CULTURE APRIL 21, 2011
by Lawrence A. Scaff
Princeton University Press, 336 pp., $35
MAX WEBER IN AMERICA? The idea seems almost preposterous. We often think of Weber as the quintessential European thinker: abstract, worldly, brooding, and difficult. The America of his period of greatest productivity, the first two decades of the twentieth century, comes down to us as isolationist, anti-intellectual, bombastic, and about to embark on flapperdom. How could one have any influence on the other?
But as Lawrence Scaff effectively shows in his new book, Weber cannot be understood without an appreciation of his experiences in this country, and America’s special path to modernity is difficult to grasp without a substantial dip into Weber’s extensive body of writing. Like Antonín Dvořák, who incorporated American spirituals and folk tunes into his symphonic and chamber compositions, Weber’s fascination with all aspects of American culture belies any notion that the new world and the old were incapable of meeting on equal terms.
Weber and his wife Marianne arrived in the United States in August, 1904 for a three-month stay. The reason for their visit was the Congress of Arts and Sciences, an offshoot of the World’s Fair in St. Louis. Once capable of generating massive fascination, World’s Fairs have lost their appeal. (The 2012 Expo will take place in Yeosu, South Korea and will be devoted to issues of coastal management.) In Weber’s day, by contrast, not only did the events in St. Louis inspire a famous musical comedy, they brought together an all-star list of American and European intellectuals to debate whether there exists a methodological unity linking the natural and social sciences. John Dewey and William James did not show up in St. Louis, which was too bad, because not only Weber but also such extraordinary German scholars as Werner Sombart and Ernst Troeltsch did.
Theodore Roosevelt invited the leading academics from St. Louis to the White House for a reception, much as the current president honors the annual March Madness champion. Weber did not attend because he preferred to go to Muskogee. Oklahoma’s and America’s Indian Territory piqued his curiosity for a number of reasons. The leading scholar of questions of power and authority in the twentieth century here found something like a state of nature (or so he thought) in which economic and political forms could not be taken as given. Nowhere in Europe could one witness a new world being created, but in America one could do so by taking a train west. For Weber, that topped a reception in the East Room any day.
Race was also much on Weber’s mind as he travelled throughout the United States. W.E.B. DuBois, who was fluent in German, had heard Weber lecture in Berlin while a student at Humboldt University and came to his talk in St. Louis. We lack the details of their conversations, but as Scaff points out, the similarities in focus between the German academic and the author of The Philadelphia Negro and The Souls of Black Folk are striking. In both of these books, DuBois paid consideration attention to social structure, explored the effects of religion on culture, and charted the path away from agrarianism, all the while proving himself comfortable with sociological methods such as surveys and statistics.
Weber’s preoccupation with the race question directed him to Tuskegee, Alabama where unfortunately he missed Booker T. Washington, who was out fund-raising. DuBois and Washington did not care much for each other’s ideas, but Weber found much to admire in both. Washington’s insistence on the need for black uplift, for example, fitted nicely with the attention Weber paid, in Scaff’s words, to “an ethos emphasizing the dignity of labor and the disciplining of the self in service to a secular ideal.” Most strikingly of all, Weber rejected any eugenicist thinking on race, viewing racial differences, in contemporary language, as socially constructed.
No other aspect of the American experience contributed as much to Weberian sociology as the American approach to religion. The Webers had relatives in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, and despite the complications of a journey to such a remote place, closer to the West Virginia border than to Charlotte, they made the trip and observed revivalist practices in pure form, such as open-air baptism. It is significant that Weber’s first publication elaborating his distinction between a sect and an institutionalized church was based on his Appalachian visit. Once again, the United States offered Weber the chance to experience how social life was formed before it became calcified into what his later translator Talcott Parsons would call “pattern variables.” It was primarily in the South and West that Weber came to understand how religion could serve to validate a person’s honorable standing, in this way serving such secular objectives as credit referral as well as filling the needs of the sacred.
Readers of Weber’s most famous book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, are aware of his debt to the writings of such iconic American figures as Benjamin Franklin. Less attention is generally paid to the influence of another American polymath, William James. Although he did not go to St. Louis, James met Weber when the German scholar came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, after his trip to the American South. Once again we have no record of the conversations, but we do know that the themes of The Protestant Ethic overlap considerably with those of The Varieties of Religious Experience. Both men, as Scaff put it, developed “a similar formulation of the categories of asceticism and mysticism, an unwavering focus on practical conduct and the pragmatic effects of religious belief, and insightful portrayals of the types of spiritual life or ‘personality’ formed by religious experience.”
And then Max Weber swallowed Manhattan, the last stop on his trip, in huge gulps, attending the American premiere of Mahler’s Fourth, visiting the Yiddish theater, and witnessing services at the First Church of Christ Scientist and Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture Society. It was a whirlwind tour—but wait, no Chinese restaurant? Well, almost: Scaff recounts that the Webers did attend a lecture at the League for Political Education on “A Chinese Woman’s View of the East,” delivered by the Chinese physician Dr. Yamei Kin. Weber is the leading twentieth-century theorist of the problem of modernity. If by that term we mean the frenetic energy of urban life, as Weber’s Berlin colleague Georg Simmel had suggested, New York offered the ideal example.
Weber wrote his most famous works after his return to Europe in November, 1904. He wrote them in German, which means that in subsequent years the ongoing encounter between him and the country he visited would be mediated by translators. Scaff ends his book by recounting the rocky roads those translations took. As any social scientist might appreciate, there were difficulties with publishers unsure whether the ideas of such a difficult thinker would attract readers. (The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, of course, became one of the all-time best sellers in sociology). Parsons not only translated Weber but also aspired to become his country’s leading sociologist, and the two roles could and did conflict. Wisconsin’s Hans Gerth knew Weber’s work best, but his English was anything but idiosyncratic. Fortunately, his brash student C. Wright Mills knew how to catch the public’s attention. None of them had an easy task. For all his Americanization, Weber remained a Germanic thinker. One of his best-known terms, for example, is Lebensstil, which has been rendered into English as lifestyle. He also gave us Lebensführung (life conduct), Lebensideal (life ideal), Lebensanschauung (life outlook), Lebensauffassung (life conception), Lebensluft (life atmosphere), and Lebensstimmung (life mood).
Scaff ends his wonderful book by posing a crucial question. Is Weber best viewed as a social thinker comparable to his German and American contemporaries, or does he belong with Plato, Machiavelli, Kant, Nietzsche, and figures of that ilk? My views tend in the latter direction; I continue to be astonished by Weber’s intellectual breadth and depth. It pleases me, then, to learn how much my own country helped shape those ideas. We should be grateful to Lawrence Scaff for providing us with such a fine history.
Alan Wolfe is writing a book about political evil.