work in progress in social theory and cultural sociology

emotional weber

12.02.2013 · Posted in Uncategorized

Max Weber has, again and again, been built up as main example for how modern sociology is rationalistic and works on a strict Cartesian mind/body dualism. And of course – if you seek to demonstrate how your new theory goes beyond the sociological tradition which from the start has ignored the body, non-human agency, emotions or whatever it is you want to present as central concern, then Max Weber as the widely acknowledged founding father of course is a good target.  The claim that Weber is a mind/body dualist, rationalist, intellectualist bourgeois individualist normally does not need substantiation since it has become self-evident.

In this respect Jack Barbalet’s book on Weber’s Protestant Ethic is an exception in that he dedicates a whole monograph (or at least two thirds of a monograph) to making this point. He makes it clear that Weber stands in for the sociological tradition as a whole since he repeatedly characterises the Protestant Ethic as the most important and most read work in sociology – a work that is fundamentally flawed:

‘It is important to observe that in rejecting James, and implicitly also Freud and Veblen, Weber in the Protestant Ethic insists that emotions may not be crucial in understanding reason and reasons for action. Although it is seldom understood in this light, the single most significant text of sociology, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, is a manual of Cartesian principles concerning rationality, emotion, and the opposition between them.’ (Barbalet 2008: 73)

But does this claim hold? I am yet to find any explicit statement by Weber where he actually says that emotions must not be the subject of social research. So, as in most cases where theories are charged with the mortal sin of “Cartesianism”, the case is made by demonstrating the fallacy in the analysis rather than in the explicit programme of research. In fact, the research programme as articulated (retrospectively) in the Grundbegriffe,  quite clearly states that understanding (Verstehen) does not only refer to rational considerations, but also to emotional states and reactions, to affective motives:

‘… we have a motivational understanding of the outburst of anger if we know that it has been provoked by jealousy, injured pride, or an insult. The last examples are all affectually determined and hence derived from irrational motives. In all the above cases the particular act has been placed in an understandable sequence of motivation, the understanding of which can be treated as an explanation of the actual course of behavior. Thus for a science which is concerned with the subjective meaning of action, explanation requires a grasp of the complex of meaning in which an actual course of understandable action thus interpreted belongs. In all such cases, even where the processes are largely affectual, the subjective meaning of the action, including that also of the relevant meaning complexes, will be called the intended meaning. (This involves a departure from ordinary usage, which speaks of intention in this sense only in the case of rationally purposive action.).’ (Weber 1978: 8f.)

In the light of the Protestant Ethic where the device of the ideal type is deployed in order to tease out the irrational motive behind rational economic behaviour, the insistence that the construction of rational ideal types is nothing but a means to an end and not an assumption about the rationality of social processes and social actors is not mere rhetoric. The rational ideal type is deployed to identify deviations from what an observer with a rationalistic bias would expect and thereby invites an empathising approach to understanding emotions and affects

‘The more we ourselves are susceptible to such emotional reaction as anxiety, anger, ambition, envy, jealousy, love, enthusiasm, pride, vengefulness, loyalty, devotion, and appetites of all sorts, and to the “irrational” conduct which grows out of them, the more readily can we empathize with them. Even when such emotions are found in a degree of intensity of which the observer himself is completely incapable, he can still have a significant degree of emotional understanding of their meaning and can interpret intellectually their influence on the course of action and the selection of means. For the purposes of a typological scientific analysis it is convenient to treat all irrational, affectually determined elements of behavior as factors of deviation from a conceptually pure type of rational action.’ (Weber 1978: 6)

‘Aktuelle Affekte (Angst, Zorn, Ehrgeiz, Neid, Eifersucht, Liebe, Begeisterung, Stolz, Rachedurst, Pietät, Hingabe, Begierden aller Art) und die (vom rationalen Zweckhandeln aus gesehen:) irrationalen, aus ihnen folgenden Reaktionen vermögen wir, je mehr wir ihnen selbst zugänglich sind, desto evidenter emotional nachzuerleben, in jedem Fall aber, auch wenn sie ihrem Grade nach unsere eigenen Möglichkeiten absolut übersteigen, sinnhaft einfühlend zu verstehen und in ihrer Einwirkung auf die Richtung und Mittel des Handelns intellektuell in Rechnung zu stellen. Für die typenbildende wissenschaftliche Betrachtung werden nun alle irrationalen, affektuell bedingten, Sinnzusammenhänge des Sichverhalten, die das Handeln beeinflussen, am übersehbarsten als „Ablenkungen“ von einem konstruierten rein zweckrationalen Verlauf desselben erforscht und dargestellt.‘ (Weber 1984: 21)

