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Max Weber and Anglophone Historiography

Richard Bourke, 17 December 2020

The distinguished ancient historian Moses Finley is reported to have planned at the end of his life to re-read the writings of Max Weber, half a century after he first encountered his corpus. This level of engagement is surely exceptional among anglophone historians. It is a notorious fact that, beginning with R. H. Tawney, historians in Britain and the United States have subjected Weber’s work to skewed interpretations or familiarised themselves with only a fraction of his output. Tawney himself would later seek to revise the simplifying criticisms levelled against Weber in his 1926 Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, but it was his reductive account that set the tone for later commentators, exemplified by Christopher Hill’s return to the subject in 1972 with The World Turned Upside Down. E. P. Thompson’s interest in the role of religion within English working-class culture similarly drew inspiration from Tawney and Weber, but again their ideas were not clearly differentiated.

Moreover, it is notable that Weber’s impact upon English-language historians has largely been confined to the influence of his now classic work, Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, originally published as two essays in 1904–5. This contrasts markedly with the uptake among German historians. Hans-Ulrich Wehler recycled stray elements of Weber’s analysis of ‘modernisation’, but Wolfgang Mommsen and Jürgen Osterhammel managed to combine productive use of Weberian concepts with genuine expertise in his writings. Among anglophone scholars, by comparison, detailed study of Weber’s work has mostly been pursued by sociologists like Talcott Parsons and Edward Shils or social theorists like W. G. Runciman and Stephen Turner, though historians like Keith Tribe, Fritz Ringer and Peter Ghosh have also examined Weber’s thought as a distinct object of study.

One reason for the limited appreciation of Weber among so many historians writing in English stems from the intricacy of his views about the relationship between ideas and action. Under the joint influence of the most prominent political and social historians writing in the Anglophone world, ‘ideas’ have usually been taken to be an irrelevant – or, at best, a secondary – consideration in the explanation of events. This verdict is applicable to Marxisant historians disposed to ‘reduce’ social relations to their economic determination as well as to students of politics and diplomacy inclined to account for public business exclusively in terms of strategic interests.

In the 1883 Preface to the Manifest der komunistischen Partei, Engels presented Marx’s theory of history in terms of the influence of ‘economic production’ on social, cultural and political arrangements. For his part, however, Marx was of course a neo-Hegelian by formation, and attempts to describe his trajectory in terms of a ‘coupure épistémologique’, separating the early humanist from the later scientist, now appear misguided. Although Marx formulated various statements about the ‘materialist’ conception of history, he was ultimately rooted in an idealist tradition for which human beings were essentially fabricators of value. Without this assumption, both the concept of alienation and the doctrine of revolution would be basically incoherent components of Marx’s thought. Nonetheless, given the centrality of economic relations to his social philosophy, it was perhaps inevitable that ‘needs’ and ‘interests’ would play a paramount role among historians who saw themselves as followers or disciples.

In a similar vein, for generations of political historians, the art of politics has been seen in terms of the struggle between competing interests. Lewis Namier did much to set the tone for the historical profession at large. Although Namier was himself the author of 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals, an important contribution to nineteenth-century intellectual history, his work on the eighteenth century was a celebration of a notionally pre-ideological age, dominated in Britain by pragmatic oligarchs with little need for guiding principles.

Lewis Namier (1888–1960), author of 1848: The Revolution of the Intellectuals.

In the wake of the decline of political history along with doctrinaire Marxism, scepticism about the role of ideals in shaping history has continued. The terms ‘power’, ‘tactics’, ‘strategy’ and ‘practice’ now dominate the vocabulary of historians, while ‘norms’, ‘concepts’ and ‘principles’ rarely figure. Some of this is explicable in terms of intellectual fashion, some of it in terms of professional habits among historians. As a tendency, it risks distorting the importance of thought in history, which is unfortunate since thinking is pivotal to all we do. Correspondingly, it seems foolish to pre-conceive historical research in such a way as to minimise its intellectual content.

Quentin Skinner stands out as the most prominent historian writing in English who has argued for the central role of intellectual history while also acknowledging the influence of Weber. For this reason, he rightly occupies a central position in this discussion. Skinner’s earliest significant recourse to Weber occurred in his 1974 article, Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action, essentially a response to critics of his work. One major concern of Skinner’s argument was the relationship between principles and social action. Steering a course between Namier and Herbert Butterfield, Skinner argued for a particular kind of ‘causal connection’ between ideals and the forms of behaviour to which they give rise.

