On Visiting Max Weber’s Gravestone

by Jeroen Bouterse

In the school vacation, I finally decided to go on what is probably my only-ever academic pilgrimage: I visited Max Weber’s tombstone in the Bergfriedhof cemetery in Heidelberg.

I had intended to go for some time. In my original plans, I’d go on foot (from the Netherlands) like a proper pilgrim, but after years of failing to go through I had come to realize that was not going to happen anytime soon. So I went by train. Which was too easy; I stood next to the monument before I knew it. I’m still coming to grips with the fact that only on the first time can you do a thing like this properly – that is, with enough ascetic self-denial to mark the purposefulness of your actions – and that I messed up that one chance.

Oh well. Isn’t it fitting to feel the charismatic potential of this particular relic being sapped by the very efficiency of modernity – the stahlhartes Gehäuse of the InterCity Express, working unfailingly to disenchant this tiny part of the world, too. Except for one detail, which I’ll get to later.

I fell in love with Weber as a history undergraduate. We read a fragment of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. The combination of a big and, not unimportantly, Western-centered thesis with detailed, painstaking social and historical explanations seemed a best of two worlds. More than that, Weber’s explanations, rather than reducing the ideas and deepest convictions of the people and movements he studied to some other variable, gave center stage to those convictions. He demonstrated that historical explanation involved understanding the beliefs and values laid down in historical texts, thereby at least partly justifying what I felt most comfortable doing.

Later, I moved on to Weber’s methodological essays. With their long, complex sentences (complex because they expressed complex thoughts) they take effort to read, but never does that effort go unrewarded. Weber’s essays, I felt, came close to the ideal academic argument: abstracted, critical and theoretical but rooted in a desire to understand the world, extremely patient, leaving no stone unturned, but also always keeping his eye on the ball; making sure that the sum of all his smaller scholastic points worked to advance a larger perspective on how to study people and societies in history.

I said ‘ideal’ just now, in a careless sort of way that Weber would have a lot to say about. In his methodological essays, Weber devoted a lot of space to the role of concepts, ‘ideals’, and values in social scientific methodology. Influenced by the neo-Kantian philosophers Wilhelm Windelband and Heinrich Rickert, Weber was keenly aware that concepts formed some sort of problem. To Kantian-minded thinkers, ‘reality itself’ is always an elusive thing: it is so big, and so much can be said about even its smallest components, that it seems to defy description by language or abstract concepts. It was a source of great stress for the neo-Kantians that the humanities, including what we would now call the social sciences, have to ‘zoom in’ on specific (temporal, local) aspects of reality, while reality failed to provide any clues as to how to do this in a non-arbitrary way. What does success in these sciences even mean?

Weber, I believe, solved that problem for them. He did it by biting the Kantian bullet and swallowing unflinchingly. All knowledge is conceptual; very well then, let us talk about concepts. Individualism is a concept; imperialism is a concept; feudalism is a concept. So let’s define, precisely, what we mean by each of those concepts. To Weber, this doesn’t mean listing some essential properties so that we can check boxes later; no, it means mapping out the whole thing. Feudalism in its purest form, what does that look like, in our minds? How does it work? What does it do? Whatever we define that to be, that is now the ideal type of feudalism. What are its implications? What other things would we expect to see in a world that is thoroughly feudal?

“But we will never see this ‘pure feudalism’ in reality.” Indeed we won’t. What did you expect? It’s a concept; concepts don’t mirror reality, they select or highlight or transform aspects of it. That was the whole point, wasn’t it? That’s how our concepts help us more-or-less dimly understand what’s going on: by being at the same time clear and distinct to our minds, and vaguely discernible in reality. Everything in this infinitely complex, ever-changing, Heraclitean river we live in might, temporarily, more or less, resemble some ideal type. If we understand the ideal type well, those resemblances are informative. That’s it, no more.

This has a Platonic, idealistic ring to it. The Copernican turn, though, is that these concepts, these ideal types, are subjective only; they are not the real thing. Reality doesn’t contain Protestantism or Capitalism, so defining these ideal types cannot be the end-goal. To the extent that they are not arbitrary, it is because they reflect what interests us; they inherit something of our perspective on the world, our values. And only subjects assign value. Weber never loses sight of the principle that science can, at its best, tell us what the world is like; it can never tell us what it ought to be like.