He demonstrates this in the Protestant Ethic by using the ideal type of rational economic behaviour to show up how irrational a principle the time-is-money ethos promoted by Franklin is. In doing so Weber’s sociology moves away from classical and neoclassical economics (whose prophet Adam Smith, of all people, Barbalet tries to build up as emotionally aware alternative) by downgrading economic laws to the status of deliberately unrealistic hypotheses

‘The concepts and “laws” of pure economic theory are examples of this kind of ideal type. They state what course a given type of human action would take if it were strictly rational, unaffected by errors or emotional factors and if, furthermore, it were completely and unequivocally directed to a single end, the maximization of economic advantage. In reality, action takes exactly [? no mention of exactitude in the German text! – see below] this course only in unusual cases; and even then there is usually only an approximation to the ideal type.’ (Weber 1978: 9)

‘Solche idealtypische Konstruktionen sind z.B. die von der reinen Theorie der Volkswirtschaftslehre auftestellten Begriffe und „Gesetze“. Sie stellen dar, wie ein bestimmt geartetes menschliches Handeln ablaufen würde, wenn es streng zweckrational, durch Irrtum und Affekte ungestört, und wenn es ferner ganz eindeutig nur an einem Zweck (Wirtschaft) orientiert wäre. Das reale Handeln verläuft nur in seltenen Fällen (Börse) und auch dann nur annäherungsweise so, wie im Idealtypus konstruiert.‘ (Weber 1984: 25)

Weber grants that such ideal types are easier to understand than the complex admixture of emotions, beliefs, knowledges, affects, deliberations etc. social action is infused with in reality – but he certainly does not accept this as an excuse not to bother exploring them. To the contrary, the whole point of the argument in the Protestant Ethic is that, while the result is a coldly rationalistic, disenchanted, spiritually and emotionally flat and shallow world, its origin is (insists Weber) irrational.

Barbalet does not attempt to demonstrate (beyond the assumption that the use of ideal-typical reconstruction is a likely culprit) that Weber’s stated methodology is Cartesian. Rather, and potentially more efficiently, he tries to show that the outcome of his interpretation is evidence that, whatever Weber may say about his ideal types and how to use them, for all practical purposes he is working on a rationalistic and anti-emotional bias. Barbalet’s case rests on the claim that the anxiety which is the key motive in the Puritan economic personality according to Weber is intellectually induced, follows from a rationalistic theology. This, he suggests, is evidence for Weber assigning a secondary, derived status to emotions.

‘Weber’s reference to religious anxiety in this context could be noted as evidence contrary to the argument presented here, namely that in this instance Weber provides a positive explanatory role to emotion, or at least the emotion of anxiety, in accounting for vocation and therefore rationality, and ultimately the spirit of capitalism. But it is not the anxiety that Weber says Calvinists feel that produces the effects he refers to in this passage [1920: 11f] but the religious doctrine of predestination, as shaped by Calvin, that is the postulated source of the supposed anxiety and with which it is integrally connected  [1920: 115].’ (Barbalet 2008: 54)

Materially, Barbalet is of course right. While the overall argument in the Protestant Ethic  is that much of the rationalisation of the life world is induced by an irrational motive, namely religious angst, that angst itself is a response to a coldly rational theological argument – the Augustinian/Calvinist point that if God is to be omniscient and omnipotent, then it is unthinkable that his decision about the fate of any part of his creation could be influenced by anything but his own divine decisions. Weber himself makes it clear beyond doubt that this theology is “thought out” (erdacht) and hence follows an unemotional and merciless logic:

‘With Calvin the decretum horribile is derived not, as with Luther, from religious experience, but from the logical necessity of his thought; therefore its importance increases with every increase in the logical consistency of that religious thought. The interest of it is solely in God, not in man; God does not exist for men, but for the sake of God. All creation, including of course the fact, as it undoubtedly was for Calvin, that only a small proportion of men are chosen for eternal grace, can have any meaning only as means to the glory and majesty of God.’ (Weber 1930: 102f.)

