The Weber Thesis and South East Asia - article ; n°1 ; vol.15, pg 21-34
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The Weber Thesis and South East Asia - article ; n°1 ; vol.15, pg 21-34


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15 Pages


Archives des sciences sociales des religions - Année 1963 - Volume 15 - Numéro 1 - Pages 21-34
14 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1963
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Syed Farid Alatas
The Weber Thesis and South East Asia
In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 15, 1963. pp. 21-34.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Alatas Syed Farid. The Weber Thesis and South East Asia. In: Archives des sciences sociales des religions. N. 15, 1963. pp.
doi : 10.3406/assr.1963.1719 WEBER THESIS
HIS Islam paper and aims economic at assessing action the in South status East of the Asia Weber thesis by relating it to
In the discussion on the Weber thesis eversince its publication in 1904-1905
much effort has been wasted to eliminate some misunderstandings concer
ning the thesis or parts of it Besides this there has been also misunderstanding
one way or mutual between authors involved in the discussion Sometimes it
is not easy to decide quickly who misunderstands whom Talcott Parsons for
instance accusses Roberstson for misunderstanding conception
of the spirit of capitalism Robertson according to Parsons identifies the
spirit of capitalism with acquisitiveness while this has only secondary
place in conception The conception of the calling suggested by Weber
belongs to different order 1)
Although Parsons description of conception is correct am not
certain that his accusation against Robertson hits the mark admit that there
are certain passages in book which reveal some misunderstandings
as when he tries to show that the doctrine of the calling is opposed to the amassing
of wealth and covetousness This is however superfluous because Weber
never claims that the doctrine of the calling exhorts people to acquisitiveness
This acquisitiveness is considered by Weber as an indirect by-product though
significant one
Despite such superfluous remarks Robertson shows proper understanding
of Weber He notes Weber has stressed the point that the doctrine of the
calling caused the Puritans to be diligent in their application to business to
the greater glory of God Similarly the unintended effect released by the
fusion of Calvinism and business contrary to the ideals of Calvin is also noted
by Robertson elaboration of perspectives acknowledged by Weber
serves only to emphasize the order of significance in the data used both by him
and Weber His ignoring the significance of the religious factor pushed into
See his introduction to Max Weber The theory of social and economic organization
tr A.M Henderson and Parsons) G-lencoe Illinois Pree Press 1947 81
H.M ROBERTSON Aspects of the rise of economic individualism Cambridge University
Press 1933 11
Ibid. 11
Ibid.. 208
prominence by Weber as decisive one in the cluster of causes suggested to ex
plain the capitalist spirit merely conforms to his opinion that an explanation
based on it is fantastic 5)
Whatever is the merit of his criticisms it is doubtful whether we can accuse
Robertson of misunderstanding the thesis although do agree that he misun
derstands some of ideas like the ideal-type and its application It belongs
to the canon of true understanding to classify and place in the scheme of signifi
cance the of an author towards another In the case of Bobert-
son some of his misunderstandings of Weber like that concerning the ideal-type
are not damaging to his arguments in refuting the thesis
Considering the controversy and its complexity it is advisable to present
here brief introduction to the definition of the thesis before embarking upon
the main theme so that the rest which follows may be judged from the correct
To begin with let us locate the place of the Weber thesis in the writings of
Max Weber We have writings on philosophical and methodological
issues We have his works on sociology and economic history covering such
topics as bureaucracy classes cities and their growths typology of social pheno
mena and men etc We have his contributions on the study of religion
combination of history and sociology
The Weber thesis is part of the last mentioned kind of contributions Con
sequently distinction is here maintained between the Weber thesis as such
of which description will be given his sociology of religion and his other socio
logical contributions The concern of this paper is restricted only to the thesis
As such the conclusions expressed here have no validity beyond the confine of
the thesis
While it is true that it is impossible to understand Weber completely without
considering the wider background of his scientific thought-world nevertheless
it is possible in principle to refute the thesis without awareness of
wider interest provided however the relevant part of his total contribution
connected directly with the thesis is not forgotten As noted earlier
misunderstanding of the ideal-type or even his complete ignorance of it had it
