The Wild Scholarship of Max Weber

“Weber himself was reported as saying: ‘I couldn’t care less about style; I just cough up my thoughts.’[1] In his attitude to work, periods of depressive aversion evidently alternated with ones of euphoria when he would be overwhelmed by the rush of ideas and ‘intellectual voraciousness,’[2] but when, at the same time, he would feel he had to make the greatest possible use of the mental state as he did not know how long it would last. If we think of all the time he lost in the long years of illness or reduced capacity for work, or in the quarrels that cost him so much without advancing his scholarly work by one inch, we have to wonder how on earth he was able to read all those books and to conceive and write down all the ideas that have come down to us. His letters do not tell us much about this, as he was little inclined to make confessions there and dried up completely when the frenzy of creativity was upon him. At such times, with the ideas flowing freely, he must have worked at the same furious pace as in 1892, the year of the study of farm-workers. The ‘footnote inflation’[3] that Marianne [Weber, his wife] complained about in many of his essays[4] shows that his texts first bubbled out of him before he concerned himself – if he ever did – with supporting evidence.

Often he wrote several pages without a paragraph break.[5] No little sub-units took shape in the flow of his thoughts. Unlike many scholars, he did not inch his way forward from one index card to the next, from one quotation to the next; he just blazed away when everything was ‘ready in his head.’[6] The lawyer of Paul Siebeck, Weber’s publisher, found ‘simply dreadful’ his preface to the great collective project of the Grundriß der Sozialökonomik [Outline of Social Economics, later published as Economy and Society]; he had not often come across ‘such a mass of foreign words and convoluted sentences nesting on top of each other.’[7] One has only to copy out such monster sentences word by word to realize how overloaded they are with extraneous insertions and terminological duplications, and it is only after several readings that one is able to grasp everything.

Even in lectures Weber often presented his ideas in such an unstructured manner that Marianne really lost her temper. In 1919 Else Jaffé reported to Alfred Weber [Max’s younger brother] that Max ‘poured out a sea of knowledge’ and let ‘his audience gradually drown in it’, ‘to the anger of Marianne, who accompanied the lecture with softly whispered “bad marks.”’[8] This meant that the attraction of Weber’s lectures tended to wane once people’s curiosity about the legendary figure was satisfied.[9] But, after a torrent of words that overwhelmed most listeners and readers, a formulation might strike them like a flash of lightning, as if to say that, if Weber wanted to, he could also strike a different, even demagogic tone.”

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Pp. 101-102 in Joachim Radkau, Max Weber: A Biography (Polity, 2009). From the section, “Wild Scholarship,” pp. 100-103, in Chapter 5, “Eruptions from the Ice: Creativity as Natural Catastrophe.” [List of abbreviations and references below, adapted from Radkau to a more readable format here. Emphasis my own. Picture added.]

  • MWG: Max Weber-Gesamtausgabe, ed. Horst Baier, M. Rainer Lepsius, Wolfgang J. Mommsen, Wolfgang Schluchter and Johannes Winckelmann, Tübingen, 1984–.
  • WB: Marianne Weber, Max Weber: A Biography, trans. Harry Zohn, New York, 1975.
  • WzG: René König and Johannes Winckelmann (eds), Max Weber zum Gedächtnis, Cologne, 1963 (= Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie un Sozialpsychologie 1963, special issue 7).

[1] Glockner, Heidelberger Bilderbuch, pp. 56 and 106, on both occasions recorded by Jaspers, who found this carefree attitude quite proper in Weber’s case: ‘Anyone who has only two or three ideas likes to nurse and pamper them and dress them up prettily. But where things keep bubbling and new ideas keep flowing forth, they simply have to escape on to paper. In such cases, it is not possible to bother about style.’

[2] WB, p. 499.

[3] WB, p. 336.

[4] Marianne to Max Weber, 30 December 1902, referring to the essay Roscher and Knies: ‘I just think it’s a pity that you pack into the footnotes so many pearls of wisdom that should be up there in the text; they look much better there.’ Today’s reader will agree with her. Incidentally, we should note that Marianne – who, in the view of present-day Weber experts, was incapable of understanding Max Weber – closely followed his work even on Roscher and Knies, the so-called essay of sighs, which still wrings many a sigh from today’s experts.

[5] Even Friedrich Tenbruck, a great admirer and a pioneer of Weber studies, felt ‘weighed down’ by the reading of Economy and Society. ‘This oppressive feeling . . . also arises from the inner organization of the text, which often rolls pitilessly over several pages without paragraph breaks or sub-headings and provokes a sense of the futility of all efforts.’ Friedrich Tenbruck, Das Werk Max Webers, Tübingen, 1999, p. 110.

[6] MWG I/19, p. 44.

[7] MWG II/8, p. 625n.

[8] BA Koblenz, Nl 197/85, Else Jaffé to Alfred Weber, May 1919.

[9] WzG, p. 34.

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