‘Bei Calvin ist eben das “decretum horribile” nicht wie bei Luther erlebt, sondern erdacht, und deshalb in seiner Bedeutung gesteigert mit jeder weiteren Steigerung der gedanklichen Konsequenz in der Richtung seines lediglich Gott, nicht den Menschen, zugewendeten religiösen Interesses. Nicht Gott ist um der Menschen, sondern die Menschen sind um Gottes willen da, und alles Geschehen – also auch die für Calvin zweifellose Tatsache, daß nur ein kleiner Teil der Menschen zur Seligkeit berufen ist – kann seinen Sinn ausschließlich als Mittel zum Zweck der Selbstverherrlichung von Gottes Majestät haben.‘ (Weber 1920: 92)


So he is right to say that Weber finds the initial source of anxiety in a purely intellectual, rational theological thought process removed from emotionally saturated experience. But to conclude that this is an expression of a Cartesian sociology driven by an ‘insistence that emotions have no place in sociological analysis’ (Barbalet 2008: 106) is not. Barbalet confuses the subject of interpretation with the interpreter. Calvin’s is not, like Luther’s, a theology of the Heart and but one of the Head – emotions are deprived of their legitimacy. Weber emphasises this as a core difference between the two:

‘Der religiöse Virtuose kann seines Gnadenstandes sich versichern entweder, indem er sich als Gefäß, oder, indem er sich als Werkzeug göttlicher Macht fühlt. Im ersten Fall neigt sein religiöses Leben zu mystischer Gefühlskultur, im letzteren zu asketischem Handeln. Dem ersten Typus stand Luther näher, dem letzteren gehörte der Calvinismus an. „Sola fide“ wollte auch der Reformierte selig werden. Aber da schon nach Calvins Ansicht alle bloßen Gefühle und Stimmungen, mögen sie noch so erhaben zu sein scheinen, trügerisch sind, muß der Glaube sich in seinen objektiven Wirkungen bewähren, um der certitudo salutis als sichere Unterlage dienen zu können: er muß eine „fides efficax“, die Be|rufung zum Heil ein „effecutal calling“ (Ausdruck der Savoy declaration) sein. Stellt man nun weiter die Frage, an welchen Früchten der Reformierte denn den rechten Glauben unzweifelhaft zu erkennen vermöge, so wird daruf geantworte: an einer Lebensführung des Christen, die zur Mehrung von Gottes Ruhm dient.‘ (Weber 1920: 108f.)

‘The religious believer can make himself sure of his state of grace either in that he feels himself to be the vessel of the Holy Spirit or the tool of the divine will. In the former case his religious life tends to mysticism and emotionalism, in the latter to ascetic action; Luther stood close to the former type, Calvinism belonged definitely to the latter. The Calvinist also wanted to be saved sola fide. But since Calvin viewed all pure feelings and emotions, no matter how exalted they might seem to be, with suspicion, faith had to be proved by its objective results in order to provide a firm foundation for the certitudo salutis.  It must be a fides efficax,, the call to salvation an effectual calling (expression used in the Savoy Declaration)’ (Weber 1930: 113f.)

The important detail in this context is the contrast with Luther. Calvin is presented as the odd one out – his intellectualism is an exception, not a rule. Weber, as comparative sociologist, may be guilty of overstating Western rationalism and non-Western irrationalism. But he can’t be also guilty of a universally rationalist bias at the same time. Clearly, Weber not only acknowledges more emotionally charged approaches within Protestantism (let alone Catholicism – where he, as Barbalet shows, overstates the importance of emotions in early modern piety), he pitches the two against each other, making it very clear that the rationalisation of the Western world was carried through against resistances. The fact that where he observes an unprecedented purge of emotionality from the register of legitimate causes of social action he marks out this purge as specifically Calvinist/Puritan trait, by implication, means that generally emotionality will be quite a social factor. Only because, in this case, an emotional motive emerges from rational deliberation, does not mean Weber things they do as a matter of principle.

