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Rethinking the “Protestant Ethic”…

In Book Reviews, History, Religion on June 16, 2011 at 9:02 am

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. United States:  Charles Scribner’s Sons., 1958.

Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism has received positive acclaim in the past and continues to be widely celebrated. The “Protestant Ethic” has remained a well known term in the English lexicon and the arguments it represents continues to be treated seriously within academic circles. On the surface, the content of Weber’s famous work seems persuasive and well grounded. However, a closer analysis of how the text functions not only seriously calls into question its factuality, but the alleged objectivity of the author himself. Although there have been various counter-arguments made against Weber’s conclusions, this book review will focus on the form and structure of his work.

Weber’s engagement is logical through the use of what I like to call dichotomous inclusion-exclusion frameworks within the text’s content. At the introduction of the text, the author endeavours to demonstrate the uniqueness of ‘Western’ civilization relative to others as well as emphasize its alleged “universal significance and value”[1]. At first glance, being different and universal appears to be paradoxical. However, the author overcomes inconsistency by using a framework that illustrates through a series of comparative examples the ways in which this west prevails as a center of universality. The universality of Western civilization is clearly understood to be a “specific” and yet solely “valid” rationalism that underlines its every cultural attribute.[2] In systematically comparing aspects such as natural science, music, architecture, and capitalism,[3] the author creates a narrative that does not merely outline the differences between western civilization and non-western civilizations (particularly those of a so-called “Orient”). It also demonstrates the existence of a universal characteristic within western civilization that is lacking in the others. Thus, in implementing this framework, the author is able to develop a logically consistent assertion that the West is both distinct and universal.

By no means does Weber restrict his usage of a dichotomous inclusion-exclusion framework to the introduction of his work. In formulating the notion of two historic opposing forces designated “spirit of capitalism” and “traditionalism,”[4] the author is able to neatly designate details in such a way as to ensure that they always contribute to and never contradict his arguments. In short, Weber’s ability to categorize prevents any disruption to the logical flow of his narrative. When evaluating the pre-Protestant moral systems, the author is able to consider Catholic morality as merely requiring “external devotion”[5] by categorically excluding it as traditionalist. Conveniently though, when assessing Protestantism’s maintenance of the pre-existing Old Testament morality, the author considers this related to the “powerful impetus” of a spirit of “self-righteous and sober legality” integral to “worldly asceticism”[6] by categorically including it as a necessary ingredient of the spirit of capitalism. Furthermore, what at initial observation appears contradictory continues to be overcome in the text through the implementation of the inclusion-exclusion framework. For instance, while Weber can include Luther’s biblical notion of the “calling” as part of the Protestant Ethic’s ideological chronology by considering it foundational to the spirit of capitalism, he is also able to exclude Luther’s largely non-worldly interpretation of the bible by designating it “traditionalistic.”[7] Therefore, by utilizing an inclusion-exclusion framework, the author is able to exclude and include details as needed to ensure the production of a logically engaging narrative throughout the text.

The monograph is written in both an empirical and judgmental mode. In the introduction of the text, Weber asserts that his text is a “sociological and historical investigation” analyzing all “influences and causal relationships.”[8] His choice to disregard racially comparative anthropological studies is not motivated by moral or ethical considerations. On the contrary, its absence from his discourse is due to his professional opinion that research in this field, while not without “notable achievements,” has yet to produce “satisfactory answers” to what is still “unknown.”[9] Moreover, Weber builds his analysis on the basis of facts and trends that can be tangibly verified. The fact that Germans with Protestant backgrounds dominate ownership of capital and make up the bulk of “technically and commercially trained personnel of modern enterprise”[10] is not fabricated by the author. After all, the observation made in Weber’s discourse is citing from statistical studies that were carried out in Germany during the end of the nineteenth century.[11] It is from this statistical trend that Weber is able to formulate the argument that the reason for the difference of work habit between Catholics and Protestants lies in the “intrinsic character of their religious beliefs.”[12] Thus, the mode of writing within the text is empirical.

