The Genius of Weber

by Gene Callahan

This semester, I am having the pleasure of teaching Max Weber‘s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism for the second time. Doing so is renewing my appreciation for one of the great works of social science.

Weber’s historical thesis is fascinating in itself, but what really makes the work is that it is a mini-study in how to historically investigate a social-science proposition, complete with asides on method were Weber explains what he is doing. He takes two situations that are in most respects the same (that of German Catholics and that of German Protestants) and notes a crucial difference (besides religion): the two populations have significantly different degrees of participation in the capitalist mode of economic organization (as of 1905).Then, he asks whether the first-noted difference (in religion) could be to some extent responsible for the second (in economic circumstances). He systematically rejects alternative explanations as inadequate, and then shows why religion was, indeed, an important factor in the rise of capitalism.

Weber was careful to be humble about what he was achieving — not the complete explanation for the historical events in question (which is only provided by a complete history of the events), but a partial explanation stressing a particular point of view. (That makes it all the more remarkable that his work has regularly been criticized for ignoring this or that factor, when he explicitly admitted it would do so right from the start!) Here is his description of the limits of his project:

“These ‘points of view’… are, in turn, not at all the only ones possible with which to analyze the historical phenomena we are considering. For a study different points of view, other features would be the ‘essential ones,’ as for any historical phenomenon.”

And Weber notes that these foci are concrete, not abstract:

“’Historical concept-formation’ does not seek to embody historical reality in abstract generic concepts but endeavors to integrate them in concrete configurations, which are always and inevitably individual in character.”

Finally, it is interesting how important the United States is for Weber in this work, from his personal observations after touring the States to his invocation of Franklin as a paradigm of the capitalist spirit. The editors of my (Penguin) edition call him “the German Tocqueville,” which I think is just right.

48 thoughts on “The Genius of Weber

  1. Have you ever thought about this stuff then watched the spaghetti western “Once Upon a Time in The West”?

    I recommend it.

  2. Don’t you think Deirdre McCloskey’s volumes on bourgeois values should give new respect to Weber?

  3. Literacy rates in Germany differred systematically in Germany — higher literacy rates correlated powerfully with higher incomes and Protestantism.

    So a recent study claims. Protesants were suppose to read the Bible themselves.

  4. Gene,

    Not to rain on your Weber parade, but his argument is thin on history and been extensively criticized. “Capitalism’ has its origin in the 11th-12 centuries.

    Medieval Europe (pre-Reformation) witessed a great economic flourishing. The “ethic” Weber identifies existed in Catholic Europe and is not exclusively Protestant.

    This is well explained by Rodney Stark in The Victory of Reason. “Although the Porotestant ethic thesis is wrong, it is entirely legitimate to link capitalism to a Christian ethic” (62).

  5. Separate from the interpretation in “The Rise of Capitalism,” the fact remains that Max Weber was truly one of the intellectual giants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

    His work on “General Economy History,” or “The City,” or his studies on Asian religions shows a vast amount of knowledge.

    His defenses of “value-freedom” in the social sciences against the Historicists of his time, and his development of the “ideal type” and his emphasize on “subjectively meaningful action,” remain as the foundations for any sound sociological and applied economic analysis.

    When the Russian Revolution broke out, he taught himself Russian in less than a month so he could read all the relevant literature about the conditions in Russia to write about this momentous event. He then published two long, and insightful essays on the circumstances and likely impact of those events that are still considered (even if, now, dated) classic analysis of that time.

    And he exemplified some of his own ideas, such as his brilliant discussion of charisma, and the power of the “presence” of a man called to a “calling.”

    He, himself, had such charismatic affect on people. Years ago, a met a lawyer named Adolphus Redley, who had been a member of Mises’ “private seminar” in Vienna.

    Redley had gone to Munich to study with Weber in the period immediately after the First World War. Munich at that time was a hotbed of socialist and nationalist coup attempts, and near civil war in Bavaria (having had for a short period of time in 1919 a Bolshevik government).

    Redley told me that one day fierce and violent fights broke out between the Marxist and nationalist students at the University of Munich. Weber came out of one of the buildings and stood at the top of the stairs, and looked out, silently, at the quad where the students were literally in a pitched battle with each other.

    Weber was a relatively short man with a large head, Redley told me, and merely stood there, arms folded, angrily, but silently staring out at the students below.

