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John Patrick Diggins, Max Weber

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By HARVEY MANSFIELD
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John Patrick Diggins, a provocative academic who writes primarily on American politics, has the happy faculty of raising your interest without entirely satisfying it. His latest book seems at first glance a departure from his previous work, but it isn't at all. For in Max Weber: Politics and the Spirit of Tragedy, Diggins offers an intellectual biography of a seminal figure of our century -- and tries to make the case that Weber's ideas offer an alternative to an "American political culture almost innocent of irony and tragedy" that suffuses the country as the century comes to a close. Diggins first raises our interest with the biographical aspects of his book: Its portrait of Weber the man gives dignity and stature to Weber the intellectual. But the case he makes for Weber's relevance ultimately doesn't satisfy For while Max Weber was unquestionably a great social scientist, perhaps the greatest we have seen, he had a profoundly flawed understanding of how America came to be, the ills that beset her, and where we can go to find a cure for those ills.

Weber died in Germany in 1920 at the age of 56. His work, translated and championed by the leading American sociologist Talcott Parsons, has had an enormous influence in American universities, an influence that extends beyond the books professors read to the classes they teach As a result, most people know something about his ideas -- charisma, the Protestant ethic -- even if they do not know his name.

Weber was profoundly troubled by the increasingly bureaucratic organization of the modern world. He believed bureaucracy was imposing dull routine, mediocre careerism, and legalistic overcaution not merely on bureaucrats but also on the rest of us. Bureaucracy is rational, all too rational, but it is directionless and therefore mindless. Indeed, for Weber, all of reason is mindless in the same way. For reason cannot tell us what to value; it can only arrange facts.

Social scientists and practical Americans believe the distinction between facts and values implicitly favors facts. Facts are true, after all, while values may be just so much hot air. Weber popularized the idea of the "fact- value distinction," but he derived an entirely different meaning from it. Facts are true, he said, but they are dead. They come to life only when they can be connected to a deeper and less rational force -- by how much people value them. Values are therefore more powerful than facts because they inspire people. Here, as elsewhere, we can see the direct influence of his (and our century's) philosophic master, Friedrich Nietzsche.

While the stated purpose of the social sciences is the passive, objective description of the world, Weber could not quite stay within * their frontiers. We can best see his struggle against the bonds of objectivity when we consider what charisma meant to him. Weber coined the term "charisma," an act for which the American people have honored him by using it as vaguely and enthusiastically as he himself did. With "charisma," Weber was making an effort to describe a fact -- the strikingly irrational appeal of a strong leader. But he also wanted to identify a means of escape from the dead arm of bureaucracy that concerned him so much. And thus he imbued the fact of charisma with the value he attached to the inspiration provided by a great leader.

Indeed, if Weber was a great social scientist, it was because his social science was itself concerned with the question of greatness. Diggins maintains that Weber upheld the "spirit of tragedy," a mature outlook that combines both the passion of a tragic hero as he acts and his chastened sobriety after he fails. But since Weber himself never really defines tragedy in his works, Diggins must do it for him.