been so need not necessarily jeopardize his attempt to remove Weber from his
pedestal of certainty It is not out of place to mention this since some of
defenders have made good use of his ignorance of his other
writings They reproach the critics who happen to be unfamiliar with the many
sided contributions of Max Weber
The distinction between the thesis and sociology of religion has
often been ignored or unperceived In the introduction to their valuable selec
tion and translation of works Gerth and Mills refer to the thesis
which in their hands assumes different form than that intended by Weber
as evidenced by the following In any case Weber is concerned with
using generalized conceptions in order to understand society as subject to lawful
regularities For such regularities are necessary in order to satisfy an interest in
causation To understand sequence of regular events causally one must examine
comparable conditions Thus in an attempt to validate his causal analysis of
religion and capitalism in the Occident Weber examined many other civilizations
Although capitalist beginnings could be observed in these
capitalism in the Western sense did not emerge Weber wished to find those
factors in other civilizations which blocked the emergence of capitalism even
Ibid. 206
though there were many favourable conditions present for its emergence By
such comparative analysis of causal sequences Weber tried to find not only
the necessary but the sufficient conditions of capitalism Only in the Occident
particularly where innerworldly asceticism produced specific personality
type were the sufficient conditions present In his pluralism he naturally did
not consider this type of personality the only factor involved in the origin of
capitalism he merely wished to have it included among the conditions of 6)
The reference to the thesis is clear but intention here is not fully
expressed It is not true that Weber merely wished to have it included among
the conditions of capitalism It is much more than this Weber in several places
suggests that had indeed several causes One of these is religion and
that too the Christian religion Within the Christian religion it is Protestantism
and within Protestantism it is Calvinism that played the most significant role
in the genesis of capitalism There are thus several effects of Christianity on
economic action directly and indirectly related to the birth of modern capitalism
One of them is what Weber believed to be elimination of magic
which made rational action possible This factor has operated for centuries before
the Reformation It is peculiar to the Semitic tradition of the prophetic religions
There is thus set of unique Judaic-Christian religious factors operating for
centuries in European history making it possible for capitalism to rise One of
these factors emerging later is the innerworldly asceticism This innerworldly
asceticism noted by Gerthand Mills has been differentiated by Weber into two kinds
the Lutheran and the Calvinist both present during the Reformation It is the Cal
vinist blend that Weber found interesting not only as one of the conditions as sug
gested by Gerth and Mills but as decisive and significant one This is what
Weber says of the Protestant outlook without yet emphasizing the Calvinist As
far as the influence of the Puritan outlook extended under all circumstances and
this is of course much more important than the mere encouragement of capital
accumulation it favoured the development of rational bourgeois economic
life it was the most important and above all the only consistent influence in
the development of that life It stood at the cradle of the modern
man 8)
Had Weber not made such claim there would in all probability be no
controversy around his thesis The peculiarly Calvinist blend of innerworldly asce
ticism later emphasized by Weber qualifies the thesis as thesis Failure to make
the distinction between thesis and his general sociology of religion will
contribute to increase the existing confusion and misunderstanding which always
accompany discussion between several people This distinction is at times ignored
in works intended to have no connection with the controversy may mention here
valuable and instructive work as an instance In his Tokugawa Religion Bellah
mistakenly identifies sociology of religion with the thesis This is what
he says The sociologist influenced by Max great work on the relation
of religion to the development of modern Western society especially the modem
economy naturally wonders whether religious factors might also be involved
in the Japanese case The problem stated baldly is was there functional analogue
to the Protestant ethic in Japanese religion This problem then will serve as
H.H ERTH and O.W MILLS From Max Weber Essays in sociology translated and
edited London Boutledge and Paul 1957 60-1
Robert BELLAH Tokugawa Religion lencoe Illinois Free Press 1957 2-3
Max WEBER Thé Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism tr by Parsons)
New York Scribner 1958 17a
special focus of interest throughout the study We shall attempt to understand