    His mere, silent, presence was felt by all across the quad. The students looked up at him, put down their weapons, stopped fighting, and began to quietly disperse away. And the battle was over.

    Richard Ebeling

  6. Jerry, once again, I think Weber is being faced with critiques he handled in advance of their being formulated. Critics as early as 1906 or 07 complained that capitalist forms of business existed far earlier than the Protestant Reformation, to which Weber pointed out that he had already acknowledged this at several points in the very work they were criticizing.

    And he never claims that the ethic he notes was exclusively Protestant: only that Protestantism accelerated and intensified it. As I noted in my post, and as Weber noted in his replies to his critics, it is quite amazing to see objections to this work bringing up limitations on his thesis that he had already acknowledged in formulating it.

  7. Weber is the social scientist who actually managed to introduce subjectivity in social analysis. He brilliantly exploited the quintessential insight of 19th century German philosophy and social science: it doesn’t matter if ghosts or aliens or God exist or not, the fact that people believe in these ideas has objective consequences which must be recognized and analysed rigorously. In other words, besides the “objective causality of natural sscience, there is also a subjective causality of social science. There is no mechanical relationship in the social world; everything must be understood in relantionship to what people think. According to Weber, one can simply correlate and regress “objective facts”, or more precisely “scoail artefacts” without any relation to the actors meaningful causal relationships and get some sort of result, but if that kind of correlation is not related to the subjective thinking and understanding of social actors then it’s insufficient, while a subjective social analysis always has as a necessary condition an “objective correlation”. Anyway, it’s easy to talk about subjectivity, but it’s very hard to actually produce analysis using subjective data.

  8. As I understand Weber’s idea, it is that Calvinists (mostly) imported monastic discipline to everyday life. In his story, all the elements were there, including the vital fact of double-entry bookkeeping. But you didn’t get the characteristic “rationality” of “capitalism” until the Protestants started to measure and control every detail of their private and business lives in more or less the way monks did. They imported such monastic discipline, which they couldn’t have done without, again, double-entry bookkeeping. Once that move happened, then Weberian rationality (counting) is available to all, regardless of religion. That rationality spread and we have modern “capitalism” that counts and measures everything and makes us all rich.

  9. My understanding is that the Clavinist theology managed to reconciled predestination with active life and thus avoided the pessimism towards earthly life that characterizes high Orthodox and Oriental Christianity as well as high Catholic Christianity as well as the optimism of the common people’s religiousity. In weber’s interpretation, Clavinism resolved the problem of the Theodicee in a paradoxical manner with huge consequences for social and economic life : your life on Earth is predestined, you are damned anyway, but you should still be optimistic because if you follow some moral principles and/or accumulate wealth than maybe, maybe – you can’t know – God will redeem your soul. Very paradoxical!

  10. Menschenfreud, that study does not test Weber’s thesis; the design is totally wrong for it to do so.

  11. @Gene,

    I wll happily distinguish between Weber and the Weberians. But Weber was still wrong, in that he attributed acheivements to Protestantism that were as much Catholic. I will again recommedn Stark and briefly reference him on one point (pp.144-47).

    Amsetrdam eventually became the pre-eminent Protestant port city and center of commercial capitalism. But Amsetrdam’s rise resulted from an influx of Catholic refugees from Antwerp and Flanders. The Dutch textile industry mostly belonged to the newcomers.

    Amsterdam of the 16th century was not populated by sober Calvinists, but a melange of Calvinists, Lutherans, Memmonites and Catholics all of whom contributed to the city’s success. Plus a group who identified themselevs as “libertines.”

    In sum, Weber simply misidentified the source of capitalist virtue.

  12. @Roger,

    Pace Weber, you precisely got all that he attributed to Calvinism with the monastic orders. They introduced capitalist rationality to production and accumulated wealth as a result. It was precisely that wealth that Princes coveted and would embrace Protestantism to seize. Henry VIII in England was a classic case. Henry had persecuted all the religsious dissidents and defended the Catholic Church until he faced a fiscal crisis.

    On Calvinism, here is Stark quoting a 1933 book by H. M. Robertson: “…The expansion of Dutch trade and the development of the commercial spirit were carried out in spite of the Calvinist Church rather than because of it…Dutch Calvinism was opposed to the working of the capitalist spirit…Calvinist Holland was quite distinct from commmercial Holland.”

