Apr 212016


Today is the birthday (1864) of Karl Emil Maximilian “Max” Weber, Prussian-German social theorist who was a major figure in the development of social research. Weber is sometimes grouped with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx as the founders of sociology. I could quibble about how sociology got created, but I won’t argue about Weber being a towering figure.  His work has had a lasting influence on mine. It’s impossible for me to summarize his work adequately in a short post, but I’ll try to keep it simple – which means, inevitably, simplistic.

Weber was a key proponent of methodological antipositivism, that is, he believed that social action cannot be understood empirically (scientifically) but must be delved through interpretive means (what he called Verstehen), based on understanding the purpose and meaning that individuals attach to their own actions. Unlike Durkheim, he did not believe in monocausality but proposed that for any outcome there can be multiple causes.

Weber is best known for his thesis combining economic sociology and the sociology of religion, as exemplified in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, in which he proposes that ascetic Protestantism was one of the major “elective affinities” associated with the rise in the Western world of market-driven capitalism and the rational-legal nation-state. He argues that it was the basic beliefs of Protestantism that led to capitalism, and that, in fact, the spirit of capitalism is spawned by, and identical with Protestant religious values.


Weber was born in Erfurt, Province of Saxony, Prussia. He was the oldest of the seven children of Max Weber Sr., a wealthy and prominent civil servant and member of the National Liberal Party, and his wife Helene (Fallenstein), who partly descended from French Huguenot immigrants and held strong moral absolutist ideas. Weber Sr.’s involvement in public life immersed his home in both politics and academia, as his salon welcomed many prominent scholars and public figures. The young Weber and his brother Alfred, who also became a sociologist and economist, thrived in this intellectual atmosphere. Weber’s 1876 Christmas presents to his parents, when he was thirteen years old, were two historical essays entitled “About the course of German history, with special reference to the positions of the Emperor and the Pope”, and “About the Roman Imperial period from Constantine to the migration of nations.” I just love it.

In class, bored and unimpressed with the teachers – who in turn resented what they perceived as a disrespectful attitude – he secretly read all forty volumes of Goethe, a major influence on his later thought and methodology. Before entering university, he devoured classical works. Over time, Weber was also significantly affected by the marital tension between his father, “a man who enjoyed earthly pleasures,” and his mother, a devout Calvinist “who sought to lead an ascetic life.” How many great thinkers were moved to greatness by the dysfunction of their parents? Freud for starters !!!


Weber’s main intellectual concern was understanding the processes of rationalization, secularization, and “disenchantment” that he associated with the rise of capitalism and modernity, and which he saw as the result of a new way of thinking about the world. Continuing my journey into mind-numbingly simplistic analysis, Weber and Marx can be seen as polar opposites: Marx saw evolving intellectual developments in society as the product of changing material circumstances historically, whereas Weber saw the evolution of intellectual processes as primary and material circumstances as secondary. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg affair, I’m afraid. Was Protestantism the outgrowth of the development of capitalism, or the other way around? I’m not going to take sides; I see them as co-evolving processes.

But then we come to a more intriguing question: was the rise of rational science in the 17th century a good thing or a bad thing? From a strictly technological point of view, it had numerous benefits: improved medicine, efficient transport, computers, iPhones . . . etc. etc. etc. But what was the cost? Well, we can start with pollution and move on from there. But for Weber the cost was catastrophic intellectually and, hence, socially. The monolithic faith in science as the answer to ALL problems led to the “disenchantment” of the West. The word “disenchantment” does not do justice to the original German word “Entzauberung” which we can translate literally as “un-magic-ing” or “despiritualizing.” In this case we should think of “enchantment” as equivalent to “full of magic” – where “magic” is the opposite of “natural.” The modern, secular, scientific mind dismisses prayer, God, elves, fairies, spirituality, and all the rest of it, and, according to Weber, we are the poorer for it. I agree.

Western science can do many great things, but it goes too far when it claims to be the sole guardian of THE TRUTH, and that in time science will solve all of our problems. There are vast realms of human experience that cannot be understood by the scientific method – love, art, beauty . . . what have you. The general public in the West tends to be torn in this area. Some reject the rational completely, some the spiritual. But most sit somewhere in the middle. People happily use laptops and go to the doctor if they feel sick, but they also love Harry Potter, use tarot cards, and visit ashrams.


The problem, as Weber sees it, is that rational science has overplayed its hand, so that the rational has crept into the fundamental fabric of society – and we don’t like it. Efficiency has become our god. From an industrial point of view, if we can turn out billions of identical, cheap, affordable smartphones we all benefit because we can chat to friends all over the world, look up arcane information whenever we want, listen to endless stores of music, play games . . . and so forth. But in the process we are increasingly dehumanized. The phones themselves are mass produced in factories by workers who have no identity or individuality, and who work for slave wages. Furthermore the phones themselves suck us into a world where individuality is also lost. OK – being simplistic once more, but you get the point.

So let’s turn to cooking. In a recent post I gave this recipe for eierstich, an egg custard from Weber’s native Saxony, that is often cut into fancy shapes as a garnish for soups:


You can make the eierstich, egg custard, in several ways. Beat together 1 cup of milk or cream, 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks, plus a dash of freshly ground nutmeg and salt. Don’t be so vigorous that a froth forms. Pour the mix into sealable plastic pouches, close them tightly, and place in boiling water for 10 minutes, or until the custard is firm. Unseal the pouches and cut the custard into small pieces. I have little decorative cutters for this job. Keep warm.

I call this kind of recipe “heuristic” as opposed to “scientific.” “Scientific” recipes are what you find in standard cookbooks, where each begins with a list of ingredients with precise measurements (often in Imperial and metric), given in the order in which they are used, followed by careful, step-by-step instructions. Such recipes can be useful, but they do not replicate real, human, flesh-and-blood process. This example of mine doesn’t either but it’s a bit closer.

Several years ago my son decided to roast a goose for Christmas dinner.  I had moved to Argentina and he was alone in our house in New York. I had roasted a goose every single Christmas up to that point, and he did not want to miss out just because I was away. So he asked me for the “recipe.” How do you explain how to roast a goose when you’ve got 35 years of experience behind you? I tried to write down the instructions for him and wrote 3 pages (single spaced), and still felt my description was inadequate.  It was.  He followed my instructions, but then called me three times on Christmas Day with additional questions as the goose was cooking.


A recipe assumes a wealth of knowledge that is not captured by the mere wording. We also know that two people can follow the same recipe with identical ingredients and equipment, and come up with vastly different products. Over and over again I showed my girlfriend (now my ex) how to make an Argentine tortilla, and supervised her many times as she made them herself. I also made instructional videos for her – all to no avail. She can make something edible, but her tortillas are nothing like mine – same ingredients from the same store, same kitchen – different spirits.

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>



This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.