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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

More on Economics and Rhetoric

The throwaway comment on Krugman in the last post has reminded me of something I've been meaning to riff on for a long time, a point that comes up all the time in my teaching but rarely in my blogging:

When Robert Heilbroner made the point that economists were "worldly philosophers" in his (justly) famous economic history of the same name, he was really making what would be better thought of as two different enormously important points, both of which might have been made better under a different title.

One of the points, in my view, is that economists at their best would be better thought of as rhetoricians (formulating compelling cases, figures, narratives, and appeals to identity the better to corral and change collective conviction and conduct), and the other point is that economists at their worst often seem to want instead to be thought of as philosophers, and especially as philosophers in those sad moments in which they seek to distinguish what they are doing as forcefully as possible from "mere rhetoric," moments in which they are often most prone to figure themselves instead as some sort of scientific discipline or even the most scientific discipline of all, a meta-science or super-science.

I do not think it accidental that Keynes titled one of his most wonderful and influential books Essays in Persuasion, any more than that the truly marvelous economist Albert Hirschman who wrote the incomparable The Passions and the Interests (one of those books which literally everybody should read) also wrote the less known but also excellent Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy.

I personally think that Marx was incomparably better when he was writing polemical journalism and history (not to mention outright manifestos), or those endlessly fascinating figurative analyses like the passage concerning the camera obscura in The German Ideology and the one with all those avid grotesque undead commodities capering about in "The Fetishism of Commodities and the Secret Thereof" from Volume One of Capital, than in the awful moments when he was trying to live up to Engels' deadly praise that he was "The Darwin of History" and making an anxious spectacle of his pseudo-scientificity by reducing cultural complexities to drab forces of production and sketching grandiloquent deterministic histories and mistaking priestly prophetic utterances for scientific hypotheses like your typical philosophical peacock. Only those facile free marketeers, Mises, Hayek, Hazlitt, Friedman, Friedman, Friedman, et al are more embarrassing in their pretentious pseudo-scientificity, mistaking maths and hype for substance and looking the other way when the bullets fly and starving stomachs balloon in their wake.

The story of rhetoric's denigration by philosophical ideologues is literally a story as old as philosophy itself, inasmuch as philosophy was born precisely in such a moment of resentment (as Nietzsche tells the story best of all). As Hannah Arendt was always at such pains to point out, this denigration shaped the Western tradition of political thought in ways that endlessly distort our understanding of and deny the thoughtful access to the full measure of worldly life -- although it might be said that in her ready assimilation of economic discourse to the social rather than to the political she contributed her own share to the long deferral of the reckoning of rhetoric with the end in failure of the western philosophical project, a reckoning that needs to do justice to the political in thought, including those dimensions in political economy that have always been more rhetorical than philosophical from the first. Such a reckoning would need -- as Heilbroner's history significantly failed to do -- among other things, to register the achievement of political economists like Karl Polanyi as high as that of Marx and Mill and Keynes, and at least as part of the same story.

1 comment:

Seth Mooney said...

"The story of rhetoric's denigration by philosophical ideologues is literally a story as old as philosophy itself, inasmuch as philosophy was born precisely in such a moment of resentment..."

Resentment and decay. Almost nobody seems to get that Plato, and all his footnotes along with him, were spawned in Athens' death-throes.

Western culture has largely been blundering about ever since, all the while convinced it knows something. This has especially been true since Descartes put Plato's Idealism on Rational steroids.

I tried to do a little fleshing out of these movements away from embodied knowing in a seminar on Arendt a year and a half ago:

It would be nice to re-appropriate the word "sophistry," but that seems like a pretty impossible, and probably silly, project in the here and now.