  13. Incidently, I have read Stark and, excluding the historical examples of premodern capitalism of monastic communities in Bourgogne and a few other places and of the new charter communes, especially in trecento Northern Italy, his theory is below that of Weber’s. He simply asserts something that Weber implicitly agrees with, namely that Christianity is a religion that ecourages the idea of progress and some degree of free thinking and reason and allows for investigation of nature independently of religious dogmas precisely because there is an implicite and explicite separation between the Kindom of Man and The Kingdom of God, so to speak, between Ceasar and God, Law and Bible and so on in this religion (not the case in Orthodox Judaism or Islam etc). This is uncontroversial among many scholars. Stark then simply asserts that Scholastic Catholicism – which is a new, more rationalist form of Catholicism which replaces the Augustinian perspective and combines classical philosophy with the Gospels) ecouraged this “Victory of Reason”, but this does not sufficiently explain the development boom that started in the Renaissance and the Reformation which coincidet with many protestant movements, some of them repressed.

    Evidently, the diversity and liberal institution of Netherlands in that age is a separate and more important factor that simply Calvinism.

    There are other, older econometric studies that seem to support Weber’s thesis. In any case, the validity of the thesis in the Protestant Ethics and the validity of the method are two separate questions.

  14. I live in Ireland, though I’m from England. My parents are not religious, but there parents were Methodists. I class as a protestant in Ireland.

    I certainly think that the religion makes a difference, though I’m hardly impartial.

  15. As I recall, his conclusion to the book is rather dark. Religious underpinning lost, capitalist spirit undermined, material goods now an iron cage…Which you can consider either prescient or off-base, depending on your perspective on contemporary society.

  16. Chidem,

    The conclusion in the Protestant Ethic you allude to is pretty muych the inspiration for Schumpeter’s analysis of the cultural dynamic of capitalism. I don’t have any scriptural evidence, but I bet on that. It’s impossible for Schumpeter to not have red the book and Weber’s discussion at the end is exactly about the heroic age of entrepreneurship of these worthly ascetics, a culure which later is no longer shared by the more hedonistic generations that follow.

  17. Jerry, I ask this because, as Bogdan points out, you are bringing up things that Weber acknowledges in his work as if they refute Weber. Weber says a new attitude emerged in society around the 18th century and asks what the source of that attitude was. Noting that there were capitalist businesses in the 11th century or that Catholics were important in the Dutch textile industry are hardly evidence against his thesis.

    By the way, I am agnostic as to whether or not Weber is correct. But I do know hat having carefully read this book twice in the last 14 months, most of the “refutations” of Weber I have seen simply are refuting things he never claimed. For example, the study cited by a commenter above is absurd as a “test” of Weber’s thesis. It uses both the wrong set of years and the wrong populations. The very first sentence of the abstract grossly misstates Weber’s thesis.

  18. Any thoughts on the work of Colin Campbell regarding consumerism? I dont remember the specifics, but I recall that he argues consumerism was not a product of 20th century disenchanment. I could be wrong.

  19. One more thing, Weber is the one who made the original arguments about subjectivism, socialist calculation and, to a certain extent, entrepeneurship that were later developed by the Austrian economists.

  20. The central issue is historical, and Gene and Bogdan are repeating historical myths. The origin of modern capitalism is in the medieval world. The economic takeoff dated as starting in “the Renaissance and the Reformatiom” occurred centuries earlier.

    Development and trade was more widespread that Bogdan delineates and includes, very importantly, the Hanseatic League of the North (including what is now Eastern Europe and Russia). Monastic capitalism was not premodern, but modern, and encompassed banking and finance.

    What set this back — more than the Black Death — was the rise of royal absolutism and the wars across Europe.

    The “new attitude” of the 18th century was a rediscovery of the old. The teachings of the great Protestant thinkers can be traced back to the work of the late Scholastics. As Schumpeter and Rothbard (and others) have documented, in economics 18th century Anglo-Saxon thinking was retrograde compared to the work of the late Spanish Scholastics.

    I’m in the camp of the doubters of the existence of an Industrial Revolution as some clear brake. If there was a revolution, then there were other, earlier ones (again going back to the 11th and 12th centuries).

