Weber is often cited (along with with Émile Durkheim and Karl Marx) as "among the three founding creators of sociology." He doesn't get listed in the usual historical compilations of philosophers, but for me his contributions to political philosophy and his comparative studies of religion's impact on the ethics of societies make him a vital person to know and read. He doesn't have a trove of witty quotes to choose from for inspiration and wisdom, but that wasn't his goal in his writing. His goal was to make clear-eyed studies of the world, and what he found truly changed the way we feel about it. Sometimes, objective observation can be subjectively normative. And since Weber observed a lot, lets get straight to it and give him the time to explain what he found.
Max Weber (1864-1920 CE) was a German lawyer, politician, historian, political economist, and sociologist, who profoundly influenced social theory and sociology.
Needs to Adapt
Weber's most famous work is his essay in economic sociology, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which also began his work in the sociology of religion. In this text, Weber argued that religion was one of the reasons for the different ways the cultures of the Occident and the Orient have developed. Weber argued that the redefinition of the connection between work and piety in Protestantism, and especially in ascetic Protestant denominations, particularly Calvinism, shifted human effort towards rational efforts aimed at achieving economic gain. Other notable factors included the rationalism of scientific pursuit, merging observation with mathematics, science of scholarship and jurisprudence, rational systematization of government administration, and economic enterprise. In the end, the study of the sociology of religion, according to Weber, merely explored one phase of the freedom from magic that he regarded as an important distinguishing aspect of Western culture. He noted the shift of Europe's economic center after the Reformation away from Catholic countries such as France, Spain, and Italy, and toward Protestant countries such as the Netherlands, England, Scotland, and Germany. Christian religious devotion had historically been accompanied by rejection of mundane affairs, including economic pursuit. Why was that not the case with Protestantism? Weber showed that certain types of Protestantism – notably Calvinism – favored rational pursuit of economic gain and worldly activities, which had been given positive spiritual and moral meaning. It was not the goal of those religious ideas, but rather a byproduct – the inherent logic of those doctrines and the advice based upon them both directly and indirectly encouraged planning and self-denial in the pursuit of economic gain. The Reformation view of a "calling" dignified even the most mundane professions as being those that added to the common good and were blessed by God, as much as any "sacred" calling could. This Reformation view, that all the spheres of life were sacred when dedicated to God and His purposes of nurturing and furthering life, profoundly affected the view of work. In Weber’s research on the competition of religions around the world, we see that it isn’t the choice of god that is the differentiator, but the view towards work and the economy that made Protestantism the “winner.” Their advocacy for effort everywhere leads to progress and long-term happiness for humans. The belief in the supernatural still acts as a retardant and is therefore a danger.
Weber next posed the question why capitalism did not develop in China. He concentrated on the early period of Chinese history, during which the major Chinese schools of thoughts - Confucianism and Taoism - came to the fore. Weber argued that while several factors favored the development of a capitalist economy (long periods of peace, improved control of rivers, population growth, freedom to acquire land and to move outside of native communities, free choice of occupation) they were outweighed by others (mostly stemming from religion): technical inventions were opposed on the basis of religion, in the sense that the disturbance of ancestral spirits was argued to lead to bad luck, and adjusting oneself to the world was preferred to changing it; sale of land was often prohibited or made very difficult; extended kinship groups (based on the religious importance of family ties and ancestry) protected its members against economic adversities, therefore discouraging payment of debts, work discipline, and rationalization of work processes; those kinship groups prevented the development of an urban status class and hindered developments towards legal institutions, codification of laws, and the rise of a lawyer class. According to Weber, Confucianism and Puritanism represent two comprehensive but mutually exclusive types of rationalization, each attempting to order human life according to certain ultimate religious beliefs. Both encouraged sobriety and self-control and were compatible with the accumulation of wealth. However, Confucianism aimed at attaining and preserving "a cultured status position" and recommended adjustment to the world, education, self-perfection, politeness, and familial piety to achieve those ends. Puritanism used those means in order to create a "tool of God," creating a person that would serve God and master the world. Such intensity of belief and enthusiasm for action were alien to the aesthetic values of Confucianism. Therefore, Weber states that it was the difference in prevailing mentality that contributed to the development of capitalism in the West and the absence of it in China. Here we see the danger in a religion that advocates adjustment to the world. It led to stagnation and thousands of years of lost progress for billions of Chinese people.
