Max Weber’s famous essay, delivered as a speech at Munich University in 1918, has since been regularly attacked and dismissed for attempting to create clear distinctions between the ethics of scholarship and politics, and between facts and values. We certainly think we know much more now about the many and subtle ways even our most scholarly interests, perceptions and interpretations are conditioned by politicized factors like class, race, gender, culture, and so on. Weber knew this. He also knew that surrendering to it and treating all knowledge as naked politics made any kind of clean, reliable data for informed decision-making impossible. Might as well just run around shouting “Yay us!” at that point. His essay is not so easily dismissed and remains worth grappling with, as I suggested in my comment on yet another remarkable post on Easily Distracted about the perils of political engagement.
While I was dredging through my copy for that part of the argument I found again one of my favorite passages, a beautiful and devastating diagnosis. Enjoy:
Consider the historical and cultural sciences. They teach us how to understand and interpret political, artistic, literary, and social phenomena in terms of their origins. But they give us no answer to the question, whether the existence of these cultural phenomena have been and are worth while. And they do not answer the further question, whether it is worth the effort required to know them. They presuppose that there is an interest in partaking, through this procedure, of the community of ‘civilized men’. But they cannot prove ‘scientifically’ that this is the case; and that they presuppose this interest by no means proves that it goes without saying. In fact it is not at all self-evident.