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Max Weber's Elective Affinities: Sociology Within the Bounds of Pure Reason

Author(s): Richard Herbert Howe

Source: American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 84, No. 2 (Sep., 1978), pp. 366-385
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
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Max Weber's Elective Affinities: Sociology within

the Bounds of Pure Reason1

Richard Herbert Howe

University of Illinois

Several scholars have called attention to the importance of Weber's

use of the term "elective affinity," yet nowhere has the term received

a treatment both systematic and historically founded. The present

paper attempts to fill that gap. Each instance of Weber's usage is

cited and discussed. Next, the place of elective affinity in his order of

discourse is determined. Then, the lineage of the term in the histories

of literature, chemistry, and philosophy is examined with special ref-

erence to Weber's knowledge of those histories. Two related terms,

"affinity" and "inner affinity," are examined and brought into rela-

tionship with Weber's use of elective affinity. These materials suggest

that elective affinity, conceived as an "idea" in the Kantian sense,

would have served to answer the question, How is social science pos-

sible? which was implicit in the neo-Kantian framework of Weber's

order of discourse.

In the lexicon of Weber's thought, "elective affinity" (Wahlverwandtschaft)

has often been sensed as a crucial term, most notably by Gerth and Mills

(1946), Stark (1958), and Mayer (1975). And rightly so. For under-

standing Weber's idea of history and thus the logic of his social science no

term is more crucial than "elective affinity." For Gerth and Mills, elective

affinity is "the decisive conception by which Weber relates ideas and inter-

ests" (1946, p. 62); for Stark, elective affinity is Weber's theoretical alter-

native to "mechanistic causalism and quasi-organological functionalism"

(1958, p. 256); for Mayer, Weber's thought moves generally "in concepts

of elective affinities . . . between existence and consciousness" (1975, p.

707). Yet, despite this sense of its importance, Weber's use of elective af-

finity has never received a treatment both systematic and historically

founded. Certainly the glosses of these scholars do not begin to exhaust its

potential, for it would yield as idea the 'possibility of social science alto-

gether within the bounds of Weber's order of discourse, which is to say,

within the bounds of Kant's pure reason. To be sure, few if any of Weber's

terms pose more resistance to explanation. The Kantian tradition to which

Weber was heir has largely been lost on succeeding generations of social

scientists, particularly in America. Instances of elective affinity in Weber's

1 This paper grew out of a seminar conducted by Robert Alun Jones at the University

of Illinois in the fall of 1975. To him and to my wife, Marcia Kirkpatrick, I am grate-

ful for their patience and persevering support.

? 1978 by The University of Chicago. 0002-9602/79/8402-0004$01.65

366 AJS Volume 84 Number 2

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Weber's Elective Affinities

work are altogether rare (1904a, pp. 29, 34 [1949, pp. 56, 61]; 1905a, p. 54

[1958, pp. 91-92]; 1906a, p. 148 [1949, p. 118]; 1906b, p. 347; 1910, pp.

581, 596; 1916, pp. 19, 20 [1946, pp. 284, 285]; 1918, p. 76 [1968, p.

1429]; 1922, pp. 183, 270, 780, 795, 796, 815 [1968, pp. 341, 472, 1160,

1180, 1208]). His usage is diverse and moreover quite informal. Nowhere

does he enter a definition of elective affinity into his categorical casuistic.

Some instances of his usage are striking enough in context to draw a second

look, but even there the term defines its contexts so much more strikingly

than those contexts condition the term that little can be gleaned from those

contexts alone. Thus, his use of the term has continued to fascinate while

remaining an enigma, and efforts to understand it have become symptomatic

of the helplessness with which mere exegesis confronts the order of a dis-

course other than its own. It is one thing to sense the term's importance,

another to establish it, and yet another to find its locus in the order of his

thought. No reading of his work alone, be it ever so close, could ever accom-

plish all this, and least of all would pseudoetymology (see Gerth and Mills

1946, p. 63) or the commonplace-however true-that "like attracts like"

suffice (see Stark 1958, p. 257). The problem is one for history and not for

exegesis (see Skinner 1969; Jones 1977). To discover what elective affinity

meant to Weber is to discover its place in the order of his discourse. The

term "elective affinity," as it was known to Weber, has its source in the

chemistry of the 18th century. From there it entered into literature, above

all through Goethe, and into an order of intellectual discourse, where it was

joined with the related expression "inner affinity" (innere Verwandtschaft)

and with Kant's idea of reason which he had termed "affinity" (Afinitdt).

In Weber's unique order of discourse, his use of elective affinity stands at

the intersection of two sets of historical coordinates, the one defined by

his order of discourse, the other by that rare combination of erudition and

insight which was Max Weber himself. Then as now, the potential of that

intersection has remained more virtual than actual. With what alchemy

the transmutations of its elements into the idea of Weber's social science

as one within the bounds of Kant's pure reason was accomplished is the

object of the present inquiry. Such an inquiry has no fear of the counter-

factual, of inference in the subjunctive mood. For only thus can elective

affinity be brought into its full relief. In the light of the virtual-the

order of the possible-elective affinity stands out as a source through which

the order of Weber's discourse becomes just visible within his own work as

the latent structure of his thought.


