No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Alfred Weber

Alfred Weber (Erfurt, 1868- Heidelberg, 1958) is the younger brother of Max Weber. Alfred recognized his brother's great influence in sociology and admired him for it. Like his older brother, Alfred was rebellious and skeptical of what his parents taught him. He takes an interest in atheism against his mother's moderately liberal beliefs, and his left-leaning political views run counter to his national-liberal father.

Alfred followed in his brother's footsteps when he studied law and national economics, obtained his doctorate with a dissertation on an economic-legal subject and when he finally turned to sociology. Alfred Weber advocated the practice of political science, was first disappointed by the failing Weimar Republic, and then abhorred by Hitler's Third Reich. In 1933 he lost his position at the University of Heidelberg, which did not prevent him from writing critical texts about the Nazi regime. He became more of a philosopher following these experiences, writing texts like "What is human?" and "Is the fourth human coming?" about the personality dissolution he observed in totalitarianism, which contrasts with the humanity, human dignity and responsibility towards fellow human beings he saw as characteristic for the "third human", the technically mechanized human of the Industrial Age.

Weber's main interest was in the uniqueness of 'culture' as a vital aspect of any human society and its development; culture as a social good cannot be reduced to economic relations or explained by economic interests. Culture is made by people and must therefore always be viewed in relation to the social relations between people. Culture as art and religion stand alone as expressions that derive their meaning from themselves and in which the spirit of the times and the soul of a people manifest themselves. Weber saw culture as extremely valuable and civilization as much less valuable. According to Norbert Elias, this was a typical German value accent.

Starting with a speech in 1913, and elaborating in a 1920 article, a 1927 collection of studies, which was followed by his magnum opus "Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie", Weber studied the sociological concept of culture, under which he looked for spiritual worldviews and an articulation in the general course of culture through which the past appears to us as a totality.

He focused on the historical, dynamic civilization process, in which three interdependent categories are at work: clarification of consciousness, spiritual-technical progress and the mental-spiritual penetration of the discontinuous, transcendent cultural movement.

    The civilization process is the most ever-present basis in any historical process; the natural, instinctive way in which man reacts to the inescapable circumstances and environment. Geographical conditions, climate, natural boundaries and economic possibilities lead to certain bonds, governance, organization and institutions. Weber went further than studying the instinctive-intuitive fighting for survival and securty, and proposed that in the absence of one of the three categories - the other two being spiritual rationalization (humans intellectually discovering pre-existing means to ensure and maintain their existence) and the sequential, fragmented development of consciousness -, a cultural circle will not be able to reach any height of development. 

    Mentally creative culture pushes through into  metaphysical backgrounds hidden by the appearance of reality. That new experience is then depicted, interpreted, spoken, symbolized in the work of art, the cultural emanation, or artefact. Culture can then push its mental-spiritual expression in the substance of life in two directions, preparing the future in a visionary way or merely learning to experience the existing atmosphere in al its depth. The cultural movement is unrepeatable, it happens only once.

    Weber wrote that cultural emanations result from the attitude to life that arises and is encrusted from the natural reactions and rationalizing adaptations. Once this cultural movement has arisen, it inversely changes the attitude to life, through its own atmosphere and mentality and creates a new constellation.

    The total process is a dynamic that knows no repetition, no complete law of moderation, which leaves room to chance, to the role of the will of grown-ups. This process is only a result of tension between the three categories mutually, and tension in each category internally. 

    The culture movement is moving from magical (primary cultures) through mythical (secondary cultures of Anterior Asia and the Mediterranean) and tragic (classic Greece) to symbolic (Christian Middle Ages) and intellectual (modern times). The two earliest forms of man, the first form of the simple, gathering and hunting occupatory creature, the second form of the more systematizing hunter, fisherman or planter, who is still controlled only by the fear of life, do not belong to his cultural-sociological training ground. Not until man keeps livestock and horses and finally conquers culturally in the creative 'catharsis', can a spiritual growth be noticed.

    Building on Jacob Burckhardt's world history theory (published out of Burckhardt's estate in 1905), Weber wrote that gifted "geniuses" like Aeschylos, Sophocles, Euripides, Socrates, Caesar, Dante, Shakespeare and Nietzsche must meet their historic mission before they can become spiritual or action-rich interpreters or achievers. What these geniuses do, Weber called "ideating", i.e. emphasizing the very complex, contradictory essences and finalities of existence (including the "demonic") that can just about be experienced, poured into a concrete living substance. 

