Entzauberung: Notes on Weber’s Theory of Modernity1
Entzauberung (disenchantment) is one of the more (but not the only) evasive –
somewhat obscure – terms in the Weber oeuvre.
As Weber was recovering from his nervous breakdown, his relationship to
“capitalism” and arguably to “modernity” became ambiguous. Mommsen called
accurately the mature Weber a ‘liberal in despair’:2 Enlightenment, capitalism,
rationalisation, and liberalism are all inevitable, but are they desirable? Don’t we have to
pay a heavy price for these transformations? Before his nervous breakdown, Weber could
be interpreted as a committed advocate of modernity and capitalism. In his early work,
he defends the stock market3 and is a vehement critic of Prussia for not unleashing the
forces of market capitalism.
But already in his first major post breakdown work, The Protestant Ethic (1904-05),
Weber begins to express arguably some concerns, some ambiguity, about modern
capitalism (bureaucracy is inevitable for a capitalist economy, but it is hard and cold like
iron) and possibly about modernity (as “magic” is eliminated). The elimination of
“magic” in Calvinism, on the other hand, can be interpreted – and often is done this way
– as “progress” and no desire for a re-enchantment of the world.4
At the end of this monograph, Weber uses the term borrowed from the 17th
century English Puritan theologian, Richard Baxter, “stahlhartes Gehäuse” (translated by
Talcott Parsons in 1930 as “iron cage”) to describe the life under bureaucracy. The
reference to the “iron cage” is obviously an expression of doubt about the desirability of
bureaucracy – later defined as “legal rational authority” and arguably capitalism.
The questions we pose in this paper are the following:
1: Was it only Weber’s attitude to rationality/bureaucracy/capitalism that was
“ambiguous” or does his theory of Entzauberung express a similarly ambiguous
relationship to modernity? Is he one of the forerunners of “post-modernism” or does he
remains committed to the project of Enlightenment? Most Weber interpreters see him as
“ambiguous” about capitalism, but they see him as still firmly committed to
Enlightenment rationalism. Entzauberung is seen is “progress” in a world outlook, and it
is instrumental rationality of capitalism that is seen as problematic. The purpose of this
paper is to show that Entzauberung is the generic, overarching concept, and Weber’s
ambiguity towards capitalism is framed within his ambiguity about modernity.
2: What is the relationship of Weber’s concept of Entzauberung to Marx’s idea of
alienation and commodity fetishism and its reinterpretation as Verdinglichung by György
Lukács? The major hypothesis of this paper is that Weber’s concept of Entzauberung is a
radical Aufhebung of the Hegelian idea of Vergegenständlichung and the Marxist notion
of Entfremdung or commodity fetishism; it is a twin concept of Lukács’s concept of
Verdinglichung. Weber offers a cultural criticism of modernity, rather than merely
expressing some ambiguity about capitalism. In my reading, Weber is one of the early
post-modern, post-Enlightenment theorists, very much in the tradition of Rousseau and
Nietzsche, laying the groundwork for Foucault. The theory of Entzauberung is rooted as
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much in the critical theory of Hegel and Marx (and may be interpreted as a twin concept
of Lukács’s concept of Verdinglichung) as it is inspired by Schiller and Puritanism.
Weber on capitalism and modernity
There is general agreement among Weber scholars that after recovering from his 1898
nervous breakdown, Weber, once an advocate of capitalism, begins to take a somewhat
ambiguous position about capitalism and rationality. While Weber never doubted the
inevitability of bureaucracy and the capitalist economic system, it is less obvious how he
evaluated instrumental rationality (Zweckrationalität). In Economy and Society, Weber goes as
far as to claim that “value rationality” is irrational from the point of view of
“instrumental rationality”, although he immediately adds that “absolute” instrumental
rationality is also a “constructed marginal case” (konstruktiver Grenzfall); while he does not
call it “irrational”, he appears to hint at it.5
Weber scholarship is divided in evaluating whether Weber regarded
Zweckrationalität as ultimate rationality, more rational than value rationality. Of course,
in interpretative sociology, other types of orientation of action can also be “rational” or
at least “non-irrational” – hence one can orient him/herself non-rationally by acting
traditionally or driven by emotions. Weber regards irrational action as only an
uncontrolled reaction to a stimulus. The question is: can we rank various types of social
action from a scale from most rational to least rational, and, in particular, rank
instrumental rationality ahead of value rationality? In my reading, even the most eminent
Weber scholar of our times, Wolfgang Schluchter, is hesitant. In The Rise of Western
Rationalism (1981), Schluchter tends to identify instrumental rationality as the most
rational form of orientation of action (since it rationally considers both the ends and
means; “value rationality” is “less” rational since it does not rationally calculate the
means, but is only oriented rationally to ultimate values). In his Die Entzauberung der Welt,6
he seems to consider value rationality as superior (at least as equal) to instrumental
The Frankfurt School theorists, in particular Horkheimer, Adorno, and Marcuse
(and most of the Western Marxists, Lukács in particular) emphasised the irrationality of
instrumental reason since they, unlike Weber, not only had anxieties about capitalism but
also wanted to transcend it (which Weber regarded as impossible; he also saw the
communist project as an even worst example of bureaucratisation than capitalism).
