Max Weber, born in 1864 into an upper-class Protestant family, was a preeminent social theorist and philosopher whose ideas have had a great influence in several fields of academic study, ranging from sociology and research methodologies to religious studies and more.
Weber was introduced to the realm of European politics and statesmanship by his father who was a lawyer. His mother was an educated woman with a strong commitment to social welfare. She encouraged her son’s intellectual and spiritual development, and Weber would later go on to become a teacher and scholar at Humboldt University. However, Weber wished for a life of political engagement and throughout his years identified himself as a political economist. In his 30s, Weber had a psychological collapse likely due to a conflict with his father and from stress brought on by overworking himself. He later produced The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905) and Economy and Society (1922), both of which were penned outside the protected environment of academia.
Weber’s Contextual Background and Interest in Capitalism
Weber’s background was one deep conflict and tension. It was an age of rapid industrialization in Germany which led to social dislocations, rapid urbanization, class conflict, and the formation of revolutionary movements. Society was undergoing a transformation from an agrarian one into an industrial society based on abstract, depersonalized principles of domination and production. Many people had a stake in this transformation. The aristocrats, for example, found their privileges and status threatened and the bourgeois began fearing the emerging working class who wanted equal rights and improvement within the material lives. People responded to these changes in various ways: some attempted to escape by turning to Eastern religions, others in unrestricted sexuality and freedom, and some turned to nature. Capitalism evidently became a concern for a number of German thinkers, some of whom criticized it. Capitalism was not viewed as a positive development but rather as one associated with class conflict, greed, exploitation, collapse, bankruptcies, and crises. It also came to benefit a few at the expense of others. These circumstances led to the emergence of questions of political importance: Who invented capitalism? Who is responsible for it? And from where did it come?
Thinkers presented various answers to such questions, some blaming capitalism’s ills on Jews, Roman law, or religious sentiments. Weber rejected Jews and Roman law as the cause of capitalism’s emergence and set out to discover the motivation of capitalist behaviour, why people conducted their lives in certain ways, and what moral powers they called on.
Capitalism and Instrumental Rationality
Weber was interested in the cultural origins and effects of capitalism, why people came to see work as the center of their lives, why many feel guilty for not working, and why value and self-esteem became so dependent on work itself. He views capitalism as a new system and structure of free labour and the rational pursuit of profit. Capitalism is, to Weber, overpowering and he calls it the “most fateful force in our modern life” (1). The modern economic order “is bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production” and thus constitutes an unavoidable fate for human beings. “Today’s capitalist economic order,” writes Weber, “is a monstrous cosmos into which the individual is born and which in practice is for him, at least as an individual, simply a given, an immutable shell, in which he is obliged to live” (2). A metaphor Weber uses is an iron cage to describe the condition of human beings living in a bureaucratized modern world dominated by “instrumental rationality.” By instrumental rationality, Weber means a way of thinking that is oriented exclusively towards the efficient maximization of practical goals. It is the pursuit or use of any means necessary to achieve a specific end. It is the end that ultimately matters.
Capitalism, Ascetic Protestantism, and “Calling”
Weber’s central thesis is to connect the capitalist system of production and exchange with a religiously inspired ethos of work and self-control. He intends to obtain “clarification of the nature of that element which religious motives have contributed to the fabric of development of our modern material culture” (3). What extent did religious influences have in shaping and the capitalist “spirit” across the world? And what concrete aspects of capitalist culture originated from these? Importantly, Weber held to immaterial causes as explanations for human behaviour. These can include such things as beliefs, ideas, visions, experiences, values, and justifications, all of which have proven effective forces in human history. Weber is convinced that “ascetic Protestantism” and the idea of “calling” are major factors contributing to the emergence of modern capitalist culture and its work ethic.
Weber’s notion of asceticism is not quite what we might think of in terms of the world renouncing Buddhist and Christian monks. Rather, Weber holds that certain ascetic values were held by both monks and capitalists despite their emphasis being placed on different concerns. Just as monks chose the path of self-control and limiting or deny themselves material and sensual; pleasure, so too do capitalists choose self-control and discipline as a means to, for instance, avoid losing a competitive edge over rivals in the market. Essentially both these ways of living required an ascetic spirit, as opposed to a spirit of hedonism and self-indulgence. But unlike the monks who focus on other-worldly ends (such as heaven or nirvana), capitalists adopt ascetic values in a this-worldly context. Their focus is rational and calculating and directed to this world. For the capitalist to be rational and calculating is for him to ensure sustainability and longevity. They create businesses to last and continually produce profits even after the founder’s retirement or death. Although no fan of religion, especially in mixing religion with the state, Weber viewed ascetic Protestantism highly. He believed it to instill within people self-discipline. It also supports individualistic and democratic sentiments rather than traditionalistic and authoritarian ones, which suits Weber’s desire for a population who is actively involved in the shaping of their nation.
This idea of calling refers to a person’s commitment to an unconditional duty and his attempt to fulfill the demands of a practical ethic and way of life to attain spiritual merit. Calling first originated in the search for religious salvation but then evolved over time to the search for worldly achievement and recognition. For example, Calvinists, who constitute one branch of Protestantism, believe in the doctrine of predestination, which is the conviction that God has already determined who will be saved and damned. Weber suggests that as Calvinism developed, a psychological need for signs that one is saved emerged. Calvinists looked to success in their worldly activities for these signs and came to view profit and material success as evidence of God’s favour. Weber also sees this in other Protestant sects, such as the Baptists, Pietists, and Methodists, but to lesser degrees. Scholar of religion Ivan Strenski explains,
“The ability of the capitalists to explain and justify their confident radical behavior took its strength from the same divine source — being “called” to a certain course in life. Only new divine duties could supplant the older ones of the traditionalist era” (4).
