Philosophy Politics

The Philosophical Sociology of Max Weber

Max Weber is considered one of the most important (if not the most) social scientists of the 20th century.  Weber is widely read in philosophy, since a lot of sociology falls under philosophical sociology.  Weber was noted for his support of the fact-value distinction, which led Weber’s assertion that choice should be conducted with extreme devotion, whether good or bad, “Follow thy demon, regardless of whether he is a good or evil demon.”


I: Politics as Vocation

Max Weber’s Vocation Lecture’s (Science as Vocation and Politics as Vocation) are seminal texts, here we will primarily look at Weber’s contribution to political thought and understanding, though we will end with a brief look at the important features of his Science as Vocation lecture.  Weber, building off of what we just established about how one’s “calling” should be fully embraced—which is the difference between “excellence” in choice and “baseness” (or indifference) in choice (i.e. not being fully devoted to choice irrespective of good and bad)—asserted that a politician is a politician by “virtue of his calling.”

Weber outlines the 3 core characteristics of a politician: (1) passion to their cause (Sache), (2) sense of responsibility to their cause, and (3) sense of proportion to the possible outcomes of their cause.  Weber then turns to say, in politics, the “sin of politicians” is when one is not fully dedicated to said cause.  This is, for Weber, the unforgivable sin in politics.  Politics embraces, by its nature, an “all of nothing” attitude toward one’s call.  To not be fully devoted to the cause is to not be a politician.  This led Weber to write, very explicitly, “politics is not the realm for the saint.”

Everyone active in politics strives for power, but in different ways (service of others, service of self; idealistic vs. selfish, or for prestige).  The state represents the relationship between people ruling over other people.

Weber then links the “Three Principles for Legitimate Rule”: (1) Tradition: “The eternal past,” which is patriarchal in nature (in other words, one must seem like part of the tradition, (2) Charisma: “Gift of grace,” which comes together in the person’s leadership qualities; i.e., heroism, the silver tongue, etc., which generally comes into great effect in democratically elected politics (the non-charismatic, Weber maintains, fail miserably at politics even if they have the best ideas or goals for politics), (3) Statutes: “Servant of the state.”  Working one’s way up the political system by being rational, and carrying out the legal orders of superiors to advance oneself in the long-run.  This is how politics receives its legitimization in society.

Politics feeds on hope and fear.  Fear of the power of this ruler, and the hope of reward in this world or the next.  Hope and fear are interconnected and both necessary.

Weber will concentrate on the individual with charisma for legitimate rule.  People submit to their rule because people “believe” in them, for whatever purposes they are proposing to support.  Having outlined the legitimate means of politics and political rule, Weber then outlined how the “legitimate State” operates.  Weber focuses his analysis on “political organizations,” i.e. “states,” and identifies two general forms of the state, supposedly encompassing all state forms at the most general level:

1) The administrative staff beneath the ruler in status and power has its own means of administration separate from those of the ruler. This can include various forms of wealth and possessions, as well as means of production and control over labor. This administrative staff is essentially aristocratic, subdivided into distinct estates.

2) The administrative staff is completely or partially separated from the actual tools of administration, i.e., how the proletariat is separated from the means of production. This staff become confidants without means in a patriarchal organization of deference and delegation.

Apart from this analysis of what it means to be a politician and of legitimate politics and political order, Weber also noted that “every State is based on forced.”  For Weber, politics embodies and promotes “legitimized violence.”  Political violence is considered “legitimate” because it is directed for a cause to be actualized.  Weber contends that “sacred violence” is transferred from society into the realm of politics, where it is considered legitimate, and in this transference from society to politics, is masked as “progress” by simply transferring sacred violence from one realm to another.  However, Weber does not see anything wrong in this.  This is what politics is.  Weber sees politics as a force of violence, but believes that this is politics.  Embrace it with all your passion and enthusiasm.

II: Science as Vocation

While Weber is most famous for his detailed analysis of politics and what constitutes political legitimacy, he also devoted time to what the purpose of the social scientist is in “Science as Vocation.”  In brief, Weber notes that social science cannot answer the most important questions of life and philosophy, but defends social science as an important tool of analysis and able to cultivate intellectuality.