Habermas offered an interesting solution to the problem. By 1980, Habermas –
somewhat reluctantly – accepts the inevitability of capitalism and market integration and
offers an intriguing synthesis of instrumental and value rationality. He accepts that
“system integration” (the economy, to put it somewhat simplistically) needs to be
dominated by instrumental reason, but he nevertheless insists that rational discourse over
values is possible (through “domination-free discourse”). The problem of modernity is
when the logic of system integration “colonises” the “life world” – hence human
relations.8 This reasoning is closed to the position of the young Lukács, who is just
turning to Marxism in 1918 since he believed (for a while, until under fire from Leninists,
he adopted a basically Stalinist version of Marxism) that the cultural critique of modernity
Iván Szelényi Entzauberung
should have priority over the critique of the political economy of capitalism. Even as late
as 1923, when Lukács formulated the theory of “Verdinglichung”, this idea still haunted
Lukács, when the crucial problem still is that the logic of the market infiltrates the
relationship between human beings and their world-view.
I believe that Habermas offered the most persuasive reconstruction of Weber’s
dual concept of rationalisation and Entzauberung. Rationalisation is necessary for the
efficient functioning of the economy, which has to be integrated by markets and
bureaucracy, self-regulating and capitalist (Weber had a better understanding of the
inevitable co-existence of “markets” and “hierarchies” – as formulated by Olivier
Williamson, but not necessarily well understood by the market fundamentalists of neo-
classical economics, who often see “bureaucratic co-ordination” as the opposite of
In my interpretation, Weber is a “liberal in despair”, not so much because he is
concerned about the efficiency of bureaucracy/market capitalism, but because he sees
how the emergent new world view “colonises” (if I may put it now with Habermas) all
spheres of social and political life.
As Schluchter so astutely pointed out,9 Entzauberung originated in religion,
especially in the Predestination doctrine of Calvinism.10 This is the main theme of
‘Wissenschaft als Beruf’ – the emergence of a second source of power. Weber does not
go quite as far as Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectics of Enlightenment to regard science as
the “new religion” and scholars as the “new high priests”, but his analysis certainly points
in this direction. Nevertheless Weber – as it is quite clear in ‘Politik als Beruf’ – is
sufficiently worried about what Habermas later called the “scientisation of politics”.
When Lukács abandoned his rather Weberian position (in his 1918 “Bolshevism as an
ethical problem”, his position in this respect is rather Weberian) and joins the communist
movement and the idea of scientific socialism,11 Weber in a personal letter dated
February or March 1920, warns him he joined a movement that will discredit the cause of
socialism for a century (in retrospect he might have underestimated the damage done by
Bolshevism to the cause of socialism):
Ich bin absolut überzeugt, dass diese Experimente [here Weber obviously refers
to Bolshevism] nur zur einer Diskreditierung des Sozialismus für 100 Jahre
führen können und werden.12
Hence my point is the theory of Entzauberung der Welt is the most ambitious
extrapolation of the consequences of rationalisation on the human condition. It is a
broader concept than rationalisation, it captures the drama of modernity well beyond the
question of the economy and organisation, and it casts it as a “cultural critique” of
modernity. It is impossible to live in the brightness of light of reason without magic. Let
me cite Schluchter again:
Offenbar bringt die Entzauberung der Welt das Bedürfniss nach ihrer
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As I will try to elaborate in the next section, Weber is not quite ready to give up the
“enchanted garden”. While Marianne Weber called her husband a “Mystiker”, Weber
confessed that he was “religiös unmusikalisch”.14 What an exceptional confession from
someone who spent a great deal of his life studying religion!