For Weber, calling is one factor that contributed to overcoming the earlier traditional economic system and establish the modern capitalism of his time. Yet once capitalism had emerged, Protestant values were no longer deemed necessary.
The spirit of capitalism had since taken hold of human economic activity due to its usefulness in the area of economics. Weber claims that this capitalistic system will, once in full swing, transform traditional societies across the world. In the West, for instance, it not only affects modes of production and exchange but also science, technology, politics, legal orders, administration systems, and cultural life.
Science, Rationalization, and Disenchantment of the World
Weber’s preferred method of science is voluntarist. He understands science to be culturally and historically determined, and the product of particular circumstances. He also sees it as objective in the sense that science attempts to keep personal bias and ideological distortion in check. This position is, as noted, voluntarist, meaning that although scientific knowledge is provisional and conditioned by cultural values, social interests, and historical developments, it is also controlled by voluntary critical and self-corrective methods that are subjected to rational standards of inquiry which are guided by debates in the scientific community. This view is not the same as relativism. Whereas relativism holds that any claim or idea is no better or worse than any other, voluntarism still holds to valid and objective knowledge in that some ideas are superior or inferior to others.
Weber is also concerned with the “disenchanting activity” brought on by the rationalization of life. Science, for example, is certainly progressive and beneficial but it is also disenchanting. Disenchantment emerges from human beings mastering nature by calculation, which Weber suggests, comes to the detriment of the mystical: “the bearing of humankind has been disenchanted and denuded of its mystical and inwardly genuine plasticity” (5). The result is that “the ultimate values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct or personal human relations” (6). Although valuable for gaining insight into the natural world, Weber does not believe science is able to answer our most urgent questions, such as how we should conduct ourselves, what kind of lives we should lead, and questions of the meaning of life and the world.
Weber’s Notion of Authority and History
One of the important features of Weber’s work is his analysis of authority. He articulated a threefold typology, each capturing a different type of authority present within society:
 Legal-rational authority is based on the legality of enacted rules and the rights of those elevated to authority under such rules to issue commands.
 Traditional authority is based on immemorial tradition/s and the legitimacy of those exercising authority under them.
 Charismatic authority is based in devotion to the sanctity, heroism, or exceptional character of a person and of the patterns ordained by him or her.
In terms of a perception of history, the communist philosopher Karl Marx was an important influence on Weber, particularly the idea of historical materialism. Historical materialism focuses on human societies and their development through history, and argues that history is the result of material conditions rather than ideals. Weber conceptualizes history not as a development of human progress and emancipation, but developmental tendencies of visions, illusions, and reactions to unintended consequences. History possesses no guiding law but is full of paradoxes and ironies.
Criticism and Weber’s Legacy
For scholars of religion, there is some concern with Weber’s uncritical acceptance of the term “religion.” As we have previously observed, there is little consensus in contemporary academia on an adequate definition of religion. Definitions that scholars of religion work with are provisional. Weber, suggests Strenski, was unreflective about what we should mean by religion, although he knew, like most people, what religion is by simply observing and reading about them, such as Christianity, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Daoism, and others. Weber uncritically accepted all of these as religions, although one could string together an argument that Confucianism, for instance, would be better seen as a political and moral philosophy than anything else.
Scholars have noted the impact of Weber’s thought on areas of subsequent scholarship, including in the fields of sociology, sociology of religion, political and historical sociology, sociology of law, and the philosophy and methodology of the social sciences. The so-called “Weberian approach” is distinctive and accords attention to the interactions between structural factors and subjective beliefs and intentions. Strenski writes that Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and his analyses of Indian and Chinese religions are,
“[M]odels of the comparative study of religions in the way they both reflect encyclopedic knowledge of many different religious faiths and do so in a rich comparative context… Indeed, they have inspired many imitators as well, even giving birth to a distinctly “Weberian” approach to the explanation of the rise and shape of economic systems the world over” (7)
Weber’s idea of instrumental rationality, for example, can easily be seen in our contemporary world in marketing practices, businesses, popular culture, globalization, and other areas that resemble means-end rationalization. Lawrence Scaff relates how instrumental rationality applies to the modern university that employs a means-end rationalization: teachers are viewed as service providers, students are treated as customers or consumers, the University makes careful judgments about policy, and aims to eliminate inefficiencies.
1. Weber, Max. 1958. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons. New York: Scriber’s. p. 17
2. Weber, Max. 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, translated by Talcott Parsons. London: G. Allen & Unwin, Ltd. p. 181.
3. Weber, Max. 2004. The Protestant Ethic and Other Writings. London: Penguin. p. 36.
4. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Understanding Theories of Religion: An Introduction. New Jersey: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 103.
5. Weber, Max. 1919. Science as a Vocation (Lecture).
6. Weber, Max. 1919. Ibid.
7. Strenski, Ivan. 2015. Ibid. p. 94
8. Scaff, Lawrence A. 1998. “Max Weber.” In Key Sociological Thinkers, edited by Rob Stones, 34-45. London: Macmillan Press Ltd.
Risebrodt, Martin. 2016. “Dimensions of the ‘Protestant Ethic.’” In The Protestant Ethic Turns 100: Essays on the Centenary of the Weber Thesis, edited by William H. Swato Jr. and Lutz Kaelber, 67-101. London: Routledge.