The Weber Thesis

Years ago, I read David Landes’s Prometheus Unbound for a class in economic history, and I can still remember the fascination I experienced at his descriptions of the steel industry (though details are sadly forgotten). In his recent Wealth and Poverty of Nations , Landes, among many other things, spends a few pages defending Max Weber’s much-criticized theory about the relation of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. Here are a few salient quotations:

“most historians today would look upon the Weber thesis as implausible and unacceptable: it had its moment and it is gone.

“I do not agree. Not on the empirical level, where records show that Protestant merchants and manufacturers played a leading role in trade, banking and industry. In manufacturing centers (fabriques) in France and western Germany, Protestants were typically the empoyers, Catholics the employed. In Switzerland, the Protestant cantons were the centers of export manufacturing (watches, machinery, textiles); the Catholic ones were primarily agricultural. In England, which by the end of the sixteenth century was overwhelmingly Protestant, the Dissenters (read Calvinists) were disproportionately active and influential in the factories and forges of the nascent Industrial Revolution.
“Nor on the theoretical. The heart of the matter lay indeed in the making of a new kind of man ?Erational, ordered, diligent, productive. These virtues, while not new, were hardly commonplace. Protestantism generalized them among its adherents, who judged one another by conformity to these standards. This is a story in itself, one that Weber did surprisingly little with: the role of group pressure and mutual scrutiny in assuring performance ?Eeverybody looking at everyone else and minding one another’s business.” (This last suggests a gloss on the Weber thesis: What is the connection between the strengthening of church discipline and pastoral oversight and the rise of capitalist habits?)

Landes points to two particular features of Protestant practice that “reflect and confirm” a link with capitalism. The first was literacy, particularly literacy for women: “Good Protestants were expected to read the holy Scriptures for themselves. (By way of contrast, Catholics were catechized but did not have to read, and they were explicitly discouraged from reading the Bible.) The result: greater literacy and a larger pool of candidates for advanced schooling; also greater assurance of continuity of literacy from generation to generation. Literate mothers matter .” (his emphasis).

Landes has also written a history of Western time-keeping, entitled Revolutions in Time , and his second specific feature of Protestantism is “the importance accorded to time. Here was have what the sociologist would call unobtrusive evidence: the making and buying of clocks and watches. Even in Catholic areas such as France and Bavaria, most clockmakers were Protestant; and the use of these instruments of time measurement and their diffusion to rural areas was far more advanced in Britain and Holland than in Catholic countries. Nothing testifies so much as time sensibility to the ‘urbanization’ of rural society, with all that that implies for rapid diffusion of values and tastes.”

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