Weber begins his study with a question: What about Western civilization has made it the only civilization to develop certain cultural phenomena to which we like to attribute universal value and significance? Only in the West does science that we consider valid exist. While empirical knowledge and observation exist elsewhere in science, history, art and architecture, they lack the "rational, systematic and specialized" methodology of the West. In particular, the development of bureaucracy and the trained official are unique to the West, as is the modern rational state.
The same is true of capitalism. It is important to understand that capitalism is not the same thing as the pursuit of gain and the greatest possible amount of money. Rather, capitalism implies the pursuit of forever-renewable profit. Everything is done in terms of balances, the amount of money gained in a business period over the amount of money spent. The point is that economic action is based on the amount of profit made. Now, in this sense, capitalism has occurred in every civilization. However, the West has currently developed capitalism to a degree and in forms that have never existed elsewhere. This new form is "the rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labor." This form reflects rational industrial organization, the separation of business from the household and rational bookkeeping. However, ultimately these things are only significant in their association with the capitalistic organization of labor. "Exact calculation--the basis of everything else--is only possible on the basis of free labor."
Therefore, the problem for us is not the development of capitalistic activity, but is rather the roots of "this sober bourgeois capitalism with its rational organization of free labor." In terms of cultural history, it is to understand the development of the Western bourgeois class and its "peculiarities." Weber says that we must try to understand what it was about the West that encouraged the technical utilization of scientific knowledge through things like bookkeeping. Similarly, we must ask where the rational law and administration of the West came from. Why didn't the political, artistic, scientific or economic development of other countries follow the same path of rationalization?
Our first concern, then, is to work out and explain the peculiarity of Western rationalism. The correlation between this rationalism and Western economic conditions must not be ignored in either direction. This work begins by looking at the influence of certain religious ideas on the development of an economic spirit (in this case, the connection between the spirit of modern capitalism and the rational ethics of ascetic Protestantism). In looking at economic ethics and the world religions, Weber hopes to find points of comparison with the West. He observes that such investigations are necessarily limited by his lack of specialization in these areas. This cannot be avoided in doing comparative work. While some people think that specialization is unnecessary, Weber argues that dilettantism could be the end of science. He also says that he will avoid talking about the relative value of the cultures he studies. He also admits that while there is much to be said for the argument that many of the differences of culture have to do with heredity, he does not see a way as yet of measuring its influence. Thus, he believes that sociology and history have the job of analyzing all of the causal relationships due to reactions to environment.
This introduction gives a sense of the breadth of Weber's overall interests and studies. His book is a study of the ways in which the values of ascetic Protestantism contributed to the development of the spirit of capitalism. However, he argues that there are also causal links between the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism that run the other way. Furthermore, he links the development of modern capitalism with a larger rationalization of the Western world, which is itself a matter of great interest. He also declares his interest in comparing the role of Protestantism in developing culture with the role of other world religions. Weber also pursues many of these ideas, among others, in other writings; it is worth noting, then, that Weber saw The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism as only the tip of the iceberg in the study of the complex interrelations among religion, rationalization, and social and economic institutions. Precisely because of his understanding of this complexity, his conclusions are typically cautious and limited in scope. He encourages a flexible method of analysis, which uses different perspectives in order to gain a fuller picture of social reality.
This introduction also suggests a bit about Weber's approach to sociology. He is analyzing unique formulations of social institutions, looking at the ways in which certain contingent ideas affected the development of capitalism. Thus, he assumes that all societies are on different paths. He does not believe in one universal path of progress that all civilizations are currently on, but rather argues for the particularity of culture. This is quite different from many of the popular theories of his time. For example, according to Marxism, history is on an inevitable path, and the development of capitalism was not culturally contingent. Weber rejects such universalism, and sees the Western experience as due to specific cultural developments.