After the talk – Value Polytheism and Democracy in Max Weber’s Political Thought

After the talk – Value Polytheism and Democracy in Max Weber’s Political Thought

On December 7th we hosted the second session of our Online Series ‘Max Weber as Political Theorist? Domination, Democracy and Revolution in the late writings (1917–1920)’. Yannis Ktenas and Lucía Pinto joined us for a discussion on «Value Polytheism and Democracy in Max Weber’s Political Thought»,  with Costas Polyzos as the main commentator. If you missed the event or would like to watch it again, you can already find the video on our YouTube channel!

As a conclusion to the talk, we want to take the opportunity to share the texts from our panelists and organizers, Lucía and Yannis, who kindly sent them to us. We look forward to welcoming you to our next talk on January 18th!

Lucía Pinto’s approach

Was Max Weber a political theorist? I will answer this question by examining the relationship between polytheism of values and democracy. The text is divided in three sections: the first section is about polytheism of values, the second section is about the relationship between polytheism of values and democracy, and in the third part I will present three questions of this work in progress.


Since his earlier methodological writings, Weber postulated the impossibility of a scientific foundation for value systems. In The “objectivity” of knowledge in social science and social policy, published in 1904 in the “Archive for social science and social policy”, he stated for the first time that there is no scientific procedure that can determine whether a value is valid or not. Empirical science cannot answer the question «What should I do?”. Philosophy, on the other hand, can provide knowledge about the meaning of the values that guide the actions of human beings, but it cannot provide knowledge about their validity.

This is, in Weber’s words, just “the fate of a cultural epoch that has eaten from the tree of knowledge” (2012a, p. 104). In secularised modernity, humans are devoid of the values that once guided their actions, and science cannot provide them with knowledge of their validity. Science cannot take the place left by religion. Weber argues that values are sacred, while recognising that they are no longer based in religion. He says: Ideals “are just as holy for others as ours are for us” (2012a, p. 105).

I want to highlight the link that Weber sets between values and dignity, because values are not just one more thing for him. In this text he writes that “what constitutes the dignity of a “personality” is that it espouses certain values to which it relates its life” (2012a, p. 103). A person’s dignity lies in having values, and eventually in defending them and putting them in practice. In this respect, I follow Karl Löwith (1993) who links this concept of dignity with freedom, postulating that freedom involves the free evaluation of the means to pursue the ends that each person proposes for themselves, which at last depends on his ultimate values.

In his late writings, Weber emphasized polytheism of values as a diagnosis of the modernity, leading to an endless struggle between values. In a secularised modernity, religion does not have the influence on life that it once did, but human beings continue to believe in gods, now demystified and depersonalised.  With the progress of his research, values appear as gods and conviction as faith. Like religion, values refer to an absolute meaning and cannot be scientifically founded. Thus, the death of God, as Nietzsche predicted, is translated in the Weberian thought into a ring in which multiple gods fight to the death. From the monotheism of a God, we move on to the polytheism of values. In the article Between two laws, published in February 1916 in the journal “Die Frau”, Weber writes that we live in a “polytheism” (2010a, p. 78) in which anyone “can only feel himself subject to the struggle between multiple sets of values, each of which, viewed separately, seems to impose an Obligation on him. He must choose which of these gods he will and should serve, or when he should serve the one and when the other” (2010a, p. 79).

Similarly, in 1917, in the lecture Science as a Vocation, given in November in Munich, he states that life rests on the eternal struggle between gods, since it is impossible to unify all values, in the face of which, a decision is needed. Also, in the same year, he published The meaning of “value freedom” in the sociological and economic sciences in the journal “Logos” and he writes that modernity is characterised by an «absolute polytheism» (2012b, p. 314) in which we witness a struggle between irreconcilable values against which, only a personal choice is needed. In other words, the irresolvable conflict between ultimate values is a statement that remains unchanged throughout his work.


