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Social Compass
59(1) 34­–51
Religion as the source of the © The Author(s) 2012
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DOI: 10.1177/0037768611432121
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Sara R FARRIS
Institute for Advanced Studies, Konstanz, Germany

Abstract
Amidst the recent resurgence of interest in religion as one of the main ‘sources of the
self’, Max Weber’s argument in the Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie can make
an important contribution. The importance of individuation1 to the rise of capitalism
in Weber’s account has usually been related to the process of autonomisation of the
individual from the ‘community of blood’ that took place in the Jewish-Christian tradition
in the West. The author argues that Weber in fact proposed a much more sophisticated
reconstruction of the processes of individuation than is commonly supposed. By means
of a comparative reconstruction of the relation between religion, individual and society
in several cultural contexts, Weber proposed a complex analysis of different processes
of individuation, in which the notion of ‘personality’ plays a crucial role.

Keywords
historical sociology, individuation, Max Weber, subjectivity, world religions

Résumé
Afin d’éclairer le récent regain d’intérêt pour la religion comme l’une des principales
« sources du moi », l’argument de Max Weber dans la Gesammelte Aufsätze zur

Religionssoziologie peut apporter une contribution importante. L’importance de


l’individualisme dans la montée du capitalisme, tel que développé dans les écrits
de Weber, a souvent été liée au processus d’autonomisation de l’individu de la
« communauté de sang » qui s’est amorcé dans la tradition judéo-chrétienne en
Occident. L’auteure soutient que Weber a, en réalité, proposé une reconstruction
beaucoup plus sophistiquée des processus d’individuation qu’on ne le croit. Au moyen
d’une reconstruction comparative de la relation entre la religion, l’individu et la société

Corresponding author:
Sara R Farris, Otto Adam Strasse, 5, 78467, Konstanz, Germany
Email: sara.farris@gmail.com

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 35

dans plusieurs contextes culturels, Weber a développé une analyse complexe des
différents processus d’individualisme, dans laquelle la notion de « personnalité » joue
un rôle crucial.

Mots-clés
individuation, Max Weber, religions du monde, sociologie historique, subjectivité

Introduction
Recent years have witnessed a resurgence of both public and academic interest in reli-
gion. This renewed interest is due in particular to the role that religion has increasingly
played in mobilising political participation, particularly in the last decade. A key element
of interest and concern for what has been termed a post-secular turn (Habermas, 2008)
has been the fact that religion is regarded as still being an important factor in identity
formation, or one of the main ‘sources of the self’, to paraphrase Taylor’s appropriate
formula (Taylor, 1992). The role of religion in the shaping of an inner self also had,
however, a foundational role for sociology itself. The study of the religious roots of
subjectivation occupied large and crucial parts of the work of its founding fathers, from
Karl Marx to Emile Durkheim, Georg Simmel and Max Weber. By means of their inves-
tigation into the role played by religious belief as a privileged medium of primary
socialisation and individuation, they provided crucial elements for the understanding of
their mechanisms and of the dialectic between individual and society.
In this article, I aim particularly to address Max Weber’s writings on religion in
terms of their treatment of the role played by religions in shaping the individual’s self.
Weber’s hypothesis regarding the religious dimensions of individuation is still crucial
to contemporary sociological readings of the renaissance of religion, as it helps us to
understand the intimate dynamics between social conditions, economic and political
structures, religious beliefs and personal identity.
In Weber’s Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie (Sociology of Religion) the
importance of the process of ‘individuation’ was related above all to the rise of capital-
ism. Most readings thus have highlighted how such a process was associated with the
emancipation of the individual from the ‘community of blood’ that took place in the
Jewish-Christian tradition. Abercrombie, for instance, argues that, for Weber, ‘Christianity
was more conducive to the rise of the individual than were other religions … [and that]
individualism had its roots in the Judaic-Christian inheritance. It was thus peculiar to the
West’ (Abercrombie et al., 1986: 16–17). However, this argument confuses what we
could call the making of ‘individuals’ (i.e. the process of individuation) with a specific
ideological formation, namely ‘individualism’. While the latter has certainly character-
ised the rise of capitalism and Western modernity, with its emphasis upon individuals’
autonomy and freedom, it is the former that is the more appropriate label for the process
of ‘becoming individual’ to which Weber referred (albeit implicitely) in his studies on
Weltreligionen.2
We could thus start by noticing that, for Weber, while individualism could certainly be
ascribed specifically to Western social formation, processes of individuation, albeit in

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36 Social Compass 59(1)

different forms and especially with different results, took place also in the other cultural
contexts that he analysed, particularly world religions. Weber detected the roots of both
the rise and the absence of capitalism and modernity in different patterns of individuals’
formation.
In order to highlight this aspect of Weber’s work, I will first recall the main prob-
lematic of the Sociology of Religion by paying particular attention to Weber’s use and
articulations of the concept of ‘personality’, which , as I argue, represents the golden
thread of his analysis of world religions. I will then analyse the discussion in the
Sociology of Religion of the different processes of individuation that Weber believed
were to be found in ancient Judaism, Protestantism, Hinduism and finally Confucianism.
The order of exposition adopted in this study, therefore, does not follow the organisa-
tion adopted in the Sociology of Religion.3 Rather, I propose a thematic reading that
attempts to focus on the essential elements of Weber’s fully developed concept of
Western, ‘complete individuation’.

