On Weber's essay "Science as a Vocation"

by Oded Goldreich

This posting refers to Max Weber's famous lecture/essay Science as a Vocation (1918/9), which provides many important insights that seems more relevant than ever. I will start with a rough outline of the text, and add a few comments later.

The first four pages deal with the external conditions of the time (1918) and place (Germany). This part is interesting mainly for sake of a historical perspective, which also clarifies where we are coming from. Indeed, some of the realities have changed drastically, while some have remained almost intact. The first full paragraph on page 5 turns inwards to questions of the type what is it like to be a scientist and why do we do science. Weber talks of our inability to control inspiration (i.e., the source of good ideas), draws parallels between science and art (while noting the difference), warns against empty (personal) careerism, but focuses on the question of what is the vocation of science. (I will return to the last issue later, and discuss the first three in my short opinion nr 15.)

In addition, Weber also attacks two tendencies that were on the rise in his time: (1) the (romantic) emphasis on personal experience, and (2) the demand or expectation that the academic teacher leads the students in questions relevant to their (social and political) life. His preoccupation with both these tendencies (and especially with the 2nd) dominates much of the text in pages 13-21. While the first tendency is even stronger nowadays, the second seems much weaker (to say the least). Also, while I agree with Weber's objection to the glorification of personal experiences (which goes hand-in-hand with the neglect of systematic study), I don't agree with his position regarding (2). Furthermore, I find no argument in the text in support of his position, not even a false argument that can be criticized by me (or anybody else). My view is that people who spend all their life practicing the employment of rational thinking are well qualified not only to clarify (and criticize) the causalities claimed in public debates (as acknowledged by Weber) but also clarify and criticize the goals set in such debates.

Turning back to the question of the vocation of science, I'm afraid that Weber provides no real answer, and I suspect that it was his intention merely to clarify the question. Such an intention seems aligned with the rest of his text, which emphasizes that science (or any discipline in it) cannot answer the question of why it is important; it rather just presupposes its own importance (i.e., the importance of the questions that give rise to it). The importance of science has to be argued from the outside, by a "prophet", not from inside, by a university professor, and Weber insists on separating these two roles (even in the rare cases that they can be played by the same person). Still, a possible answer is hinted to in Weber's text: Science is a (secular) god, competing with other gods (like beauty or morals); it is the god of rationalization and progress and as such it is the god that is most aligned with the Zeitgeist (spirit of the time). Note the paragraph on top of page 9 that talks of the meaning of progress on our views of life and death; while it is presented as a factor that diminishes scientific research (which is aware of never reaching its goal), it can be viewed as a vocation to take part in the infinite march of progress. Thus, I believe that it is Weber's view that, at the last account, following the vocation of science means being most true to our time (or to the fate of our time), and denying this call is childish and/or cowardly. (Note also the importance that Weber assigns to teaching and learning to live with inconvenient facts (e.g., bottom of page 14).)

My own belief is that indeed the vocation of science is to try to contribute as much as possible to the goal of improving our understanding of the world, while being fully aware that this goal will be never reached and that our contributions are petite and partial (esp., in comparison to that goal). There is nothing better we can do, and dreaming of better things is quite silly and/or misinformed.

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