Disenchanting and Re-Enchanting German Modernity with Max Weber and Rudolf Steiner
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Disenchanting and Re-Enchanting German Modernity with Max Weber and Rudolf Steiner


This dissertation challenges the way scholars have defined modernity in terms of inaccurate dichotomies by comparing Max Weber (1864–1920), often considered the most important sociologist of the twentieth century, and Rudolf Steiner (1861–1925), founder of Waldorfpädagogik and the esoteric social reform movement anthroposophy. While acknowledging that Weber and Steiner were different in several respects, this research illustrates that the individual histories of these men are more closely and complexly related than scholars have recognized. This includes the influence of esotericism on their thinking, as well as their profound concern with science and technological change and the effects both were having on human beings in terms of social, economic, and political relationships. These subjects are the focus of this dissertation, and investigating them through the lives of Weber and Steiner reveals that we need to re-evaluate how we draw comparisons and create categories in historical analysis. Steiner and Weber have often been considered polar opposites, yet their core ideas are similar in important respects. Steiner expressed himself as a visionary narrator and Weber as a learned scholar, yet their education and the works they read and were inspired by were similar, resulting in a synthesis of natural science, romanticism, and esotericism. This explains their analogous reaction to technological progress, as well as their interest in Asian religion and culture as a way of shedding light on Western problems. Both feared that technological advance would eventually destroy society and human relationships unless it was carefully analyzed and rethought. For both men this involved imagining a human-centered science that took seriously the ideas of Far and South East Asia. They were both caught up in the social changes of their time and passionate about shaping the future of Germany in ways that would enhance human dignity and freedom through the humane use of science and technology. To understand their commonalities, this dissertation revisits the lives of Weber and Steiner from the perspective of a “sociology of generations,” an idea introduced by Karl Mannheim in 1928. Weber and Steiner belonged to the same generation and therefore their lives, interests, and concerns can tell us a great deal about a particular moment in European history. Mannheim argued that historical generations were a sociological phenomenon in that cohorts or groups of people in their younger years could be similarly influenced by the same historical events, generating a sense of shared experience. It is crucial to recognize these similarities because they call into question the kind of dichotomies usually made by scholars—especially ones that marginalize esotericism such as “rational and irrational”—and they force us to rethink the problematic use of binary categories for interpreting early 20th century German history.

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