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Tuesday, November 1, 2011


Weber repeatedly uses the term "rational" to describe the approach to every aspect of life of the Puritans and other Reformed sects. "Rationalization" is the central concept of Weber's Sociology, informing and shaping his discussion not only of religion and the economy but also of politics, art, and science. To the philosophical ear, the term suggests conformity to the principles of formal logic, or perhaps guidance by the faculty of Reason alone, but that is not quite what Weber has in mind. The term "bureaucratization" sometimes carries the same meaning for him. A few words about "rational" and its cognates "rationalization" and "rationality" might be in order.

When Weber describes a person, a practice, or an institution as rational, he means to contrast it with the habitual, the natural, the haphazard, the unorganized, and, as he often says in this essay, the "magical." A government agency with defined roles, written regulations, and officials appointed on the basis of examinations or qualifications rather on the basis of family connection is, in Weber's sense of the term, "rational." An army organized into companies brigades, and divisions, led by professional soldiers who have been schooled in the art of war, rather than a collection of undisciplined bands each loyal to a different charismatic or traditional leader, is, in Weber's sense of the term, "rational." An economic enterprise that keeps written records of its purchases and sales, carefully calculates profit and loss, and makes economic decisions on the basis of spreadsheets and double entry bookkeeping is, in Weber's sense of the term, "rational."

Weber's repeated allusions to "magic," by the way, refer to such Catholic rituals as the Mass, in which the miracle of transubstantiation takes place. For those of you who are not clued in to Catholic theology, the Mass is intended as a repetition of the Last Supper that Christ took with his disciples. As a consequence of the miraculous intervention of God during the ritual of the mass, the wafer and wine are transformed. The accidents of the bread and wine -- smell, taste, feel, weight, shape, etc. -- remain the same, but the substance of the bread and wine is changed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ. Hence "transubstantiation." Marx, by the way, has great fun with this notion in Capital. He describes capitalist commodity exchange mockingly as a kind of inverted transubstantiation. The accidents change during commodity exchange -- wheat is exchanged for linen, shoes for coats -- but the substance, which is to say Value, or embodied socially necessary labor, remains the same, for in a capitalist marketplace, equals are exchanged for equals.

The "regular orders" of monks and nuns exhibited, in their cloistered devotions, many of the marks of this sort of rationality, but what sharply distinguishes the early Protestants from their Catholic lay brothers and sisters is the fact that they exhibit the same rigorous systematization of every aspect of their lives, even though they pursue their calling "in the world." The core of Weber's thesis in this essay is that this secularization of what is initially a religious rationality is the differentia specifica that explains the transformation of medieval economic activity into what we now know as capitalism.

Let me repeat here, as I conclude this mini-tutorial, something that I said as I began: You must not make the mistake of supposing that Weber is unaware of, or even is denying the importance of, all the other pre-conditions, causes, historical particularities, legal institutions, political circumstances , and economic factors that played a role in the emergence of distinctively Western capitalism. He is well aware of them and many times insists on their importance. But he is trying to explain why capitalism developed in seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe, and did not develop at other times and places where so many of these cooperating factors seemed to be present. [If I may make a philosophical allusion, we might compare what Weber is doing to Francis Bacon's "Tables of Presence and Absence" in the Novum Organum.]

Weber's emphasis on the distinctive Protestant ethic of the secularized calling might be called by some Marxists "idealist" rather than "materialist," but I myself do not put much store in those kinds of classifications. It seems to me that Weber is right to focus attention on the mentality, as it were, of the early capitalists, to observe how strikingly if differed from that of their predecessors or contemporaries, and to ask where it came from. Now, Marx [and many others] might object that the forces of competition would drive anyone seeking to survive in the marketplace to adopt the most efficient techniques of production and use the best available methods for calculating profitability. Weber agrees, and indeed says just that in his essay. But that is an explanation of the forces compelling new entrepreneurs to adopt the intensively rationalized mode of economic activity that they find in operation when first they launch their enterprises. It cannot also be an explanation of the choice of such novel and unusual modes of economic activity by the first men to enter the field.

The fate of Weber's thesis has been complicated, as one might expect, and much has been written either revising or even rejecting the central claim of The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. But I believe that it remains a highly original, brilliantly argued work that demonstrates the great strength of the work that was done in the first generations of Sociology. If I were asked what more recent works exhibit a like scope and power, I think I would cite Barrington Moor Jr.'s The Origins of Democracy and Dictatorship: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World,"

With that, I bring this mini-tutorial to a close. I hope you have found it useful, and that some of you perhaps will be stimulated to consult Weber's writings directly.


Don Schneier said...

Two questions regarding what Weber calls the 'Protestant Ethic'. First, is the belief, of some, that the 'invisible hand of the market'is an expression of divine justice, in the spirit of this Protestant Ethic? Second, is the, er, tenet that 'Work will set you free' an expression of this Protestant Ethic?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

As for the first, I think not, because it suggests that economic success is in some sense a divine reward, rather than an evidence that one is pursuing one's calling properly. About the second, I am not sure, because I am not sure I know what it means.

Marinus said...

Work couldn't set you free in the Protestant ethic (if we tried to identify such a thing) because there isn't a condition of freedom to go to, and because what you gain through the conscientious performance of your calling are exactly the virtues and dispositions which Revelation tells us is part of God's plan for us (and that's damn-near all we know about God's plan, if you're a Calvinist). There's no condition of freedom, because not playing your part is a sign of sin, not of freedom.

'Arbeit macht frei' is almost certainly what it looks like - a phantom carrot dangled to complement the very real stick, which might be hoped to be credible in a society with a strict work-ethic, but not too much should be read into it.

Chris said...

I became interested in Weber as the result of an interest in nutrition (and nutritionists). There's not a lot of difference between a diet plan and a puritan diary.