The instances of elective affinity in Weber's work show a usage as diverse

as it is informal. The first appears in his 1904 essay on "objectivity" where,


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American Journal of Sociology

discussing the sources and the inevitability of conflict in the arena of social

policymaking, he states that ". . . there is conflict not only . . . between

'class interests' but also between Weltanschauungen-whereby of course

the truth remains wholly intact that as to which Weltanschauung the in-

dividual represents . . . the degree of elective affinity which joins it to his

'class interest' . . . is usually decisive . . ." (1904a, p. 29 [1949, p. 56]).2

A few pages later, this time by way of explaining the equal inevitability

of his Archiv's manifesting a tendency with respect to those conflicts,

despite its "value-free" stance, he states that "the elective affinity of

similar ideals will . . . allow the circle of [its] contributors to hold together

and to recruit new members, and this will stamp the journal . . . with a

definite 'character' . . ." (1904a, p. 34 [1949, p. 61]). These instances are

typical of the informality with which XVeber uses elective affinity. The term

appears as a factor in causal propositions, but no definition is given, and

neither syntax nor context lends it any special weight.

But a year later, closing the first installment of the "Protestant Ethic"

with a caution to his readers, he states that, ". . . in view of the immense

confusion of reciprocal influences between the material bases, the forms of

social and political organization, and the intellectual and spiritual contents

of the cultural epochs of the Reformation, one can proceed only by first of

all inquiring as to whether and in what points definite elective affinities

between certain forms of its religious faith and its work ethic are discern-

ible. Thereby and at the same time, the manner and the general direction

in which in consequence of such elective affinities the religious movement

affected the development of the material culture will be clarified as much

as possible" (1905a, p. 54 [1958, pp. 91-92]). While his usage here is no

less informal, its methodological and explanatory import lend it a special

significance. Within the chaos that the social scientist confronts, there is

an order; this order exists not only for himself but also for the actors in

history and largely affects history's course. The logic of history would be

the logic of the elective affinities.

Weber used elective affinity twice more in connection with the "Prot-

estant Ethic," in a reply to his critic Rachfahl. In the first of these, he

speaks of "the elective affinity of Calvinism . . . for capitalism" (1910, p.

581), while in the second he speaks of the "elective affinity of the bour-

geoisie for certain life-styles," among them those of ascetic Protestantism

(1910, p. 596). In a similar vein, he speaks in "The Economic Ethic of the

World Religions" of the elective affinities between the various social strata

and their characteristic forms of religiosity and of the greater prominence

of such elective affinities among the burgher strata (1916, p. 19 [1946, p.

2All translations are my own, with the single exception of the quotation from Berg-

man. References to the available translations of Weber's works have been provided in

brackets following the German references.


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Weber's Elective Affinities

284]); a page later he speaks of the elective affinity of missionary prophecy

for the conception of a personal god (1916, p. 20 [1946, p. 285]), while in

Econowiy and Society he speaks of the lack of any such elective affinity of

the warriors for the conception of an ethically transcendental god (1922,

p. 270 [1968, p. 472]); of the "elective affinity of the religiously demanded

life-style with the socially conditioned life-style" (1922, p. 796 [1968, p.

1180]); of the "universal elective affinity between burgher and religious

powers" (1922, p. 780 [1968, p. 1160]); of the same exemplified in antiq-

uity (1922, p. 795 [1968, p. 1180]); and of the "inner elective affinity"

of the structural principles of the early Protestant sects with the structure

of democracy (1922, p. 815 [1968, p. 1208]).

But Weber's use of elective affinity was not restricted to his studies of

religion, as the instances of 1904 already show. In a similarly secular vein,

he stated in his article "On the Situation of Bourgeois Democracy in Rus-

sia" that it was "utterly ridiculous to attribute elective affinity with 'de-

mocracy' or even 'freedom' . . . to today's advanced capitalism" (1906b,

p. 347). Much later, in Parliament and Administration in Reconstructed

Germany, he spoke of the "elective affinity of [the Center party's] authori-

tarian mentality with the authoritarian state" (1918, p. 76 [1968, p. 1429]).

His usage could also be purely conceptual, as evidenced by his satirical

remark in his review of "Critical Studies in the Field of Cultural-Scientific

Logic" that E. M. Meyer seemed to imagine "an especially close elective

affinity between 'chance' and 'freedom of the will'" (1906a, p. 148 [1949,

p. 118]).

The informality and diversity of Weber's use of elective affinity obscure

what he may have meant by the term, despite the significance given it in

the "Protestant Ethic." But once, in Economy and Society, he ventures a

few remarks of explanation. After rehearsing the difficulties inherent in

making either causal or functionalist propositions concerning the interaction

of economy and society, particularly significant universal ones, he states

that ". . . something universal can, however, be asserted concerning the

degree of elective affinity of concrete structural forms of social action with

concrete economic forms, that is, concerning whether and how strongly they

mutually favor one another's continuance or, conversely, hinder or exclude

one another-are 'adequate' or 'inadequate' to one another" (1922, p. 183

[1968, p. 341]). These brief remarks can only suggest that for Weber the

sole significant universal propositions that social science could make would

be propositions of elective affinity, which would be to say that the very

possibility of social science would rest on the logic of elective affinity. But

why this would be so and what that logic would be for materials as diverse

as those encompassed by his own usage remains unstated, and nowhere

else did he elaborate upon the term. But then, he had no need to. His

order of discourse took care of all that.


