Paul Reitter and I recently edited a new translation of Max Weber’s two vocation lectures by Damion Searls. NYRB Classics published them this past February. As part of this volume, Paul and I also wrote an introduction:
In the summer of 1917, a group of university students in Munich invited Max Weber to launch a lecture series on “intellectual work as a vocation” with a talk on the work of the scholar. He was, in a way, an odd choice. Fifty-three at the time, Weber hadn’t held an academic job in almost two decades. His career had begun promisingly, but in 1899 Weber suffered a nervous breakdown and gave up his position as a professor of economics at the University of Heidelberg. Supported by the inheritance of his wife, Marianne, he had spent years going from clinic to clinic in search of relief, while continuing to work on two of his lifelong interests—the individual and collective meaning of religion, and universal forms of rationalization—and contribute articles to scholarly journals and essays and opinion pieces to the press. Yet after a public career of close to twenty years, his last major publication was The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which had originally appeared as two separate essays in 1904 and 1905.
But it was understandable why the students in Munich were drawn to Weber.
They belonged to the Bavarian chapter of the Free Student Alliance, an organization devoted to championing the lofty ideals of the German research university—the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; Bildung, or moral education; academic freedom—at a time when those ideals appeared to be imperiled by disciplinary specialization, state intervention, the influence of industrial capitalism, and now a world war. Writing over the years as a kind of insider outsider, Weber had distinguished himself as an extraordinarily erudite and forceful defender of an ideal university that in some important ways aligned with the institution that the members of the alliance wished for.
Here is a PDF of the entire introduction.