Science as a Vocation

by Mariel Osetinsky

Max Weber was a German sociologist, economist, and politician of the 19th and early 20th century. Although his passions were varied, Weber achieved a phenomenal level of influence in every area of work in which he became involved. He served in a number of positions, including hospital orderly in World War I and advisor for the German delegation at the Peace Talks in Versailles, and by the end of the war had become the nation’s most respected authority on public affairs. Weber is widely known for his notion of the “Protestant work ethic.” Due to his valuable scholarly work in fields such as politics, economics, philosophy, Weber has been given the illustrious title, “Father of modern social science.” Near the end of his life, Max Weber was invited to speak to a group of students at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. The purpose of the lecture series was to provide the students an insight into “geistige Arbeit als Beruf,” or intellectual scholarship as both a profession and a calling. One of the first lectures of this series was Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” in 1917. The timing of Weber’s lecture was significant in that it fell between the February and October Revolutions in Russia and when World War I was nearing its end. The United States’ increasing involvement in the war effort against the Germans at this time eroded any remaining hopes of winning the war for an already war-weary Germany.[1]

Content Overview

In delivering his speech, “Science as a Vocation,” as part of this lecture series, Weber spoke to students about the nature of being a professional scientist. In his lecture, Weber treats the scientific career specifically as a vocation. He uses the German word, Beruf, which has implications of both the professionalism of and calling for a career. Weber begins with a relatively lengthy description of the bureaucracy involved in a scientific vocation. Weber notes the influence of politics on professional decision-making in areas such as giving promotions or recognizing someone for their work. Weber shows the inequity of the system by pointing out that usually the second- or third-best person is promoted or recognized. Another point Weber makes is that being a great teacher and being a great leader are not one in the same thing. Courses taught by great leaders are popular, while great teachers are more easily forgotten; in other words, students are more impressed by classroom performance than by the content of the lectures. These realities are troublesome for Weber, and he uses them seemingly as a warning to the students in the audience who may be considering a career in professional science.

Another facet of the scientific vocation that Weber addresses is the commitment to science. In order to have a fulfilling career as a scientist, Weber argues, one must have an experience of science. By this Weber means that only when a scientist has a personal connection to the field is he likely to succeed, or at least to persevere, in his scientific vocation. At one point in the lecture, Weber compares the nature of an artist’s work to that of a scientist. He argues that the artist’s work can reach fulfillment; the scientist’s work, on the other hand, by its very nature, is designed to be surpassed. Weber proposes that a scientist must have a certain personality that allows him to be wholly devoted to his work. This devotion, for Weber, is part of what makes science more than just a profession; it is also a calling in the sense that only select personalities are drawn to and are fit for a career in science.


Weber’s Vocation Lectures, “Science as a Vocation” and “Politics as a Vocation,” have been both inspirations and incitements to controversy over the years. Almost one hundred years since Weber delivered them in Munich, the lectures are still being analyzed and used to interpret the current state of science and politics. For example, Mark Erickson applies Weber’s lessons in “Science as a Vocation” to Higher Education (“HE”) in the United Kingdom. With references to Weber, Erickson “[begins] to recognize that the character and structure of UK HE may be vulnerable” (53). According to Erickson, “Those responsible for producing the scientific knowledge… are not the people who are receiving the rewards of a sci-tech revolution. Rather, they are receiving job insecurity, lack of institutional recognition and relatively low pay.”[2] This statement by Erickson echoes quite literally some of the issues Weber addresses in “Science as a Vocation,” demonstrating the continuing relevance of Weber’s thoughts to modern science. Certainly, Weber’s response to Erickson’s observation would be to explain that such drawbacks are simply the nature of scientific work, and they must be endured by the scientist in order to pursue his or her career. This tension, which Weber first explains and Erickson later echoes, between the inherent bureaucracy of academia and the abilities of individual scientists is a key factor that designates Weber’s lecture, “Science as a Vocation,” as a modernist piece.

In addition to bilateral discord between scientists and the system, Weber addresses another modernist characteristic, namely the internal struggle of scientific research. This more personal battle is made evident in the work of scholars H.H. Brunn and Jay Ciaffa, who analyze Weber’s work from the standpoint of value. The problem arises from a phenomenon Weber describes, that science is by its very nature designed to be surpassed. More specifically, the following question would arise: if a scientist’s work is meant to be outdone by others, then what is the point of or value in pursuing a career in science? Brunn observes that “there seems to be unusually general agreement among the commentators with regard to Weber’s positive attitude to values and to active commitment.” Brunn then attempts to investigate for himself evidence of this in Weber’s works. He specifically notes the passage from “Science as a Vocation” in which Weber states, “I personally answer this question in the affirmative [that it may be]…worth anyone’s while to choose science as a ‘vocation’ and [that] science itself has an objectively worthwhile ‘vocation.’”[3] Brunn’s interpretation of this statement is that “Weber sees the question of the value of scientific inquiry as, in practice, one of definition.”[4] Brunn further investigates Weber’s perspective on the value of science through his pursuit of additional works, such as Weber’s Objectivity in Social Science and Social Policy (1904). Brunn ultimately arrives at the conclusion that Weber believes “engaging in the activity [of scientific inquiry] easily acquires a kind of unconscious self-evidence…[and] the activity of scientific inquiry implies the choice of a particular value.”[5]

Jay Ciaffa also interprets Weber’s take on the value of science but reaches a conclusion contrary to that of Brunn. According to Ciaffa, “Weber argues that the social sciences must refrain from advancing practical value-judgments, lest they transgress the boundaries of their legitimate authority. In short, empirical social research must remain value-free.”[6] Upon closer inspection, however, Ciaffa’s claim has little substance. Brunn’s argument is highly substantiated by textual analysis of Weber’s work, and thus it can be easily accepted that Weber saw value as an intrinsic part of scientific inquiry. Nevertheless, such analyses made by Brunn, a philosopher of science, and by Ciaffa demonstrate the great influence that Weber’s lecture, “Science as a Vocation,” has on characterizing scientific work today. Ultimately, Weber’s astute observations of the scientist’s struggle with the bureaucratic system and of the internal struggle of the scientist in an effort to realize the meaning of his or her work, reveal Weber’s “Science as a Vocation” as a truly modernist work.

  1. ↑ See David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, “Introduction,” The Vocation Lectures 2004: ix-xxxiv.
  2. ↑ Ibid.
  3. ↑ H.H. Brunn, Science, Values, and Politics in Max Weber’s Methodology (Copenhagen: Munksgaard, 1972), p. 27.
  4. ↑ Ibid., p. 34.
  5. ↑ Ibid.
  6. ↑ Jay A. Caffa, Max Weber and the Problems of Value-Free Social Science: A Critical Examination of the Werturteilsstreit (Cranbury: Associated University Press, 1998), p. 98.