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The Passion of Thought

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By Sara Farris

Intellectual voyeurism is alive and well, especially when it is permitted to intrude into the private life of a classically repressed personality like Max Weber. Joachim Radkau’s biography accomplishes the task of scholarly snooping well, and will satisfy even the most prurient curiosity. In this 700 page work we are informed in detail of Weber’s emissions “in his sleep”, of which his wife used to keep a detailed record to be carefully reported to Helene, Weber’s mother. The latter, as in the most typical Oedipal circumstances, was Weber’s greatest misfortune and dream, for she instilled in him the “horror of sexuality” while forcing him at the same time to “make young women happy”.

Courtesy of Polity Press

Courtesy of Polity Press

It is through the motif of Weber’s “sexual misery” that we are led to explore his scientific interests, political concerns and difficulty in reconciling the two. The theme is not new, as there have been other attempts to trace Weber’s mental weaknesses and breakdown (which occurred at the action-packed turn of the 20th century) back to his struggle with his father for his mother’s love: from Marianne Weber’s first biography, to Arthur Mitzman’s depiction of Weber’s religious background. Nonetheless, Radkau’s biography goes further and takes great advantage of the archive documentation and of the family correspondence made available by Guenther Roth’s enormous 2001 effort, Max Weber: A Family Portrait 1800–1950.

By means of these new materials, Radkau attempts to answer a perennial question: what role does personal life play in theoretical and public life? Does it influence the formulation of problems and hypotheses? Does it shape their specific configuration? We might be tempted to respond affirmatively when reminded of the legitimate association between Kant’s clockwork routine and maniacal ego-centrism and his philosophical subjectivism, or when we think of Hegel’s Spirit running through history in 1807 (the year of the publication of the Phenomenology), while his son Ludwig – not precisely the fruit of great love, according to biographers – was bursting into life.

Though neither a Weber scholar nor a biographer of intellectuals, Radkau’s psycho-clinical approach is to be framed within his documented interest in the depressive social atmosphere of early 20th century Germany, and the various expressions of intellectual ennui, to paraphrase Fredrick Jameson’s portrayal of Weber. Radkau’s previous book from 1998, entitled The Age of Nervousness: Germany between Bismarck and Hitler, is an extensive examination of the discourse and treatment of “nervous disturbance” under the Second Reich. Here the Bielefeld-based historian argues that it was the failed resolution of this social illness that played a not insignificant role in the Nazification of Germany.

The inquiry into Max Weber’s work and life, “paradigmatic figure in the torments of bourgeois culture” as efficaciously portrayed by Antonio Negri, provides Radkau with a further key to the understanding of German society between the Wilhelminian Era and the Third Reich.

With this driving thesis in mind, Radkau’s main argument revolves around the notion of “nature”. Weber’s work appears as the battlefield of an unresolved tension between an original “nature” and theories of the social. Moreover, the emphasis Weber seems to put upon the concept of “nature” (which appears almost 3,600 times in the digitalised version of Weber’s work) leads Radkau to draw out the intimate link between private struggle and the theoretical work, between society, the individual and nature. “Until now,” Radkau argues, “Weber has been thought of as an enemy of nature … this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding.” Thus, we can reconsider Weber’s most influential theoretical categories, such as “charisma”, “rationalisation”, “understanding” and “value freedom” by means of a focus on Weber’s fixation on human nature and on the centrality of passion. Above all, Radkau’s concern is the passion of conviction and thought, as the subtitle of the German edition of the book suggests (Die Leidenschaft des Denkens – the passion of thought).

Radkau’s journey into Weber’s life and the attempt to reconcile the self and his work by bringing to light unknown details has the merit of remaining very readable, despite its length. Nonetheless, other interpretations could be explored, beyond the focus upon “nature”. After all, the work of Weber was particularly sensitive to current events and his social background and political consciousness was explicitly rooted in and committed to a very specific political agenda: namely, a struggle against both feudal residues and radical leftism, particularly the Marxism of his time.

Weber’s political commitment can also be explained in relation to his personal life. Son of Maximilian Weber senior, prominent member of the National Liberal Party (NLP) and civil servant, Max jr. was profoundly influenced by the nationalist and class demands promoted by his familial environment. Weber’s subsequent academic career, in constant tension between social concerns, a certain fascination for social-democracy and a vicious imperialist conviction, were mixed in a peculiar cocktail that indeed led to path-breaking results in the intellectual and scientific fields, but which were a failure on the political level. Thus, the son of the enlightened German bourgeoisie, hostile to the agrarian-aristocratic block, could engage in patriotic outbursts for German grandeur during the First World War, as well as making passionate calls for a united front between the workers’ aristocracy and the industrialists. His scientific output, in a more complex and intriguing way, develops on this terrain and has made Weber an advocate of agency against the tyranny of the structure. These remarks, it must be said, do not deprive Radkau’s work of any of its importance and originality, though they suggest that one should retain a certain dubious attitude towards solely “naturalistic” explanations.

Joachim Radkau: Max Weber. A Biography
Polity Press, London 2009
ISBN-13: 9780745641478
Hardcover, 700 pages, 25GBP/US$35.00

Sara R. Farris is a research fellow at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam and the Jan van Eyck Akademie, Maastricht.

This article first appeared in The Philosophers’ Magazine [2], issue 46; reproduced with permission.