Max Weber (1864-1920)
author list

  • Baechler
  • Blamont
  • Braudel
  • Chelli
  • Cosandey
  • Diamond
  • Frank
  • Hallé
  • Huff
  • Hume
  • Jones
  • Kennedy
  • Landes
  • Lang
  • Lévi-Strauss
  • McNeill
  • Mokyr
  • Montesquieu
  • Needham
  • Sardar
  • Weber
  • Wesson
  • Wittfogel
    In an influential book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Max Weber advocated that reformed christianity had been instrumental in the birth of modern economic life in Western Europe. The stern doctrines of lutherianism and calvinism had pushed to capital accumulation and economic development by breeding in believers a relentless commitment to one's earthly calling and an avoidance of trivial pleasures.

    Weber's Lifeline
    Weber was born in Erfurt, Germany, on 21 April 1864, to an authoritarian father and strongly Calvinist mother. He was educated at the universities of Heidelberg, Berlin, and Göttingen and served briefly in the army. In 1893, he got a temporary position at University of Berlin, bringing him his first income and allowing him to leave home and to marry. His hard work and brilliancy led him to be nominated only two years later, in 1895, professor of political economy at Freiburg. The next year he accepted a similar position in Heidelberg.

    In 1898, following a family crisis the year before, Weber suffered a nervous collapse. He was institutionalized periodically until 1903 and had to give up his academic work. Coming back to normal life, he started work again as a co-editor of the journal Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik, which became the leading German social science journal. He made a journey to the United States in 1904, where he could give lectures on what would become his famous The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). In 1907, an inheritance freed him of all financial problems.

    At the beginning of World War I, Max Weber supported enthusiastically the German aims and volunteered for the Army. In 1915, he changed his mind and became a pacifist. After the war, Weber helped draft the constitution of the Weimar Republic and founded the German Democratic party. But he slowly took distance with the new republic, loathe of the the slowness and inefficiencies of political parties. In 1919, he was appointed professor for national economics at University of Munich. He died in this city on 14 June 1920. (Adapted from the Compton's encyclopedia online.)

    Longer biographies (first and second) are also available.

    Major works related to the European Miracle
    (1) 1905: Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus.
    — English version in 1930: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
    (2) 1922: Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft.
    — English version in 1968: Economy and Society.
    (3) 1927: General Economic History, Munich lectures published posthumously.
    (4) 1920: Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen. Konfuzianismus und Taoismus.
    (5) 1920: Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen. Hinduismus und Buddhismus.

    Weber Links
    Weber is very present on the world wide web, a testimony to his lasting influence. Sociologists, Christians, economists, religion specialists and surprisingly many Asian sites are busy marshalling the great man.
    A list of Weber sites, an interesting Weber site.

    Weber did not originate the thesis linking Protestantism and capitalism, as he himself pointed out. Earlier writers, including the English economist William Petty, had the idea of linking religion to the onset of capitalism. What Weber did was to provide the specifics for the argument, with the details of the mechanism by which the belief in a "calling" and in worldly asceticism developed, leading to modern capitalism. Although it is largely forgotten, Weber argued that these behavioral changes alone could not bring about modern capitalism as it required an "appropriate set of conditions" in the economic sphere.

    My absolutely subjective review of Weber's contribution to the Grand Issue
    Max Weber's most important works have unfortunately been neglected, if not forgotten. They are his analyses of agricultural structures, particularly the nocivity of large estates: his PhD thesis about agricultural structures in Antiquity and The Situation of the land workers in Germany east of the Elbe (Die Lage der Landarbeiter im ostelbischen Deutschland, 1892). They are deep, brilliant, and original. They are, however, not directly related to the European miracle issue.

    Max Weber's answer to the Grand Question is mostly worthless. It falters when it comes to explain the Ancient Greek boom (since the Greeks were not protestant), the fast growth of Northern Italy up to the Renaissance (since the Italians were catholic), or the great times in other civilizations (in particular India 300-700, China -700 to -200 and 800-1300, since neither the Indians nor the Chinese were protestant). To obtain a global explanation fitting non-Christian countries, one has to turn to other factors, like I do in Le Secret de l'Occident – vers une théorie générale du progrès scientifique (The Secret of the West – A general theory of scientific progress). In this book I succeed in explaining the rises and falls of other civilizations or pre-Christian times, like the Greek miracle.

    Weber's theory obeys naively to the idea that people are, on average, moved by abstract ideas and not by their interests. In a classical confusion, it takes the effect for the cause. In successful European countries, a new breed of Christianity evolved to satisfy the needs of the newly powerful mercantile class. Northern Europe became protestant because it was economically successful, not the reverse.

    In spite of its stark limitations, Weber's hypothesis has been quite influential. It pleased a triumphant northern Europe and United States, mostly protestant. Weber's theory is still alive now, i.e. it still appears in debates about the European mystery – be it to be debunked. This is arguably the most interesting thing in this hypothesis. It seems to confirm that people are likely to believe:
    (1) simplistic ideas in fields where the mass of information and interconnections apparently makes the problem hopelessly difficult.
    (2) negative judgements about the other guys... it is so nice to feel superior.
    If nothing more, Weber's theory flatters the cultural chauvinism of people of north-western European ascent, and this might well be the reason for its enduring success...

    A comment about the amazing longevity of Weber's theory.

    Scholarship: 2/5   Theory: 1/5