The Spirit of Economy

“One must go further, one must go further.” This impulse to go further is an ancient thing in the world. Heraclitus the obscure, who deposited his thoughts in his writings and his writings in the Temple of Diana (for his thoughts had been his armor during his life, and therefore he hung them up in the temple of the goddess), Heraclitus the obscure said, “One cannot pass twice through the same stream.” [Plato’s Cratyllus, § 402.] Heraclitus the obscure had a disciple who did not stop with that, he went further and added, “One cannot do it even once.” [Cf. Tennemann, Geschichte der Philosophie, I, p. 220.] Poor Heraclitus, to have such a disciple! By this amendment the thesis of Heraclitus was so improved that it became an Eleatic thesis which denies movement, and yet that disciple desired only to be a disciple of Heraclitus … and to go further– not back to the position Heraclitus had abandoned.

-Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling

Featured image is Market Scene, by Aertsen.

The spirit of social science is technocratic. Economics is especially so. Economists seek to understand commerce in terms of its moving parts. Everything recognizably human is stripped away as prejudicing; left behind are algorithms of choice to be studied in terms of how they interact within different systems of rules. And this method has proved quite useful in identifying the strengths and fault lines of such systems.

But they are rarely happy to leave it at that. After failing to find an all encompassing theory of human nature, they relegate what cannot be explained by their methods to a black box. Thus, spirit becomes ranked preferences, the content of which is considered out of the economist’s purview. In as much as this rule is violated, it is because some aspect of human nature has turned out to be tractable to economic mechanics. Thus Robert Frank and the economics of envy—sorry, of status competitions. Frank echoes Thorstein Veblen here, but Veblen was not nearly so mechanistic—though he suffered from other sins.

As economics continues to move in the direction of Frank and those like him, spirit is increasingly being eliminated entirely, rather than kept in a black box. And so economics has moved from inhuman models to becoming actively dehumanizing.

Albert Hirschman believed that this flight from humanity began with the idea that wild, destructive passions must be offset by interests, with successive generations of philosophers narrowing what counts as a person’s interests. Martin Heidegger believed that the problem began with the classical philosophical tradition as a whole, once it lost the original context in which Plato and Aristotle posed their questions.

In any case, the inhuman models, even before they became aggressive in their dehumanizing, rested on a narrow notion of reason that is severed from spirit. The business world is full of rules, choices made under conditions of scarcity, transaction and exchange—these sorts of things make for a great beginning in describing commerce. But they are a bad place to end.

A complete discussion of commerce needs to speak to its spirit, the spirit of business at some place and time. This spirit varies not only across nations or periods of history, but across industries and companies. See Joseph Heath on the criminality that characterizes specific industries.

Whether or not business can be characterized as exploiting the less fortunate or participating in their flourishing, myopically opportunistic or directed towards the common good, may be more a matter of the spirit of the enterprise than of its formal characteristics.

The great apologists for commerce in 18th century Scotland may have done more for the world by developing an ethos of public virtue through prudent dealings, than they did by midwifing the birth of economics as a discipline.

How unfortunate, then, to live in an age characterized largely by the eradication of what spirit we have—in business, in civil society, in government—without a corresponding drive to foster its replacement.

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