Weber, Max (1864–1920)

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Max Weber, German economist, historian, sociologist, methodologist, and political thinker, is of philosophical significance for his attempted reconciliation of historical relativism with the possibility of a causal social science; his notion of a verstehende (understanding) sociology; his formulation, use and epistemic account of the concept of ‘ideal types’; his views on the rational irreconcilability of ultimate value choices, and particularly his formulation of the implications for ethical political action of the conflict between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility; and his sociological account of the causes and uniqueness of the western rationalization of life.

These topics are closely related: Weber argued that the explanatory interests of the historian and social scientist vary historically and that the objects of their interest were constituted in terms of cultural points of view, and that consequently their categories are ultimately rooted in evaluations, and hence subjective. But he also argued that social science cannot dispense with causality, and that once the categories were chosen, judgments of causality were objective. The explanatory interests of the sociologist, as he defined sociology, were in understanding intentional action causally, but in terms of categories that were culturally significant, such as ‘rational action’. Much of his influence flowed from his formulation of the cultural situation of the day, especially the idea that the fate of the time was to recognize that evaluations were inescapably subjective and that the world had no inherent ‘meaning’. The existential implications of this novel situation for politics and learning were strikingly formulated by him: science could not tell us how to live; politics was as a choice between warring Gods. Weber’s scholarly work and his politics served as a model for Karl Jaspers, and a subject of criticism and analysis for other philosophers, such as Karl Löwith, Max Scheler, and the Frankfurt School.

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Weber, Max (1864–1920), in E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor & Francis