This week we move into territory that is in the realm of my own specific dissertation research and discuss Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Sean is able to join us on the podcast for his first episode, which is super exciting. He was traveling in California and had to leave the recording a little early, but it was still fantastic to finally get him on!
In this introduction, I want to briefly summarize what I see as Weber’s most important intervention in social theory and especially methodology regarding the study of religion. Much of European social theory in the 19th century that we still care about today was divided between two poles. On the one hand, there were positivist theories of history and society such as those advanced by Auguste Comte, which posited universal laws of history and a strong evolutionary theory of society, culminating in the modern era. For Comte, one could look at the empirical evidence that history and contemporary society provide and abstract from that evidence these laws and the proper evolutionary divisions between eras in the development of society. On the other hand, there were genealogical accounts such as those belonging to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud who aimed to show that a latent principle of human nature (also empirically verifiable, at least for Marx and Freud) was what reallydrove the development of society to the modern era. Marx believed that recognizing this could help us overcome the worst aspects of this principle (our ability to advance the efficiency of meeting our needs through mastery of nature), Freud thought we were doomed to be haunted by our repressed desires forever, and Nietzsche is maybe somewhere in the middle. What is characteristic of all three, however, is the positing of a central, world-historical factabout the nature of humanity. It is this fact that first sets the machine of societal development in motion.
Weber’s intervention is to show that such a world-historical fact cannot form the basis of a social theory. There are a number of reasons for this. First, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud can’t all be correct simultaneously. Their theories are competing and mutually exclusive (though, to be sure, there certainly have been more recent creative combinations of psychoanalysis and historical materialism.) Given the proposed explanatory strength of their theories (at least on Weber’s reading), one would expect that, looking around the world at various cultures, we would be able to see cultures developing more or less along the lines proposed by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, even if at different rates. But Weber says this is not at all what we see. Instead, we see features of society in the West that have onlyemerged in the West and that (as Sean points out in the episode) even within the West itself, there are developments in some regions that do not occur (and likely cannot occur) in others. The empirical evidence, which Weber thinks is quite plain to everyone, simply does not support any “world-historical” foundational principle that could somehow explain all religious development (this is a blow to other evolutionary theories as well, e.g. E.B. Tylor, Emile Durkheim, etc.)
Weber thinks that no “material fact” can serve as the proper point of departure for mounting an analysis of society. What he means here, though, depends upon a specific way of viewing values in modern society. Whether or not this constitutes a kind of static, material fact for Weber is another question, but I do think Weber leaves his theory “open” such that his understanding of values is not intended to be a priori true or have the same level of fundamental irreducibility that we see in the figures mentioned above. When Weber means in dismissing these sorts of “facts” is that we cannot understand the values in one sphere of life strictly from the perspective of another sphere. This is what he sees happening in Marx and Nietzsche (he doesn’t really engage Freud.) By “sphere of life” Weber is referring to a particularly modern structuring of one’s view of life-as-a-whole (pictured to the right from a Powerpoint lecture I gave on this recently). Weber thinks that at one point, these spheres were more or less undifferentiated (a rather uncontroversial claim, I think), but as “rationalization” within each sphere became more and more complex, the spheres began to make their own differentiated and unique demands on the individual and the community. For example, at one time nearly all art was “religious art.” There was not a serious distinction between two such forms–even what we call “religious art” today was just “art.” But, so Weber theorizes, as artists and viewers of art came to appreciate the form and technique of the artist rather than the religious content of the image, artists began to create art for the sake of highlighting form and technique (among other aspects of art not related to religious content and purpose.) Furthermore, there developed a sense that the aesthetic sphere provided an alternative path to salvation, thus putting at odds the values of the aesthetic and religious spheres. Weber thinks a similar differentiation occurs in each sphere with regard to religion. In the West, and in Reformed Protestantism particularly, the demands of the religious sphere are pitched so high that it becomes the dominant sphere. However, this is not at all obvious from the historical data since this branch of Protestantism maintained a strong connection with the economic and political spheres, rather than (as in other situations where religion is dominant) completely retreat form the world altogether. Obviously, we talk much more about this connection between the economic and the religious spheres in the episode.
What comes to the fore for me in this analysis is Weber’s utilization of religious and even theological ideas as a way of describing and illustrating the religious values of Reformed Protestants for the purposes of his analysis. I want to say that this move is non-reductive over-against both contemporary calls to reduction (e.g. Sharf, or especially Don Wiebe or Robert Segal) as well as the phenomenological approaches such contemporary reductive accounts critique. Weber is not reductive either in the “critical religion” or phenomenological senses. Though Weber’s method (importantly) extends beyond what religious adherents themselves see as the telos and/or explanation of their own ideas and practices, Weber’s starting point is not an explanation of what those ideas and practices are fundamentally. We see such a starting point in critical religion and phenomenology–an ontological approach to what religion is. Even in explaining what religion means as some phenomenologists do, I’d argue that the fundamental goal of such meaning is ontological/definitional. Weber, on the other hand, is interested in what religion does: i.e. the particular effects that the process of rationalizing religious values with the values of other social spheres has on those other spheres. For Weber, even if the religious values are not “really” religious but can be shown to be “actually” something else, Weber thinks the fact that people regard them as religious has a genuine effect that cannot be explained by such a reduction. In other words, Marx’s theory, for example, cannot account for the ways that “religious values”–as understood by the adherent to be actually religious–has determinate effects on and even creates the conditions for new kinds of capitalism.
Listen to Episode 5 here: