Max Weber Studies Vol. 15 No. 2

Sam Whimster

In March 1920 Weber wrote to the economist Robert Liefmann, somewhat irritated that Liefmann had characterised him (in Grund- sätze der Volkswirtschaftslehre) as someone who was not interested in theory but only in the ‘special’ situation of why only in the Occident had rational profit-making capitalism originated. Weber spluttered that this was something more than a ‘special’ situation. ‘There have to be people who investigate this question’, said Weber. ‘In this, only highly paradoxical complexes are important. The modern economy presupposes not only the rational state, in the sense of its calculable functions, but also rational technology (science) and a defined form of rational life-conduct. Why didn’t modern capitalism originate in China? It had many thousand years for that! For centuries they have had exchange, paper money for 1100 years, coinage for 2600 years.’1

Geoffrey Ingham confronts the double paradox of China. The first paradox is ‘the great divergence’ to use the economic historian Ken- neth Pomeranz’s term. Why did the growth paths of China and North West Europe diverge so markedly and so late in their respective histories? Ingham addresses the second paradox posed by Weber. China had a much more settled polity over the centuries, compared to Europe, and it had markets, coinage, and even the sophistication of paper money. Ingham argues persuasively that money by itself is not a sufficient condition to underpin modern capitalist growth. What is required is a uniform unit of account, credit money that is transferable from one account holder to another, and a common stan- dard of what money and credit are worth. China lacked these condi- tions, whereas the early-modern mercantile economies of the Italian city states, the United Provinces of the Netherlands, and 18th century

1. This section, of a long letter, appears in S. Whimster, Understanding Weber (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 264. The full letter, transcribed by Marianne Weber, is published by the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe II/10, pp. 946-54. The full letter has been translated into French by Jean-Pierre Grossein in the Association Revue Franaise de Sociologie 46.4 (2005): 923-28. 

England developed and consolidated all these features. Weber, in his General Economic History, recognised the nature of the financial revo- lution experienced in England, as the first mercantile territorial state. Ingham argues that economic historians have failed to recognize the essential importance of money and finance and those institutions that reliably underpinned the loaning of money to both merchants and to states. Properly assessed, the second paradox—of money—may well explain the first paradox. Technology, resources, labour and factors of production can only be mobilised for profit on the basis of credit money and its ancillary institutions, not least the realization of the power of money through exact calculation.

The letter to Liefmann is also important for another declaration by Weber. ‘If I have now become a sociologist (according to my docu- ments of appointment!) it is to a large measure because I want to put an end to the whole business—which still has not been laid to rest— of working with collective concepts. In other words: sociology, too, can only be pursued by taking as one’s point of departure the actions of one or more (few or many) individuals, that is to say, with a strictly “individualistic” method.’2

Weber’s letter to Liefmann has to be read with care, paying par- ticular attention to Liefmann’s own position. Liefmann was an econ- omist pursuing a subjectivising approach, yet Weber also accuses him of retaining old-fashioned views of the state, i.e., seeing it as something paternalistic—not collectivist to be sure but still some- thing above the individual. The state, explained Weber, had to be seen as the actions of ‘definite people’. Weber writes as a sociolo- gist: ‘“Subjective” means that action is oriented to definite ideas (Vorstellungen)’.3 Johannes Weiss in his dissection of individualism points out that meanings, ideas and values attach to the individ- ual, though their representation in some form of communicative medium is the way in which ideas are held in common. And in the German tradition reason and communicability are inseparable, an issue also taken up in Wilhelm Hellmich’s Aufklärende Rationalisier- ung reviewed below by Adair-Toteff. Weiss goes on to say that if the base unit is in fact a person who holds values and evaluates the world, it is not self-evident how Weber can demarcate his usage from a deeper philosophy of value as in Rickert, or indeed the nature of human existence as in Heidegger.

2. Translated by Hans Henrik Bruun in Max Weber: Collected methodological writings, ed. H.H. Bruun and S. Whimster (London: Routledge, 2014), p. 410.

3. Letter to Liefmann, quoted in Whimster, Understanding Weber, p. 263. 

Sociology is not a subjectivising science as is post-marginalist eco- nomics, and to place both sciences into the same stable of method- ological individualism is unhelpful. Wolfgang Schluchter, noting that sociological analysis has to refer both downwards to the level of the individual’s decision-making and upwards to the societal, macro level, suggests we are far better off using the term methodological relationism. Too often Weber is simplified in a version that holds that the rise of modern capitalism was brought about by Puritan religious beliefs. Weber, as Schluchter re-emphasizes, never neglected the material side of capitalism. In the comparison with China it was the ability of European financiers to exploit the lending requirements of competing territorial states that made a large difference to the devel- opment of capitalism itself. But this did not exclude the play of ideas, as Vorstellungen. At the macro level the outcome of Puritan beliefs was a new spirit of capitalism, but only through the individual level of behaviour—at the micro level—was this outcome realized. What Weber provides, as Schluchter demonstrates, is a duality of action and structure which allows a more elaborate sociological analysis than James Coleman’s more schematic approach.

