Max Weber's Methodological Essay on Roscher and Knies

Seminar Paper, 2004

13 Pages, Grade: A (1,0)



I. Introduction

II. The Methodenstreit

III. 1. Weber’s Critique of the Naturalist Position
III. 2. Weber’s Critique of Intuitionism
III. 3. The Problem of ‘Irrationality’

IV. 1. The Category of “Creative Synthesis”
IV. 2. Causal Explanation and Meaningful Interpretation

V. Summary

VI. Conclusion


I. Introduction

In 1902, a new phase in the scientific production of Max Weber began. Still suffering from his breakdown in 1898 which forced him to refrain from any intellectual work for several years, Weber started working on a different field of interest than before his crisis; he focused on methodological issues[1].

Weber had, already at the age of thirteen, actually written an essay which touched upon fundamental questions of the philosophy of history, like establishing of “laws of history”[2].

The occasion on which Weber started writing his academic methodological works was a request by his colleagues at the University of Heidelberg to contribute an essay for a Festschrift of the university[3].

Roscher und Knies und die logischen Probleme der historischen Nationalökonomie” was the first of the methodological essays written by Max Weber from 1902 on.

The value of Max Weber’s methodological essays was often underestimated. In Reinhard Bendix’s “Intellectual Portrait” e.g. they are “intentionally” left out in favor of Weber’s empirical work[4]. Oakes even judges Weber’s metatheoretical project as a failure because of a lack of examination, understanding and evaluation on the part of his successors[5].

In this paper, I am going to focus on the Weber’s essay on “Roscher and Knies” as a primary source, because the conclusions reached by Weber here are premises for his later methodological work[6]. My aim is not to give a comprehensive analysis of this essay, but rather an overview of central points in Weber’s concept.

As secondary literature, I shall use Oakes “Introductory essay”[7] to the “Roscher and Knies” essay, Toby Huff’s study[8] in Weber’s methodology and for the biographical context, parts of

Marianne Weber’s biography of her husband[9].

First of all, I shall look at the Methodenstreit in the German sciences which constituted the intellectual context inspiring and –in a way- provoking Weber.

Secondly, I shall examine his critiques both of the ‘naturalist’ and of the ‘intuitionist’ positions and also take Weber’s remarks on ‘irrationality’ into account.

Then, I shall try to reconstruct the main thoughts of Weber’s own concept as it is shown in his rejection of Wundt’s category of ‘creative synthesis’ and in his theory of ‘causal explanation and meaningful interpretation’.

After a short summary of Weber’s ideas, I shall conclude with the attempt to show the importance of Weber’s methodological concept for the theory of history.

II. The Methodenstreit

The ‘struggle of methods’ among German scientists intensified during the 1880s[10]. Its fundamental question was: Is there something like an encompassing unity of all sciences? If so, what is the ideal of ‘science’?

One of the major issues that this fundamental question entailed was, whether the successful model[11] of the natural sciences could and should be applied in the sociocultural sciences, i.e. whether the latter should try to establish a coherent system of general ‘nomological’ laws of human action from which the single phenomena could be deduced[12].

This ‘naturalist’ view followed the theory of John Stuart Mill who saw general “laws of mind” as the basis for the sociocultural sciences[13]. The opposite view was that the sociocultural sciences should focus on the particular in order to ‘reproduce’ as accurately and comprehensively sociocultural phenomena[14].

Another main issue was: If there is a fundamental difference between the natural sciences and the sociocultural sciences, what is then the peculiarity of the ‘human sciences’?

It was Wilhelm Dilthey who distinguished between the “ ‘explanation’ of nature” and the

“ ‘understanding’ of human life”; he saw this dichotomy not only as a purely logical, but as a ontological one[15]. In his ‘hermeneutic’ approach, Dilthey focused on the inner and immediate experience which made understanding possible[16]. More generally, the position which stressed the immediate experience for understanding and postulated this to be the peculiarity of studying human action can be called ‘intuitionist’.

The Methodenstreit also affected the economics[17] ; in this field, the conflict erupted between the ‘classical school’, represented by Carl Menger, and the ‘historical school’, represented by Wilhelm Roscher, Karl Knies and Gustav Schmoller[18].

While Menger was a consistent naturalist and had the ideal of nomological knowledge, the ‘historical’ school was more ambiguous and in a way even contradictory, because the proponents of the latter had both the goals of establishing general ‘laws’ and describing the individual and concrete phenomena[19].

In his essay on Roscher and Knies, Weber enters discussion in three steps: First, he criticizes the naturalists; secondly, he shows the faults of the opposition to them opinion, the ‘intuitionists’; thirdly, Weber outlines his own concept[20].

III. 1. Weber’s Critique of the Naturalist Position

Weber rejects the naturalist goal of establishing a coherent system of general “laws” according to the model of the natural sciences, not only for the sociocultural sciences, but for any science:

“In individual cases, a complex of regularities [...] may have extraordinary heuristic value. However, it should be obvious that their discovery cannot be conceived as the ultimate goal of any science, neither as ‘nomological’, nor an ‘historical’ science, neither a ‘natural’ science nor a ‘sociocultural’ science”[21].

As Weber argues, even if “an enormous number of ‘empirical’ historical generalizations” were established, they would have “no causal status”[22], i.e. just these generalizations would not constitute adequate explanations.

Further abstractions from these generalizations, i.e. applying the logical model of the natural sciences by establishing “a system of formulae of absolutely general validity” does not solve any given problem in the historical field of interest, because ”[i]t is obvious that historical reality, including those ‘world-historical’ events and cultural phenomena which we find so significant, could never be deduced from these formulae”[23]. Therefore, these general formulae do not “contribute to an increase in the empirical ‘intelligibility’ of the individual causal complexes of concrete reality”[24]. Weber concludes:


[1] Weber, Marianne: Max Weber. Ein Lebensbild, Tübingen 1926, p. 319.

[2] Weber, Lebensbild, p. 49; Oakes, Guy: Introductory Essay, in: Weber, Max: Roscher and Knies: The Logical Problems of Historical Economics, Translated by Guy Oakes, New York & London 1975, p. 1-p.49, here: p. 6-p. 7; Oakes quotes both a wrong year and a wrong age from Marianne Weber’s biography. It should be noted that in this teenage essay, Weber dealt with very similar questions as Roscher.

[3] Weber, Lebensbild, p. 319.

[4] Bendix, Reinhard: Max Weber. An Intellectual Portrait, New York 1960, p. 20 n. 5.

[5] Oakes, Essay, p. 39.

[6] Oakes, Essay, p. 39.

[7] Oakes, Essay.

[8] Huff, Toby: Max Weber and the Methodology of the Social Sciences, New Brunswick 1984.

[9] Weber, Lebensbild.

[10] Huff, p. 28-29.

[11] Weber, Lebensbild, p. 323.

[12] Oakes, p. 19.

[13] Huff, p. 29.

[14] Oakes, p. 19.

[15] Huff, p. 30.

[16] Huff, p. 31.

[17] Weber, Lebensbild, p. 323-p.324.

[18] Huff, p. 28.

[19] Huff, p. 29.

[20] Oakes, p. 24-25.

[21] Weber, Max: Roscher and Knies: The Logical Problems of Historical Economics, translated by Guy Oakes, New York & London 1975, p. 63, quoted as: R&K.

[22] R&K, p. 63.

[23] R&K, p.64.

[24] R&K, p. 64.

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Max Weber's Methodological Essay on Roscher and Knies
The New School  (Graduate Faculty)
A (1,0)
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Weber, Methodological, Essay, Roscher, Knies
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Helmut Strauss (Author), 2004, Max Weber's Methodological Essay on Roscher and Knies, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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