Confucius and Capitalism; a Cultural Explanation of Japan's Economic Performance

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Confucius and capitalism

WHY did "modern capitalism" not emerge in other times and other places than modern western Europe? The German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) believed that modern capitalism was not automatically produced by the development of science and technology, and that behind its emergence lay also the emergence of rational, anti-traditional ways of thinking among human agents. Weber asked why there had been such an enormous historical difference in this respect between the Orient and the Occident. To answer this question he made a magnificent comparative study covering Europe, the Middle East, India and China, and concluded that there were religious factors in the modern West which favoured the rise of capitalism, while such factors were absent in other civilizations.

'Sublimated empiricism'

Weber considered that Confucianism, like Protestantism, is a highly rational religion, but that there is an important difference between them. "As against the accommodation to the world found in Confucianism we find in Puritanism [or Protestantism] the task of reorganizing the world in a rational manner."1 Puritanism alone fostered modern natural science and promoted the spirit of capitalism. In China, not only were natural science and technology absent, but also natural law and formal logic. China, therefore, failed to achieve a shift from empirical to rational techniques. "Everything remained at the level of sublimated empiricism."1

1. Max Weber, Gesammelte Aufsatze zur Religionsoziologie ("Collected Writings on Religious Sociology", 1920)

Weber's comparative study of world religions may be regarded, as he himself perceived, as a massive integrated attempt to clarify the cultural background, spiritual backbone and materialistic consequences of Western civilization. From a different point of view, however, it may be seen as part of the overall task of establishing the proposition that the economic performances of various peoples or nations are unstable and influenced by the slightest change in their ethos. Only that part concerning Christianity was completed by Weber himself, who left unfinished the parts relating to other religions such as Confucianism, Hinduism, and Buddhism.

The instability (or knife-edge) thesis is based on the observation that Catholics and Protestants, who share the same Bible but interpret it differently, are significantly different in their modes of worldly behaviour. Weber sees the essential disagreement between the two as lying in the fact that Protestantism removes the barrier between layman and clergy by discarding the division of Christian ethical precepts into praecepta and consilia, while Catholicism sticks to this dualism. For all Protestant denominations "the only way of living acceptable to God was not to outbid worldly morality by monastic asceticism, but solely through the fulfilment of the obligations imposed upon the individual by his position in the world. That was his calling."1

Rationalism and austerity

The Protestant interpretation of the Bible thus produces the concept of a job as a "calling", a task set by God, by which secular life (and hence economic activity) is connected with the will of God. A job becomes a duty, and this kind of outlook on work is, at least at some stage of history, necessary for the establishment of the capitalist regime and its take-off for economic growth. The Protestant Reformation was a breakthrough by which asceticism, hitherto confined to the monasteries, was released into the outside secular world. People began to act ascetically and rationally. The rational utilization of capital was carried out and the rational capitalistic organization of labour was implemented. Protestantism thus contributed to (or is congruent with) the establishment of an efficient economic system.

No such instability argument concerning China, India and Japan is found in Weber's works. …