Max Weber - SOC 331: Foundations of Sociological Theory

Max Weber
No one knows who will live in this cage in the future, or whether at
the end of this tremendous development entirely new prophets will
arise, or there will be a great rebirth of old ideas and ideals; or if
neither, mechanized petrification embellished with a sort of
convulsive self-importance. For of the last stage of this cultural
development it might well be truly said: “Specialists without spirit,
sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a
level of civilization never before achieved.
• rationalization: the process whereby an increasing
number of social actions and social relationships
become based on considerations of efficiency or
• Values, traditions, and emotions are displaced in favor of
formal and impersonal bureaucratic practices
• The Protestant Ethic & the Spirit of Capitalism shows how
the bases of social action in modern capitalism shift:
• from traditional and affective to rational
• from value-rational to instrumental-rational
The Protestant Ethic
and the Spirit of
What’s the connection between
Protestantism and capitalist development?
• Weber wonders…
• Why, in modern Europe, are business leaders and owners of capital,
as well as high-ranking skilled labor, and the higher technically and
commercially trained personnel of modern enterprises
overwhelmingly Protestant?
• Why, even in the early 16th century, were the centers of early
capitalist development predominantly Protestant?
Isn’t religion the opposite of
• Weber was puzzled by what seemed like an anomaly
• typically those whose lives are bound up with the
pursuit of economic gain are either indifferent to
religion or positively hostile to it
• their lives are focused on the material, whereas
religion is concerned with the immaterial
The inductive method
• Weber explains that he's studying a phenomenon that is
significant for its "unique individuality"
• The rise of modern capitalism in the West will only happen once, yet
is no less sociologically significant
• Weber does not begin with a definition of the concept, the
"spirit of capitalism," only a "provisional description"
• Empirical study of this historical case – the rise of capitalism in the
West – is used to build the concept, from the ground-up
• "Thus the final definitive concept cannot stand at the beginning
of the investigation, but must come at the end"
• Contrast with Marx's and Durkheim's deductive approach
• assumption that the “capitalist system” or the “social organism”
operates according to a set of general laws
Protestant asceticism
• One of fundamental elements of the spirit of modern capitalism,
and modern culture in general is the spirit of Christian asceticism
• Weber calls this kind of austerity and renunciation the essence of
middle class life
• For background, he turns to a historical document of that spirit, the
popular writings on saving and thrift from Benjamin Franklin
• Weber believes this document captures the spirit of capitalism in
almost "classical purity," and thus could be likened to an ideal type
The Protestant ethic
• “The peculiarity of this philosophy of avarice appears to be the
idea of the honest man of recognized credit, and above all the
idea of a duty of an individual toward the increase of his capital,
which is assumed as an end in itself. Truly what is here
preached is not simply a means of making one's way in the
world, but a peculiar ethic. The infraction of its rules is treated
not as foolishness but as forgetfulness of duty…It is not mere
business astuteness, that sort of thing is common enough, it is
an ethos.“ (171)
• aim is to earn more and more money -- while avoiding all
enjoyment of life
• economic acquisition becomes an end in itself (in this world)
• proof of “grace”
• The notion of a calling is technically irrational, but Weber is
describing a particular kind of calling
• How does this state of affairs come about?
• most interpret this as a story about the triumph of ideas and skip over
the theological part
• We should view the problem in terms of salvation
• Calvinists believed in predestination, which refers to God’s purpose or
plan for us
• They did not believe that good acts on part of humanity are redeeming
• Also a statement about the grace of God, since acts of humanity are
unrelated to the probability of getting into heaven
• Despair is a sin; it's abandoning the hope of God's grace
• One must act as if s/he had utter confidence of God's grace –
even though s/he can't do anything about it
Faith replaced by an iron cage
of rationality
• Over time capitalism loses the ethical driving force that spurred its
initial rise
• "The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so"
•  "Fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage"
• he means the cloak of rationality, which earlier ascetics wore voluntarily
• He characterized "the last stage of this cultural development" thus:
"Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity
imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before
Rejection of historical materialism
• Weber argues that there's an "elective affinity" b/w Calvinism or
certain sorts of Calvinist beliefs and the economic ethics of modern
• Not a causal argument, religious beliefs don’t “cause” capitalism
• Weber rejects historical materialism, but doesn't try to replace it
with idealism
"But it is of course not my aim to substitute for a one-sided materialistic
an equally one-sided spiritualistic causal interpretation of culture and of
Alternative explanations
• Engels, and others, claimed that Protestantism was a reflection of
economic changes in the early development of capitalism
• a materialist explanation
• Weber disagrees: "We must free ourselves from the view that one
can deduce the Reformation as a historically necessary development
from economic changes.“
• rejection of historical materialism
• Weber insists that modern capitalism is different than "economic
• a man does not "by nature" wish to earn more and more money, but
simply to live as he lives and as he is accustomed to live, and to earn as
much as is required to do so" -- it’s not natural
Capitalism isn’t immoral…
• Modern capitalism is not about immoral pursuit of gain, but
upon disciplined obligation of work as duty
a unique combination of devotion to earning of wealth
thru legit economic activity together with the avoidance
of using income for personal enjoyment

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