O Max Weber, You Nut

April 6, 2013 § Leave a comment

Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism argues in its final chapter that a Protestant, and particularly Puritan mode of being, “favored the development of a rational bourgeois economic life; it was the most important part, and above all the only consistent influence in the development of that life.  It stood at the cradle of the modern economic man” (117).  From this he argues that one of the most fundamental  aspects of “ the spirit of modern capitalism” and modern culture is “rational conduct on the basis of the idea of the calling, [which] was born – that is what this discussion has sought to demonstrate – from the spirit of Christian asceticism” (122-123).  He ends his book, not with a precise definition of “spirit,” but by lamenting “the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order,” saying, “this order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which to-day determine the lives of all the individuals who are born in this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force.  Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt” (123).  The technical rationality, or to use the term of his critical theorist descendants, instrumental reason, out-reasons the modern rational subject.

Weber bases much of his method on his etymology of “calling” (see his notes in chapter 3).   This conceptual history still exists in current German thinkers (such as Reinhardt Koselleck).  If we apply Weber’s method to another important word for him, ascetic, we get the Greek word, ασκητης – a monk or hermit, from the verb ασκε-ειν – to exercise.  An ascetic exercises discipline.  This discipline is intentional action.  Weber’s lament is a loss of control for the liberal subject under capitalism. The ascetic can no longer be an ascetic.  Thus Weber comes to critique modernity’s destruction of the western human subject, prefiguring the theoretical moves later in the twentieth-century relating to the “death of humanism.” He opens a practical critique of modern rationality.

Weber’s methodology is indicative of the intellectual climate in-which he worked.  He is an heir to Wilhelm Dilthey and a German historical philosophy of “spirit” of Hegel, Feuerbach, and Marx.  He is also reacting to the climate of Auguste Comte’s positivism and Mill’s utilitarianism.  It’s important to consider his agenda in relationship to these influences.  Although Weber reacts heavily against positivism, his sociological tries to locate verifiable “ideal types.”  This is evident in his means-end sense of rationality, which he sees as troubled by the capitalistic erasure of subjectivity after WWI.  It is also evident in his concept of understanding (Verstehen). As James Bohman says, “for Weber, Verstehen is not intuition or empathy and does not exclude causal analysis; reasons can be causes. Thus, explanations in social science must have both causal and subjective adequacy” (969).  Weber’s analysis of the Protestant Ethic’s relationship to the spirit capitalism is meant as a theoretical method in reaction to an overly “objective” positivism.  It is therefore an oversimplification to read him only as Walter Mignolo does in his introduction to Local Histories / Global Designs as merely a thinker who performs blindness to colonialism (4).  Mignolo is not wrong, but Weber is not the colonial or modernist thinker par excellence.

It is indeed tempting to read Weber as a stock example of European colonial ethnocentricism.  But to do so would be to ignore the fact the post-colonial theory participates in the narrative Weber sets up in interesting ways.  Weber is undoubtedly a grand narrator who participates in a general nineteenth-century European impulse to provide an historical narrative for “man.”  But the impulse to narrate, to colonize, to “other” cultures in order to study them, betrays a longing for a self already lost.  One should also read the nostalgic sincerity with which the rational subject seeks meaning in what it calls other and abuses in its own domestic violence.  Just as a violent man acts violently often as a display for a power he does not have, we should see the poverty of meaning in the European rational subject.  One need only read Flaubert or Kafka or consider Art pour l’Art to see that bourgeois culture consumes itself, that the hero is a failure.  The Reformation, the birth of capitalism, the rise of institutions, the rise of liberalism – these narratives work in varying degrees as the story of an individual who either disappears or becomes an object.  But they ignore the exposure of being and they forget spirit (not in the Hegelian sense), just as modern science favors the verifiable.  This has become the western conception through its own hubris.  The authentic gesture of the rational subject demands justice in the witnessing of its own birth, for the one who kills one’s father creates himself.  As meaning-maker, the person of action, like Zeus replaces God as time.  Modernity claims the “death of god,” but closely following is the “death of humanism.”  These phrases, grandiose as Weber’s, show action annihilating the author of the action, resulting in the death of the subject; we all become others, authors.  In becoming master creator, assuming God’s throne, the western human continues to follow the traces of the God who recedes from the world in the Old Testament.  Post-colonial studies is itself a furthering of this sense of depravity, and as such has held a position in western universities.  Western academic theory remains an heir to Weber (and others).  Even if we consider Derrida’s treatment of Rousseau’s rational writing in Of Grammatology or Foucault’s discussion Madness and Civilization of madness replacing Death in the Renaissance, we can still see ripples of Weber’s methods.  For that reason alone, he remains important.  That is not to say he avoids criticism.

