The Tragedy of Weber

"The Tragedy of Weber: John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber," review of Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy, by John Patrick Diggins, Weekly Standard, 8 December 1996.


John Patrick Diggins, a provocative academic who writes primarily on American politics, has the happy faculty of raising your interest without entirely satisfying it. His latest book seems at first glance a departure from his previous work, but it isn’t at all. For in Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy, Diggins offers an intellectual biography of a seminal figure of our century — and tries to make the case that Weber’s ideas offer an alternative to an “American political culture almost innocent of irony and tragedy” that suffuses the country as the century comes to a close. Diggins first raises our interest with the biographical aspects of his book: Its portrait of Weber the man gives dignity and stature to Weber the intellectual. But the case he makes for Weber’s relevance ultimately doesn’t satisfy For while Max Weber was unquestionably a great social scientist, perhaps the greatest we have seen, he had a profoundly flawed understanding of how America came to be, the ills that beset her, and where we can go to find a cure for those ills.

Weber died in Germany in 1920 at the age of 56. His work, translated and championed by the leading American sociologist Talcott Parsons, has had an enormous influence in American universities, an influence that extends beyond the books professors read to the classes they teach As a result, most people know something about his ideas — charisma, the Protestant ethic — even if they do not know his name.

Weber was profoundly troubled by the increasingly bureaucratic organization of the modern world. He believed bureaucracy was imposing dull routine, mediocre careerism, and legalistic overcaution not merely on bureaucrats but also on the rest of us. Bureaucracy is rational, all too rational, but it is directionless and therefore mindless. Indeed, for Weber, all of reason is mindless in the same way. For reason cannot tell us what to value; it can only arrange facts.

Social scientists and practical Americans believe the distinction between facts and values implicitly favors facts. Facts are true, after all, while values may be just so much hot air. Weber popularized the idea of the “fact- value distinction,” but he derived an entirely different meaning from it. Facts are true, he said, but they are dead. They come to life only when they can be connected to a deeper and less rational force — by how much people value them. Values are therefore more powerful than facts because they inspire people. Here, as elsewhere, we can see the direct influence of his (and our century’s) philosophic master, Friedrich Nietzsche.

Weekly Standard