chapter  11
40 Pages

‘Max Weber’s Idea of “Puritanism”: A Case Study in the Empirical Construction of the Protestant Ethic’, a revised version from A Historian Reads Max Weber: Essays on the Protestant Ethic, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 5—50

The empirical status of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic is undoubtedly one of the most problematic aspects of a legendary, yet problematic text. Weber insisted that it was a ‘purely historical work’ offering a ‘purely historical presentation’ [XX.53; XXL 109], yet it plainly does not offer an historical account based on the ideal of “the past for its own sake” .1 On the contrary, Weber was emphatic that the concepts, or leading ideas, which supplied the necessary framework for any account of the past, could not be derived from the historical agents themselves, but only from the present-day analyst. It was these concepts alone which allowed one to make any kind of search amidst a practically infinite mass, or ‘chaos’, of empirical matter: ‘life in its irrational reality and the possible significations it contains are inexhaustible’ .2 But if historical representation was not anchored to a particular point in the “past”, it followed that the concepts of the modem analyst, and the fundamental value-scheme or Kultur which underlay them, would necessarily become obsolete as the time horizon of the ever-moving present continued onwards: ‘At some point the colours change: the significance of perspectives to which an instinctive value has attached becomes uncertain, the path is lost in the twilight. The light cast by the great problems of Kultur has moved on.’3 There was certainly a magnificent candour to this. When Weber wrote these words in early 1904, he was anticipating not merely the general disappearance of his oeuvre after his death, but that of the Protestant Ethic in particular, the fulcmm of his intellectual endeavours at that date - even

My thanks to Judith Pollmann and Roy Foster for assistance with Dutch Puritanism and Edward Dowden respectively.