as clearly as possible what Japanese religion actually meant to ordinary people
and we shall pay particular attention to any elements which might be connected
with the rise of modem industrial society 9)
The functional analogue to the Protestant ethic is suggested to be present
in Japanese modem history by Bellah 10 But what Bellah had mind falls
more under general sociology of religion rather than the thesis speci
fically The traits Bellah found in Japanese society can at most be compared to
Protestantism but not its Calvinistic variant in the sense Weber conceived it
and which played significant role in his analysis Bellah hardly mentioned
Calvinism and the calling even as referents to matters incidental to his theme
Thus it cannot claim analysis to search and to discover the analogy
with findings The correlation between economic ethic and religion ably
discussed by Bellah with reference to modem Japan in itself is fundamentally
different from analysis in the Weber thesis The thesis is more than establishing
correlations interdependence and mutual causation
However the remarks made about Gerth and Mills and Bellah do not
affect the valuable contributions expressed in their efforts to present Max
The befogging of issues is further generated by attempts to interpret
Weber not satisfied with an accurate presentation At the concluding part
of his on the whole well-written history of the controversy Fischoff recommends
the following exegesis of Max Weber In the light of all this thesis
must be construed not according to the usual interpretation as an effort to
trace the causative influence of the Protestant ethic upon the emergence of
capitalism but as an exposition of the rich congruency of such diverse aspects
of culture as religion and economics The essay should be considered as stimu
lating project of hermeneutics demonstration of interesting correlations between
diverse cultural factors Although at the time of the republication of the essay
Weber insisted that he had not changed his views on this matter at all the
whole intent of his later work does show an implicit shift of view or at any rate
of emphasis No longer laying the basic stress on the causal factors in the economic
ethic of radical Protestantism as related to the capitalist spirit his later researches
culminating in the systematic sociology of religion accepted rather the con
gruency of these diverse aspects of our culture and their subsumption under the
comprehensive process of rationalization It is important to emphasize that
some of the distortions involved in ideal-type method are neutralized
in his later sociological studies of the non-Christian religions to which all too
little attention has been paid In these mighty studies which are cultural sociolo
gies of the Weltreligionen Weber traces the influence of material geographic
and economic circumstances on the religious and ethical ideas of different cultures
Yet though he treated religious norms institutions and practices with cold detach
ment he never denied the historical reality and power of the religious complex
His general view remained that human affairs are infinitely complicated with
numerous elements interacting and it was his unshakable conviction that to
attribute causal primacy is to be guilty of oversimplification 11)
The above may be easily mistaken for an accurate portrayal of
B.N BELLAH op cit. 2-3
10 Ibid. 196
11 FiscHOPF The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism the history of
sontroversy in B.W RBEN ed Protestantism and Capitalism Boston BEeath Co. 1959
thesis It is true that we should not consider Weber as assigning causal primacy
to the religious factor if it is taken in the singular sense But how many of his
critics misunderstood hini here Not the majority In 1932 Bouman gave
summary of the points reduced by him into five of criticism levelled against
Weber 12 They are the following Weber underestimated the influence of
Catholicism in the encouragement of asceticism and rationality His concept
of modern capitalism is too narrow being too much occupied by the place of
rational action in it He attached too little attention to non-religious factors
such as the expansive individualism of the Renaissance the anti-traditionalistic
trends of emigrants and heretics and the influence of the commercial revolution
in the 16th century His interpretation of sources was not always genuine
and true On further control of works cited by Weber it appeared that
documentation of rational economic action from those works have not been
consistent with the conservative nature of those works as whole He read
too much continuity in the history of Calvinism
claim that the spirit of capitalism preceded capitalism itself according
to Bouman is untenable
Both Weber and his serious critics made use of the same categories of
data by which mean the economic political geographical religious
demographic etc The differencel ies in the order of significance and temporal
sequence of some of the data and phenomena cited To allude that the critics
misunderstood pluralism is certainly out of place The pendulum of
