New England divine William Ellery Channing. More generally, Weber was greatly impressed with Ida's forceful personality, the uncompromising religious standards with which she ran her household, and her deep sense of social responsibility which led her to spend a great deal of time in charitable work. He came to appreciate the values and orientations of his mother when seeing them put into action by her sister. It is most probably in the Strasbourg period that Weber acquired his lifelong sense of awe for the Protestant virtues, even though he was unable to share the Christian belief on which they were based. He never lost respect for men who not only believed as Channing did but who actually lived his moral philosophy.

In the Strasbourg days, Weber partly freed himself from the model of a father whom he came to see as an amoral hedonist. He now tended to identify, though never fully, with the moral sternness represented in different, and even partly contradictory, ways by his uncle and aunt. He was to live with the strain created by these identifications for a long period to come.

Weber's first love was his cousin, the Baumgartens' daughter Emmy. His engagement to her lasted for six years, throughout which time the relationship was tension-ridden and brittle. Emmy was in frail health both physically and mentally. After years of agonizing doubts and guilt feelings, Weber finally broke the engagement to Emmy, who had been confined to a sanitarium for much of that time.

In the fall of 1884, his military service over, Weber returned to his parents' home to study at the University of Berlin. His parents wanted him back not only to control his rather free- wheeling ways but also to remove him from the influence of the Baumgartens. For the next eight years of his life, interrupted only by a term at the University of Goettingen and short periods of further military training, Weber stayed at his parents' house, first as a student, later as a junior barrister in Berlin courts, and finally as a Dozent at the University of Berlin. In those years Weber was financially dependent on a father he increasing disliked. He had developed a greater understanding of his mother's personality and her religious values during his stay in the household of her sister, and he came to resent his father's bullying behavior toward her.

From Coser, 1977:234-237.



Websites On Weber Work By Weber
Max Weber Class Notes (External Link) Bureaucracy
  Fundamental Concepts in Sociology (External Link)
  The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
   



These pages were originally written by: Angus Bancroft and Sioned Rogers
Redesigned and updated by: Pierre Stapley - 2010