Debate n°2 – Criteria

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Criteria of Economic Philosophy

Wolf Dieter Enkelmann[1]


To this day we tell the story of Midas, the legendary king, who, insatiable in his desires, turned each and every thing his hands would touch to gold. As Aristotle wittily remarked, it can hardly be “wealth of which a man may have a great abundance and yet perish with hunger”[2]. But that was not the only story about Midas known among the Greeks. When he asked Dionysus’ companion Silen “what was the best thing of all for men, the very finest”, the latter, as Nietzsche tells us, replied with the words: “Suffering creature, born for a day, child of accident and toil, why are you forcing me to say what would give you the greatest pleasure not to hear? The very best thing for you is totally unreachable: not to have been born […]. The second best thing for you, however, is this—to die soon.”[3]

The myth thus already formulates an utterly dramatic demand on economy: If life will, in the end, cost you your life, all profit maximization is ultimately futile, and the only adequate course of action can be cost reduction – ideally, to a point where no costs arise at all. From this fundamental provocation springs a high demand on economic efficiency and effectivity that cannot be fulfilled by just distribution of profit and burden alone. An economics seeking to live up to this task must feature methods, content and speculative perspectives that take into account more than the requirements of an optimal reproduction of existence.

1 The Conditions of Possibility for an Economical Philosophy

1.1 There is philosophy in economy. Global economy has a philosophical dimension. Some aspects relevant to economy cannot be adequately comprehended through economic rationale, analysis and reconstruction of its functional coherence and processes without reductionistically distorting and cluttering up the logos or spirit of economy, because these aspects do not lend themselves to such a notion of rationality and scientific argument. Humanity’s economic activity not only satisfies material, utilitarian or monetary requirements, but also plays a part in the realization of the world and the explication of the human.

1.2 Those meta-economic aspects are essentially philosophical. They are singularly different from the extensions and transformations of economic rationality effected by, e.g., psychology, biology, neurosciences, literary, media and cultural studies, or by theology and sociology.

1.3 Philosophy itself, in its essence, in its constitutive questions and its cultures of thought, has a genuinely economic aspect to it.

2. The Fulfillment of the Conditions of Possibility for an Economic Philosophy

2.1 The ties between economy and philosophy do not only consist in a theoretical, epistemological interest that, in practice, takes up a merely application-oriented position towards its object which, in itself, is utterly indifferent to philosophical demands.[4] Instead, both philosophy and economy can be found on either side of the relation. There is a fundamental connection between the economy of thinking and the autonomous real economy, which is based on thought more than on material essence.

2.1.1 Furthermore, from the pre-Socratics to Wittgenstein and beyond, there has always been a strong tendency in philosophy to understand philosophy not only as an intelligible way of dealing with the world, but as a quality of the world’s essence itself. Only thus was philosophy able to take over from theology and substitute science for religious belief. Following logos, as Heraclites once recommended, therefore implies more than merely ensuring the rational comprehensibility and confirmability of theories on the one hand, and putting one’s trust in the objectivity of the laws of all natural and worldly processes on the other.

2.1.2 There would most certainly not be any economic philosophy, if economy could indeed be reduced to opportunism, utility maximization, purposive rationality, mathematics, causality and profit maximization. Aristotle was already easily able to demonstrate that economic thought consists of very different forms of speculation and would be doomed to an intrinsic turn to misappropriation, if it did not transcend utilitarian rationality by integrating useless and superfluous happiness[5] And Plato already tried to conceptually grasp the metaphysical boundaries (and the boundlessness) of the economic in various ways[6], just like Derrida more recently did with the limit-concept of the an-economic.[7]

Professional philosophers naturally tend to decidedly repudiate what corporations, for example, call their philosophy. The validity of their skepticism can hardly be denied. Still, it is worth asking what the respective corporation’s philosophy actually is. From its own history, professional philosophy knows best about the riches that can be unearthed in the unprofessional and the non-academical. Wittgenstein was by no means the only one who cashed in insights on a swansong to philosophy. Philosophy is not only ascensus, but, at least since Socrates, owes an essential part of its progress to the readiness for descensus. Philosophy (already because of the logics of becoming) does not only develop in the places and institutions explicitly created to this end. And economics on the other hand may well reduce itself to utility maximization and profit orientation without taking into account the product called truth, it will still be participating in its production. Lack of understanding does not take away this fact’s validity.

