What Max Weber Teaches Us About the Ramsay Centre’s Debate

Two principles are at stake in the debates over the Ramsay Centre: 1) that academia must be a space of impartial inquiry, one not swayed or influenced by economic or political interests, whether in the form of outside funders or inside ‘left-wingers’; 2) that academic study should not be dogmatic but critical and – as even new Ramsay Board member Michael Easson argues – interrogative. The Ramsay debates have been at their most contentious when these principles have been mobilised to defend two seemingly distinct propositions: 1) that impartiality and critical inquiry are the unique possession of Western Civilisation; or, 2) that an impartial and critical inquiry of Western civilisation is possible and desirable.

In this blog I want to address my concerns to those who are less enamoured by 1) and more committed to 2). I am speaking to those who believe that it is desirable and possible to undertake critical and impartial inquiry of Western civilisation without having to defend the West’s civilisational uniqueness. I want to question whether any academic centre for a thing called “Western civilisation” is desirable.

I’m going to undertake this questioning via an engagement with the German sociologist Max Weber, and especially his text – Science as a Vocation. Weber (1864-1920) remains an incredibly influential scholar in the so-called Western canon. He is taught as part of the sociological trinity, along with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx; his comparative analysis of types of political rule and of religions still frames much contemporary sociological and political research; above all, his fin de siècle musings on European modernity, secularisation, disenchantment and the Protestant roots of the culture of capitalism pre-empted key themes of the “culture wars” of the late 20th century – wars that the Ramsay Centre has given new life to. Academically speaking, any argument concerning the uniqueness of Western civilisation (as well as the stakes at play in critically assessing said uniqueness) owes to – or must at least engage with – Weber.

Let’s be reasonable: Weber was certainly not a proponent of scientific racism. Still, as a number of authors have argued, he did embrace “cultural racism”. Weber categorised humanity into differentiated and distinct cultural groupings whose socially-relevant features expressed the racialised attributes that European imperialism had organised, over the course of the 19th century, into civilisational hierarchies.

Especially important in Weber’s investigations was the categorical distinction between occidental (western) and oriental (eastern) cultures whereby the former represented civilised humanity and the latter barbaric humanity. But I want to add another crucial dimension to all this: Weber also graded cultural distinctions between occidental – i.e. European – cultures, distinctions that reflected the challenges of consolidating the German nation within the fractious European geopolitics of his age. 

Much like today’s white nationalism, Weber’s cultural racism was mobilised more for defending Europe’s “civilized humanity” than it was towards justifying imperial expansion. At stake for Weber was not just the threat posed by orientalist culture but a wager that defending the “power-political interests” of his own nation against other European nations was precisely the best chance of defending civilised humanity.

This double-sided defense – a civilisational and nationalised one – is what made Weber’s concerns lie principally in the cultural integrity of the German nation. In fact, Weber believed that his nation was threatened in two ways: firstly, externally – by the immigration of peoples of more barbaric cultures, primarily Poles, and secondly, internally – by the political immaturity of Germany’s own Bildungsbürgertum (educated class).

Both external and internal concerns are evident in Weber’s early writings and especially in his Inaugural Address in 1895 as chair of economics at the University of Freiburg. There, Weber drew attention to the influx of Polish peasants in the eastern provinces caused by the marketisation of agriculture and the concomitant replacement of old paternalistic relations by free labor. Weber worried that despite Polish labor being more flexible and cheaper than local populations, the physical, martial, mental and cultural competencies of Polish migrants were inferior to those of the German workers whom they replaced.

Even if an economically rational policy, ‘Polonisation,’ as Weber put it, was nevertheless a process causing Germany to descend a “cultural step” in ways that were even worse than if ‘Chinese coolies’ had been imported. In fact, this concern is what led Weber to criticise political economists who, in his estimation, conflated analysis of the world market with cosmopolitan ethics. The ‘economic struggle between nationalities’ was a constant even in peace time. In other words, Weber did not believe that the German national interest could be understood simply in terms of material basic needs but by reference to the cultural and existential issue of ‘what kind of people they will be.’