Religious ‘determinants’ of Weber’s lexicon of


individuation
It is well known that Weber started the study and comparison of different religions and
civilisations in order to corroborate his initial thesis: namely, that only Protestantism
(and especially Calvinism) could give rise to modern capitalism, via the concept of Beruf
and the theory of predestination. A ‘superstructural’ element was regarded as a crucial
explanatory factor for the rise of a new economical system, thus setting Weber’s thinking
against the structure-based explanations and economical determinism that he believed to
be characteristic of Marxist accounts (see Salvadori, 1990).
By studying the main features of ancient Judaism, Protestantism, Hinduism and
Confucianism, along with other ‘hetherodox’ Asian religions, Weber argued that they
could not generate a forma mentis with an ‘elective affinity’ with capitalism, because of
the different rationalisations of the world that they produced and, consequently, because
of the diverse ‘personalities’ that they had helped to shape.
Weber did not provide an explicit and univocal definition of religion. The section on
‘The Sociology of Religion’ in Economy and Society indeed begins by stating that ‘to
define “religion”, to say what it is, is not possible at the start of a presentation such as
this’ (Weber, 1978: 399). Nonetheless, Weber characterised religion, or at least a func-
tion of it, in terms of a psychological ‘stamping’ (Prägung) that conditioned collective
behaviour and that, in its turn, was conditioned by the social strata that bore different
methods of salvation during the decisive moment of their formation. Thus, understand-
ing religious doctrines meant also being able to trace them back to the social classes
and groups of which they were expressions. As a consequence, the economic ethic
(Wirtschaftsethik) was the result of causal reciprocity between the ‘socially determined
interest situation and the psychologically determined interest situation’ (Weber, 1948:
281); namely, an expression of the interests and psychological incentives (Antriebe) of
those groups and social classes that at determinate and determinant – or axial, to use
Jaspers’ famous concept – historical conjunctures imposed a practical orientation on
individuals’ behaviour.

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 37

For the purposes of the present essay, it is important to highlight how Weber’s pattern
of explanation was threefold insofar as it conceived religion as the middle term between
social and individual conditions. Social and political dimensions, in his view, were the
elements responsible for shaping the very content and the essential characteristics of
religious rationalisations (or theodicies). At the same time, religious rationalisations
were translated into a coherent set of prescriptions and motives that forged individuals’
behaviour and personality.
Thus the concept of personality, which plays a crucial role in Weber’s reconstruction
of religion’s historical role, is not conceivable without reference to the very social and
political circumstances in which religions themselves arose. What precisely, however,
does personality mean? Does it have a specific and privilegd status in Weber’s account
of the subjective factors of historical development? By briefly answering these ques-
tions, I aim to clarify the specifity of Weber’s vocabulary and to provide an analytical
map for understanding the main developments and results of his studies on religion that
will be presented in the following paragraphs.
Weber uses the terms ‘individual’, ‘individuality’ and ‘personality’ at different
moments. For instance, he employs the concept of individual (Individuum) along with
the concept of person (Person) and, more often, of single (einzeln) in order to identify
both the singular human being and the unity of analysis proper to the social sciences. The
concept of individuality (Individualität) and especially of personality (Persönlichkeit),
on the other hand, have a more defined profile. In general, the concept of individuality in
German culture acquired its own specificity starting with Romaticism. Here it entailed a
notion of ‘uniqueness, originality, self-realisation … in contrast to the rational, universal
and uniform standards of the Enlightenment’ (Lukes, 1973: 17). As Lukes has noted,
with the passing of time the concept of individuality, widespread in German culture in
general, ‘soon became transformed into an organic and nationalistic theory’ of personal-
ity, nation, community and the state. It ended up being regarded as a manifestation of the
spirit that tended to embody itself in more individualised forms – and not necessarily in
more rational ones, as in Hegel (cf. Iggers, 1975). Thus, the notion of personality itself
acquired the significance of full accomplishment of the individuality embodied in it, or
the self-realisation of the individual. It was especially through education (Bildung) that a
harmonious developed personality was supposed to be achieved.
Weber was much influenced by these notions of individuality and personality. He
explicitely referred to the term Persönlichkeit as ‘a complex of constant motives’, to be
conceived in relation to ultimate meanings and values of life that are translated into
goals, transforming the acting individual into a rational individual.

‘Personality’ is a concept that finds its ‘essence’ in the consistency of its intimate relationship
to certain ultimate ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ of life. These values and meanings have their effect
by being forged into purposes and thereby translated into rational-teleological action. (Weber,
1968: 132)

In the light of this, religions had the role of shaping individuals as autonomous per-
sonalities inherently forged by a set of coherent motives. The concept of individuation
(Individuation) then refers to the path through which an individual can develop a unitary

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38 Social Compass 59(1)

individuality, namely a personality. In each study of the Sociology of Religion, we find


outlined the elements distinctive to each religion that were translated into particular
types of personality, forged along different paths of individuation.

Ethic particularism and religious universalism in the


construction of the Jewish personality
For Weber, the roots of the process of formal rationalisation that characterises the West
were to be found in the Jewish religion and in the particular relation that it instituted
between God and the world.
Like most of the Semitic divinities, the God of the Hebrews initially had a naturalist
and local character. Only with the passing of time did he assume a universal quality as
the guarantor of the social order who made an agreement with the people of Israel. He
was not the only God but simply the most important one. His strength derived especially
from being the creator of the world and human beings.