misunderstanding in this instance swings to apologists or the umpires
of controversy like Fischoff They misunderstand both Weber and his serious
critics like Robertson and Hyma
Just as we ought to give Weber allowance for hasty formulations of some
phrases and judge them with reference to his work as whole so should we
understand the meaning of criticism of Weber It is true that we
find uncalled for assertions in book such as the allusion as though
Weber suggested that the spirit of capitalism was created by the Protestant
ethic 13
To return to Fischoff the relationship between the Protestant ethic and the
spirit of capitalism is not merely one of congruence but of causation
suggestion is misleading Of this causative relationship Samuelsson clearly grasps
its essence when he describes the thesis in the following Weber asserted stre
nuously that such causal links did indeed exist Protestantism created the pre
conditions for spirit of capitalism The dictum hardly applied to Luthe-
ranism which retained the traditional canonical attitude to trade But it applied
without reservation to Calvinism and the various Protestant sects 14)
The causative relationship is further explained by Weber in his study of
Oriental religions mistakenly referred to by Fischoff in support of his con
gruence interpretation On the relation of Confucianism with our theme Weber
writes The indispensible ethical qualities of the modem capitalist entrepre
neur were radical concentration on God-ordained purposes the relentless and
practical rationalism of the asceticist ethic methodical conception of matter-
offactness in business management horror of illegal political colonial booty
12 P.J BOUMAN Eenige beschouwingen over de historische betrekkingen tusschen
godsdienst en kapitalisme De Economist Haarlem) 1932 181-98
13 H.M BOBBBTSON op cit. xv-xvi
14 Kurt SAMUELSSON Religion and economie action tr E.G French) London Heine
mann 1961
and monopoly types of capitalism which depended on the favour of princes and
men as against the sober strict legality and the harnessed rational energy of
routine enterprise the rational calculation of the technically best way of practi
cal solidity and expediency instead of the traditionalist enjoyment of trans
mitted skill or the beauty of product characteristic of the old artisan craftsman
This must be added to the pious special will for work The relentlessly
and religiously systematized utilitarianism peculiar to rational asceticism to
live in the world and yet not be of it has helped to produce superior rational
aptitudes and therewith the spirit of the vocational man which in the last
analysis was denied to Confucianism That is to say the Confucian way of life
was rational but was determined unlike Puritanism from without rather than
from within The contrast can teach us that mere sobriety and thriftiness combined
with acquisitiveness and regard for wealth were far from representing and far
from releasing the capitalist spirit in the sense that this is found in the voca
tional man of the modern economy 15)
If the above is not causative do not know what is Another instance is to
be found in connection with India where Weber believed modem capitalism
could not emerge from within
The Hindu social-order blocked its emergence despite the presence of other
favourable conditions 16 This judgement is extended also to Islam and
religions in the Orient The innerworldly-asceticism as generated by Protestantism
Weber found decisive for the economics of the Occident 17)
It would not be desirable to devote more space to prove the causative nature
of the Weber thesis in the mind of its author causal pluralism should
not be confounded with pluralism of fixed and static pattern Causal pluralism
does not exclude grading of significance in the set of causes appealed to explain
phenomenon He definitely considers Protestantism and Calvinism as deci
sive cause To explain it away and then to call it congruence will convert the
voluminous sociology of religion written by Weber into tedious heap for surely
it need not take so much effort and intricate exposition just to establish con
Among the sociologists who accurately perceive the causative theme of the
thesis may be noted Talcott Parsons 18) Sorokin 19) and Bendix 20)
My portrayal of the thesis though it is very concise and incomprehensive
does not disfigure it in any way assume that those interested in this topic are
conversant with arguments and his other writings which have bearing
on the thesis Other factors conditioning the rise of the capitalist spirit and
modem capitalism including those generated by Protestantism not mentioned
here should be assumed as already taken into account and not forgotten This
is particularly necessary to state in view of the fact that one is liable to be accused
of misunderstanding or misrepresenting Weber have singled out the role of
Calvinism as the specific theme since this is the significant differentia which
makes the thesis what it is It is viewed as the decisive cause releasing the spirit
15 Max WEBER The Religion of China tr and ed H.H Gerth) G-lencoe Illinois Free
Press 1951 247
16 Max The of India tr and ed H.H Gerth and Martindale)