What follows from what is also a function of where one starts historically. Weber does not claim to reconstruct why Calvin chose to channel the Reformation onto an Augustinian rail – if he had, he probably would have considered a wide range of conditions, from the inner logic of theological discourse to personal circumstance. But you have to start somewhere. Had he gone further back he certainly would have acknowledged that moral disgust about the heartless and corrupt practices of the Church were a motivator for the Reformers. Had he looked further ahead he would have (as Colin Campbell 1987 has) found transformations from cold Calvinism towards Romanticism, driven by dissatisfaction with the perceived harshness of Puritanism and resulting in a cult of emotionality, in ‘autonomous imaginative hedonism’ (it is significant here that Campbell emphatically builds his case on a Weberian premise).  One thing that Weber certainly cannot be accused of is the belief in first causes – and later he will make it quite clear that when it comes to emotional and rational underpinnings of social relations, neither has priority by principle and rationalistic Vergesellschaftung can turn into emotional Vergemeinschaftung just as purposive rational orientations can subvert a emotionally founded group like the family.

Barbalet does indeed have a point when he says that Weber neglected the ‘the social relationships that constitute market exchanges and the requirement of engaging other market actors’ in turn require emotional competence that, as he argues, may well be better provided by a Catholic mentality (and the emergence of a highly developed trading capitalism leading into the Rennaissance in Italy does seem like a point in case).  And I would go further and say that not only did he underrate empathy but also imagination already in the development of industrial capitalism, i.e. not just in the emergence of consumerism (as Colin Campbell found a few generations down the line). This is indeed an oversight – but it certainly is not indicative for a general attitude.

Further, Weber’s claim to empathy as part of his analytical register is not completely unfounded. That he was serious about empathic understanding can be seen in the passage of the Protestant Ethic where he drives home his central point – the experience of devastating loneliness in the face of fundamental insecurity of grace:

‘Gottes Gnade ist, da seine Ratschlüsse unwandelbar feststehen, ebenso unverlierbar für die, welchen er sie zuwendet, wie unerreichbar für die, welchen er sie versagt. In ihrer pathetischen Unmenschlichkeit mußte diese Lehre nun für die Stimmung einer Generation, die sich ihrer grandiosen Konsequenz ergab, vor allem eine Folge haben: ein Gefühl einer unerhörten inneren Vereinsamung des einzelnen Individuums. In der für die Menschen der Reformationszeit entscheidensten Angelegenheit des Lebens: der ewigen Seligkeit, war der Mensch darauf verwiesen, seine Straße einsam zu ziehen, einem von Ewigkeit her feststehenden Schicksal entgegen. Niemand konnte ihm helfen. Kein Prediger: – denn nur der Erwählte kann das Gotteswort spiritualiter verstehen. Kein Sakrament: – denn die Sakramente sind zwar von Gott zur Mehrung seines Ruhms verordnet und deshalb unverbrüchlich zu halten, aber kein Mittle, Gottes Gnade zu erlangen, sondern subjektiv nur „externa subsidia“ des Glaubens. Keine Kirche: – denn es gilt zwar der Satz „extra ecclesia nulla salus“ in em Sinne, daß wer sich von der wahren Kirche fernhält, nimmermehr zu den von Gott Erwählten gehören kann; aber zur (äußeren) Kirche gehören auch die Reprobierten, ja sie sollen dazu gehören und ihren Zuchtmitteln unterworfen werden, nicht um dadurch zur Seligkeit zu gelangen, – das ist unmöglich, – sondern weil auch sie zu Gottes Ruhm zur Innehaltung seiner Gebote gezwungen werden müssen. Endlich auch: – kein Gott: denn auch Christus ist nur für die Erwählten gestorben, denen sein Opfertod zuzurechnen von Ewigkeit her beschlossen hatte. Dies: der absolute (im Luthertum noch keineswegs in allen Konsequenzen vollzogene) Fortfall kirchlich-sakramentalen Heils, war gegenüber dem Katholizismus das absolut Entscheidende.‘ (Weber 1920: 93f.)

