max weber, born in 1864 and died in 1920, is generally regarded as the greatest of modern sociologists. This received opinion is piously affirmed, even by those whose command of the original texts and their sources in intellectual and social history is limited. But Weber’s work has exerted little influence on the social sciences in this country. (The situation in the USA is different.) Piety, apparently, has served as a substitute for comprehension. There is little point in re-animating those hobgobblins so familiar to all right-thinking left-wing social scientists: the lamentable (if recent) isolation of the British from Continental thought, the philistine complacency of those for whom complex ideas constitute the moral equivalent of greasy cooking, the nervous patrol mounted on academic boundaries by minds of pop-gun calibre. The reasons for the deficiency are far more profound. They affect men of honesty, talent, and vision no less than that minority of pedants whose chief activity is the celebration of their own short-sightedness as a new form of omniscence.

Max Weber’s life work may be understood as a desperate encounter with Marxism, a system of values and explanation from which Weber dissented—and which he treated with the utmost seriousness and respect. In opposition to the Marxist theory of ideology, Weber insisted on the independent role of ideas in history. Contradicting the Marxist notion of social classes, he held that status groupings were often more important. Challenging the Marxist view of the state, he developed an original conception of bureaucracy. He studied the inter-relationship of society and religion in the Protestant west, India, China, and Ancient Judaism; and brought a vast historical perspective to the analysis of the crisis of capitalist society. Master of a thousand historical particulars, he used his immense learning to seek generalisation. Endowed with a profound capacity for abstraction, he never used abstraction to annihilate the uniqueness of any specific historical situation. He moved with bewildering rapidity from methodological prescription, through the analysis of the language of the social sciences, into specific empirical studies, towards sociological generalisation, and—finally —transcended this to construct a philosophy of history. Upon his death, a contemporary said: “With Max Weber, our sciences reached their highest peak—and promptly fell from it.” Weber attempted, indeed, a synthesis of the abstract and the concrete by juxtaposing the one and the other. Trapped within the antitheses of a science resolutely positivistic, he sought to break out by showing the evaluative bias instinsic to any approach to fact, and by insisting upon the inadequacy of any metaphysics when it confronted the irreducible data of history: power, conflict, and anguish.

It is now, perhaps, somewhat clearer why Weber is so difficult of assimilation to British social thought. His life work is not alone the product of genius, but of genius in a particular historical crisis: he united methodological scruple, and spiritual self-awareness with a pessimistic conviction of the political impotence of social science. The dilemmas of a self-consciously “academic” science, of political liberalism, of modern Protestantism afflicted him in their German form. His work gave them a more universal expression. Nothing like this coalescence of crises has occurred here—yet. We still await an end to “empiricism”. It can come only when (as happened to Weber and his contemporaries) the usual categories of analysis dissolve because the institutions to which they refer disintegrate. But we may understand Weber’s work as a supreme instance of an intellectual effort to master a reality that seemed to defy practical human alteration.

The understanding of Max Weber is not easy for someone raised in the English-speaking countries. His style is tortuous, and some of his most important works were until recently not available in translation. The secondary literature in English has tended to emphasize his methodological writings, and has at times treated these out of context. With the publication of Reinhard Bendix’s admirable book on Weber’s general sociology,footnote1 however, we do have a reliable and ample guide to the full scope of his thought. Professor Bendix has grasped what is essential in Weber’s work, the internal reasons for its alternation between abstraction and concrete description. Given the depth, complexity, and sheer scope of Weber’s writings, Professor Bendix can only be congratulated upon a remarkable feat of compression and synthesis. He has brought to the surface, further, much that is latent in the texts and he is everywhere, faithful to them. We might have hoped for a more systematic account of the relationship between the work and its political setting, but not everything can be done in one book. (Meanwhile, a young German scholar, Wolfgang Mommsen of Tuebingen, has given us just such an account in his Max Weber und die Deutsche Politik 1890–1920; a translation is much to be desired.)

The appearance of the Bendix volume, however, gives rise to some melancholy reflections on the present state of British sociology. I don’t refer to the plight of the subject in terms of university politics, to its difficulties of recruitment and expansion. I do refer to the curious intellectual atmosphere many of its practitioners breathe, to their penchant for universalising minor differences of emphasis and to their equally prominent aptitude for ignoring major ones. Theory has been opposed to research, comparative and historical studies have been set against investigations of contemporary British social structure, pure science has been invoked against the applied sort. No formulation is too crude, no argument too tiresome, when these embattled knights arm themselves with cliches for their (paper) Armageddon. It would appear, to the mere outsider interested in knowledge of society, to be pointless—but an insider can tell hixn that it has a point, namely, it is all prophylactic—it prevents a rigorous and sustained criticism of the protagonists’assumptions. The contending approaches I’ve just cited (I could add some more, extending to scholastic disputes about which techniques ought to be applied in—entirely hypothetical—investigations) of course contend mainly in the minds of the disputants. What makes so many of these debates so sterile is that the participants either cannot or will not see that they occupy vantage points of a very restricted sort; they seem to think that, like so many intellectual collossues, they straddle the globe. The more one looks at this, the more one feels that the thing which British sociologists need is to consider the implications of Weber’s work for their own.

They might begin by noting that Weber was fascinated by what we may term the demon of the concrete. In every event, he saw the point at which many historical possibilities were transformed into one historical actuality—which in turn led to new possibilities. Every event, further, was susceptible of interpretation in a variety of theoretical contexts. The interpretation chosen by the sociologists, then, depends upon his prior assumptions as much as upon the unique properties of the event. But only those unique properties were capable of altering theoretical assumptions, by suggesting new ones. Put in this way, Weber’s procedure sounds too much like the crude scientism advocated by many who see in the social sciences only a substitute for the (alleged) straight-forwardness of the natural sciences: hypothesis, deduction, induction, new hypothesis and so on ad infinitum. That is not what Weber meant.

In the first place, he held that interpretation depended upon understanding—a seizure of the essentially human components of evaluation and motivation in social action. (In this sense, Weber at times came close to the Marxist analysis of practise.) More importantly, perhaps, Weber held that the manifold meaning attached to the event by the social scientist could alter his definition of the concrete event itself. Weber saw sociology and the social sciences in general as dialectically related to reality—even if he did not use the term, and even if the substance of his own sociology represented a challenge to historical materialism. And, in the last resort, Weber’s efforts were directed to mastering concrete reality in all its fullness—a fullness which was demonic because of the human situation itself.