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«From Max Weber’s ‘Science as a Vocation (1917)’ to ‘Horizon 2020’ Author Author and Author Author Karl Ulrich Mayer European University ...»

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MWP – 2013/06

Max Weber Programme

From Max Weber’s ‘Science as a Vocation (1917)’ to

‘Horizon 2020’

Author Author and Author Author

Karl Ulrich Mayer

European University Institute

Max Weber Programme

From Max Weber’s ‘Science as a Vocation (1917)’ to ‘Horizon


Karl Ulrich Mayer

Max Weber Lecture No. 2013/06

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ISSN 1830-7736 © Karl Ulrich Mayer, 2013 Printed in Italy European University Institute Badia Fiesolana I – 50014 San Domenico di Fiesole (FI) Italy www.eui.eu cadmus.eui.eu Abstract In this lecture, I reconstruct the position of Max Weber in “Science as a Vocation” with regard to the motivation of scholars. I will contrast Weber’s position with the current debate on basic vs. applied science and offer a critical review of the European research policy. A particular focus will be on Horizon 2020 and the role of social sciences and the humanities therein.

Keywords Max Weber, basic and applied science, European research policy, Horizon 2020.

The lecture was delivered on 19 June 2013 I would like to thank Ricca Edmondson, Veera Mitzner, Helga Nowotny and Julia Stamm for significant critical comments on earlier versions. Jan Biesenbender and Britta Nehlsen-Marten provided invaluable research and editorial assistance.

Karl Ulrich Mayer Leibniz Association and Yale University Introduction In November 1917, Max Weber was invited by the “Freistudentische Bund” (Association of Free Students) to give a lecture. The Freistudentische Bund was a liberal left-wing student association which was originally formed in opposition to the sabre and colour carrying student fraternities. The topic of his lecture was “Wissenschaft als Beruf” or in translation either “science as a vocation” or “scholarship as a calling”. The German term “Wissenschaft” comprises both the natural sciences, social sciences and the humanities. (In the following I will use the term “science” for “Wissenschaft”.) The German concept of “Beruf” – not least against the background of Max Weber’s own “Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism” – denotes “vocation, occupation or calling” (Weber 1965;

Rendtorff 1965). The lecture was one of a series of four devoted to the question of whether a worldly occupation could be commensurate with a life devoted to academic pursuits – a question which we can hardly make sense of today. Its complement is Weber’s lecture on “Politics as a Vocation”, a little more than a year later, of January 1919. In the second lecture he expanded in particular on the topics of an ethics of responsibility and an ethics of value commitment, already implicitly suggested in the first lecture.

Historically, late 1917 was a period when the defeat of Germany in World War I was imminent, but when it was neither clear under which conditions an armistice could be negotiated nor whether Germany would have a monarchist, republican parliamentary or revolutionary future. At that time, Weber still saw a potential role for Germany as an accepted European power, trusting that despite what he saw as its enormous mistakes in foreign policy and military leadership it could continue its role as one of the principal European nations. By the time of the second lecture, early 1919, Chauvinistic nationalism, the threat of revolution and the likely conditions of the Versailles treaty had foreclosed such options. At the age of 53 and after a decade of sick leave, Max Weber had to decide whether or not he wanted to return to academic life as a regular occupation. He was considering offers of chairs in Vienna or Munich, but he was also heavily involved in debates about the political future of Germany. For a while he was seen, and saw himself, as a potential political leader himself. He was asked to run for a parliamentary seat, but his official candidacy did not come about. Three years later, he was dead. On two occasions just months before the first lecture, Weber engaged in passionate debates in Lauenstein Castle in which he attacked the romanticism of the youth movement and what were in his eyes irresponsible views of political utopias, as well as the chauvinistic nationalism in some political and academic quarters (Radkau 2005, 737 – 752). 1 In this paper, I will, first, recall and reconstruct the thrust of Weber`s lecture.2 Second, I will ask whether his analysis, answers and institutional contexts are outdated and outmoded by looking at academic careers today – mostly but not exclusively in the German context. Third, I shall explore the goals and purposes embedded in the German science system, and fourth I shall do a similar exercise for European research policy and Horizon 2020. I will then come back to the question of how modern or how outdated Max Weber’s views are.

Max Weber's “Wissenschaft als Beruf” Max Weber’s lecture is structured as follows. He first describes the material conditions of an academic career in his time and its institutional contexts. Then he asks about the necessary motivational prerequisites for doing science as a vocation: what is the subjective meaning of engaging in such a career? Then he shifts from the subjective goals and motives of the individual scientist to the objective rationales of – what we would call today – the subsystem of science. Just as the individual can give meaning to her or his own endeavours only by reference to contexts relevant to them – including the institutional ones – the subsystem of science derives its meaning from the larger societal setting in which it operates.