Quentin Skinner's seminal article Some Problems in the Analysis of Political Thought and Action, 1974, © Sage Publications, Inc.

Skinner reminds us that for Namier principles in eighteenth-century political life were mere ruses. Against this view, Skinner further recalls, Butterfield challenged Namier’s approach, insisting on the importance of sincerely held beliefs. However, Skinner rejected aspects of both his predecessors’ claims. To begin with, he argued, there was something implausible about Namier’s view that principles played no role whatsoever in eighteenth-century politics. Yet Skinner also insisted that there was no need to rely, as Butterfield had done, on sincerely held ideals alone. A principle could ‘make a difference’ even where it was cited in bad faith.

For Skinner, in other words, principles might stand as belated rationalisations of behaviour. For example, a politician might invoke the principle of justice as a motive for policy while in fact being driven by narrow party-political advantage. Even in such a case, Skinner was at pains to argue, the principle, though spurious, played a part in shaping the action. In being cited as a means of justifying what was done, it influenced the way in which the action was carried out. To that extent, it played a causal role in bringing about the result. As such, it had to form a part of the explanation of the event. Following Weber, Skinner depicted principles in cases of this kind as offering a species of ‘legitimation’. They served to vindicate the character of the behaviour being pursued.

Skinner’s thesis is justly admired for the subtlety of its argument. It was even refined in 1978 in the Preface to his Foundations of Modern Political Thought. Yet surely Skinner’s perspective, for all its ingenuity, involves us in unnecessary shades of nuance by focussing on the particular case of ideals professed more or less hypocritically. In this, it narrows the activity of the intellectual historian to the analysis of moral subterfuge. It is surely right that any realistic appraisal of political affairs will reveal a world of stratagems and deceit. Interests, we usually find, underlie the profession of principles. Yet, at a deeper level, it is also clear that interests are modified by ideas. On that basis, the analysis of any moderately complex culture will have to include an account of the way in which ideals have transformed the material conditions of social life. To that extent our mental world is causally efficacious whether its principles are deceptively or genuinely deployed.

In order to elucidate the case of innovating ideologists employing principles as strategic forms of moral legitimation, Skinner resorts to the celebrated example used by Weber: the justification of the ‘spirit’ of capitalism in terms of the ‘ethos’ of Protestantism. In an extensively revised version of his 1974 article published in 2002 as Moral Principles and Social Change, Skinner presents Weber’s Puritan businessmen as tacticians who artfully re-described their behaviour so as to render it compatible with prevailing norms of piety. The implication, which Skinner never quite definitively states, is that religious conviction masked the goal of profit.

This implication, however, is not to be found in Weber. Throughout Die protestantische Ethik, Weber’s concern was to elucidate how the rationalisation of conduct has transformed behaviour in modern societies. Such rationalisation included a novel approach to piety on the part of non-conformist sects devoted to secular success: for them, hard work and commercial investment, which yielded exponential profits, could be taken as signs of spiritual salvation. On the one hand, a culture of ascetic Protestant denial served the requirements of disciplined investment; and, on the other, the profits generated by capitalist restraint justified the vocation of the pious capitalist. Skinner reminds us that this fortuitous coincidence between religious and commercial devotion prompted contemporaries to view their religiosity as a fraud, yet there was never any suggestion in Weber’s treatment that this was so. On the contrary, for him the specifically modern form of wage-based capitalism was facilitated by the emergence of a genuine ideal represented by the figure of the saintly investor. There was not even a hint of a moral feint or duplicity.

In a somewhat gnomic paragraph in the Introduction to Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen, first published in 1915 and collected posthumously in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, Weber tackled the relationship between ideas and interests in the history of thought. He appeared to argue that concrete commitments rather than abstract principles guide human behaviour. Yet in fact his analysis is altogether more complicated. It is clear, he suggested, that human action is directly determined by the play of interests, whether material or ideal in character. The ‘material’ satisfaction of needs, his statement made clear, drives human behaviour. But so too does the pursuit of ‘ideal’ values. It goes without saying that for Weber such values ordinarily amount to guileless attachments, not merely instrumental ploys. In this sense, Skinner’s artfully constructed principles were the exception rather than the rule for Weber. Moreover, broad theoretical conceptions – which we might call ‘doctrines’ – could themselves in addition direct the course of interests according to Weber.