Weber’s concerns over Polonisation direct us towards the other great threat that he perceived to face the standing of Germany. Otto Von Bismarck, first Chancellor of the German Empire, had succeeded in bringing the country into existence as a distinct political entity out of a hodgepodge of principalities. Yet Weber believed that the way in which Bismarck did so had produced a nation “entirely lacking in any kind of political education … and above all a nation entirely without any political will”.

In fact, Weber was overwhelmingly concerned with the relative backwardness of the Bildungsbürgertum –  the educated class that should have been leading Germany’s bid to pre-eminence rather than the political or economic classes. Weber sough to overcome this cultural inadequacy by charging academia with providing a competent political education to its students. So, Weber’s intellectual project was driven by a cultural racism that induced in him a fear of cultural contagion and degeneration, which manifested, in part, as an abiding desire to educate the educators.

The anxiety that drove Weber’s wish to educate the educators so as to forestall an intellectual degeneration internal to Western civilisation is evident in outlets such as Quillette and in projects such as Spiked’s ‘free speech university rankings.’ Similarly, Weber considered the true vocation of the educated class to be the injection of ‘clarity’ into public debate. Above all, public debate needed to come to terms with the fact that, in current conditions, the defense of civilised humanity could only be pursued by the advance and preservation of German culture. And it is this defense that Weber promotes in his famous lecture on the vocation of science, given in 1917 at Munich University.

Much of the lecture sought to disabuse the student youth (the children of the educated class) of any romanticism towards the human condition and to critically orient them towards their national/civilizational duty. The civilizational framing of Weber’s argument can be gleaned in his presentation of the vocation of science as the search for meaning in a disenchanted world. The social scientist, Weber contended, could no longer summon ‘mysterious incalculable forces’ as explainers, as was the case with the ‘magical means’ utilized by the ‘savage.’ When it came to the European scientist, there existed instead only a possibility to ‘master all things by calculation.’

Weber was at pains to demonstrate that this disenchanted disposition was unique to the scientific tradition of occidental Europe. From Platonic thought, through the Renaissance, and into the contemporary era, Weber narrated European thought as a removal of the illusion that science might reveal the way to ‘true being’ or ‘true nature’ or ‘the true god.’ Weber contended that the modern European scientist could now no longer provide answers to categorical imperatives such as ‘what shall we do and how shall we live,’ rather, by constructing rules of logic and method, science could only present hypothetical imperatives: e.g. if A in conditions of B, then C.

Tellingly, Weber used politics to demonstrate the difference between categorical and hypothetical imperatives: ‘to take a practical political stand is one thing, and to analyze political structures and party positions is another.’ With this distinction made, Weber then claimed that the primary purpose of the university teacher was not to ‘plead for practical and interested stands,’ but rather to help the student through social scientific inquiry to recognise facts that were ‘inconvenient’ to their own ‘party opinion.’

Here was where the national framing of Weber’s argument intersected with the civilisational. Weber inferred that the neutrality of occidental science alone enabled a competent understanding of the geopolitical milieu that Germany found itself within. Instead of the ‘backward’ cosmopolitan pretense that Europeans shared a collective unity, Weber presented national cultures – e.g. the relationship between French and German culture – in a disenchanted light as ‘different gods [struggling] with one another, now and for all times to come.’  

Interestingly, though, as soon as Weber invoked the struggle between nations he then introduced a quixotic yet telling comparison. In discussing the gods of the ancient city, Weber implied that even in occidental Europe the nation retained an enchanted aura. That is, the nation provided for its population an intrinsic value that had, through disenchantment, been lost in those objects studied by philosophy, natural science and theology.

Nonetheless, Weber then quickly returned to his previous line of argument by warning that this intrinsic value should not be mistaken for the generalised phenomenon of nationalism per se, i.e. a value system intrinsically shared across humanity. Nationalism manifested – and could only manifest for his students – in terms of the German nation. The singularly intrinsic value of the German nation could not be ethically disputed or affirmed by scientific method. The educated class could only – and were compelled to – help the public ‘understand what the godhead is in the one order or in the other,’ that is, clarify the consequences of acting for the interest of the German nation.   

