The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

by Max Weber

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Critical Context

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The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism is, by virtue of its broad appeal among Western European and American readers, Weber’s most widely recognized work internationally. Indeed, to many laymen Weber’s name has become almost synonymous with the concept of the Protestant work ethic. This fact shows that most people are unaware not only of Weber’s important contributions to the disciplines of history, economics, law, and psychology but also of his writings on such distinctly non-Protestant religions as ancient Judaism and the religions of the Far East, including Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

Yet despite its obvious importance for Weber’s career, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism attains its greatest significance only when viewed in the context of sociology on the whole. It represents nothing less than a ground-breaking attempt at fusing the subjective evaluation of man and society with the objective and eminently positivistic methodology of the so-called hard sciences. This attempt has yielded what has generally been hailed as one of the first truly modern sociological studies to be systematically constructed on a solid body of statistical and factual evidence. The significance of Weber’s essay is further underscored by the fact that it spawned countless investigations in sociology—and indeed in all the social sciences—employing the now standard practices of valid experimentation, logical argumentation, and careful, highly detailed documentation. Seen in this light, it greatly helped to raise sociology, considered by many to be an utterly subjective and thus unprofitable course of study, to its proper level of scientific respectablity.

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