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American Journal of Sociology


An order of discourse is, first of all, an order of words. Their structural

relationships within a given order are codified in its dictionaries, the

referential networks of meanings which are their histories and thus their

definitions. Elective affinity belongs to the order of Weber's discourse and

thus to the larger order of the German language as well. The most authori-

tative codex of that order, the Grimms' Deutsches WIrterbuch, has the

term (see vol. 13, cols. 597-99) entering German in 1779 as the translator

Weigel's neologism for the Swedish chemist Torborn Bergman's term "at-

tractio electiva," referring to the laws of association and dissociation among

the elements. From there it gained some currency as a figure of speech

among artists and intellectuals, securing a permanent niche in the realm of

letters through Goethe, who appropriated the chemical meaning of the term

as the root metaphor for a novel, The Elective Affinities ([1809] 1951),

which Weber's contemporaries found to be a rich expression of the conflict

between the natural and the moral and social orders.

But the place of elective affinity in the general order of the German

language was never so secure, as may be discerned from its fate in the

keepers of that order, the great encyclopedic dictionaries. Twenty years

after Weigel, it was not to be found in Adelung's (1801), but Campe's

listed it a decade later, most likely as a result of the notoriety lent it by

Goethe, whose recent novel the entry mentions (1811, p. 542). It is not in

Sanders's (1865) or in Weigand's (1876) or in Sanders's later supplement

(1885), although it is in Heyne's (1895, p. 1770), and it is picked up

later by Sanders's eighth edition (1910, p. 643) and by Weigand's fifth

(1910, p. 803). Paul's lists it (1908, p. 1199), while Kluge's does not

(1915). These entries ranged from mere acknowledgments of the word's

existence to brief descriptions of its source in chemistry and in the novel

by Goethe. More thorough treatment had to wait until the vast enterprise

of the brothers Grimm, begun in 1854, reached the letter "W" in 1922, just

two years after Weber's death.

Thus, to the larger order of discourse defined by the German language,

elective affinity was a marginal word, though its position had improved

somewhat by the decade before the First World War. Acquaintance with it

could be presupposed only for those familiar with the history of chemistry

or for the somewhat larger circle of those who read the German classics.

But as a segment of the entire German language community, that circle

was small indeed. To have known the meaning of elective affinity was to

have been part of a very special order of discourse: the discourse of the

humanistically educated elite (see Wehler 1973, pp. 124-29; Ringer 1969).

To the rest, the word could well have seemed a contradiction in terms.

Verwandtschaft ("affinity") denoted blood relationship, while Wahl ,("elec-


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Weber's Elective Affinities

tive") suggested a choice in those matters-an obvious absurdity (see

Vetter 1931, pp. 99-100).

Significantly, elective affinity turns up in the philosophical dictionaries,

although again marginally. It is not, for example, in the first edition of

Krug's (1829), but it does appear in the supplement to the second edition

(1838, p. 446). It is not in Kirchner's (1896) or in Eisler's (1899), but a

decade later it appears in Schmidt's little paperback (1912b, p. 98). That

may have been due to Schmidt's other interests: that same year he pub-

lished a Goethe lexicon in which, of course, the term is entered (1912a, p.

248). Schmidt's entry for elective affinity in his philosophical dictionary

refers the reader back to the entry for affinity (Affinitdt), which states that

". . . the Law of A[ffinity] (principle of the continuity of the forms) bids

a continuous transition from every single species [Gattung] to every other

via the stepwise increase in multiplicity (Kant)" (1912b, p. 9). From there

the reader is referred back to the entry for elective affinity, with the usual

mention of chemistry and Goethe, thus closing a circle and opening a net-

work in the order of philosophical discourse.

Elective affinity was unknown to the handbooks and lexica of the social

sciences, yet it was known to the social scientists themselves-after all,

they belonged to the humanistically educated elite. Riehl, for example,

made use of the term, writing that ". . . one of the most remarkable monu-

ments to the elective affinity of the North German coastal states with the

South German highland is the gothic Church of Our Lady in Munich"

(Grimm and Grimm, vol. 13, col. 599). And Treitschke too had used the

term, writing that ". . . the Romans were truly intimate only with the old

Roman world; the Germans were drawn by a feeling of elective affinity to-

ward the Hellenic genius" (Grimm and Grimm, vol. 13, col. 599). Treitsch-

ke had been Weber senior's household intimate in Berlin, where Max

junior heard his lectures at the university (Marianne Weber 1926, pp. 42,

102), while later on the Webers, Max and Marianne, were frequent guests

in Riehl's home in Freiburg (Marianne Weber 1926, p. 216). In company

such as this, the company of men of letters and learning, a familiarity with

the meaning of elective affinity could be taken for granted, and Weber did

just that when he wrote. The term was a touchstone, even of itself, of the

elective affinities that joined such company in an order of discourse which

set it apart.


If elective affinity had entered the order of the German language through

chemistry and Weigel/Bergman, it entered the order of Weber's discourse

through literature and Goethe. Like few others-perhaps like Schiller, like


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Kant most certainly-Goethe personified culture itself and, as the pages of

the Goethe-Jahrbuch (1880-) amply demonstrate, he provided an inex-

haustible fund of raw materials for philological industry as well. That in-

dustry was no respecter of the disciplines. Kuno Fischer, the leading figure

of the Kant revival of the 1860s, produced a number of shorter studies and

then a nine-volume series (1890-94); Simmel likewise wrote shorter studies

and then two books (1906, 1913); Gundolf, Weber's connection to the

charismatic circle around the poet Stefan George, wrote what became a

classic study of the poet (1916); even Weber's colleague Rickert wrote

a book on Goethe (1932).

