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.

In Spirit

Featured Image is Moonrise Over the Sea, by Caspar David Friedrich

In Aristotle’s Rhetoric, the Philosopher defended the art of persuasion against the teachings of his master Plato and Plato’s master Socrates. He sought to harness the wisdom of their critiques of the sophists without throwing out the art of persuasion entirely.

The characterization of persuasion as performed by the sophists—handed down to us in the pejorative sophistry—is that of pure manipulation. Other human beings are reduced to means for us to achieve our ends. Alasdair MacIntyre views all persuasion this way. In this, he is more Platonic than Aristotelian.

Aristotle observed that the form of Socratic dialogue doesn’t differ substantially in appearance from the sophist’s rhetoric. Indeed, many would consider Socrates among the worst offenders, where sophistry is concerned.

The difference between dialectic and sophistry is a matter of ethical commitment. Or we could say that it is a matter of committing yourself to the spirit of inquiry, just as the good lawyer interprets the spirit rather than merely the letter of the law, and we honor the spirit of our obligations. In short, it is about practicing in good faith, by honoring the spirit of the practice, rather than cynically and opportunistically bending it for our convenience.

The romantic critics of technology and social science, among whom I would count Heidegger and Gadamer, seem to believe that all technology, science, and bureaucracy are pure manipulation. Yet hierarchy, technology, and inquiry have very long histories. The romantic criticism envisions a past in which we had a more authentic relationship with our tools and our surroundings. It is for good reason that such days-gone-by thinking is derided as romantic in a pejorative sense.

Like rhetoric, the form of the made—from our tools to our organizations—differs only in degree. But differences in kind are determined by the spirit of the thing. A bureaucracy in which everyone holds an ethic of treating one another like fellow full human beings is very different from one in which employees are resources that need to be allocated, like coal.

The technocratic impulse is sold as a detached, rational thing, but in practice it always has a spirit. And in the 20th century, the spirit of technocracy was, ironically enough, usually a species of romanticism.

Thus Heidegger, the critic of technocracy, became an ally to the regime that was iconic for its literal factories of death. Why? Because of the romantic, nationalist spirit behind the thing, evident in their propaganda. The Soviets, which many foolishly put on the opposite end of a spectrum from the Nazis, were basically identical in this regard. Again, just look at their propaganda.


What our age needs is a humanist spirit that has not been warped by romanticism. We need to heal the severed link between spirit and reason. Let us stop thinking of reason as something that concerns narrow, instrumental relationships among objects and objectified subjects, and instead begin thinking in terms of the unity of ethics, politics, and rhetoric.

The current of history runs deep, and there is more to our age than enlightenment and counter-enlightenment, rationalists and romantics. It’s time we began to explore those greater depths again.