The world was conceived as neither eternal nor unchangeable, but rather as being created. Its
present structure was a product of man’s actions, above all those of the Jews, and God’s reaction
to them. Hence the world was a historical product designed to give way to the truly God-
ordained order. (Weber, 1967: 5)

The first element of rationalisation, therefore, could be traced back to the following
fact: Judaism considered the world to be a historical product, the effect of an inscrutable
will that could not be influenced through magical means or rituals, but must simply be
followed by assuming an ethical and rational conduct of life according to the laws of
God. In the Weberian reconstruction of the psychological connections that shaped the
typical Hebrew character we can identify at least two elements that set the stage for the
construction of personalities potentially oriented towards social change, although not
towards a capitalist organisation of society.
The first element, which is also the more important one, is the anti-authoritarian trait
that characterises the Jewish redemptive religion, orienting the personalities of its fol-
lowers. This first element, for Weber, was impressed on ancient Judaism above all by the
prophecy of doom. It was diffused in the ninth and tenth centuries BC as a reaction to the
excesses of the monarchy, considered to be a betrayal of the orthodoxy of the berìt with
God (see Parente, 1978).4
With the passing of time, poor monarchical policy led to continuous tensions and
discontent within Israelite society. According to Parente,

with the rise of the monarchy, the idea of alliance was extended to the lower classes and the
ancient contraposition between semi-nomadic peasant and shepherd tribes … increased
following the progressive urbanisation of the former, due especially to security reasons.
Moreover, in the city, during the monarchy, the major articulation of economical life determined
disparity between the various families by creating or increasing those social differences that we
find denounced by the Prophets. Yet these denunciations are not formulated in the name of an
abstract justice … Rather, these denunciations function as a re-affirmation of the need to restore
the ancient pre-monarchical order which was based upon the berìt. (Parente, 1978: 1381)

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 39

In Parente’s observation we can find some key aspects for understanding the
ambivalent character of anti-authoritarianism within prophecy; ambivalent in the sense
that there was a tension between revolutionary and restorative impulses. In Weber’s
reconstruction, ‘in status origin the prohets were diverse [uneinheitlich]. [However, i]t
is out of the question that they were, for the most part, derived from proletarian or
negatively privileged or uneducated strata’ (1952: 277).5 The call for respect of the
covenant with God and the non-sacredness of men’s laws had its origins also in ‘nega-
tively privileged’ status that, in Weber’s view, is associated with the rise of religiosity
of the ‘personal redeemer’. On the other hand, the anti-authoritarian character, which
afterwards became an essential trait of Jewish Persönlichkeit, was possible because the
divine legality to which it was necessary to orient one’s action was contrasted with
human institutions. The accordance of authority with divine legality, therefore, was a
condition for the de-sacralisation of the human institutions and for the possibility of
challenging them. Redemptive prophecy challenged the established order by positing a
divine natural absolute law as a religious duty, according to the principle that ‘we must
obey God rather than men’.6
The second important element in the constitution of Jewish personality was the fact
that the community of faith was more important than the community of blood. Thus,
there was a form of emancipation of the individual from the authority of family insofar
as the first power with which prophecy came into conflict was the natural community
of the family group. According to Weber, in ancient Judaism ‘the relationships of the
sib and of matrimony have been, at least relatively, devalued. The magical ties and
exclusiveness of the sibs have shattered, and within the new community the prophetic
religion has developed a religious ethic of brotherliness’ (Weber, 1967: 329–333).
For Weber, the idea of a privileged relation with God by means of this agreement
also contributed to the identification of Jews as a ‘pariah people’ (ein Pariavolk), that
is, ‘a guest people who were ritually separated, formally or factually, from their social
surroundings’ (1952: 3; trans. modified). The term pariah people designated the condi-
tion of marginality to which the Hebrews were confined but also, according to Weber,
to which they had confined themselves. However, this condition also included a sub-
stantially revolutionary potentiality, which was a historical characteristic of peripheral
conditions and of declassed social strata (cf. Schluchter, 1988).
However, in Weber’s reading, this anti-authoritarian characteristic and the condition
of marginality as privileged positions from which new, radical ideas can be born were
necessary but not sufficient conditions for the promotion of change and, in particular, the
type of change in which Weber was interested: that is, the unique historical conjuncture
with a universal character from which capitalism arose.
The doctrinal elements of ancient Judaism were not favourable to the development of
inner worldly asceticism, nor to the idea of Beruf (both fundamental to the affirmation of
the capitalist spirit) due to the latter’s ‘dual morality’, external and internal. This dual
morality consisted of the assignment of different behaviours depending on whether the
social and economic interaction occurred with a member of the faith or with a member
of another religion. The promotion of a universalist religion alongside a particularist
ethic and a particularist secular conduct, moreover, constituted the elements that
obstructed the full realisation in Judaism of the rationality peculiar to the West. However,

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40 Social Compass 59(1)

precisely in the antinomy between universalism of God (as the God of all human beings)
and ethical particularism (only His people would enjoy His promise of salvation) there
was hidden the particular component of ‘virtuoso religiosity’. It was the primary factor
that made the Jews a pariah people; but it was also a legacy that remained in the doctrine
of predestination.
The element that Weber thus found to be missing from the combination of potentially
revolutionary ingredients was that of the individual and its centrality (Seidman and
Gruber, 1977; Nelson, 1969). Judaism stressed ‘collective’ responsibility in the face of
the berìt, with the effect of discouraging a process of integral ‘personal’ responsibility
and the rise of radical individualism.
Ultimately, Weber contrasted Jewish eschatology and the theory of predestination in
order to show that only the latter could have given rise to bourgeois individualism and,
consequently, to capitalism. The search for salvation, for the Jew, was a collective hope,
because he ‘anticipated his own personal salvation through a revolution of the existing
social stratification to the advantage of his pariah people’ (Weber, 1978: 494). On the
other hand, Calvinist doctrine was merciless, inhuman and characterised by a feeling of
total solitude. As Weber argued, ‘it seems at first a mystery how the undoubted superior-
ity of Calvinism in social organisation can be connected with this tendency to tear the
individual away from the close ties with which he is bound to this world’ (Weber, 1930:
108). Hope for salvation for the Calvinist was therefore entirely individual and even
though it could not be favoured by actions according to the laws of God, it could be
nourished by worldly action in majorem Gloria Dei.