Though he eventually came to an appreciation of Goethe, as a young

man Weber set himself apart from his contemporaries by judging Schiller

the better poet, noting in a letter to his cousin Emmy that "the exaggerated,

exclusive Goethe worship" of his friends had spoiled their taste in literature

and made them unjust to other poets (Marianne Weber 1926, p. 164). In

fact, he continued, Goethe's obsession with happiness resulted in a badly

one-sided view of life; Goethe was ". . . sensitive to the debased as such

only when it was at the same time the hateful and trivial; he had, on the

other hand, no clear sensitivity to it when he encountered it in the form of

certain beautiful feelings-cf. The Elective Ajfinities" (Marianne Weber

1926, p. 164). That judgment was made when Weber was 23. He had

first encountered the elective affinities nine years before while reading

through, "hidden under his desk during class, all forty volumes of the Cotta

edition of Goethe" (Marianne Weber 1926, p. 50).

The Elective Affinities is a tale of adultery or, rather, of desired but

unconsummated adultery. The plot revolves around the fortunes of four

characters: Eduard, a landed gentryman; Charlotte, his recent bride (it

is the second marriage for both); the captain, an architect friend of

Eduard's; and Ottilie, Charlotte's young and beautiful niece. As the novel

opens, Eduard and Charlotte are busy with the renovation of Eduard's

country estate. Eduard proposes that the captain join them to help with

the planning and building. Charlotte is uneasy about the company of a

third but wishes one herself: her niece Ottilie. The third arrives, and the

fourth too; and, as might be expected in any novel with such an opening

situation, Eduard falls in love with his wife's niece, Charlotte with her hus-

band's friend. The novel develops the unhappy consequences of these elec-

tive affinities.

Goethe was not only a poet, he was also a scientist with an interest in,

among other things, the progress of chemistry (see Geitel 1911). So it is

not surprising that in the advertisement to The Elective Affinities he writes:

"It appears that the author's continued studies in the physical sciences have

occasioned this strange title. He would like to remark that in the study of

nature one very often makes use of moral imagery in order to bring closer


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Weber's Elective Affinities

something far removed from the circle of human knowledge, and so he

wished in a moral case to trace a chemical metaphor back to its spiritual

origins" (von Wiese 1951, p. 621). A year earlier, during the composition

of the novel, he had told his friend Riemer that "his idea for the new

novel . . . was to portray social relationships and their conflicts symbol-

ically" (von Wiese 1951, p. 620).

The novel awoke immediate controversy; the number of negative judg-

ments was "astonishing, for a work by Goethe" (Kolbe 1968, p. 30, n. 55).

Jacobi called it "an ascension of evil lust" (von Wiese 1951, p. 645). By

the end of the century, such judgments had been tempered, if not forgotten.

Cotta's Goethe editor, Karl Goedeke, whose prefaces appeared in all the

later editions, took note of them, writing that "the name of the novel de-

rives from the chemical designation of the process wherein different sub-

stances united with one another break out of their union in favor of another.

This designation, merely borrowed from science, has been so construed by

the poet's opponents (whom he was lacking at no time in his life) as if he

had attempted to deny the law of free will and to justify a waywardness

caught in conflict with civil morality as a law of nature. He did just the

opposite" (Goedeke 1885, p. 4). However they judged its morality, the

degree of elective affinity between the novel and the problematics of Web-

er's contemporaries was strong. Whether the analogy between natural and

moral and social processes was to suggest that nature itself was somehow

"ensouled" (Zeitler 1918, p. 511) or rather that the soul of man stood

under the sway of nature (Gundolf 1916, p. 553), the problem it posed was

the central one of the relationship between the order of nature and the

moral and social orders. And so, however tangentially, the novel touched

upon the question of how a social science would be possible if society were

a realm of freedom.


Goethe took the metaphor of the elective affinities from chemistry, indi-

rectly from Torborn Bergman by way of J. S. T. Gehlen's Dictionary of

Physics (Zeitler 1918, p. 513). In conversations with Riemer, he spoke of

"the moral symbols in the natural sciences, for example, that of 'elective

affinity,' discovered and employed by the great Bergman" (von Wiese 1951,

p. 621). But here Goethe errs, for while Bergman may well have been the

most famous exponent of the theory of elective affinity in the chemistry of

the 18th century, he was not its originator. The history of elective affinity

in chemistry and of affinity (Verwandtschaft) before that predates his work

by more than a century.

Max Weber may have known that history, as evidenced in the opening

paragraph of his review of Wilhelm Ostwald's "energy theory of culture,"


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American Journal of Sociology

where he speaks of "... the most complete layman ... [who] has read the

expositions in the general sections-usually so lean-of the older com-

pendia on chemistry, say on atomic weights and equivalences and all that

goes along with that; on the concept of 'solutions' as opposed to the 'com-

binations'; on the electrochemical problems; on isomerism, etc... ." (1909,

p. 575). This most complete layman who had read compendia on chemistry

would be Max Weber himself. He gives no references. But Kopp's standard

German history of chemistry (1843-) would be representative of whatever

he may in fact have read. And he may also have read in Ostwald's own

survey of the field (1902), with its lengthy extracts from the sources.

Whatever he read, he would have known affinity (Verwandtschaft) as

the older part of the expression. It appeared in the 13th century in the work

of Albertus Magnus, which was printed in the 16th century. By the 17th

century the term was used with some frequency (Kopp 1843-, 2: 288).

