“German philosophy, political theory and economics in the nineteenth century were very different from their counterparts in Britain. The dominant position of utilitarianism and classical political economy in the latter country was not reproduced in Germany, where these were held at arm’s length by the influence of Idealism and, in the closing decades of the nineteenth century, by the growing impact of Marxism. In Britain, J. S. Mill’s System of Logic (1843) unified the natural and social sciences in a framework that fitted comfortably within existing traditions in that country. Mill was Comte’s most distinguished British disciple, if sharply critical of some of his excesses.
Comte’s positivism never found a ready soil in Germany; and Dilthey’s sympathetic but critical reception of Mill’s version of the ‘moral sciences’ gave an added impulse to what came to be known as the Geisteswissenschaften (originally coined precisely as a translation of ‘moral sciences’). The tradition of the Geisteswissenschaften, or the ‘hermeneutic’ tradition, stretches back well before Dilthey, and from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards was intertwined with, but also partly set off from, the broader stream of Idealistic philosophy. Those associated with the hermeneutic viewpoint insisted upon the differentiation of the sciences of nature from the study of man. While we can ‘explain’ natural occurrences in terms of the application of causal laws, human conduct is intrinsically meaningful, and has to be ‘interpreted’ or ‘understood’ in a way which has no counterpart in nature. Such an emphasis linked closely with a stress upon the centrality of history in the study of human conduct, in economic action as in other areas, because the cultural values that lend meanings to human life, it was held, are created by specific processes of social development.
Just as he accepted the thesis that history is of focal importance to the social sciences, Weber adopted the idea that the ‘understanding’ (Verstehen) of meaning is essential to the explication of human action. But he was critical of the notions of ‘intuition’, ‘empathy’, etc. that were regarded by many others as necessarily tied to the interpretative understanding of conduct. Most important, he rejected the view that recognition of the ‘meaningful’ character of human conduct entails that causal explanation cannot be undertaken in the social sciences. On the level of abstract method, Weber was not able to work out a satisfactory reconciliation of the diverse threads that he tried to knit together; but his effort at synthesis produced a distinctive style of historical study, combining a sensitivity to diverse cultural meanings with an insistence upon the fundamental causal role of ‘material’ factors in influencing the course of history.
It was from such an intellectual background that Weber approached Marxism, both as a set of doctrines and a political force promoting practical ends. Weber was closely associated with the Verein für Sozialpolitik (Association for Social Policy), a group of liberal scholars interested in the promotion of progressive social reform. He was a member of the so-called ‘younger generation’ associated with the Verein, the first group to acquire a sophisticated knowledge of Marxist theory and to attempt to creatively employ elements drawn from Marxism – without ever accepting it as an overall system of thought, and recoiling from its revolutionary politics. While acknowledging the contributions of Marx, Weber held a more reserved attitude towards Marxism (often being bitterly critical of the works and political involvements of some of Marx’s professed followers) than did his illustrious contemporary, Sombart. Each shared, however, a concern with the origins and likely course of evolution of industrial capitalism, in Germany specifically and in the West as a whole. Specifically, they saw the economic conditions that Marx believed determined the development and future transformation of capitalism as embedded within a unique cultural totality. Both devoted much of their work to identifying the emergence of this ‘ethos’ or ‘spirit’ (Geist) of modern Western capitalism. ”