Human Arenas

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Max Weber: Science as a Vocation—100 Years Later

  • Gerhard BenetkaEmail author
  • Anna Schor-Tschudnowskaja
Coffee Break


Exactly 100 years ago, Max Weber outlined in his lecture “Science as a Vocation,” what the material and above all the inner meaning of scientific action comprises. We would like to question some of Weber’s basic concepts and further develop some of his basic ideas in order to see more clearly what we as professors and social scientists are doing—in the present field of science, out of which reality is more and more displaced, or better: people’s concrete practice of life seems to have been thinned out. At the center of our considerations are the terms “progress,” “rationalization,” and “meaning,” and we will try to show how they are based on the self-conception of science and what consequences this has for scientific practice. Our central argument is that scientific practice takes part in the production of social reality and that it is only in the awareness of this in which scientific practice renders “intellectual accountability” (intellektuelle Rechenschaft) (Weber).


Max Weber Rationalization Progress in social sciences Sense Social reality Scientific practice 

On November 7, 1917, Max Weber talked on Science as a Vocation in Munich as part of a lecture series organized by the Free Student Union (Freistudentischen Bund). In the following paragraphs, we want to ask, based on our own experience as university teachers, how relevant his text, published in 1919 in an expanded form, remains to this day. What is not claimed is an analysis of the text in relation to Weber’s oeuvre. Instead, the aim is to question some of Weber’s basic concepts and to further develop some of his core ideas in order to see more clearly what we as professors and social scientists are doing—in the present scientific field, out of which reality, the concrete life practice of human beings is more and more displaced, or better: seems to be thinned.

Back Then as Nowadays: Young Scientists in Precarious Economic Circumstances

As Weber, we start with the “material meaning” (materiellen Sinn): How does science work as a profession today? Weber’s 1917 judgment that a scientific career is “hazard” (i.e., less dependent on giftedness than on chance), that the existence of young scientists as a result of personal and material dependencies at universities or other research institutions is “proletaroid” and their economic situation “precarious,” today seems more justifiable than a hundred years ago.1

What becomes apparent when academic careers of the twentieth century are compared to today is that a largely uninhibited principle of productivity for the sake of productivity now characterizes research at universities today. As a scientist, one is almost exclusively judged along quantifiable efficiency criteria that follow a short-term economic logic. Thus, the quality of the work of an education and research unit is measured by parameters such as available third-party funding—differentiated according to weather they were competitively acquired or through contract research—the number of annual degrees earned, the impact of scientific publications, the number of congress participations, etc.

Occupying temporary and poorly paid pre- and postdoc positions, young scientists participate in the ever-evolving machinery of production; the pressure from above, from management, is inevitably passed down to the students. In the social sciences, the young scientists are the bearers of data that nourish the constant firing of production. Anyone who has a position within this machinery knows that there are equally well trained others who are only waiting for someone to drop out and to clear a position.

The material meaning of the question of science as a profession also includes Weber’s remarks on the requirements that university teaching demands of the newcomer. The young scientific generation must remember “that the task before him has a double aspect. He must qualify not only as a scholar but also as a teacher.” (Weber 1946/1919, 3) Taking into consideration that teaching has generally been devaluated in the university context, this may appear rather outdated. However, Weber’s arguments remain to be relevant to this day: The fact that private lecturers had to confine themselves to secondary lectures at the German-speaking universities, while the high-frequented main lectures were reserved for the full professor, had to do with the distribution of collegiate funds at the time; later it was not about collegiate, but about examination fees. We recall press reports from the nineties about professors of psychology in Vienna as “examination fee millionaires” (Prüfungsgeldmillionäre).2

At the same time, the actual correction work of the examinations had to be done by assistants. Nowadays, where examination fees are capped or canceled all together, the general staff often have to carry out the large-scale course as a whole. Ever since no extra income can be generated through examination fees, professors show an increase in didactic indifference towards mass lectures. In any case, this cheap form of skepticism towards the mass university is far from what Weber (1946/1919, 3-4) understood as “the affair of an intellectual aristocracy” (geistesaristokratischer Angelegenheit) in the context of teaching at universities. In short, the general tendency to subordinate science to the concepts of economic efficiency ultimately also destroys the meaning and purpose of academic teaching: And so, along with the far-reaching decline of the length and depth of university studies due to recent university developments towards school-like institutions, university candidates have long come to terms with the fact that introductions to a variety of teaching areas are nothing other than an experts suggestion on what students are then expected to deepen in self lead small and medium sized study groups.