Glencoe Illinois Free Press 1958 337
17 Ibid. 337
18 Talcotfc PARSONS The structure of social action Glencoe Illinois Free Press 1949
19 Pitirim SOROKIN Contemporary sociological theory New York Harper and Brothers
1928 678
20 BENDIX Max Weber an intellectual portrait New York Double Day 1960 104
of capitalism among the many weighed and included by Weber Hence greater
attention alloted to this factor should not be taken as one sided exposition
of the Weber thesis which requires at least book to present it entirely
Definition of the thesis According to Weber modem capitalism emerged as
the cumulative result of social political economic and religious forces with
their roots deep into European history Beginning from the time of the Reforma
tion up to approximately the 18th century the influence of religion had been
very decisive Protestantism particularly Calvinism originated certain ethic
which fused with capitalism giving birth to what Weber called the spirit of
modem capitalism It was this spirit that released the tremendous energy cha
racterizing modern
Weber is not concerned with the consciously cherished ideal of Calvinism
He is interested in certain psychological attitudes and elements of the teaching
which subsequently developed phenomena at times contrary to the religious
aims of Calvinism
The bearer of this spirit was the rising middle class from whose history Weber
derives his arguments The best example of the fusion between Protestantism
and capitalism he finds in Benjamin Franklin
By capitalist spirit Weber did not mean mere acquisitiveness The impulse
to acquisition he says pursuit of gain of money of the greatest possible amount
of money has in itself nothing to do with capitalism This impulse exists and
has existed among waiters physicians coachmen artists prostitutes dishonest
officials soldiers nobles crusaders gamblers and beggars One may say that it
has been common to all sorts and conditions of men at all times and in all coun
tries of the earth wherever the objective possibility of it is or has been given
It should be taught in the kindergarten of cultural history that this naive idea of
capitalism must be given up once and for all unlimited greed for gain is not in
the least identical with capitalism and is still less its spirit Capitalism may even
be identical with the restraint or at least rational tempering of this irrational
impulse But capitalism is identical with the pursuit of profit and forever renewed
profit by means of continuous rational capitalistic enterprise 21)
The spirit of modem capitalism as distinguished from capitalist institutions
and enterprise had not always occurred together with them Within the same
order of relationships we may have different spirits the modern and the tra
ditional 22 The fusion between the Calvinist ethic and the spirit of capitalism
can best be seen in the type of men who became its bearer They avoided osten
tation and waste cultivated reserve and honesty with tinge of asceticism 23
Their attitude and philosophy Weber describes as innerworldly
According to Weber the direct relationship between Calvinism and the
spirit of modem capitalism was preceded by similar relationship in the past
in the sense that religion everywhere partly determined the development of
capitalism either by hindering or assisting it 24 As regards Calvinism the major
factor noted by Weber is the doctrine of the calling wherein the acquisition of
wealth is considered as possible sign of salvation indicating an
21 Max WBBEB The protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism op cit. 17
22 Ibid. 65
23 71
24 Ibid. 284 note 118
membership of the chosen few decreed by God Thus spur was provided for the
vigorous and earnest effort to acquire worldly success This and some other
factors flowing from Calvinism infused business life with new spirit Once it
was there it developed life of its own and left its Calvinistic moorings 25)
The thriftiness issuing from the sense of the calling led to the accumulation
of capital and this in tum activated further undertakings
The idea that success reveals blessing from God was not unknown before
Protestantism or even Christianity Judaism had it too 26 But Calvinism
gave it central place by linking it with the idea that success may very well be
the sign of salvation Hence the anxiety to know whether one is doomed or saved
released vigorous activity in the economic field
explanation is much richer than presented here and should be
consulted directly
The spirit of modern capitalism acting as soul to capitalism was thus
decisively influenced by Calvinism which Stressed individual responsibility for
salvation and suggested worldly success as its possible indication throwing each
individual to himself generating methodical and disciplined way of life These
traits later became common property and infused the non-economic aspects of
life also
To strengthen his arguments Weber appeals to Asian history and suggests
that modern capitalism did not develop independently in Asia primarily because
of the restraining influence of religion The area he studied is China and India