For Weber, the scientist (he means social scientist) is someone who looks at facts as being separate from values.  The social scientist, then, according to Weber, is concerned about “facts about the world” rather than “the values the shape the world.”  Leo Strauss, for instance, considered this the great separation of facts and values, unto which social science decisively endorses “facts” rather than “values,” and that contemporary social science also attempts to now assert that facts are values – thereby blurring the distinction that Weber established.  Weber decisively and authoritatively states, science cannot answer the human quest for wisdom, truth, and meaning.  Nevertheless, he favors social science over philosophy.  Weber considers the study of the facts of the world, rather than the values of the world, to be a superior form of intellectual cultivation than philosophy.


Weber is probably the most famous sociologist of religion, followed up by Robert Bellah (another important 20th century social scientist and philosophical sociologist).  Weber’s most famous sociology of religion work is The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  Anyone who has read this work knows that it is really “The Calvinist Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” since Weber does not concentrate on Anabaptist/Baptist, Anglicans, or Lutherans and their relationship with fostering the ethos of capitalism.

In Weber’s larger sociology of religion outlook, he classifies religions as being “high religion” and “low religion,” and “other worldly” and “worldly.”  We should first understand and explore these concepts from Weber before returning to the main argument in Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism.  For Weber, the theological ideas of religion influence the development of a general ethos, in other words, fostering an ethic as to how people act and behave in relationship to the general theological principles and ideas of their religion.  All religions will foster an ethos, but the ethos of high and low religion, worldly and other worldly, differ.

High religion, or “noble religion,” fosters an ethos that is concentrated in the arts, literature, engineering, aesthetics, or, in other words, culture.  For Weber, high religion embodies an ethos of construction, creativity, and “life,” that holds beauty as the highest aim in life and religion.  Weber, in today’s jargon, might consider high religion to fostering an ethos of “higher culture.”

In contrast, low religion fosters an ethos that is concentrated in daily living, practicality, and pragmatism.  In today’s jargon, Weber would likely consider low religion to fostering an ethos of “lower culture.”  For Weber, low religion is paradoxically other worldly and worldly at the same time.  It is other worldly because it shuns the arts, literature, aesthetics, and high culture, yet it is worldly precisely because it fosters an ethos of daily practicality, living, and habit.

Weber also delineates in his larger work Sociology of Religion, the relationship of religion fostering the foundations of intellectualism, but more importantly, whether religious habits and actions are “worldly” or “otherworldly.”  Weber notes that Buddhism is completely other worldly, which he calls “world rejection.”  In contrast to Buddhism’s world rejection, he then turns to concentrate on the paradoxes of the Abrahamic religions.  He considered Judaism a religion that was “at home with the world.”  Islam was a religion of “this worldliness” (e.g. shaped by the world, and completely and totally only concerned with this world).  While Christianity, following Jesus, Weber considered “indifferent to the world.”  Although simplistic, and while many have countered Weber on various points in his analysis (and we should not have the view that Weber is the authoritative god on sociology of religion), many of his points have stuck and embody certain truths to what he was analyzing.

Within Christianity, however, Weber noted that the higher religion and intellectualism of Catholicism and Lutheranism, for example, pushed the general world indifference of what he considered to be Jesus’s teachings to be “more worldly” while Lower Church Protestant strands tended to embrace a sort of neo-Gnosticism of “world flight.”  For Weber, this rested on the dichotomy of higher and lower religion, and the general martyrdom mentality of various lower Protestant traditions.  (So Weber thinks a “true” Christianity that follows purely the teachings of Jesus is “indifferent to the world,” but the reality of Christianity is that it has segmented between high and low traditions that moved the higher Christianities toward being a “more worldly religion” like Judaism and the lower Christianities toward “world flight” or even an “other worldliness” akin to Buddhism.)

To return to the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber maintained that Calvinism’s anxiety over Election lead to the fostering of a practical and daily ethos in which Calvinists, concerned over their status of Election, sought to self-demonstrate to themselves their Election.  The result was material acquisition.  As such, Calvinism’s relationship with the development of the capitalist ethos was this:

  • No one could be sure of their Election
  • To be sure of their Election, Calvinists looked for signs of their Election
  • After the end of the religious wars and persecutions, which negated the “martyrdom” assurance, Calvinists had to look elsewhere for signs of their Election
  • The new signs of their Election was their battle to tame the world (dominion) of Satan
  • This would lead to material benefits and acquisitions
  • This developed a habit of material capitalism and consumerism as evidence for the signs of Election
  • Over time, Calvinists would lose their theological foundations and become “secularized” because one should acquire material goods for their own sake rather than for a theological hope
  • At the crisis moment, when tasked with choosing between “this world” and “the other world,” the scions of Calvinism would choose “this world” because of the practical and pragmatic ethos Calvinism developed for itself
  • Calvinism’s development of the capitalist ethos paradoxically leads to its cultural domination (in a secular sense) but it’s theological collapse (in the spiritual sense)
  • Calvinist Culture becomes a thoroughly worldly, pragmatic, practical, scientific, technological, and capitalist culture

