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Weber, max
Erfurt, 1864 - Munich, 1920
© Hachette Livre et/ou Hachette Multimédia

Max Weber in 1894


Economist and German sociologist. Max Weber is born in Erfurt, in Thuringe, in April 1864, in a protesting family circle cash of the academic and high official, textile manufacturers. His/her father carries out a political career in the party national-liberal, and Weber mixes with as of its young age of the politicians and the intellectuals such Dilthey and Mommsen.

Reader of Marx, Hegel, Nietzsche, but also of Kant, impassioning himself for the history, philosophy, esthetics, theology, it continues brilliant studies of right and economy: its thesis on the business firms with the Middle Ages (1889) and the text of its enabling relating to the history of the agrarian institutions in Antiquity (1891) make it greet like an eminent researcher. He teaches the right and the political economy in Freiburg (1894) then with Heidelberg (1896), but a failing health makes him give up its courses in 1898. After having founded in 1904 the review Files of social sciences and political sciences with Sombart and Jaffé, it takes part in 1910 in the creation of the German Company of sociology.

Engaged in a political activity, opponent with Guillaume II, convinced of the need for the State-Nation, it fights the anti-semitism, anti-Europeanism and the demagogy, and adheres to the social democrat party in 1918. Member of the German delegation to the treaty of Versailles, it is solicited to work with the development of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic. Called at the end of 1918 with the pulpit of sociology of the university of Munich, he dies prematurely of pneumonia in June 1920.


Recognized like one of the founders of sociology, Max Weber was, with Georg Simmel, an analyst of the modernity, which saw in the tendency increasing to rationalization a specific characteristic of the development of Western civilization. For him, sociology was to be understanding” and “empirical” science an “of the social activity, whose “ideal-type” constituted the conceptual tool most suitable.  

Parallel to theoretical and methodological work, Max Weber produced studies of economic history, of sociology economic, religious, political, legal; it thus opened the way in the searches of urban sociology and sociology of art, like with the sociological vision, more recent, of science.  

For Weber, a scientific approach is a setting in prospect for reality according to a “coherent point of view” (which cannot merge with the opinion of a subject), and no science cannot reach the totality of reality; any research aiming at producing objective knowledge must accept the inevitably partial character of it, and one cannot show the prevalence of an order of causality on another. It is of as much less acceptable to claim to provide total and final syntheses in social sciences that those deal with the variability of mentalities, the modes of social relations and the institutions in the history. If there is in the social processes of the quantifiable regularities in terms of probabilities (“chances”), their characteristic is to be comprehensible for the observer which reconstitutes the historical social direction of them. To work on the “significant relativity” of the social phenomena does not imply in any way, for Weber, to defend an undifferentiated relativism of the values.  

Max Weber proposes to constitute empirical” and “understanding” science an “of the social activity to avoid as well identifying the social phenomena with entities metaphysics - the Community, Société, Classe, State… - to apply to them by a naive naturalism the organic model of biology or the mechanical model of traditional physics. These approaches, under their apparent antagonism, claimed all with an explanatory monism leading to the project of a normative science of the social one. To avoid essentialist employment, idealist or psychologistic of total concepts, Weber proposes to release the “subjectively thought significance” of the “social forms” historical. By there, it does not return to the lived experiment, in fact incommunicable and unverifiable, but with the understandable direction of individual behaviors or groups according to the knowledge available to the “agents”, the “social actors” studied. Thus can one understand and explain, evaluate compared to the existential interests of the individuals or the groups the effectiveness of their ideas and their actions carried out in the various fields of the organized social existence: economy, religion, policy, art, etc

Whatever its company of membership, the human being is equipped with a capacity of rationality limited which enables him “to combine means and ends, to evaluate the possibilities which arise to him”. It does not follow that Weber has a rationalist vision of the world, either that it “psychologise” or atomizes the social one: he studies relational phenomena associating mental representations, actions, situation historical, and whose aggregation produces effects which escape the conscience as with the will from the actors, which Weber calls the “paradox of the action and the consequences”. Since, according to him, the quality which makes us regard an event as a social and economic phenomenon is not an attribute of this event, the ideal-type is the major operational concept of social sciences, “sciences of the culture”. It supports the causal interpretation of these “significant units” making it possible to reach of them “historical singularity” and typical regularities. The ideal-type thus helps to draw up the report of the populations studied with their values, which implies that the researcher thinks simultaneously of the report that itself maintains with the values its own company. The ideal-type fulfills the requirement of axiologic neutrality which not only returns to the deontology of research and teaching, but still conditions fruitfulness of it. Its development moves away the risks from warping and mesinterpretation of cultural and social materials - always carrying choice of values, of visions of the world - by uncontrolled projection from the ideals and personal values of the scientist.  

Axiologic neutrality
Many German intellectuals to the XIX E century, and the beginning of the XX E century still, thought possible a general science of social from where one would deduce the system from the laws and the standards valid for a given company. It was to eliminate from the reflection on social the political phenomena, while at the same time the upheavals pulled by the industrial revolution and the French revolution showed of it the importance with the increasing claims of individualism and democracy. On the contrary, for Weber, which takes again the position of Kant here, one could not confuse judgment in fact and value judgment - to identify the Beautiful with the Good and Truth - without losing the possibility of objective knowledge resulting from inevitably unilateral approaches of reality. One can show only one factor which appears determining within the framework of an analysis of the social change is worth like driving principle of the universal history: the hierarchy established between the various orders of causality is not naturally registered in reality, it can only result from heuristic choices.  