What Weber was missing in modernity was not the mysticism and magic of
religion, but certainly by 1913 he was fully aware of the value of the erotic experience
(rather than just the sex act). It may not be accidental that the term Enztauberung is first
used to replace the notion of magic in 1913. It may have something to do with the fact
that, by that time, Weber – who struggled early in life with his sexuality, being concerned
that he may be impotent – experienced two passionate and erotic love affairs. This is a
point elaborated by Marcuse or, to put it more generally, this expressed Weber’s yearning
for the intimacy of inter-personal relations and his insistence that political decisions
cannot be made on the grounds of scientific knowledge, but have to be based on the
value choices of the democratic polity and the “responsible politicians” (rather than the
scientifically superior avant-garde)
In a nutshell, I regard Entzauberung as a generic concept; rationalisation is a
narrower notion that does not quite capture the complexity of the human conditions
(economic, political, and cultural) under modernity. Entzauberung der Welt is Weber’s
attempt to come to terms with the misery of human existence, as closely as Marx
managed to do with Entfremdung and Lukács did with Verdinglichung. Weber avoids
Marx’s tendency to economic reductionism (to reduce Entfremdung merely to the
question of commodity production) and while Lukács, with Verdinglichung, corrects
Marx’s tendency to reductionism, he remains trapped, unlike Weber, in the critique of
capitalism and does not see, in a comprehensive way, that capitalism just as a subcase of
modernity, which Weber understood deeply.
The origins of the theory of Entzauberung: Schiller (Mozart?)
and/or Hegel/Marx/Lukács (and Else von Richthofen)?
The Weber scholars usually find the roots of the theory of Entzauberung in Schiller’s
concept of Entgötterung (dedivinisation15). Entgötterung, much like Entzauberung, has a
dual meaning. It can be interpreted as a Nietzschean “God is dead” proposition, but it
also can be read as a claim that, with the birth of modern science, one does not need “the
hypothesis of God”, that one can explain the word in rational discourse without
reference to a transcendental being. Weber might have decided to avoid the concept of
Entgötterung, given its possible atheistic connotations, and opted for the concept of
Entzauberung, since this allowed him to avoid the conflict between science and religion.
I am persuaded the Schiller link is correct, but wonder whether Weber – deeply
knowledgeable about music – was not equally influenced by Die Zauberflöte of Wolfgang
Amadeus Mozart. The Magic Flute, in my reading, is a deeply philosophical masterpiece.
The simple (to my mind too simplistic) reading of the opera is that it praises – is even an
apologia of – Enlightenment. Mozart, a freemason, tells a story in which reason,
embodied by Sarastro – who is either a “high priest” of a Masonic Lodge, or a figure
representing an Enlightened monarch, like Joseph the Second16 – defeats the Queen of
Iván Szelényi Entzauberung
the Night. Light is victorious over darkness, reason over magic. Well, be careful. Were
Mozart and Schikaneder, the librettist of The Magic Flute, muddle-headed or the story is
far more complicated?
Let us recap the whole story. The undisputed hero of the opera, Tamino, is
attacked by a snake and is saved by three ladies, the attendants of the Queen of the
Night. He is later encouraged to rescue the daughter of the Queen, Pamina, who was
captured by Sarastro, who at this point we believe is an evil sorcerer. Tamino and his
companion Papageno are ready to find and rescue Pamina, but they are warned that the
road to Sarastro’s temple is full with dangers. Tamino receives a magic flute, Papageno
magic bells; the sounds of this flute and bells will chase away the monsters that will
threaten the lives of the two messengers of the Queen of the Night.
The journey to the temple of Sarastro indeed tests the courage of the travellers
(this can be interpreted as the tests all candidates for freemasonry had to pass). Tamino
and Papageno manage to overcome all the dangers with the magic flute and magic bells.