Individualism, anti-authoritarianism and particularism


of grace: the Protestant Persönlichkeit
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber defined the features of the
individuality that arose from ascetic Protestantism in ideal-typical terms. Its compen-
dium was a structuration of personality organised around a unitarian ethical core that
became the compass of acting in the world.
A socio-economical contextualisation of the Reformation is completely absent from
the first monograph of Sociology of Religion. Nonetheless, Weber highlighted how the
reformers’ followers – that is, the social groups that promoted the Protestant ethic
practically and that Weber described as innovators – belonged to the petty-bourgeoisie
of craftsmen. As in the case of the biblical prophets (or prophets of doom), the social
group that supported such a doctrinal turning point did not belong to the ranks of the
dominant classes. However, unlike the class that supported prophecy, it was a rising
social group that carried out the Reformation.
This is certainly one of the reasons that led Protestantism to be deeply marked by the
anti-authoritarian feature already present in ancient Judaism. The Protestant anti-
authoritarian trait was, essentially, the manifestation of a political fight for economical
power. Starting with Luther’s challenge of the authority of the Roman Church, this
element accompanied the creation and organisation of all Protestant Churches.
For instance, while Weber refers to the historical struggle between the Stuarts and the
first Puritan sects in England during the 17th century (when the laws were enacted that

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 41

allowed some Sunday entertainment after the hours of religious devotion), he wrote that
‘the King’s threats of severe punishment for every attack on the legality of those sports
were motivated by his purpose of breaking the anti-authoritarian ascetic tendency of
Puritanism, which was so dangerous to the State’ (Weber, 1930: 167).7
Beside this aspect, what constituted the particular and decisive sign of the Protestant
character was the promotion of individualism as the ideology of the self-made man and
as a universalist, non-discriminatory economical morality. The affirmation of ‘utilitarian’
radical individualism was possible, first, by means of a doctrine according to which
salvation was an entirely private affair. The institution of a personal, direct relationship
with God, by means of a personal reading of the holy texts, without priestly intermediary,
was another step towards the delegitimisation of the authority of the Church’s ministers.
However, it also promoted a more individualistic attitude as it forced the individual
into a deeper personal reflection on him/herself and to the complete acceptance of
responsibility for his/her actions.8
This combination of radical individualism and anti-authoritarianism led to a para-
doxical situation in which the human world was, on the one hand, discredited vis-a-vis
the divine world and, on the other hand and at the same time, taken into greater consid-
eration as the space in which signs of grace could be made visible. It is by means of this
paradoxical fusion that Calvinism in particular developed the ‘inner-worldly asceticism’
that was at the origin of the doctrine of Beruf, predestination and certitudo salutis.
Weber states this point clearly in the following passage:

The religious virtuoso can be placed in the world as the instrument of a God and cut off from
all magical means of salvation. At the same time, it is imperative for the virtuoso that he
‘proves’ himself before God, as being called solely through the ethical quality of his conduct in
this world. This actually means that he ‘proves’ himself to himself as well. No matter how much
the ‘world’ as such is religiously devalued and rejected as being creatural and a vessel of sin,
yet psychologically the world is all the more affirmed as the theatre of God-willed activity in
one’s worldly ‘calling’ [Beruf]. For this inner-worldly asceticism rejects the world in the sense
that it despises and taboos the values of dignity and beauty, of the beautiful frenzy and the
dream, of purely secular power, and the purely worldly pride of the hero. Asceticism outlawed
these values as competitors of the kingdom of God. Yet precisely because of this rejection,
asceticism did not fly from the world, as did contemplation. Instead, asceticism has wished to
rationalise the world ethically in accordance with God’s commandments … Rationally raised
into a vocation [Beruf], everyday conduct becomes the locus for proving one’s state of grace.
(Weber, 1948, pp. 290–291)

The refusal of the world and, at the same time, its re-affirmation as the place of
confirmation of grace, were therefore central aspects to the rationalisation of economic
activity and social change as permanent conditions of a society founded upon the de-
sacralisation of its secular institutions and upon personal responsibility. Nevertheless,
it was necessary that the same religious ethic that could give rise to such a Copernican
revolution within the ethic-religious and worldly field also accomplished other impor-
tant tasks. That is, it had to dismiss the magical, to abandon every foolish ambition of
knowing the sense of the world and, therefore, every hope of changing the course of
destiny with its own action. In other words, it was necessary to eliminate the concept
of atonement and forgiveness.

