me and max

weber, that is. (^_^)

here’s a bit from alan macfarlane’s “The Origins of English Individualism” which i started reading last night [pgs. 50-51]:

“Behind Weber’s work there is a general evolutionary model that sees societies originating in a stage at which kinship dominates all life and large ‘clans’ absorb the individual, moving through an intermediate phase in which the larger grouping have been broken down by various pressures, to modern society where the family and kinship no longer dominate economic and social life. In China and India such a movement has never occurred. In China ‘the fetters of the kinship group were never shattered,’ every individual was completely submerged in the clan system, and any nascent move towards individualistic capitalism was crushed by the power of kinship groups, by the intimate link between family and land. In Europe, however, a number of factors worked together to break the original ‘clan’ system, according to Weber. One was Christianity, which encouraged an abstract, non-familistic attitude, stressed the individual believer: ‘every Christian community was basically a confessional association of individual believers, not a ritual association of kinship groups.’ This ‘all-important destruction of the extended family by the Christian communities…’ was the foundation upon which an autonomous bourgeoisie developed in the cities of western Europe. But while Christianity in general was a dissolvent of the earlier state, Protestantism was especially powerful in its attack on the earlier kinship ‘fetters.’ Weber argued that:

“‘[T]he great achievement of ethical religions, above all of the ethical and asceticist sects of Protestantism, was to shatter the fetters of the kinship group. These religions established the superior community of faith and a common ethical way of life in opposition to the community of blood, even to a large extent in opposition to the family.’

“In addition to Christianity and Protestantism, there were other pressures. The growth of towns in the middle ages also put a stress on the individual rather than the wider kinship group. Furthermore, the politcal system of feudalism was incompatible with extended kinship ties; ‘the land is divided by the feudal lord, in independence of clan and kinship…. We may simplify Weber’s ideas into the argument that there had been three stages in the evolution of modern society. First was ‘clan’ society, where kinship was paramount and the basic economic, social and religious unit was a wide group of kin; this had disappeared in north-western Europe by at least the thirteenth century, although traces remained. This was replaced by a second, intermediate, phase in which the basic unit was the household of parents and children…. This configuration was finally destroyed, Weber argues, first in England from the later fifteenth century, and later elsewhere, allowing for the third stage — the separation between family and business and the economic isolation of the individual.”

like i said before, bigger and (much!) better brains than mine have thought long and hard about the individualistic nature of northwest europeans, which stands in stark contrast to just about everybody else on our little planet, and how we got this way. but what most (all?) of them missed is the biology of it.

and that’s O.K.! ’cause they’ve been historians and philosophers and so on, and weren’t really thinking about biology (although it’s high time that they did! and a lot of them now are, which is a good thing.) and max weber was busy, you know, laying the foundations of sociology and other disciplines, so it’s ok that he missed the biology of it.

otherwise, i think he was right on target here. he really identified some of what i think were the major selection pressures on medieval european populations that resulted in their shift from clannish to individualistic societies. macfarlane criticizes weber for getting the timing wrong (i haven’t finished the book yet, but i think this is where he is going) — i.e. that english individualism happened a lot before weber’s suggestion of the fifteenth century — but otherwise i think weber was very much on target.

i think he might’ve been wrong about protestantism, though. weber seems to have been imagining that sentiments and attitudes are mutable in a blank slate kinda way — like these things just float out of the ether or something. obviously this is not the case — people have natures that are innate — and different peoples have different natures (not completely different — we are all human). and, so, to get from clannishness to individualism, you need some change in the nature of the people.

my guess is that this change has to do with, for one thing anyway, genes related to altruistic behaviors — and since altruistic behaviors are related to (heh) relatedness — then the changes in nw european behavior, i think, came from changes in mating patterns (which would’ve changed the relatedness) rather than just some abstract notions like “confessional associations.” in other words, you need to break down — biologically — the clans before you can get to the “confessional associations.”

why do i think weber was wrong about protestantism? many protestant sects — particularly in germany, but interestingly not in scandinavia nor, i think(?), in england (have to check that) — actually reversed the roman catholic church’s edicts on cousin marriage. iow, cousin marriage was once again allowed after luther’s day in large parts of europe (the specifics vary from place to place and time to time), so protestant europe was not the source of the breakdown of genetic ties in europe. it was the catholic church that got that ball rolling. i think that what many of the more ascetic, individualistic protestant sects were (are) were an expression of the newly forged individualistic natures of nw europeans. but, i could be wrong about that.

macfarlane’s quotes from weber come from weber’s “General Economic History,” so i guess that’s another book to add to the list. (^_^)

(note: comments do not require an email. not this max.)


  1. Weber’s thesis about Protestantism (Calvinism actually) was that it fostered “this-worldly asceticism” I think he called it. Or maybe it was “other-worldly asceticism.”

    In any case the idea (and it was a belief more than an idea) was that if you worked hard and saved instead of consuming your wealth, you were, in a manner of speaking, laying up treasure for yourself in heaven. (Sending up your timber, in the words of the old negro spiritual.)

    Because they believed in predestination (there was no cause for pride) the only “sign” of ones future salvation was how much you had saved (salvation, saved, are those two words cognate?)

    Of course everyone wants to know ahead of time whether or not they are headed for glory. It’s just human nature — like the beauty contestant jumping up and down dying to find out whether she won, AFTER the judges decision but BEFORE the envelope has been opened.

    The biggest differences between Calvanism Catholocism (best I can make out) were:

    (a) this was a select club of sober businessmen in black suits, and you had to be admitted (a certain amount of self-judgment right there — contradiction!)

    and (b) don’t waste your money on the poor. Charity wasn’t their strong suit.

    A third characteristic is that they were really into theology and logic: trying to square the circle of merit and predestination.

    I would point out a couple of ways they were right, however, even by modern scientific standards. First, the winners of the genetic lottery may think they have merit on their side when really they had nothing to do with the genes they were born with; and, second, money spent feeding the poor, etc., instead of paying workmen to build factories, etc., really does not help save the world.

    For it really is a terrible truth about capital, that it is the accumulated crime and sacrifice of centuries, plus interest. And cut it like you will it does make us free.


  2. “i think he might’ve been wrong about protestantism, though:”

    I think it was the other way round as well – Protestantism grew out of the transition to individualism because…

    “in opposition to the community of blood”

    that individualism is mainly relative to constraining clan-patterns. Once beyond the gravitational pull of the clan you still need to unite against external threats so the community of blood shifted upwards an order of magnitude to the nation. So to me the Reformation looks like pre-nationalist growing pains laying the foundations for national versions of Christianity.


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