Max Weber: An Intellectual Biography
Ringer has written an excellent single-volume work on Max Weber and the many areas of Weber's intellectual development, including his political evolution. After having provided a first reconstruction of the intellectual context of German academics in The Decline of the German Mandarins (Cambridge, Mass., 1969) and a recent interpretation of some of Weber's work in Max Weber's Methodology (Cambridge, Mass., 1997) Ringer now brings together a more specifically focused context with a more comprehensive interpretation of Weber's staggering intellectual achievements and political interventions.
Ringer has also been engaged in a form of interdisciplinary history, at least since his Fields of Knowledge (Cambridge, 1992), in which he drew on concepts like "intellectual field" and "habitus" from Pierre Bourdieu. In that work, he claims that these concepts do more than simply restate more precisely the parameters of traditional contextual history of thought, intellectuals, and ideas; they also allow us to specify in a uniquely valuable way the set of relationships that illuminate the whole "field" of Weber's intellectual production. Whether these concepts in fact provide such a new model remains to be seen. The issues involved aroused a stimulating debate between Ringer and others in Theory and Society in 1990.1
But of one thing there can be no doubt. Although Bourdieu's categories might be mobilized for the understanding of an intellectual or artistic debate or development, Bourdieu himself thought that "biography" was an "illusion" (and an "intellectual biography" would have been even stranger to him), in the sense that it was not a category that could contribute to making sense of a set of intellectual interventions of any kind.2 Unfortunately, Ringer does not address the serious challenge that he thus poses to Bourdieu's fundamental claims. To do justice to Bourdieu's method requires noting that only the detailed specification of the whole "field of positions" and its "homologous" relation to a "field of position takings," framed by a "field of power"—Bourdieu even developed graphic representations to illustrate them—could adequately convey what Bourdieu hoped to establish by the use of his categories. Little of that specificity is present in Ringer's book, and one must wonder whether Bourdieu's categories serve Ringer more as a metaphor for his contextual approach than as a specific method used in a rigorous manner for the fashioning of a "new" history.
Yet, no matter how one views this particular construction of the context or field, one must wonder at the wisdom of publishing any kind of biography of Weber just now, before the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe [End Page 94] (Tübingen, 1984–) has finished publishing Weber's collected letters (currently available through 1914), as well as the remainder of the historical and critical text editions of the massive works that Weber completed from 1914 to 1920, particularly the "revised" parts of Economy and Society (pub. in English 1978) and The Protestant Ethic (pub. in English 1930). Surely these works would be needed for any intellectual field or context to be most fully elaborated. Ringer is aware of this concern but he can do little about it.
One thing that would have helped is a larger bibliography, beyond what Ringer himself used, in order to point potential readers to a much wider literature, as well as a note about English translations of certain works, like Wolfgang Mommsen and Wolfgang Schwentker (eds.), Max Weber und seine Zeitgenossen (Göttingen, 1988).
1. Involved in the debate were Ringer, Charles Lemert, and Martin Jay in Theory and Society XIX (1990), 269-334.
2. Bourdieu, Raisons pratiques: Sur la théorie de l'action (Paris, 1994).