Max Weber Invented the Crisis of the Humanities

In the summer of 1917, a group of university students in Munich invited Max Weber to launch a lecture series on “intellectual work as a vocation” with a talk about the scholar’s work. He was, in a way, an odd choice. Fifty-three at the time, Weber hadn’t held an academic job in over a decade. His career had begun promisingly, but in 1899 he suffered a nervous breakdown and gave up his position as a professor of economics at the University of Heidelberg. Supported by the inheritance of his wife, Marianne, he spent years going from clinic to clinic in search of relief. He continued to write about lifelong concerns such as the social effects of religion, contributing articles to scholarly journals while also writing journalistic essays for newspapers and periodicals. Yet in 1917, his last major publication was The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which had originally appeared as two separate essays in 1904 and 1905. 

Still, it was understandable why the students in Munich were drawn to Weber. They belonged to the Free Student Alliance, an organization devoted to championing the lofty ideals of the German research university — the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, Bildung or moral education, academic freedom, and the democratization of all these goods — at a time when those ideals appeared to be imperiled by disciplinary specialization, state intervention, the influence of industrial capitalism, and the war. Writing over the years as a kind of insider-outsider, Weber had distinguished himself as an extraordinarily erudite and forceful defender of an ideal university.

In 1908, for example, he had taken on the powerful minister in charge of higher education in Prussia, Friedrich Althoff. The case in question concerned the appointment of the economist Ludwig Bernhard to a full professorship at the University of Berlin. The Ministry of Culture and Education had long exercised final authority over all faculty hires, but it typically consulted closely with faculty members before making an official offer. In this case, however, Althoff had, as Weber saw it, simply installed his preferred candidate for reasons that had nothing to do with quality and everything to do with the fact that Bernhard’s research agenda advanced the state’s interests. 

Whether out of conviction or opportunism, many academics supported Althoff’s appointment. But Weber insisted that allowing scholarship to be so closely aligned with the state’s agenda meant, as he wrote a year later, cultivating “political obedience among university students,” and this was sure to prove catastrophic for German universities. It would lead to the “castration” of academic freedom and stunt the “development of a genuine” scholarly character. Universities, he suggested sardonically, may have been better off under the church’s influence; at least then they pursued something other than money and power.

The war years had only borne out his fears. Like so many German intellectuals, Weber celebrated the outbreak of hostilities. Yet by the summer of 1917, he had concluded that the war was essentially lost. What proved to be Germany’s undoing was the failure of Germans to think for themselves. Neither the credentialed experts of the sprawling state bureaucracy nor the literary aesthetes of its cultural elite had shown any capacity to grapple intelligently and creatively with the problems of the day, and German universities had helped to cause the situation. Academics, intellectuals, and bureaucrats — those formed by Germany’s internationally esteemed universities — had all been guilty of an unreflective compliance to the state and its institutions and had directly contributed to the disasters that now faced the country. 

All this must have been very much in the forefront of Weber’s mind when, on November 7, 1917, he stepped to the podium to address an audience comprised mostly of students in a small theater connected to the bookshop in Munich where the Free Student Alliance met. Facing an uncertain future, the students, too, must have been thinking about the war. Germany was in the midst of a severe food shortage, and though defeat was by no means a foregone conclusion, a truce was the best that could be hoped for. In the meantime, millions of young men had died. 

How, in this context, was one to think of the vocation of the scholar? Walter Benjamin, one of the leaders of an affiliated student group at the University of Berlin, had recently claimed that the vocation of university students was to be “authors of a transformation” of knowledge, the university, and, ultimately, “humanity.” A radical call, but one that evoked, that was indeed rooted in, the grand sense of purpose that the architect of the modern German educational system, Wilhelm von Humboldt, had assigned to it some hundred years earlier, when he described the university as the “pinnacle” of the nation’s “moral culture.”

Yet Weber, to his audience’s dismay, began his lecture not by articulating an ideal but rather by delving into the practical challenges and liabilities of academic lives and careers. The university was riddled with structural problems: terrible teaching, workplace discrimination, the exploitation of the labor force, an arbitrary hiring process, and an ever more specialized, businesslike, and consequently uninspiring understanding of the scholar’s vocation.

All of which his audience was no doubt well aware. Yet Weber didn’t offer any suggestions about how to reform working conditions, or much hope that the university as an institution could be transformed. As to specialization, he presented it as a basic feature of scholarly life. Not only was specialization here to stay, but Weber appeared actually to affirm its value at the expense of more traditional moral education. He went so far as to say that specialization was less of a threat to German scholarship than were those who used the idealism of the past to call the present order in question. 

If before the war he had worried about conservatives aligning scholarship too closely with the state, now, as Germany’s political and social order teetered, Weber was just as concerned about professors posing as prophets, trying to shape students’ souls in the classroom. Professors who sought to fill a void of meaning from the lectern had found an eager audience in Germany’s zealous youth. They denounced disciplinary boundaries and intellectual fragmentation in the name of some lost, or future, harmony and wholeness. In doing so, they were undermining their own authority and the legitimacy of the university itself. They were overreaching. What they sought was simply no longer to be had, and had likely never existed. Expert knowledge had dramatically expanded over the course of the previous half century. There were too many disciplinary perspectives and too many competing moral ideals, too much pluralism in too many areas, for any responsible scholar to hold out a hope of integrating them all. Weber was effectively declaring that the mission of the Humboldtian university — to lead people to a higher level of moral consciousness — was no longer viable. So, what was to be done?

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