‘In its extreme inhumanity this doctrine must above all have had one consequence for the life of a generation which surrendered to its magnificent consistency. That was a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness of the single individual. In what was for the man of the age of Reformation the most important thing in life, his eternal salvation, he was forced to follow his path alone to meet a destiny which had been decreed for him from eternity. No one could help him. No priest, for the chosen one can understand the world of God only in his own heart. No sacraments, for though the sacraments had been ordained by God for the increase of His glory, and must hence be scrupulously observed, they are not a means to the attainment of grace, but only the subjective externa subsidia of faith. No Church, for though it was held that extra ecclesiam nulla salus in the sense that whoever kept away from the true Church could never belong to God’s chosen band, nevertheless the membership of the external Church included the doomed. They should belong to it and be subjected to its discipline, not in order thus to attain salvation, that is impossible, but because, for the glory of God, they too must be forced to obey His commandments. Finally, even no God. For even Christ had died only for the elect, for whose benefit God had decreed His martyrdom from eternity. This, the complete elimination of salavation through the Church and the sacraments (which Luteranism by no means developed to its final conclusions), was what formed the absolutely deciseive difference from Catholicism.’ (Weber 1930: 104f.)

This reads more like a passage from a novel than from a sociological account. The author uses realism of character (Currie 1998) to convey plausibility in what is a quasi-fictional rendering of the situation the adherent to Calvinism finds him- or herself in.  It is important to note that Weber here argues without evidence: He does not present us with documents like diaries or letters where such anxiety is formulated – he derives the emotional state by imagining himself (and placing the reader) into a world where these are the conditions of existence and empathically arrives at the inevitability of intense anxiety. This may be (or rather: this is) problematic in a sociological argument, but it clearly does not tally with the image of a Cartesian sociologist who insist emotions have no place in sociological analysis. He states programmatically that emotional empathy is part of the process of understanding social action – and he demonstrates his commitment to that claim in his reconstructive historical sociology.

Finally, it is not as if he indulged in atheist/rationalist relish over the ensuing completion of the disenchantment of the world. He finishes his essay with bewailing the resulting Berufsmensch (vocational man) in a play on Nietzsche’s ‘last man’ in Also sprach Zarathustra (1976: 18ff.) as ‘Fachmenschen ohne Geist, Genußmenschen ohne Herz’/ ‘specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart’ (Weber 1920: 204 / 1930: 182). If the Berufsmensch is an innovation, then, by implication, as historically comparative sociologist Weber will have worked on the assumption that through time most of his research subjects will have had a Heart.


a note on evidence

Qualifying note on the note on evidence (3rd July 2014)

The following is me (slightly gleefully…) seizing on what at the time appeared to me as Barbalet citing sources to support his claim that Weber’s account of Calvinist anxiety is not backed by evidence which in fact say the opposite. However, it turned out that those citations were meant by way of “cf.”, i.e. as examples of diverging opinions – so I do retract any suggestion that Barbelet has misread his sources (I should have noticed right away that this can’t be the case as he is citing the specific pages, so I do have to apologise for the suggestion the statement was deduced from the title!).  I’ve left the passage unchanged (as otherwise the comments below would lose their point of reference, but also because my own attack now strikes me as a nice illustration of how what one normally thinks of as a purely rational endeavour is emotionally charged…) So what remains is a disagreement as to which of the two sides in the battle of the historians has it right. I fully agree that the “strong” Weber thesis has been discarded effectively (and Weber’s own successive qualifications and retreats confirm that, even though they may not always have been genuine), but I still think the competing evidence cited is strong enough to support a weak version in which Calvinism and its offspring are an accelerating factor in the transition to capitalism.

Ironically, not only does Barbalet charge Weber with Cartesian rationalism that denies emotionality its rightful place – he also claims that where he does emphasise the role of emotions, he is disproved by historical research.

