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Systematische Theologie: Ethik


Ghosh, Peter


Max Weber and ›The Protestant Ethic‹. Twin Histories.


Oxford u. a.: Oxford University Press 2014. 424 S. Geb. US$ 49,95. ISBN 978-0-19-870252-8.


Hans-Jürgen Wolff

This is an impressive study. The historian of ideas Peter Ghosh, already renowned for his close reading of Weber’s writings, presents an intellectual history of Max Weber with his most famous text, »The Protestant Ethic and the ›Spirit‹ of Capitalism« (PE), as a focal point. Ghosh treats and expounds the PE as »a kind of compact summa« of Weber’s work and thoughts prior to its publication in 1904/05, as a microcosm to be matched by the macrocosm of Weber’s later »Economy and Society«, and as a nucleus expanded and supplemented by his »Economic Ethics of the World Religions«.
Three questions arise: (1) Is it not quite natural that a text benefits from the author’s prior work and thought, and influences what she will further think and write? Apparently, many expert Weber-scholars do not think so, at least as far as the PE is concerned. Ac-cordingly, to prove his case, G. has to fight something of an uphill battle, and he does it well-armed with arguments and with a sharply pointed pen. (2) Since Max Weber strongly disliked any personality cult in science and academics, and took pains to conceal the roads his mind travelled to results like the PE, can there be more than speculation about his intellectual biography? Yes, there can, G. tells us, if one draws together all the material now published in the Max Weber Gesamtausgabe, and connects his writings and letters to the works of contemporaries like Sombart, Troeltsch, Bücher and Mannheim. (3) How relevant at all, or even illuminating, can it be to view Weber’s works and Weber the man through the prism of the PE? Will it reveal more in his writings than reading them carefully independent of the PE can discover, and reveal more about the person than what there already is in the biographical details we know? Very illuminating, G. proclaims, for the new view shows »that there really was a Max Weber, a single individual and not an undigested accumulation of dispersed scholarly industries; that […] his ›works are all the expression of an integrated, compact personality, and they complement and inform one another‹« – which also makes it easier to discern considerable changes in Weber’s concepts and emphases concerning capitalism, rational behaviour and Wes­tern culture.
G.’s book is divided into two parts: The first traces »The Genesis of the Protestant Ethic – and the History of Max Weber, c. 1884–1905« and tries to show that the PE drew »upon almost all of his thought prior to 1904«; the second treats »The second History of the Protestant Ethic – and of Max Weber, 1905–1920«, in order to show that the PE was »seminal for almost all the principal conceptual developments or workings-out that took place after 1905.« That is an ambitious program, and it makes for exciting reading.
G. argues that the components of Weber’s conception of modern capitalism as a »holistic construct that embraces the entirety of ›modern Kultur‹« were all present in his work by 1897/8 and that the »inner kernel« of this construct was »the psychological make-up of the individual« that by Berufung and Beruf, by Rechenhaftigkeit and Lebensführung brought to life what was called the »spirit« of capi-tal­ism in 1904. That was a decidedly non-Marxist approach, and in it, religion and its relation to modern capitalism/Kultur and to politics was of crucial importance, since Weber felt »the need to explain the religious transition from the personal ethic of the medieval church to the impersonality of modern capitalism and modern Kultur.« Yet in the 1890s, important elements of the PE like the thoughts about rationality and rationalism and most of the em-pirical, religious and historical argument of the PE were still missing. To find out how Weber filled this »gap«, G. turns to his psychological decline and breakdown around 1900 and holds the view that the practical abandonment of Weber’s professorial chair in 1903 freed Weber’s mind (vexed not only by depressive, bipolar problems, but also by lecturing phobia) and laid the way »open for a future career conducted along interdisciplinary lines, with the interdisciplinary PE as its first, classical product.« G. traces the first origins of the religious historical content of the PE back to Weber’s stay in Rome, and he underlines the importance of Weber’s finding the Archiv für Soziale Gesetzgebung und Statistik as a »publishing platform« in 1903, whereas his travel to the United States, G. argues, was less important for part II of the PE than is commonly assumed.
