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Brooding with Max Weber

Glittering insights from a 19th-century German thinker with a monumental beard.

By Chris Lydgate '90 | September 1, 2015

Reading through Prof. Margot Minardi’s excellent essay on the secret ingredients of a great conference, I was struck by this marvelous quote from Max Weber:

Ideas come when we do not expect them, and not when we are brooding and searching at our desks. Yet ideas would certainly not come to mind had we not brooded at our desks and searched for answers with passionate devotion. 

(From Science as a Vocation, 1917)

Weber, as you may recall, was a 19th-century German dude with a flinty gaze and a monumental beard. He was also one of the most influential thinkers of modern times. It was he who proposed that the Protestant work ethic laid the foundations for modern capitalism. As one of the founders of the field of sociology, he wrote about science and superstition, politics and authority, disenchantment, Polish farm workers, and the stock exchange. He coined a dozen abstract terms. He even identified the defining characteristics (and uses) of bureaucracy. Weber wasn’t just prolific—he was a veritable font of ideas, a fountain of insight, a reckless bubbling fire hydrant of genius.

As someone who has logged many hours brooding at my desk, I take great delight in this thought of Weber’s, that the long afternoons spent hunting for synonyms or wrestling with dependent clauses reap their true harvest at another place and time. It is as if the universe is a sort of cosmic game of pinball—you concentrate your skill and energy on flipping the ball at a bumper, never knowing exactly what trajectory it will follow afterwards, which hidden levers it will operate nor what bonuses it will unlock.

Weber delivered his lecture in Munich in 1917, as Europe was tearing itself apart at the seams. The horrifying carnage of the Great War was annihilating the ideals of a generation. The Russian Revolution was turning the old social order upside down. War, riots, starvation, disease—in the face of this chaos, why would anyone would sit down and brood about the value of science? 

Weber did it because that’s the kind of guy he was. And almost 100 years later, in a world he could never have predicted, we can still open up his lecture and find the ideas flying off the page like pinballs—bright, shiny, and liable at any moment to strike the jackpot.