In 1648 Glauber discussed the fact that "a body did not have the same

inclination to combine with every other" (Kopp 1843-, 2: 293), and

this led to various attempts to order the elements according to their dif-

fering inclinations to combine with one another. In 1718 these efforts bore

their first decisive fruit. In an essay entitled, "Concerning the Different

Affinities Observed in Chemistry between Different Substances," the French

chemist Etienne-Francoise Geoffroy proposed as law the following state-

ment: "Whenever two substances which have some inclination to combine

with one another are combined with one another and a third which has

more affinity for one of the two is added, then it will combine with that

one and exclude the other" (Ostwald 1902, p. 21). This is elective affinity

in everything but the name. Geoffroy backed his proposed law with a table

in which the differing affinities of some 24 substances were displayed in

order. The remainder of the century saw the production of many revisions

and extensions of Geoffroy's first "table of affinities" (Kopp 1843-, 2:279).

The climax of the theory of elective affinity came with Torborn Berg-

man's De attractionibus electivus of 1775. Bergman published complete

tables of affinity for all 51 elements known then. His work was soon widely

known. It reached Germany in 1783, where its translator, Hein Tabor,

followed the convention established by Weigel four years previously by

writing Wahlverwandtschaft ("elective affinity") for Bergman's attractio

electiva (Grimm and Grimm, vol. 13, col. 597). In his book, Bergman

defines elective affinity at the outset:

Suppose A to be a substance for which other heterogeneous substances,

a, b, c, &c., have an attraction; suppose further A combined with c to

saturation (this union I shall call Ac), should, upon the addition of b, tend

to unite with it to the exclusion of c, A is then said to attract b more

strongly than c, or to have a stronger elective attraction for it; lastly, let

the union of Ab, upon the addition of a, be broken, let b be rejected, and


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Weber's Elective Affinities

a chosen in its place, it will follow that a exceeds b in attractive power,

and we shall have a series a, b, c. in respect of efficacy. What I here call

atttaction, others denominate affinity.... [trans. in Bergman (1775) 1970,

pp. 6-7]

This became the classic formulation of elective affinity, the one that ap-

peared in paraphrase in all the handbooks and dictionaries, including the

one that Goethe used to weave the definition into the after-dinner conver-

sation of the characters of his novel, where Weber and his contemporaries,

even those who had never read compendia on chemistry could find it spelled

out even to the letters (Goethe [1809] 1951, p. 276).


Even in its late 18th-century heyday, the theory of elective affinity had its

critics. Guyton de Morveau, leading exponent of the theory in France,

complained in 1776 that "some chemists . . . have been unable to restrain

themselves from making sour jokes about the so-called table-turners." A

year earlier, the critic Buffon had complained of the chemists that they

"assume just as many little lawlets of affinity as there are special cases of

association and dissociation" (both in Ostwald 1902, pp. 29-30). Over and

above the strivings of these early chemists, there loomed the for them as

yet unattainable ideal of Newton's mechanics, whose mathematical neces-

sity knew no need for "little lawlets." So it is not surprising that Immanuel

Kant, who had heard of Bergman (see Kant 1902-, 9:198; 10:219, 234)

but adored Newton, should have held chemistry in comparatively low


In his Metaphysical Bases of Natural Science, Kant stated that "in every

theory of nature only as much real science is to be met as there is knowledge

a priori to be found therein" (1902-, 4:470), and on this basis he pro-

nounced his judgment that ". . . chemistry can never become anything more

than a systematic art or theory of experiment, never a real science, because

its principles are merely empirical and allow of no portrayal a priori in

envisagement [Anschauung]; consequently, they cannot make the axioms of

chemical phenomena the least bit comprehensible vis-a-vis their possibil-

ity ... ." (1902-, 4:471). Accordingly, chemistry must content itself with a

mixed position between mechanics, the pure science of outward envisage-

ment which is space, and psychology, the pure description of inward en-

visagement which is time (1902-, 4:471).

And yet this mixed position which Kant assigned to chemistry came later

to his benefit as an analogy in the final paragraph of his Critique of Prac-

tical Reason: "To follow that same path [of analysis] in the treatment of

the moral capacities of our nature, that example [mechanics] can counsel

us and give us hope for a similarly good success. We do have the examples


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American Journal of Sociology

of morally judging reason at hand. Now to analyze these examples into

their elementary concepts . . . a process analogous to chemistry, of divorc-

ing the empirical from the rational which may be found within them, can,

through repeated trials . . . make both known to us, purely . . . and with

certainty' (1902-, 5:163). "The Art of Divorce" (Die Scheidekunst) had

been the common language name for chemistry then, a play on words which

Goethe later also made ([1809] 1951, p. 273), and only through an equally

artful divorce had Kant been able to argue the possibility of man as a moral

agent, for only after such a divorce of the empirical from the rational could

reason rejoin and order anew what its critique had put asunder.


In the Critique of Pure Reason, affinity (Affinitdt) denotes a principle or

maxim of reason, which is to say, an idea. Kant introduced the term first

in connection with his "axiom of complete determination," which states that

for any single thing to be possible, its predicates must include, positively

or negatively, all possible predicates of things in general (see 1902-, 3:385).

