Meaning and Melancholia: Leo Tolstoy, Max Weber, William James


Meaning and Melancholia: Leo Tolstoy, Max Weber, William James

Meaning and Melancholia: Leo Tolstoy, Max Weber, William James 150 150 Tom Carlson

November 15, 2019 at 2 p.m.

Robertson Gymnasium 1000A

For a century now, Max Weber’s famous description of the genesis of the modern world as a gradual process of “disenchantment,” offered in a 1917 lecture entitled “Science as a Vocation,” has been adopted as a shorthand for the withdrawal of religious traditions. With the phrase, Weber had sought to name the effect of the extension of calculation to all domains of human life—and more specifically a crisis of meaning in the sciences created by a concept of progress. But the paradigm of this crisis of meaning Weber finds, oddly, in Leo Tolstoy’s Confession, which recounts the writer’s crisis of faith and his eventual return to God.

Fifteen years before Weber’s lecture, the American philosopher William James, in a set of lectures published as The Varieties of Religious Experience, wrote at length about Tolstoy’s Confession, identifying it as a paradigm of religious melancholy, and as a state of mind that can lead to an experience of regeneration. James, too, spoke of “disenchantment” but he parsed the fact/value distinction differently, because he sought not to substitute religion with the ethics of teaching but to establish a permanent place for religion alongside science in human life.

In this seminar, we will discuss Tolstoy’s text, and the divergent interpretations formulated by Weber and James. Those pressed for time should focus on Lectures VI and VII in The Varieties of Religious Experience, where the Tolstoy is cited at length.


Leo Tolstoy, A Confession (Oxford, 1940).

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (Longmans, Green, and Co, 1902), Lectures VI and VII: “The Sick Soul”; Lecture XX: “Conclusions”.

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation,” in David Owen and Tracy B. Strong, ed., Max Weber: The Vocation Lectures (Hackett, 2004).