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Werner Sombart

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Werner Sombart

Werner Sombart (January 19, 1863-May 18, 1941) was a German economist and sociologist, the head of the "Youngest Historical School" and one of the leading Continental European social scientists during the first quarter of the 20th century.

Contents

Life and Work

Early Career, Socialism, and Economics

He was born in Ermsleben, Harz, Germany, as the son of a wealthy liberal politician, industrialist, and estate-owner, Anton Ludwig Sombart, and studied at the universities of Pisa, Berlin, and Rome, both law and economics. In 1888, he received his Ph.D. from Berlin under the direction of Gustav von Schmoller, then the most eminent German economist.

As an economist and especially social activist, Sombart was then seen as radically left-wing, and so only received - after some practical work as head lawyer of the Bremen Chamber of Commerce - a junior professorship at the out-of-the-way University of Breslau. Although faculties at such eminent universities as Heidelberg and Freiburg called him on chairs, the governments always vetoed this. Sombart, at that time, was an important Marxian, not a Marxist, but someone who used and interpreted Karl Marx - to the point that Friedrich Engels called him the only German professor who understood Das Kapital.

In 1902, his magnum opus, Der moderne Kapitalismus, appeared in six volumes. This book coins the word "Capitalism" (which Marx had actually not used!); it is a systematic history of economics and economic development through the centuries and very much a work of the Historical School. Although later much disparaged by neo-classical economists, and much criticized in specific points, it is still today a standard work with important ramifications for, e.g., the Annales school (Fernand Braudel). The book has been translated into many languages, but not into English, as Princeton University Press obtained and holds to the English copyright but did and does not produce the work.

In 1906, Sombart accepted a call to a full professorship at the Berlin School of Commerce, an inferior institution to Breslau but closer to political "action" than Breslau. Here, i.a., companion volumes to Modern Capitalism dealing with luxury, fashion, and war as economic paradigms appear; especially the former two are the key works on the subject until today. In 1906 also appeared his Why is there no Socialism in the United States?, which, while naturally having been questioned since then, is the classical work on American exceptionalism in this respect.

Middle Career and Sociology

Finally, in 1917, Sombart became professor at the University of Berlin, then the preeminent university in Europe if not in the world. He remained on the chair until 1931 but continued teaching until 1940. During that period, he was also one of the leading sociologists around, much more prominent than his friend Max Weber, who later of course eclipsed him to the point that Sombart is virtually forgotten in that field by now. Sombart's insistence on Sociology as a part of the Humanities (Geisteswissenschaften), necessarily so because it dealt with human beings and therefore required inside, empathic "Verstehen" rather than the outside, objectivizing "Begreifen" (both German words translate as "understanding" into English), became extremely unpopular already during his lifetime, because it was the opposite of the "scientification" of the social sciences (jocularly referred to as "physics envy"), in the tradition of Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim and Weber (although this is a misunderstanding; Weber largely shared Sombart's views in these matters), which became fashionable during this time and has more or less remained so until today. However, because Sombart's approach has much in common with Hans-Georg Gadamer's Hermeneutics, which likewise is a Verstehen-based approach to understanding the world, he is coming back in some sociological and even philosophical circles that are sympathetic to that approach and critical towards the scientification of the world. Sombart's key sociological essays are collected in his posthumous 1956 work, Noo-Soziologie.

Late Career and National Socialism

During the Weimar Republic, Sombart moved to the political right; his relation to the Nazis is heavily debated until today. His 1938 anthropology book, Vom Menschen, is clearly anti-Nazi, and was indeed hindered in publication and distribution by the Nazis. His earlier book, Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben (1911), is a pendant to Max Weber's study on the connection between Protestantism (especially Calvinism) and Capitalism, only that Sombart puts the Jews at the core of the development. This book was seen as philosemitic when it appeared, but several contemporary Jewish scholars describe it as antisemitic, at least in effect. In his attitude towards the Nazis - and only in that - , he is often linked to Martin Heidegger and his much younger friend and colleague Carl Schmitt, but it is clear that, while the last one tried to be the vanguard thinker for the Third Reich in his field and only became critical when he were too individualistic and elbowed out from their power positions, Sombart was always much more affiliated with the 19th century thinking. Sombart had many, indeed more than proportional, Jewish students, most of who felt after the war moderately positive about him, although he clearly was no hero nor resistance fighter. Sombarts son de:Nicolaus Sombart describes the family friend and main nazi-apologet Carl Schmitt in his books from an intimate and nevertheless critical point of view and gives reasons from near for the entanglement of sophisticated persons like Schmitt.

