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Weber’s Conceptions of the Roles of Two Types of Individuals: the Politician vs. the Scientist This paper is primarily interested in the great sociologist and philosopher Max Weber’s account of the characteristics of the politician and the scientist and the contributions each has made to modernity. In order to place Weber’s discussions on the roles of the politician and scientist in their proper context, we must briefly discuss the rise of the bureaucratic order of the Weberian society. We begin with Weber’s sobering idea that modern society is headed toward a colorless, completely rational and bureaucratic order, which Weber indicated was the “disenchantment of the world.” We then discuss the roles and characteristics of the politician and scientist themselves, and critically examine Weber’s claim that the politician plays a bigger and more irreplaceable role in modern society than the scientist. We evaluate this idea and attempt to look at historical and current examples to support and discredit this claim, primarily focusing on the role of the scientist in modern society. Finally, I come up with my own modified analysis of the roles of the politician and the scientist. I indicate that, considering their overarching tendency to promote social progress and the overall goals of society, the roles, characteristics, and contributions of the politician and the scientist are not as mutually exclusive as Weber believed. I conclude with the thought that because politicians and scientists can contribute to society in a way that Weber may not have considered, then modern society may not be as depressing as Weber believed.

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Max Weber was fascinated by the issue of modernity. Weber’s prognosis of what will result from modern society, however, was very discouraging. One of Weber’s most famous quotes reads, “The fate of our times is characterized by rationalization and intellectualization and, above all, by the ‘disenchantment of the world.’” (Weber, Science as a Vocation, p. 155) Weber believed that the defining characteristic of the modern state was the increasing reliance on rationalization and bureaucratization, which had a negative effect on society by taking away some of the magical effects of the natural world. Weber dismally wrote, “No summer’s bloom lies ahead of us, but rather a polar night of icy darkness and hardness, no matter which group may triumph externally now.” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, p. 128) For Weber, the future brought ‘darkness and hardness’ because the rationalization of society brought on by the ascent of bureaucratic order was all but assured through the rise of democratic societies. This is because bureaucratic societies are the most effective means to level social stratification, one of the major goals of democratic order. On this idea, Weber wrote about how bureaucracies encourage equality: “Bureaucracy inevitably accompanies modern mass democracy in contrast to the democratic self-government of small homogeneous units. This results from the characteristic principle of bureaucracy: the abstract regularity of the execution of authority, which is a result of the demand for ‘equality before the law’ in the personal and functional sense—hence, of the horror of ‘privilege,’ and the principled rejection of doing business ‘from case to case.’ Such regularity also follows from the social preconditions of the origin of bureaucracies.” (Weber, Bureaucracy, p. 224)

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Two types of individuals loomed large in Weber’s account of modernity and the rise of bureaucracy: the politician and the scientist. Weber, as a preeminent sociologist, was particularly interested in studying the patterns of social relationships and interaction among and between the scientist and the politician. Furthermore, he investigated their effects on the modern social state, which we just described as increasingly rational, intellectualized, and disenchanted. For Weber, the politician and the scientist both play key roles in the highly bureaucratic modern society. In his analysis, Weber has mostly given up on the ability of either of these two types of individuals to bring back romantic and inspiring notions of humanity and enchantment into social order. Weber overall held a low opinion of scientists. He described the culture of science as a “predominance of mediocrity” because in his mind random chance, rather than naturally endowed and/or developed ability, played a larger role in the process of academic selection. In his lecture Science as a Vocation Weber wrote: The fact that hazard rather than ability plays so large a role is not alone or even predominantly owing to the ‘human, all too human’ factors, which naturally occur in the process of academic selection as in any other selection. […] The predominance of mediocrity is rather due to the laws of human co-operation, especially the co-operation of several bodies, and, in this case, co-operation of the faculties who recommend and of the ministries of education. (Weber, Science as a Vocation, p. 132) Weber argues that networking and other “human, all too human” factors play too large a role when scientists achieve academic recognition and/or

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academic positions in academia. Weber also believed that great scientific discoveries may happen only once in a blue moon, and that these discoveries will be out of date in too short a time frame. A scientist seeking to enter the field will have to gamble on whether or not an idea will strike them at the appropriate moment. Weber famously mused that “ideas occur to us when they please, not when it pleases us,” and that “each of us knows that what he has accomplished will be antiquated in ten, twenty, fifty years.” (Weber, Science as a Vocation, p. 136 & 138) Weber’s biggest issue with science, though, is not based on the fact that he viewed success in science as random chance. His biggest issue with science is based on the idea that scientific accomplishments are purely technical achievements. Science, Weber argues, doesn’t provide additional meaning to life. In fact, Weber would say, science detracts from life. Success in science would mean increasing rationalization and disenchantment in the world. Weber argued: It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it at any time. Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable 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. (Weber, Science as a Vocation, p. 139) It is important to note that Weber sees one key distinction between science as a vocation and politics as a vocation. Science as a vocation directly leads to the disenchantment of natural occurrences and our