So… what is the relationship between polytheism of values and democracy? As Edith Hanke showed a few weeks ago in the opening session of the Online Series, there is not a handy definition of Democracy in Weber’s late work. I would like to go back to the fourth thesis of Hanke, which is: “For Max Weber, democracy is not a concept of value”. As I will show, I totally agree with her.

In Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order, a book published in 1918 based on articles from 1917, Weber argues that forms of government are a technical matter, that depends on the political ends of each nation. Weber asserts that the historical task of the German nation is above its form of government. He writes: “Technical changes in the running of the State do not in themselves make a nation vigorous, nor happy, nor valuable. They can only clear away mechanical obstacles in its path and are therefore merely means to an end” (2010b, p. 134).

If in 1917 the most convenient form of government for Germany was parliamentary monarchy, in 1919, once the war is lost and the monarchy is defeated, that will change. In the lecture Politics as Vocation, given in January in Munich, he stands for a leadership democracyand in The President of the Reich, published in February in “Berliner Börsen-Zeitung”, he stands for the direct election of the president by the people to put “the presidency of the Reich on a firm democratic footing of its own” (2010c, 305). In The President of the Reich he also writes that the Magna Charta of democracy is “the right to the direct election of the Leader” (2010c, 308) and he gives seven arguments in defence of that form of government.All these arguments considered, Weber argues for the strengthening of the president for the sake of national unity, as a counterbalance to the fragmentary character of parliamentary representation, and to give him sufficient authority to implement the necessary economic reforms. He understands that the genuine democracy is based on direct election and, in his words, “subordination to leaders one has chosen for oneself” (2010c, p. 308).

So, in 1917 and 1919 the end is the same, the German nation, but if the context changes, Weber tells us: the means may change with it. In this sense, democracy as a form of government can be understood as a technique, not as a value.  This does not imply that politics is a technique in any manner. For Weber, politics is giving history a meaning. In Weber’s work, the concept of politics cannot be reduced to democracy.

Now, how should we understand this leadership democracy? Particularly, what is the relationship between the president and the people, the relationship between rulers and ruled in this democracy?

Wolfgang Mommsen (1974) defines Weber’s option for plebiscitarian leader-democracy as the gesture of a «desperate liberal» (p. 112), concerned with the preservation of individual creativity and personal values, by virtue of which he opts for political leaderships and defines democracy as a mere process of selecting leaders, which separates from the liberal democratic order.

From the point of view of José María González García (1988), Weber does not move away, but rather subscribes to the «liberal incoherence» (p. 35) between the individual as a moral subject and as a political subject: the universal demand that all individuals choose freely, autonomously and responsibly the ultimate ends of their lives coexists with an elitist political model in which the electorate assumes a passive role of selecting the leader who is the one who effectively decides.

I agree with González García and consider that these features are present in Weber’s thought, in which politics is made by the leaders. He supports the extension of suffrage that took place in Germany after the First World War, and he is very concerned about individual freedom, however the participation of the masses is not on the podium of his arguments, but rather the strengthening of the leaders.

Additionally, it is important to note that although it is true that popular participation is not a concern for Weber, it does not mean that the freedom of the politician can be to the detriment of civil liberties. Everyone must choose the ultimate ends of his life and that the government must respect subjective rights. As he writes in Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order: “It is, after all, a piece of crude self-deception to think that even the most conservative amongst us could carry on living at all today without these achievements from the age of the ‘Rights of Man” (2010b, p. 159). Against autocratic government, in The President of the Reich, Weber says, and I read: “Let us ensure that die President of the Reich sees die prospect of the gallows as the reward awaiting any attempt to interfere with the laws or to govern autocratically” (2010c, p. 305).

In this sense, Weber’s option for presidentialism, different from the parliamentarism proposed two years earlier, is based on the similar argument: the need to strengthen political leaderships so that they can give meaning to history, to guide the nation, the need to increase the politician’s margins of freedom.