“We Cannot Work Without Hoping That Others Will Get Further Than We Do”—What Does “Progress” in Social Sciences Mean?

But now to the core of Weber’s remarks: the problem of meaning (Sinnproblem) in science. First, what are the “inward callings” for this profession? “For nothing is worthy of man as man” Weber writes, “unless he can pursue it with passionate devotion” (Ibid., 4). But passion alone does not discover anything; it does not do science. This requires inspiration or ideas, as Weber says, intuition, something reminiscent of the artist in the researcher. What distinguishes science from art is that the scientific work is “chained to the course of progress” (ibid., 6). And from this, the conclusion is drawn: If everything that is known today is outdated tomorrow, then the core of every scientific activity is as follows: “We cannot work without hoping that others will get further than we do” (ibid., 6). But how can a scientist hope that? How can he bear it?

We want to pause here for a moment. For now, the obvious objection is that the idea of a continuous advance in knowledge is not easily applied to the social sciences. Sociology is part of the social world, which, in its constant transformation, has to be examined. Subsequent generations of scientists will not be “progressing” farther than researchers are today; rather, they will be confronted with other social facts. Weber himself, however, would have agreed with this reading without any preconceived notions: When he speaks of “progress” or “evolution” he stresses the moment of directionality—without linking it to the value judgment “more” or “better.” What matters to Weber is the circumstance of constant social change, to which science is also subjected to as part of the social world.

At this point, it is necessary to draw the comparison to psychology: The fact that psychology understands itself in a different light is, we believe, due to an erroneous view psychology has of its object of study: psychology cannot understand that the phenomena under investigation, as for example perception or memory processes, are not primarily natural, but social facts: The psychic is not simply a fact of nature; it is integrated, situated, in a context of meaning: a social reality that cannot be reduced to a physical reality, as for example the field of physics constructs it. So, if we examine memory processes today, we have to take into account that for example the smartphone has become the physical carrier of memory processes. What is lacking in the self-understanding of psychology, then, is that, because its subject—the psychic—is subject to social and cultural change, it must itself, as a scientific discipline, be part of this change.

Against Weber’s demand that individual narcissism must be tamed by subordination to the collective enterprise of science, from today’s point of view, can finally be criticized in that it completely bypasses the reality of scientific practice. One of the main problems of current basic and application research, e.g., in the field of biomedicine, is the fact that studies without hypothesis-appropriate results are not published. The reason for this is quite simple: Research groups competing for scarce third-party funds might benefit from these mistakes by avoiding the detour of constructing unsuccessful investigations.3

The Difference Between Science and Art: Weber’s Understanding of “Objectivity”

In order to clarify Weber’s position, from which he further develops his argument, in its whole width, let us briefly pause and reflect on the separation of science and art, which in contrast to, e.g., Georg Simmel, is very important for Weber.

“[C] hained to the course of progress” (eingespannt in den Ablauf des Forschritts) (Weber 1946/1919, 6) means embedding scientific research activity within a timeframe. The clocks are, so to speak, each set differently in art and research: while an artwork is created for eternity, the individual research outcome is located only in the moment, which always refers to a later in the here and now still unknown. And with this, there is a very different direct relationship to the world in science compared to art: the attitude of scientific objectivity that Weber modestly considered “just as flimsy as the feeble light that is ignited by scientific thinking in the inherently dark stream of the infinitely real” (Lehmann 1995, 170).4