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understanding of natural events. Politics as a vocation, on the other hand, (for reasons which we will discuss after this note), only indirectly leads to bureaucratization and rationalization. Furthermore, it is possible for a very talented and rare political leader to be able to inspire others and serve “the vocation for politics in its deepest meaning.” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, 1958, p. 128) Generally, it is assumed, that both types of individuals (politicians and scientists) will encourage, promote, and protect rational bureaucratic order, although Weber leaves room to hope that a charismatic authority can restore meaning and vigor to the populace, should one arise. Weber begins his lecture on Politics as a Vocation with the line, “This lecture, which I give at your request, will necessarily disappoint you in a number of ways,” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, p. 77), indicating that the vocation of politics may not be as glorious, or to use a Weberian term, ‘enchanting’, as one would think. Politicians, being in charge of the political state, tend toward routine and bureaucratic order rather than promote personal relations and/or passionate behavior. The state, after all, “is a human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory.” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, p. 78) It makes sense then that politicians would turn to bureaucratic administration in order to maintain the stability of the state, ensure law and order, and otherwise manage politics in a way that doesn’t radically alter the systems and organizations in place nor stir up the populace in a negative manner. Weber writes that “the political element consists, above all, in the

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task of maintaining ‘law and order’ in the country, hence maintaining the existing power relations.” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, p. 91) The process of promoting this stability and bureaucratic order has given rise to a class of politicians who Weber describes as the ‘professional politicians’, who Weber notes, are “unlike the charismatic leader.” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, p. 83) Weber does, however, as previously noted, hold on to the hope that politicians can circumvent the rationality of their time through charismatic leadership. Weber writes that “As a permanent structure with a system of rational rules, bureaucracy is fashioned to meet calculable and recurrent needs by a means of a normal routine.” (Weber, The Sociology of Charismatic Authority, p. 245) He continues, however, later on in his essay entitled The Sociology of Charismatic Authority that “charisma, and this is decisive, always rejects as undignified any pecuniary gain that is methodical and rational. In general, charisma rejects all rational economic conduct.” (Weber, The Sociology of Charismatic Authority, p. 247) Charismatic leadership, Weber notes, “takes passion and perspective. Certainly all historical experience confirms the truth—that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible. But to do that a man must be a leader, and not only a leader but a hero as well, in a very sober sense of the word.” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, p. 128) Charismatic leadership, then, can inspire and encourage passion in the populace through their leadership. Charismatic leaders can help men and

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women reach for goals they never before believe possible. But charismatic leadership is a double edged sword, in addition to being a rare quality among men. Weber notes that “by its very nature, the existence of charismatic authority is specifically unstable.” (Weber, The Sociology of Charismatic Authority, p. 248) By this observation Weber is implying that charismatic leaders can also blind a populace and encourage them to pursue action that are detrimental to their overall social welfare and best interests. It is safe to say that Weber emphasizes the role of the politician more than the scientist. As previously noted Weber believes that scientists serve a technical purpose rather than a deeper meaning—which is to say that science as a vocation doesn’t increase human society’s sense of purpose. Weber writes, Under these internal presuppositions, what is the meaning of science as a vocation, now after all these former illusions […] have been dispelled? Tolstoi has given the simplest answer, with the words: ‘Science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: “What shall we do and how shall we live?”’ That science does not give an answer to this is indisputable. (Weber, Science as a Vocation, p. 143) On this point, Weber is overly critical of the field of science. Weber does not recognize that a key characteristic of the scientist is that the scientist necessarily first takes into account the greater needs of society before embarking in scientific investigation. In order for the scientist’s discoveries to be relevant to society, which is to say that in order for the scientist to make money off his or her discovery or achieve renown from it, the scientist

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needs to understand toward what purpose their discovery shall serve. For example on one hand Weber makes the argument that most of humanity need not understand the physics behind a moving streetcar. Weber writes that “unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know.” (Weber, Science as a Vocation, p. 139) However, in order for such a technology to exist, someone needs to acquire the technical knowledge to create such an invention. In order for such a technology to serve human purposes, that person, the scientist, needs to first understand how his or her invention will further humanity’s goals. Weber takes issue with the fact that the invention and improvement of the streetcar itself does not shed light on important questions such as “What shall we do and how shall we live?” Responding to Weber’s example, the streetcar assists human transport, and the train helps increase human industrial capacity and supports an increasing human population by transporting goods and supplies. The scientist is eminently aware of these facts, and for this reason the scientist’s technical discoveries are not outside the domain of serving larger social purposes as Weber would believe. For this reason Weber underestimates the contributions scientists have made to further the larger social questions. It is obvious to the modern observer that science has greatly changed the experience of human society and how we humans go about our lives.

