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Institute Faculty Seminar takes on Max Weber’s ‘uncomfortable facts’

“The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the disenchantment of the world.”

This famous dictum uttered by the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) during the first of two now-famous lectures on the topic of vocation, The Scholar’s Work (Wissenschaft als Beruf) and The Politician’s Work (Politik als Beruf), has come to characterize Weber’s insights into the afflictions of the modern world. In an effort to mark the centenary of Weber’s death and to explore in more detail how Weber’s “vocation lectures” (delivered in 1917 and 1919) remain relevant in the academy today, Morrison Family Director of the Institute for Freedom and Community Edmund Santurri led a two-part seminar this past fall semester.

“The Institute is aligned in spirit with the Weberian comprehension of the academic arena as a kind of politically non-partisan zone of human life,” Santurri noted during his opening remarks. However, the real reason for reading Weber is that “his lectures raise issues that are especially relevant today as we navigate the relation between academic study and politically partisan commitment.” Above and beyond the question of whether vocational calling is still possible in a disenchanted world, Weber is very explicit that the teacher’s professional role involves the presentation of “inconvenient” or “uncomfortable facts” (unbequeme Tatsachen) that challenge a student’s political convictions. 

Thirty St. Olaf College faculty members representing 15 different disciplines participated in the Institute for Freedom and Community’s two-part seminar examining the work of Max Weber.

If there was one broad theme that resonated among the 30 seminarians representing 15 different disciplines at St. Olaf College it was that of being challenged as scholars and teachers themselves. Associate Professor of Philosophy Jason Marsh remarked that “more than any other text I read this year, Weber’s vocation lectures forced me to think harder about the relationship between education and politics. He reminds me of something that can be difficult to acknowledge in public, namely that there are [quoting Weber] ‘thoroughly discomfiting facts … for every political position, my own included.’ That he expects me to admit of difficulties to my views in front of my students, in part to reduce my power to exploit them, also creates an interesting practical, and indeed vocational, challenge to live up to.” 

Visiting Assistant Professor of Classics Hilary Bouxsein also took note of the implicit challenge posed by Weber’s lectures, while noting the “intellectual generosity” of the other seminar participants: “I signed up for the seminar intrigued mainly by the thought of reflecting on a scholar’s vocation, hoping that it might shed some light on my own life: like many young academics both in Weber’s time and now, I sometimes struggle with both the ethical and the practical, especially economic, implications of my choice to pursue ‘the scholar’s work.’ The seminar encouraged me to think more deeply not only about my own choice to pursue academia, but about the arc of an academic life, the place that religious thinking has (or doesn’t have) in reflections about scholarship or politics, the potential virtues of a pessimistic outlook, and even how to advise students who are themselves contemplating a life in academia or politics.”

Professor of Music Justin MerrittThe Weber seminar was a terrific opportunity to have a conversation with my colleagues where we had time to set aside the usual small talk and dig into difficult questions about what our vocation is all about. The reading was one of those pieces where you realize you’ve seen quotes many times but had never seen them in the full context. It was a memorably fulfilling experience.

Building on the discussion of The Scholar’s Work, the seminar then turned its attention to Weber’s investigation of The Politicians’s Work. In Weber’s own words, politics means “seeking power or trying to influence the distribution of power, whether among different states or among groups of people within the single state that encompasses them.” Yet as Santurri noted during this seminar, Weber also associates an ethics of conviction with an ethics of non-resistance. As a result, there is a fundamental ethical problem posed in Weber’s second lecture: “Because politics is about power for Weber, there is an ethical quandary for politics as a vocation, for at times, one’s ethics of personal conviction (Gesinnungsethik) will contradict one’s ethics of responsibility (Verantwortungsethik).” Many seminar participants were able to draw strong parallels to their own fields in this regard. 

Visiting Assistant Professor of Religion PJ Johnston was particularly struck by Weber’s remarks in this context: “As a scholar of religion, I found Weber’s reflections on politics as a vocation both thought-provoking and challenging. Traditions such as Catholic social teaching, the Protestant social gospel, and liberation theology influence theologians to often assess the impact of [their] work in rather political terms, and I believe many of us (myself included) would feel as if something were lacking if we did not somehow contribute to the political transformation of our society through our scholarship and teaching.” 

Johnston notes further, “I was challenged and unsettled by Weber because he fundamentally rejected this vision of politics at every level: Weber clearly separates political and scholarly vocations in a way which would make enterprises like liberation theology appear dangerously conceptually confused and Weber further rejects the idea that politics should proceed from an ethical template one attempts to impose upon the world rather than emerge from the negotiation of the practical and the contingent.”

Associate Professor Economics Ashley HodgsonIt was useful to think about the philosophy and ethics of power at a time like this. It was particularly helpful that the philosopher/economist we read was grounded in a different time in history. Sometimes thoughts about the current state of affairs can get too wrapped up in the emotion and rhetoric of the hour. Seeing how thinkers in different times approached the ethics of their own moment in history was helpful.

Regardless of the individual experiences faculty incurred as a result of the seminar, the consensus among participants was that Weber’s lectures are still highly relevant 100 years later. Professor of Classics Anne Groton remarked how “the readings are eerily relevant to issues still vexing the world today” and Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Institute Post-Doc Brendon Westler noted that Weber’s “understanding of the conditions of modernity, the functionings of bureaucracy, of democracy, and so on, continue to be salient.” 

The success of this seminar and the powerful reactions it evoked among faculty have also led the Institute for Freedom and Community to devise a program for sharing Weber’s insights with students. For the first time next summer, the Institute will be offering the Weber Scholars Summer Program — an eight-week, compensated course of study in which students have the opportunity to engage critically with complex moral, political, and social ideas. “For Weber, an untrammeled investigation of truth required openness to entertaining propositions, proposals, theories, ideas that might be inconvenient, unpleasant, or unpopular,” says Santurri. “And there is a pronounced need for our students to confront Weber’s ‘uncomfortable facts’ in myriad contexts. This seminar will allow students to read works — like Weber’s vocation lectures — that address unpopular, unconventional, and provocative ideas of a moral, political, and social nature.”

For students interested in applying for the Weber Scholars Summer Program, please visit the application form here.