According to Weber, in order to ignite this “feeble little light,” a fundamental condition must be fulfilled: “For the scientist to come to his knowledge, he must perish the infinite.” (Ibid.).5 In a text dedicated to “objectivity” (it remains in quotation marks!) of socio-scientific and socio-political knowledge, Weber (1985/1904) writes about time! Scientific objectivity is for him a problem of time: “All thinking knowledge of the infinite reality by the finite human mind is based on the tacit assumption that only a finite part of it form the object of scientific apprehension, that only it should be essential in the sense of ‘worth knowing’.” (Weber 1985/1904, 171).6 We will see that that this specific understanding of scientific apprehension as a problem of time is also at the basis of Weber’s discussion of value-free science.

Rationalization and “Disenchanting the World”

This opposition between the infinite and the finite is fundamental to Weber’s understanding of culture in general: the fact that the infinite stream of the real can only be captured in a small section underlies every and any kind of cultural production. There is no absolute knowledge of the great, nothing absolute, but only a constant processing of the small, of the contingent, which in its processing in turn obstructs accessing the whole. Hence, the constant cultural change is explained: the uninterrupted production of thoughts and ideas on the meaning of human existence.

Back to Weber’s text. The meaning problem of “progress” in science appears here as part of a more comprehensive directed process: as a partial moment of that process of increasing intellectualization and rationalization “which we have been undergoing for thousands of years” (Weber 1946/1919, 6). The increasing intellectualization and rationalization, as Weber—as implied above—says:

do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives.

It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means. (Ibid., 7).

We are now armed against an inaccurate interpretation of this passage: what Weber describes here is nothing more than a historically determined form, a stage of cultural development that is characteristic of Western societies: it is by no means about modern-day Westerners knowing more and better than people earlier or people in other cultures. It is basically a psychological argument, because what has changed with modernity is the attitude towards the world: Modern persons on the one hand assume that they control things by calculations, on the other hand, they are convinced that they can in principle “know” everything in this way. In this sense, the process of rationalization—crucial to Weber and his understanding of modern science—is a historically concrete, culturally specific and not at all universal phenomenon.

Anticipating Current Sociology: Luc Boltanski’s Understanding of Physical and Social Reality

The fact that today’s sociologists argue similarly shows how modern Weber’s style of thinking really was and how much we still use Weber’s pioneered paths of rationalization today. As Luc Boltanski (2015), we understand Weber’s process of “intellectualization” as the emergence of a stable physical reality. The stability of this reality allows for calculating with familiar measurements; it conveys security, familiarity in the midst of a world that cannot be grasped in all its complexity.7

In the spirit of Weber, Boltanski introduces analogous to the physical world the social reality. And as Weber did with his concept of the “subjective meaning” (“subjektiv gemeinter Sinn”), Boltanski starts—psychologically!—with the everyday practice of people. In this sense, the attribution theory sees people in their everyday lives as compulsive meaning-makers.8 We attribute meaning to events, we understand facts that we encounter as meaningful. When a person does this or that, we immediately believe to understand why he did this or that. That upon which this trust in understanding is based on, and thus that which makes social situations predictable, is what Boltanski calls social reality.

Of course, the analysis of the production of this kind of calculability of the social must go beyond the scope of the individual psychic. What Weber describes as the effect of institutionally solidified interactions, of “structures,” Boltanski, in line with Foucault and his language usage, as dispositive, such as in the practice of justice, police prosecution, medical care and public health care, the beginnings of social science in statistics and economics, etc., in a nutshell: ultimately brought about in the discursive and non-discursive practices that Foucault summarizes under the term biopolitics (Foucault 1977, 1999, 2006a, b). Both levels of reality ensure that certain anomalies—something that at first appears unexpectedly and therefore inexplicable—are considered riddles that have a solution within the physical and social reality and therefore can only be solved through rational investigation.

