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Max Weber on Intellectualism

May 31, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, intellectualism is defined as a “devotion to the exercise of intellect or to intellectual pursuits.” Max Weber coined the term in the early 1900s, in which he stresses the importance of “technical means and calculation.” What exactly is implied in his definition? In “Essays on Sociology” Weber describes an evolution towards rationalism which stems from intellectualism. Using historical data, he explains how the Protestant ethic feeds into rational views and even intellectualism. But rationalism is not the sole basis of intellectual pursuits. Hidden beneath this seemingly simple concept are a few other layers that require analysis.

It is ironic that a puritan ethic fostered this idea of rationalism, because one of the foundational features of intellectualism is that it is devoid of what Weber calls magic. By this he means that the world no longer needs gods in general. He says:

“It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it [the conditions of life] at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalulable 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” (114A).*

Weber uses Plato’s cave analogy (from The Republic) in order to elaborate. According to Weber, when man sees light and finally emerges from the cave, he is seeing the light of science. He writes, “He is the philosopher; the sun, however, is the truth of science, which alone seizes not upon illusions and shadows but upon the true being” (114B). Weber calls this utilization of concepts as the first real tool in scientific history. The second great tool in history, according to Weber, was developed during the Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci and others who relied upon rational experiments. The combination of concept and rational experiment eventually leads to a world in which intellectualization is possible.

While Weber admits that intellectualism was reinforced, in part, by a religious influence in which church scholars look for salvation, he also continues to question the irrationality of religion. He writes:

“It has only been these genuinely priestly interests that have made for ever-renewed connections between religion and intellectualism. It has also been the inward compulsion of the rational character of religious ethics and the specifically intellectualist quest for salvation. In effect, every religion in its psychological and intellectual sub-structure and in its practical conclusions has taken a different stand towards intellectualism, without however allowing the ultimate inward tension to disappear. For the tension rests on the unavoidable disparity among ultimate forms of images of the world.

“There is absolutely no ‘unbroken’ religion working as a vital force which is not compelled at some point to demand the credo non quod, sed quia absurdem – ‘the sacrifice of the intellect’” (227B-228A).

I take this to mean that religion involves a system of belief, and belief without empirical evidence is irrational, according to Weber. I wonder what Weber’s motivations are for positing intellectualist views as opposed to belief systems. Does he find fault with ethical systems which are founded upon belief systems because they are not inclusive enough? Though he focuses on America in describing political and cultural value systems founded upon religious morals, I wonder if his historical moment (early 1900s Germany) plays a large part in his analysis.

As a final note on Weber’s intellectualist movement (though much more could be said), a couple of Weber’s definitions also prove useful and insightful:

1] “By ‘intellectuals’ we understand a group of men who by virtue of their peculiarity have special access to certain achievements considered to be ‘cultural values,’ and who therefore usurp the leadership of a ‘culture community’” (133A).

2] “One might well define the concept of nation in the following way: a nation is a community of sentiment which would adequately manifest itself in a state of its own” (133A).

These broad definitions give some insight into his practice. I believe that he left definitions so vague as to sound almost ridiculous, yet, perhaps they are broad by design, so that they can be universally applied to a diverse and ever-changing idea of nation. This would, of course, be useful in sociological studies which can utilize his definition in a study of specifics. I find that Weber’s lectures are loaded with ideas that seem basic on the surface, but are actually extremely challenging when fleshed out. This kind of reading makes for a great discussion since nation can mean any number of different things, as can intellectual, citizen, etc.

I will leave you with a few questions to get you started with Weber. In what way(s) does Weber challenge our understandings of either nation or religion? In what ways does Weber lead the way for sociological studies? Why does Weber focus on intellectualization?

* All quotations are from The Great Books of the Western World, Volume 58.

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