chapter  34
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber, 1864–1920)
Pages 5

Weber is considered a prodigy among classical sociologists, whose influence on historians, economists, philosophers, and sociologists, even if they disagree, is unabated. His work has breadth, systematization, analytical rigor, and insight which is difficult to ignore. Starting off with law and economics, he broadened into religion, art, morality, politics, and technology. He wrote also about China, Hindu and Buddhist India, and Judaism with a view to examining connections between religious systems, social relations, and economic behavior. This range of knowledge and curiosity is reflected in The Protestant Ethic. Legal studies were pursued at the University of Heidelberg in 1882

and continued at Berlin and Göttingen. His 1889 doctoral thesis, “Development of the Principle of Joint Liability and a Separate Fund of the General Partnership out of the Household Communities and Commercial Associations in Italian Cities,” was included in his first book, History of Commercial Partnerships in the Middle Ages, which is available in English. To compete for a professorship in Germany, a doctorate was not enough. Required was a second professional thesis on top of the doctoral research dissertation at a higher level of scholarship defended before a committee. Success at this level earned the title Privatdozent (private docent), which authorized him to teach students privately for fees but without salary or rank at the university. Weber’s second thesis was Roman Agrarian History and its Significance

for Public and Private Law, which established him as an authority on agrarian economics. By 1891 he was drawn to social policy and the influence of economics on society and religion, and shortly thereafter secured a professorship at Freiburg and then at Heidelberg. In 1897 he began to suffer insomnia and had a nervous collapse that made teaching difficult and blocked scholarly output for four years. After

time in a sanitarium, he resigned his academic post to become a private scholar, helped along financially by an inheritance in 1907. He died prematurely in 1920 of pneumonia. He stood apart from the French positivist school of sociology and

rejected the Marxist view that social and economic phenomena arise exclusively from material conditions of life. In his scholarly works, he remained aloof from ideology by taking a position of “value neutrality,” which holds that science cannot judge the validity of conflicting belief systems, secular or religious. All science can do is assess their internal coherence, the effectiveness of their means to achieve goals, and consequences of their choices. In this spirit, his analyses of society in its various dimensions interpenetrate-for example, politics with science, religion with economics, art with morality, and so on. He aimed to develop a systematic “interpretive method” for the

explanation and understanding of social relations by comparative study, tempered with quantitative data where available, and clarified by an arsenal of concepts-for example, rationalization, ideal typeto untangle complexities of historical reality (43-44). History is always a moving target. Human activity, he argued, evolves continually with changing circumstances, which distinguishes social relations as objects of study from those in the natural world. Those arising from human activity embody meanings and motives to be interpreted. Phenomena in nature do not. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Die protestantische

Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus) examines historical and causal relationships between religious belief and concrete economic practice. It is a relatively short work, about 200 pages, written in 1904-5 and revised in 1920, dense in exposition, close in argument, and weighty in scholarship. It continues to be one of the most provocative examples of historical sociology. The extent and variety of his reading are remarkable. He seems to have left no relevant source unused. He means by the “spirit of capitalism” the pursuit of economic gain

for its own sake, which he distinguishes from traditional economics (11). The purpose of accumulating wealth is not merely to satisfy material needs of life: “Instead, the ‘summum bonum’ of the ethic is the making of money and yet more money, coupled with a strict avoidance of all uninhibited enjoyment” (12; Weber’s emphasis unless otherwise indicated). This spirit of modern capitalism cannot be explained within capitalism itself. An outside element was introduced to create the system of production, exchange, and consumption later called economic rationalism.