    With his cultural sociology, Weber separated himself from Marxism, which focused on social processes and which saw civilization and the cultural process as exclusive reflexes. Weber also rejected Comte's and Spencer's evolutionary sociology, because it did not distinct between culture and civilization. Weber finally criticized Spengler for not being value-free in his assessment of cultures and, for seeing repetition, homology, even the birth, growth and death of cultures, which Weber simply saw as an eternal stream.

      In 1926, Weber made his first attempt to apply his theory to historical material. Weber noted the great constancy in Egyptian culture. This tendency to recur and recover are explained by the initial sociological constellation. In the initial constellation of ancient Egypt, a high level of technology needed for the canalization of the river Nile, coincided with the most primitive impregnation of the soul. The revolution of Akhenaten consisted of directing the primitive faith in God spiritually towards the central head of state, the pharaoh. Culture does not grow old: it comes to an end when at last other civilizational and cultural philosophies, i.e. the Greek world, begin to supplant the barbaric primitive ideology of ancient Egypt.

      Weber's "Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie" (1935) treats thirteen bodies of history from 3500 BC until modern times. These periods are stages in civilized progress and philosophy of life. Four cultural areas: Egypt, Babylonia, China and India are primary cultures; Anterior Asia and the Jews on the one hand, the Ancients (Greece, Rome and the first Christians) on the other are secondary cultures of the first stage; Byzantium, Islam and Russia on the one hand, Medieval Europe on the other, constitute secondary cultures of the second stage; the expansive Western Europe until about 1800 then closes this layering. After this, the cattle farming man and the horse-riding nomad is succeeded by the technically mechanized type of man. 

      Weber attaches great importance to population movements. The insertion of the paternal master nomads into the maternal primitive societies evokes all those tensions that lead people to cultural questions and answers, Weber writes: "Wherever man cannot or will not see and bear his darkness as an inescapable part of himself, even if one cannot accept it unchanged, they intervene, either by trying to control it through obedient submission to the cosmos, through contemplative mortification in knowledge, or by throwing away existence by fighting with that radical evil."

      In the case of the primary high cultures it is already striking that a kind of answer is found here, which leads to a cultural stagnation and an entrenched social form of a writer shift. The secondary cultures of the first stage are then of a more mobile nature in their response: from Greece this response radiates through Hellenism and the Roman power over Europe, the mission of Judaism inspired by the Persian culture ultimately results in the Christian message. Weber explains this mobility with the great hereditary predisposition of the Greeks, the favorable location of the country, and a master shift, which receives inspiration thanks to the civilizing progress.

      Second stage secondary cultures differed from those of the first stage, in that they were immediately activated by the advanced civilized Christian thought. This gave a big advantage. The confrontation of each culture of this stage varied greatly. Byzantium preserved Antiquity and accepted only Christianity as an outer garment, making this city-state completely ossified. Russia remained internally primitive-magical, while Christianity was only transplanted as an upper layer in the Byzantine way of immovable religiosity and churchliness.

      Western Europe, on the other hand, which originally lagged behind the other historic era's until about 1000 AD, absorbed Christianity in its entirety, and this caused the tension that explains the cultural volatility of Western Europe. Weber classifies the tensions caused by the Christian import into four categories: (1) the tension between the Christian negation of life and the youthful life affirmation of the young: (2) the tension between Church and State: (3) the tension between city and country; (4) the tension between the centralization tendencies (Church, Emperor, Latin) and national divisions (population movements and languages).

      After 1500 the West becomes expansive; the unlocking of the world definitively changes everything. The turbulence of the rival states causes a migration of political power from one state to another and the cultural lifestyle becomes stronger. This time can then be subdivided into three periods:

      1500— 1600 the Renaissance North of the Alps and the Counter Reformation;

      1600—1700 the crystallization of the international common forms of state, capitalism, baroque and individualism and national states;

      1700-1800 Enlightenment and German Renaissance.