Why Weber opts here for the president as the head of the executive and abandons his idea of parliamentarism? Was this the only option? The answer is no. David Beetham (1974) argues that the choice for the plebiscitary leader “was also a response to the inherent problems of capitalist society —the conflict of class and the pursuit of material interests— and the need for a strong political figure who would transcend these» (p. 240). Between 1917 and 1919 there were several attempts by the left to seize power. Weber, faced with the possibility that social tensions would be reproduced in parliament, opted for a leadership that could ensure the course of capitalism in a Germany deeply burdened after the war. In his arguments in 1919 he says that the President must «lay down the economic order of the future» (2010c, p. 305).

In a critical time, such as the post war, it seems that the unity of nation is not only above all the other values, but it is the only value. The struggle of values that before should have taken place in the parliament, it vanished in a critical time.


Based on these insights, I have three questions to discuss.

1. In Weber’s work the analysis of a form of government does not take place out of nowhere, but in a historical context marked by a specific debate. The context of 1919 is different from that of 1917, and so are his proposals: in 1917, the parliament must officiate as the place for the selection of political leaders; in 1919, in the absence of the figure of the Kaiser, leaders elected directly by the people are required.

If the aim of this WSN Event is to think about Max Weber as a Political Theorist, with an interrogation mark, can we think that this gesture of thinking what politics can do in each context is one of the elements of his political theory? In other words, I think Weber asks What politics can do in the face of the circumstances? Making this question and finding thoughtful answer is just doing political theory. The fact of changing the answer depending on the circumstances is part of his political theory.

If we ask this question in our present, What politics can do in the face of the circumstances? I think we would find another answers that Weber did. But his diagnosis of polytheism of values can be one of the most important elements of his political theory, that allow us in the 21st century to think of a concept of democracy that can be broader than his concept. Can we conceive a wider concept of democracy that is not only the legitimated domination of leaders, but the action of social and political movements which wish to influence leaders’ decision-making?

Polytheism of values can also give us some significant elements to think about our contemporary democracies. I think this would imply recognising Weber’s conceptual richness. Values are ends, but not means to anything. There is something very high in values in Weberian political theory.

2.In the choice of forms of government for Germany, parliamentary monarchy and leadership democracy appear as means to an end: the nation. Can we think that the nation is the fundamental value for Weber? What does the nation mean?

3. Democracy is not a value for Weber, but a technic, a form of government. In our times, can we think the same? Maybe democracy has turned into a value. If we can say that, against which other values is democracy fighting? And why has democracy turned into a value? Perhaps because it is in risk, and it must fight with other values. In another sense, it is good to think Democracy as a singular value, or should we rather think on democracy as the form of government that allows the struggle of values, the polytheism of values?

When Democracy turns into a value, it enters the struggle of values, and if it loses the struggle, polytheism can be denied. If we deny polytheism, we ultimately deny human dignity, which refers to the free choice of values. I propose to think of democracy as the condition of possibility of the polytheism of values. Democracy as a platform, in which polytheism is possible.1

By Lucía Pinto (Universidad de Buenos Aires)

December 2023

  1. References
    Beetham, D. (1974). Max Weber and the Theory of Modern Politics. George Allen & Unwin.
    González García, J. M. (1988). Las herencias de Kant y de Goethe en el pensamiento de Max Weber. Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas, (43), 23-42.
    Löwith, K. (1993). Max Weber and Karl Marx. Routledge.
    Mommsen, W. (1974). A Liberal in Despair. The age of bureaucracy. Perspectives on the Political Sociology of Max Weber (pp. 95-115). Basil Blackwell.
    Weber, M. (2012a). The “objectivity” of knowledge in social science and social policy. Collected methodological writings (pp. 100-138). Routledge.
    Weber, M. (2012b). The meaning of “value freedom” in the sociological and economic sciences. Collected methodological writings (pp. 304-334). Routledge.
    Weber, M. (2010a). Between two laws. Political Writings (pp. 75-79). Cambridge University Press.
    Weber, M. (2010b). Parliament and Government in Germany under a New Political Order. Political Writings (pp. 130-271). Cambridge University Press.
    Weber, M. (2010c). The President of the Reich. Political Writings (pp. 304-308). Cambridge University Press.

