Duty Amidst Disenchantment

Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation” have been translated and published in English at least three times over the past 70 years, including the present edition under review. Translations are, of course, exercises in the accurate representation of meaning as well as a matter of interpretation. The first mention of the vocation lectures (with translated excerpts) in a 1944 issue of the American Journal of Sociology was by Fred H. Blum. His translation of “Wissenschaft als Beruf” was “Science as a Calling.” Although there has been debate about how to translate “Beruf,” the term “vocation” was central to Weber’s sociological imagination, at once historical and social-psychological, both exhibiting their separate forms of evolution in sociological thinking beyond Weber.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber had already addressed the internal exhaustion of vocation, reporting that “the idea of duty in one’s calling prowls about in our lives like the ghost of dead religious beliefs.” Stephen Kalberg’s translation of the same passage is less concise but equally revealing: “And the idea of an ‘obligation to search for and then accept a vocational calling’ now wanders around in our lives as the ghost of beliefs no longer anchored in the substance of religion.” Peter Baehr and Gordon C. Wells’ translation is more succinct: “the idea of the ‘duty in a calling’ haunts our lives like the ghost of once-held religious beliefs.” “Prowls,” “wanders,” “haunts” juxtapose a kind of pagan residue with no longer operative religious beliefs though which beliefs are not stipulated. Of course, Weber was not thinking at the end of The Protestant Ethic about Catholic, Jewish, or Islamic beliefs but rather those represented as ideal types in the works of Luther and Calvin and transmogrified in the adages of Benjamin Franklin.

Vocation, Calling, and Meaning

Weber delivered “Science as a Vocation” on November 7, 1917 and “Politics as a Vocation” on January 28, 1919. Both were part of a series of lectures by Weber and others intended for students “on the nature of personal vocation in the modern world.” For the present translation, the authors’ introduction and translator’s note are important reminders that perceptions and opinions about these lectures are indicative of both Weber in his time as well as Weber for our time. The translator, Damion Searles, insists on erasing the word “vocation” from the title of both lectures, thus “The Scholar’s Work” and “The Politician’s Work.” He writes, “While ‘vocation’ has lost the cultural sweep that Beruf had for Weber, ‘work’ has taken it on (think of all the reflections on ‘meaningful work,’ ‘the future of work,’ and so on). ‘Politics as a Vocation’ sounds oddly arcane; ‘The Politician’s Work’ captures the scope of Weber’s talk.”

The use of the word “arcane” intends to tag “vocation” with a sense of the mysterious or secret, literally out of touch. A “calling” is more a commitment to that which is beyond oneself than to an ideal of personal satisfaction (e.g., meaningful work). Vocation’s lost meaning is the real mystery. That the creators of the present work have consigned “vocation” to the dustbin of history is not simply a triumph of secularism. The importance of the idea to leading minds of Western thought should not be underestimated. At the same time, with respect to the long-established title “Science as a Vocation,” Searles erases “science” (Wissenschaft), creating in its stead “The Scholar’s Work.” Wissenschaft belongs to two centuries of discussion about what should be included in the canon of university instruction. Wilhelm Dilthey distinguished between Geisteswissenschaften (human sciences) and Naturwissenschaften (natural sciences) that allowed the term “science” to cover a broad spectrum of approaches to knowledge. Searle’s decision is less mysterious but nonetheless it diminishes the significance of Weber’s methodological illustrations that pertain to “science” as compared to “scholarship.” The “scholar” is a more democratic appellation in an era of diversity and inclusion.

The justification for abandoning “vocation” follows directly from the editors’ introduction:

On the campus of today’s universities, especially in the United States, student activists are making moral demands and defending ideals, but mostly outside the classroom and lecture hall and within a bureaucratic system of moral management. While some scholars try to accommodate them, many more simply try to keep these higher-education factories running on adjunct labor. And most presidents at our leading universities muster ceremonial acknowledgments of the institutions’ past purposes but spend their days overseeing multibillion-dollar global enterprises. Who but a blessed, tenured few could continue to believe that scholarship is a vocation?

These observations, distinct in their indictment of the institution of higher education, also point up the quaintness of any kind of enactment of what apparently was once more common but is now confined to “a blessed, tenured few.” Here “vocation” is conflated with job security, not a wholly unreasonable insight, but one which also assumes that like personal satisfaction, personal security defines “meaningful work.” In “The Scholar’s Work” Weber certainly pointed out a host of institutional concerns, but it was also a statement about the psychic demands of rigorous scholarship. He was especially concerned that the university was being “Americanized,” pointing out how younger faculty were exploited in both countries. To succeed was also a matter of chance. Institutional designs mattered. Weber acknowledged that “It is indisputable that there are a lot of mediocrities in leading university positions, but it would be unfair to blame that fact on personal shortcomings among academic faculty or state ministries.” At the same time, he lamented the psychic costs of pursuing an academic career:

When young scholars come to ask my advice about whether they should pursue Habilitation, the responsibility that comes with encouraging them is all but unbearable. If the young man in question is Jewish, one can only say: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” Either way, one feels one must ask whether the young scholar in question truly thinks he can bear to see mediocrity after mediocrity promoted ahead of him, year after year, without becoming embittered and broken inside.[1]

In the matter of academic appointments, he condemned the use of political motives in contrast to judgment based on the merits of the scientific work alone. And these merits established the foundations for Weber’s clear demarcation of facts from values, a borderline that has been a source of contestation for more than a century. These merits were further established by “specialization,” an intensified focus on the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

Facts and Values

Inspiration and hard work were not exclusive to the scientist/scholar. The artist and entrepreneur, among others, possessed the same types of commitment regarding passion and creativity. Nevertheless, scientist/scholars, by the shape of their commitments, contributed to increasing rationalization and intellectualization. Weber argued that “Increasing rationalization and intellectualization does not, in other words, mean a greater general knowledge of the conditions we live under. Rather, it means something else: the knowledge or belief that we could find out if we wanted to; that in principle there are no mysterious incalculable forces intervening in our lives, but instead all things, in theory, can be mastered through calculation. It means the disenchanting of the world” (p. 18). The disenchantment of the world is probably one of the most consistent criticisms of what we call modernity. The search for an era beyond modernity, for lack of a better term, post-modernity, was barely on the Weberian horizon in 1917. Instead Weber captures the significance of this disenchantment, not so much the elimination of what is mysterious but rather the explanation and control of everything that can be perceived, however this control is accomplished.

