Max Weber's Economic Ethic of the World Religions

An Analysis

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Thomas C. Ertman
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Cambridge University Press
    , March
     368 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Max Weber’s theory of occidental rationalization stands behind some of the most influential interpretations of modernity in the last century, nearly all of which assumed the universal significance of Western history without the comparative elucidations pursued by Weber himself. While any effort to recover the theme of rationalization today must follow Weber’s example, his own comparative program remains obscure.

As Thomas Ertman explains in Max Weber’s Economic Ethic of the World Religions, the critical edition of Weber’s writings and a series of conferences in Germany during the 1980s began to reconstruct The Economic Ethic of the World Religions (EEWR) as the “core” of Weber’s venture, but little of this work has been translated (65). Ertman’s collection serves as an orientation and supplement to this research for Anglophone scholars.

Wolfgang Schluchter anchors the volume with a magisterial account of Weber’s EEWR, which was to include studies of the ancient Near Eastern empires, Islam, Talmudic Judaism, early and Eastern Christianity, and medieval Western Christendom. Weber intended to analyze the potentials for rationalization in each religion in terms of the dialectic between ideational and economic influences at the levels of action orientations, institutions and worldviews, and in both comparative and developmental perspectives, employing a set of typologies generated by this matrix (i.e., carrier strata and religious orientations to the world). Hartmann Tyrell’s essay recounts how the reception history and fragmentary state of Weber’s work concealed the unity of EEWR and its relation to the systematic sociology of Economy and Society.

The nine essays that follow treat the historical context and reception of each volume (China, India, and ancient Judaism) in EEWR but tend not to summarize Weber’s broad arguments and only occasionally assess them with reference to the fundamental theme of rationalization. Emphasis falls instead on particular empirical findings, related methodological issues, and Weber’s preoccupation with capitalist development. At the empirical level, most of the central claims of EEWR have expired, such as an early monotheism and covenantal confederation, in the case of Israel, or a consistent caste system and orgiastic origin of Hindu ritual, in the case of India. Weber’s picture of China fairs somewhat better, but scarcely a single historical theorem remains without serious qualification. Part of the trouble lies in Weber’s sources, for example, relying primarily on the biblical picture of ancient Israel or British colonial surveys of India, but methodological problems are often in play here. These can be external, as with the growth of biblical archaeology after Weber’s death, or internal, as in the “intellectualist approach to culture” that his ideal civilizational types impose on India (244).

Criticisms of this second variety often merge with the nearly ubiquitous charge of Eurocentrism and target capitalism as Weber’s comparative standard. Timothy Brook concludes that Weber’s example is almost entirely negative, employing concepts drawn from Western experience (rationalization, salvation, monotheism) as a “preconditioned norm” to prove that “what Europeans did, they alone could do right” (105). R. Bin Wong’s otherwise appreciate reading of Weber on Chinese bureaucracy, kinship, and law warns that “it is trivial and impossible to explain non-events,” such as the absence of capitalism (110). Despite largely confirming Weber’s historical interpretation of China, Dingxian Zhao suggests reading Weber “upside down” as a “masterpiece in analyzing a more sustainable culture,” one which prevented “rational mastery of the world” from entering along the destructive paths of late capitalism (167–68). David Lorenzen describes Weber’s discussions of Asian religion as “derivative and often tedious,” since they “predictably reinforced his view that Protestant Christian tradition was the key to capitalism and to the resulting dominance of Europe over Asia and Africa in the modern world,” even if Weber attempted to break with the naive and normative Eurocentrism of his era through a value-neutral sociology (176). Philip Stern goes a step further, demonstrating how Weber’s reading of India was itself deeply embedded in the conceptual structures of colonialism.

The tenor of Ertman’s collection is more positive than these remarks perhaps suggest. The essays are quite thorough and as sympathetic to Weber as can be expected, given the changed landscape of social theory in the century since his death. Cumulatively, they canvass much of the territory necessary to begin appropriating EEWR. That they cover so many different historical facets from so many angles of vision and to such different conclusions is both the great strength and the difficulty of this volume, for it offers no consensus or even broad direction about what to do with the great mass of judgments inspired by Weber.

The most promising path would be to reconstruct the theory of rationalization itself. A first step, as Ertman hints, would be to pluralize the paths of rationalization, to “explain the origins and dynamics of different varieties of capitalism and of the modern state” (350). A second move would be to shift the axis of rationalization away from capitalism to diverse value spheres, following Fuchs and Weber himself (230). Habermas reoriented the theory of rationalization to the homology of scientific and democratic norms and has recently placed this in a comparative perspective, while Charles Taylor’s theory of secularism has generated lately its own “intermediate reflections.”

Third, as Fuchs also proposes, thinking again with Weber demands attention to “intersubjectively … valid meaning patterns,” the “hermeneutic character of comparison” and “the status of texts as sediments of discursive practice” (159–61). Recasting the rationality that guides rationalization so as to pluralize its paths and spheres without exploding the universalistic claims marking its theoretical profile brings Weber into the central problems of contemporary social theory.

Ertman might then consider a companion volume to take up this constructive task with new theoretical tools and empirical research. The thesis of rationalization has lost much of its influence, and its role even in Weber requires some defense, as Hans Joas has recently argued. Occidental culture has every reason to question presumptive images of its own history, but so long as the tragic dilemmas of a modern identity still colored by epistemic and moral universalism abide, so will the shadow of Weber.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Sean Hayden is assistant professor of religion and philosophy at Tennessee Wesleyan University.

Date of Review: 
March 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas C. Ertman is associate professor of sociology and director of the College Core Curriculum at New York University. He is the author of the award-winning Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1997) and is currently working on a successor volume.


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