Weber and Lucas: a different narrative?

Weber and Friedman’s story featured Knight as the most probable mediator of ideas. However, if we turn to the post-Friedmanian developments in Chicago business-cycle theories, the emergence of Weberianism seems to be implausible for Knight’s effacement at Chicago’s Department of Economics. Hence, the stage for both Knight and Weberian ideas fundamentally changed after WWII (Van Horn & Mirowski, 2009). There exists a narrative according to which modern Chicago economics as an educational and scientific conception is strongly reliant upon Knight (Reder, 1982). The present consensus, however, underplays his influence. As Emmett (2011) underlines, the modern school has been working with such an institutional structure that has little to do with Knight. In the years after WWII Knight had problems finding his position in the specialized economic theorizing (Emmett, 2010; 2013).

It is dubious whether Knight’s presence in the curriculum of modern Chicago economics is enough for us to talk about institutionalized Weberianism in these years. Emmett (2009) draws attention to the fact that chapter one of Knight’s The economic organization (Knight, 1933) is still on the reading lists of Econ 301―even in Kevin Murphy’s time. This text echoes a multitude of well-known Knightian thoughts (the limited relevance of neoclassical theory, problems around dynamic economics) some of which stem from Weber (Clarke, 1991, p. 262). With neither explicit reference to Weber nor using the term ‘ideal type’, Knight briefly mentions Weber’s methodology of ideal types (footnote 5 on p. 21 and p. 28). Therefore, the text itself is a far cry from a comprehensive introduction to Weberian tenets.

Thus, the post-Friedmanian emergence of Weberianism is highly doubtful. Accordingly, studies inquisitive about the connection between Weber and Chicago economics missed extending Weberianism beyond Friedman. Focusing on Knight’s role as a mediator is a possible cause, whilst paying attention to changes in the curricula of the Department of Economics may be another one. However, in the dissemination of Weber’s ideas in the U.S. the years after WWII were significant. An expansion of Weberianism in new directions and in new scientific centres occurred in these years (Scaff, 2011, p. 273).

In Lucas’ case, however, Friedman is a possible mediator, bearing in mind F53’s Weberian reminiscences. Further possible channels might have worked during his undergraduate studies. It must be noted that in his Nobel bio Lucas (1995) places a great emphasis on his B.A. in history. History, together with anthropology, sociology, economics, psychology and political science, belongs to social scientific education. The B.A. level education of these subjects was an assignment of the College of the University of Chicago working as an autonomous administrative unit. The College established a three-year sequence of subjects in the social sciences, paralleled with similar three-year sequences in the natural sciences and humanities. This three-year sequence in the social sciences consisted of three subjects, each with a different focus (Singer, 1948). In this subject matrix the course ‘Soc 2’ (Social Sciences 2) has the most importance as far as Weberianism is considered. Under this label students studied Weber’s Protestant ethic (Weber, 1930) as a part of the theories necessary for understanding society.

A careful reading of the Protestant ethic has been an accentuated constituent of the curriculum for decades (Levine, 1992, p. 110; Schudson, 1992, p. 137), so it was in Lucas’ time, and not only in Chicago (Mims, 1952, p. 29). The reading lists featured the 1930 English edition of the Protestant ethic, translated by Parsons, to which economic historian Richard Tawney wrote a foreword (the foreword itself was also a compulsory reading). This work of Weber is a masterpiece of the application of the methodology of ideal types. In the foreword, accordingly, Tawney underlines how significant Weber’s social scientific methodology is for economics. For him, moreover, the method of the essay is as important as its conclusions (p. I(b)).

Protestant ethic is a not a systematic introduction to Weber’s methodology. The text, however, provides an effective summary of the methodology of ideal types. In the first two pages of chapter two Weber puts forward his idea about the purpose of social scientific conceptualization. It is to highlight some individual parts of historical reality and to unite them into a consistent conceptual whole―which is the ideal type. Here Weber also underlines the requirement that we ought to properly adjust our theories to the facets of reality we are interested in, though our current point of view is by no means the only possible aspect from which we can approach a social phenomenon (Weber, 1930, pp. 47-48). In a lengthy note (p. 192) Parsons also drew attention to both the significance of these principles and Weber’s revaluation of the methodology of the social sciences.

The translation history of Weber’s works is also worth attention. In the 1950s the texts indispensable to a methodological study of the Protestant ethic were all available in English. In 1927 Knight translated Weber’s General economic history (Weber, 1927), a mature form of Weber’s comparative historical sociology. The other magnum opus was the Protestant ethic. In 1934-35 Edward Shils teamed up with Henry A. Finch in Chicago translated three methodological essays (Objectivity in social science and social policy; The meaning of ethical neutrality; Critical studies in the logic of the cultural sciences), published in a single volume in 1949 (Weber, 1949). The English edition of the complete text of Economy and society providing a detailed description of the ideal type methodology came out only in 1968 (Weber, 1968/1978), though the methodological introduction (Basic sociological terms, including the famous Methodological foundations) became available as early as in 1937-38. Thanks to Shils, the text circulated among the students and the academic staff. Even though sociologists showed a more intense interest in Weber (Scaff, 2011, pp. 201-6; Sica, 2004; Derman, 2012, pp. 39-9), Weber as we have seen was an accentuated constituent of the general social scientific education in Chicago.

It is also Lucas’ Nobel bio where he mentions Belgian historian Henri Pirenne as a major influence on him. Reading Pirenne may be an additional source of Weberianism. In methodological terms, Pirenne applied the same comparative historical method as Weber advocated. Comparative method was a cultivated approach in scientific historiography, regarded as the best way of elevating history to glorious prestige. For Pirenne, comparative method served as a reality check in order to conform social scientific generalizations. In this framework, social science lead to generalizations through a process where empirical justification of the causes is a high-ranked aspect (Lorenz, 2009, pp. 399-401). As with Friedman, however, we ought to avoid overemphasizing Lucas’ exposure to Weberianism. The attitude of Chicago academics towards Weber has always been rather ambivalent, especially after political philosopher Leo Strauss’ arrival at Chicago (1949). Strauss had a very negative judgement about Weber and due to his scholarly power he could profoundly bias convictions on Weber. This likely means that when Lucas received his history degree, he might have been rather negatively affected by Strauss’ viewpoint which was widely known in those years. Such distortions might also have contributed to Weber’s turning into an implicitly cited authority in social sciences.


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Van Horn, R., & Mirowski, P. (2009). The rise of the Chicago school of economics and the birth of neoliberalism. In P. Mirowski, & D. Plehwe (Eds.), The road from Mont Pèlerin (pp. 139-180). Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

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