Max Weber and the 'Spirit' of The Protestant Ethic
13 Pages Posted: 29 Mar 2010 Last revised: 2 Apr 2010
Weber’s account of the iron cage of capitalism, which once might have stirred readers to resist the alienation it describes, has by now lost much of its critical force, as if the metaphor itself had turned to steel. And yet, just as Weber thought there was in the notion of ‘duty in a calling’ a ghost of capitalism’s religious origins – religious origins which ultimately explain the irrationality at the heart of instrumental rationality – I argue that there is in the language of The Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism a ghost of the text’s once critical nature. Specifically, in the context of capitalism's present crisis, it becomes possible to recognize anew the strangeness of Weber's account: the strangeness of capitalism as he describes it, and the strangeness of his description. With this in mind, and following Weber’s lead as he conjures the ‘spirit’ of capitalism and traces its roots to the Reformation, this chapter finds in The Protestant Ethic evidence of a certain ‘spirit’ of Weber’s science – a science more critical and imaginative than often assumed, a science that decides on the meaning its evidence in ways it does not always avow, and finds its own antecedents in the very traditions it analyzes.
Keywords: Weber, Protestant Ethic, calling, spirit, capitalism
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