Max Weber Studies Vol. 15 No. 1

Sam Whimster

In his ‘A critique of Eduard Meyer’ Weber wrote, ‘How is it at all possible, in principle, to impute a concrete “effect” to a single con- crete “cause”? And how can this imputation be carried out consider- ing that the occurrence of the individual “event” was in fact always determined by an infinity of causal factors, and that every single one of those causal factors was indispensable for the occurrence of the “effect” in its concrete form?’. This is the dilemma that faces all those disciplines and practices that have an anthropocentric orientation and search out the ‘causal importance of “human acts”’.1 Weber’s discussion of the issue, in particular in regard to the attribution of guilt in the law court and agency in history, is well known. Less appreciated is Weber’s acknowledgement of and use of von Kries’ ideas in his explication.

Johannes von Kries was a philosopher, physiologist and a theo- rist of probability who offered up an analysis of objective possibil- ity for jurisprudence. His style of writing is not terribly accessible by today’s standard, though of course one age has to be careful in criti- cizing how another age chooses to frame a problem, especially in the field of statistics and probability. The important article by Michael Heidelberger demonstrates that von Kries cannot be ignored and that his clarification of causality and probability is not only valid but pivotal to how causation should be approached in both the social and natural sciences.

J.S. Mill greatly expanded the understanding of causation by admitting for consideration ‘the set of all necessary conditions that are jointly sufficient for the effect’ (Heidelberger, p. 16). This was known as the philosophical theory, which acknowledged a plurality

1. Hans-Henrik Bruun and Sam Whimster (eds.), Max Weber. Collected method- ological writings (trans. Hans-Henrik Bruun; London: Routledge, 2012), p. 172. 

of causes, and was influential in German jurisprudence. Singling out one cause, and attaching liability for enacting that cause to a person, fails to take into account other contingent factors and conditions in play. Responsibility for an event, say poisoning someone, is also contingent on a number of other conditions, such as the substance and dose of the poison, the healthiness of the victim etc. Subjective guilt seeks to ascertain the poisoner must have had the intention to poison, whereas other objective factors also had to be present for the act to succeed. Von Kries wanted to go further than Mill and sought a method that would distinguish between an ‘adequate cause’ and the rest of the ‘coincidental’ conditions. What was the cause that increased the probability of the event more than the probability of all the other conditions contributing to the event? This can be abbrevi- ated to what was the cause that were it not present the event would not have happened. But von Kries framed his argument in terms of probability and this remains important because causal responsibil- ity is to be attributed ‘in an impartial, unforced and objective way’ (p. 27).

Ever since the seminal article by Turner and Factor,2 we know that for Weber the identification of a cause—whether in history or in a law court—is a matter of retrospective attribution. We ask questions like was the March Revolution in 1848 caused by Prussian troops firing on demonstrators. To answer it, the absence of those shots has to be imagined, and the answer is that the political groundswell was so strong that street fighting would have happened even without the shooting. The groundswell, in Heidelberger’s terminology, is the nomological knowledge of the historian, the shots are contingent and part of the ontology of what actually happened.

The European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission was able to land a probe on Comet P67, in November 2014, using the calculations of Newtonian mechanics (nomological knowledge), but it could not predict the ontic bounces that Philae made as it landed on the comet (before settling in the shadow of a rock). Analogously, Weber takes the case—and here ‘case’ (Fall) is the object of study—of a mother who smacks an unruly child. Normally, being a progressive mum she would not do this, but being particularly vexed by other mat- ters, she acts irrationally in her own terms and regards the smack as fortuitous. The regularities of social life and historical patterns 

2. Stephen P. Turner and Regis A. Factor, ‘Objective possibility and adequate causation in Weber’s methodological writings’, Sociological Review 29.1 (1981): 5-28. 

 are known and discernible (lawlike statements), what actually hap- pens in reality (ontology) remains unpredictable. This discrimina- tion between the nomological and the ontological at a stroke takes Max Weber’s methodology closer to the natural sciences.

Von Kries went to considerable lengths to model the divide be- tween laws and their acting through events in reality. He used idealised games of chance, like dice or roulette where the odds or probability of outcomes—the objective possibility—are known with certainty in principle. Then he created maximal instability in the physical ontology of how an event will end up—he did this through a novel adaptation of the roulette wheel. The point behind this intel- lectual exercise was to establish the idealised nomological position and to highlight the difficulties of knowing what the outcomes will be in ontological reality. For von Kries it should be noted, unlike some current forms of ‘realism’, ontology is empirical not metaphysical.

