Economics, Law, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science

Max Weber and Political Ethics

Free Photo: Constructing the Manhattan Bridge

I hadn’t read anything by Max Weber until very recently, but finally made my way through “Politics as a Vocation,” his late lecture delivered shortly after the end of the First World War and the start of the German Revolution.

Weber seems to be primarily known today for several largely logically independent ideas scattered across the social sciences and humanities — especially: the idea that a Protestant work ethic played a role in the rise of capitalism, the importance of charisma to politics, the centrality of bureaucracy in the modern state, and the definition of the state as “a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory” (where “legitimate” only means “accepted as legitimate,” to the apparent consternation of many normative political theorists).

I had heard that “Politics as a Vocation,” where this definition of the state appears, was one of the places where Weber approached political theorizing, and I was predisposed to sympathize with the lecture by some positive remarks that the legal scholar Duncan Kennedy had made about Weber and the “ethic of responsibility.” I’ve also always believed that political theorists tend to pay too little attention to empirical knowledge from history and political science, so I was hopeful that a broadly historically and empirically informed social scientist like Weber might offer a valuable perspective.

To my surprise, however, the lecture as a whole turns out to be remarkably parochial, and in parts, dangerously misguided.

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Literature, Politics

Nicholas Kristof’s defense of the humanities

Well, the defenses of the humanities just keep on coming…  Nicholas Kristof writes in his column today about how his understanding of the world was influenced by three philosophers: Isaiah Berlin, John Rawls, and Peter Singer.

Kristof’s comments remind me that I’ve been meaning to return to something I mentioned, but never developed, in one of this blog’s earlier defenses of the humanities: could it be that there are certain subject matters that belong uniquely to the humanities? That is, even if someone were not persuaded that the humanities could be a valuable way of learning about the empirical world, might it not still be the case that the humanities are important because they alone address certain extremely important subjects — such as the meanings of things, and questions about what we should do?

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Yet another Op-Ed. on the crisis in the humanities

Since this blog has spent so much time discussing the crisis in the humanities, I thought it might be helpful to excerpt the latest New York Times Op-Ed. assessing the crisis. It’s adapted from David Lehman’s Foreword to “Best American Poetry 2014”:

[M]ore than ever the humanities today stand in need of defense. These are hard times for the study of ideas. . . .

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