      Finally, after 1800 comes the great life upheavel. Industrialization, population growth, capitalist expansion, they change not only the face, but also the soul of the world. Weber further divides this era into three periods: the quiet, contented time up to 1830, the progress period up to 1880, and the period of reversal, when the great expansion also appears to have its limits and which is closed by the clash of the First World War.

      We are now in the upheaval of times, the progress of civilization has surpassed adequate cultural expression. In this situation we experience intolerable tensions. While the earth is getting smaller and smaller, our world is shattering into all kinds of equally small states. The masses threaten to dominate the world. There is no turning back. Could a new revelation be found, a new elite too?

      While his first cultural history texts examine the structural questions of a societal and civilizational nature, leaving aside the cultural movement, in his subsequent works "Das Tragische und die Geschichte" (1943) and "Abschied von der bisherigen Geschichte" (1946) the full emphasis is precisely on the cultural emanations, in which Weber searches for the civilizing and societal motives and backgrounds.

      In his 'Das Tragische und die Geschichte' about Greek culture, he explains and draws on the basis of the cultural expressions of the Greek classical period: the tragedians Aeschylos, Sophocles and Euripides. The Greek pre-period, China, India and Pre-Asia as introductions to the Greek classical period already carry the story halfway through the book. Here too the images of initial constellation reverse; the encounter  between 'riders' and the chthonic religion with the many Gods (e.g. Hades, Persephone, Demeter and Hecate) to which the cultural dynamism was due, the favorable location of the country, even the spiritual quality of the Greeks, from the cultural history. While the preceding cultures have a mainly magical and perhaps sometimes mythical view of existence, the Greek Classical Age is tragic. About 500 BC this tragic answer to the question of the meaning of life can be observed simultaneously in Greece with the so-called speculative-philosophical and elsewhere with the prophetic-revealed. incompleteness arises from the realization of the inseparable intertwining of the divine and demonic powers, which even heroic struggle cannot settle in favor of the divine. In tragedy, this is the central problem of life. One recognizes in it the heroism of the Greek people, who are culturally taking charge of the world, the dynamism of these rider peoples, who do not wish to acquiesce in the magical entanglement of the primitive people, the anticipation finally of a coming downfall, because this entire Greek expansion has to go above the power of this cultured people, socially inhibited, economically divided and too disorganized as it is.

      Weber's shift in emphasis to the "demonic" inner conflict of man can be explained by the circumstances of the time. His prophetic word also resonates through it. Precisely this Greek culture actually did not know an answer to the question of life, because it dwelled on the tragic view of existence and did not know a solution. Weber wanted us to find a solution, not to get stuck in pessimism without a way out. Then Weber tests the Greek downfall to the stable cultures of China and India. Greek pessimism "stands in glaring contradiction to the bright serenity of the magically-filled cosmos of the Chinese and the grandiose metacosmic, transcending all that is temporal and spatial, that the highest Indians attained—both views of existence nearly unchanged through millennia that from their point of view left behind or dissolved the ephemeral tragedy of human existence."

      In Weber's final application of his cultural sociological theory, the subject is Western European culture since Dante, finding its climax and final phase in the 19th century in the figure of Nietzsche. In this dynamic world, renaissance, reflection, dogmatics, flourishing and decay dominate one era.  The era is characterized in the cultural emanations. This culture has ended in a catastrophe, by the cultural movement outpacing the civilizing progress, by the insoluble demonic powers, by the victory of Nietzsche's "will to power" over freedom, culminating in Hitler and the Nothingness of a world destroyed by two world wars. There is only one way out: Farewell to the previous history and the search for a new assignment.

      Most importantly, Alfred Weber is known for his work on the relationship between economic activity and culture, and for his concept of "cultural distance," which refers to the degree to which different societies or cultural groups are similar or different in terms of their economic and cultural practices.


      Elias, N. (1984), Notizen zum Levenslauf, in: Elias et al. (1987), De geschiedenis van Norbert Elias, Amsterdam: Meulenhoff.

      Schröffer, I. (1953), Alfred Weber's Kultursoziologie, in: Mens & Maatschappij Vol 28 Nr 4 (1953).

      Weber, A. (1950), Kulturgeschichte als Kultursoziologie, Zweite, erweiterte Auflage, München: R. Piper & Co. Verlag.