The methodological imperative is to establish the objective possi- bility, even where initially this may not be known. Hubert Treiber here discusses von Kries’ treatment of a meteor whose trajectory is unknown. Where it will hit the earth cannot be predicted. But it is possible to formulate this unknown as a probability, so that if the earth is divided up into five continents and five oceans, each of those will have a one in ten chance of being hit. This then becomes a state- ment of the objective possibility. More knowledge of the earth’s sur- face would be helpful, though at this stage the important point is to recognize the absence of knowledge. A statement of objective pos- sibility has been formulated and in the history of probability theory von Kries has advanced beyond Laplace’s treatment, who argued that in the face of incomplete knowledge all probability is a matter of subjective estimate. The idealization provides a measuring stick (Heidelberger, p. 33) and this is what Weber does when he sets up an idealised situation against which to assess what happened in real- ity. Only through the method of creating the objective possibility is it then feasible to arrive at the adequate cause.

Treiber pursues von Kries’ writings, beyond what Weber took from them. The kinetic theory of the movement of gas molecules, at certain states, is not explicable through nomological laws (laws of motion) but is the outcome of ontological conditions alone. Usually the laws of motion can account for a certain probability of where physical bodies will be configured in a space. But with gases there is no such ordering. For von Kries this justifies the use of probability theory, since in the absence of any ordering the idealised state of gases has to be likened to a game of chance of mass phenomena. Physics, here, confirms von Kries’ previously established criteria (indifference, originality and comparability) for probability calculus. As Treiber points out (p. 61) lack of knowledge is a condition of the natural science—once mechan- ical determination no longer suffices. Hence there is a joint induce- ment of both social and natural sciences to work with the measuring stick of idealised games of chance and probability, though—to note— this goes further than Weber’s own understanding of objective possi- bility. In the last section of his article, Heidelberger discusses the quite different adoptions of statistics by social scientists in the late 19th cen- tury and how causality, agency and mass phenomena were conceived of.

Victor Strazzeri provides the first critical appreciation of Max Weber’s lectures on the labour question and the labour movement (which were edited by Rita Aldenhoff-Hübinger and published in 2009). The lecture course was given over the years 1895 to 1898. Weber’s own notes in the form of listed headings have been pre- served as have the fuller prose notes of an unknown student, who attended the course in Freiburg in 1895. Weber’s approach is com- prehensive and historical, opening with a conceptual introduction to the labour question. The forms of labour in antiquity, the middle ages, the factory system, the emancipation from peasant serfdom are covered as are the academic treatment of labour in economics. The rise of the modern proletariat and means of struggle—trade union bargaining, strikes and boycotting and legislation against the same is covered. The labour movement covers the majorEuropean countries in the 19th century, their leading figures and movements including anarchism, and concludes with the international labour movement, including the situation in Australia. Strazzeri shows how ‘later’ Weber is already well represented in these early lectures. The modern worker is free but subject to the economic domination of man over man. Capitalism is an allocative mechanism and prone to crisis, surplus value contra Marx is a power issue of appropriation external to the labour theory of value. Strazzeri encourages further work on these lectures since the ‘bourgeois’ thinker is evident treat- ing socialistic ideals in an academic value free way, though one plac- ing an emphasis on individual responsibility and the interests of the nation.

Weber the bourgeois thinker roughly describes the investiga- tive approach of two new—and large—biographies, reviewed by Andreas Hess. The large biography of Joachim Radkau (published in 2005) used the pivot of Weber and nature and the return of the repressed to entertaining effect. Dirk Kaesler’s biography explic- itly takes up the far more serious challenge of Weber as a member of the bourgeois class. This is the sociologization of the bourgeois intellect, habitus, the ‘bourgeois movement’ and one of its central figures, though a far more perplexing one than any labour move- ment figure, or at least comparable in some respects to Ferdinand Lassalle. Andreas Hess points out that if Kaesler was truly Weberian in approach, the north German cultural protestant bourgeois would be compared with his French and English equivalents and a probing analysis would show just where their projects succeeded and where they foundered. Kaesler does this admirably for Germany, which of course in the period covered is enough for any one book. Neverthe- less the Weberian impulse is always to compare. Max Weber could get as angry with the complacency of his own German Lutheran class as Marx with a reformist, nationally inclined, socialist. Weber’s own ferocity always disturbs any neat biographical appraisal and raises issues of how he conducted himself in the many aspects of his life—not just the outrageous but how he normalised the demons within him. 