They arrive at the temple of Sarastro, who now appears not as a sorcerer but as the high
priest of reason. Sure, Pamina was abducted by one of Saratro’s slaves, who wanted to
abuse her and who may have raped her, but Saratro saves her, punishes the slave, and
welcomes all of them – Tamino and Pamina (by now they are already in love and Tamino
can marry Pamina), Papageno and Papagena – to the world of light, the world of
“wisdom and love”. The last verse the choir sings in the opera is:
Es siegte die Stärke, und krönet zum Lohn
Die Schönheit und Weisheit mit ewiger Kron17
Yes, the opera is a jubilant praise of Enlightenment, but with a grain of salt,
foreshadowing Weber’s theory of Entzauberung and, I would add, even Dialectics of
Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno. Reason itself is not enough. After all, one
cannot survive the unbearable light of reason without magic. The world of pure
instrumental reason is inhumane; one does need the magic of love.
For Mozart, of course, this “magic” is music. For Weber, the “dialectic of
disenchantment” is broader. Disenchantment, when pushed to its limits, implies the loss
of “meaning”, the loss of the ability to make moral judgments, the loss of the ability to
experience labour beyond instrumental reason, to be engaged in erotic relationships
rather than just sex acts (see Weber’s point about this in ‘Zwischenbetrachtung’).
Schluchter cites a fascinating remark from Zwischebetrachtung:
Wo immer aber rational empirisches Erkennen die Entzauberung der Welt und
deren Verwandlung in einem kausalen Mechanismus konsequent vollzogen hat,
tritt die Spannung gegen die Ansprüche des ethischen Postulates, dass die Welt ein
gottgeordneter, also irgendwie ethisch sinnvoll orientierter Kosmos sei, endgültig
Weber’s ambiguity cannot be limited to the question of rationality/modern capitalism; he
begins to offer a cultural critique of modernity (capitalism being only a subcase of the
modern human condition).
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And this leads me back to 1913 in Heidelberg, the intellectual environment
Weber lived and worked in, and some important aspects of his personal life. There are
two elements I would like to draw to attention to.
Firstly, Weber is not only in constant contact with György Lukács, who lived in
Heidelberg from 1912 to 1915 and who was a permanent guest of the Sunday Morning
Weber Circle organised by Marianna Weber; he was also a highly regarded colleague and
friend of Weber.19
Secondly, sometimes around 1909, Weber fell in love with Else von Richthofen
and he discovered erotic love.20 While Weber’ affair with von Richthofen did not last too
long (he could not tolerate the love triangle she tried to establish with and his brother
Alfred), it suddenly opened up the world of eroticism to Weber.21 It also should be noted
that his friend during these years, György Lukács, had his own problems with his
sexuality22 and also found a passionate, erotic love affair with the Russian anarchist Jelena
Grabenko. Lukács and Grabenko met in the autumn of 1913 in Italy – Lukács’ friend
Béla Balázs introduced them and it is most likely Lukács introduced Grabenko to Weber,
who also spent his vacation at that time in Italy. Weber must have been underwhelmed:
in a letter to Lukács written in November 1913, he complained that their meeting in
Rome lacked the usual intellectual intensity and he also mentioned that he was greatly
disturbed by the changes which were underway.23 The relationship with Grabenko
eventually became a marriage, but it lasted for just two years, and even during these years
it was a “triangle” with a rather crazy pianist, a situation with which Lukács was quite
Let me elaborate on both of these developments in Weber’s personal life.
It is not easy to find the “smoking gun” between Weber’s theory of
Entzauberung and Lukács’s theory of Verdinglichung, especially since Weber uses the
terms Entzauberung der Welt first in 1913 and Lukács, to the best of my knowledge,
does not use the concept of Verdinglichung until 10 years later, in 1923. Nevertheless, it
is arguable that the Hegelian Lukács had an impact on Weber and, even as late as 1923,
Weber’s “cultural critique” of modernity remained deeply rooted in Lukács’ mind when
the theory of Verdinglichung was developed.