The point of Boltanski’s approach lies in the fact that he wants to show how and that science and the criminal or spy novel presuppose the same concept of reality. In this detour through literary artifacts, the basic contradiction of modernity is finally expressed: “On the one hand, the reality has undoubtedly never presented itself as organized, robust and thus predictable as in modern Western societies. But on the other hand, and perhaps for the same reasons, the fragility, or what is understood as such, comes to the fore and seems to elicit an unprecedented uncertainty. I think that the detective story stages this uncertainty and that the main reason for its success is how skillfully it expresses this uncertainty in relation to the reality of reality (Boltanski 2015, 46).”9

Science Cannot Tell Us How to Live a Good Life

Let us clarify to which audience Weber presented his lecture, for which audience he wrote his text. It addresses youth—a youth who disillusioned in the course of the great War and then—in 1919, when the text appeared printed—disoriented in the chaos after the disintegration of the old order sought not so much instruction at the universities, but guidance. What Weber wanted to convey to his listeners is that science cannot fulfill this need.

The “progress” of science is a moment in the process of “disenchanting the world,” science as a profession is a result of this disenchantment. Weber broadly outlines the path from the beginnings in the ancient world to the new approach in the Renaissance to the specialization of science in his time as progressive disillusionment: Science does not point the way to “true being,” to “true art,” “true nature,” to the “true God,” or to “true happiness.” But what is the meaning of science? “The simplest answer,” Weber proclaims, was “given by Tolstoy […] with the words: Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’” That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable. The “only question that remains is the sense in which science gives ‘no’ answer” (Weber 1946/1919, 9).

At this point, Weber starts to elaborate; he talks about the fact that every science rests on presuppositions that in turn cannot be proven by the means of science. Those who are unwilling to accept this abstinence are inevitably talking about the intermingling of values with the conceptions of science. Here, we want to start by saying that this restriction can especially not apply to the social sciences. Related to the natural sciences, Weber’s lecture says: “Natural science gives us an answer to the question of what we must do if we wish to master life technically. It leaves quite aside, or assumes for its purposes, whether we should and do wish to master life technically and whether it ultimately makes sense to do so.” (Ibid., 10). As social scientists, we need to ask what it means when science presupposes certain things for its own purposes. What social consequences are associated with such implementations? If, for example, cognitive sciences referencing modern neuroscience presuppose that psychic processes are merely effects of brain processes that can never in themselves become causes for change—what are the implications for our self-understanding, for the way we understand our own and the actions of others? It follows, for example, that mental illnesses are foremost somatic diseases that can be treated effectively only by medical interventions. Here, it is easy to show that Weber’s tacit suppositions—that are the base of scientific process—are themselves an integral part of what we have described as the production of social reality. Unlike Weber, we therefore believe that Tolstoy is in this sense quoted wrongly: To “the only important question for us: ‘What should we do? How should we live?’” Modern science knows how to give many answers. It does work—in a meaning giving way, orienting our everyday actions.

Value-Free Science?

The word powerful defense of the postulate of the freedom of value has often been pointed out in the reception of Weber’s text. It is advisable to follow Weber closely here—and not to follow what the later reception has made of this postulate: science for Weber is not possible without value relationship, because ultimately it is determined from the perspective of certain values, what the object of scientific investigation is. Such question-guiding perspectives—their individual, social and historical conditionality—can, indeed must be the subject of (social) scientific criticism. The (social) scientific critique may understand this conditionality; what it has not been able to do is legitimize these perspectives and interests as necessary.

For Weber, social science is cultural science. For him, culture is a finite excerpt from the meaningless infinity of world events, considered from the point of view of man (Kaesler 2011, 64). In other words, the cultural products are generated by human beings and organize the chaos that is the world by structuring everyday life actions, giving them meaning and value. Cultural studies investigate the effects of these meaning and value attributions. They are free of value because while they can describe these effects from within their own premises, they cannot judge them. Those who do not want to submit to this understanding should, according to Weber, not go into the lecture hall of a university, but into politics:

Now one cannot demonstrate scientifically what the duty of an academic teacher is. One can only demand of the teacher that he have the intellectual integrity to see that it is one thing to state facts, to determine mathematical or logical relations or the internal structure of cultural values, while it is another thing to answer questions of the value of culture and its individual contents and the question of how one should act in the cultural community and in political associations. These are quite heterogeneous problems. If he asks further why he should not deal with both types of problems in the lecture-room, the answer is: because the prophet and the demagogue do not belong on the academic platform.