2.2 “Science does not think”[8] – even if one does not want to subscribe to Heidegger’s verdict in all its severity and resoluteness, it still marks a fundamental difference. Ever since the canon of philosophical fields has been divided up and entrusted to the competencies and research of individual sciences[9], what definitely remains to do for philosophy is the constant examination and development of the concepts of rationality, science, thinking, logics and theory, knowledge, reason and truth, as well as the constant actualization of the difference between truth and appearance. The same holds true for the concepts of effectivity and efficiency, and of practice in general, including its goal orientations. A task that calls for numerous approaches and a great speculative openness, and one that is far more than epistemology or theory of science. All that in order to keep rationality from turning into fate.

2.3 Ever since the Socratic-Platonic rejection of the sophists’ economic considerations, tradition does not seem to see a place for philosophy if not beyond all forms of economic thinking. Already in Plato, however, this rejection is coupled with an emphatic extension of the horizon of economic speculation beyond the spirit of trade[10] The history of philosophy includes a substantial amount of genuinely economic reflection and speculation, even before the beginning of the modern age. Yet, due to the predominance of interpretative traditions based on metaphysics or moral philosophy, much of it has remained unknown to an economic history of theory. The interesting methodological experiment would be to take everything that has until now been seen as moral philosophy or epistemology transcending economic considerations, and systematically reconstruct it in its relevance to an expanded self-conception of the cultures of economic activity.[11]

Presenting this part of philosophy and pointing out its specific philosophical characteristics, however, also requires a liberation from the paradigmatic guidelines of today’s post-Smithian economics, which, as Hegel praisingly asserted, “discovers a thing’s simple principles, the rationality working in it and governing it”, but also prepares “the field, where the rationality of subjective ends and moral opinions vents its discontent and moral fretfulness”[12]. Between functional analysis and (in case this kind of moral opinions is being professionalized) business ethics, he sees another thing that needs to be reflected.[13] This is no satisfactory explanation of the entirety of economics, as he himself shows in his own (brief) interpretation based on the difference between rationality and reason (Verstand and Vernunft).

According to Bertram Schefold, for example, premodern philosophy could not have had a reasonable “theory of economy in the sense of a cause analysis of autonomous economic processes, because it lacked the model of a sophisticated mechanics in the field of physics”[14]. For the purpose of an autonomous and authentic economics, however, the fact that this philosophy cannot be ascribed to the model of physical mechanics might just be what could provide essential impulses to research and economic practice.

3 Criteria of Economic Philosophy

3.1 Due to the diversity of (sometimes even mutually exclusive) philosophical approaches, a unified or binding catalogue of criteria to define economic philosophy and distinguish it from other approaches can only be of an hypothetical and experimental nature. – It will therefore also have to remain undetermined, whether one wants to speak of an economic philosophy, a philosophical economics or a philosophy of economics. These slight shifts of stress each entail their own hermeneutic value.

3.2 The logic of the matter itself leads economic philosophy to a great extent of inter- and transdisciplinary openness towards economics, but also towards the cultural, literary, social, political technical and natural studies and sciences, as well as towards psychology, theology and religious studies – also because these fields often fall back on philosophical material when discussing economic points.

3.3 Economic philosophy knows no limits within the field of philosophy either. It bears on theoretical as much as on practical philosophy, includes the philosophy of mind no less than that of nature, and comprehends metaphysics, ontology and logics, epistemology and theory of science as well as language analysis and mathematical philosophy. Even the utterly an-economic can be examined as a constitutive part of the dialectics of economy and non-economy.

