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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National Day of Service and Remembrance

September 11, 2015

The training of character is a task that begins with family and extends all the way to government. As such, state projects such as the National Day of Service and Remembrance can be viewed as more than an attempt at remembrance, but an education. It demonstrates the importance of a specific piece of knowledge that we should all learn and carry with us. Service, by itself, is not a new concept. There are many forms of service – military, charitable, religious, etc. In fact, Merriam-Webster lists eleven main definitions for the word 'service'. Some of these definitions are then further broken down into sub-definitions. Today, our National Day of Service and Remembrance, is an appropriate time to reflect upon the meaning of service itself.


Community service has long been in use, but the new holiday combines service with remembrance. A view of the term 'service' in light of the holiday demonstrates the way in which historical events alter the definition and usage of a single word. By creating a national day devoted to service, we have created a material change of a theoretical concept, thus elevating one definition and creating an alternate understanding and/or meaning. In essence, this is the way that language functions. Contemporary society accepts the new idea, embraces it, repeats it and adds the additional meaning into their pre-existing lexicon.


The National Day of Service and Remembrance was created as a dedication to the many brave workers who assisted in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. All branches of service were united in this effort, as is often the case in a disaster. Therefore, military works with local politicians as well as larger relief agencies like The Red Cross. Again, while the combination of forces is not a new concept, the new day of service that asks citizens to serve does affect change.


The shift in rhetoric demands citizens to understand that they are not only to receive benefits, but that they should take part in serving others as part of their citizenship. That we all should serve others raises questions of what it means to be a good citizen. Is a good citizen the same thing as a good man? The National Day of Service and Remembrance intimates that man and citizen should be of equal levels of morality. The government offers their perspective, not as obligation, but as a moral education. In Saint Joan, George Bernard Shaw states, “Though all society is founded on intolerance, all improvement is founded on tolerance.”


People commonly feel that everything is always changing. In fact, it is difficult to pinpoint an exact moment of transfer. Clocks assist us in creating a daily schedule, but it is much more difficult to explain the state of something. For example, when does water become ice or vapor? At what point do we know that a leaf has changed from green to red? Or, more to the point, when have we achieved a society of educated citizens? As Mortimer Adler claims in his chapter regarding 'Change' in the Syntopicon, “[T]hat which changes persists throughout the change as the same kind of substance.” As applied to society, there is an ever-present and understood foundation which is constantly challenged by natural changes. In other words, education is always necessary to society's survival, but what factors compose that education may change over time.


The idea of service in society stretches throughout time. In The Republic, Aristotle even allows that “In the constitutional state, the citizens rule and are ruled by turns for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of all citizens are equal and do not differ at all.” The empowered citizen, then, designs systems which educate and instruct society in a way that they too deem important. The dedication of a day of service has immortalized a specific brand of service through the heroic deeds of servicemen and women. And this is when the change feels subtle, but it actually is not. Language is what allows us to access – among other things – society. Both Plato and Aristotle spend much time in an attempt to create understanding of a single term. Furthermore, many scientific and philosophical treatises begin with definitions. Changes of the meaning of a word often signifies societal change.


Those men and women in the military are often referred to as servicemen and servicewomen. They perform dangerous and necessary duties for society's survival. Often, their service includes training and knowledge about complex systems. Asking citizens to serve implies that monetary exchange and classroom training is not enough. There is an element of witness incorporated into this idea of service. Have we forgotten what it means to serve? Have recent disasters demanded too much of societies? Or is the need for service permanent, just changing in the context of location and time? Perhaps this type of service best demonstrates the power of an individual or the best definition of citizen. Maybe we are still learning about tolerance. Whatever the case may be, the installation of a National Day of Service and Remembrance affects and colors the way we understand service in general. When using the term 'service', we will invariably and subconsciously call to mind those heroes who served our country. Both the word and the country are stronger for it.


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