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.
He was born in Ermsleben, Harz, 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 and Adolph Wagner, then the most eminent German economists.
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 respective 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. 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 the English copyright but did and does not publish 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 appeared; 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. As late as 1909, he still admitted he had devoted greater part of his life fighting for Marx' ideas (Hayek 1980:168)
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.
During the Weimar Republic, Sombart moved to the political right; his relation to Nazism 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, he is often likened to Martin Heidegger and his younger friend, colleague and adorer of his wife Carl Schmitt, but it is clear that, while the latter two tried to be the vanguard thinkers for the Third Reich in their field and only became critical when they were too individualistic and elbowed out from their power positions, Sombart was always much more ambivalent. Sombart had many, indeed more than proportional, Jewish students, most of which felt after the war moderately positive about him, although he clearly was no hero nor resistance fighter.
Sombart's legacy today is difficult 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). However, Friedrich Hayek, a critic of Sombart, called latters Händler und Helden 'notorious', and stated that 'War is to Sombart the consummation of the heroic view of life' (Hayek 1980:168ff). In Sociology, mainstream proponents still regard Sombart as a 'minor figure' and his sociological theory an oddity; today it is more philosophical sociologists and culturologists who, together with heterodox economists, use 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 for a long time 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.