Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Commerce, Industry, and the Laws of Newtonian Science: Weber Revisited and Revised

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Commerce, Industry, and the Laws of Newtonian Science: Weber Revisited and Revised

Article excerpt

   I am happy that you are at liberty to confound your enemies. Invention is
   so rare and so useful a quality that it ought to be protected and
   encouraged to the utmost. It is a misfortune to your cause that it is to be
   determined not by men of science or by men of business but by lawyers. I
   hope you will be more fortunate than Mr Arkwright was who lost his cause
   because the invention that ought to have been secured to him by patent was
   so useful that it had acquired him a large fortune.

   Josiah Wedgwood Jr. to James Watt Jr., 1795(1)

By the standards of their day and ours, the Wedgwoods, the Boultons, and the Watts may rightly be described as men both of science, and of commercial and industrial capitalism. Both Josiah Wedgwood Jr. and James Watt Jr. inherited and managed the vastly profitable industrial and manufacturing businesses created by their inventive and scientifically informed fathers. Even more important, their families occupied centre stage in early industrial transformation in Britain, in the mechanizing of manufacturing technology and the internationalization of marketing techniques. All these innovations would come to be seen by the 1790s as nothing short of revolutionary.(2) The Watts and the Wedgwoods were not alone in such activity. Envied and emulated -- as can be witnessed by the many contemporary inventors who tried to break Watt's patent on his engine and by the fame enjoyed by paters Wedgwood, Watt, and Boulton -- they helped to create the template for the persona of the early European industrialist. They, and their kind, have now fascinated historians and sociologists for more than a century.

Protestant families of industrial persuasion lived by what Max Weber called in 1904-5 "the spirit of capitalism," which he said required "a definite standard of life claiming an ethical sanction."(3) The first generation of Watts and Wedgwoods who began their social climb in the 1750s look very much like the parvenus of early capitalism whom Weber immortalized. He sought to understand "to what extent religious forces have taken part in the qualitative formation and the quantitative expansion of that [capitalist] spirit over the world."(4) Weber saw Calvinism as the force that naturalized capitalism in the sixteenth-century west. But as Weber acknowledged, its doctrines, especially predestination, were problematic for living in this world. Why strive for anything if the die has been cast by the supreme and omnipotent mediator of human fortunes?

It cannot be accidental that most of Weber's exemplars of the Protestant ethic, in particular Benjamin Franklin, were drawn from the eighteenth century. By then, other psychological resources were at work about which we now know a great deal more than Weber could have imagined. Sixteenth-century Calvinism may have put striving into the psychological makeup of early Protestants, but as I shall be arguing here, other patterns of thought had to be present before despair could be quietly laid to rest. Striving in a law-bound, seemingly rational universe made success more thinkable, possibly more doable. That universe made its appearance only after 1700 and as a result largely of the achievements of Newtonian science.

Out of familiarity with the early industrial circles of Birmingham, Manchester, and elsewhere, I am arguing that Weber missed two other, equally important, ostensibly "secular" forces found distinctively in their midst: the new scientific culture and its religious stepchild, Unitarianism. It too had roots in the sixteenth century, in the heresy of Socinianism, an equally new variety of Protestantism that rejected Calvin's doctrine of specific predestination and laid emphasis upon the search for universal principles acceptable to people of good will. Unitarianism matured significantly and took congregational roots in England during Newton's lifetime (he died in 1727) and partially under the impact of the metaphysical underpinnings of his science. …

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