Yannis Ktenas’ approach

I’m really glad to find myself in such a nice company in order to discuss a topic that has been puzzling me for quite a few years now. I fully support Edith’s and Victor’s idea that we should explore the possibilities of reading Weber as a political thinker – a series of possibilities that have been partly blocked due to the “sociologization” of Weber, operated by Parsons and others, and to the widely misunderstood call for Wertfreiheit. I think that the two topics, value polytheism and politics, can be fruitfully connected; let’s get started!

Lucia has already provided us with a very solid ground on what Weber meant when he spoke of the polytheism of values, so I’m not going to repeat all the things she focused on. I just want to give a short definition of what I perceive value polytheism to be: according to Weber, there are various values, that is to say, various guiding principles that orient human action. These principles are not only numerous and different; they also oppose each other, at least potentially, and at least from a certain point on.

As Weber says in a less famous passage on the subject than those that appear in “The Meaning of ‘Value-Freedom’” and in Science as a Vocation,

That old sober empiricist, John Stuart Mill, once said that, simply on the basis of experience, no one would ever arrive at the existence of one god –and, it seems to me, certainly not a «god of goodness– but at polytheism. Indeed anyone living in the ‘world’ (in the Christian sense of the word) can only feel himself subject to the struggle between multiple sets of values, each of which, viewed separately, seems to impose an obligation on him. He has to choose which of these gods he will and should serve, or when he should serve the one and when the other-

Between Two Laws”, in Max Weber, Political Writings, edit. By P. Lassman & R. Speirs, Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 78-79

Let us open a parenthesis here and note that, in a way, this emphasis on the empirical basis of value polytheism (Weber writes “simply on the basis of experience”), leaves open the possibility for a different, philosophical, for example, resolution of the value conflict. Max Scheller at the time tried to provide such a philosophical classification of values. In a certain manner, Weber seems not to exclude such a possibility. He just says that we, as social scientists, have to stick to the experience and that such philosophical resolutions of value conflicts, even if possible, don’t really matter for us, as there can be no scientific answer to the problem. However, my opinion is that Weber doesn’t really believe that these conflicts could actually ever be resolved, even philosophically. Because if he did, large parts of his epistemology would not make a lot of sense. But let me close this parenthesis here and we can discuss this subject later on, if we want.

In any case, the idea of value polytheism means that you cannot satisfy at the same time all the different principles that could guide human action. You just can’t optimize at the same time freedom, economic growth, equality, national pride, public health, etc. This means, according to Weber, that you have to either make a sacrifice of one value in favor of another either to operate a kind of compromise. This idea of sacrifice is fundamental here: if one wants to respect Venus, the goddess of love, they often have to be disrespectful towards Mars, the god of war, and vice versa.

To make things even more difficult, science cannot provide us with an easy way out of this predicament. Social science can help us define with clarity (Klarheit) what our values are; it can show us what the most efficient means to achieve a given goal are; it can help us predict how things will flow in case we choose one course of action over another. But it cannot take away from our shoulders the burden of having to choose which is going to be the value or the set of values that will orient our actions. At the end of the day, everyone has to choose his or her own god, and this god will necessarily be the devil of someone else. And Weber mocks scientists who, at his time, still thought that would find an answer to this kind of problems within the realm of science. He calls them “big children”.

The idea of the impossibility of scientific foundation of values is absolutely fundamental for Weber. In fact, Hans Henrik Bruun, in his seminal work on Science, Values and Politics in Max Weber’s Methodology notes that “[i]t is […] surprisingly rare to find general statements in Weber’s works asserting that scientific inquiry should be kept free from value elements, that is, expressing, in a strict sense, the principle of the value freedom of science”. On the contrary, “[t]he other asymmetrical formulation, which, properly speaking, does not demand the value freedom of scientific inquiry, but the freedom of the value sphere from allegations of scientific demonstrability, appears far more frequently” (p. 62).

I agree with this interpretation, especially given the fact that Weber attributes to values an absolutely crucial, and indeed constitutive, role in the selection and the delimitation of scientific objects (the Objektsabgrenzung, as he says).