There is a certain heroism, more than a little Nietzschean machismo, to Weber’s views on science, as well as on ethics and politics. Both facing reality and meaningfully acting in it require acts of asceticism; of self-effacement. The effort not to let your judgment of the facts be clouded by wishful thinking is only one way in which this requirement manifests itself. Both science and politics are a vocation, a calling to serve a higher god than yourself. But, in politics, that vocation is thoroughly polytheistic; which god or gods you serve, that is up to you alone – you, as a responsible subject in an immensely complex, terrifyingly enchanted or suffocatingly rationalized world.

Partly because of his rigid adherence to this is/ought-distinction, and the way in which it informed his views on ideal-typical science and ideal-typical politics, Weber has come to be regarded as a quintessentially modern thinker: a strong believer in scientific objectivity, individual responsibility, and the uniqueness of Western civilization. And indeed, a summary of his thought quickly tends to boil down to that. But that abstraction tells us too little about the real thinker. The real Weber was immensely more complicated than that.

Weber-biographer Joachim Radkau, writing about later attempts to enlist Weber to one side of two cultures-controversies, complains (translation inadequate, German below):

“Weber has often been cut in half, or quartered. This may bring short-term tactical gains, but it hasn’t been good for the reception of Weber’s liveliness. In dismembering him, what is genuinely fascinating about him gets lost. This lies not in ideal types or value-free science, but in his style of thinking: his skillful jumps over the borders of disciplines and over the gap between theory and colorful reality, his own life experience and alien worlds, rationalization and the discovery of irrational passions […].” (835)

If we agree with Radkau, that it is Weber’s style of thinking rather than his terminological and methodological inventions and historical theses that merit our fascination, then his death was an irreplaceable loss. Into one side of Weber’s tombstone, his widow Marianne had written “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis” – “Everything transient is just a likeness”, from Goethe’s Faust. As if commenting on the idealistic metaphysics suggested by this quotation, she added “Wir finden nimmer seinesgleichen” – “We will never see one like him again.”

Marianne abruptly ended her biography of her husband at the very moment of his departure, providing only one comment on its meaning when she wrote: “he has been carried off into unreachable distant places (unerreichbare Ferne). The world has changed.” (712) She may have intended this to drive home the point that her husband was an epoch-defining genius; but these words can also be read as a comment on our different relations to the living and the deceased. Living, Weber could direct and exercise his characteristic mental agility; dead, he immediately becomes an object of interpretation, our access to which is mediated by words and concepts, by the (unfinished) books and theses he left behind, and simultaneously fixed and blurred by them. Weber’s death changed the world the way the death of any individual changes the world; by transforming him from something real and complex into an abstraction.

Neither the InterCity Express nor a proper pilgrimage on foot will overcome the distance to those unerreichbare Ferne where the thing-(or-person-)itself resides. When I traveled to Weber’s tombstone, everything I knew and respected about his thought should have prepared me for a sobering experience. That it was not completely so, was because of Marianne’s well-chosen epitaphs, and because I found, to my delight, that I wasn’t the only person who had visited the place recently: I found a small bouquet of fresh flowers on the grass in front of the monument. Although I can’t be sure to which of the Webers they were dedicated, I like to think that this person’s motivations have had something in common with mine – maybe even enough to resemble the same ideal type.

References and original quotation

Joachim Radkau, Max Weber: Die Leidenschaft des Denkens (Carl Hanser: München 2005).

Marianne Weber, Max Weber: Ein Lebensbild (J.C.B. Mohr: Tübingen 1926)

“Der in den Streit der Fakultäten hineingezogene Weber ist dabei oft halbiert, ja gevierteilt worden. Dies mochte einen kurzfristigen taktischen Nutzen bringen, ist dem Fortwirken der Weberschen Lebendigkeit jedoch nicht gut bekommen. Bei der Zerstückelung geht das wahrhaft Faszinierende an Weber verloren, das weder im Idealtypus noch in der Wertfreiheit besteht, sondern in seinem Denkstil, seinem gekonnten Hin- und Herspringen über die Grenzen der Spezialdisziplinen und über die Kluft zwischen Theorie und farbiger Wirklichkeit, eigener Lebenserfahrung und fremden Welten, Rationalisierung und Entdeckung irrationaler Leidenschaften”