confusing german titles: three things about the protestant ethic
In teaching Weber’s Protestant Ethic in my theory course the last two semesters, I’ve come to the conclusion that the title of the book (essay? long article? chapter in larger anthology?) is misleading. I’ve posted about German titles half jokingly before. The basic idea is that Germans tend to title their books using the template: “blah, blah, blah und blah, blah, blah” (or whatever the German equivalent of “blah” is), even when their books are really about three things not two. The best example, as I noted is Freud’s classic The Ego and the Id, which is a classic in Psychoanalysis because of the theoretical reworking of the role of the Superego in the metapsychology, precisely the entity that is left out in the binary title Das Ich und Das Es.
Weber’s Protestant Ethic is the same way and I’ve come to realize that only after trying to teach it to undergrads. It is not about two things as suggested by the classic germanic title (Die Protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus), but about three things: (1) The Protestant Ethic (whatever that is), (2) The (Spirit/Mentality*) of Capitalism (whatever that is), and then the third thing excluded from the title: (3) The Modern Economic Order. Without this last thing Weber’s argument is incomprehensible and in fact leads to the usual exegetical mangles generated by most people who try to make sense of “The Weber thesis.”
First, let us get rid of the most egregious fallacy. There is (no one) “Weber thesis” and much less is it (as has been proposed by the theoretically-challenged economists who are recently game of “testing” it) that Protestantism causes “capitalism” (whatever that is).
Second, the fact that the book is about three things, means that there are multiple “Weber theses,” some of which seem to be more historically plausible to me than others. But the one that is most important from a pedagogical perspective (if you are in charge of teaching this) and the one that seems most easily defendable is the following: these three things are independent, and while in a single historical case, one led to the other which then led to other, the more probable historical possibility is that you find them hanging out all by themselves.
This is how Weber structured the book. Thus, the first part is about Luther, Calvin and the Protestant sects (kind of boring). In this part, all that Weber wants to do is (1) provide an ideal type of what the “Protestant Ethic” is and (2) most crucially, to show that the Protestant Ethic existed prior to the Mentality of Capitalism; ergo the Protestant Ethic is quite independent from the Spirit of Capitalism, and is not bound to deterministically lead to the latter. In fact, most versions of the Protestant Ethic can’t do this, because they are too impregnated with what he called “mysticism” and thus lead towards an otherworldy asceticism (these terms are defined elsewhere in the collected essays). The causal sequence Protestant Ethic –> Spirit of Capitalism, has only happened in a few cases (e.g. Calvinism).
Notice that we have already transcended the simplistic presumptions of the theoretically challenged interpretation of the so-called Weber thesis. For if there is a “Weber thesis” here, it is the following: The Protestant Ethic (may, under some determinate historical circumstances that are fairly rare) lead to The Mentality of Capitalism (not “capitalism” without qualifications—this confuses the mentality of capitalism with its objective structural foundations—and much less “economic growth” (!!!???). As Parsons noted in his Heidelberg dissertation, this is not a “culture —> structure” arrow of causation but a “culture —> culture” one. We haven’t gotten to “structure” yet. That’s the (or one of the) other Weber’s “thesis(es)”
After doing this, (part II of Weber’ story) Weber’s does something puzzling (Chapter 3); he starts talking about Benjamin Franklin’s advice to young people. This usually throws people for a loop (leading to people thinking of the “Protestant Ethic” and “The Spirit of Capitalism” as coterminous). But it is clear what Weber wants to do by bringing up the (largely secular) Ben Franklin (and by implication the historical example of the American Colonies; let us not forget that it was a “trip to America” that finally convinced Weber to write this darn book). He wants to establish one of his other theses: the fact that the Spirit of Capitalism is historically independent from the Protestant Ethic, since it can survive even after that PE is gone. This is the whole point of the Franklin example (well actually two points, since the Franlkin example is also supposed to give us the ideal-typical definition of the Mentality of (rational) Capitalism). In fact he is clear that what is historically significant about 18th century America is the fact that there existed the Spirit of Capitalism without the Protestant Ethic and without the (structural) accoutrements of the modern economic order (e.g. the U.S. was a largely agricultural society and whatever industry existed was “proto-capitalist” and small scale).
Finally the famous Chapter 5. This is the most speculative and weakest of the chapter, because it contains the strongest and possibly most dubious of the Weber theses. First the one that seems least dubious: in this chapter Weber wants to secure the last link in the three-step chain: he wants to show that Ben Franklin’s mentality of capitalism is historically transformed into the objective, institutional structures of the Modern Economic Order. This is a culture —> structure argument, and today we would probably use the language of “institutionalization” to describe it. The second “thesis” that he wants to establish (and here Weber substitutes Nitzschean pathos for actual argument) is that modern societies are an example of the fact that The Modern Economic Order can exist without either the Protestant Ethic or the Spirit of Capitalism. Both of these cultural sources of meaning are exhausted and the system rests on “mechanical foundations” (never have such a few lines of bad argumentation generated more rivers of scholarship from both the left and the right). So the final step is complete. Weber’s full argument is: “Protestant Ethic –> Mentality of Capitalism –> Modern Economic Order.”
That’s why is silly to try to “refute” the Weber thesis by pointing to the fact that for instance, institutional elements of the Modern Economic Order existed in the (Catholic) Italian City-States. As if Weber (the History Savant) didn’t know this! (he did. see General Economic History). In fact, he saw this as supporting his “all three things can exist independently of one another” argument. The Italian city states had elements of the Modern Economic Order but had neither the Protestant Ethic nor the Spirit of Capitalism. Also, I think the fact that the chain is three steps long does leave open the possibility that you can get a “Modern Economic Order” without the Protestant Ethic as long as you get a “Mentality of Capitalism” from somewhere. If some other “[Fill in the blank] ethic —> Mentality of Capitalism” then it is possible to get a (culturally specific version of) the Modern Economic Order. Obviously this argument has already been made for Japan (by Bellah and Collins) for instance.
So the moral of the story: three things not two. And all three are independent from one another not joined lockstep in some sort of inexorable causal chain.
*The German word “Geist” was translated by Parsons as “spirit” although the less spooky “mentality” is also acceptable and actually preferable (e.g. Geistesleben is translated as “Mental Life” in Simmel’s classic essay).