Although an empirical mode is present in the content of the text, the judgemental mode of writing in the author’s analysis cannot be disregarded. Through a selective use of wording, Weber injects his personal views into what is allegedly an ‘objective’ discourse and in doing so produces a narrative that conveys his opinion as fact. For instance, in describing the Catholic priest of the Middle Ages as a “magician” able to perform “miracles and transubstantiation” and holding the “key of eternal life” in his hand,[13] the author projects a particular image of the Catholic Church to the reader. While the description in its self is not factually based (it notably lacks any citation), it nevertheless succeeds in cultivating notions of the Catholic tradition as being superstitious, fantastical, and anachronistic. Furthermore, with historical events that are consistent with his arguments, Weber also employs wording that misleads readers to interpret his opinions as factually based. In discussing the inner worldly asceticism of the puritan as taking “part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order”[14], the author portrays his interpretation of historical events in a specific way to readers (again no citation). The expression “tremendous cosmos” in itself compels the reader to perceive the development of the Protestant Ethic as an historical process involving a chain of interconnected historical events that produce an inevitable larger-than-life outcome. Therefore, along with being empirical, the mode of writing in the monograph is also judgemental.

Weber’s explicit theory regarding the development of a so-called “spirit of capitalism” is produced by the linking of specific historical events and ideologies together. The author generates his discourse by weaving past occurrences and beliefs into what appears to readers to be a historical step-by-step process with a finite outcome. Commencing the “spirit of capitalism” chronology at Luther’s theological realization of the ‘calling’, Weber regards this concept as one later reinterpreted and expanded upon in Calvin’s notion of ‘predestination.’[15] In turn, Calvin’s idea of predestination allegedly resonated in a select number of “ascetic” Protestant movements that the author claims were never completely separated from each other.[16] According to Weber, these Protestant sects, particularly the Puritans, cultivate “worldly Protestant asceticism” that eventually “gives way to utilitarian worldliness” of the modern age and organically becomes the prevailing “spirit of capitalism”[17]. Thus, by directly connecting ideologies and occurrences of a period spanning almost five hundred years in a 183-page narrative, the author formulates a historical continuity that portrays the “spirit of capitalism” as an evolutionary outcome.

Weber’s explicit theory regarding the historical emergence of a “spirit of capitalism” is generated by the confinement of the narrative’s attention to specific territorial boundaries. Conveniently, the locations from where “ascetic” Protestant movements take shape happen to also be states that Weber regards as bastions of the “spirit of capitalism”. Countries where Calvinism, Pietism, Methodism and Baptist flourished include England, Holland, Germany, and the United States, all countries with pronounced Protestant traditions.[18] Consideration concerning the historical origin of the “spirit of capitalism” in non-Protestant Western Europe is notably absent in the text. Weber’s decision to limit his narrative’s focus to predominantly protestant countries is clearly intentional. After all, recognizing the historic involvement of non-Protestant countries with an alleged “spirit of capitalism” would conflict with the author’s advocacy of a historical continuity entailing the “spirit of capitalism” being exclusively a direct outcome of Protestant theological thought. Therefore, by restricting his narrative on the historical development of a “spirit of capitalism” to territories with strong Protestant traditions, the author is able to effectively ignore the existence of contradictory evidence to his arguments.

The first section of this book review assessed how Weber’s arguments within the monograph is based on dichotomous inclusion-exclusion frameworks. The second section revealed how the work is written in both an empirical as well as judgemental mode. Lastly, the third section elaborated on how Weber’s explicit theory concerning the historical evolution of a “spirit of capitalism” works. In order to acertain the strengths and weaknesses of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, it is vital that readers be aware of the means by which the author conveys and establishes his arguments within the text.


[1] Max Weber. “Author’s Introduction.” The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. (United States: Charles Scribner’s Sons., 1958). p. 13.

[2] Ibid- p. 26&13.

[3] Ibid- p. 13-22.

[4] Max Weber. “The Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 59.

[5] Ibid- p. 74.

[6] Max Weber. “Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 165.

[7] Max Weber. “Luther’s Conception of the Calling.” p. 80&83.

[8] Max Weber. “Author’s Introduction.” p. 31.

[9] Ibid- p. 30-31.

[10] Max Weber. “Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification.” p. 35.

[11] Max Weber. “Notes.” p. 188.

[12] Max Weber. “Religious Affiliation and Social Stratification.” p. 40.

[13] Max Weber. “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 117.

[14]Max Weber. “Asceticism and Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 181.

[15] Max Weber. “Luther’s Conception of the Calling.” and  “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 79-98.

[16] Max Weber. “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 95.

[17] Max Weber. “Asceticism and Spirit of Capitalism.” p. 170&176.

[18] Max Weber. “The Religious Foundations of Worldly Asceticism.” p. 98-150.

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Book Review: Sir Francis Galton: Vindicated Victorian Scientist?

