Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Book review: Why Max Weber matters


Reviewed by DUNCAN KELLY

In the past year of major anniversaries, you might have missed the sesquicentennial of one of the greatest German scholars of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Max Weber was born in 1864 and died in 1920, but in a relatively short life, the sheer bulk of what he wrote about with seriousness, purpose and commitment, from agrarian history to rationality and music, from abstract methodological pronouncements to the workings of the stock market, from the major world religions to war and revolution, is staggering. Yet apart from academically necessary early qualifications that required the production of weighty tomes, he never wrote a big book, neither founded nor had any interest in founding a school, and never cared about the accoutrements of academic fame even as those around him recognized his presence and power. He was touchy, often suffered from depression, and was diagnosed as a neurasthenic. He went through the usual arrays of spa treatments, self-diagnosis and drugs, and even dallied with the anarchist communities in Ascona; all of the rituals of his self-consciously “bourgeois” class and status. Nevertheless he remained intellectually uncompromising, so that although the impact of his nervous disorders meant he had to resign from teaching commitments, the freedom this provided allowed him space to pursue a wide array of interests, without having to conform to the norms of disciplinary fields (“I am not a donkey and do not have a field”, as he famously remarked).
Although an intense historical sensibility undergirds Weber’s work, as Peter Ghosh says in this stylish and extraordinarily detailed new intellectual history, Weber himself was most definitely “not an intellectual historian”. It has meant (ironically given Weber’s sense of the limited time horizons of academic relevance) that his work has had serious longevity. For he was an engaged, modern thinker, concerned to illuminate the historical development of “tendencies” that created new realities, and out of which certain contemporary problems could be put into sharp relief with appropriate conceptualization. Interested in the power derived from the “economic” way of looking at things, he worked by a mechanism of “causal regression”, producing “ideal-type” social and historical models or frameworks. These self-conscious methodological “utopias” would polemically highlight or sideline certain aspects of reality at any one time in order to permit the construction of specific genealogies. One example was his conceptual use of “asceticism” versus “mysticism” to highlight the religious foundations that lay behind modern constructions of “rational” conduct, particularly in the West.
Personality-focused or biographical approaches seem inappropriate to understand a man so concerned with the power of the impersonal. So Ghosh reconstructs Weber’s work through a history of his texts. Not for him the “riotous gallimaufry” of psychosexual explanation, outlined in a recent study by Joachim Radkau (and reviewed by Ghosh in the TLS, June 19, 2009). Nor the intellectually limited if personally interesting biography, such as that published by Weber’s widow Marianne, shortly after his death. (She had always wanted him to write the sort of “fat” book that she produced, reckoning it would secure him academic fame and personality. He thought her a “silly goose” in such matters.) Instead, Ghosh’s answer to Weber’s uniqueness is beguilingly simple, and gloriously revisionist in overturning most established scholarship. His claim, very baldly restated, is that around 1904, aged forty, Weber had a scholarly annus mirabilis. He took over joint editorship (with the flashy personality Werner Sombart and the wealthy younger scholar Edgar Jaffé) of the leading social scientific journal in Germany, theArchiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik. Ghosh undercuts a relatively recent scholarly consensus that Weber both played a central role in the drafting of a new editorial policy, and that this explains something crucial about Weber’s ideas, to show instead how central Weber was to the networks involved in the sale, purchase and revised editorial and contributory make-up of the journal. 
From the backroom, so to speak, he quickly manoeuvred himself into a position where he would become central. Weber’s celebrated essays which were later published together as The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism first appeared in the Archiv. They form a pivot around which Ghosh’s narrative turns. For Ghosh this is the supremely Weberian text, a synthetic, polemical essay bringing together all his major interests to date in capsule form. Despite its avowedly limited focus, it also laid the foundations for nearly all his future work. It was his “summit”. Unsurprisingly, then, Ghosh’s “twin histories” entail a game of two halves. The first considers how Weber could have come to write such an account, while the second shows its presence in nearly everything that came after. It is a study of how the historically minded Weber, whose ideas came as often through a good cigar in the evening as through anything else, fares when examined by an absolutely historicist intellectual historian who focuses on a text that was absolutely “not an historicist construction” of the past. Weber might have disapproved of intellectual biography per se, but he would surely have been amused to hear the many echoes in Ghosh’s prose of his own pugnacious style and intellectual tenacity.
In 1904, Weber also took up an invitation to speak on rural societies to an audience at the Congress of Arts and Sciences, affiliated with the World’s Fair at St Louis... read more: