One hundred years, on November 7, 1917, the German sociologist Max Weber delivered a speech in the modestly sized lecture hall of a bookstore in Munich. He had been invited by a group of students to address the topic of science, in the broadest sense of scholarly pursuits and the products of academia. Two years later the speech would be published under the now famous title Wissenschaft als Beruf – “Science as a Vocation.”

This speech is arguably Weber's single most influential work, despite the renown of his inquiry into the Protestant work ethic earlier in his career. At the very least, its words have enjoyed an especially prolific afterlife through the dissemination of the phrase “the disenchantment of the world,” which occurs twice in the published version of the speech and has been appropriated for book titles in subjects as diverse as consumer economics and modern poetry.

Weber’s Words As His Own Worst Enemy

A century later, however, this very phrase has produced a wide range of confusion, owing at least in part to a fairly imprecise translation. The confusion surrounding “Science as a Vocation” has its source in the speech itself. Two passages in particular are frequently cited to depict Weber's alleged hostility toward religion and his prognostication of a decidedly irreligious future. Weber links religiosity to an “Opfer des Intellekts,” which C. Wright Mills translates as “intellectual sacrifice.” This  certainly seems to undercut the truth of religions claims, as Weber also typifies the attitude of religious believers with the formulation: “credo non quod, sed quia absurdum est”; that is, “I believe because it is absurd.”

The second passage follows shortly thereafter with another apparently polemic remark, according to Mills's translation: “To the person who cannot bear the fate of our times like a man, one must say: may he rather return silently, without the usual publicity build-up of renegades, but simply and plainly. The arms of the old churches are opened widely and compassionately for him. After all, they do not make it hard for him. One way or another he has to bring his 'intellectual sacrifice' – that is inevitable.” Again, the attribution of “intellectual sacrifice” to religious believers, lacking in manly endurance, seems to level a critique of intellectual dishonesty – a term Weber nearly uses a sentence later – against the religiously inclined. In the same breath, Weber apparently consigns religion to a heap of antiquated institutions receding in a secular tide. The world has been “disenchanted,” after all, which means that science and reason have cast supernatural superstitions into the outer dark.

It is no wonder that this anti-religious attitude has been coupled with Weber's notion of “disenchantment,” since these two remarks frame the second and most thundering formulation of Weber's so-called “disenchantment thesis.” In the same paragraph as the previous remark, Weber defines the “fate of our times” as “the disenchantment of the world.” However, the interpretation of this key phrase is precisely where matters go awry.

Weber's Disenchantment

In English, the word “disenchantment” carries significant emotional baggage, bringing connotations of melancholic dissatisfaction and meaninglessness along with it. This has led some theorists to posit that a return to enchantment might be precipitated by flashy public events, like the Olympics or rock concerts, which reassure modern man of the marvels of existence. Weber's original German, however, has a more abstract, historical force: “die Entzauberung der Welt.” This would more literally translate to “the de-magicalization of the world.” What is at stake, then, is an historical process, one which Weber associates with intellectualization, of which scientific advancement is only a “fraction” or “Bruchteil.”

The phrase first occurs after Weber's lengthy opening remarks on academia in Germany and the United States, which place the modern university rather than modern religious institutions under scrutiny. When Weber finally announces the “disenchantment of the world”, he does so not with the voice of a prophet but with the measured restraint of an interrogator:

The increasing intellectualization and rationalization do not, therefore, indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives. It means something else, namely, the knowledge or belief that if one but wished one could learn it any time, that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This signifies the disenchantment of the world. No longer does one need to take recourse to magical means, as the savage did, for whom such mysterious forces existed, in order to master or implore the spirits. Rather, technical means and calculation achieve this. This above all is what intellectualization signifies as such.[1]

Weber's disenchantment concerns itself first and foremost with the belief that all things can be quantified and calculated. In the original German, Weber uses the subjunctive tense to indicate that he is reporting about beliefs rather than declaring his own, much less asserting that no incalculable forces exist. Moreover, Weber goes on to explain how this positive belief about technical mastery actually poses problems for scientific enterprises and those who claim that science can account for all facts of existence. Such adherents of what we today call “scientism” are deemed by Weber to be little more than “große Kinder” – “big children.”

Weber On Religion

Concerning the dominance of the natural sciences, Weber hardly has a word of optimism to offer in “Science as a Vocation.” But what is his opinion of religion in modern Europe? While the passages quoted above appear to paint Weber as a critic of religious belief, the majority of his remarks on the matter in the speech as a whole reveal a decidedly open-minded if not sympathetic stance. For instance, Weber affirms that the religious believer can practice science “without being disloyal to his faith” and entertains the idea that theology is a science, althrough he ultimately claims that its pretenses about the meaning of life confine it to its own value sphere. Yet, Weber also mentions that “religiously 'musical' people” should not hide from their fate of living in a “god-foreign and prophet-less time.” Is this speech consequently a prediction of religious decline?

Weber's position is not quite that simple. He describes the present age as a “religious 'everyday'” in which “the many old gods, disenchanted and hence in the form of impersonal powers, rise from their graves” and “resume an eternal struggle with one another.” For Weber, modernity is typified by polytheism, as various values and worldviews contest for dominance. Religion, then, does not have its back to the ropes; rather, Christianity has lost its heavyweight status as the “presumably exclusive orientation” in a ring of conflicting beliefs. Hence, Weber's diagnosis of a disenchanted world does not entail the gradual demise of religion but its diversification and relativization.

This much is clear in Weber's second and final formulation of the disenchantment of the world, alluded to above, as he writes that “precisely the last and sublimest of values have retreated from public life, either in the otherworldly realm of mystic life of in the brotherliness of immediate relationships” and that “from one person to another, in pianissimo, something pulsates which corresponds to that which earlier moved through the great congregations as a prophetic pneuma in tempestuous fire and welded them together.” Weber's language itself abounds with a mystical sense, a sense of fate. As if to emphasize this point, Weber ends his speech by citing the prophet Isaiah and speaking of the “demon” that holds the strands of each of our lives.

Weber's Legacy

Reading Weber's 1917 speech a century later, we would be wise to observe two crucial points. First, interpretations and spin-offs of Weber's “disenchantment of the world” do not hold true to Weber's claims when they posit a linear path toward secularity nor, indeed, when they pigeonhole Weber as an enlightened critic of religion. Second, despite the passage of time, Weber's insights about the shift in religious attitudes and pervasiveness of technical means of control continue to hold their own. Perhaps, though, this speaks more to how the modern West is still haunted by the ghosts or its past in a century that is, on second thought, far less disenchanted than first believed.

[1]   This translation, as well as those that follow, have been altered to better reflect Weber's original German.