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Friday, July 18, 2014


I retired six years ago, so I am a retired professor.  But I am not a retired philosopher.  I mean, you cannot retire from philosophy if you are a philosopher, any more than you can retire from poetry if you are a poet.  Of course, you may go for long periods without writing philosophy, or even longer periods of time without writing poetry.  If you are a novelist, you may also go for long periods of time without writing a novel.  Just ask J. D. Salinger, Ralph Ellison, or Joseph Heller.  But you are still a novelist, right?

Be that as it may, there are rules and regulations in the Academy, rules that determine, for example, which Dean you have to see about getting a phone in your office, and if you have given no visible evidence of activity conforming to your official job description for thirty years or so, you may run into resistance from the powers that be.  [After a number of years in the Afro-American Studies Department, I applied for a sabbatical leave.  Since I was required to state the research I proposed to undertake, I said I wanted to write my autobiography.  The Provost, Cora Marrett, who was in fact also a courtesy member of our department, turned me down on the grounds that it was not, given my professional specialty, an appropriate project.  I am very happy to report that she is now Deputy Director of the National Science Foundation, in which position she can ride herd on silly projects like mine nation-wide.]

But though I will, I guess, be a philosopher until I die, there being no established procedure for stripping me of my epaulets, I was reflecting today that for a long time now my mind has been very much less engaged with what passes for philosophy in the profession than with the concepts, insights, methods, and problems of the great tradition of social theory.  Looking back over the tutorials and mini-tutorials I have composed for this blog, I find that I have written at length about all four of the giants of the classical tradition:  Karl Marx, Max Weber, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Mannheim.  [I have long been enchanted by the fact that early in his career, W. E. B. Du Bois went abroad and studied with Max Weber.  For an opportunity like that I would have buckled down and really learned some German!]

These autobiographical reflections were triggered in me when there popped into my head, for no apparent reason, the phrase “the routinization of charisma,” which plays a role in Weber’s discussion of types of legitimate authority, one of the highpoints of his magisterial posthumous work, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft [Economy and Society.]  According to Wikipedia, “In 1998 the International Sociological Association listed this work as the most important sociological book of the 20th century.”  These days, it is the rare doctoral student in Sociology, I would bet, who has ever so much as held one of its volumes in his or her hands.  I genuinely believe that there has been an actual decline in our level of understanding of society in the last century, implausible as that may seem.

 I suppose I ought to explain “routinization of charisma” for anyone who has not encountered the expression.  Chrism, or myrrh, is holy oil, an oil consecrated by a priest and used in religious ceremonies to anoint someone.  By extension, charisma is the personal quality of someone who is perceived as having been anointed or chosen by God for some purpose.  In the course of his profound and very important explication of the origins and varieties of our belief in the legitimacy of the authority claimed by leaders or rulers, Weber argues that the most primitive and fundamental source of this belief is the personal quality of a great warrior or religious figure who inspires in those around him or her a willingness to follow even into battle or on a path of self-sacrifice.  St. Francis had this quality, as did Joan of Arc, Mohandas Gandhi, and many others.  The charisma attaches to the individual by virtue of his or her personal qualities, quite irrespective of lineage or royal appointment or “the consent of the governed.”  Weber labels this personal ability to command the loyalty and sacrifice of others “charismatic authority.”  Note that Weber is not seeking to justify authority claims, but rather to explain a familiar and important social phenomenon.  A somewhat vulgar and debased variant of charismatic authority is what is sometimes called “star quality,” often claimed for entertainers and contemporary politicians.

Because the individual’s success in commanding the loyalty and obedience of followers flows directly from his or her personal qualities --   courage, daring, skill with weapons, saintliness, selflessness – it cannot easily be transferred to a son or daughter or to a faithful follower.  But time passes, and the warrior grows old, the saint feeble.  Unless procedures are established for passing the mantle of leadership to a representative of a new generation, who may of course quite lack the charisma of the old leader, either what has been accomplished through the efforts of the charismatic leader will disappear, or a destructive struggle will break out for the succession.  Inevitably, what began as the individual authority of the remarkable individual comes to be transformed into a stable and transferable claim to rule, capable of being transmitted from generation to generation.

The charisma is routinized.


Jamie said...

I read Weber a bunch of times as a sociology undergrad, and graduate students in the required classical social theory courses had to read big chunks of Economy and Society as well as other essays. My mentor at the time is still an enthusiastic Weberian.

I would be surprised if things have changed in the last decade or if other research universities have excised Weber from their curricula.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Jamie, I am really glad to hear that. I think I was influenced by a UMass grad student who told me that they did not read the classical authors. Now, of course, if I had done a scientific survey instead of relying on my subjective impressions ... :)

Jamie said...

My sample is small and non-random as well :-)