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42 Social Compass 59(1)

Only an ethic that could promote rational conduct at such a level of mercilessness, for
Weber, could have led to the impersonality of bureaucracy that characterises Western
formal rationality. What permitted such a combination was not only an intrinsic anti-
authoritarian element, potentially able to challenge tradition and already present in the
Jewish-Christian personality, but especially the promotion of bourgeois individualism
through the epocal shift that led – to use Benjamin Nelson’s (1969) effective formula –
‘from tribal brotherhood to universal otherhood’.
Weber highlighted this aspect especially in the pages of ‘“Churches” and “Sects” in
North America’ and ‘Protestant Sects and the Spirit of Capitalism’.9 Here, he completed
his depiction of the Berufsmensch and of its relation to bourgeois individualism, aiming
to provide another historical confirmation of his thesis. In the USA of the first decade
of the 20th century, where aspiration to profit showed its ‘most extreme manifestation’,
he saw again the original connection that promoted the rise of the bourgeois spirit and
the most accomplished expression of capitalism. What emerges is a fascinating and
contradictory picture that sheds more light on the type of individualism Weber thought
to be at the origin of Western modernity.
In Weber’s eyes, despite the intuitive image of an atomised society, the USA was an
intricate web of groups and sects, membership of which was a precondition for being
admitted to the world of business. Thus Weber defined American society as a
Sektengesellschaft. The reason for this ‘sectarian’ organisation, in Weber’s view, was to
be found in the particularist conception of grace appertaining to ascetic Puritanism,
according to which all human beings were equally outcast and insufficient from an
ethical point of view, but not all had the same qualifications from a religious point of
view. Only a few in the massa perditionis were called for salvation.
Therefore, the sectarian constitution of American society, seemingly a hybrid type
between Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft in Tönnies’s terms (see Kim, 2000), favoured
and emphasised elements that constituted the individual inclined to change and, above
all, to capitalist organisation.
Sects were the place in which religious zeal was re-incited, in which a spirit of exclu-
sivity and proud resistance to worldly institutions was cultivated, and in which individual
affirmation was a precondition for social cohesion. Weber argued that

the ascetic conventicles and sects formed one of the most important historical foundations of
modern ‘individualism’. Their radical break away from patriarchal and authoritarian bondage,
as well as their way of interpreting the statement that one owes more obedience to God than to
man, was especially important (Weber, 1948: 321).

The individual shaped by ascetic Protestantism, of which membership of a sect was


an expression, also constituted the basis on which Weber defined the modern self as a
manifestation of Vereinsmensch, ‘associational man’. This bourgeois individual, who
emerges from the pages of his writings on Protestantism, is precisely the individual who
can define him/herself only in relation to the group and more particularly to an acquired
group (the community of faith) rather than to an ascribed group (the family). It is an
essentially political, social individual, the Aristotelian politikon zoon, who, as Bobbio
(1997) wrote, ‘is not considered in itself but only as a member of a social group, whatever
it is (the family, the village or the polis)’. In this sense, the Vereinsmensch is qualitatively

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 43

different from the subject of economic activity, which is the singular individual and
which constitutes the starting point of methodological individualism.
Far from being a ‘doctrine’ of isolation and atomisation, modern individualism, in
Weber’s depiction, was deeply characterised by a social-collective dimension. What
was crucial to such an individualism, indeed, was precisely that the group to which the
individual bounded him/herself was not an ascribed one. In this respect Weber recog-
nised that other religions (such as Hinduism, as we will see) also promoted an individu-
alised, personal search for salvation that could develop forms of individualism, or
self-centeredness. Yet this factor alone was not sufficient, as the emancipation of the
individual ‘from the close ties with which he is bound to this world’ turned out to be an
element of decisive importance.

The solipsistic and conformist personality of Hinduism


In his study of India, Weber detected deviation from the tracks of a potential rational
economical development in a capitalist sense primarily in the so-called ‘Hindu or
Brahminic restoration’. This enabled the Hindu hierocracy (the Brahmins) to affirm
themselves as the caste at the apex of the social pyramid. Moreover, in Weber’s view, it
also promoted a doctrine which contributed greatly to the segregation of social relations,
thus inhibiting the possibility of the onset of capitalism and of any kind of change.
In this case, the work Weber essayed was essentially the reconstruction of the com-
plex Indian system of castes, the reasons for its affirmation and the ideology on which
it was based. The extraordinary capacity of these prisons of ranks to ‘resist every assault
of modernity’ appeared to him as crucial, with serious consequences for the social and
economic system in general.
For Weber, the process of individuation in India is not understandable without a
detailed analysis of the caste system and of the complex and refined intertwining of
interests (especially those of the Brahmins) upon which it was based.
The Brahmins were priests and scholars of high status. They were initially employed
in the administrative service, and they were able to affirm themselves as the only legiti-
mate priestly rank. Initially, they promoted themselves as the personal priests of princes
and nobles and then, thanks to systems of conservation of acquired position that they
developed, they defined themselves as the priestly caste that was the only depositary of
Vedic knowledge and paths to salvation. The social power of the Brahmins, therefore,
was based especially upon their acquired position as the spiritual advisors of princes, and
through the doctrinal principles they propagated they demonstrated themselves to be
extraordinarily effective in preserving the status quo. Furthermore, Weber pointed to the
necessity of religious and political groups for the promotion of a strictly segregated
organisation in order to guarantee the stability of their position.
In order to analyse the way in which the type of rationalisation promoted by Hinduism
addressed the practical conduct of life and shaped recognisable cores of personality,
Weber referred essentially to three elements: the role of caste dharma and the doctrinal
principles of samsara and karman. In India, the corpus of rules of action that ordered
the social and political life of individuals was constituted by dharma, that is, ritual duty,
the precepts of which changed according to the caste to which a person belonged.