Weber, alas, leaves us with the ghost of vocation whose authority is not so much illegitimate as it is devoid of stipulations of the limits of both science and politics.

Weber argues that “science” does not try to justify whether the world has “meaning,” or whether living in a disenchanted world is or can be meaningful. The world of facts cannot alone determine values. No surprise, then, that he exemplifies this conclusion in a discussion of medicine:

Or take a practical art such as medicine, highly developed in scientific terms. The general “proposition” of medicine is, to put it bluntly, that we should want to help people live longer and reduce suffering as much as possible. And that premise is problematic. The doctor uses every means to keep the terminally ill patient alive, even if he begs to be released from life, and even if his relatives, whether they admit it or not, quite properly want him to die – because his life is now worthless, or to relieve his suffering, or because cannot pay the costs of keeping him alive in this worthless existence (maybe he’s a penniless madman). But the presuppositions of the field of medicine, not to mention the penal code, prevent the doctor from ceasing his efforts. “Is life worth living, and under what circumstances?” – that is a question medicine does not ask.

Echoing Nietzsche’s “A Moral Code for Physicians” in Twilight of the Idols, Weber imagined the “practical art” of medicine, to be clearly separate from “science.” The question that medicine does not ask may have nothing to do with “science” but it has everything to do with whatever residues of commitment remain in the nature of vocation. The conceit of science since Weber’s time has been that science and technical advance surpass the moral and ethical wisdom about what choices should be made with respect to this or that innovation. In other words, the disenchantment of the world in no way reduces the challenges of determining how to live. In fact, re-enchantments abound in the struggle to anticipate the unintended consequence of science and technical advance so as to determine right from wrong, better from worse, etc.

The Ethic of Responsibility

“The Politician’s Work” exemplifies Weber’s clear effort to avoid defending the values espoused on either side of a political debate, thus explicating and analyzing the function of politics as a matter of fact in the modern world. He establishes at the outset his view of the modern state in one of his more memorable statements: “The modern state cannot be defined by its aims, but rather, sociologically speaking, only by the specific means of action that it (and every other political group) has recourse to: physical violence.” The evolution of what he calls “legitimate physical violence,” once pursued by families and clans, resides exclusively in state power however it is assigned to representatives of the state. For such power to be exercised legitimately, Weber argues that authority must underlie it. Three types of authority are described: traditional, charismatic, and legal, bureaucratic. He ascribes to the charismatic leader an “inner-calling” or vocation for politics.

The representatives of this kind of vocation have followers who are “devoted to him as a person, his personal qualities.” Two general types of charismatic leaders are mentioned: magicians and prophets on the one hand and warlords, bandit chieftains, and condottieri (mercenary leaders) on the other. The presentation of self is a requisite for a politician’s attaining and maintaining attention, abetted by university-trained lawyers and value-promoting journalists. Weber’s account of demagogy is instructive for present circumstances in which “fake news” “conspiracy theories” and other political tactics create certainty in some, and confusion and disbelief in others.

Weber’s assessment of the politician is an exercise in psychological evaluation: Vanity, in the case of the scientist, is relatively harmless and usually does not interfere with scholarship. But in the case of politics, “The sin against the holy spirit of his calling begins when the politician’s lust for power is no longer grounded in objective reality and instead simply intoxicates the politician personally.” And “…because power is the unavoidable means of all political action, and the lust for power its driving force, there is no more destructive corruption of political power than the parvenu blustering around, conceitedly rejoicing in feeling powerful, or worshiping in any way power as such.”

In seeming contrast to the scientist, the modern politician must make choices, must wrestle with competing world views, must, in other words, live in the world, as surely as the doctor must. Unlike the scientist (allegedly), the politician relies on the enchanting characteristics of charismatic authority to lead effectively. An “ethics of responsibility” keeps the otherwise unwieldy potential of charisma in check whereas “an ethics of personal conviction” may not. A view of science with its potential for mastery of the world may not slow its progress in achieving that goal, but the lamentations over the disenchantment of the world reveal nothing about what a charismatic leader would or should do with such mastery. The directions in which such leadership may take others is nowhere better illustrated in the contrast between the charismatic natures of a Jesus and a Hitler. Weber, alas, leaves us with the ghost of vocation whose authority is not so much illegitimate as it is devoid of stipulations of the limits of both science and politics. The “person” is no more a certain locus of responsibility than is the knowledge produced by science.

Weber died in 1920, some say the result of pneumonia from the successive waves of influenza that began in 1918. The science of COVID-19 is by no means yet well established, and the role of politicians across the planet is by no means any less divided between ethics of responsibility and conviction. Weber’s two lectures are well-worth revisiting regardless of how Beruf is translated into English. Unlocking the moral significance of vocation is nevertheless the key.

[1] Weber’s reference to Dante’s Inferno with respect to the Jewish scholar (he may have had in mind the career of his contemporary and fellow sociologist, Georg Simmel) was presciently tragic, with “Arbeit Macht Frei” at the entrance gate to Auschwitz.

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