The "iron cage" and the "shell as hard as steel" : Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse metaphor in the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism
History and Theory
In the climax to The Protestant Ethic, Max Weber writes of the stahlhartes Gehäuse that modern capitalism has created, a concept that Talcott Parsons famously rendered as the "iron cage." This article examines the status of Parsons's canonical translation; the putative sources of its imagery (in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress); and the more complex idea that Weber himself sought to evoke with the "shell as hard as steel": a reconstitution of the human subject under bureaucratic capitalism in which "steel" becomes emblematic of modernity. Steel, unlike the "element" iron, is a product of human fabrication. It is both hard and potentially flexible. Further, whereas a cage confines human agents, but leaves their powers otherwise intact, a "shell" suggests that modern capitalism has created a new kind of being. After examining objections to this interpretation, I argue that whatever the problems with Parsons's "iron cage" as a rendition of Weber's own metaphor, it has become a "traveling idea," a fertile coinage in its own right, an intriguing example of how the translator's imagination can impose itself influentially on the text and its readers.
Copyright © Wesleyan University 2001
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Baeher, P. (2001). The "iron cage" and the "shell as hard as steel": Parsons, Weber, and the Stahlhartes Gehäuse metaphor in the protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. History and Theory, 40(2), 153-169. doi: 10.1111/0018-2656.00160