Now, before moving on to the political implications of Weber’s position, I would like to try to reinforce this position, in a way. I’m going to refer briefly to some cases that Weber seems to not take so much into consideration, or to not put enough emphasis on. This is an effort not to disagree with him, but on the contrary, to solidify his view, taking into account more recent factors and criticisms that have been formulated against his position after his death.

First of all, I would say that Weber tends to think the problem of value polytheism in terms of different values that antagonize each other, e.g. freedom and order, equality and freedom, economic growth and national identity. However, we should also explore cases where there is an unsurmountable polytheism among different interpretations of the same value. For example, no one today is going to declare that they are against freedom. However, there are antinomic interpretations that different political forces put forward in regards to what freedom really is. To give a recent example, during the pandemic, there were people that suggested freedom means not to be vaccinated, as well as others who proposed vaccination as a way of reclaiming freedom.

Second of all, I would like to try to answer one of the most serious counter-arguments that have been formulated against Weber’s position. This argument is to be found in the writings of Raymond Boudon, a conservative French sociologist and philosopher, who highly appreciated Weber’s work. Despite his admiration for Weber, Boudon claims that there are some things that are irreversible in human history. For example, once human rights have emerged historically, you cannot go back; and even in the cases that we can spot a regression, we are in position to judge this as a regression exactly because some universal norms have been established. For example, no one can argue rationally in favor of slavery today, and this is a sign for Boudon that some values can be rationally or even scientifically founded.

However, I would say that, even if we accept some values as undisputable (and both Weber, I and I guess everyone in this session do accept human and individual rights, even if we think that this acceptance comes through political engagement and cultural formation, not through scientific demonstration), even then, there is a polytheistic aspect regarding the ways in which these values are to be practically applied.

What does it mean to respect human rights? Does it mean that we provide to some people the choice of not getting vaccinated or does it mean that we get everyone vaccinated in order to protect the most vulnerable among us? Does it mean that we support actively Ukraine in the battlefield or that we adopt a prudent stance, as Jürgen Habermas suggested, in order not to culminate the war? In all of these decisions, there is a moment of prioritization of one value over another or an effort of compromise between different values, all of which are crucial for the idea of human dignity. And while I personally have a clear answer for these questions, I do not thing that this answer is scientifically demonstrable or the only rational one.

The third point I want to make has to do with the possibility of universalization of our values. According to this criterion, which of course stems from Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and has influenced the work of philosophers such as John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas, we have to commit to principles that can be universalized. Weber does not use this criterion at all. For him, the only possible criteria for value judgements are internal: coherence and readiness to accept even the extreme consequences of one’s value stance. I will come back to this briefly later on.

Although I do not share Kant’s opinion on the existence of a unique human Reason, I do believe that the universalizability of one’s positions makes them more persuasive, and thus stronger and preferable for those who want to care for other people and other creatures, too. However, I would suggest that, even if we discard the obviously non-universalizable sets of values, such as Nazism or extreme nationalism, we are always still left with more than one value choices that demand to be universalized and contradict each other, demanding the, at least partial, sacrifice of the other. This is something Jean-Paul Sartre has already noticed, when he said that Kant would not be able to answer to the young soldier that asked him whether he should go to the war against the Nazis and take revenge for his father or whether he should stay at home and take care of his vulnerable mother.

So, I believe these three points in a way amplify Weber’s position, making it less open to criticisms that have been formulated after its original expression. Moreover, exactly because they stress the question of the practical application or implementation of values, they lead us straight to the heart of the general topic of this season’s WSN events: the political implications of Weber’s work.

As we all know, Weber’s position on the scientific indemonstrability of values has been criticized as relativistic by thinkers of the most various political beliefs. Not only Leo Strauss, but also Marxists and thinkers belonging to the Frankfurt School criticize Weber’s positions as relativistic and irrationalistic, both at a political and at a methodological level. For example, Lukács, who was friends with Weber and they both appreciated each other’s company, writes that Weber, by not speaking about the totality of the social world, as it is objectively determined by its class structure, is obliged to remain methodologically incapable of understanding history as something different than an occurrence of separate events.