From this it follows that ". . . every thing is referred to a common corre-

latum, namely, the totality of all possibility, which, were it . . . to be met

in the idea of one single thing, would prove an affinity of everything pos-

sible through the identity of the ground of its complete determination"

(1902-, 3:356n.). Once this has been established, the idea of affinity is

introduced as a principle or maxim of reason: "Reason . . . prepares the

field of intellect: (1) through a principle of the equivalence of the multiplic-

itous under higher species; (2) through an axiom of the variety of the

equivalent under lower species; and, in order to complete its systematic

unity, it adds, further, (3) a law of the affinity of all concepts, which bids

a continuous transition from every single species to every other via the

stepwise increase in multiplicity" (1902-, 3:485). Kant called such prin-

ciples "regulative," for the ideas underlying his reason form no part of his

objects of knowledge, but rather serve to guide cognition by providing its

ideals (see 1902-, 3:426-42).

Through Kant's usage, affinity survived in the order of philosophical dis-

course in a manner akin to that of elective affinity. The connection between

the philosophical and the chemical affinities was not to be missed. The first

volume of G. S. A. Mellin's great Encyclopaedia of the Critical Philosophy

began an 18-page entry of affinity with the analogy from chemistry:

(logical or analytical) affinity . . . thus is called that property of the

concepts, that they have certain features in common with other concepts

. . . that certain features of the pure concept are one and the same with

certain features of the other concepts.... The concept of the alkaline salts


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Weber's Elective Affinities

is, for example, that they are salts which have a sharp, burning, uremic, but

not sour taste. . . . The alkaline salts and calcareous earths have . . . in

their concepts a common feature through which they are affine to one

another . . . namely, that they both absorb or can unite with acids" (1797,

pp. 89-90). Mellin went on at once to discuss "the logical law of the affinity

of all concepts" and its treatment by Kant, and then, true to the order of

late 18th-century thought, he put forth a table of affinities with combina-

tions of Greek and Roman letters standing not for chemicals but for con-

cepts, letters in common representing shared features (1797, p. 92). The

closing pages of the entry, however, provide a key to those letters with

concepts drawn from chemistry (1797, pp. 104-6).

Over the course of the next 100-odd years, the philosophical idea of

affinity fared no better but perhaps no worse than its chemical counterpart

elective affinity. The entry in Krug's dictionary is broadly conceived, men-

tioning beside the philosophical and chemical affinities the ones of aesthetics

and ethics (1838, pp. 406-7). Kirchner's ignores affinity altogether, just

as it ignores elective affinity (1896); the entry in Eisler's, on the other

hand, is replete with citations from Kant (1899, p. 20). Fritz Mauthner's

"new contributions to a critique of language" allows affinity the space of

two columns, only to denounce its various uses as metaphysical abuses of

language (1910, pp. 14-15). Then there is Schmidt's, already cited, with

its cross-referencing of affinity with elective affinity (1912b, pp. 9, 98).

Thus, affinity too in its technical sense was a marginal word, a marker

of an order of discourse: the discourse of those familiar with Kant. Weber

would have known that sense of the word through Kuno Fischer, whose

lectures on the history of philosophy he heard bleary eyed in the early

mornings of 1882 (Marianne Weber 1926, p. 70), if not directly from read-

ing Kant, which he had done from boyhood on (Marianne Weber 1926, p.

63). Among his Heidelberg colleagues, neither Windelband nor Rickert nor

Lask dealt with the term as their teacher and grand-teacher Kuno Fischer

had. As Weber had read in Fischer's History of Modern Philosophy, which

may also have served as text for the lectures he heard (see Windelband

1897, p. 6), the place of affinity as an idea of reason in Kant's critique was

for Fischer a crucial one. Through Kant the Platonic doctrine of the ideas

had suffered a radical change. No longer were the ideas to relate to the

things as their concepts and their archetypes. Now the ideas were to serve

knowledge, not its object. As an idea of reason, affinity stood as an ideal for

concept formation, a maxim for the conduct of intellect (see Fischer 1869,

pp. 592-97). A similar conception would hold for his pupil Weber also. In

a Kantian lexicon of Weber's thought, elective affinity would be an idea.


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American Journal of Sociology


In his much neglected review of "The Conflict in the German Literature

of the Past Decade concerning the Character of the Social Constitution of

the Ancient Germans," Weber writes: "When we construct a 'stage of

culture,' then this thought construct, analyzed into judgments, means only

that the individual appearances that we thereby assemble conceptually

are 'adequate' to one another, possess a certain measure of 'inner affinity'

[innere Verwandtschaft] .. . with one another, but never that they follow

from one another with any kind of lawfulness. In other words, they are a

conceptual means of portrayal, but not foundations for a deduction in

accord with the infamous schema 'All men are mortal; Caius is a man;

therefore, he is mortal'" (1904b, pp. 440-41). While the term here is "inner

affinity" rather than "elective affinity," the reference to "adequacy" may

serve to connect this passage with the later one in Economy and Society,

where Weber explained his usage of elective affinity in that instance in

terms of the "adequacy" or "inadequacy" of forms of action and economic

forms to one another (1922, p. 183 [1968, p. 341]). But equally, if not

more, important here for the logic of elective affinity in Weber's usage are

his reference to the analysis of constructs into judgments and his denial of

necessity in the relationships between those judgments. The former would

yield the framework for the idea of elective affinity; the latter, its locus in

the order of his thought.