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44 Social Compass 59(1)

According to dharma, every change of profession or even of position could result in


social debasement. A set of prescriptions of this type was not adequate to produce
economic and technical transformations, or even simply to make their germination
possible. What were the reasons that every change of social position was so strongly
inhibited? Weber argued that these reasons were to be found in the two basic principles
of the Hindu doctrine: the principle of the transmigration of souls (samsara) and the
principle of compensation (karman).10
The principle of samsara had its origins in the doctrine of the immortality of the
soul, according to which the soul was destined to be reborn in a series of successive
lives. The specific individual existence in which it is incarnated each time depends
upon the doctrine of compensation (karman), according to which

all (ritual or ethical) merits and faults of the individual formed a sort of ledger of accounts; the
balance irrefutably determined the fate of the soul at rebirth, and this in exact proportion to the
surplus of one or other side of the ledger. (Weber, 1958: 119)

These merits and faults consisted essentially in the individual’s respect or contraven-
tion of the dharma of the caste. The central idea, therefore, is that one’s present life is the
result of how one has behaved in the previous one. It was especially on this point that
Weber saw the decisive connection with the system of castes.
The interconnections between ritual duty (dharma) and the principles of karman and
samsara, their reinforcement of the caste system and, thus, their inhibiting of change, led
to a paradoxical result. On the one hand, Hindu doctrine, promoted by the priestly bureau-
cracy that had contributed to the creation of a caste-divided society, oriented the conduct
of individuals in corporative terms. This was the case insofar as the individual was obliged
to comply with the ritual duty of his/her caste in order to obtain a better re-birth of the
soul. On the other hand, the search for salvation was entirely individualised; that is, it was
contemplative, undertaken in solitude and detached from mundane interests. Moreover,
the strong accent placed by Hinduism on personal responsibility for one’s reincarnation
promoted an extreme form of individualism. In Weber’s words:

religious individualism [is] characteristic of all mystical holy seeking in the attainment of
which the individual can and will, in the last analysis, help only himself. … Apart from the
belief in predestination, the religious solitude of the single soul has never been placed on such
a sounding-board as in this conclusion from Brahminical doctrine. In polar opposition to the
belief in election by divine grace, this doctrine left it entirely to the individual soul to work out
its own fate. (1958: 169)

In this passage, Weber points to an important difference between Hinduism and


Protestantism. The type of individualism and personal responsibility promoted by
Protestantism encourages an individual (rather than mediated) relation with the divine, a
personal interpretation of the Holy books and a behaviour in the world oriented towards
the search for confirmation of grace. In the last instance, however, the individual can do
nothing in order to change his/her destinty, which is entirely decided by God, the sole
and unique source of authority.

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 45

Hinduism, on the other hand, promotes an individual search for salvation that is
undertaken in total solitude; its achievement is entirely a personal responsibility. At the
same time, the tools of this search are not personally chosen, as the Hindu believer does
not have direct access to the Holy books but needs an intermediary. Furthermore, this
type of ‘religious individualism’, as Weber termed it, lacks any sort of anti-authoritarian
idea, insofar as every action is dictated by the rules of the caste to which the individual
belongs and which, in turn, is the caste that the individual has gained through his/her
previous behaviour. It is indeed scarcely possible to think of a more ‘ascribed’ community
or group than the one to which one belongs by birth and by necessity.
As a consequence, to Weber, the type of ‘individualism’ promoted by Hinduism was
a form of extreme self-closure without any worldly appeal. In other words, the structure
of the personality shaped by Hinduism was strongly marked by a major form of egotism
and pursuit of particularist objectives. At the same time, it was oriented in a way that
conformed completely to authority. Thus, it was a form of individualism better termed as
solipsistic and conformist; a form of individualism, furthermore, that was accompanied
by the most resolute denial of anti-authoritarianism.
The individualities that were constituted in South Asia thus appeared to Weber more
like monads, singularly responsible for their faults and conditions. They were individu-
alities adequate for the achievement of beatitude by means of the immanent purification
of the human being, conceived as an absolute individual; but this form of extreme (or, as
I have called it, solipsistic) individualism, for him, could not carry within itself the seeds
of social change.

The ritualistic and gregarious individual of Confucian


China
The study of China constitutes perhaps the most complete and persuasive of Weber’s
four monographs on the sociology of religion. It is the text on which Weber worked
for the longest time and to which he made the most numerous changes (see Schluchter,
1988). The final chapter of The Sociology of China is devoted to a systematic com-
parison between the ideal types of ascetic Puritanism and the Confucian ethic, with
the aim of showing the differential element that accounted for the rise of capitalism in
the West but not in China. It was in this study that Weber also analysed the role of
hierocratic groups as ‘organic intellectuals’ – to use a term of Gramsci’s – of the ruling
class.
Weber begins by analysing the strategical importance of intellectual rank in relation
to those who had mastered the holy art of writing. He depicts the formation of this group
as the result of a long process of territorial unification and administrative centralisation.
The work of the cultured strata was essential for the administrative homogenisation of
the empire. However, in order to avoid feudalisation, it was equally important that they
did not demand the acquisition of the governed territories. Apart from the prohibition on
the inheritance of administrative posts, the establishemnt of roots in the provinces was
also discouraged by means of a system of time-limited assignments and destinations
different from the places of origin of the mandarins.

