Monday, 19 March 2012 08:26

Max Weber: Men of Ideas

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Maximilian Carl Emil Weber (1864-1920) was a German scholar who has come to be called everything from sociologist to political scientist and economist.  Max Weber is a traditional German thinker who, in a different age, probably would be called philosopher but in our age of specialization and categorization folk see a need to see him as a sociologist.  Indeed, some even consider him as one of the founders of the discipline of sociology. He called some of his major writings the sociology of this or that (sociology of Religion, for example) but those writings appear more like philosophical treatises than the rigorous work of a specialist in sociology.

Because of nomenclature I will group Max Weber with sociologists but I am inclined to see him as a philosopher. He wrote thoughtful essays, or, as he himself would characterize them, analyses.  However, those essays do not fall into our current understanding of sociology; they were not scientifically rigorous enough to be called social science; they were the writings of a thinker, a philosopher who felt qualified to write on any subject that took his interest even if he is not a specialist in it. But then again we must remember that Max Weber wrote before the age of over specialization.

Max Weber’s writings could be reviewed from many disciplinary standpoints. I choose to focus on two aspects of his writings for review and leave the rest out: his writings on what he called the sociology of religion and the sociology of Politics. 

In his major work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber asked this question: how come Capitalism arose in the so-called Protestant countries of Northern Europe and not in other countries, such as China, India (of course, Africa did not enter his mind)?

He proposed to find out by examining the nature of the religions that are found in these regions of the world. Thus, he examined Christianity, Catholic and Protestant; Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism and Islam.  His goal is to demonstrate the correlation of certain religion and Capitalism.

Given the fact that China, by all indices of development, was by far ahead of Europe, she would seem the logical place for capitalism to develop, yet capitalism developed in obscure Northern Europe, why.

Max Weber would like to think that there is something about Calvinism, the Protestant religion that rebelled against the Catholic Church that led it to produce Capitalism. In ponderous essays he explained that Calvin posited a theology that saw work as a path to salvation. To work is to serve God. Moreover, Calvin did not encourage consumption, for that amounts to not serving the will of God; he encouraged saving.  This tendency to work and save, Weber believes, is the root of capitalism.

I have tried to simplify what Weber wrote in hundreds of pages and in difficult to understand German.

Capitalism did not arise in Catholic Europe, such as in Spain and France, but in Protestant Europe, such as in England, Belgium and Netherland etc. The specific configuration of Catholicism does not encourage working hard and saving; Catholicism does not associate work with salvation. Salvation, to the Catholic, lies in doing God’s will, which means doing what the pope and his clergy defines as God’s will, being obedient to the clergy.

Having explored the possible correlation of Protestantism and Capitalism, Weber examined other religious communities, such as China and its Confucianism and Taoism, India and her Hinduism and Buddhism etc.  He did an excellent job explicating Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism (considering that he did not formally study them) and tried to show why they did not lead to Capitalism.

Hinduism, for example, is other worldly. Hinduism tends to negate this world, see this world as not good enough and encourage folk to escape from this world. Hinduism encourages mysticism, an escape from the ugly realities of this world. Hinduism might be called religious idealism or spiritual idealism in the sense that it appreciates our imperfect real self and world and wants to escape from them and go to a mentally constructed ideal self and world called Atman and heaven (Brahmaloka).

Moreover, the social organization of Hindu society does not encourage hard work and saving. Hindu society is divided intro classes: Brahmin (spiritual leaders), Kshatriya (warriors, administrators) Sudras (workers) and untouchables. The Sudras, workers, who would have worked hard, are looked down upon. In effect, work is not respected in India and in such a situation where the best and brightest of society, the Brahmins, look to spiritual matters and disdain work and see it as only fit for slaves, how could the society produce a culture that worked hard and accumulated saving to enable capitalist economy?