  21. Yes, but in the 13th century, in Italy and the Low Countries we’re already in the Renaissance and the Late Spanish Scholastics of the 15th and 16th century, very much contemporary with Cervantes et al., are Scholastics only in name, that is because Spain was all too Catholic and secular culture had a hard time in official avenues(how else can one explain the stagnation that followed after the Siglo de Oro?)

    No, I agree that there is a continuum starting with the rise of trade in the West around the 11th century (and the emmergence of “classical Scholaticism), but there is a clear break with the Renaissance. I’m not a defendor of Weber’s thesis regarding the role of the ethic of Protestantism, I believe the rise of secular humanism was a more important factor, but the Reformation had its role in shaking some medieval institutions which probably limited growth, in creating institutional competition and in reforming the Catholic Church itself.

  22. About the trade cities on the North-East of the Baltics and inside Russia : they were all made by Swedish vikings, even before they were christianized. Even the name Russia comes from the name of Viking settlement off the coast of Sweeden. The Hanseatic trade network also has its origins in pre-Christian northern history.

  23. Yes, but in the 13th century, in Italy and the Low Countries we’re already in the Renaissance and the Late Spanish Scholastics of the 15th and 16th century, very much contemporary with Cervantes et al., are Scholastics only in name, that is because Spain was all too Catholic and secular culture had a hard time in official avenues(how else can one explain the stagnation that followed after the Siglo de Oro?)

    No, I agree that there is a continuum starting with the rise of trade in the West around the 11th century (and the emmergence of “classical Scholaticism), but there is a clear break with the Renaissance. I’m not a radical defender of Weber’s thesis regarding the role of the ethic of Protestantism, I believe the rise of secular (not necessarily atheist) humanism was a more important factor, but the Reformation had its role in shaking some medieval institutions which probably limited growth, in creating institutional competition and in reforming the Catholic Church itself.

  24. The Hanseatic League lasted 5 centuries, from the first half of the 12th century and formally ended in 1669 with the last Hanseatic diet at Lubeck in 1669. Many nationalities were involved, but its core was Germanic.

    The growth of the League and its geographical spread coincided with the expansion of German settlements across Europe. With the settlements and trade came Christianity.

    German settlements would be established in a new area and the German community would obtain special rights, including being governed by their own laws. They built Churches. One of the most magnificent exmaples is the German Church in Stockholm.

    The Hanseatic League openned up trade in remote places like Russia. It globalized what had been internal trade.

    A standard reference is Phillipe Dollinger, The German Hansa (Stanford U. Pr., 1970).

  25. Bogdan,
    You’re right. Schumpeter in Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy does argue along the lines of Weber’s conclusion. He cites Weber somewhere, I think. But Schumpeter provides a further analysis of capitalist culture that is not in Weber.

  26. Yes, and in any case different people in a certain time and place often end up with almost the same ideas, which are in the air so to speak. But the Vienna economists had a sort of a cult for Weber’s work. Today’s Austrian economists should like Weber too.

  27. One major factor in the outbreak of economic development in the 18th century was the Treaty of Westphalia. That effectively ended the religous wars that had plagued Europe.

    The Netherlands escaped early when they gained independence from Spain. They also adopted a form of Roman law favorable to commerce.

    Scotland then England began to participate in the economic growth. But we are talking of a very small part of Europe at this point. France, the largest and initially the wealthiest country, was a laggard. Relative peace may have created a necessary condition for development, but it was not sufficient.

    In Property and Freedom, Richard Pipes provides a framework for understanding why England was among the first and other countries did not participate in propserity. As the title suggests, private property and its proection played a big role.

    What the end of Stuart rule brought was not just a Protestant ruler but the Declaration of Rights. The king pledged not to suspend laws or levy taxes w/o parliamentary approval. It was the decelaration of rights, not the book of common prayer that secured the liberties of Englishmen.

    Spain in the 14th century was arguably as advanced in its protection of liberties as was England. The Cortes of Castile, Aragon, Catalonia and Valancia won the rights over taxation an dthe drafting of laws. Here is Aragonese oath of allegiance to the Spanish king.

    “We who are as good as you swear to you who are no better than we to accept you as our sovereign lord, provided you otherwise observe all our liberties and laws; but if not, not.”

  28. What did I made up? I agree that 14th century Spain was as advanced or probably more advance than England, but the Late Scholastics live in the late 15th and 16th century, when Spain was the largest European empire, a country purged of Jews and Arabs, with an Inquisition like no other, mercantilistic policies and, according to Stark, huge debt. Why did it failed against England and the Netherlands, which used to be under loose Spanish control, before the 30 years war?

