The Social Science of Max Weber

"The Social Science of Max Weber," Measure, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 1951).  Reprinted in Natural Right and History  (Ch. 2).


Weber, who regarded himself as a disciple of the historical school came very close to historicism, and a strong case can be made for the view that his reservations against historicism were halfhearted and inconsistent with the broad tendency of his thinking.  He parted company with the historical school, not because it had rejected natural norms, i.e., norms that are both universal and objective, but because it had tried to establish standards that were particular and historical indeed, but still objective.  He objected to the historical school not because it had blurred the idea of natural right but because it had preserved natural right in a historical guise, instead of rejecting it altogether.  The historical school had given natural right a historical character by insisting on the ethnic character of all genuine right or by tracing all genuine right to unique folk minds, as well as by assuming that the history of mankind is a meaningful process or a process ruled by intelligible necessity.  Weber rejected both assumptions as metaphysical, i.e., as based on the dogmatic premise that reality is rational.  Since Weber assumed that the real is always individual, he could state the premise of the historical school also in these terms: the individual is an emanation from the general or from the whole.  according to Weber, however, individual or partial phenomena can be understood only as effects of other individual or partial phenomena, and never as effects of wholes such as folk minds.  To try to explain historical or unique phenomena by tracing them to general laws or to unique wholes means to assume gratuitously that there are mysterious or unanalyzable forces which move the historical actors.  There is no “meaning” of history apart from the “subjective” meaning or the intentions which animate the historical actors.  But these intentions are of such limited power that the actual outcome is in most cases wholly unintended.  Yet the actual outcome–historical fate–which is not planned by God or man, molds not only our way of life but our very thoughts, and especially does it determine our ideals.  Weber was, however, still too much impressed by the idea of science to accept historicism without qualification.  In fact, one is tempted to suggest that the primary motive of his opposition to the historical school and to historicism in general was devotion to the idea of empirical science as it prevailed in his generation.

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