Jürgen Kaube suggests that Weber indulged in academic argu- ment and conflict for its own sake, though Weber did not dissi- pate his energies when his profile as a public intellectual came to the fore during the First World War. Kaube is obviously struck by Weber’s engagement in both academic debate and public affairs as compared to today when universities indulge in the self-trivializa- tion of academic metrics. What Weber would have made of today’s sociologists and social scientists offloading the capitalism debate to monetary economists is worth speculating on, especially in the light of the rolling conversation between himself and the heavyweight protagonists of Lujo Brentano, Werner Sombart, Georg Simmel and in the younger generation Robert Michels and György Lukács; and as Friedrich Wilhelm Graf’s studies on the friendship between Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch (reviewed by Adair-Toteff), the rolling conversation on religion and ethics in the modern world and their historical antecedents.

This brings us to the appearance of Weber’s writings on ascetic Protestantism and capitalism between the years 1904 and 1911, a mighty work published by the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe and weighing in at just under a 1000 pages. Peter Ghosh makes some important points about the Protestant Ethic and Spirit of Capitalism essay and this edition of it. It is not a work of history in the conven- tional sense, nor so a work of theology in the conventional sense, and both critics and editors need to respect this. It stands in Weber’s own professed method of Zurechnung—he was attributing the mentality of early modern capitalism to the life conduct of selected groups of Puritans. Ghosh congratulates the indefatigable Schluchter as the main editor and the more than able theological scholar Ursula Bube whose labour was crucial for the scholarly apparatus. Third point: there is no English edition of the Protestant Ethic essay in the format Weber published it; that is, a dual format of main text and explana- tory and exploratory footnotes (not endnotes!). Lastly, it is not a clas- sic text but it is canonical for our attempts to understand that thing we call modernity.

Max Weber Studies carries with sadness the obituary of Profes- sor M. Rainer Lepsius who died last October. His great achieve- ment was to bring the volumes of Weber’s letters from 1906 to 1920 to completion, the last volume of which is truly Wagnerian in scale and drama. His strong nerve held to the end, never allowing himself to be consumed by the dark matter of Max Weber. He exhibited a scholarly distance, a refinement of comment and huge knowledge of the biographical Weber. Visiting scholars to Heidelberg found inspi- ration in his fascinating conversation on so many topics—the birth of modernity, the role of institutions, the interpersonal dynamics of the large Weber family and how Weber’s Damen held him in check. Above all, as Wolfgang Schluchter shows, he was actively and intel- lectually committed to a democratic post-war Germany, including its re-unification, and Europe as an unended project. His commit- ment to steadying and consolidating the German Sociological Soci- ety makes salutary reading for other national associations. Wolfgang Schluchter is right to say his voice will be missed. 

© Max Weber Studies 2015, Clifton House, 17 Malvern Road, London, E8 3LP.

Professor Sam Whimster (

Associate Editors
Dr Austin Harrington (
Dr Duncan Kelly (

Review Editor

Dr Joshua Derman (



Max Weber Studies is published twice a year in January and July.
ISSN: 1470-8078 Current issue: 15.1

The journal is committed to the application and dissemination of the ideas of Max Weber.  Max Weber Studies seeks an engagement with the fundamental issues in the social and historical sciences: the dilemmas of life-conduct and vocation in the contemporary world, the tracking of rationalization processes and their impact, disenchantment and the return of magic, the 'uniqueness of the West' and multiple modernities, the analysis of the stratification of power and its modalities, and the validity of an interpretative science of social reality. The journal asserts the continuing place of Weber in the conversation of both classical and contemporary social and cultural theory.

The journal is an indispensable source for the translation of new Weber texts and the publication of unpublished correspondence. It offers extensive reviews of every new volume published by the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe and analyses the emerging work-history of Weber's writings. It is very much interested in milieu analysis of European intellectual thought 1880-1920, in particular movements of social reform, the women's movement, cultural currents, family history, the universities, and politics both nationally and internationally. The journal also undertakes the reflexive analysis of the reception of Max Weber in different language communities.

The journal is interdisciplinary and welcomes articles in the fields of sociology, social theory, organizational theory, economic sociology, historical sociology, religious and cultural analysis, ethics, methodology, intellectual history, and civilizational analysis.

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