Most people tend to forget the The Protestant Ethic is more than an analysis as to why Calvinism fostered the “Protestant work ethic,” but also a commentary on the phenomenon of de-sacralization (or “secularization”).  For Weber, the paradox of Calvinism’s cultural triumph marks its theological/spiritual demise (ergo, de-sacralization).  For Weber, the triumph of practical capitalism, stemming from Calvinism, also marked the triumph of practical rationalization in society.  Which, in turn, kills the theological side of Calvinism; the end result is a secularized and rationalized society that is the child of Calvinism, that will, in time, lose an understanding of itself because it has killed the very source that give it birth.


Weber was also a leading writer on the idea of “disenchantment” which stemmed largely from his work on social sciences and sociology of religion.  For Weber, disenchantment was the result of the Reformation.  Again, there are more nuanced and alternative views in our day than his.  Nevertheless, Weber saw a problem with disenchantment.  Humans naturally desire the “sublime” or the “majestic.”  The “Crisis of the West” is the crisis of disenchantment.

For Weber, overcoming or succumbing to disenchantment will be the challenge of modern Western culture.  Weber saw two ways of “overcoming disenchantment.”  One was through religious or spiritual revival, particularly among the “high Christian religions” (e.g. Anglicanism, Catholicism, or traditional Lutheranism).  The other, more in line with romantic thought, as well with Weber’s own social science beliefs and commentaries, was the full embrace of passion.  Instead of passion being directed to the sacred (or spiritual), the passion that is normally directed to the sacred gets transferred onto a temporal cause (some worldly cause).  This returns us to what we began our overview of Weber with, “Follow thy demon, regardless of whether he is a good or evil demon.”  In essence, we can see the enthralling and devotional passion directed to dialectical realization (in revolution) or social justice (contemporary) as having followed this Weberian trend of passionate engagement as the means to overcoming alienation.

By contrast, Weber also believed that the succumbing to disenchantment would be the triumph of sterilizing and rationalizing reason that fully removes all sense of the sacred and passionate from the world.  There is much commentary as to which of the views Weber himself sought to follow and emulate.  Most scholars and commentators of Weber believe Weber was opposed to spiritual revival and rational sterilization, therefore he endorsed the romantic imperative of fully and passionately embracing the Sache (or Cause).  Strauss, for instance, in Natural Right and History, comments that the embrace and devotion of political messianism is the result of Weberian concerns, having deliberately and intentionally ruled out spiritual revival (for various reasons) and not wanting universal rationalization.

For Weber, passionate devotion to any cause is, in essence, the real (and only) meaning of life.  Failure to be passionately devoted to a cause is to basically not be alive (one is simply an aimless wanderer).  Following a strand of neo-Kantianism, Weber advocates for the “ethics of intention” as being derivative and embodying devotional passion.  Since we cannot know right from wrong, all actions should be fully immersed in passion by intention.  In this sense, Weber follows Kant’s categorical imperative.  This is the means by which Weber advocates overcoming the crises of our time: passionate embrace of a particular cause and in that passionate embrace, one has chosen correctly because passion is all that is left for us.  The Sache becomes our new religion, our new goal in life, and gives us the meaning we search for.  This is all that is left because we cannot know ethical truths, spiritual truths, or any other types of truths as the result of the rise of science and disenchantment.

More recently, Nicholas Gane, in his work Max Weber and Postmodern Theory, asserts, correctly, that postmodernism is the very embodiment of Weber thought to be the answer to Western nihilism and identity crisis.  Thus, the role of sociology, psychology, and other such disciplines, is to promote and foster the development of postmodern passion devoted action to causes.  Christian Smith, in his book The Sacred Project of American Sociology, concurs with this view, arguing that sociology has become the handmaiden of a new “secular religion” that seeks to re-enchant the world through devoted passion to cultural and political causes.


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1 comment

  1. Max Weber’s stance on Islam as the religion of this world, can be interestingly compared to Schopenhauer’s belief that Islam is the only optimistic religion (taking Sufism aside), while this very indifference to the world Christianity cherishes, he values much more. Interesting article, thank you!

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