As far as I can tell from the Weber-Lukács correspondence, they had the most
intense relationship in 1913, so it is reasonable to assume that the charismatic Lukács had
an impact on Weber and Lukács was deeply infected by the cultural view of Weber that
only the Communist International ideologues could remove from him. Eventually, in
particular in The Destruction of Reason (in German 1954, in English 1981) Lukács turns
mercilessly against Weber, whom he begins to describe almost as a proto-fascist
ideologue. It is hard to tell what drives this vehement attack against Weber, whether it
was the pressure of Stalinist ideology that expected this from Lukács, or else or personal
misgivings. Lukács had reasons to be upset with Weber. Lukács was a commissar during
the short-lived Hungarian communist regime in 1919. After the fall of this regime he
escaped to Vienna and the new Hungarian regime demanded his extradition, accusing
him of murder. European intellectuals circulated a letter of protest asking the Austrian
government not to comply. Weber, the recent author of “Wissenschaft als Beruf” and
“Politik als Beruf”, had little choice but to decline the request. Lukács had to take
responsibility what he did as a politician, could not hide behind his scholarly
Iván Szelényi Entzauberung
achievements, no matter how great they were. In a letter dated January 1920 to József
Lukács, the banker father of the philosopher, Weber explains why he did not sign the
letter of protest, but claims he wrote a letter to the Hungarian justice minister urging him
not to put Lukács on trial. No copy of such letter can be found in the Weber
correspondence, and it is unclear whether such a letter was ever sent, but it is likely
Lukács was upset by the lack of solidarity and that could have motivated his
interpretation of Weber in the Destruction of Reason.
When Lukács landed in Heidelberg in 1912, Hegel was very much on his mind.
Weber was not only familiar with Hegel, but had read and admired Das Kapital a great
deal. According to one anecdote, when von Richthofen took the first class of Weber’s
course, she asked him which book she should read. His response was: Das Kapital. Let me
try to create the link between Hegel’s theory of Vergegenständlichung, Marx’ concept of
commodity fetishisms (and Entfremdung), and the reconstruction of these theories by
Weber (with Entzauberung) and Lukács (with Verdinglichung).
My point of departure is imagined conversations between Weber and Lukács on
Sunday evenings during the autumn and winter of 1912 in the Webers’ house in
Heidelberg. Lukács might have been excited by the Hegelian theory of
Vergeganständlichung, which at this stage in his intellectual development captured the
best the “homeless mind” of modernity. Weber probably found the Hegelian theory far
too abstract and not specific enough for the human conditions under modernity. In an
imagined conversation, he might have suggested that his young and much-admired friend
– as he suggested a few years earlier to von Richthofen – read Das Capital, especially
Volume I, Section 4 on “commodity fetishism”. Weber might have suggested: ‘You see:
Marx is right on the dot. This is not a speculative theory like the one of your so highly
admired Hegel. He brings the problem down to Earth.’ Indeed, Hegel’s theory was
appropriate to interpret the conditions of the “Absolute Spirit” and the material world,
but it got preciously little to say about the modern world we live in. However, Weber
might have admired the Marxian twist on commodity fetishism (this indeed was a great
move by the “talented author” to offer a historically specific explanation of the human
condition but, for Weber, it was too much of “one-sided materialism”). Weber must have
also been bothered by the excessive rationalism of Das Kapital. For Marx, the world of
commodity fetishism was “perverted, topsy-turvy hence enchanted” (my emphasis from
Volume III). The problem that Weber saw was not an enchanted world, but rather one
of disenchantment. For Weber, the problem with modernity was not that there is not
enough rationality. It was that there was too much rationality.
Neither Weber nor Lukács had a chance to read the Paris Manuscript (which was
only published in 1931), so they were debating – if indeed this was a subject of their
discussions – the question of commodity fetishism. By 1913, Weber sort of reinvented
the “fourth dimension” of alienation, the “alienation from your fellow men”, when
individuals begin to treat each other as “instruments”. The problem of modernity, for
Weber, was the loss of meaning and, for Weber, rediscovering his own sexuality
emphasised the loss of “all-sided human relationships” between individuals.