China was by all accounts way ahead of Europe in material and political development yet she did not proceed to capitalist stage of development, why. Weber thinks that it has something to do with China’s Confucian culture. In China the most educated class, the Mandarin, wanted to work for the emperor as his civil servants rather than go trade. Thus, bright minds studied to pass civil service examinations and worked for the civil service rather than go initiate products and services and produce them and sell them.

Moreover, Confucianism tends to encourage folk to worship traditions and discourages innovation and radical change from the past.

China’s other religion, Taoism, is a religion that lives and let live. Taoism finds a way to coexist with the natural world without disturbing it. Whereas the Protestant sees the world as an enemy to be conquered and tamed for God’ glory, the Taoists wants to flow with his world without disturbing it.

The Buddhists cultures of India and Asia tend to seek harmony with nature. Buddhism, in many ways, is also an escapist religion.  It wants to tune this world out and return to an undifferentiated world where there is no individuality, no ego self, no separated self, and a world of mere being.

As Weber sees it, Buddhist culture does not encourage trying to master this world, and mastery of this world is a tenet of Capitalism.

Weber wrote thousands of pages on what he called the sociology of religion, why certain religion leads or does not lead to capitalism.

A lot of criticism has been extended to Weber’s postulations. Let me just say that Weber was seeking an explanation for why Capitalism arose in Northern Europe and America and not else where. He posited some interesting hypotheses but those are post host proto hoc arguments. They are not predictive of future capitalism developing in Protestant countries but rationalizations that would seem correlated with Capitalism. In the end Weber is a philosopher musing on interesting ideas but had no empirical evidence for his postulations. His writing is deductive rather than inductive, hence not scientific. Weber’s postulations cannot be tested, verified or falsified; they are just interesting ideas but not scientific ones.

Weber also wrote on economics and politics. His writing on the sociology of politics is the basis of Western political scientists teaching about the state. Weber sees the state as that body that believes itself as having sole possession of the means of coercion in society. The state has power (military, police, courts, judges, prison) and believes that it can tell the people what to do and if they fail in doing so punish them. Most people agree that the state has the right to do such things (though why it should have such right has not been explained to every ones satisfaction).

In his writings on bureaucracy Weber essentially described the nature of bureaucratic organizations. Bureaucratic organizations are hierarchical, impersonal; members of bureaucratic organizations are recruited by examination and are promoted on the basis of merit and expertise; bureaucracies exist to serve political goals given to them by the leaders of society, leaders who are outside the bureaucracy itself; bureaucracies are instruments for implementing the goals of the leaders of society.  Modern society is a bureaucratic society and Weber has not been surpassed in his understanding of this type of society. Weber’s writing on bureaucracy is bedrock of the study of public and business administration.

Karl Marx had wished for a communist society where the state disappeared and folk were free citizens. Max Weber correctly observed that in a communist state, contrary to Marx’s wishes what would obtain is rulership of officials; the leaders of the bureaucratic state would tell the workers what to do. Communist Russia did not fail Weber.

Weber wrote on other aspect of politics and politicians (such as charismatic leaders etc) but we shall not go into those.  At any rate, I have said enough about Max Weber to let the reader know that his influence in Western intellectual life is pervasive and therefore he is a person to be studied and understood.


Dirk Kessler. Max Weber.: An Introduction to His Life and Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

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Ozodi Osuji Ph.D

Ozodi Thomas Osuji is from Imo State, Nigeria. He obtained his PhD from UCLA. He taught at a couple of Universities and decided to go back to school and study psychology. Thereafter, he worked in the mental health field and was the Executive Director of two mental health agencies. He subsequently left the mental health environment with the goal of being less influenced by others perspectives, so as to be able to think for himself and synthesize Western, Asian and African perspectives on phenomena. Dr Osuji’s goal is to provide us with a unique perspective, one that is not strictly Western or African but a synthesis of both. Dr Osuji teaches, writes and consults on leadership, management, politics, psychology and religions. Dr Osuji is married and has three children; he lives at Anchorage, Alaska, USA.

He can be reached at: (907) 310-8176