To the prophet and the demagogue, it is said: ‘Go your ways out into the streets and speak openly to the world,’ that is, speak where criticism is possible. In the lecture-room we stand opposite our audience, and it has to remain silent. I deem it irresponsible to exploit the circumstance that for the sake of their career the students have to attend a teacher’s course while there is nobody present to oppose him with criticism. The task of the teacher is to serve the students with his knowledge and scientific experience and not to imprint upon them his personal political views. (Weber 1946/1919, 11)

Against the Equitation of Questions of Meaning and Value Judgements: Social Sciences Have to Understand How They Participate in the Production of Social Reality

However, we believe that Weber’s argumentation in his presentation is not consistent with equating answers to Tolstoy’s questions about the practical meaning of science with value judgments in the sense of his value-free postulate. It is not clear who was wrong, Weber or Tolstoy, at least the perspective of Tolstoy contradicts the genuinely social scientific perspective on itself.

As Weber himself puts it, science in general, and social science in particular, is nothing other than a partial moment of the meaning generating processes of modern societies or culture. Scientific attribution of meaning is so far “objective” in that it adheres to consensually agreed assertions about the “nature” of the reality, which is to be investigated and the rules that these investigations ought to follow. It is about generating meaning in the same way that the detective in the mystery novel reconstructs the process from the traces left by a process (see also Ginzburg 2011/1983).

What distinguishes the classic detective novels from social science, however, is their consistently conservative character in referencing to social reality: the riddle that disturbs the stability of the social order—the event, the incident, however mysterious it may initially appear—comes to an end as solvable within the established system of social attributions: the reality of reality maintains in the study of the disordered; in the end, the old order is restored. But because social science has to recognize that it is itself part of the order it has to investigate, that it therefore participates in the way we have shown in the production of social reality, which gives subjective everyday action a fixed orientation framework, it must always make itself the subject of investigation within their research efforts. By doing so, social science is necessarily critical: critical about itself and thus critical about the reality of social reality. In this sense social science is nothing but a continued disturbance (or an evolutionary factor) of the given social order. What implications can we surmise from this for our work in the lecture hall? What differs to Weber’s time is that our students entrusted to us today are mature citizens who do not need our protection from demagogues. If social science has to question the reality of reality and thus itself, then it has to face this viewpoint in its university teaching as well. The criticism of the students, their doubts and their reservations, they help us by disturbing the understanding that science is part of the reality that it has to examine. We believe that the expulsion of “real life” from the lecture halls of the universities does not necessarily have to be a consequence of Weber’s postulated “disenchantment of the world.”

We here ultimately use Weber’s argument to argue against him. For in his theory of the increasing rationalization of Western cultures, which he developed in several stages, his “disenchantment of the world” dealt with keeping every sort of belief and opinion neatly separated from the claims of modern rationality. Weber was convinced that “the inward interest of a truly religiously ‘musical’ man can never be served by veiling to him and to others the fundamental fact that he is destined to live in a godless and prophetless time by giving him the ersatz [sic!] of armchair prophecy.” (Weber 1946/1919, 15) The idea of “re-enchanting the world” by science, by the prophets in the auditorium, deeply offended him.

One cannot shake off the impression that Weber here begins to contradict himself. Precisely because he conceived of the world as disorderly chaos and because he declared meaninglessness to the infinite advancing world events, he insisted on the basic human need for meaningfulness. Without this “value laden perspective,” reality would sink into a single “contradiction of facts and phenomena” (Kaesler 2011, 64). If science participates in this meaningful order of the world, how could one do otherwise than to regard it as a “surrogate” of a valuable worldview! In short, even the European “disenchantment of the world” is ultimately based on values, on beliefs. Fifteen years after Weber’s death, Polish microbiologist Ludwik Fleck (1979/1935) wrote about the social conditionality of all scientific knowledge each science should be aware of. So, what distinguishes the meaningfulness of religion from the meaningfulness of science is the ability, indeed the task, of science to become aware of its own value foundation or meaning system. Weber wants to separate science from belief. Paradoxically, the more science recognizes itself as a belief system, the less it becomes one.