In order to achieve a new spirit of capitalism, in place of the specu- lative mercantile subjective orientation, a transformation has to take place in everyday behaviour. Kolya Koev argues that Weber works with a sociological concept of habitus to effect this consequential shift in behaviour. Habitus is not determined by the objective forces as in Bourdieu’s analysis of the field, but it is a durable framing device of attitudes to the everyday world. It is capable of absorbing strict extra- everyday beliefs, such as Calvinism, which in most religious situa- tions become the preserve of religious virtuosi. Habitus is the lived framework that enables dedication to work in the name of an other- worldly goal. It has its correlate in conduct of life and, as Schluchter points out, the ways in which conducts are formed through training, education and the sense of vocation. The explanatory worth of soci- ology lies in identifying how orientations at the level of individuals, and groups of individuals, coalesce into enduring institutional struc- tures. Weber outlines this process typologically in his ‘Basic Sociolog- ical Concepts’ where the emergent properties of social action attain the forms of communitization and consociation (Vergemeinschaf- tung and Vergesellschaftung). The imaginative task of sociology is to grasp the empirical instances of these processes in terms of habitus and conduct of life. This is exemplified in Stephen Kalberg’s Search- ing for the Spirit of American Democracy where civic individualism is 

the affirmation, by American citizens, of the practical-ethical in the public sphere; cultural habitus keeps the egoism of individualism at bay, though not without the need of renewal.

It was around March 1920 that Weber was completing the proof reading of the final version of Economy and Society, and so was chart- ing the casuistry of aggregating sociological concepts, working from the individual as ‘the point of departure’ upwards to the state. Klaus Lichtblau notes that we have been somewhat premature in placing Weber as a sociologist, because in a strict textual sense we only have the 1913 essay ‘On some categories of interpretive sociology’ and the 1920 ‘Basic Sociological Concepts’. All those supposed sociologies of power, of law, of religion and of economy are in fact interpolated English titles of what were for Weber the main domains of dom- ination, religion and magic, economy, law, communities, and cul- ture and aesthetics. Only with the full publication of the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe, according to critical and historical principles,4 can we see the complex threads of Weber’s move to sociology. The pre-1914 versions of ‘Economy and Society’, which carried the title ‘Economy and the Orders and Powers of Society’, represented an older ‘struc- tural’ Weber, one more oriented in disciplinary terms to economics, and in particular to a theory of economic stages. The move to sociol- ogy is late and it clarifies his approach in working across disciplines. It is disappointing to learn from Stephen Turner, in the reviews sec- tion, that The Historiography of the Social Sciences entirely omits any discussion of the above issues as well as Weber himself.

Hinnerk Bruhn’s collection of essays is entitled Max Webers histo- rische Sozialökonomie / L’économie de Max Weber entre histoire et sociolo- gie. Weber the economist is not to be divorced from the sociologist. Weber understood bank and credit money, not least because he commissioned Joseph Schumpeter to write for the Grundriss der Sozi- alökonomik and he included a lengthy excursus on Georg Friedrich Knapp’s state theory of money (chartalism) in the final version of Economy and Society. Knapp’s importance for Weber was to empha- size that the validity of money did not derive solely from economic exchange—Ludwig von Mises’s position—but rather from law and the state’s ability to declare the value of money.5 Weber’s status as

4. On the historical critical principles of the Gesamtausgabe, see E. Hanke, G. Hübinger and W. Schwentker, ‘The Genesis of the Max Weber-Gesamtausgabe and the Contribution of Wolfgang J. Mommsen’, Max Weber Studies 12.1 (2012): 59-94.

5. See the discussion in the editorial introduction to Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft. Soziologie, MWG I/23 (2013), pp. 65-6, especially note 90. 

economist is not to be denied, but the harder question remains: what kind of economist was he? In Nicholas Gane’s Max Weber and Contem- porary Capitalism Weber is assayed against the Austrian school of lib- eral economics, but this does not pin Weber down. He admired Carl Menger for his heuristic approach, yet Schumpeter was the prime antagonist of the money-as-a-veil theory—originating with Menger, and which most unfortunately gained so much traction in late 20th century economic doctrine. What do we know of Liefmann’s very long Grundsätze, with which Weber engages? Liefmann was impor- tant pre-war as a theorist of cartels, which he studied under Weber in Freiburg as a doctoral student, and in his Principles for analysing distribution in terms of income; he ignored the Austrian school. And as Grossein informs us he was ‘réfugié en France en 1940, mort au camp de Gurs en 1941’.

Marta Bucholc laments the passing of Donald Levine, the dis- tinguished social theorist who also had a longstanding interest in the sociology of Ethiopia and its problematic nationhood. Levine’s book of collected essays is entitled Social Theory as Vocation. Levine is a much needed reminder of an older academic habitus where engagement with the world on the basis of an authenticated canon and sociological heuristics was an obligatory standard—very much in contrast to the self-seeking habits and petty instrumentalism of many contemporary universities.

No less distinguished is the sociologist and social theorist Martin Albrow, who has brought out his own collected essays. Volker Schmidt, in his review, poses the critical question whether the man- ifest globalizing trends of the last three decades warrant the aban- donment of the ‘old’ discourse of modernity and whether globality is a sufficient substitute.

Finally, some of the articles in this issue are translations and bring to the fore many of the difficulties of rendering Weber into Eng- lish. Soziologische Grundbegriffe has been standardised in this issue to ‘Basic Sociological Concepts’. Not all scholars would agree with this choice, most notably Talcott Parsons who used ‘Terms’ in place of ‘Concepts’. Niall Bond as translator protests ‘interpretive sociology’ for ‘verstehende Soziologie’. Disagreements widen over the transla- tion of Vergemeinschaftung and Vergesellschaftung. Following a con- ference on issues of translation, held in the summer of 2014 at the Max-Weber-Kolleg in Erfurt, these matters will be further pursued in Max Weber Studies 16.1. 

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 

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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