As with so many points of epistemology and logic, it was his friend and

colleague Heinrich Rickert who provided a starting point for Weber's

thought (see Burger 1976). In his dissertation on the theory of definition,

Rickert writes that ". . . the definition, which enumerates a number of

features, [is] a complex of judgments, for the declaration of each feature is

always a judgment, and to be sure a complex of 'analytical judgments' that

explicitly display everything that was already conceived within the con-

cept. Accordingly, analytical definition translates the concept into a judg-

ment or into a series of judgments each of whose subjects is the concept to

be analyzed and whose predicates form the features . . ." ([1888] 1915,

pp. 57-58). But this translation of an individual concept into judgments

goes much further in its consequences, as Rickert continues:

... we know that the logical ideal of our knowledge consists of a complete

system of judgments, whose subjects and predicates are constant, there-

fore defined concepts. Let us imagine this systematization of our knowledge

accomplished in that direction. We could then compare the content of our

knowledge with a net of threads in which the fixed knots represent the

concepts; the threads, on the other hand, which go from one knot to the

other are to delineate the connections between the concepts, that is, the

judgments.... Human thought ... could never "envisage" this net in its

totality, but could only traverse it in that it now forms concepts from out


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Weber's Elective Affinities

of the elements connected to one another, that is, the judgments, now

analyzes these concepts back into judgments. . . . just as the knots in the

net consist only of threads, concepts are nothing else but the transition

points of intersecting judgments. [(1888) 1915, pp. 58-59]

That then is the logic of any typology, Weber's included. Where the judg-

ments constituting two or more of its terms intersect, a transition point

between the terms is defined. Where two or more of those terms share a

predicate in common, they are in that respect "adequate" to one another,

or, in the sense of Mellin's table of conceptual affinities and Kant's idea

of reason before it, they possess inner affinity.

But these inner affinities hold not only for Rickert's "net" of constant,

defined scientific concepts, but, as any dictionary demonstrates, they also

hold for the words themselves in the referential networks of their ordinary

usage. Encountering this insight, however obscurely and incompletely

thought out in Gottl's Dominance of the Word (1901), Weber made note

that "our experience is absolutely no longer to be separated from . . . the

words" (Brunn 1972, p. 99n.).

The natural affinities of ordinary language are not unrelated to those of

the scientific typologies. As Weber points out, "The constructive concepts

of sociology . . . are ideal-typical not only outwardly but also inwardly. In

the great majority of cases, real action proceeds in muffled half-conscious-

ness of its 'intended meaning.' The actor vaguely 'feels' it rather than

knowing it. . . . Actually effective, that is, fully conscious and clear mean-

ingful action is in reality always only a limiting case. . . . But that is not

to hinder sociology in forming its concepts through classification of the

possible 'intended meaning,' which is to say as if the action did in fact

proceed in conscious orientation to meaning" (1922, p. 10 [1968, p. 21]).

If the concepts of sociology are the limit cases of possible intended mean-

ings of the words, and if the words are "inner affine" to one another, then

the inner affinities of the words will be reflected at their limit in those

concepts. Whether inner or elective, in the meanings of the words the af-

finities of the concepts will have their source.


"Action," said Weber in the most basic of his definitions, "is . . . to mean

a human behavior . . . if and insofar as the actor or actors attach a sub-

jective meaning to it" (1922, p. 1 [1968, p. 4]). From this definition it

follows at once that every meaning in the lexicon of the actors represents

a possible action and that, conversely, every action portrays the meaning

in that lexicon to which it is referred. Thus, the world of actions, both

actual and possible, is a mundus intelligibilis. But the elements of this


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American Journal of Sociology

intelligible world are not to be considered in their relationship to truth:

"From Simmel's method . . . I depart by distinguishing as much as possible

intended from objectively valid 'meaning,' which Simmel not only does

not distinguish but often intentionally conflates" (Weber 1922, p. 1 [1968,

p. 4]). Nor, paradoxically, are these subjectively intended meanings to be

considered psychologically: ". . . how mistaken it is to regard any sort of

'psychology' as the ultimate 'foundation' of ... sociology.... The mistake

lies in the concept of the 'psychological': that whatever is not 'physical' is

'psychological.' But the meaning of a calculation that someone intends is

not at all 'psychological'" (Weber 1922, p. 9 [1968, p. 19]). In a chapter on

"Historical Understanding and the Unreal Formations of Meaning," written

for the fourth edition of his Limits of Natur al Scientific Concept Formation,

published the year after Weber's death but no doubt composed and dis-

cussed while he was still alive, Rickert states that ". .. 'incorporeal' need

not necessarily be real-psychological. Rather, there are formations that

belong neither to the corporeal nor to the events of the soul . . . nevertheless

are directly known to everyone and therefore may also not be situated in a

metaphysical beyond. To this in every respect unreal realm we must count,

for example, the 'meaning' of a word or the theoretical 'content' of a judg-

ment. Everyone who 'understands' such a formation at all understands it

as the same thing" (1921, p. 405). That solves the epistemological problems

of verstehen by fiat. But with the unanimity which for Rickert here defined

both understanding and the elements of his mundus intelligibilis, there

comes the moment of coercion inherent in a language community as a con-

sensual community (Weber 1913, pp. 276-87). To be sure, that community

is not fully an "institution" with a rational constitution, despite all rules of

grammar and even with some apparatus of coercion (see 1913, p. 287). But

to be understood or to act appropriately and without censure, the actors'

understanding of the lexicon must be largely congruent with that of their

language community overall. Insofar as this situation is the case, the affini-

ties of the words would have objective force, if not "validity."