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Without our latest technical advances, humans would not be as connected as they are if we did not have cheap and ready access to telephones, speedy travel, and the internet. Governments, such as the United States, and other entities such as the United Nations, would not be motivated to interfere in genocides such as Sudan and Darfur if it weren’t for the populace’s easy access to news of worldly events (modern communication is a byproduct of science). The fact that international countries are pressured to react to catastrophes and crises in other states are a testament to how increasingly inter-connected human society is compared to human societies of the past where such incidences would be ignored. Science can also change human society for the worse, as well as for the better. The advent of the nuclear bomb allows motivated groups of people the option of destroying the planet as we know it. Society has necessarily reacted to these threats, especially political bureaucracies concerned with self-preservation. Weber’s major critique of this assessment would focus on the ultimate authority by which scientists are held accountable. He would argue that scientific accomplishments are only a response to the general needs of the day, and are exploited by others such as politicians. Weber writes that individual scientists generally “maintain that he engages in ‘science for science’s sake’ and not merely because others, by exploiting science, bring about commercial or technical success and can better feed, dress, illuminate, and govern.” (Weber, Science as a Vocation, p. 138) This argument also has historical merit: the United States’ development of the nuclear bomb was a

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result of government sponsorship of the science, without which the nuclear bomb would likely not have developed the way it had—especially if countries did not compete to obtain the destructive nuclear technology. This shows that politics and science are inextricably linked, which Weber agrees. But the nuclear example is only one of many different examples for ways in which scientific discoveries are made. Many have been encouraged by governments, but others have been encouraged also by individuals unaffiliated with governments, be it for capital gain, academic study, and/or fame. Individual scientific discoveries happen often enough that rather than treat them, as Weber would, as exceptions, they must be included in the rule. The advent of electricity was unanticipated, and thus its discovery and utilization could not have been prompted by the government. On the other hand, other inventions such as the nuclear bomb, the internet, and other inventions were sponsored by the government to serve social and/or state needs. This shows that Weber is correct in many areas of his analysis, but could have been mistaken in others. In response to Weber’s critique concerning the politician’s greater authority over society than the scientist, I would argue that the relationship between politicians and scientists are more complex than Weber recognizes. Weber holds the reasonable assumption that politicians hold the ultimate authority within a state. On the other hand, as Weber also recognizes, there is much movement on behalf of democratic societies of the modern era to level social stratification and enable governments to tap into the will and

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desires of their citizens in order to better serve them (see Bureaucracy page 224, which was quoted early on in this paper). In this manner, citizens, being “occasional politicians” (Weber, Politics as a Vocation, p. 83) can complicate the authority of the politician. Citizens, if under the influence of scientists or scientific beliefs that are contradictory to those held by politicians, can easily vote in politicians that agree with them and vote out politicians who disagree. For this reason, politicians don’t hold supreme authority over the power of the state. Furthermore, in democratic societies, there is always the possibility of the scientist becoming the politician. In modern American politics, there are many examples of scientists becoming politicians. Howard Dean, a doctor by trade, was a governor and contender for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, and now heads the Democratic Party organization. George Foster, a physicist, was recently elected to the United States House of Representatives for the Illinois 14th Congressional District.1 Weber believed that the scientist and the politician generally promoted bureaucratic order that increased rationalization, intellectualization, and disenchantment of worldly affairs. On that same vein, he criticized scientists for their technical study, and did not recognize that their discoveries and achievements can in actuality serve general social pursuits. Their discoveries in many instances are necessarily based on their understanding of social progress and how their achievements can service societal needs. To
1

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Foster_(physicist)

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name a few of their accomplishments, many of their inventions have allowed humans to increase their population and live in greater luxury than at any other point in history, to better enjoy each other’s company even from faraway locations, to be exposed to many different geographies and cultures through advances in transportation, and each of these achievements and others (while we may take them for granted) have encouraged us to dream of other future advances in store for us. These advances have also enabled us to reach ever higher in whatever pursuit we choose to strive for. For example, we would not be able to dream about exploring space, or even conceive of space exploration, if not for the technological achievements before our time. I would argue that rather than being disenchanting, these accomplishments, and the possibilities for greater achievements, is more enchanting than he realized.

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Works Cited
Weber, M. (1958). Bureaucracy. In H. Gerth, & C. W. Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (pp. 196-244). New York City: Oxford University Press. Weber, M. (1958). Politics as a Vocation. In H. H. Gerth, & C. W. Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (pp. 77 - 128). New York City: Oxford University Press. Weber, M. (1958). Science as a Vocation. In H. Gerth, & C. W. Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (pp. 129-158). New York City: Oxford University Press. Weber, M. (2002). The Protestant Ethic & The Spirit of Capitalism. (S. Kalberg, Ed.) New York City: Oxford University Press. Weber, M. (1958). The Sociology of Charismatic Authority. In H. Gerth, & C. W. Mills, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (pp. 245-252). New York City: Oxford University Press.