By these logics, Weber’s lecture sought to convince the children of the educated class that they must accept the loss of intrinsic meaning to science that came with disenchantment. He especially wished to dispense with any backward fascination for a romantic humanism that worshipped unmediated universalism or enchanted heritages. Disenchantment revealed the cold truth that humanity was irreconcilably divided between occident and orient, between occident and the orient-within-Europe represented by e.g. Poles, as well as between different occidental national interests.

Weber’s problem with romantic universalism was that it foreclosed any progressive engagement with humanity’s disenchanted condition and opened the door to both external and internal cultural degeneration. In his estimation, the thin path for humanity’s progress could lie only in choosing which god to serve with full knowledge of the partiality of that choice, and that only a particular class of a particular nation of a particular species of humanity could save the human condition.

Weber effectively tasked the educated class to provide a political education adequate to the task of defending civilised humanity – a task which primarily required a clarification of the interests of the German nation for those who would pursue them. Weber considered the clarification of these divisions to be the prime task of the educating class who, in providing this service, might engineer a national redemption through which civilised humanity could subsequently be saved from a ‘polar night’ of delusion and meaningless.

Can we make Weber’s fin de siècle musings speak to the present? What if Weber was an ‘Australian?’ What would be his opinion on the Ramsay Centre?

Well, Weber believed that impartiality and critical inquiry were the unique possession of Western Civilisation – i.e. his ‘occidentalisation’ thesis; and he believed that impartial and critical inquiry of Western civilisation was possible and desirable – i.e. his ‘educate the educators’ thesis. For Weber, one could not believe in Western civilisation’s uniqueness without undertaking impartial and critical inquiry of it; and, likewise, one could not undertake impartial and critical inquiry of Western civilisation without believing in the West’s unique capacity for self-critique and self-reflexivity.

So Weber would have been no supporter of a romanticist return to a ‘Judeo-Christian’ heritage such as that currently espoused by John Howard. It also means, though, that Weber would not have dismissed a certain nationalist attachment that these days so often accompanies the alt-right invocation of ‘cultural Christianity.’ In other words, he would have supported an Australian nationalism that considered itself to be a defense of the West’s cultural heritage in an Oceanic and South-East Asian outpost. But Weber would have wished an academic centre such as Ramsay to channel that nationalist attachment via an impartial and critical inquiry of Western civilisation. And part of the purpose of that centre would be to produce a nativist cadre of sober intellectuals who would understand themselves as Australians to be defending a racialised humanity from internal degeneration and external barbarity.

We are not all Weberians. But Weber’s work alerts us to a deep-seated intellectual danger that we should at least consider seriously. Academic inquiry presents western civilisation not as ‘specific’ but as sui generis – as unique. Close your eyes: can you honestly glean a thing called ‘Western civilisation’ without apprehending some kind of uniqueness? If one begins with the premise that Western civilisation is unique (regardless of any subsequent moral judgment on its content or consequences) then it is difficult not to undertake critical and impartial inquiry except as a defense of that uniqueness.

I’m not only implicating ‘easy targets’ such as liberal intellectuals but also, for example, some Marxist and postcolonial scholars. One might laud Western civilisation to the heavens or damn it to hell, but what one must do on all occasions is defend its uniqueness. I would like the 21st century to witness the return to humanity of those peoples who claim – or who are claimed by –Western civilisation. It must be a pressing burden to have to consistently justify one’s raison d’être by virtue of one’s singularity. It is certainly a crushing burden to be the matter against which such singularity is consistently tested. 

Read on… ‘Decolonizing the Academy’ by Carolyn D’Cruz

Robbie Shilliam is Professor of International Relations at Johns Hopkins University. He is most recently the author of Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit (Agenda, 2018).

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