An Attempt at Writing a Circumstantial Biography

(Last modified October 2004)

The aim of this research project is the publication of a scholarly biography of the German social scientist Max Weber (1864-1920). The approach that has been chosen for this undertaking is to link reliable data on Weber's life – in the traditional sense of a »purely biographical« account – substantiated by careful study of historical sources and an analysis of the development of Weber's academic work. This synthesis of Max Weber's life and work will be presented within an account integrating elements of the history of knowledge, cultural history, social history, and the history of political events.

Although Max Weber is considered one of the most important and influential thinkers of the twentieth century and his works remain the focus of attention in international academic discourse in a number of fields within the humanities, no scholarly biography that follows the approach briefly outlined above has been published to date. Marianne Weber, Weber's widow and the executor of his estate, wrote a biography published in German in 1926 as Max Weber. Ein Lebensbild. None of the works published since has gone beyond the limits set by this volume, with respect to the material chosen and the interpretations offered; some have not dealt with Weber's life history at all.

For a scholar who is still considered to be one of the »classic thinkers«, the biographical materials available for study thus far are surprisingly meagre. Published source materials on Max Weber were long limited to the following, listed here in chronological order by publication date:
- A collection (Politische Briefe) of Max Weber's political letters from the years 1906 to 1919, which Marianne Weber published, after abridging and encoding the text to a considerable degree, together with the Gesammelte Politische Schriften.
- The above-mentioned Lebensbild; Marianne Weber employed and subsequently published a large number of original documents in writing this volume, but again edited, abridged, and encoded them, in part, to a significant extent.
- The collection Jugendbriefe, also edited by Marianne Weber and published in 1936 by Verlag Mohr-Siebeck; this included a selection of Max Weber's letters, especially letters written to his family between 1876 and 1893, many of which were again edited, abridged or encoded.
- A large number of letters and documents from the former Prussian Secret State Archives and from the Weber estate in the hands of Eduard Baumgarten, which Wolfgang J. Mommsen quoted and re-printed – in part in abridged form – in his book Max Weber und die deutsche Politik 1890-1920, published in 1959; also, further documents, which Mommsen added to the second edition of this volume, published in 1974.
- Documents, in particular some of Max Weber's letters from the period 1881 to 1920, from the collection of Weber's handwritten papers which Eduard Baumgarten received from Marianne Weber after 1945 and published, again in abridged and encoded form, in his study Max Weber. Werk and Person.

While the above reflects the status of published documents into the late 1980s, publication of the Max Weber – Gesamtausgabe in the interim has changed the situation fundamentally. This large-scale editorial project, under the auspices of the main editors Horst Baier (Konstanz), M. Rainer Lepsius (Heidelberg), Wolfgang J. Mommsen (Düsseldorf), Wolfgang Schuchter (Heidelberg), und Johannes Winckelmann (†) and with considerable financial support from the Deutsch Forschungsgemeimschaft, the Werner-Reimers-Stiftung, the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, and the Verlag Mohr-Siebeck, is of »authoritative, indeed legislatory significance« (Wilhelm Hennis) for international research on Weber. As a result of the volumes of the Gesamtausgabe, in particular those covering Weber's correspondence, knowledge about Weber's biography has been extended to the point where a revision of the perspective which has dominated work and discussion to date based on Marianne Weber's Lebensbild can now be undertaken.

Today, it is finally possible to correct and complement the one-sided and considerably retouched image of Max Weber as a person and scholar and of his development, which his widow and the manager of his estate devised, by evaluating in-depth existing original source materials and consulting literature dealing with the many different contexts which formed the background for Weber's life and work.

Completed in September 2004; the project will be continued outside of the Institute.