Affect and Rationality in Max Weber


In his Protestant Ethic and the ‘Spirit’ of Capitalism, Max Weber traces the development of the rationalized quality characteristic of Western free market capitalism through the subtle permutations of the main Protestant denominations, which he presents as an ascendancy within that relatively late-emerging religious stream of the modes characteristic of science and technology. Through the long mediating process of this compromise formation between the old enemies, science and religion, the rational mode of thought, constituted in “a conceptual simplification and ordering” (27), was ingrained into the predominant sectors of Western culture with the pervasive and unparalleled intimacy that religion can provide. Tracing this “rationalization process” (26) through the complex interactions of the main lines of Protestantism, Weber finds a growing tension between what he describes as “the unrestrained vitality of instinctive action” in Lutheranism and a “constant self-examination and thus . . . systematic regimentation of one’s own life” (86) in Calvinism. Furthermore, Weber sees the latter, rational mode as having come to dominate Western capitalist societies on all levels of organization, down to those societies’ “fundamental attitude” (26-27), even as this “systematic regimentation” of life progressively decoupled itself from the religious communities and practices in which it had long incubated.

Whereas medieval Catholicism and earlier forms of religious dispensation generally appear to have approached the world in a prerational mode, or at least a mode that saw rationality as secondary to more intuitive ways of approaching experience, the nearly simultaneous birth of Protestantism and science beginning in the sixteenth century ultimately led, through the many labyrinthine discursive and material trajectories of the intervening centuries, to the implicit privileging of rationality in many domains of experience, from the most public to the most private, an insight that Weber articulated for modern Western society at the beginning of the twentieth century. As Weber understood, the dual practices of science and capitalism had so pervaded Western culture by this point that it had become difficult to see the world through any other lens than these, or at least to articulate these other ways of constructing reality in the predominant cultural discourse.

Furthermore, Weber describes this ascendancy of rationalism as concomitant with the repression and othering of instinctual animality, with “the religious ‘state of grace’ as a status that separates man from the depravity of the creaturely” (Weber 104). As Weber presents it, through the process of Protestant religious practice, the modern West forged a new relationship to the world as embodied in the relation to what they considered the divine in all its polyvalence, though the temporary result of this trajectory was the secular, rationalized, technological capitalism that has largely characterized late modern experience, effectively repressing attention to and awareness of instinctual, intuitive, affective physicality as vulgar, sinful, and even inhuman. Thus, through centuries of focus on a rational God who pervaded all areas of life, a focus that ultimately seems to have produced the Nietzschean “death of God” just a few decades before Weber’s foundational text was published, the rationalized “spirit of capitalism” became the “god” implicitly worshipped in the West, even as the Christian religion continued to transform itself, becoming a vocal minority in contrast to the increasingly predominant secular culture, particularly in the religion’s “fundamentalist” permutations. This “whole new kind of human being, that in practice absorbed this whole process of development” of the “modern conduct of life” (Weber 316-17), living in the rationalized world prominently decried by religious fundamentalists at the conservative extreme as well as a stream of thought running from the Romantics and the Idealists through the existentialists and the beats to the sixties counterculture at the progressive end of the spectrum, appears to have been the precondition for the reemergence of older forms of engagement with experience that the rational mode had effectively superseded by the mid-twentieth century.


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