3.4 Economy certainly has a particular importance for practical philosophy. Its economization bears the potential of extending or transforming the understanding of practical philosophy and the concept of practice as a whole. Economic philosophy can neither be reduced to moral philosophy or ethics, nor to political or legal philosophy. It can, for example, find new resources for the creation of economic concepts in the theory of esthetics and is capable of developing its very own econo-philosophical concept of practice.

3.5 The basic question might simply be: What does philosophy make of economy? What presents itself as economic in light of philosophy? “What is economy?” That is the question with which Jacques Derrida, for example, began a particular economic discourse that was able to draw considerable insights from the difference to the usual question: “How does economy work?[15]

3.6 In addition to this difference to the functionalist paradigm (and thus to the generalization of the utilitarian axiom), there is another important difference: Economic discourse and moral reflection on economy have a common constant, i.e. the dominance of a logic of judgment and evaluation. If philosophy resists the suggestion of social consensusbuilding constituted along the lines of a logic of judgment, it can bring considerable epistemological resources into play that otherwise necessarily remain hidden underneath that constant. Knowing how to judge or evaluate something is not the same as knowing what that something is. To the contrary, as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave once strikingly demonstrated.

3.7 To be economically competitive, philosophy must abandon any meta-economic positions and fundamental reservations with respect to the economic, instead of aiming at its integration in a comprehensive meta- economic complex of meaning.

3.8 Philosophy then even has a systematic competitive edge over the sciences of economy, as they themselves subordinate economy to a meta- economic paradigmatics in many ways – in their concept of nomos, for example, or in their concept of causality.

3.9 From the perspective of economic philosophy, the theoretic models of economics can all be united under the common term of theory of expediency. Economic philosophy will most certainly not subordinate its analysis and reconstruction of economy to this paradigm, to this norm. And neither will it lend itself to a wholesale spiriting away of metacommercial, meta-utilitarian and purposeless, meta-monetary or amathematic and an-economic dimensions of the total horizon of social goal perspectives from economy into something like a political or ethical superstructure.

3.10 In its beginnings in antiquity, philosophical economics made a fundamental distinction of systematic importance to its analysis and theory design: the distinction between an economy of self-assertion and reproduction of existence, on the one hand[16], and of self-sufficiency and an economy of the good life on the other[17]. As this distinction has been completely neglected in modern theory designs and their assumptions of scarcity, it holds great possibilities of development for economics – that can be realized with the help of economic philosophy.

3.11 Furthermore, the first philosophies saw the existence of the polis as a fundamental requirement for the existence of an eco-nomy, i.e. an economic activity with its own laws, as an alternative to forms of existence based on the discretionary power over natural, territorial and humanomorphic resources and therefore hardly interested in any kind of autonomous nomoi. Philosophical economics will therefore always present its objects as so many forms of political economy.

3.12 One of the decisive concepts of economic philosophy is thus that of freedom, as well as the distinction between freedom and necessity that cannot be conceptually grasped in mechanistic conceptions of the efficiency of free markets.[18]

3.13 Justice is another crucially important concept. Systematically, it holds a massive explosive power with respect to modern economy. In the usual discourses, the question of justice is being spirited out of the heart of market activity and into the so-called social or distributive justice. While this gives justice no more than a compensatory function, economic justice in the theorem of efficient markets is handed over to a virtually mechanical causality. It is doubtful, whether economic philosophy can take part in this.

3.14 Plato and Aristotle also designed an economic concept of freedom: in the concept of autarkia, which they conceived as the basic requirement for autonomy, which is the focusing point of today’s discourse.[19] Examining basic assumptions, getting to the bottom of premises and shedding light on the conditions of construction of different types of rationality has always been an essential task of philosophy as a whole and is therefore a natural part of economic philosophy as well.

3.15 The same holds true for the goal and end of economy, so to speak. Philosophy cannot avoid the question of truth. Economically speaking, this means that it must develop categories for an honest, truthful and sustainable equilibration of effects and profits of economic activity that neutralizes the system of exclusion of so-called external factors.