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46 Social Compass 59(1)

It was in the light of these restrictions, both rational and dynamic, that Weber defined
Chinese bureaucratic power in terms of rational-legal domination legitimated by for-
mally constituted institutions. However, the element that could have constituted a
dynamic aspect of the administration – namely, the mobility of the officials as an atidote
to the crystallisation of interests – was the cause of major immobilism and of regression
into administrative traditionalism. These aspects led Weber to characterise the Chinese
order as an ‘incomplete bureaucracy’, as a hybrid between legal and traditional power,
which he defined as ‘patrimonial bureaucracy’. Mandarins did not have any interest in
promoting the renewal or modernisation of the administrative apparatus, because their
principal source of sustenance, apart from a state income, was the prebends accumulated
through tax collection. What enabled them to keep their acquired position was the
principle of unconditional reverence (hsiao) towards superiors, of which family groups
were the bearers and guardians. In their turn, the family groups did not have any interest
in promoting change, as they were the guardians of the cult of the ancestors’ spirit (on
which the concept of hsiao was based) and beneficiaries, like the mandarins and
governors, of the spirit of obedience and devotion that it guaranteed.
Although Weber emphasised the consequences of the complex balance between
central and peripheral forces for the Confucian type of, the supposed stability of this
form of rationality was explained, in the last instance, by aspects linked to personality.
Weber thus procedeed to a detailed and pointed analysis of Confucianism as the key to
the traits of Chinese individuality.
As I have argued, the combination of anti-authoritarianism and individualism
constituted, in Weber’s view, the key mixture for explaining both the origin of modern
capitalism and change as a possibility that was open to individuals and as an immanent
condition of the social system. While ancient Judaism, in contrast to Hinduism (and
heterodox oriental religions), had the first but not the second element, Confucianism
negated both. In Weber’s reading, Confucianism thus gave rise to a conventional, ritualist
and gregarious individuality, extremely rational and disenchanted. It was this assess-
ment that represented the principal challenge to Weber’s basic thesis on the inextricable
link between Protestantism and capitalism via the constitution of anti-authoritarian and
individualist-autonomous personalities.
The first crucial feature of Weber’s explanation was the claim that Confucianism, in
itself, was not a religion but a philosophy, a purely utilitarian social ethic. Unlike other
religions, it did not debase the world but, on the contrary, considered it the best world
possible. The paths to salvation, in their turn, were entirely inner-worldly: health, a
long life and wealth. Practical conduct, moreover, was imbued with the maximum of
rationality, sobriety and lack of passion. As in Protestantism, rational economic action
based upon saving was promoted. In principle, therefore, Chinese political economy
did not pose any obstacle to the rise of a rational system of a capitalist type, but this did
not occur.
Weber thus stressed how the stability of Chinese society and the lack of an impulse to
intervene in and to change the world (as promoted instead by the Puritan ethic) were due
to two features: on the one hand, the absence of a tension between God and the world that
could have led to the downgrading of the latter and consequently to the possibility of

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 47

prefiguring its transformation; on the other hand, the element of resistance to change and
social control found in the fierce devotion to forefathers from which devotion to superiors
also derived. The absence of a level of transcendence thus had the practical consequence
of inhibiting the internal development of ‘personality per se’.
Weber arrived at the conclusion that an ‘incomplete’ individuality was developed in
China (incomplete, that is, in comparison with Western individuality). Weber followed
missionary accounts (almost the only sources available to a westerner without knowledge
of Chinese in the years in which Weber wrote) in depicting typical Chinese behaviour as
self-contradictory. This aspect, which Weber defined as an expression of an unbridgeable
hiatus between the unity and immovableness of the psycho-physical habitus promoted by
Confucianism and the instability of features of life conduct, was ultimately related to the
absence of any form of transcendence. All the disharmonious manifestations that Weber
enumerated depended, in his view, upon the fact that the conduct of life was not regulated
from inside, i.e. psychologically, but from outside, ritually, by means of strictly estab-
lished rules and conventions. Confucian behaviour was therefore not a rational acting that
had its foundation in an interior habitus (innerer Habitus), but a conventional-ritual
behaviour that respected tradition because of the holiness of the concepts of devotion and
honour. It was therefore not driven by any internal impulse towards the infringement of
tradition itself, as occurred in the cases of both ethical and exemplary prophecies. Weber
argued that Confucianism:

meant adjustment to the outside, to the conditions of the ‘world’. A well-adjusted man,
rationalising his conduct only to the degree requisite for adjustment, does not constitute a
systematic unity but rather a complex of useful and particular traits … Not reaching beyond this
world, the individual necessarily lacked an autonomous counterweight in confronting this
world. … Such a way of life could not allow man an inward aspiration toward a ‘unified
personality’, a striving which we associate with the idea of personality. Life remained a series
of occurrences. It did not become a whole placed methodically under a transcendental goal.
(Weber, 1951: 237, my italics)

The absence of a unitary and coherent conduct that was driven from inside and ori-
ented to demonstrate devotion to a superior entity, or to overcome the fallen state and
sufferings of the world, prevented the emergence of a more rational economical conduct
(in a capitalistic sense). This occurred not only in the sense that Confucianism developed
a form of merely conventionalist rationalism. It also prevented the emergence of the
form of individualism that, according to Weber, was essential to the rise of civil society
and, ultimately, capitalism. Furthermore, both the centrality of the concept of hsiao, i.e.
decorum and devotion to superiors, and the patriarchal structure of society and the state
prevented the form of emancipation from the family that Weber continuously stressed
was a central factor in order to understand the process that led to modern capitalism (cf.
Bellah, 1970).
Ultimately, the study of Confucianism enabled Weber to focus and to explicate his
thesis regarding the elements that alone could give rise to change. They included a
doctrine that was an expression of marginalised, but not subjugated, social groups,
which by reason of their social position and capacity of responding politically and
actively to this condition, could promote enduring characteristics for the construction

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48 Social Compass 59(1)

of personality: namely, anti-authoritarianism and individualism as the capacity to emerge


from the constraints of the ascribed group.