Let me first show why, in my opinion, Weber’s approach is not irrationalistic. When Weber speaks of the impossibility of a strictly rational or scientific foundation of values, this does not mean that he rejects rationality. It just means that there is no universal and unique human Reason (and we have to note here that Weber uses the word Rationalität and not Vernunft, as Kant or Hegel do). On the contrary, there are different forms of rationality, which begin from different value premises. You cannot in a solely rational way persuade someone that their values are wrong, as long as they don’t contradict themselves and are willing to accept the consequences of their position. A vegetarian and a hunter can eternally disagree without necessarily committing a logical mistake.

However, this does not mean that everyone can just say what they want and there is no ground left for rational argumentation and deliberation. Weber is not a fan of “anything goes”. On the contrary, he develops a form of strict internal value critique, which aims at discovering inconsistencies in the rationale of the opponent. In an intervention he made following a lecture by Werner Sombart, Weber mentions:

«I can tell someone with whom I argue on a specific value judgement: My friend, you are misguided on what you really want. Look: I take your value judgement and I analyze it dialectically, through means of logic, in order to reduce it to its ultimate maxims, so that I can show you that there lie this and that ‘ultimate’ possible value judgements, perhaps completely incompatible with each other or compatible only after compromises have been made, [value judgements] that you had not taken into consideration at all, and among which you must choose. (Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik, Mohr Siebeck, 1988, p. 417)

Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Soziologie und Sozialpolitik, Mohr Siebeck, 1988, p. 417

Finally, let me come to the topic of politics. To begin with, Weber rejected the term relativism, as he thought a relativist stance would require the positive proof that all stances share the same value. Quite to the contrary, he called for a lucid position taking, for the commitment and the engagement in ethicopolitical values that give meaning and dignity to the otherwise meaningless life, in this meaningless universe.

In a way, we could argue that politics has meaning exactly in so far as there is no scientifically proven answer to the ever-occurring problems of our common life. If there was a scientific way to demonstrate once and for all how should we live our lives, what would be the point of political confrontation, deliberation, debate and struggle? We should just wait for the experts to solve the riddle and then just figure out ways of applying their findings.

The dream of a scientific organization of social life, which can be found in early socialists such as Saint-Simon, but also in some parts of Marxist or Leninist literature, is according to Weber unattainable. There can be no replacement of the “government of people” by a scientifically organized “administration of things”.

However, this means we can interpret value polytheism as the guarantee of the permanence of politics and of the irreducibility of debate, disagreement and conflict over the affairs of the polis. There can be no absolute political science, imposing its conclusions upon the life of citizens via the appropriate means, in a sort of social mechanics exercise. Science, Weber insisted citing Tolstoy, will never be able to unambiguously respond to the most fundamental question: “How should we live our lives?”. This being the case, a variety of opinions, points of view, approaches, desires, and interests always lie at the heart of the political.

In this context, we can also better understand Weber’s positions on university teaching and on the abstention of professors from articulating value judgements in class. This is a subject that is of course related, but not identical with value polytheism, and it has to be discussed against the background of Weber’s critique against the Kathedersozialisten. I’m not going to do so here. However, let me finish with an incident from Weber’s personal life, narrated by Paul Honigsheim The Unknown Max Weber, Transaction Publishers 2000, p. 128-129):

Weber is at a table and he is having an intense conversation and disagreement over political issues with some of his friends and colleagues. Then, he observes some of his students entering the space and he suddenly stops speaking. When the company asks him to continue, he refuses, making the argument that his students, due to their relationship, will tend to think that his personal opinions are scientific facts.

I think that, after what we have discussed here, we could argue that his reaction was of course driven not by lack of interest in politics, but exactly by respect towards politics. He wanted his students to be able to develop their own political judgement, and not surrender in front of the opinion of an “expert”. Quite hard to find a more democratic approach in academic life than this, I believe.

Yannis Ktenas