If such a conversation did indeed take place, Lukács must have responded
enthusiastically, encouraging Weber to develop his hint in The Protestant Ethic to the “iron
cage” of bureaucracy and rationalism to a new fuller theory of Entzauberung. This
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indeed sounded like an Aufhebung of Hegel via Marx: now the problem of human
condition is historically specified, but not narrowed down to economic conditions of
market capitalism. This was a cultural critique of modernity rather than a critique of
political economy. If this indeed happened, Lukács must have loved it and approved it
unconditionally. Even in 1923, five years after Lukács took his fatal turn to Marxism, he
remained at least to some extent a “cultural” Marxist, and Leninists disliked so intensively
the theory of Verdinglichung, since it pointed to the misery of modernity well beyond
private ownership or commodity production. For the young, already Marxist, Lukács the
problem was in “reified consciousness”. As late as 1923, Lukács was a Marxist with a
Weberian inside who wanted to come out… Well, Marx was 19th century, Weber is
addressing some of the questions of the early 21st century… Lukács was a theorist of the
early 20th century (a little passé by 1980).
But let me now finally return to “erotic”. Else von Richthofen indeed was the
“magic garden” and so was, I suppose, Jelena Grabenko. Von Richthofen was the
symbol of the early 20th century emancipated woman (much like Alma Mahler). She was
the mother of three children fathered by Edgar Jaffe, Weber’s pupil and a major social
scientist. But, soon after she started an extramarital affair with Weber, she had a
relationship with Alfred Weber and was also a lover of Otto Gross, a major advocate of
sexual liberation. Her sister, the equally formidable Frieda, was the lover and later the
wife (in a turbulent marriage) of D.H. Lawrence and an inspiration for Sons and Lovers.
What an experience that was. There was a Däimon in Weber who wanted his share in
life, just like the “blond beast” or the “bird of prey” in Nietzsche . As Schluchter points
out, the idea of Dämon in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister Wanderjahre also has a double
meaning. Däminisch means “satanic”, “the devil”, but it also refers to the Greek notion
of Daimon, which emphasised individuality24 The Daimon (the blond beast) wants to get
out to become the Übermensch – to put it again with Nietzsche (actually directly invoked
What a wonderful tour de force. Too bad Lukács abandoned this
uncompromising search for truth (also the key to Nietzsche’s philosophy) and settled in
the comfortable “home” of Bolshevism. “Bad air, bad air”, as Nietzsche would have said.
The best advice one can give to a social theorist, following Paul Breines: keep you bags
packed, never settle in a home. Keep the homeless mind going.
1 Under communisms and post-communists capitalisms.
2 Wolfgang Mommsen, 1964, p.95.
3 Between 1891 and 1898, Weber published several articles and gave several lectures on the stock
market – basically arguing how the stock market is necessary for the functionning of the market
economy. The whole material has not been available in English (or even in German). Now in
Max Weber Gesamtasugausbe in Volume 1(1) (1999), all these texts were published or are
4 B. Robbins, 2011, pp.74-94.
5 Max Weber Gesamtasugausbe, 1(23), p. 176.
6 Schluchter, 2009, p.132.
Iván Szelényi Entzauberung
7 Angus, 1983, p.148
8 Habermas, 1984.
9 Schluchter, 2009, pp.8-10.
10 Since the question whether one is saved or damned has been decided at birth, the individual
lost all its “magic” power over God to influence his/her fate after death, but it had its “second
source”: science, which actually, in time, preceded religious Entzauberung, like Hellenic science
11 Kadarkay, 1991.
12 Emphasis by Weber, Max Weber Briefe, 1918-1920, p.961,.
13 Schluchter, 2009, p.12.
14 Ibid.: p.16.
15 Schiller, in his 1788 poem The Gods of Greece, uses the term “the entgötterte Natur” (see B.
16 The Magic Flute was first performed in 1792, just two years after the death of Joseph the Second.
17 My emphasis: rationality has to be complemented by beauty, wisdom needs to be amended by
virtue ... The quote is from the libretto of Mozart’s Zauberflöte , New York: G. Schirmer, 1941,
18 Schluchter, 2009, p.11; Zwischenbetrachtung p.512.
19 Kadarkay, 1991, 1994.
20 After a long-tormented sexual life – it is widely assumed his marriage to Marianna Weber,
whom he loved greatly, was never consummated (M. Green, 1974).
21 Having struggled with the fear that he is impotent, Weber suddenly started to consume
women, and some formidable ones, such as the pianist Mina Tobler.
22 Read the story of Irma Seidler in Heller (1979) and in Kadarkay (1991, 1994)
23 Most likely a reference to Grabenko (Max Weber Gesamtasugausbe, Vol 8(2), p.352).
24 Schluchter, 2009, p.15.
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