  29. I may not remember my Weber adequately, but I don’t think his thesis on the Protestant Ethic was meant to explain economic growth or even capitalism in a broad sense. I think he was trying to explain how market societies became so pervasively “rational” in, I guess, the 18th century. Lots of things came together. One essential factor was this importation of monastic discipline to daily life. If that’s what Weber’s thesis is all about, it’s going to be hard to test it with things like growth statistics or other numerical measures. You’d have to content yourself with an interpretation of the archival records. In that sense, it’s “history” and not “economics.”

  30. I like Roger’s refomulation.

    I would have thought the Hayekian answer is that it is markets (and market institutions) that make people rational. Rationality is not some pre-existing state of mind, but a capacity to learn and adapt.

    The Hayekian answer, then is that capitalist virtue comes from the existence of capitalism. Reverse causation.

  31. Robert Barro has done extensive empirical work on economic development. For years he included various religous variables with no significant results. At one point, he put in a dummy for Confusionism and got a significant result. Of course, this was an ethnic not a religous variable.

    The last time I heard him present a paper on the topic, he had found one very significant variable: belief in an afterlife. His interpretation was that such a belief leads to truth telling. Truth telling is very important for capitalism.

  32. Jerry,

    I always figured Hayek got the idea that markets make us rational from Weber, though I don’t have textual or archival evidence to back that up.

  33. Roger,

    Hayek clearly read Weber and cited him fairly often. But not that I can find on this issue.

    Hayek did not apparently think Weber got the concept of order right. Once Hayek said Weber thought of order the way positivists and socialists do. But he also gave Weber co-credit with Mises for the argument against socialist calculation.

  34. Deirdre McCloskey has confirmed Weber’s thesis that a change of values was necessary for the development of capitalism. But Weber was wrong that Calvinists created the change in values. Jonathan Israel in “Dutch Republic” shows that Calvinists opposed the new values vehemently. And if you read about Calvin’s Geneva, Calvin himself clearly didn’t like free markets. The champions of freedom in the Dutch Republic were Erasmian Protestants who later fought with the Calvinists on doctrine.

    “The Disciplinary Revolution: Calvinism and the Rise of the State in Early Modern Europe” by Philip S. Gorski shows how Calvinists contributed through rationalizing the state.

    Where you place the birth of capitalism depends on your definition of capitalism. However, if like North you see the differences between traditional markets and modern ones, and between open and closed societies, and if like Mises you see differences in methods of production (mass production vs craft production), and if like McClosky and Weber you notice the change in values necessary, you can’t date the birth of capitalism before the Dutch Republic.

    Capitalism required a change in values, societies, government and methods of production. As Mises wrote, capitalism is mass production for the masses. The Dutch implemented it, though they didn’t invent it. And as Jan de Vries and Jonathan Israel note, the industrial revolution began in the Dutch Republic, not England.

    Finally, economic history has to address the hockey stick effect of per capita gdp, as McCloskey writes and Angus Madison confirms. Per capita gdp was stagnant until about 1600. It then broke free first in the Dutch Republic where Madison assert private property was for the first time truly protected by the state. That kind of protection requires major changes in institutions.

    But Protestants didn’t invent anything that Catholics didn’t already know. They got their ideas from Lessius, one of the last Church Scholastics. Grotius was one of his students. The Dutch were merely the first to implement what the Church has been teaching for centuries.

  35. PS, in researching the origins of capitalism, I first read Adam Smith. Smith offers the Dutch Republic as the best example of his system of natural freedom many times in his book.

    Next I looked for protection of private property, knowing from modern analysis of economic development that protection for private property is the keystone. I found that, according to Madison, in the Dutch Republic.

  36. On the topic of book-keeping and counting that Roger mentioned quite early in the thread, there is a remarkable story of the man who became convinced of the importance for people at all levels of the firm to be in in touch with the “metrics” of the businesss. That is, the costs and the productivity, the cash flow and generally how the firm is travelling. After he was sent to manage a division of International Harvester that was going down the drain he organised a worker buyout and built up a conglomerate. HT to Stephen Hicks and the Centre for Ethics and Entrepreneurship at Rockford Uni.

    Click to access K16-Stack-web.pdf

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