‘It is necessary to say “supposed anxiety” because, as historians have indicated, there is no evidence that the doctrine of predestination produced anxiety in seventeenth-century Calvinists and Puritans: it is not revealed in contemporary diaries and journals, and discussions by observant Protestants have not associated the doctrine of predestination with the experience of religious anxiety.’ (Barbalet 2008: 54)

This charge, however, is not well evidenced. In fact, it rests on a vague allusion to unnamed historians and references to two historians who come to conclusions that are diametrically opposed to what Barbalet implies them to mean. Apparently misreading the title of Zaret’s verdict of ‘abuse of textual data’ to refer to Max Weber he suggests that Calvin’s horrible decree implied the opposite of anxiety – certainty of salvation:

‘Indeed, in Calvin’s own estimation the development of the doctrine of predestination with which he is associated was to relieve late-Medieval anxiety concerning salvation. On this basis the doctrine was a source of confidence and provided a sense of security to believers. It was these latter attributes of the doctrine of predestination that released energy for worldly activity amongst the faithful. This is the argument of Ernst Troeltsch, from whom Weber borrowed extensively, but, as indicated here, selectively (see Graf 1995: 33-4; Zaret 1995: 264-6)’ (Barbalet 2008: 55)

However, the paragraphs Barbalet cites Zaret sums up as showing precisely the opposite of what Barbalet takes the chapter title to imply, as Zaret turns the criticism of textual data abuse back on MacKinnon:

‘Taken together, these points endlessly complicated the introspective search for evidence. The bare desire to believe could easily be no more than a hypocritical work, a conclusion that would be reinforced by failure to grow in grace. It is difficult to see how, as MacKinnon argues, this doctrine of election detection substituted serene assurance for the salvation anxiety that Weber discerned in Puritanism. Far from embracing a voluntaristic doctrine under which believers could will themselves into heaven, covenant theologians affirmed quite the opposite position, “No man is justified by believing himself to be just, nor pardoned by believing that he is pardoned.”’ (Zaret 1993: 266f.)

Graf, whom Barbalet cites as source for Weber’s use of Troeltsch’s material, does indeed say that ‘Troeltsch’s argument was the complete opposite of Weber’s’ in that he ‘deduced the disposition of Calvinistic asceticism toward the development of the spirit of capitalism directly from the certainty of salvation.’ (1993: 34)  But not only does Graf find Weber to argue his case about uncertainty ‘much more convincingly’, he also reports that ‘Troeltsch later concurred with Weber’s opinion’ (ibid.). In the same volume, as someone at least partly concurring with MacKinnon, von Greyerz (1993: 283) concludes that while Weber may have over-emphasized the role of the doctrine of predestination (i.e. the rational theology he saw as trigger for the emotional malaise of the Puritans), the more prevalent providentialism could be seen as both a means to reassure the believer (and as such a response and consequence of predestinarianism) and broader basis for the inner-worldly asceticism that Weber sees as shared substance of the Puritan ethic and the capitalist spirit.


Barbalet, Jack (2008): Weber, Passion and Profits, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Currie, Gregory (1998): ‘Realism of Character and the Value of Fiction’, in: Jerrold Levinson (ed.): Aesthetics and Ethics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp.161-181

Graf, Friedrich Wilhelm (1993): ‘The German Theological Sources and Protestant Church Politics’, in: Hartmut Lehmann (ed.): Weber’s Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts, Washington D.C.: Cambridge University Press, pp.27-49.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1976) [1885]: Also sprach Zarathustra, Frankfurt am Main: Insel.

von Greyerz, Kaspar (1993): ‘Predestination, Covenant, and Special Providence’, in: Hartmut Lehmann (ed.): Weber’s Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts, Washington D.C.: Cambridge University Press, pp.273-84

Weber, Max (1920): Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr

Weber Max (1930): The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Unwin [translated by Talcott Parsons]

Weber, Max (1978) [1921]: Economy and Society, Berkeley: University of California Press 1978

Weber, Max (1984) [1921]: Soziologische Grundbegriffe, Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebeck)

Zaret, David (1993): ‘The Use and Abuse of Textual Data’, in: Hartmut Lehmann (ed.): Weber’s Protestant Ethic: Origins, Evidence, Contexts, Washington D.C.: Cambridge University Press, pp.245-72



2 Responses to “emotional weber”

  1. Jack Barbalet says:

    Dear Matthias,

    Many thanks for drawing attention to my book on Weber, in your blog. It is apparent that you take exception to some of my statements in Weber, Passion and Profits and to certain intellectual preferences that come across in the book, but it isn’t clear to me why you do so except that we are possibly at cross purposes.