In Book Reviews on May 20, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Gillham, Nicholas W. A life of Sir Francis Galton: from African exploration to the birth of Eugenics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

In the monograph, A life of Sir Francis Galton: from African exploration to the birth of Eugenics, Nicholas W. Gillham, a geneticist, surveys the life and times of nineteenth century British scientist Francis Galton. The author’s work is intended for an academic audience. Throughout the text, Gillham uses an endnote format that enables readers to identify citations. Furthermore, he meticulously describes historical details, such as facts about Galton’s childhood, and scientific methods, used to substantiate Galton’s theories, including those regarding heredity and talent. Gillham endeavors to demonstrate how, despite being “inextricably” linked to eugenics, Galton was a “man of diverse interests and many achievements.” He portrays Galton as being an optimistic “Victorian” scientist who would have been “horrified” by atrocities carried out in the name of eugenics during the twentieth century.

The author asserts that Galton has only been the topic of two prior biographies. The first was a four-volume text completed by his “devoted disciple,” Karl Pearson, in 1930. The second one, written by D.W. Forrest, was published in 1974. Gillham not only found both to be “unsatisfactory”, but also considered it the appropriate time to produce a new biography. By providing a more recent biography, the author seeks to go beyond the “history of idea” approach typically taken and reveal Galton to be a “creature of flesh and blood”. In terms of clarity, the language of the narrative fluctuates. When delving into events of Galton’s life, such as his encounter with warlord Jonker Afrikaner in South Africa, the author’s text is straightforward and easy to follow. However, Gillham’s use of scientific terminology, while ensuring that book content is factually accurate, also impedes the uninformed reader’s ability to understand details concerning Galton’s research. For instance, the author’s frequent use of the terms “ogive,” “quincunx,” “normal distribution,” and “reversion” makes his discussion on Galton’s statistical methodology difficult to follow for readers unfamiliar with statistics.

Gillham appears to draw much of his reference material from primary sources. Having access to the Galton Archive at London’s University College, the author utilizes documents which include Galton’s personal memoirs, his publications, his unpublished work, media reviews of his various publications, letters of correspondence, and journals written by his wife. Moreover, the author uses numerous secondary sources that include academic books and articles. While not explicitly examining these sources, the author does evidently base his research on them. For example, the author’s discourse on how Biometricians and Mendelians both relied on Galton’s research is informed by a History of Biology journal article.

Producing a narrative that provides an immense amount of historical details, the author persuasively conveys to readers that Galton was a complicated man who meant well in his efforts to improve humanity. Gillham acknowledges that Galton’s personal prejudices shaped his comparative analysis of inherited intelligence among the African and Anglo-Saxon “race.” Nevertheless he does not dismiss Galton as despising Africans or being fully in agreement with Victorian values. On the contrary, he notes that from a young age, Galton respected “civilized” tribes like the Ovampo and even opposed European intrusions into South Africa which disregarded local customs in favor of aggression. Furthermore, the author recognizes that Galton’s belief that female lineages play a minor role in heredity suggests that he did to an extent succumb to “prevailing Victorian views” of women. However, Gillham indicates that Galton’s outlook was not conclusively sexist, describing how Galton, as council member of the Royal Geographical Society, strongly advocated for the inclusion of women into the organization and eventually resigned from his position over the issue.

Exploring a diversity of topics ranging from Galton’s meteorological discovery of the anti-cyclone to his development of psychometric studies, this book does not exclusively cater to academics interested in the history of British eugenics. Nonetheless, Gillham’s work is outstandingly researched and provides a reliable in-depth historical overview of Galton’s life, the world he existed in, and the scientific research he conducted. The scientific language regularly used by the author makes it challenging for uninformed readers to understand his narrative, but Gillham makes strong efforts to elaborate on scientific theories and research methods discussed in the text. For example, this can be seen in his lengthy descriptions of Darwin’s “Hypothesis of Pangenesis” and Galton’s rabbit experiments. Moreover, being able to fully comprehend the complexities of Galton’s scientific work as a scientist, Gillham generally succeeds in making scientific research methods easier to understand. For instance, while closely examining Galton’s biometric charts and diagrams, Gillham manages to convey to readers, regardless of their familiarity with statistics, how through a “smoothing” statistical technique, Galton was able to simplify data findings to fit a favored hypothesis. Overall, this book is a highly recommended secondary source for audiences interested in the British eugenics movement and its founder, Sir Francis Galton.