On the historical and personal contexts in which Weber gave this lecture and its systematic place in his writings, see also Schluchter (1980, 1971) and Lepsius (2012).

For this summary and interpretation I have relied heavily on Schluchter (1980, 41-74).

Karl Ulrich Mayer

What is the situation of a student who wants to pursue an academic career? In Germany at the time of Weber this meant doing a second doctorate, becoming a Privatdozent for a number of years, and not receiving a salary as an employee but living on the lecture fees of students. Often enough, this insecure position was only viable if it was supported by private wealth – in Weber´s case capital income from his wife’s family’s textile company. This insecurity had to be compensated for by a strong motivational commitment. Weber contrasts the German situation with that in the United States, with its salaried tenure track starting with assistant professor, and also with the emerging situation in natural science labs. To him, such labs resembled state capitalist enterprises in one crucial respect: the wage earner is separated from the means of production, just as the industrial worker no longer owns his tools as the traditional craftsman did. In other words, salaried academics become dependent on institute directors, who control lab space and access to research funds.

Weber’s general conclusion is that the academic career is a hazard. It depends, not exclusively but to a very large extent, on pure chance – the chance of vacancies coming up, the interests, idiosyncrasies and contingencies of certification (for the ‘habilitation’) and recruiting faculties and administrations. Although he credits all involved with the best of intentions, he judges the distortions of merit selection to be pervasive: preference for one’s own students, curricular needs and – interestingly enough – teaching abilities. Weber considers the latter to be problematic, since didactic and research competencies do not always match, and success in the lecture hall is not necessarily a criterion of excellence: it is not democracy that lies at the heart of science, but an aristocracy of intellect. His advice to young people who wanted to become university academics, and even more so if they happened to be Jewish, is a quotation from Dante’s Divina Comedia: lasciate ogni speranza (Weber 1968, 588).

Weber´s second topic embraces the subjective motives for academic work, the inward calling for science. Motive and context are here complementary. The context is the extreme specialization of science, where any achievements of lasting impact are only possible within an extreme division of labour. Therefore, specialization is the prerequisite of success. Only if one can shut off all other concerns, only if one devotes oneself with full passion to the detail of the problem at hand – a conjecture in a manuscript, an interpretation of a theoretical text, experimental conditions, the collection of empirical data – can one experience the intoxication, the happiness, of scientific work.

But devotion and passion alone do not suffice: creativity, imagination and hard work are also necessary. The bad news is that insight and creativity cannot be forced, creativity cannot replace hard work, and hard work is no substitute for creativity. Thus, there is a double hazard in science: the uncertainties of a career and the uncertainties of creative insight. Weber is not shy in despising “performance” in science – impression management. Personality in science can only belong to someone who devotes him or herself exclusively to this work, who is not ruled by ulterior motives beyond the object of study. It is not self-celebration of one´s achievements that is called for.

At this point, Weber comes to the crucial step in his argument. Passion, creativity and hard work and an exclusive devotion are not special to science. They are equally crucial, for instance, in art or even business. What is special to science, and what makes the attribution of subjective meaning to it so difficult, is that any scientific work is embedded in a form of advancement or progress which tends to make everything we achieve obsolete within a few decades. It is the very purpose of scientific work to be superseded and to be replaced by new findings and new theory. So why should one devote oneself to a task which can never be fully completed? Weber concedes there may be good practical reasons: the foremost of these is to solve technical problems with scientific means. However, he adds that this is not sufficient to impel one to do science as a vocation. If so, what then is the meaning of an inward calling for science?

To answer this question we must turn from the motives of the individual scientist to the role of

science as a subsystem of society. Weber’s answers are straightforward and well-known:

1. The development of science as a specific subsystem of society is part and parcel of the secular development of societal rationalization and differentiation. The emergent principle that everything in the world is subject to rational explanation and understanding leads to “Entzauberung der Welt”, “disenchantment with the world”.

From Max Weber’s ‘Science as a Vacation (1917)’ to ‘Horizon 2020’

2. Science has destroyed the monopoly of religion in providing meaning to the existence of the world and to human existence, but at the same time science cannot replace religion in providing such meaning. Weber quotes Tolstoj: “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?” (Weber 1946).

3. Science and academia are under constant pressure and are prone to the seduction of providing value orientation and guidance, but Weber is annoyingly persistent in arguing that “ideology has no place in the classroom”, that one cannot tell one´s student audience whether they should opt for socialism or representative democracy. What science can do, and can do very successfully, is to explicate – on the one hand – implications of value, value pluralism and value antagonism, and – on the other hand – to ascertain empirically the consequences, the means-ends relationships of a given value stance. We cannot, for instance, as social scientists opt for the value of more or less inequality, but we can spell out empirically – and I should add, convincingly – what societies with high inequality imply, for instance, for crime rates and even mortality (Jencks 2002).

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