Chapter 1
Max Weber’s ‘Central Question’
pages 48–51 (without footnotes)

But it is not Max Weber’s ‘image of man’ – ultimately ‘personal’, binding upon no one, quite distant from most of us – that is decisive for an insight into the problematic that constitutes his sociology, but rather the attempt to discipline this line of questioning according to specific methodological and academic standards. This is the sole ‘central’ problem in his so-called Wissenschaftslehre. The pieces assembled in WL belong almost exclusively in the context of Weber’s sociology of Lebensführung – the rejection of claims of Lebensführung on the part of science, this ‘specifically atheistic’ (gottfremden) power, hostile to all piety. However, these essays contain, principally in the debates with Knies, Eduard Meyer, Stammler and Ostwald, the author’s heroic endeavour to ‘save the problem’ – to express it in an Aristotelian manner – of the old ‘moral sciences’, of the old ‘practical philosophy’ for a modern ‘empirical’ social science. This is the core of Weber’s so-called Wissenschaftslehre. Again, however, it is not possible to redeem this claim in this context. Perhaps the reader might in any case gradually lose patience with so much heresy. But a final proof of this contended ‘central’ interest of Weberian sociology will not be spared this reader.

We could still object that all of the proofs for Weber’s ‘central’ interest that have been presented so far are to be found in obscure passages; but this can hardly be said of the most important exposition of all (in our opinion) of the ‘anthropological principle’. It is to be found in the report composed for the Verein für Sozialpolitik in 1913, and only printed as a manuscript, in which form it served as evidence in the debate on value judgements.125 It was published by Weber in the journal Logos in 1917 under the title ‘The meaning of “value-freedom” in the sociological and economic sciences’, and belongs today to the central works of the Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Wissenschaftslehre.126

Weber refers to the essay on objectivity, in particular to the analysis of the problem of ‘value relevance’ and ‘culture’ developed there – and that means ‘value-interests’, which ‘also indicate the path to be taken by purely empirical scientific work’. ‘Struggle’ is not to be excluded from all cultural life. ‘Peace’ signifies the ‘shifting of the forms of struggle or finally the chances of selection, nothing else.’ If and when such displacements stand the test of an ethical or some other evaluative judgement’ – on this nothing can be stated generally. Only one thing results without any doubt:

every order of social relations, without exception and however constituted is, if one wishes to evaluate it, ultimately to be examined with respect to the human type for which it, by way of external or internal (motivational) selection, optimises the chances of becoming the dominant type. For empirical research can never be truly exhaustive, nor does the necessary factual basis for such an evaluation exist, be it a consciously subjective evaluation, or an evaluation claiming objective validity.127

Here Weber, in the memorandum of 1913, refers to the Inaugural Address, delivered almost two decades previously, in remarking that in an ‘often certainly immature form’ he ‘had wished to express this’ – i.e. the demand that one had ultimately to assess every order of social relations in terms of its anthropological consequences – ‘in my inaugural academic address’.128

We shall break off our discussion at this point. I regard this passage from Weber’s last essay devoted in a restricted sense to epistemological questions – Vol. 7 of Logos appeared in the years 1917–18 – as the most important indication given to us by Weber for the understanding of his work. It would do no harm to write the two sentences down on a small piece of paper and then, whenever Weber referred to ‘institution’, ‘grouping’, ‘enterprise’, ‘association’, ‘sect’, ‘acquisitive activity’, ‘exchange’, ‘market’ and so forth, to take out this piece of paper and ask: what does this order, this type of social relationship imply for the human type to which it sets limits or opens up chances? Naturally one has to write the sentences down correctly. The dissemination of these sentences in the English-speaking world demonstrates how little my comparison of the history of the reception of Weber’s work with the party-game ‘Chinese whispers’ missed the point. At a rough estimate, four out of every five readers of Max Weber will today only be able to read him in English translation. Quite probably the proportion is even higher. What would they have on their little pieces of paper should they unwarily follow my advice? Certainly that which many more than four out of every five readers would regard as the correct text:

Obviously, absolutely nothing of a general character can be said as to whether such shifts can withstand examination according to an ethical or other value judgement. Only one thing is indisputable: every type of social order, without exception, must, if one wishes to evaluate it, be examined with reference to the opportunities which it affords to certain types of persons to rise to positions of superiority through the operation of the various objective and subjective selective factors. For empirical investigation is not really exhaustive nor does there exist the necessary factual basis for an evaluation, regardless of whether it is consciously subjective or claims objective validity.129

It must be freely admitted that, with the current ‘niveaux’ and ‘standards’ according to which a text of Weber is ‘reconstructed’, the practice of transmuting the question: Which human type has the optimal chance of becoming dominant? into the (certainly easier to ‘operationalise’) question: Which types have the greater possibilities of entering leading positions? is to be recommended. What this sole available translation in the world language of sociology of those sentences written upon our little piece of paper has led to in countless Masters’ theses, seminar papers, textbooks, etc., hardly bears thinking about. No real damage. But innumerable young people would have been given the chance of wondering about an obscure sentence, reflecting on it and posing questions. How should they know what is withheld from them?

But those are questions that reach beyond our theme. The object here was to seek the realisation of Max Weber’s ‘problematic’. In Weber’s texts there are sentences which everyone knows and which are cited again and again. Like the one stating that what is at issue is the saving of a ‘remnant of humanity’ from the ‘parcelisation of the soul’.130 Or the one that states that all historical experience confirms that ‘one would not achieve the possible if the impossible were not constantly sought after in the world’.131 Such sentences have a value as powerful and beautiful prose, impressive evidence for the ‘person’ but saying nothing about the ‘work’ of Max Weber. We have tried to demonstrate that the central interest of the work was, in terms of academic and methodological discipline, directed to Menschentum. With this objective Weber aimed his cognitive objective (free of all extravagance) exactly at the same level at which, according to his Wissenschaftslehre, it was to be set. There is in Weber no discrepancy between ‘work’ and ‘person’. The work is the work of Max Weber, and he saw what was close to his heart. He was neither scientist nor positivist, if these concepts convey anything. For nothing connects the vigour of his scientific questioning with the fuss about ‘standards’, ‘permissibility’, etc., which has become the norm in the regimentation of contemporary social science, the most recent mannerism of academic presumption and obscurity. Weber questioned in a quite unpositivistic fashion the view that ‘questions which we cannot answer, or cannot answer with any certainty, are therefore really “idle” questions’. More than this: ‘Empirical science would be in a bad way if those most important questions for which it had no answers had never been posed.’132 This is to be found in the Wissenschaftslehre, and not in the collection of political writings.

Weber did not only pose these ‘highest questions’, he also tried to respond to them. But that does not belong in the context of an attempt to make his Fragestellung visible.

Max Weber in 1919 (Mohr Siebeck)