Back to our initial question: to the question of the consequences of this insight gained by Weber on the nature of modern science for teaching at colleges and universities. At least for sociology and psychology, everyday life itself is the subject of scientific investigation. It follows that the introduction of students’ interest in everyday things, in the way we humans cope with our everyday lives, has to begin in the lecture hall: The sooner students develop a sense of how scientific practice participates in the production of social reality, in which people find their obvious orientation in their everyday life, the sooner they realize that science also “disturbs” reality and thus also changes it, the sooner they will be able to follow Weber’s dictum of “intellectual righteousness,” the clearer their “factual findings” will turn out to be—in the awareness of those boundaries that are necessarily imposed onto the social scientific access to the social world through Weber’s formulated “finalization.”


  1. 1.

    In his lecture, Weber talks about how his own academic career is largely based on such mere chance and proclaims that: “I know of hardly any career on earth where chance plays such a role. I may say so all the more since I personally owe it to some mere accidents that during my very early years I was appointed to a full professorship in a discipline in which men of my generation undoubtedly had achieved more that I had. And, indeed, I fancy, on the basis of this experience, that I have a sharp eye for the undeserved fate of the many whom accident has cast in the opposite direction and who within this selective apparatus in spite of all their ability do not attain the positions that are due them.” (Weber 1946/1919, 2)

  2. 2.

    E.g., Karin Leitner (1996). “Die Prüfungstaxen-Millionäre” [The examination-millionairs], News 46: 36.

  3. 3.

    On falsification in science in general, Di Trocchio (1994) is still worth reading.

  4. 4.

    Own translation: German original: “genauso fadenscheinig [hielt] wie das schwächliche Lichtlein, das vom wissenschaftlichen Denken im an sich dunklen Strom des unendlich Wirklichen angezündet wird” (Lehmann 1995, 170).

  5. 5.

    Own translation: German original: “Damit der Wissenschaftler zu seinem Wissen kommt, muss er das Unendliche verendlichen.”

  6. 6.

    Own translation: German original: “Alle denkende Erkenntnis der unendlichen Wirklichkeit durch den endlichen Menschengeist beruht […] auf der stillschweigenden Voraussetzung, daß jeweils nur ein endlicher Teil derselben den Gegenstand wissenschaftlicher Erfassung bilden, daß nur er ‘wesentlich’im Sinne von ‘wissenswert’sein solle.”

  7. 7.

    Boltanski in the sense of Wittgenstein describes “world” as “everything that is the case” or “anything that could be the case, which points to the impossibility of recognizing and controlling the world as a whole” (Boltanski 2015, 24–25). Own translation. German original: “alles, was der Fall sein könnte, was auf die Unmöglichkeit verweist, die Welt insgesamt zu erkennen und zu beherrschen.”

  8. 8.

    It is interesting that sociologists like Boltanski quite naturally resort to psychological theories, while conversely psychological theories seldom refer to sociological ones.

  9. 9.

    Own translation: German original: “Einerseits hat sich die Realität zweifellos niemals als so organisiert, robust und dadurch so vorhersehbar dargestellt wie in den modernen westlichen Gesellschaften. Aber andererseits, und vielleicht aus denselben Gründen, tritt ihre Fragilität oder das, was man dafür hält, in den Vordergrund und scheint eine noch nie dagewesene Verunsicherung hervorzurufen. Ich denke, dass der Kriminalroman diese Verunsicherung inszeniert und dass der Hauptgrund für seinen Erfolg darin zu suchen ist, wie kunstvoll er diese Verunsicherung in Bezug auf die Realität der Realität zum Ausdruck bringt.” (Ibid., 46)



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of PsychologySigmund Freud University ViennaViennaAustria

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