Society and the Spirit of Capitalism: an Introduction to Max Weber
Max Weber sought to explain nothing less than the emergence of the modern world and the direction in which it was headed. But whereas many of his generation, in keeping with intellectual tradition, examined the world philosophically and impressionistically, Weber brought to bear empirically driven methods of comparative analysis to identify and analyze the individual attitudes and social structures that shape and determine collective life—and in so doing, helped give birth, alongside Marx and Emile Durkheim, to the modern discipline of sociology. Weber’s work ranges from the study of ancient Mediterranean civilizations to Chinese religion to the emergence of “rationality” and bureaucracy to, perhaps most famously, the “elective affinity” between capitalism and Protestant Christianity. Reading Weber, we’re confronted with questions that are as pressing today as they were when Weber wrote: What is the nature of the modern world? What is the meaning of freedom in a bureaucratic and economistic society? Are we locked in an “iron cage”—one in which we’re relentlessly driven, automaton-like, to accumulate and produce? And, how can we find meaning in an individualistic world of material plenty, in which the loosening of social bonds appears to be a necessary condition for economic productivity and the accumulation of wealth?
In this course, an introduction to the major work, ideas, and methods of Max Weber, we will closely read Weber’s classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, using it as a basis for exploring many of the central themes of Weber’s thought: the rise of modern capitalism, the multidimensionality of power in societies, the theory of social action, ideal types, the dilemmas of modernity, and the objectivity of knowledge. As we go, we’ll also read from Weber’s other well-known works, including selections from his magnum opus Economy and Society, his essays on bureaucracy, and his famous “Vocation” lectures, in which Weber theorizes, on the one hand, the responsibilities of the politician and the force of charisma as a feature of political leadership, and on the other, the relation between knowledge and power. As we go, we will ask: what is the nature of the state? How for Weber is politics a sphere distinct and separate from other social activities? How can we understand charisma today as a force in modern life, one that cuts through bureaucratic forms to potentially destabilize the settled political order? What is the role of scientists in moments of political conflict?And finally, how closely does the world Weber attempted to describe—of increasing rationality and order in social and political life—resemble the fractious, crisis-ridden world in which we live today? In addition to works by Weber, we may discuss the insights of some of his most famous interpreters and critics, such as Talcott Parsons, C. Wright Mills, Anthony Giddens, and Raymond Aron.
Course ScheduleMonday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
July 12 — August 02, 2021