    You take my statement, that ‘Weber in the Protestant Ethic insists that emotions may not be crucial in understanding reason and reasons for acting’, to claim, in your words, that ‘emotions must not be the subject of social research’. But your statement is a significant departure from mine and I do not claim what you say I do. As though it would disconfirm my point you go on to show that Weber does indeed discuss emotions and how they are implicated in particular types of behaviour. You seem not to be aware of the many passages in which I do similarly. Indeed, the point I make is not that Weber has nothing to say about emotions, for of course he does, but that he regards them as necessarily irrational. You seem to accept this point as well.

    Your blog finishes with a ‘Note on Evidence’ but there is no discussion of evidence in it, only interpretation. My account of Weber on religious anxiety makes a few points, some of which you seem to accept, especially concerning the structure of Weber’s argument about the role of religious doctrine. But you take exception to my claim that there is little historical evidence that the doctrine of predestination produced anxiety among 17th century believers. The issue which you fail to mention is the absence of evidence in Weber. Your concern with ‘evidence’ centres on my reference to Zaret and also Graf. Of course I know that my view is contrary to theirs and I do not cite them as supporting my position, on the contrary, my reference reads (see Graf etc). Perhaps I should have put (but see Graf …).

    You don’t provide a review of the book and you aren’t concerned with the argument that I develop in it; you ignore the view I propose of Weber’s developing perspective on emotions and the contrast of Weber and Veblen and also Adam Smith – although you note my discussion of Smith and take exception to it on the grounds that Smith ‘founded’ a version of economic theory that you say has no place for emotions; another historical assumption indifferent to the evidence. Your blog entry is concerned only with an aspect of what you take to be my sense of Weber’s appreciation of emotions. And even then your focus is limited to just a few passages. You describe your blog as containing works in progress, often not much more than collections of quotes. Fair enough. I look forward to seeing the outcome of this particular work in progress.

    Jack Barbalet

  2. Dear Jack

    Thank you for your reply. As you point out: this is not a review of your book but a comment on one point (though I guess it is one of the central points you make) which got in my way when struggling to put together my story on elective affinities, base/superstructure, and the Turkish economic boom. (
    I did not mean to imply you were ignoring Weber’s reflections on the role of emotions in the motivation/orientation of social action. I found your book interesting precisely for the reason that it is not one of those lazy postmodernist dismissals that just takes Weber’s all-out rationalism as a given, but a sincere engagement with Weber’s work, trying to show that ultimately his argument boils down to a Cartesian rationalism despite his frequent and at the end even programmatic commitment to the role of emotions in the understanding of social action. And on reflection, I also agree that the ideal type can suggest a clear-cut separation of rational and non-rational motive which gets in the way of an analysis of the emotional character of rational thought (as opposed to the emotional conditions of it).
    However, my disagreement here remains that I do think that (even with all its mistakes and flaws) the core passage of the Protestant Ethic actually does constitute a good example as to how to think emotionality and rationality together by taking a distanced yet empathic stance. In fact, it is the only passage where I think he actually manages to pull this of (my ideal type of an ideal-typical argument..). I would go so far as to read the description of Calvin’s horrible decree as a document of “pathetic inhumanity” as a statement on the emotional stance in which it was conceived (i.e. as an acknowledgement that, just as Luther engages in theological reasoning out of an attitude of “heartiness”, Calvin emotionally hardens himself – he is not unemotional at all, pathetisch here should have been rendered as “passionate”).
    The point about the evidence is (against the background of the story about elective affinity and historic materialism I am currently putting together) a tricky one for me as I am reliant on the validity of a weak version of the Weber theses and think that such a weak version is supported by historical evidence – which may explain some of the slight spitefulness with which I seized on what I have taken to be one further step in the misrepresentation of the misrepresentation of evidence. So while I here still do go with Zaret etc., I fully retract on the suggestion that you have misrepresented them. I have put in note to point that out, referring to your clarification.
    I also take your point that Weber himself is not very helpful here as the way he handles evidence is indefensible (which is why I find him strongest where he speaks as novelist). Having gone through quite a lot of the historical debates I still find it surprising that he nonetheless seems to have been right to quite an extent on anxiety. My estimate would be that he must have had some real-life example of that sort of person in his wider circles and made a lucky abductive guess linking them to Calvin’s decree as source code. He is in the absurd position of someone backed by evidence while having made up a story.
    One borderline-hilarious example for the way he is backed by evidence, yet also tampering with it, is the way he uses that famous Franklin quote. While Dickson and McLachlan are, I think, wrong in their insistence that Franklin does not talk with a moralistic subtext, Steinert has a devastating textual analysis in which he shows how Weber left out bits, put in emphases, mistranslated, and even added a half-sentence that cannot be traced back to anywhere in Franklin’s writings. He for example highlights that Weber freely but not exactly value-freely renders “destroys” in “he that destroys a crown” as “mordet” – “murders”. Ironically though, in an equally attentive approach David Schneider in his MA thesis on the question whether Weber got Franklin right or not, presents a further letter from Franklin where he indeed does use the expression “he that murders a crown”. So, annoyingly, Weber is partially backed up by evidence that he chooses to ignore while tampering with the evidence that he uses.