Sombart Today

Sombart's legacy today is difficut to ascertain, because the alleged Nazi affiliations have made an objective reevaluation difficult (while his earlier Socialist ones harmed him with the more bourgeois circles), especially in Germany. As has been stated, in economic history, his "Modern Capitalism" is regarded as a milestone and inspiration, although many details have been questioned. Key insights from his economic work concern the - recently again validated - discovery of the emergence of double-entry accounting as a key precondition for Capitalism and the interdisciplinary study of the City in the sense of urban studies. He also coined the term and concept of creative destruction which is a key ingredient of Joseph Schumpeter's theory of innovation (Schumpeter actually borrowed much from Sombart, not always with proper reference). In Sociology, he is still regarded a very minor figure and his sociological theory an oddity; it is more philosophical sociologists and culturologists who rediscover his work. Sombart has always been very popular in Japan; one of the reasons of a lack of reception in the United States is that most of his works were not translated into English - in spite of, and excluding as far as the reception is concerned, the classic study on Why there is no Socialism in America.

Bibliography

Works by Sombart

  • Sombart, Werner (1906): Das Proletariat. Bilder und Studien. Die Gesellschaft, vol. 1. Berlin: Rütten & Loening.
  • Sombart, Werner (1906): Warum gibt es in den Vereinigten Staaten keinen Sozialismus? Tübingen: Mohr. Several English translations, incl. (1976): Why is there No Socialism in the United States. New York: Sharpe.
  • Sombart, Werner (1911): Die Juden und das Wirtschaftsleben. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot. Several English translations, incl. (1951): The Jews and Modern Capitalism. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
  • Sombart, Werner: Der moderne Kapitalismus. Historisch-systematische Darstellung des gesamteuropäischen Wirtschaftslebens von seinen Anfängen bis zur Gegenwart. Final edn. 1916, repr. 1969, paperback edn. (3 vols. in 6): 1987 Munich: dtv. (Also in Spanish; no English translation yet.)
  • Sombart, Werner (1921): Luxus und Kapitalismus. München: Duncker & Humblot, 1922. English translation: Luxury and capitalism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Sombart, Werner (1934): Deutscher Sozialismus. Charlottenburg: Buchholz & Weisswange. English translation (1937, 1969): A New Social Philosophy. New York: Greenwood.
  • Sombart, Werner (1938): Vom Menschen. Versuch einer geisteswissenschaftlichen Anthropologie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Sombart, Werner (1956): Noo-Soziologie. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.
  • Sombart, Werner (2001): Economic Life in the Modern Age. Nico Stehr and Reiner Grundmann, eds. New Brunswick: Transaction. (New English translations of key articles and chapters by Sombart, including (1906) in full and the segment defining Capitalism from (1916))

Works about Sombart

  • Appel, Michael (1992): Werner Sombart: Historiker und Theoretiker des modernen Kapitalismus. Marburg: Metropolis.
  • Backhaus, Jürgen G. (1996), ed. Werner Sombart (1863-1941): Social Scientist. 3 vols. Marburg: Metropolis. (The standard, all-encompassing work on Sombart in English.)
  • Backhaus, Jürgen G. (2000), ed. Werner Sombart (1863-1941): Klassiker der Sozialwissenschaft. Eine kritische Bestandsaufnahme. Marburg: Metropolis.
  • Brocke, Bernhard vom (1987), ed.: Sombarts Moderner Kapitalismus. Materialien zur Kritik und Rezeption. München: dtv
  • Lenger, Friedrich (1994): Werner Sombart, 1863-1941. Eine Biographie. München: Beck.
  • Nussbaum, Frederick Louis (1933): A History of the Economic Institutions of Modern Europe: An Introduction of 'Der Moderne Kapitalismus' of Werner Sombart. New York: Crofts.
  • Sombart, Nicolaus (1991): Jugend in Berlin, 1933-1943. Ein Bericht. Frankfurt/Main: Fischer.
  • Sombart, Nicolaus (1991): Die deutschen Männer und ihre Feinde. Carl Schmitt - ein deutsches Schicksal zwischen Männerbund und Matriachatsmythos. Munich: Hanser.de:Werner Sombart

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