Concluding remarks
In each of his monographs on world religions, Weber delineated the profile of different
individualities as different structures of personalities. We have seen that the notion of
personality that goes through his work, from the methodological essays to Economy and
Society, implies a ‘complex of constant motives’. The role of religions, in Weber’s view,
was thus that of shaping a complex of constant, regular motives of action by means of
spiritual rewards and promises of salvation. Each religion led to the formation of constel-
lations of personalities and thus contributed to the process of individuation.
Some of the aspects of this process upon which Weber focused were the orientations
of accommodation (or adjustment) rather than of anti-authoritarianism. It was the com-
bination of these orientations with those of autonomy or gregariousness that could lead
to a process of change or, rather, to immobilism and traditionalism. Their intertwining
gives rise to particular constellations of personalities, which in turn are typical of their
respective religious and socio-economical contexts.
As Weber delineated the process of individuation in each context of study and identi-
fied their historical promoters, he attempted to describe the types of individuality or
personality that inaugurated Western modernity, or those that inhibited it, as well as
their socio-economic profiles. In the final analysis, he argued that these orientations and
possible combinations were the expression of specific social classes and interest groups
that, due to their position, were more or less in favour of breaking with tradition and
established powers.
Undoubtedly, there remain many problematic aspects of Weber’s analysis, not least of
which are his well known historically inaccurate depictions and cultural and religious
misunderstandings. Furthermore, given that he posited the roots of social change in the
‘Western personality’ alone, and suggested that there is an ‘ontological difference between
Eastern and Western economic (as well as religious) “mentalities”’ (Said, 1978: 259),
Weber has justly been identified as one of the most important 20th-century representa-
tives of Eurocentrism and Orientialism. Nevertheless, his attempt to understand by means
of historical and transcultural comparative inquiry the ways in which the intertwining of
religious beliefs and social, economical and political structures may constitute ‘sources of
the self’ still constitutes an important resource with which debates in social theory about
the role of religion in the contemporary world may profitably engage.

Notes
  1. It must be clarified at the outset that here I employ the term ‘individuation’ as the process
of formation of patterns of individuality or individual types. However, the term itself is not
employed by Weber.
 2. It must be acknowledged that particularly in recent years the centrality of the notion of
individual and personality in Weber’s work has gained recognition. See in particular Koch,
2006; Barbalet, 2008; Radkau, 2009.
 3. The collection called Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Religionssoziologie was published in
three volumes between 1920 and 1921. The first volume includes the famous Introduction

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Farris: Religion as the source of the self: Max Weber’s hypothesis 49

(Vorbemerkung); Die protestantische Ethik un der Geist des Kapitalismus and Die
protestantischen Sekten und der Geist des Kapitalismus; the first part of the series entitled
Die Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen, which includes the study Confucianism and Taoism
and finally the Zwischenbetrachtung. The second volume includes the second part of the Die
Wirtschaftsethik der Weltreligionen devoted to Hinduism and Buddhism. The third comprises
the study Das antike Judentum.
  4. The concept of berìt is central to Weber’s treatment of ancient Judaism. Its importance lies in
the prestige that the people of Israel had after the alliance (berìt) between David and the tribes
that constitued the Israelite confederation.
  5. In this respect, it must be noticed that Weber also emphasised several important exceptions to
this situation, such as the case of Isaiah and Ezekiel, who came from families of noble origins
(see Weber, 1952: 278).
  6. Cf. Michael Löwy, 1992: 14–15.
  7. For a detailed account of the differences between Protestant Churches, especially in England,
see Hill, 1994. For a more detailed analysis of the aspects of anti-authoritarianism in
Protestantism and especially in Calvinism, it is worth reading the work of Robert N Bellah
(1970) and Roland Boer (2009).
  8. On Protestantism’s crucial role in the making of Western individualism and modern identity
see Taylor, 1992. See also Lehmann and Roth, 1993, for a detailed reconstruction of the
Protestant Ethic’s thematic complexity.
  9. ‘Churches and Sects’ first appeared in April, 1906, in the Frankfurter Zeitung, vol. 50, no. 102
and 104, about 16 months after Weber’s return from America. Three months later it appeared
in a revised version in Christliche Welt, vol. 20, no. 24 and 25 (June, 1906). The final version,
‘The Protestant Sects’, appeared in 1920 in the first volume of the Gesammelte Aufsätze zur
Religionssoziologie.
10. Also in this case, some critics have emphasised a series of historical and interpretative errors
commited by Weber in his attribution of such an explicative capacity to the doctrinal principles
of the samsara and karman. Cf. Gellner, 1995: 33.

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Biography
Sara R FARRIS is currently Research Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Konstanz
(Germany) and European coordinator for the sociological section of the European Union ‘Daphne’
project. She is the author of Politics Enchanted: Religion, Subjectivity and Power in Max Weber
(forthcoming 2012, Brill). She has published on the history of social and political theory, and on
theories of Eurocentrism, as well as on ethnic, gender and religious identities in contemporary
discourses of migrant integration and globalisation.
Address: Otto Adam Strasse, 5, 78467, Konstanz, Germany.
Email: sara.farris@gmail.com.

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