He then turns to Weber’s analysis of modern capitalism in all its impersonality and fluidity and finds it, by the year 1904, still »conceptually thin […], even though it displayed a wealth of innovative, post-Marxist thinking«. A shorter chapter is devoted to the ques-tion whether the PE stands apart from Weber’s other writings be­cause it seemingly does not deal with politics; but G. argues that neither had Weber forgotten about politics and the frontier be-tween politics and religion, nor did he intend to put politics and nationality centre-stage. He intended to show supranational oc-cidental religious developments, embodied in English Puritanism, that shaped the Lebensführung of the individual, national characters and the spirit of capitalism and Kultur. Again, this emphasis on religion seems to set the PE aside from Weber’s work in the 1890s. However, G. argues, Weber was from his youth-days on influenc-ed by religious thought and reading, be it in his family, be it as a student and scientist who saw Christianity as the formative power behind modern Western Kultur. He then turns to Weber’s linking of Christian asceticism and rational conduct, and to the impor-tance of the categories of rationality and law as rationality for the PE (Weber was a lawyer trained in Roman and 19th-century German private and commercial law and viewed the law’s formality as an important force of rationalisation). G.: »Weber’s formalism not only supplied him with a conception of law, but became the springboard for a set of radical ideas that could be applied to social behaviour in general«, hence his constant call – and sharp eye for – Konsequenz, Methodik, Rationalität, Objektivität and Systematik. Concluding Part I of his study, G. finds that the PE contains not only »a historical argument regarding the movement from proto-rationalist asceticism to modern formal rationality« via vocational idea of Beruf and Berufung, but »an argument about the nature of modern Kultur in its entirety«, and a showcase of Weber’s methodological investigations and achievements regarding Verstehende Soziologie, value-freedom and ideal-type.
Part II of the study traces the revisions Weber made to the PE, and the »conceptual highroads« of his later work that mostly pass through the PE as »the central way-station«. This leads deep into the genesis of Weber’s later writings and his dialogue mainly with Ernst Troeltsch, albeit with remarkable re-weightings – for example, G. considers the anti-critical essays of 1909–10 mere Auch-Äußerungen, that is to say as relatively insignificant ripostes without any »magic key« to the understanding of the PE. He then goes on to show that not »Economy and Society«, but the PE should be viewed as Weber’s major first statement regarding the modern occidental Kultur, for: »Almost everything in Weber’s subsequent oeuvre, ›Economy and Society‹ above all, is a working-out from positions established in 1904–05: that is, from the PE and the methodological essays that surround and interpenetrate it.«
After devoting a chapter of his study to Weber’s thinking and writing in »War and Peace: 1914–1920«, G. finally considers how three subjects introduced in the PE were further developed by Weber after 1905: (1) religion, (2) capitalism and Herrschaft and (3) the sect and the bourgois community of the city.
He argues that there is an essential continuity between the PE and the religious writings from 1912 onward and highlights that, taken together, the PE and what was yet to come offer »a history of Occidental Christianity’s engagement with the temporal ›world‹ (saeculum) […] that greatly expands our understanding of the ›modern Kultur‹ lying at the heart of his enquiries«. In meticulous study, G. develops Weber’s understanding of religious conduct, the process of rationalization/secularization/breakdown of religious universality, and its impact on social formations like sects and broad social contexts like that of the urban bourgeoisie. He then turns to what Weber had to say about capitalism (a contribution G. finds surprisingly underrated in current debates) and argues that he altered his views considerably – from capitalism as an agency of impersonal Herrschaft to »its integration within the general theme of the rationalism of modern Kultur«. Weber, according to G., conceptually never quite came to grips with capitalism (with its deeply rational and deeply irrational traits), and rather turned to rationalism, bureaucracy and law as driving factors of Western modern culture. The final chapter of the book is dedicated to Weber’s analysis of sects and of the Gemeinde, a German word that tellingly has a religious as well as a political flavour, so that the sociology of religion and the sociology of Herrschaft meet and mingle: »In fact, Weber’s conception of the role of social formations in determining Occidental Kultur was both bourgeois and Christian; and historically they were hardly separable.« – A review like this cannot sum up the wealth of food for thought and for debate G. offers. His book’s final words about Weber make an excellent case for studying him: »Never was there anyone more present on the page, on the screen, and above all in our minds, than he is today.«