    As you say, these are notes and comments as part of “work in progress”, and what I’m trying to progress to is an innovative reinterpretation that links up elective affinities and base/superstructure through the notion of selection. I’ve presented an outline a couple of months ago (see the above link – but it’s only the script for the presentation with slides, so no references etc.), but am massively behind schedule in finishing the full conference paper. There I make broader use of your book, especially with regards to Veblen. (Although I do think the instinct theory in unmodified form is problematic which he does link to “race” in at least at times very crudely biologistic manner – all the talk about the dolicoblonds – even though I am hugely sympathetic to his ardently counterracist intentions here). Here are some cuttings from that paper where I use your book (I’ll probably be able to post a version in a couple of weeks)

    “Rather, most refutations take aim at the empirical claim and challenge the importance of the part Weber assigns to Puritanism in the emergence and development of industrial capitalism. And here Weber is vulnerable – especially when we read him as making a far-reaching and bold statement about Protestantism as a trigger in the exceptional development of Western capitalism (for recent critiques see Barbalet 2008 and Steinert 2010) [footnote: And as Steinert (2010: 21) points out – there is much dishonesty involved in trying to argue round the empirical flaws of Weber’s theses by retreating from the strong claims to the weaker claims (which I shall do) while pretending that the strong claim about a causal link between Calvinism and capitalist spirit and capitalist praxis were an invention of malicious or incompetent interpreters (which I shall not do).]”

    “So far, the role of selection has gone strangely unnoticed. The major exceptions are the pioneering articles by Runciman (2001; 2005) and the critical account by Barbalet (2008: 173ff.). Dismissing the Protestant Ethic altogether as a ‘manual of Cartesian principles concerning rationality, emotion, and the opposition between them’ (Barbalet 2008: 73, cf. Varul2013b), Barbalet follows a different track; he favours Veblen’s evolutionary institutionalist approach over the – potentially more problematic because biologistic – Darwinian approach.”

    “As Weber stresses, single-minded economic activity was not a means to an end, but already itself a sign. This sign would be confirmed by market success which is not an inevitable outcome of virtuous work ethic – like God’s the paths of the Market are inscrutable. This is reflected in the double dependency of value on work and demand in the moral grammar of capitalist exchange. Here Barbalet (2008) does have a case when he suggests Veblen’s (1914) notions of “instinct of workmanship” and “pecuniary prowess” as alternatives to the Weberian “capitalist spirit,” but they would need to be emancipated from their rather crude psychological basis and established as parts of an economy of recognition (Varul 2006). The mechanics of this economy can be shown, when reading Marx’s labour value theory as theory of recognition (Varul 2010), as intertwined with and reinforced by everyday practices of wage labour and market exchange.”


    Here are the details of publications by Steinert and Schneider I’ve mentioned above
    Schneider, David (2009) Benjamin Franklin als Repräsentant des Geistes des Kapitalismus? Eine kritische Untersuchung anhand ausgewählter Texte, Master thesis, University of Frankfurt.
    Steinert, Heinz (2010) Max Webers unwiderlegbare Fehlkonstruktionen. Die protestantische Ethik und der Geist des Kapitalismus, Frankfurt am Main: Campus.

Skip to toolbar