with numerous details In India it was the caste-system which prevented the
spirit of capitalism to rise 27) in China Confucianism and Taoism because of
their global outlook on life which dispensed with the rational and disciplined
effort to temper acquisitiveness and build up systematically the rational long-
range profit-making attitude regarded as calling in itself 28)
Weber attributes the emergence of modem capitalism in contemporary Asia
to Western influence 29)
Criticism of the thesis thesis has been severely criticized as well
as defended since its publication An important argument which concerns us here
is the alternative proposal that the spirit of capitalism was already present
before Calvinist ethic took the form depicted by Weber It was rather an adjust
ment to the changing circumstances than mover of the capitalist spirit prior
to it in origin To my mind this suggested alternative is well documented and
succeeded in refuting the thesis except in the version as derived from the theory
of congruence which deprives it of the original meaning given by Weber Again
for the appraisal of the criticism direct reference to the authors is necessary This
paper does not aim to enter the controversy around the European scene directly
It aims at establishing the proposition that the spirit of modem capitalism can
rise in Asia from within itself This can be shown at least among certain Muslim
traders and small industrialists This being the case the conditions for similar
phenomenon in Europe need not have religious qualification for its uniqueness
Once the uniqueness is rejected the balance falls on the side of the sociological
25 Ibid. 2-3
26 271
27 Max WEBER The Religion of India op cit pp 111-112
28 The of China op cit pp 236-24=5
29 Ibid. 61
theory implied in the writings of such critics as Robertson and Hyma and others
The capitalist spirit is then viewed as the product of capitalism itself without
any need for religious initiation Parallels between traits of the capitalist spirit
and innerworldly-asceticism are just factors of no decisive influence in the genesis
of economic ethic but at most in its adaptive integration Non-religious social
and cultural factors can exert greater influence in the rise of an economic ethic
It is thus justified for us to insist that they are more important in the rise of
modern capitalism than the Protestant spirit The difference with Weber lies not
in the awareness of these factors but in their order of significance An instance
from Islamic life in Malaya and Indonesia is sufficient to strengthen the above
Interest in Weber among scholars of South East Asia
Interest in the works of Weber goes back at least to the early twenties In
report for the Dutch Government in Java written by D.M.G Koch reference
was made to religion and economic ethic in connection with the activity of Sare-
kat Islam the first major political party with mass following in Indonesia
He saw parallel between the rise of the small capitalist class in Java and its
counterpart in Western Europe during the first half of the 16th century 30
He also noted that the change in the economic ethic of the Javanese Muslim
capitalists in small industries was comparable to the emergence of the modern
outlook as represented in the teachings of Luther and Calvin As an instance he
cited passage from the speech of Abdul Muis one of the Sarekat Islam leaders
during its congress in 1917 urging strenuous effort to economic and scientific
progress 31 Although no mention of Weber was made in the above report
Koch did apply some of findings to the Javanese situation Later he
acknowledged this in his autobiography published in 1956 32)
Earlier in 1911 in the second issue of De Indische Kroniek he attempted
to explain the much greater success of Islamic proselytization as compared to
that of Christianity in Indonesia by means of their respective structural economic
backgrounds Christianity the industrial West Islam the agrarian East 33)
Without inquiring into the merit of his views which were partly formed
with the assistance of writings we shall note the position of the thesis in
his approach His writings clearly imply the rejection of the thesis The Protestant
ethic in Western Europe and the Muslim ethic in Java as conceived by Koch
were the results of social and economic development They were adaptations
to the capitalist spirit This view is in line with his socialistic philosophy which
emphasizes the significance of the economic factor as driving force in historical
development although not in the Marxian sense 34)
few years later B.J.O Schrieke in another report dealing with Communism
in the West of Sumatra made passing reference to Weber and Sombart Accor
ding to Schrieke there was the emergence of the capitalist mentality in the Mi-
nangkabau area when section of the community prefered cultivating lucrative
commercial crops rather than rice This change he suggested was accompanied
30 D.M.G Mededelingen omtrent enkele onderwerpen van algemeen belang Welte
vreden Landsdrukkerij 1920
31 Ibid.
32 D.M.G KOCH Verantwoording The Hague Van Hoeve 1956 109
33 Ibid. 62
34 113-4