We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more

Max Weber (1864–1920)


Max Weber was born in Erfurt (then part of Prussia but now in central Germany). He was exposed to political discussions from an early age, since his father was a well-known liberal politician and civil servant. Weber was an intelligent boy who clearly shared his father’s interests. In 1882 he began to study Law, first at Heidelberg University and later in Berlin. Although his studies were interrupted by military training, he gained a doctorate in Law in 1889.

Before completing his doctorate Weber had turned his attention to Economics, and established his reputation with a report into the effects of immigrants from rural Poland on the German economy. He became Professor of Economics at Freiburg in 1894, moving back to Heidelberg two years later. However, Weber became prone to nervous illness, and in 1903 he resigned from Heidelberg. In 1907 he inherited enough money to live without returning to teaching. However, he had not given up his hopes of contributing to public life, and in 1912 he tried without success to form a “progressive” party composed of liberals and social democrats.

During the war Weber undertook several official roles and participated in the negotiations that led to the peace treaty signed at Versailles. He also played a controversial role in the commission that drew up Germany’s post-war “Weimar” constitution, arguing in favour of a clause that was subsequently exploited by Adolf Hitler to establish a dictatorship. Weber himself resumed his academic career, but at Munich University he became the target of right-wing protests. He died of pneumonia in June 1920.


Much of Weber’s research was directed towards the social effects of religious belief in various societies. His most famous work in this genre, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, argued that some forms of Protestant belief came to associate economic success with evidence of God’s favour. In time, the “worldly” attitude to material gain proved more powerful than its religious inspiration, so that people could be imbued with what is now commonly called the “puritan work ethic” without being remotely connected to Puritanism. This thesis was in stark contrast to the view of Karl Marx, that religious beliefs were the product of material forces. Weber’s approach can be seen as a return to G.W.F Hegel’s focus on ideas as the most important factor in generating changes in human society. He produced other works, on Judaism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, which attempted to answer such questions as why capitalism had not developed in China.

While the validity of Weber’s insights on religion has been disputed, his more explicit political writings still command widespread respect. His most important essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” was based on a lecture delivered at Munich University in 1919. The essay included Weber’s famous definition of the state, as an entity that has a monopoly of the legitimate use of force within a given territory (for discussion, see pages 5–6, Introduction and 22, Chapter 1). Weber also outlined a tripartite classification of political leadership: the “charismatic,” the “traditional,” and the “legal-rational” (see page 48 for analysis). This approach again bears comparison with Hegel and Marx; the first two types of authority are inherently unstable, and evolve into the third which can be associated with the modern (liberal democratic) state.

It was ironic that soon after Weber’s death Germany would turn away from his own favoured liberalism and become a totalitarian state dominated by Hitler’s “charismatic” authority. Weber also warned against excessive bureaucracy (for discussion, see pages 143144, Chapter 7 and pages 205–206, Chapter 10), comparing a society which is governed by rigid, rationalistic rules to an “iron cage,” in which life may be more efficiently organized but at the cost of becoming somewhat soulless. In this respect, Weber’s work is suggestive of themes which would later be taken up by Michel Foucault. Weber also anticipated future scholars by insisting that the methodologies of the natural sciences were not directly applicable to the study of human interaction. Instead, Weber believed that students of social phenomena should construct “Ideal Types”—generalized models that contained important truths but did not correspond to specific individuals. Thus, one of the key figures in the development of social science was a sceptical opponent of “positivist” knowledge-claims.

Further reading

See: http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/~felwell/Theorists/Weber/Whome.htm

Next: Woodrow Wilson