Jere Cohen, Protestantism and Capitalism: The Mechanisms of Influence

By Kaelber, Lutz | Canadian Journal of Sociology, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Jere Cohen, Protestantism and Capitalism: The Mechanisms of Influence


Kaelber, Lutz, Canadian Journal of Sociology


Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter, 2002, 296pp.

Sociologists may be surprised to be offered yet another study on the subject matter of Max Weber's Protestant Ethic. After all, in the 1980s, Gordon Marshall (1982) and Gianfranco Poggi (1983) published detailed expositions of Weber's argument and reviews of the evidence, followed by Hartmut Lehmann and Guenther Roth's (1993) collection of essays in the 1990s. These materials have superceded previous assessments of Weber's thesis and remain the state of the art in Anglo-American sociology. Similarly, German scholars such as Hartmann Tyrell (1990) and Friedhelm Guttandin (1998) have published, in a more exegetical and less historical vein, similarly detailed and comprehensive assessments. What, then, would one expect from a new work capable of going beyond these existing studies and providing a fresh look at an old thesis?

For one, while research on the relationship between religion and secular conduct in the early modern and modern periods has not abated over the last decades, documentation of ascetic Protestants' business activities in the early modern period continues to remain elusive. Almost one hundred years after its initial publication, Weber's ideal-typical depiction of the Protestant ethic in action, its interpenetration with the larger culture, and its putative transformation into the secular capitalist ethos and the manifestations of this ethos is still lacking in concrete evidentiary counterparts. Second, few if any studies on Weber's thesis have the original's comparative scope and breadth. That is, Weber published on the varieties of ascetic Protestant groups and their contribution to a modern vocational ethic that undergirds modern capitalism; hence, a proper assessment should be broadly comparative and not confine itself to a singular case, be it the Puritans or any other form of Calvinist ascetic Protestantism. Third, much of the scholarship outside of Germany--with the remarkable exception of some Japanese scholars--has not been attentive to parts of Weber's oeuvre that are relevant to the Protestant ethic thesis but have only very recently become available in translation. These parts comprise foremost Weber's replies to his critics H. Karl Fischer and Felix Rachfahl in the years 1907-10, but also the original two-part essay that appeared in 1904-05, for it has to be compared to its revision Weber undertook in 1919-1920 in order to understand the ways in which Weber changed or affirmed his argument vis-a-vis the likes of a Lujo Brentano and Werner Sombart. Moreover, Stephen Kalberg has provided a new translation of the Protestant Ethic (Weber 2002a) that should help correct some of the misunderstandings that arose from Parsons' older, less faithful rendition. Fourth, there is the magisterial Max Weber Gesamtausgabe, which is a source of profound insights into anything Weberian.

Jere Cohen's book meets the first expectation but not the others. In spite of his claim that his book "aims at a broad evaluation of the Protestant ethic hypothesis" (p. 2), it deals exclusively with the English Puritan experience in the early modern period. Hence, it is clear from the beginning that his book does not inquire into the varieties of ascetic Protestantism, as Weber had done in the Protestant Ethic, but confines itself to Weber's main case. Thus the title of the book is inaccurate, as it is not a study of Protestantism and capitalism. Rather, the book's title should be English Puritanism and Modern Capitalism.

Although he appears not to have consulted any of the volumes of MWGA for additional information, nor having had the benefit of being able to use Kalberg's new translation of the Protestant Ethic, the translation of Weber's original essays by Peter Baehr and Gordon Wells (Weber, 2002b), and Weber's newly translated replies to his critics (Chalcraft and Harrington, 2001 ; the replies are also translated in Baehr and Wells), Cohen displays his capacity for razor-sharp analysis by giving a concise account of Weber's argument in the introductory chapter of his book. …

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