The genius of Max Weber

Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is one of the great works of social science.

A 1900 photo shows Max Weber, a German economist and sociologist. Weber wrote about how religion affected capitalism.

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.

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