Sociology could not give directives to the practical policy - which always rests on choices of values -, but only of the elements of technical expertise to appreciate a situation and the foreseeable consequences of a decision. The value judgment engages an ethical or existential assertion whereas the report with the values is the “base of the questions which we put to reality”, a concept allowing to the sociologist interpretation human conduits. It is this distinction which Weber names axiologic neutrality.  

Ethics of conviction, ethics of responsibility
In the field of the policy, Weber opposes the ethics of conviction, which is worried only moral principle governing the action without worrying about the consequences, and the ethics of responsibility, according to which only account the result. With those which the political arena attracts, he asked to be driven at the same time by the ethics of conviction and by the ethics of responsibility, which agrees to become aware of the risks that any decision involves logically and is based on a reasoned estimate of the foreseeable consequences.   

It is important not to confuse social science and industrial relations policy to work on the phenomena of be able. Weber thus distinguishes the power, “chance that has an individual or a group to impose his will by the force on others”, domination, phenomenon which interests it particularly and which it defines as the “belief in the legitimacy of a received order”. This one presents three ideal-typical forms: the domination legal, impersonal, which prevails in the modern States supported on a written Constitution and a bureaucracy where a political staff of civils servant and an administration recruited by examination or contest are definitely separate; the traditional domination, which rests on the respect of usual values, as in the patriarchal power or the feudal power; the charismatic domination, which is based on the recognition of the extraordinary character, sometimes crowned, of an individual whose “powers” are the structuring element of a new group (prophet, war leader, even, at the time of the democratic parties of mass, political leader). The charismatic domination, which is opposed to the traditional domination before becoming itself source of a new tradition by “routinisation of the charisma”, is for Weber one of the ways of the social change, the risk being the alienation of the group to the chief.  

The activity (or action) social
Only are social the conduits directed with a certain degree of conscience (which can be illusory) according to a behavior of others. Thus, human activities like the reflex actions, emotional or purely imitative, cannot, according to this definition, being known as “social”. The analysis of the historical significance of the social activity rests on the categories of end and means: the “accuracy” of causal interpretation consists in determining their degree of adequacy. To facilitate the “technical criticism” of the social actions, Weber in built a typology based on the more or less great rationality of the means and the ends. By order ascending of rationality, it distinguishes the traditional action (resting on the habits, the beliefs, habitus), the rational action compared to a value (interdependent of the religion, ethics, ideology…), the rational action compared to a rational goal (that of the scientist, the technician, the manager).  

Sociology of modernity
The question of the singularity of the development of the Western companies traverses all the work of Weber. The passage to modern capitalism in particular rises, for him, of a specific social structure which never blocked definitively neither the continuation of the rationalization of the legal, economic practices and policies nor the conceptual control of reality by science. It distinguishes there two tendencies, the impersonnalisation of the social reports, parallel with the weakening of the particularistic and collective bonds of the Community structures - of the family in the State -, and the attention with the abstract and functional measurement of the reality, which supports the valorization of the progress of objective knowledge and their technological applications.  

Thus Weber differentiates the city “from full exercise”, the commune, typical of the Western Middle Ages, the Eastern or Far-Eastern cities by the autonomisation of a right and an economic policy releasing itself intramurally from the rights lignagers and feudal. A social layer appears then, the middle-class.  

In the same way, the form of the modern State emerges from the depersonalization of sovereignty, the differentiation and the centralization of the structures of government and administration, of the distinction of the public and deprived spheres, resting on the observance of written rules and either on the respect of an inherited personal status, been dependant on a stratification social by orders, not very compatible with the social mobility.  

In Protestant Ethics and the spirit of capitalism, Weber shows that the development of modern capitalism cannot be explained by the “natural” play of economic laws “pure” (economic liberalism), nor by the economic one determining in last authority (Marxism), either that by a psychological constancy, the “thirst for gold” (Sombart). But it does not substitute religious causality for economic causality: it clarifies the importance of ethics, more than of the dogma besides, in economic traditionalism as in the emergence of conduits and new economic concepts. The ethos calvinist, his version puritan especially, hostile with the traditions, the magic, sentimentality, with the luxury, with all that is “irrational”, because ineffective, useless, was favourable with the birth of the “spirit of modern capitalism”: mentality and lifestyle implying political liberalism and economic liberalism, to exploit the “chances formally peaceful” of profit of the market of the goods and work. A primitive accumulation of the capital is possible without the recourse to the force; the Calvinism and the puritanism condemning the pleasure of the richnesses, which it is of hoarding or expenditure, like dangerous for the safety of the heart, only the investment in capital, favorable to the development of the companies, remain licit.  

The decline of the religions, the rise to power of capitalism, the generalized bureaucratization of the activities, the socialization of science impose the prevalence of “cognitive-instrumental” rationality. It follows the “disenchantment of the world”, the “loss of a unified direction of cosmos”, moral and cultural crisis which the “polytheism of the values” at the end of the XIX E century expresses. Scientific progresses and techniques automatically do not involve a progress of morals, culture or a direction of the life, i.e. happiness of the men.

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