It is interesting that Weber writes little about the Greek notion of rationality as it relates to the human or to Homo sapiens.  To me, Greek thought had every bit as much influence on Benjamin Franklin as the Christian Bible.  He could have gone back to Nietzsche’s critique of modern rationality (and Christianity), but he doesn’t.  He does set the stage for a critique of subjectivity important for the history of Religious Studies though.

Shortly after Weber’s book appeared in book form, Martin Heidegger gave his lectures on Aristotelian philosophy.  In his lectures on Aristotle, Heidegger moves away from modern notions of subject-object distinction, something he continued to do throughout his career.  Weber had already pointed to the disappearing subject; Heidegger came along and blurred the distinction more.  Colonialism relied on a subject-object split, and Weber’s claim that the rational subject is no longer an efficacious entity opens up a “legitimate” intellectual space to challenge modernist colonial tendencies, even if his analysis itself performs the very binaries it challenges.

However, in relying on his narrative of Calvinist work ethic, Weber emphasizes the visible social (economic) aspects of social critique at the expense of the invisible.  I think that Weber is onto this, but he stops short.  His critique of Protestantism and Capitalism reinforces what it critiques.  One need only look to transcendentalism in the American nineteenth-century or to Thomas Jefferson cutting out the “unreasonable” parts of his Bible to see that American exceptionalism – and its relationship to American capitalism – owes as much to a kind of secular yet ecumenical mysticism as it does to Calvinism.  Weber does not take his treatment of Pietism and Quakerism far enough, especially in relation to the United States.  If we take New England for “America,” the narrative does more to marginalize and exclude others from a participation of history than the economic or social forces at work.  Must history be the history of power?  If so, it can only make martyrs of us all as we each become types of Christs.

What Weber misses in his discussion of Benjamin Franklin and lack of discussion of American Romantics like Thoreau and Emerson is a kind of Yankee irony that is aware of its own performance.  We must ask ourselves to what extent Weber is aware of his performance.  I have suggested that we must read Weber not merely as a stock example of unexamined European ethnocentricism, but as a reaction to other trends within that community.  In order to do this, we must acknowledge a kind of sincerity in his purpose which is to be lauded.  It is possible to read Weber similar to how Michael Taussig reads Weber’s anthropologist contemporary, Bronislaw Malinowski, in What Color is the Sacred.  Taussig examines the posturing of Malinowski and his “subject” – a man in a wig, as posing for a colonial audience, a sincere form of play.  When we consider Weber’s Protestant Ethic as its own performance, just as this paper is its own performance ritual, we must have sympathy for the inability to escape social narratives because we continue to participate in them willy-nilly.  This is not to say that we should not be critical of grand narratives.  We should merely read Weber as we might read James Cameron’s grand narrative in Avatar, as a narrative which makes those blind to colonialism feel good about themselves while simultaneously being perhaps the most expensive recruitment video ever made for terrorists.  Weber teaches us the seductive power of narratives.

Works Cited

Bohman, James. “Max Weber.” The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy. 2nd ed. Ed. Robert Audi et al. Cambridge, Cambridge UP 1999.

Mignolo, Walter D. Local Histories / Global Designs. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 2000.

Taussig, Michael. What Color is the Sacred? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: Routledge, 1992.



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