The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism was Weber's third major work on the sociology of religion. In this work he deals with the structure of Indian society, with the orthodox doctrines of Hinduism and the heterodox doctrines of Buddhism, with modifications brought by the influence of popular religiosity, and finally with the impact of religious beliefs on the secular ethic of Indian society. The ancient Indian social system was shaped by the concept of caste. It directly linked religious belief and the segregation of society into status groups. Weber describes the caste system, consisting of the Brahmins (priests), the Kshatriyas (warriors), the Vaisyas (merchants), and the Shudras (laborers). Then he describes the spread of the caste system in India due to conquests, the marginalization of certain tribes, and the subdivision of castes. Weber pays special attention to Brahmins and analyzes why they occupied the highest place in Indian society for so many centuries. With regard to the concept of dharma he concludes that the Indian ethical pluralism is very different both from the universal ethic of Confucianism and Christianity. He notes that the caste system prevented the development of urban status groups. Next, Weber analyses the Hindu religious beliefs, including asceticism and the Hindu worldview, the Brahman orthodox doctrines, the rise and fall of Buddhism in India, the Hindu restoration, and the evolution of the guru. Weber asks the question whether religion had any influence upon the daily round of mundane activities, and if so, how it impacted economic conduct. He notes the idea of an immutable world order consisting of the eternal cycles of rebirth and the deprecation of the mundane world, and finds that the traditional caste system, supported by the religion, slowed economic development; in other words, the "spirit" of the caste system militated against an indigenous development of capitalism. Weber concludes his study of society and religion in India by combining his findings with his previous work on China. He notes that the beliefs tended to interpret the meaning of life as otherworldly or mystical experience, that the intellectuals tended to be apolitical in their orientation, and that the social world was fundamentally divided between the educated, whose lives were oriented toward the exemplary conduct of a prophet or wise man, and the uneducated masses who remained caught in their daily rounds and believed in magic. In Asia, no Messianic prophecy appeared that could have given "plan and meaning to the everyday life of educated and uneducated alike.” He argues that it was the Messianic prophecies in the countries of the Near East, as distinguished from the prophecy of the Asiatic mainland, that prevented Western countries from following the paths of China and India, and his next work, Ancient Judaism, was an attempt to prove this theory. More evidence of the danger of stagnation that religion poses to society. The success of the asceticism of the Hindu and Buddhist leaders only lead to more stagnation, poverty, and disease for their people. Compared to the corrupt riches the Catholic church accumulated and the acceptance of wealth that engendered in its people, one can see that the more successful a church is at keeping to its original tenets, the worse it is for society! In the quest to survive, religion is evil.
In Ancient Judaism, his fourth major work on the sociology of religion, Weber attempted to explain the combination of circumstances that resulted in the early differences between Oriental and Occidental religiosity. It is especially visible when the inner-worldly asceticism developed by Western Christianity is contrasted with mystical contemplation of the kind developed in India. Weber noted that some aspects of Christianity sought to conquer and change the world, rather than withdraw from its imperfections. This fundamental characteristic of Christianity (when compared to Far Eastern religions) stems originally from ancient Jewish prophecy. For the Jew, the social order of the world was conceived to have been turned into the opposite of that promised for the future, but in the future it was to be overturned so that Jewry could be once again dominant. Since the basic tenets of Judaism were formulated during the time of Israelite confederacy and after the fall of the United Monarchy, they became the basis of the prophetic movement that left a lasting impression on Western civilization. In the final comparison of religions, we see more of the benefits of advocating progress. To repeat, none of these religions “won” based on having a better concept of god, the creation of the universe, or the way the world worked. It was their prescriptions for “what to do about it” that led to positive or negative outcomes relative to one another. Society would do even better if it left the supernatural behind altogether.
Weber was a central figure in the establishment of methodological antipositivism; presenting sociology as a non-empirical field which must study social action through resolutely subjective means. In modern practice, however, non-positivism may be equated with qualitative research methods, while positivist research is more quantitative. Positivists typically use research methods such as experiments and statistical surveys, while antipositivists use research methods that rely more on ethnographic fieldwork, conversation/discourse analysis, or open-ended interviews. While qualitative research methods are useful for gaining understanding and developing theories, a more quantitative scientific method is required to turn those hypotheses into true knowledge. Controlled studies of randomized societies is practically impossible though, so in some cases the theories are the best sociological explanations humans are likely to uncover.
In Politics as a Vocation, Weber unveils the definition of the state that it is the entity that possesses a monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force, which it may nonetheless elect to delegate as it sees fit - a definition that became pivotal to the study of modern Western political science. The state’s actual role is to correct for inefficiencies in the markets. Force, being an element required for the provision of the public goods of defense and justice, must be provided for by the state. And though the state has a monopoly on force, the true transparent separation of powers within a state would ensure that no one person or group could continually wield that force in a hurtful way.
Weber is also well known for his critical study of the bureaucratization of society, the rational ways in which formal social organizations apply the ideal characteristics of a bureaucracy. Weber outlines a description, which has become famous, of rationalization (of which bureaucratization is a part) as a shift from a value-oriented organization and action (traditional authority and charismatic authority) to a goal-oriented organization and action (legal-rational authority). The result, according to Weber, is a "polar night of icy darkness," in which increasing rationalization of human life traps individuals in an "iron cage" of rule-based, rational control. Rational control does not have to be an iron cage of icy darkness. Rational thinking leads to right action, which leads to joyful emotions. Bureaucracy is problematic when it is run by irrational bureaucrats. This is the same problem all human organizations face. The solution is not a submission to traditional authority or charismatic authority - neither have a basis in truth. The solution is to teach humans the purpose and use of their reason - to achieve the goal of survival for life.
And with that, we've reached another transition point in this history of philosophy that I'm slowly putting together. Erasmus, Francis Bacon and Galileo brought an end to the 1100-year period of medieval philosophy by loosening the grip of the Catholic church, introducing the scientific method, and harvesting the cosmological fruits that were born of that process. Now, after just 300 years of modern philosophy that saw a host of scientific and logical breakthroughs—from Hobbes' Leviathan, to Spinoza's natural god, to Newton's universal laws, to Montesquieu's separation of power within the state, to Hume's logical separation between is and ought statements, to understanding the economy of Adam Smith, to the usefulness of Bentham and Mill's utilitarianism, to Darwin's powerfully explanative theory of evolution—Weber's wide-ranging observations on the role of cultures has brought this stage of thought to an end. We're about to take a turn inward as the expansive wonders of the age of modern philosophy will give way to the introspective focus of contemporary philosophy. There are only 13 philosophers left now with some important theories to uncover and discuss (and some quacks of course to discuss and uncover), so I hope you are enjoying this ride as it's finally getting pretty close to the end.