The lexicon of a language community defines the universe of possible

actions of its menibers. But just as that lexicon is structured by the inner

affinities of its elements, by the intersecting meanings of the words, so too

then does each such point of intersection, each such inner affinity, present

to the actor a transition point of choice of possible actions in his traversals

of his universe of meanings. For the actors of Weber's sociology have that

choice. Very late in its history and much circumscribed in scope, Kant's

doctrine of the empirical and the intelligible characters (1902-, 3:368-77)

makes itself felt in Weber's definitions of action as behavior oriented to

meaning and of sociology as "a science that seeks to understand social action

explicatively and in so doing to explain it causally" (1922, p. 1 [1968, p.

4]). But for Weber, as for Kant, "that intervention of the intelligible char-


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Weber's Elective Affinities

acter into the chain of empirical causality by means of ethically norma-

tive actions" (1905b, p. 108) remained a limit concept in two related

senses. First, and most familiarly, in the sense of the value neutrality of his

social science: "An empirical science can teach no one what it is he ought

to do but rather only what it is he can do and-in certain circumstances-

what it is he wants to do" (1904a, p. 27 [1949, p. 54]). But then con-

versely, too, sociology as an empirical science cannot determine which choice

of possible actions the actor will make in his traversals of his universe of

meanings. To be sure, the actor's choice of possible actions is circumscribed

by the inner affinities of the elements of his lexicon. Just as these structure

its elements into networks of meanings, so do they structure his possible

actions into constellations. And the more and with the greater constancy

his actions are oriented to his ultimate values, the more they fall under the

schema of purposive-rational as teleological-rational action (see Weber

1906c, p. 108 [1975, p. 118]). Nevertheless, the actor's choice of ultimate

values is beyond the ken of social science. Therefore, Weber denies necessity

in the relationships constituting the conceptual constructs of his science,

despite all adequacy or inner affinity. But with that denial comes a second

one: without that necessity there could be no a priori foundation for the

possibility of a social science in the manner in which Kant conceived such

a foundation for the natural sciences. Accordingly, as in Kant's view of the

chemistry of the 18th century, social science could never be anything more

than a systematic art based on a divorce of the empirical from the rational.

That yields the locus of elective affinity in the order of Max Weber's



It is the freedom of the actors with respect to their choices of ultimate

values that renders Weber's social science problematical within the Kantian

bounds of his order of discourse, even as this freedom derives from that

Kantian frame. The logic of elective affinity would provide a solution. Here

a metaphor may be of use. Values are related to meanings as are the constel-

lations to the stars. They are not their source and in no way could knowledge

of meanings determine choice of values. For the elements of the mundus in-

telligibilis are multivalent. Their affinities are manifold and may be of three

kinds. They may join the elements of the mundus intelligibilis to one

another through the intersections of their meanings. They may exclude

those elements from one another through a like intersection with change

of sign. There may be no intersection, but through the former all meanings

are joined, however indirectly. A meaning in total isolation from the rest

is no meaning at all. The greater the number of positive inner affinities

between two elements vis-a-vis the total possible number, the more strongly


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American Journal of Sociology

are the elements joined. That is their "degree" of elective affinity. The

higher the meaning, the greater would be its elective affinity for all the rest.

The highest are values. But the lexicon of possible actions, of meanings, is

finite and the harmony of the values by no means assured. Impossible it

may be to behold the bear and the dipper at once upon the northern sky;

but very possible to serve at once the Reformation's work ethic as well as

its faith.

Only as the logic of the interrelationships of networks of meanings, of

possible actions, could elective affinity extend across the diversity of

Weber's usage, from the elective affinity of concrete forms of social action

with concrete economic forms to the elective affinity of similar ideals. Here

Weber's erudition and insight would meet with his order of discourse. From

chemistry and Bergman would come the basic paradigm of elective affinity;

from literature and Goethe, its application to the portrayal of social rela-

tionships; from philosophy and Kant, the art of divorce of the empirical

from the rational and the affinity of all things in their possibility. As a

maxim for the conduct of scholarship, elective affinity would suggest the

construction of ideal-types derived from the universe of ordinary language

and the analysis of those types according to their judgments in order to

trace in their elective affinities the actors' choices of possible actions. That

yields a logic for a sociology--die verstehende-which would "in the con-

sciousness of the narrow limits into which it is banned" (Weber 1922, p. 8

[1968, p. 17]) vouchsafe its possibility. It is elective affinity conceived

as idea.


Weber never worked out the logical consequences implicit in his own usage

of elective affinity. But despite the informality of his usage, these conse-

quences can be inferred from its diversity through recourse to the order of

discourse which formed its substrate. For Weber, in the great tradition of

German philological scholarship, the order of a language was the virtual

order of a society. The elements of that order were the meanings of the

words in their ordinary usage by the actors in history. Viewed from within

the Kantian bounds of his order of discourse, those actors are free in their

choice of actual actions. Thus, history would be a logical chaos were it not

for an order in the universe of the meanings to which those actors orient

their actions. That order is to be found in the elective affinities of words,

the greater or lesser extents to which they possess inner affinity through the

intersections of their meanings. It is this order in the universe of possible

actions which makes his social science possible. The actors' choices of pos-

sible actions are given by the elective affinities of their universe of meanings.

The order of the actual, the course of history and the structure of society,


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Weber's Elective Affinities

is to be read from this order of the possible. The task of Weber's science is

to portray its changing constellations.


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