3.16 The final argument: Economic philosophy is not an empirical science. It is not exclusively committed to an adaequatio intellectus ad rem. If it was, it would waste precisely the speculative potential enabling it more than anything else to reconstruct the speculative nature of economy and think beyond any given status quo and into the future. Consequently, its results do not only come in the form of normative validity claims. The singular, the exception, the irregular can be just as meaningful as the generalizable. Nomos is one thing, logos might well be another.[20]

[1]. Dr. Phil. Wolf Dieter Enkelmann, Direktor Für Forschung und Entwicklung,
Institut für Wirtschftsgestaltung, München, Germany
© W.D. Enkelmann | IfW | July 2013
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[2]. Nietzsche, F. (1980), Die Geburt der Tragödie, in: Sämtl. Werke Bd. I, ed. by G. Colli/ M. Montinari, Munich/Berlin/N.Y., p. 35, (Translation of the quote: Ian Johnston).
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[3]. Aristotle, Politics, I 9, 1257b.
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[4]. Cf. Enkelmann, W.D. (2012), “Selbstbehauptung, Nutzwerte und Gewinnaussichten. Grundlinien der philosophischen Ökonomik”, in: Philosophisches Jahrbuch 2012, 1. Halbbd., p. 94-114.
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[5]. Aristotle, Nikomachean Ethics, I 1, 1094a, I 3, I 5 – 6; cf. Enkelmann, W.D. (2011), “Zwischen Ökonomie, Kommerzialität und Idealismus. Das zoon logon echon – Aristoteles’ Konzeption des homo oeconomicus”, in: Kettner, M.; Koslowski, P. (Ed.), Ökonomisierung und Kommerzialisierung der Gesellschaft. Wirtschaftsphilosophische Unterscheidungen, Munich, p. 157-181.
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[6]. Plato, Phaidros, 245c-e; Timaios, 27d – 29b, 33a – 34b; Phaidon; Politeia X.
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[7]. Derrida, J. (1991), Donner le temps 1. La fausse monnaie, Paris.
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[8]. Heidegger, M. (1954), Was ist Denken, in: Vorträge und Aufsätze, Pfullingen, p. 129-143.
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[9]. Cf. Hawking, S. (1988), A Brief History of Time. From The Big Bang to Black Holes, New York.
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[10]. Cf. e.g.: Plato, Phaidon
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[11]. Cf. Priddat, B.P. (2013) “Demokratie als Zivilreligion: die athenische Polis im Spannungsfeld von Bürgern und Metöken”, in: Mohn, J. / Hermann, A. (Hg.): Orte der Europäischen Religionsgeschichte, Würzburg; Enkelmann, W.D. (2011) (2012).
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[12]. Hegel, G.W.F. (1970), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, ThW 7, Frankfurt a.M., §189, p. 346 f.
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[13]. Cf. Enkelmann W.D. (2013), “Hegel and the French. Economical Philosophy instead of Ethics”, in: Lütge, C. (ed.), Handbook of philosophical Foundations of Business Ethics, Berlin: Springer, p. 431-459.
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[14]. Schefold, B. (1992), “Aristoteles: Der Klassiker des antiken Wirtschaftsdenkens”, in: Ders. Vademecum zu einem Klassiker des antiken Wirtschaftsdenkens, Düsseldorf, p. 20.
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[15]. Cf. Derrida, J. (1993), cf. Enkelmann, W.D. (2010), Beginnen wir mit dem Unmöglichen. Jacques Derrida, Ressourcen und der Ursprung der Ökonomie, Marburg.
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[16]. Cf. Ottmann H. (2001), Geschichte des politischen Denkens Bd. 1.2, Die Griechen. Von Platon bis zum Hellenismus, Stuttgart, p. 20.
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[17]. Aristotle, Politics, I 2, 1252b.
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[18]. Cf. Vogl, J. (2010), Das Gespenst des Kapitals, Zürich.
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[19]. Plato, Timaios 33a – 34b; Aristotle, Politics, I 2, 1252b.
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[20]. Cf. Hegel, G.W.F. (1970), Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, in: ThW 7, Frankfurt a. M., § 189, p. 347.
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