Cultural and literary critics have begun to abandon a long-standing commitment to poststructuralist and deconstructive interpretative methods in favor of an ostensibly Marxist aspiration to comprehend cultural phenomena as symptomatic expressions of a social totality. This essay identifies some of the advantages and shortcomings of this symptomatological mode of interpretation by returning to a dispute in the German scientific establishment around the turn of the twentieth century concerning the applicability of biological conceptions of organic wholeness in cultural and social analysis. The dispute culminates in Max Weber’s nuanced defense of biological metaphors as indispensable heuristic devices for cultural inquiry that can nevertheless result in dangerous consequences when they are inappropriately employed. This essay ultimately argues that Weber’s contribution to cultural analysis remains an underappreciated and vital methodological resource for researchers who wish to rehabilitate the concept of totality today.

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