Werner Sombart, the German economic and social theorist, was born in Ermsleben near the Harz Mountains. He was professor of economics at the University of Breslau from 1890 to 1906 and at Berlin University from 1906 to 1931.
Sombart made a strong impact on German economic thought and policies; he played a leading role in the Verein für Sozialpolitik and the Deutsche Soziologische Gesellschaft, and he was joint editor with Max Weber and Edgar Jaffe of the journal Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik.
Sombart’s interests covered economic and social history and theory, sociology, and the methodology of the social sciences, although his contributions to methodology were more polemical than constructive.
Together with Wilhelm Dilthey, Heinrich Rickert, Karl Jaspers, and Max and Alfred Weber, he helped to establish modern German historical and cultural sociology. Sombart was a highly prolific writer, and few of his writings are free from marks of careless workmanship, though nearly all sparkle with suggestive ideas.
Study of Capitalism
Sombart concentrated on the study of the development and the structural makeup of European industrial society and in particular on the development of capitalism and the transition from capitalism to socialism. In his early work he was influenced by Karl Marx, but in his mature period he sought to go beyond Marx’s theoretical and historical edifice and fundamentally to undermine the Marxist weltanschauung.
Sombart’s magnum opus was Der moderne Kapitalismus, whose first and second versions (1902 and 1916–1927) both demonstrated methodological and substantive advances.
|Study of Capitalism|
In contrast to Max Weber’s comparative-institutional approach, Sombart conceived of the European capitalist system as a “historical individual,” that is, the collective expression of the values of the expansive “Faustian” spirit of enterprise and the acquisitive bourgeois spirit. He traced the development of capitalism through early, high (mature), and late periods, each representing different cultural attitudes and styles.
The basic qualities of each period were seen as determined by its system of economic values (Wirtschaftsgesinnung)—which he understood as being in continuous interpenetration with the other areas of cultural and social activity; by the forms of its legal and social organization; and by its technology and methods. In a dialectical process of transition, one period generates another as its antithesis.
His emphasis on the concrete historical elements caused Sombart to neglect the theoretical and analytical structure of economics, which he regarded as supplementary to his own kind of investigation. Thus, economists tend to regard Sombart’s work as history, but historians do not.
Sombart supported his study of capitalism by a large number of sociological monographs on such subjects as the city, precious metals, the location of industry, Jews, fashion, advertising, the bourgeois, the proletariat, war and capitalism, and luxury and capitalism.
Following the Russian and German revolutions at the end of World War I, Sombart sharply dissociated himself from Marxian socialism, which, like capitalism, he regarded as “uninhibited Mammonism,” the victory of evil forces (utilitarianism and hatred) over idealism and love. He advocated “German socialism” or “anticapitalism,” based on the rejection of materialism, “technomania,” and belief in progress. His specific prescriptions became increasingly totalitarian.
In social and cultural philosophy Sombart stressed the idea of an “economic system” (Wirtschaftssystem) whose forms and organization are the creation of the mind and reflect the clusters of cultural values (Wirtschaftsgesinnungen) mentioned above.
The concept of Wirtschaftssystem is related to that of structure and to Max Weber’s “ideal types.” Originally Sombart conceived of this concept in terms of the early psychology of Dilthey and, like Weber, took account of the subjective intentions of historical agents.
Later, however, he turned to an almost phenomenological interpretation of the “objective” meaning of cultural systems. Like Weber, Sombart regarded the “ideal type” both as a conceptual tool for evaluating historical processes and as a reflection of the essential structure of historicocultural reality.
Sombart, however, emphasized the “realist” function and interpreted history as an expression of the national spirit rather than a multicausal sequence. In the first edition of Der moderne Kapitalismus this attitude led him to a naturalistic confusion of theory and history, which was assailed by Weber.
Though Sombart was an economist by profession, he regarded economic laws as determined by the exigencies of the spirit of the age, and like Auguste Comte and the German historical school, he rejected the claim of economics to be an independent discipline. In his Die drei Nationaloekonomien, which he regarded as the theoretical key to his work, he distinguished between ethical (richtende), analytical (ordnende), and interpretive (verstehende) economics.
He rejected the first because science should be ethically neutral, the second because it fastened on applied science only and opened the door to the mechanical methods of the natural sciences, which cannot lead to the required understanding of meanings, of cultural institutions, and of motivations (Sinn-, Sach-, and Seelverstehen).
His insistence on the exclusion of value judgments, on the one hand, and on an intuition of essences, on the other hand, led Sombart into unresolved intellectual difficulties and caused him finally to stress the superiority of biased observation over the limited vistas of scientific thought.
Sombart came to regard the dispute over methods as a contest between German (heroic-spiritual) and Western (utilitarian-mercenary) thought. He reproached Western philosophy for the “deconsecration of the mind,” a destructive tendency to resolve the spiritual realm of ideas into their psychological and sociological elements.
Accordingly, Sombart saw sociology as more than a limited specialized discipline; to him, it was a universal discipline whose aim is to explain the whole of human relationships and cultural categories.He viewed society as a creation of the mind, and accordingly, his “noo-sociology” embraced religion, art, the law, and the state, as well as economics.
In his final work, Vom Menschen, Sombart assigned the same universal function to philosophical (geistwissenschaftliche) anthropology, which was to be developed into a “basic science” coordinating all knowledge concerning human groups and peoples, both their structures and their origins. This work, a bitter indictment of civilization, was, however, merely programmatic.
Sombart exerted considerable influence upon a generation of German economists and sociologists, but his chief significance lies in his suggestive contributions to the morphology and genesis of capitalism and to the history of economic and social ideas.