A contrast with Skinner is again to be detected here. The focus on ‘strategies’, ‘interventions’ and ‘speech acts’ in Skinner’s methodological writings leaves little room for exhibiting the historical significance of doctrines, despite the attention he pays to these in point of exegetical practice. Sometimes, according to Weber, a philosophical worldview makes all the difference. Abstract theories of the kind often prove decisive in determining the course of change. Weber designated these theories as ‘Weltbilder’ but thought of them as general conceptual schemes, ultimately addressed to the meaning of life. Such capacious ideological constructions can and do switch the tracks along which history runs. (Weber employs the rail metaphor of the Weichensteller – or signalman – to make his point). Doctrines naturally advance their cause through the operation of interests, but nonetheless both combine to shape the character of events.

Faced with the causal efficacy of overarching worldviews from Protestantism to Liberalism and Communism, how might we account for Skinner’s reluctance to assert the importance of general theories in shaping the character of history? I believe there are two reasons for his reticence on this score. One is a sort of Wittgensteinian suspicion of generalising concepts. As Skinner complained from the very start of his career, historians often rely on spuriously hypostatised explanatory terms. The disembodied agency of ‘Communism’ might serve as an example. Beneath the banner of this doctrine, a plurality of principles, usages and arrangements actually operated in the world – each adapting as circumstances changed. The objection here amounts to a salutary argument for resolving historical abstractions into their causally effective components. However, proceeding in this way, although the description of particular doctrines rightly becomes ever more refined, the efficacy of accurately depicted principles still remains intact.

Yet Skinner has a second ground for suspecting the role of ideals. This stems from his focus on principles as moral norms. His doubts about the appeal to principles in political rhetoric overlap with a general scepticism about moral motives in human action. In Skinner’s words, both ‘realism and common sense’ encourage us to reduce the role of morality in the analysis of how policy is made. In claiming this, Skinner is essentially playing devil’s advocate: he is conceding the point that politics is an affair of power rather than ethics in order to show that normative principles will still be effective in public life if only because they are invoked as ex post facto rationalisations.

There can be little doubt that moral principles pervasively operate as rationalisations. Indeed, this point was eloquently made by Immanuel Kant himself. In the Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten he proposed that there is a natural propensity in human behaviour to ‘rationalise’ (vernünfteln) against moral duty in favour of our own self-love. Hypocrisy is deeply ingrained in the fabric of human judgment. Nonetheless, self-love plots its course by adopting principles of action just as much as conduct under the moral law must do. In other words, there is no stark antithesis between principles and interests. On the contrary, principles play an essential role in identifying what our interests are. There is no need therefore to demote them to an ex post role in deliberation: they shape the course of action ex ante.

At the centre of Weber’s political vision was a distrust of what we think of as Kantian (or Christian) moralism. This was packed into his 1919 reflections on the illusions of the ‘ethics of disposition’ (Gesinnungsethik) as presented in his lecture on Politik als Beruf. As already indicated, it is important to bear in mind the extent to which Kant himself, while of course championing the morality of pure ‘disposition’ (Gesinnung), was nonetheless prepared to question whether ‘any true virtue is actually to be found in the world at all’. In any event, my point is that Weber’s scepticism did not diminish the role he ascribed to principles in the determination of human action, or the place he awarded ideas in shaping history.

In anatomising the principles that motivated certain Protestant sects in his account of modern capitalist values, Weber picked out the influence of an ‘idea of duty’ (Gedanke der Verpflichtung) in constituting bourgeois behaviour. His point was neither that this was genuine virtue nor that it was a moral pretence: it was, instead, a principled conception of interest which determined which goals of life were to be pursued. This conception helped to change the world. How did it secure this momentous outcome? It is clear that modern bourgeois values are selected as favourable by the capitalist machine, but Weber’s question was how such values rose to prominence. To win out, not only did they have to be justified or legitimated, they also had to be conceptualised as worthy in the first place. In showing how this came to pass, Weber offered a seminal thesis about the transvaluation of values and in the process revolutionised the practice of intellectual history.

Richard Bourke, Max Weber and Anglophone Historiography, CAS LMU Blog, 17 December 2020,